|The Courier N° 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)|
Theatre for Africa, a performing group from Southern Africa, went on tour this autumn to put across the message that the exploitation of Africa's fauna should remain in the hands of rural communities. They did this with a powerful mix of words, dance, mime and song, in a play entitled Guardians of Eden '. The Courier met the author and cast on the Brussels leg of their tour.
The setting for the Brussels' performance was the 'Grand Place' (Grote Markt). With its ornate mediaeval architecture, this famous square in the centre of the Belgian capital could hardly have been more removed from the theme of the play - which is about conservation and development problems in Africa and empowering rural people to manage, use and benefit from the wildlife around them.
The play was commissioned by the Southern Africa Sustainable Use Specialist Group (SASUSG) and the idea was that it should reach as many people as possible in the run-up to the World Conservation Congress planned for Montreal in October 1996. South African writer and former economist, Nicolas Ellenbogen, travelled throughout Southern Africa to recruit the all-African cast. Many examples of cultural imperialism leading to the destruction of habitat, highlighted in the production, were actually encountered by Mr Ellenbogen as he travelled through the region.
The play opens with a spirit medium summoning representatives from villages in several African countries to discuss the threat to their survival. The actors display their athletic skills performing mimes of the abundant wildlife with simple props, as the history of Africa is recalled from the dinosaurs to the present day.
A parable is then told. An old chief informs his three sons that to prosper in the 21st century, the village must change. He instructs them to return a year later with ideas for prosperity, which will be discussed in an indaba (debate). Each chooses a different path. The wheeling and dealing first son seeks out quick fix schemes with NGOs and various city authorities. The second son learns from the difficulties of city life and comes up with a blend of simple wisdom and new ideas. The third spends his time in beer halls - and his revelry provokes roars of laughter throughout the performance.
Arriving back in his village after almost a year has elapsed, the second son finds that his older brother returned several months earlier to implement his money raising projects. Enjoying the cash benefits of the scheme, the men of the village do not want to hold an indaba. They are forced to do so by the women and Midzimu - the old chief. The audience is then asked to vote and there is a unanimous show of hands for the second son who symbolises the sustainable use of natural resources. The dissolute third son, meanwhile, is eaten by a crocodile.
Ivory ban fury
While the message goes out to developers and donors to respect rural autonomy, the play also raises serious questions for Europe's politicians. The frequent appearance of the destructive elephant, in the course of the play, allows Mr Ellenbogen to vent his anger at the ivory import ban imposed by many European states. 'I am furious about the ban', be told The Courier, 'as it is having a profound effect on the daily needs of the people.' He rejects the argument that it helps conservation, insisting that; 'with a stroke of a pen, you reduced the value of the elephant.' The playwrite argues that local people need to see wildlife as economically and socially valuable. Otherwise, they will adopt new forms of land use which will result in the extinction of the species. He also draws attention to the growing black market in ivory in Southern Africa since the ban was introduced.
The 'token' South African - symbolically played by the only woman in the cast - is given a 'rough time as the baby of Africa', says Ellenbogen. The play also contains numerous swipes at the donor community which frequently gives grants, without, it is said, any respect for local traditions. The Swiss doctoral student researching the potential for producing goat's cheese in Africa exits the stage squealing after asking a goat herder what he does with his animals. 'We slit their throats', is his reply.
Guardians of Eden was first launched at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in South Africa in July. It was performed in Zimbabwe and Kenya, and won a prize at the Edinburgh Festival 'Fringe' in August. From there, it moved to Frankfurt and Geneva before reaching Brussels. It was due to be performed in Antwerp, London and several American cities before a final staging at the Montreal Congress in October.
The play is in English and the languages of Southern Africa, but Nicolas Ellenbogen believes it can be readily understood by his multinational audiences. For him, the message - that local people must have the power to manage their own wildlife on their own land - needs no translating.