AfrikaBurn: The Unbearable Whiteness of Burning

Burning Man in Africa and the Privilege to “Find Yourself”

“The jol — say ‘jawl’ — was a very important South African concept, connoting kamikaze debaucheries. It was a Cape colored street term, but all races used it, making it one of the pathetically few things we had in common. Divided we stood, united we jolled.” — Rain Malan, “My Traitor’s Heart”

I was curled up at the top of the art piece Yggdrasil , the Tree of Life, at 4 am on Saturday at AfrikaBurn. I was in the final throes of a long night of psychedelic exploration full of hard introspection and miscommunications with campmates. My chaotic thoughts turned into a fantasy where I imagined myself falling asleep at the top of the structure, rolling off it to my death and ruining the event for everyone else. Just then, a friend I knew from San Francisco magically appeared and rescued me from my dark visions. His knowledge of neurogenesis sparked a profound a-ha moment for me and two hours later I was dancing and crying with joy to the throbbing sounds of deep house at sunrise. I had found what I was looking for on my journey to South Africa: a cathartic clarity about what I wanted to do with my life and what it would take to achieve it.

It was a classic Burning Man story: a dark psychedelic voyage, rescued by a serendipitous encounter at the peak of an art piece which gave me a clear vision for personal growth and a prosperous future. It also represented another side of Burning Man: self-absorption and privilege and, intricately entwined with these, a whiteness for which burner culture has been criticized. My AfrikaBurn experience had little to do with Africa.

Like my European forebears, I had embarked on an adventure to a far away land to find myself. In spite of nearly a decade in the Burning Man community and an intimate understanding of its principles, my AfrikaBurn experience hardly constituted anything radical. I mooped a little, gifted some and while I certainly expressed myself, I’m not sure how radical my elaborate self-expression really is at this point. I remained largely embedded with my American and international friends and had a burn that was basically all about myself. It only became apparent to me afterwards that I had simply transplanted my Black Rock experience to Tankwa Town and that I had maintained a bubble of privilege halfway around the world. However, in the following days of self-reflection I was able to see this experience in the context of my broader privilege as a white American, which in the end gave me the burn I actually needed.