A minibus emblazoned with the words ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers’ in Rastafarian colours bobbed and wailed before a small crowd.
Next to it, congruously or incongruously I couldn’t quite decide stomped six teenagers in oh-so-traditional Zulu dress, including sophisticated anklets made from beer-bottle tops and Checkers packets. Their crowd was bigger than Bob’s and ululated more.
A nearby stall was doing a fine trade in Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki freedom fighter T-shirts, these heroes, yes, Thabo! silhouetted against a military-brown background and hanging in lines of S, M, L, XL, XXL and XXXL to fit freed bellies of all breadths. The air was filled with scented smoke and music pounded out of every alleyway. We were on the fringe.
Above a carvings salesman dressed in full military fatigues towered the 19th century Cathedral of St Michael and St George whose clock, perversely, showed a time 15 minutes later than its Catholic opposition down the street. A passing Buddhist failed to interest me in his book of musings but I succumbed to a leaflet from an apparently Nordic hippy inviting me to Explore, Celebrate and Connect at an Afro-Indian-European Party, which sounded suitably orgiastic until I spotted a Hare Krishna chant in the small print.
Perhaps I’d have been safer taking up the invitation to visit the Nearly New store and view their range of carefully selected previously owned clothing. No obligation to buy, or to join a cult.
Down the road at the focus of the event, where the more ‘established’ stallholders were selling their dreamcatchers, rugs and scented candles, a calmer atmosphere prevailed. Fresh pineapple juice vied politely with bubblegum-flavoured Slush Puppies, baked potatoes and hot dogs for the not- very-hard-fought culinary prize.
Outside the vast marquee, a giant puppet show amused and terrified its onlookers equally. A fire-eater wandered past, blowing plumes of flame skywards and narrowly missing the highly flammable rear end of a brightly coloured, 4m puppet ostrich that was chasing a 3.5m Ronaldo lookalike. In a nearby volleyball court passing itself off as the world’s biggest sandpit, kids rolled, romped and threw sand in each other’s eyes just for the fun of it.
And always there was somebody thrusting a leaflet at you a comedy act here, a jazz recital there. There was music, there was ballet, there were children’s shows, concerts, history tours and art exhibitions, there was street theatre, cinema and poetry. I was only there for the day but I couldn’t think why. I was missing out on all the evening’s shows, not to mention love-ins with any number of fascinating freaks and hairy hippies.
I don’t know what I had been expecting but it had been all wrong. Its distance from my preconceptions of junkies, weirdos and arty-farty luvvies made an ignoramus of me. Oh, yes, they were there of course but this was also a slick and polished, world-class, cosmopolitan rainbow-nation event.\
The cultural influences were endless. This was national and international, classic and modern, comic and earnest, political and satirical. And next year’s the big one because, next year, the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown falls slap in the middle of the Soccer World Cup. For, yes, this was Grahamstown.
So, next year, I am going to book for a week. After all, who wants to watch soccer when you can enjoy some of the world’s best and most diverse acts in a beautiful, sunny SA town? (Sorry, Grahamstown, you are, of course, a city).
I was thrilled to be a part of it. And I didn’t need to join the Hare Krishnas or smoke second-hand happy smoke to feel good about it. Viva Grahamstown viva!