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Animated Edition - Spring 2007
Action in Namibia: a shared experience
Wieke Eringa, Director of Education and Learning at Northern Ballet Theatre shares her experience of dance working alongside an HIV and AIDS education programme in Namibia
In September 2006 I had the fantastic opportunity to work on a community (1) arts project with Ombetja Yehinga Organisation (OYO, Aids Ribbon) a welfare organisation in Namibia (2). I was seeking an experience that would let me put my day-to-day life at Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) in a new light and would let me re-evaluate our work, and our approaches to working with communities. More importantly, I wanted to help out my friend Philippe, the director of the OYO, and his staff and young people who have very limited opportunities in Namibia to experience choreography and creativity through dance.

Ombetja Yehinga Organisation
OYO aims to raise awareness about AIDS and HIV through the arts with young people. Director Dr Philippe Talavera has led the organisation through an impressive series of arts projects, from photography, film, fashion, theatre, creative writing, music and dance to CD production. Since gaining status as NGO (3) three years ago, Ombetja has increased its role as an arts organisation, regularly producing high profile arts events of professional calibre that receive much national and international recognition (4). One unique aspect is that neither Philippe nor his staff have any formal training in the arts yet will not shy away from trying anything new that inspires them artistically. The work itself is usually very challenging and exciting, transcending preconceptions of 'issue based' work. Ombetja tackles issues related to AIDS with courage and tenacity - encouraging frank debate in a country in which it is not common to face taboos around sexuality. With their quarterly magazine OYO Young, Latest and Cool they have addressed topics such as gender, sexual orientation, multiple sexual partners, rape, domestic violence, teenage suicide and are currently producing an issue on alcohol and drugs. The openness and frankness in these magazines is extremely refreshing and I can't help thinking that young people in the UK would enjoy reading them as much as their Namibian counterparts and that this approach is interesting to those dealing with teenage pregnancy and the steep rise in sexually transmitted diseases in Britain today.

Empowerment: the voice of young people
Much of OYO's work is driven and shaped by young people, referred to as learners or youth, even most OYO staff are themselves young people on a steep learning curve. For example, the OYO magazines are predominantly made up of the letters and contributions from learners themselves. This is especially empowering to the learners because they have very little access to any published materials never mind being published themselves. Each new topic is chosen and researched by the OYO youth groups throughout the country and then OYO staff collect written material from learners in schools. Another example of this is the creation of the Hostel monologues (5) that were developed by a team of young writers and performed by four young actors trained by OYO throughout 2006. In other disciplines this facilitatory approach is less evident, for example in dance, and this is one of the things I was hoping to address.

The National Tour
One of the annual features on the OYO calendar is the national tour of a show that is produced by three or four different youth groups and performed during one week. This year's tour took place in the North of Namibia near the border with Angola. After one weekend of rehearsals the show was performed in villages, secondary schools, a township orphanage and even a prison. As well as condom and femidom demonstrations (even performed in various different languages simultaneously) the one-hour show included 20 dances, songs and a drama piece. The pieces were about domestic violence, loss of hope, celebrating life, celebrating sexuality, pride in your country and about taking responsibility and making your own choices. 43 performers between the ages of 16 and 25 performed nine shows for over 5000 people. Audiences were completely rapt and would either hang on every word or squeal and scream their way through a show. Especially the demonstrations and drama pieces were met with overwhelming enthusiasm and joy.

Dance training and choreography
There are no formal training opportunities for young people in dance in Namibia, and aside from very few ballet schools there are almost no opportunities for young people to learn to dance (6). A notable exception is the excellent work by Sisi a South African Zulu dancer and her Omaleshe youth group (7). This group, which includes children as little as four and as old as 17, works for eight hours a week with the sort of professional approach to discipline, focus, performance standards and expression that would look at home at any Centre for Advanced Training in the UK.

The choreography for the national tour was made by Sisi and Philippe and contained both traditional and new choreography to recorded songs. Whereas the OYO performers had some experience in learning and rehearsing steps and gestures, they hadn't been involved in a creative devising process, which I attempted to share with them in our spare time (!) Whereas the dancers enjoyed playing physical theatre, dance and contact improvisation games and did so with great enthusiasm and energy, they were unfamiliar with the concept of selecting and choreographing short phrases as part of a choreographic process. Much to my surprise this took several days to establish. There is for example not a good translation of the word 'improvisation' in any of the Namibian languages, not even the Afrikaans option was satisfactory. A factor that might influence the young people's reaction to a creative devising process is that traditionally the predominant teaching style in schools has been purely didactic with little room for creativity or encouragement for independent thought. So even though singing and (social) dancing is something most people do more or less naturally whilst growing up, dancing and creating dance in a choreographic form is not.

