WINDHOEK – With a PhD in Biology, Philippe Talavera who only minored in performing arts for his undergraduate studies made a complete U-turn in career when he chose to use the arts to create social awareness.
Talavera describes his relocating to Namibia as “mere chance” in 1997 when he took up a job at the French embassy in Windhoek.
But he has never looked back and in 2001 he started the Ombetja Yehinga Organisation (OYO), a non-profit entity that uses the arts, including dance, to create social awareness on matters such as gender-based violence (GBV), HIV and teenage pregnancies.
The OYO dance troupe, for example, is known for its emotion-moving performances on social issues and recently New Era spotted the team at the launch of the Namibia population-based HIV Impact Assessment (NAMPHIA) preliminary results.
“Arts appeal to your emotions. When you see a good piece of art it makes you feel and you internalize it,” Talavera says of the reason he chose to create awareness on important social issues through the arts. Unlike a lecture addressing societal ills, the likelihood of remembering a good piece of art is higher, explained Talavera. “Art is not an intellectual tool, anybody can relate to art,” he adds.
Talavera said that for teenagers the message has to be repeated through several performances and interventions as this would help them make better decisions.
With dance performances, plays, films, magazines or photographic exhibitions on several themes, many different mediums are used to touch as many young people as possible. And those pieces of the arts are brought to the public, in the schools.
“You need to repeat things several times to internalize it. So we go to a school with the dancers, and a couple of months later we’ll go there with the DVD and afterwards with the magazine. I don’t believe one intervention is very successful. We have to be able to go back several times to reinforce the message,” Talavera says.
The schools are chosen depending on the funds and needs.
“We select the regions depending on the priority of the funders, and then, we choose the schools that would benefit most from our actions, so if the programme is about teenage pregnancies, we’ll go to the schools with the highest teenage pregnancy rate,” says Talavera.
OYO also assists schools with problems of cultural discrimination, with the San Matter Project.
“San kids are bullied because they don’t speak well, they are poor, and they’re from rural areas… So we go with the dance and youth groups, and the kids participate in a competition. We talk about cultural bullying: how does it feel to be bullied? And why are we bullying?”
Youth groups to reach out-of-school kids
And to reach a broader audience than only young people in schools, OYO also organises youth groups.
“The kids who dropped out of school have often problems with self-esteem, they see themselves or they are perceived as a failure,” explains Talavera. With the help of the Ministry of Sport, Youth and National Service, in collaboration with youth centres, or with any kind of structure gathering the youth in the villages, the organisation constitutes the groups.
And through arts performances on specific topics, they also participate in the activities at the schools. “So they start by being the failures to become the role models, to give a message to learners. It helps them to realise that they have value, they can teach something to those in schools, their experience can help other learners,” adds Talavera.
And this group is for some of them a stepping stone to start a dancing career. The best ones are spotted by the organisation and enter a training programme which lasts anything between four months to a year.
OYO teaches them how to become professional dancers. And at the end of the training, some of them permanently join the dance troop.
Salute, a film to inform about HIV transmission in correctional facilities
Besides working with schools, OYO is also working in correctional facilities, to discuss some of the problems encountered by inmates.
And through arts therapy, inmates are given a chance to talk about what they are experiencing. “In the context of Namibia, we talk about the HIV issue, because sodomy is still illegal, so you can’t really talk about HIV transmission in correctional facilities very easily, so we give people a chance to express themselves, or to look for solutions,” explains Talavera. From all these discussions OYO produced Salute, a fictional movie about HIV in correctional facilities. “With some inmates in Windhoek we worked on a story. The idea was to keep it as real as possible without using anybody’s real story and create Carlito, the fictional character,” says Talavera.
The film was presented in July at the International AIDS conference in Amsterdam and has been nominated for the Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards.
“It‘s exciting for us, because we are often labelled as social workers, and not artists, so it’s nice from time to time to be recognised for our efforts in art,” says Talavera. The results of the awards will be announced on September 1.
A work still to continue
Even with more than 15 years of work, Talavera remains passionate and optimistic of the work he does despite the fact that donor funding has drastically reduced in the country.
For an organisation that relies on donor funding to take the message to various schools and events, Talavera says it has not been easy over the past few years. But the fact that people appreciate the work he does, Talavera continues to do what he loves, creating social awareness through the arts.
“We do touch people. Over the years we’ve always had people coming back and sharing their experience. I won’t lie, it’s harder and harder to get funding in Namibia, so the administrative work is getting more difficult, but those rewards, knowing that we do something that touch people, make everything worth it.” For him, making a living from the arts in Namibia is a question of adaptation to the country and not using the business model of South Africa or Europe, for instance.
“We don’t wait for the audience to come to us, we go to the audience and we find a way to get sponsors to go to the audience. The audience itself doesn’t pay, but someone pays for the audience.” Even with years of work behind it, OYO continues to develop its activities all around the country, and on the main social problems. The dance troop will perform in the beginning of September in the Kavango regions. Besides, on the 19th of September, Kukuri, a new movie about child marriage, will be presented at FNCC (Franco Namibian Cultural Center) as part of Heritage Week.
* Lucie Mouillaud is a journalism intern from Toulouse in France.