iGwijo – The Sustenance of Champions

When Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry wrote the song “7 seconds“, they spoke of the first moments of a child’s life, moments were they knew nothing about the problems of the world. They however had no idea that at some point later on the hopes and dreams of South Africans’ would hinge on the last “7 seconds” of the 2023 Rugby World Cup final; and that we would be reborn four-time champions. Poetic isn’t it? I know. But sport, just like music, has that effect on people. Both vehicles have the capacity to restore our hope in humanity and to an extent often exist in the same spaces.

Our interconnectedness as humanity and more specifically as a country are fortified by the communal sharing of intense emotions – in the context of sports, this communal sharing is often facilitated by a musical art form known as Gwijo or iGwijo.

iGwijo is a practice of collective singing deeply embedded in the Xhosa culture, adapted for the sports community, and popularized by Gwijo Squad. It takes on the form of call and response resultantly making it a group project – call and response is a style wherein I say something, then you say something in return or response. Which means you have to listen to me and I have to listen to you in order for the song to work; effectively, we are in a musical dialogue together.

Collective singing (such as igwijo) is an adaptive strategy for well-being in the face of the ongoing changes and challenges of life. When Captain Siya Kolisi said that they were grateful for the videos of support shared on social media, a bulk of those were videos of people singing igwijo with all the hope they had. South Africans all over the world sang the national anthem on the 28th of October 2023 like their lives depended on it, because in that moment it was more than just an anthem, it was a prayer wrapped in all their hopes and dreams. We even remixed Sister Bettina for the Springboks, a song we swore never to touch. That’s how much skin we had in the game.

A couple of studies on the effects of sound and music on the human makeup have been done over the recent past, and one that stands out for me was published in 2013. The study showed that collective singing co-regulates one’s nervous system with their fellow singers, lowers cortisol levels, and releases feel-good chemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin. Writer, Malidoma Some, also records in his book ‘The Healing Wisdom of Africa’ how his community in Burkina Faso would sing together before and while they tilled the land because they believed that singing unified them in their mission and connected them with the soil they worked on. Music has always been part of African life; it marks every occasion in our lives.

If history and science be true, then iGwijo is slowly healing nervous systems with every chant. It is no secret that we carry the trauma of our past as a country in our bones, and if you disagree with this statement, pay close attention to your reactions and reflexes. Gwijo may just be the traditional cure that our current condition requires. I am by no means discounting the work required to restore our nation, even the Boks would not have won solely because we were cheering them on in song, they still had to get on the field and play the game. I am merely suggesting that more moments of collective singing (gwijo) can bring us close enough to one another to rediscover our humanity together. Many of the problems we have are rooted in the displacement of our humanity. A squad like the Boks is both influential and meaningful because we each see ourselves represented in the squad; they are us and we are them.

One thing is certain – life will not kill the dreams that we dream. We are a resilient people. My hope is that this spirit of victory we feel because of the Boks will spill over in every aspect of our lives. I hope we keep this spirit of hope and love alive long enough to ignite the intention of being better, and propelling us to act accordingly.

Time and time again studies have proven that collective singing fosters belonging and ushers us into more optimal brain wave states which make us feel safer and more at peace, both individually and as a collective. Perhaps Sport will be the one thing that continues to remind us of the life principles and discipline we often forget. And iGwijo will continue to heal our bodies and soul while transforming our view of each other as people, one chant at a time.

We face high mountains
Must cross rough seas
We must take our place in history
And live with dignity

Just to be the best I can
Sets the goal for every man
If I win, lose or draw
It’s a victory for all

World in Union