Based on the theme of peer pressure and the performers' own experiences we explored a range of movement improvisation and tasks, and together devised a short piece. The aim was that the dancers would be able to use and adapt the devising process and create their own pieces of dance, indeed I have been told this is now happening! (8) Whereas at times I almost forgot that I was in Africa (the inside of the hall could have been anywhere in London or Yorkshire) I was amazed and surprised at the differences of working with Namibians instead of Europeans. It was extremely inspiring to work with people who have such a completely different relationship with their bodies. There was an uninhibited physical ease and confidence and people who had never done a single dance or contact class were able to explore each other's weight and use lifts with tremendous physical intelligence, humour and creativity.

In addition to the performances this tour was focussed on exchange as a source of learning and enrichment. Not only did the youth groups teach each other, they were also encouraged to lead workshops with other young people. This meant that the OYO youth had a chance to teach their dance movements to deaf children and to orphans and in return they themselves learned new dances and exchanged movements with the Omaleshe group. Enthusiastic OYO youth got stuck in and taught movements from their dances to the younger children who absolutely loved every second of this experience. In the UK we are often committed to process based methods of working, in which participants make creative contributions, decisions and thus create a sense of ownership of the work. By contrast, this way of exchanging that was essentially demonstrating and copying steps and gestures was a powerful tool of bringing people together in dance.

Absorption and discovery
I discovered a lot in a short space of time, not least that there is a lot we can learn from work being done in Namibia and its sophistication and methodology. I learned that I don't like goat-on-the-bone for lunch (!) that working 14 hours a day in 50 degrees heat is exhausting and I learned how to spell my name in Namibian sign language. I learned that most young Namibians have already lost one parent, that life expectancy is short, and that Namibians are proud of their country in a way we never express in the UK. I learned again about the power and possibilities of enabling a person to nurture and lead others, and that this can be even more effective than simply teaching them skills. I rediscovered the power of performance and was deeply moved to see the sheer joy and energy shared by the audiences and performers, especially in a place and on
the topic where it really matters. The absorption and engagement was complete: and so I was reminded of why we do all this in the first place - because it moves, touches and says something about who we are as people that nothing else can quite say the same way. Last but not least I saw the embodiment of a cliche: that you really can do anything as long as you want to do it - even if you have never choreographed before: you can choreograph a K. D. Lang song for 14 dancers and perform it, dancing in between the ants, in front of 600 rapt prisoners!

Wieke Eringa can be contacted on
For more information about Ombetja Yehinga please visit For more information about Learning and Access at Northern Ballet Theatre visit

1. Using the term community seems immediately out of place here - as there is no clear distinction between professional and community work in Namibia.
2. Namibia is in Southern Africa, bordering South Africa, the Atlantic, Botswana and Angola. Gained independence in 1991 after 74 years under South Africa protectorate.
3. Non Government Organisation
4. Such as for example entry to the FESPACO (Pan African Film Festival) of five short films called 'love can cry' in 2003, publication and reprinting of 'challenging the Namibian perception of sexuality, a case study of the Ovahimba and Ovaherero cultural-sexual models in Kunene North in an HIV/AIDS context', exhibition of 'the caring Namibian man' in Namibia, the Netherlands (June 2006), Canada (international HIV/AIDS conference in Toronto, September 2006) and South Africa (December 2006) and scheduled screening on National Television of the Hostel Monologues (early 2007).
5. Two of the four Hostel Monologues were performed at Newham Sixth Form College in June 2006 as part of the LiveEd exchange programme between OYO, the college and Newham Borough Council. For more information about LiveEd please see
6. It is my understanding that of the many tribal groups that live in Namibia few place much emphasis on dance traditions such as for example the Zulu's in South Africa. Traditional dances still exist for instance with the Ovahimba (especially linked to traditional ceremonies), the Damaras, Kavango and the Owambo (with the impressive 'ompembe' where men jump on top of each others). However those dances are often perceived as old fashioned by young people and many do not bother learning them from their elders. No one is trying to 'modernise' or preserve those traditional dances and they run the risk to be forgotten.
7. Sisi is a South African Zulu dancer who is currently based in Oshakati in the North or Namibia and does excellent work not only with her group but also a special needs school and Aids orphans.
8. This autumn Alpha Sililo is using a local song the group he was working with enjoyed; used existing traditional moves the group was feeling comfortable with and put them together in a way that is creating a story dealing with relationships between boys and girls and rumours.

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Animated: Spring 2007