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Panhandlers and their backyard elephants showcased

The perfomers and artists from the Panhandle live with thousands elephants in their backyard PIC: AMANDA STRONZA
As people all over the world celebrate World Elephant Day on August 12, 2018 the village of Seronga in the Eastern Okavango Panhandle will host a one-hour theatrical production called, Life With Elephants.

This is a region where 16,000 people share space with 18,000 elephants. Villagers there know first-hand the challenges of living with elephants and the play will be in three acts, presenting the villagers’ stories of stewardship and coexistence.

Ecoexist hosts the event, with support from USAID, Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Namibia, and The Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

The mission of Ecoexist is to support the lives and livelihoods of people who share space with the elephants, while considering the needs of elephants and their habitats.

According to a press release from Ecoexist, the aim of the Life With Elephants celebration is to help build an Elephant Economy, one that generates opportunities and benefits for people, with products like community-based tourism, cultural events, and ‘elephant aware’ crafts and foods.

In light of the recent spate of poaching in Botswana, the need for creating sustainable benefits from elephants and fostering awareness and stewardship, is urgent. 

Over the past several weeks, artists from each of the 15 villages of the Eastern Panhandle auditioned for parts in the play.

Award-winning actor, playwright, and director from South Africa, Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, selected the best performers and together with the leaders of Ecoexist, wrote and directed the piece.

“It has been so beautiful and powerful to see these people performing what they know best, with so much passion.

“They have given so much of themselves to the production. I am honoured to be learning from them and working with them,” Mkhwanazi added.  Each year for the past four years, Ecoexist has hosted a series of Life With Elephants art, performance, and craft celebrations.

“People in the Okavango Panhandle are the true stewards of elephants,” elephant researcher and director at Ecoexist, Anna Songhurst explained. 

“To ensure a future for elephants, we must partner with people to find solutions to human-elephant conflict and wildlife crime,” she said.  “We hope this kind of community theatre can help people from other parts of Botswana hear and understand voices and perspectives of people from the Okavango Panhandle,” Songhurst added.

She said going forward, they want to bring attention not only to human-elephant conflict, but also to the great strides Ecoexist and their partners are making to find strategies for long-term coexistence.

“The Life With Elephants celebrations help build pride and shared identity amongst villagers while also shining the spotlight on the Okavango Panhandle as an elephant-themed destination, rich in stories, songs, dance, and art,” anthropologist and director at Ecoexist, Amanda Stronza, said.  “The events also bring people together to share experiences and learn from each other about how to stay safe around elephants and protect their homes, families, and fields,” she said.

This year’s event is supported with funds from USAID and the Worldwide Wildlife Fund, focused

on Combating Wildlife Crime in Namibia and the Kavango-Zambezi Area.

The play will help address wildlife crime by building stewardship for elephants and amplifying voices of people in the Panhandle, building national and regional empathy and understanding of human-elephant conflict and local experiences of people who live surrounded by elephants.

“More and more people in Botswana are starting to understand what it’s like having a few elephants frequent their backyards,” ecologist and Ecoexist director, Graham McCulloch said.

McCulloch added that these performers and artists from the Panhandle live with thousands in their backyard.

“Elephants are part of their daily lives.It already is a kind of coexistence, but at great cost.  “People there need to be recognised as custodians of this great grey herd and supported as such to help offset the costs of this giant responsibility.”  

Stronza was also quick to highlight that much of their work at Ecoexist is focused on connecting science with policy to reduce human-elephant conflict.

She said the arts are a great elixir, therefore they are always seeking to share the voices of the people who live with elephants, bringing attention to their struggles, and in that way also helping the plight of elephants. 

The Sunday event will feature a table for arts and crafts with pieces from local painters, sketch artists, sculptors, and basket weavers.  Many of the works will be available for purchase, with proceeds returning directly to the artists.

 “We hope having people show interest in the art and lives of people in the Panhandle, especially their life with elephants, residents of the region will begin to feel some pride and recognition for the role they play as stewards of elephants and other wildlife of Botswana,” McCulloch said.

“We have decided to hold this overall event on World Elephant Day, August 12, marking this auspicious day when we recognise the importance of and celebrate elephants.” 

In preparation for the event, 34 artists spent two weeks together, weaving their artistry into one show.

“After what I’ve seen in the auditions and powerhouse rehearsals so far, I promise the show is going to be funny, insightful, intensely beautiful, and at points, heartbreaking.

“It’s one thing to love elephants and quite another to live with thousands of them in your backyard. 

“Most of all, we hope, the production will be entertaining and illuminating.

“People from the Panhandle have so many talents and stories to share,” Stronza said.  The event is free and open to the public.

Any proceeds from the event will help cover the costs of transportation and accommodation for the Panhandle artists, giving them an opportunity to showcase their talents and gain pride in their communities and the fact that they share space with elephants.


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