One ocean: the power of storytelling at COP27
Mobility (travel and relocation) is a key aspect of international research and innovation partnerships. While Covid-19 limited global travel, Covid-era research collaboration confirmed the benefits to science and society of working across borders, cultures and disciplines.
To celebrate eight years of BEIS international programmes (Newton Fund and GCRF), we asked researchers and innovators to tell us about the journeys they've made and reflect on the many benefits and challenges of doing 'science beyond borders'.
by Dr Dylan McGarry,
One Ocean Hub is working to address the urgent problems facing our oceans. Our 100 researchers specifically address challenges and opportunities in South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, and Solomon Islands, through collaborative research across a number of different disciplines.
Lalela uLwandle (Listen to the Sea) is a participatory research methodology developed by a South African collective called Empatheatre, who are part of the One Ocean Hub. The production (which won the Bertha Artivist Award for 2022) allows the audience to experience environmental injustices, tangible and intangible ocean heritage, the latest findings from marine sciences on threats to ocean health, and instances of exclusion from ocean decision-making. The play allows the audience to listen to the voices of those who are often overlooked in ocean policy forums on climate change adaptation and blue economy initiatives. Indigenous peoples, small-scale fishing communities, women, and youth.
We were excited when the One Ocean Hub was invited by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Committee to showcase ‘Lalela uLwandle’ at the UN Climate Summit (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in November 2022. This was the first time we’d taken the play outside of South Africa and we were interested to see how it was received.
The Empatheatre performance at COP27 was part of a ‘Oceans & Land Day’ programme at the Capacity-Building Hub.
It was an unusual space for a theatre: loud air-conditioning and the din echoing from the many other pavilions and negotiations taking place around you is a far cry from the dark, quiet black boxes where conventional theatre resides. Yet Empatheatre performs anywhere. Over the past 10 years we have performed in community halls, soccer fields, churches, rehabilitation centres, clinics, hostels, aquariums, and conference rooms.
At the end of each Empatheatre production, we provide a post-show discussion, in which the concentric circles of our audience become a space for public dialogue to reflect and share experiences, questions, testimonies and advice that further develop our production.
We were delighted by the feedback we received. The play made an impact on the audience and the organisers alike.
A youth activist from South Africa found the play deeply moving and affirming. After struggling the entire COP with security restrictions to activism, they had to find creative and new approaches to advocate for climate justice. Watching the play, they reflected on how powerful storytelling can be, and in many ways offers a richer and more empathetic approach to advocacy and decision-making.
And the moderators of the Capacity-Building Hub said the Empatheatre performance felt like the most important experience they had had at COP27.
At times COP can feel chaotic. Five-minute sound bites are offered in a flurry and cascade of moderated panels. So, according to the organisers, this play felt like taking a deep breath. Immersing themselves and the audience in the experience of South Africans. Feeling their problems, not just rationalising them.
Another delegate poetically said, "COP generally feels as if we have to leave our souls behind at the security check and now, thanks to the unfolding narratives so carefully delivered by the actors, we could retrieve ourselves."
At COP27, I noticed just how human experiences are captured in fragmented and curated ways. My Empatheatre colleague, director, and lead writer of ‘Lalela uLwandle' Neil Coppen aptly remarked: “It is as if we are walking through an aquarium, and they have captured all these samples of humanity and placed them behind glass, to talk about climate change in pieces and parts”.
We [Empatheatre team] are instead finding a new approach to justice, advocacy and policy engagement through a care(full) and loving piecing together of our very separated coastal communities through storytelling.
We are grateful to the British Council and the One Ocean Hub for this opportunity, as it has deepened our methodology and ability to connect the local and national to the international, and vice versa. This experience has prepared us for an upcoming tour to Rome in March 2023 where we have been invited by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to the closing event of the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture.
Storytelling is humanity’s intuitive method for collaborative meaning-making. When we tell stories, we are able to hold more than one thread of knowing and step beyond polarised debates and agendas. At COP we saw first-hand the value of storytelling to assist the obvious, yet often hidden, emotional labour undertaken by climate policymakers. Stories draw from the entire human experience and meaning-making capacities (including imaginative, emotional, and spiritual reasoning) alongside the very present and gritty raw issues facing coastal people and ocean defenders.
It was clear for us, that whilst being grounded in the South African experience, the inter-generational stories of the sea in Lalela uLwandle resonated strongly with the international audience at COP27. Taking Empatheatre on the road has shown that we can (and must continue to) engage people beyond borders.
Learn more about the One Ocean Hub’s work.
Dylan McGarry (Dyl/they/them) is a South African Writer, Director, activist, educational sociologist and multi-media artist. Dyl is a Senior researcher at the Environmental Learning Research Centre (ELRC) at the University currently known as Rhodes and co-founded Empatheatre with playwright Neil Coppen and Sangoma/actress Mpume Mthombeni.
Empatheatre is a collective of artists, writers, designers and others who come together to create powerful empathetic public storytelling experiences towards social and ecological justice. As a scholar activist Dyl explores practice-based research into connective aesthetics, art, transgressive social learning, decolonisation, queer-eco pedagogy, regenerative sustainability, immersive empathy and socio-ecological development in South Africa. Their artwork and social praxis (which is closely related to their research) is particularly focused on empathy, and they primarily work with imagination, listening and intuition as actual sculptural materials in social settings to offer new ways to encourage personal, relational and collective agency.
In 2022 Dylan illustrated and directed a short film entitled “The Blue Blanket” with Helen Walne, Braam du Toit and Mpume Mthombeni. The film was used alongside their Empatheatre play “Lalela uLwandle – Listen to the Sea” as evidence in three seperate court cases, adding to the powerful affidavits of small scale fisher ocean defenders who took Oil and Gas giant Shell to court, halting seismic surveys in our oceans. This was the first time art and theatre was used as evidence to embody intangible heritage of our oceans in South African courts. Their collective efforts established a new legal precedent, with the South African judiciary recognising the sacred relationship of the ocean as a realm for the ancestors, and opening up the role of art can play in supporting Indigenous knowledge in national and international jurisprudence. Dylan, alongside Coppen and Mthombeni, won the 2022 Bertha Foundation Artivist for their Empatheatre work.
Main image: Roy Booth, Mpume Mthombeni and Alison Cassels on stage at COP27 performing the award-winning play Lalela uLwandle to the climate conference participants, credit: Bernadette Snow
Image 2: Mpume Mthombeni centre stage, performing in a public show in Makhanda, Eastern Cape, South Africa, credit: Kelly Daniels.
Image 3: An award-winning performer and theatre-maker Mpume Mthombeni (left) and Rory Both (right) during a public show in Port Shepstone town hall in South Africa, credit: Kelly Daniels.
Image 4: Roy Booth, Mpume Mthombeni and Alison Cassels on stage at COP27 performing the award-winning play Lalela uLwandle to the climate conference participants, credit: Bernadette Snow
Image 5: Mpume Mthombeni, South African award-winning performer, storyteller and theatre-maker plays a key character in the Lalela uLwandle play, credit: Kelly Daniels.
Image 6: Left to right: Empatheatre team Zenzo Msomi, Dylan McGarry, Mpume Mthombeni, Neil Coppen, Kira Erwin, Alison Cassels and Roy Booth at a post-show performance at the Durban Aquarium in South Africa, credit: Kelly Daniels.