Occupying De-colonial Co-narratives by Veronique B Mensah

'My Body-space as an Archive'; Daughter of Molly
Credits: Veronique Occupying the Co-narrative at a Nama Herero Genocide Protest in Swakop Namibia, Photo by James Jamu VM Born Stars Productions

As a child growing up in Mariental, we did not have recreational centres where young minds could meet and engage in cultural activities outside the school premises. The only source of entertainment that was available was the television and my grandmother and great-grandmother’s stories about Growing up in then German- South West Africa, The Arrival of Different Catholic Missionaries and the impact it had on life as they knew it along with Folktales and different life lessons always transferred to me through stories (etc).

I was an extremely inquisitive child always wanting details and asking questions; The Afrikaans saying “En Nog” ( What else) was my nickname for a few years.  Because I would constantly ask “En Nog?” whenever a story came to an end. I knew from a young age that I wanted to tell stories mainly because through storytelling and sharing you gain knowledge and grow.

My Grandmother ran a soup kitchen with German support sourced through the Catholic Church, and my weekends and most holidays were invested in doing bulk shopping for clothes and stationary and helping pack care packages for the less fortunate, this act of Charity and Community work moved me and my Grandmother would always ask me to either tell my peers a story or teach them a dance. We would often perform while waiting for the food to be served and it stirred a love for community theatre inside of me.

When my grandmother was tired of telling stories I headed over to the television set, there I would be glued to different South African Soapies and American Sitcoms. When the popular American Improvisational comedy show “ Whose Line is it anyway” hit the screens I knew for a Fact that I wanted to be on stage.  I was still in Primary school when I started telling everyone in my community that I will go and study Drama in South Africa.

In 2007, I matriculated from Mariental High School and I was off to Study for a Certificate in Drama and Marketing Management at North link College in Cape Town South Africa,  so as to thereafter get University admission. I had one chance to get into North link College and this meant I had to ace the Audition, with absolutely no prior Performance training my Grandmother sent me to Teacher Olga Visser she was the only person in town known to have a Drama/ Performance background. I remember walking into her home with the prescribed text along with my choice of poetry, I presented my material to her and she told me I’m perfect and it was so. I completed my Audition and was granted admission into North-link College in 2008.

2008 was a year of Adventure as it was my first time to be introduced to the Cultural and Creative industry first hand. I watched my first professional theatre production which was a performance of William Shakespeare’s: Macbeth at the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre. Because the theatre industry is huge in South Africa especially in Cape Town; North link College afforded its students the opportunity to watch productions every weekend. This gave me the opportunity to learn the way I knew best through watching, observing and applying, the more we attend Theatre the more techniques I learnt and till this day I apply them in my work.

After North link College, I got University acceptance at Tshwane University of Technology ( TUT) and I moved to Tshwane (Pretoria) South Africa. My training at TUT was both challenging and fulfilling, as students we were involved in Productions as both Performer and Organisers. Arts Administration gave us as students the chance to be in charge of the Two Major Festival of the institution, here I got to learn how to Direct a Festival, it’s program and technologies, skills that are valuable for today’s Independent Theatre Maker.

After completing my Degree at TUT, I worked mostly in the Educational Theatre and Children’s theatre sector of the South African Entertainment Industry. I had the opportunity to work with and for Independent Production Companies as well as National Institutions, where I learnt that every production house/ company has it’s own journey to fulfil the ultimate goal of Building, Growing and Expanding their Creative Industry.

In 2016, I returned back to Namibia, coming from an Industry in South Africa, where I was represented by an Agent who would inform me on where to be when for an Audition, I now had to ask around and find out where auditions take place. I wanted to go back to South Africa, where I knew as a Performer I didn’t have to know the casting agent to be Auditioned. My Mother then convinced me to rather stay and open a production company and do the same work I would be doing in South Africa here, I still remember my Grandmother saying to me; “ The Namibian Child too deserves Educational Theatre and Children’s theatre” and this was and still is the truth. I thereafter registered; VM Born Stars Productions CC at BIPA with the Aim to Use Performance Art to work towards social change and human development in Namibia, whole being committed to the Art of Multidisciplinary Storytelling.

As Artists one should remember that In order to be Identified with your work you need to be protected by your work. A company is a separate legal entity that works as an ongoing concern for specific goals and objectives to be carried out. As an Artist it makes sense to own your own goods and services legally for a secure future. Our Government has made the process of registering a company easy and this can be completed online using your smartphone.

After registration I realised that there was a clear need for result oriented Art products, A need for connection to humans and for human development in Namibia. This birthed phrases such as Occupying the  Co-Narritive and Body-Space as an Archive,  because we wanted to devise terms that would contribute to social change for progressive development and resilient knowledge based economies. We then became a member of the Peace Strings Network in The aim to reach Artist Around the World to develop and capacitate the Namibian Arts Industry in this fashion from there we started Engaging performance learning tools/ products to learn about society and reflect on it without the bureaucratic trauma.

