Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens: focusing on the fashions and image rather than the music and the subculture

Sarah Vianney, “Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens” (2018)

Despite the title, the heavy metal queens of Botswana¬† featured in this Deutsche Welle documentary aren’t musicians and there’s not much actual heavy metal music either, not even in the sparse music soundtrack. “Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens” is more an account revolving around individual persons than a sociological survey of a particular aspect of a subculture that has taken root in a southern African country. The film focuses on the lives of three young women – Gloria, Ludo and Flora – going about their daily activities and how their obsession with metal gives meaning, identity and structure to their lives. Gloria is a single mother who organises regular garbage pick-ups in her community in Maun (a rural town in northern Botswana) with other female metal fans like herself,¬† all in their cowboy-leather glory. Ludo does carpentry at home making babies’ cradles. Flora is a secretary at a construction company.

The film’s narrative revolves around the three women’s efforts to get together and travel by car with a bunch of male fans to a metal festival in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, where the country’s leading metal band Skinflint is headlining. The women make their own leather clothes and take care to get the appropriate accessories. Ludo and her male pals arrive in Flora’s village, strutting down the street, engaging in hilarious greeting rituals and head-banging to their favourite bands. Taking Flora with them, the fans detour to celebrate a fellow fan’s wedding where they are the cynosure of all eyes. After paying their respects, the fans continue on to Gaborone and arrive just in time to catch Skinflint’s performance at the bar where the festival is being held. The documentary ends with Gloria, Ludo, Flora and their friends moshing together right in front of the band.

The documentary takes in vast expanses of the dry semi-arid country where the women live and work. The conditions of the villages where they live are poor but not squalid; everyone looks happy and healthy, and children can be seen playing in the streets or gazing curiously at the strange adults in their black leather get-ups. While the film is very well done and even beautiful in parts, viewers don’t learn much about how metal came to have a foothold in the most rural parts of Botswana, nor why metalheads here have adopted a cowboy-leather aesthetic. The film makes much about how metal represents a release for Gloria, Ludo and Flora from the more mundane aspects of their lives and the social and cultural pressures they endure as women. For these women, metal helps them express their individuality and desire not to have to conform to social expectations. The music provides them with a social network of their own choosing and this social network in turn allows them to experience life beyond their own communities in a safe way. At the same time, metal runs the gauntlet among conservative Christian churches in their communities who accuse metalheads of being devil worshippers and Satanists; Gloria counters the accusations by performing good deeds in public in full metal gear. However the views of older people in her community and Ludo and Flora’s communities will be hard for the women to change.

An opportunity to learn something about society in Botswana, and how a particular subculture based around a genre of music imported from abroad helps young people learn about the West and incorporate aspects of Western culture into their own lives and cultures, was missed. A somewhat patronising attitude towards metal, with the focus on the clothing that metalheads in northern Botswana wear, is present in the film. While the women genuinely enjoy the music and the opportunity to experience a different life and social network outside their rural communities, documentary director Vianney appears not to have gauged how devoted to the metal subculture these women are and how much of the music they know, apart from their dress. The interest in the heavy metal queens – as opposed to a more general interest in the presence of metal in rural Botswana – seems quite prurient. What male metalheads think of the music and of the women’s interest in it is never asked; it is as if, when the men follow the music, it’s a case of boys just being boys, but when women follow the music, there must be something deeper going on – and sure enough, the film-makers dig up themes of identity, individuality and nonconformity and the modern stereotype of African women “empowering” themselves.