By Benedict Tembo
Zambian environmental educators are excited by the recent opening of The Sodwana Bay Storytelling, Research and Dive Centre in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s top dive spots in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal.
The centre will aid knowledge sharing and skill development in the field of conservation, especially in marine conservation.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site, which hosts the Sodwana Bay National Park, is acclaimed for both its biodiversity and cultural heritage.
The Sodwana Bay is known for its vibrant and pristine coral reefs which attract thousands of scuba divers and eco-tourists every year.
The story telling centre is supported by Africa Refocused, a collaboration between Nature, Environment, and Wildlife Filmmakers (NEWF) and the National Geographic Society.
It will host hundreds of NEWF fellows per year and offer specialised dive training, cinematography labs, music composition for film, science communication, photography and post-production – NEWF is essentially bringing their labs home.
Added to this, the centre will support the local community by providing the facilities for swimming lessons, film screenings and discussions.
“This place is home to all story tellers across the continent who are into telling stories about Africa as a continent like people linked to our natural space, wildlife and just nature in general,” says Sam Moyo an environmental educator and NEWF fellow.
Moyo says the centre will serve as a place where people can learn to scuba dive because it’s right next to Sodwana Bay, one of the top dive sites in the world.
“This centre will be of great benefit to story tellers across the continent because they will have access to this place. Access to story telling about scuba diving and access to equipment, access to knowledge and people who are very experienced,” he says
Moyo says experienced people will share their experience with other story tellers, mostly emerging (ones).
“And so, this will act as a place where a lot will take place from and make sure that African story tellers take a lead when it comes to telling stories about their places where they are coming from such as their communities and about their natural spaces and their wildlife,” Moyo says.
For Natasha Mweetwa, an environmental educator, the centre will serve as a platform that will facilitate knowledge sharing and skill development in the field of conservation and especially in marine conservation.
“By equipping photographers, cinematographers, scientists and conservationists with the necessary knowledge and skills, they can become effective environmental educators themselves,” Ms Mweetwa says.
She says by raising awareness about conservation, Zambia’s marine biodiversity can be protected by ensuring sustainability of the ecosystems.
“In addition, the dive centre can provide training for local photographers and create great talent with Zambia. It can also help boost Zambia’s tourism by attracting tourists interested in exploring the country’s aquatic ecosystem,” Ms Mweetwa says.
Stefanie Titus, the NEWF Communications Lead says the dive centre at iSimangaliso Wetland Park is an integral part of Dive Labs and Ocean Access programme which allows Fellows to have an opportunity to experience the ocean in order to choose the stories they want to tell.
“A centre like this allows scientists, researchers and storytellers to access the ocean and enhance their careers. It is a multifaceted home for fellows – a storytelling, research and dive centre that is a place to inspire and encourage learning, community and creativity. In the coming months we will also be building a sound and post-production studio that will support other NEWF Labs and programmes,” Sefanie says.
She adds:”Added to this, hundreds of underwater photographers train here, capture underwater wildlife photographs and tour guides complete their marine training segments here too. But due to a number of historical reasons and the impacts of Apartheid these areas remained out of reach for local communities and black South Africans.”
Noel Kok, a director, creative and storyteller storyteller with the National Geographic Explorer, with an interest in natural history and stories of African conservation says the African continent is surrounded by 30,000 kilometres of coastline but historically, many African people — in particular, Black and Indigenous African people — were made to feel that these places were not for them.
“This means that our voices and perspectives have been excluded from the stories about our oceans,” Mr Kok says.
Stefanie says at the NEWF Congress in 2018, they wanted to host a panel about underwater filmmaking “in our oceans and we searched the continent for a professional underwater filmmaker.”
She says they continued the search, they realised this was a difficult task, eventually sourcing Jahawi Bertolli, early in his career, from Kenya.
“In addition to this during our research also we came across so many marine biologists across the ocean who could not dive, or even swim. This inspired the birth of NEWF Dive Labs in 2019,” Stefanie says
She says this illustrated the huge chasm in this major industry, diving, ocean access and nature and wildlife filmmaking – operated and thriving in a rural place where locals, all of whom are indigenous African people were still the help and had very limited access to these incredible wild spaces.
“This centre is not just symbolic of our mission and vision, it’s a functional storytelling centre that does what a home, co-working space, classroom and self-catering accommodation does – except for indigenous Africans, all of which have stories to tell and torches to pass,” Ms Stefanie says
She says short term, most labs hosted by NEWF in South Africa will migrate to this space where hosting fellows and facilitating swim and dive training shifts from daily fee budgeting, to self-contained flexibility and the room to extend labs and training as and when necessary in ways that may have been significantly more financially challenging before.
“Added to this, fellows from across the continent will soon have locally-managed access to the space and use it as a base camp for local projects, meeting with collaborators (other fellows) and facilitating peer-to-peer workshops and training,” Stefanie says
She hopes that it will inspire many more spaces like these across Africa, not by NEWF but by its fellows and indigenous people who share a similar vision for the future of African conservation and storytelling. “In fact, beyond NEWF’s scope to touch on art, culture, authentic African literature and journalism which will further expand efforts towards the preservation of oral and ancestral histories that have over time been buried, stifled, distorted or lost due to colonial trauma,” she says
A big part of NEWF’s short to long term dream is that black and indigenous African storytellers and practices are acknowledged for the value they contribute (and always have) to conservation policies.