At the time It was clear that there is not enough creative professionals reflectivity on society using policies the county give  nor on the tools that legislation give to engage /  intervene the public. This has impacted our work and helped us address certain social Ills such as: Drug and Alcohol abuse, the increasing number of  School Drop-outs, Teenage Pregnancy, Human trafficking, Child Welfare, Genocide, Health, Safety, Hygiene along with Labour and Welfare to name but a few.

I love making use of Applied theatre techniques while telling Educational stories because it Examines, Critiques, Exchanges and makes one reinterpret cultural values, it allows us to challenge and question Global and National issues and at times seek cures/ solutions against social ills. It creates body-space for knowledge productivity and allows the theatre maker to have an intersectional function in the Education of the Citizen.

Applied Theatre techniques are amongst the most under-utilised tools in the Theatre Industry of Namibia. It is exactly these techniques that we have to engage to really work towards social change and enhance Education. Applied Theatre also has a de-colonial and Therapeutic Role to play in healing which is much needed in a post-colonial society such as Namibia. Through telling Stories we learn about life, and how to cope with different issues. We have told stories in; Communities, Hospitals, Malls, Parliament, Museums, Hotels, The Ghost Town, Schools, Streets, In Theatres, Parks, Galleries, Prison, Parking bays, Festivals and in the Desert with a wide range of Audience’s and Performers ranging from Cultural Experts and Political Leaders, School going youth, the Homeless and other Community Members both online and offline.

The joy of making applied theatre is that you are not confined to a Traditional Theatre Space and it creates body space for knowledge and productivity and makes use of what is available. It is designed for the oppressed, it allows the oppressed the opportunity to contribute to the narrative at hand.

Our Namibian Creative and Cultural Industries and their goods and services have not been thoroughly examined its potential has not been explored so as to make an Economic impact. We understand the creative economies by comparing creative reinterpretations of the Namibian social narratives; we at Vm Born Stars Productions CC call it Co-Narritive Economics. This experience develops Impact Literacy to a level that cultivates the Cultural Citizen towards Human Development and Social Change.

In 2019 VM Born Stars Productions CC, supported by the Directorate of Arts in the Ministry of Basic Education Arts and Culture began Born A Star Academy and its Basic Performance Facilitation Program.

Born A Star Academy, is a public art intervention that has education and social justice at heart. It is a phasal design of Performative learning for artists and life skills educators in the different regions of Namibia. The Program makes use of theatre, visual arts and music practices to facilitate co-narrative devising at National level. The academy engages issues that the Child, Adolescent and Young Adult face around the regions of Namibia. Through our Express sessions and workshop facilitation’s, round circle discussions, forum devising along with music and game design. The methods we use engage the participants with their social welfare at heart.

Born A star Academy stems from concepts such as Theatre of the Oppressed, Theatre for Development, Children’s Theatre, Theatre in Education, Youth Theatre and Community Theatre. The genealogies of these techniques originated and are influenced from different parts of the world. The reason why we are taking an integrated approach is because we found that community education thrives through a hybrid and plural methodologies. Born A Star Academy triangulates these practices to negotiate and implement its objectives with the target groups.

Basic Performative Facilitation is the devised Integration of performative Learning within a knowledge-based economy through impact literacy. It incorporates a dynamic series of enhancement programs carried out to capacitate creative competence for public body-space narratives and its related ethics. The Integration has delivered an investment minded Approach growing towards intersectional spaces. Hence Basic Performative Facilitation is continuing to cultivate long term strategic commitment towards economic growth whilst imparting relevance to human and intellectual capital. This by far has been one of our two biggest achievement.

Decolonial storytelling for children is our other biggest achievement. Genocide, Child welfare and Land are currently burning issues in Namibia, and we have tackled each these issues through making use create of Applied Theatre Methodologies. As it creates an avenue for us to Negotiate things that are important, it too allows us to reflect on ourselves and allow us to create an understanding of our past and understanding our role in the world while imagining different kinds of futures.

We can think of Applied Theatre in the Decolonial context as playing the story. As Africans we have always interacted with a narrative through playing out different scenes, situations and scenarios. When one look of how we as Nama and Herero people commemorate and remember the events of 1901-1908 we involve storytelling and performance. Storytelling is our Oral tradition passed on through generation to generation as this is how we about where we come from, it has been played by the Fire, in the Field, in Prisons, in Concentration Camps, along the Railway line, in the Market place, in the AislesAisle of the Woermann Brock shopping Centre, in the Madama Kitchen and  in Kolmanskop.

Reader By Veronique B Mensah