HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsOur time to dance, our time to die?

Our time to dance, our time to die?


Picture this scene: It’s a blazing hot October morning in Gwanda, with no sign of rain anywhere.

An ordinary, middle-aged peasant woman walks out of her house goes onto the street and starts dancing.

There is no music and she doesn’t seem especially happy about anything.

But she dances wildly and vigorously, even violently, by some accounts.

She dances for four to six days and by the end of the week, 34 other people have joined her, their feet raw and bleeding, yet they continue to dance.

As more onlookers gather, the urge to dance seems contagious and compelling, and within a month no less than 400 people make up a crowd of dancers.

During this period, dozens of people die of heart attacks, strokes and sheer exhaustion resulting from hours of dancing in the sweltering heat.

Scientists, medical doctors, church leaders and clairvoyants are all stumped.

For centuries to follow, no one can establish the cause of the mindless, intense and ultimately deadly danceathon.

One of the things I find very frustrating about living in Zimbabwe is the unavailability of a full range of modern literature.

I love living here for many reasons, but every so often I long to pop into a Borders or an Exclusive Books and indulge myself in the extensive range of reading material available on the big, shiny and well-stocked shelves.

If I lived elsewhere I could have picked up a copy of John Waller’s A Time To Dance, A Time To Die from my local bookstore in order to read all about this unbelievable story.

It’s a true story, but it didn’t happen in Gwanda, and not in Zimbabwe.

It happened in the village of Strasbourg, France, in 1518 and it came to be known as the dancing plague.

The lady who kicked it off was an ordinary housewife known as Frau Troffea.

Truth really is stranger than fiction.

Historians studying this phenomenon have proffered many possible explanations for the dancing plague, but until John Waller’s account these have remained largely disputed.

Waller explores the tyranny of the church at the time and paints heartbreaking accounts of cruelty of those in authority, the desperation of people facing fear, hardship and malnutrition and suggests that their extreme suffering and religious beliefs provoked this epidemic.

He believes that the dancing plague was caused by a phenomenon known as “mass psychogenic illness”, a form of mass hysteria usually preceded by intolerable levels of psychological distress.

Commenting on Waller’s book in South African Destiny magazine, Gwen Podbrey draws a parallel with South African society, suggesting that the contagious hallucinatory trance could be likened to “ our own ubiquitous Toyi-toyers expressing defiance, disgruntledness and, if not despair, then at least disobedience”.

In Zimbabwe, we may not be toyi-toying yet, but the signs around us suggest that perhaps the time is imminent.

When I read the allegations about a senior diplomat having stripped down to her undergarments in front of staff, I wondered whether she too may have been gripped by the same kind of desperate despair that gripped Frau Troffea so many centuries ago.

I wonder whether the self-destructive drama that became the dancing plague may in fact be manifesting in other ways in our own country.

When journalists are detained and harassed regularly; when every day we read reports of grown men raping small children, when church leaders resort to violence and shootings in public places become commonplace, and when all of this is preceded by hunger, hardship, hopelessness and fear, then you do have to wonder if this is not in fact “a time to dance . . .”

Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to localdrummer@newsday.co.zw

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