Lessons I learned at AfrikaBurn


It has been over a few weeks since I participated in AfrikaBurn, the South African chapter of Burning Man. I say participate and not witness because as they kept explaining: “You don’t go to AfrikaBurn, you are AfrikaBurn”.

AfrikaBurn. It’s not (all) about naked people.

It might be a bit insensitive to talk about marketing, consumerism and business regarding an event that tries actively to shun all of that. They don’t even allow any money to change hands, instead you’re expected to hand out gifts and/or barter and be completely self-sufficient in every way.  It stands in beautiful ironic contrast to the big-branded corporate festivals; despite (or because of) what they are at heart, they have become one of the strongest brands in the space.

Which brings me to the first item:

People love brands

People become very loyal to brands, particularly those with a strong message, a clear voice, consistency and a community. Loyal to the point of overpaying, loyal to the point of becoming an ambassador and loyal to the point of defending the brand’s message, voice and community. Not only does this apply to the brand of AfrikaBurn, but to all the different pop-up venues around.

Despite brands being all-but banned at the event (you are even encouraged to cover your rental car’s advertising), you couldn’t help but overhear “Let’s meet at Wonky Willy’s at 10pm”, or “I’ll see you for sundowners at The Stock Exchange“. A lot of these places had a consistency of culture (and quality), a lot of effort that went into crafting their story (and space) and as the links show, they’ve garnered up a lot of likes on their Facebook pages (there is no cell phone reception at AfrikaBurn).

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; it’s just interesting to note that people tend to find and follow the brands they associate with.

People want to belong

We are social, tribal beings and we have been that way for millions of years. Only very recently, due to vast changes in mobility, money and migration, has our way of living in and associating with tribes been disrupted. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to belong to the tribes we find; be it your local running group, a hackaton/meetup group or something bigger like association with people with aligned political or social ideologies. See Seth Godin’s 2009 talk on tribes on TED or read some of the many books/articles he’s published on the topic.

Once you feel you’re part of the AfrikaBurn tribe, you feel like you belong there, even if only for a few days.

People want to be challenged

And challenging it is. It’s no fairy tale to navigate a murderously rocky road for hours on end, to set up a campsite on a brutally hard patch of dry ground in the middle of the Karoo desert with no access to…anything.

I was also very apprehensive of the event: I didn’t think that I’d have a good time with a bunch of half-naked, half-baked people (or completely naked and on an intergalactic acid trip). Ultimately I was challenged in many ways and I think due to the shared hardship, I had a fantastic time.

Nudity sells

This is a bit of an anecdotal observation, but I did witness people flocking to a woman’s stand for some free dal, the very second after she completely undressed (she had the sign with her unattended stand before).

It’s great to see people (of various races, ages, genders and sexual orientation) be comfortable in expressing themselves (clothed or otherwise), but unfortunately those in the “otherwise” category got the most looks, stares, likes and creepy male sex-pests with cameras following them.

People want to express

The amount of creativity at the event is utterly mind-blowing. Artists will spend weeks in the desert to work on massive art pieces, which usually get burned to the ground on the last night. The majority of people dress up and the majority of those in costume have phenomenal costumes. Everyone is given a blank canvas in how they want to express themselves and the results are spectacular.

People want to impress

This happens, unfortunately, where vanity takes over and the desire to impress gets stronger than the desire to express. It’s a fine line and we overstep it all the time, with what we do, say or buy.

Getting makes us happy

The idea of giving is core to what Burning Man/AfrikaBurn is. It’s amazing to just walk up to a bar and get a free drink, wake up early for coffee and beskuit underneath the windmill at Die Stoep or getting your bike fixed at a popup shop at no cost.

Of course, this all relies on people donating a big chunk of their time and money, which brings me to:

Giving makes us happier

One of my favourite memories was walking around with my friends, handing out free BLT sandwiches and mugs of bourbon whiskey. Yep, we just walked around, and whoever wanted a drink or a bite could help themselves to it. The look of joy in a drunken person’s eyes after handing them a bacon sandwich is sincere. But more than that: the feeling of giving that sandwich was even better. Financing the transaction didn’t matter that much; the appreciation and recognition counted for more.

It’s been studied, you feel better when give.

Self-reliance is very wasteful

“You need to be radically self-reliant”, reads the AfrikaBurn survival guide. Unfortunately that’s also wasteful in its own way: if everyone brings their own lighters (or food/water/shelter/batteries/bicycle repair kits/whatever) you end up with a lot of unused (or in some case spoiled) utility. There isn’t a central place to get water (or buy food), so there’s a lot of that that is brought in in excess and a lot goes to waste in the end.

Self-reliance is very reliable

When a system breaks down for an individual –like running out of food or water– you are far more protected when you belong to a community of sharing, self-reliant individuals. There is no real central point that can break down and leave everyone stranded. I’m embarrassed to say that we forgot to check our spare tyre pressure before we left. My girlfriend and I were left at the mercy of…the very first car that stopped after our (rather spectacular) tyre blowout on the road.

In closing: it was a very fun (and dare I say, special) event. I’m slowly starting to get excited about the next one.


About the author

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.

Add comment

About me

Werner van Rooyen

Formerly Business Development and Marketing at Luno (where we went from eight nerds in a tiny office to hundreds of people spread over three continents) and before that Marketing at PayFast. Currently investing, paragliding, and doing research, mostly in Mexico.