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Conservation and Culture

On my birthday this year, I spent the morning enjoying the shady 'stoep' of an old thatched cottage overlooking a cove on the False Bay coastline. Across the table was a larger-than-life character, Nicholas Ellenbogen, playwright and theatre director, who is a household name in South Africa.

We had met a couple of times before, he has spoken to some of my tour groups regarding traditional African drama, and we had discovered a common concern: that whilst many tours of Africa offer wonderful wildlife and scenery, they are typically devoid of any real cultural content. So we met to brainstorm, with a map and sticky Theatre for Africadots, plotting a safari that would integrate authentic culture and exceptional wildlife.

Nicholas is one of those people who can fill a stage. He was a central figure in 'struggle theatre', the multi-racial productions that challenged the apartheid regime in the '70s and '80s. In particular he was a founder of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and helped establish the renowned Grahamstown Festival. In 1989 he started 'Theatre for Africa' to exemplify African arts. He travelled to far-flung villages, auditioning actors, creating theatre companies, combining skills from different African cultures. With Nicholas as playwright and director they travelled the world with productions focused on conservation. Their success provided opportunities for the actors beyond their dreams. Year after year they won awards at the Edinburgh Festival. They toured Asia, Europe and the USA; they even performed for the British Royal Family at Balmoral and at the US State Department. Some of the plays, such as 'Horn of Sorrow' and 'Guardians of Eden', had a significant impact on the international regulation of the ivory trade. Nicholas Ellenbogen

Nicholas is well aware that international action for conservation is only half the battle. He wanted to bring conservation debates back to Africa, especially to communities living in ecologically sensitive areas and around wildlife reserves. The success of 'Theatre for Africa' had come to the attention of the Ford Foundation, World Bank and the WWF, and they agreed to sponsor his actors to tour even the most remote regions of Southern Africa.

Nicholas explains that theatre in Africa is not about seats and tickets and quiet audiences. "In Africa theatre is everywhere, indoors and outdoors, day and night, under trees, in houses, with drums and stories, everyone joins in it is highly energetic: drama, mime, dance, poetry, song, drumming, acrobatics". Performance is at the heart of African cultures and it is also intended to raise issues and stimulate debate. Discussions go on during a play and often long into the night. It is core to ancient African democracy.

So Nicholas' theatre companies (he has started 91 so far) have toured literally thousands of villages, by foot, in vehicles and boats, creating debate about poaching, over-fishing, ivory and rhino-horn trading, tree-felling and the role of conservation and tourism. Nicholas EllenbogonFor Nicholas this is a two-way process, and he carefully relays to conservationists and governments the concerns expressed by villagers. The success of Nicholas' approach has been recognised in a Congressional Citation (USA) and the WWF President's Award. A documentary was also made about his work (details below).

I encouraged him to share with me the places and experiences that stand out in his mind. He pointed to our map, 'I grew up in the sacred hills of the Matopos - this is my spiritual homethirty-five years ago I lived here, in the Kalahari, among the Bushman; they taught me about mime, dance and storytelling and I have been doing it ever since'. He recalled his work with the drummers of Zumbo, the naked Himba and elaborate Herero, the quiet River Bushmen, the hunters of Lungwa, the white chief of Mahenya, the fishing villages on lake Malawi and the rowdy all-night drama festivals at Bagamoyo. He laced his stories with dramatic tales of great spaces and teeming wildlife, and his profound knowledge of local cultures. Soon he will be travelling to war-torn Angola to begin his work there.
Chauke, barman of Parfuri camp
Very few tourists see Africa as Nicholas has done: its energy, creativity, vibrancy and the powerful democratic traditions that are woven into African cultures. Nor do many tourists gain any insight into the issues faced by villagers living around the great wildlife parks that were historically their foraging grounds. Tourists are well served by waiters and trackers but have no forum to learn, on equal terms, about their ancient cultures and recent history.

Nicholas and I have worked hard over the last few months, in collaboration with Wilderness Safaris, to cook up what we believe is a unique and very powerful tour. We will co-lead a trip to the Okavango and Tuli in Botswana and the northern Kruger in South Africa. We will stay at great camps with superb wildlife in contrasting environments and enjoy excellent safaris. But we will also interact with the staff in an honest dialogue, around the fire, in traditional ways, to provide our guests with genuine insight and cultural experiences. As you may know my background is in Anthropology and Nick has decades of experience as a cultural worker in Africa. It will be an awesome trip, a journey that celebrates Africa's wildlife and her people and no doubt will have some surprises, some powerful experiences as well as fun! We have twelve places, and I am keen to hear from anyone who might be interested. Please also tell friends!

If you would like a copy of the itinerary please write and let me know. Be aware that we will be chartering planes etc, so this is not a 'budget' trip! But it will be the cultural and wildlife trip of a lifetime.

A documentary about Nicholas was made by award winning director Craig Foster; the US version is narrated by Val Kilmer: 'Africa Unbottled' can be ordered here or here and Amazon and others may also have it.


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