Having just spent 4 days at Womadelaide, I’ve experienced a community that actually functions as a community. Where small ‘base camps’, or squares of tarp or blankets, are shared in cramped spaces under sheltering Moreton Bay Fig trees. Where people pick up their own rubbish (mostly) and work out which bin it’s best to deposit in for the sake of the planet rather than considering how far they have to walk out of their way to do so. Where people generally walk around with smiles on their faces, even if it’s raining and they’re cold, wet and tired. The real world and its burden of things to be dealt with, does not exist for 4 days. The sole focus during that time is music, dance and art. Trump, removal of penalty rates, coral bleaching of the Reef, climate change, plight of refugees, out of touch government, the list is endless. These things take a back seat. In fact it’s not even a back seat, it’s a trailer that’s come adrift from the vehicle and left by the roadside. Sure, we’ll pick it up again on our return, and these things will still be there. But we’ve had these weightless 4 days in a community of like-minded people. And we’ve seen how there can be a better way.
Environmental sustainability is foremost in the minds of the organisers. Womadelaide 2016 saw 98% of waste diverted from landfill. (here) There is a requirement that compostable cutlery and plates etc are used by food traders, as well as the packaging. The 3 bins: green Organics, yellow for 10c deposits on bottles cans etc, and red landfill, are highly visible and well marked. There’s no confusion about what to put in a particular bin. The environment of the beautiful Botanic Gardens is conducive to people wanting to leave it the way they found it. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but it’s common to see people randomly picking up rubbish left by others so that at the end of the 4 days there is very little rubbish left on the ground.
There are few rules: don’t smoke, don’t climb the trees, sit on low chairs at seated events, use the bins provided. Although people are asked not to climb the trees, a number of visitors do sit in the tempting lower reaches of the Moreton Bay Figs, leaning back lounge-chair style. And one small boy managed to climb all the way to the top of a spindly branch of some kind of tall fir tree, without his parents noticing. Last sighted being helped down by a man who had to climb up to get him. I’ve never seen wilful destruction of trees, graffiti or vandalism. The sorts of behaviours we see, or view evidence of, in our communities.
I’ve attended the last 5 Womadelaides, and never had a day ruined by pouring rain. And even this year’s Sunday downpour wasn’t the ruination of a day, it simply made it less comfortable. My cheap poncho tore, our base camp was a series of puddles on the tarp, and sitting in a wet chair during Phillip Glass’s performance of Koyaanisqatsi certainly made me cold and stiff. An early departure was called for, meaning that I missed out on Parov Stelar, the performance of the weekend according to some. But despite the inclement weather, there were instances of this temporary community acting the way a community ought to: strangers helping mop up wet base camps, sheltering others with their umbrellas, grimaces turning to smiles passing between strangers huddled under barely functional plastic coats. A man struggling into a plastic poncho in the wind and the rain while talking on his phone pressed to his ear with his shoulder, looked so awkward that I veered off my path to go and help him. We didn’t exchange words but a smile and thumbs up was enough for me to feel glad I’d helped. Yet I’m not sure I’d have done the same had I seen someone on the other side of the street back home. I’d probably have left him to struggle on alone. Provide people with all the makings of a community and they behave as if they are members of that community – one of many, common aim. There were police present, but I doubt they were run off their feet.
Of course there were still annoyances: those tall (mostly men) with high hats or high hair, who’d make their way to the front of the crowd, happy to stand in front of much shorter people and block their vision. Or those who having drunk a little too much forgot they were in a cramped space and proceeded to dance like an out of control windmill, oblivious to how many people they’d sent edging backwards. Or the groups of people who insisted on having a full-on yelling conversation so as to be heard over the top of the performer. But this wasn’t the norm.
There’s something to be said for the Arts, in directing our senses to the things that matter; things that are pure, that connect people, make us see what it is that connects us not what separates us. Encouraging the behaviours that promote empathy, tolerance, appreciation of difference. The global community could be this. Humankind needs to try a little harder.