South Luangwa may be renowned for its wildlife, but the SEKA Theatre Group gave Sarah Kingdom an entirely different kind of experience during her visit to Time & Tide’s Chinzombo Lodge…

It’s afternoon tea-time at Time & Tide’s Chinzombo Lodge in South Luangwa. Tea and delicious cake in hand, we hear a bit of a commotion, just out of sight. A group of people come running across the lawn, dressed in a wild assortment of clothing and accessories. We can see sticks and spears, colourful masks and oversized binoculars, a collection of branches and an oddly out of context steering wheel. This is not at all what we had expected. South Luangwa may be renowned for its wildlife, but what we are about to see and hear is an entirely different kind of wildlife experience. We are about to be immersed in a dramatic production by local theatre organisation, SEKA, who are known for their groundbreaking theatre work. SEKA stands for Sensitisation and Education through Kunda Arts, and also means ‘laugh’ in the local Kunda language. We were about to have a lot of laughs!

Theatre in the Bush with SEKA

SEKA develops and performs dramatic productions, both to celebrate the cultural heritage of the Kunda people of Eastern Zambia and also to sensitise local communities on social and environmental issues, such as rural development, poverty alleviation, biodiversity loss and HIV. The group perform in local villages and also to tourists visiting South Luangwa. Their unique brand of puppetry, physical and visual theatre enchants their audiences; local villagers and international tourists alike. SEKA’s style and approach go beyond typical ‘cultural tourism’. This is not the usual ‘museum/cultural centre’ style of production. Instead, the group uses a hybrid style of storytelling, combining puppetry, song, masks, physical and visual theatre and, most importantly, a massive dose of humour to educate and give expression to issues that are relevant to their various audiences. The plays SEKA produce are highly entertaining, with little reliance on language, and present issues in accessible and non-threatening ways.

When performing to tourists their performances provide a window into the challenges, dangers and benefits of living in close proximity to dangerous wildlife. Whilst done with humour, it still challenges tourists to think about their impact on the place they have come to visit, and helps them understand a little more about the local people who call this place home.

Creativity Meets Community Conservation

That afternoon at Chinzombo we were treated to a production called ‘Kusanga’. Kusanga means Bush, and the play was a tale of an old man teaching his young niece the ways of the bush, and showing her how to learn from, understand and observe animals, trees, insects and birds. The actors switched between the various roles of a witch doctor, grandmother, dog, honey badger, honeyguide, dung beetle, heron, warthog, kudu and more, jumping from one role to another with the simplest of wardrobe changes and some creatively clever, yet simple, props. ‘The performance had us in stitches, but we were also in no doubt as to the message the group were trying to convey.

SEKA staff are all drawn from the local community and have a reputation for communicating serious messages accessibly and responsibly, as well as presenting all sides of a story. When working on a production targeting local village related issues, the actors spend some weeks in the target area, so they can then create a customised play that is both relevant and specific to that community. Audiences look forward to the new productions with great anticipation, and attendance levels are always high. In conjunction with the actual play, SEKA facilitates guided workshop discussions aiming at resolving any local conflicts and at creating action plans to be implemented on the local community’s own terms.

Without a doubt watching a SEKA performance should be on every South Luangwa safari goer’s itinerary. It’s a way of learning more about the place you have come to see, both the wildlife and the people, in a fantastically fun way. It’s a way of being part of the place and the people and making a difference.

Writer: Sarah Kingdom

Photography: Time + Tide