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In Namibia, dance’s nonverbal qualities make it an invaluable conduit of public information. Learn more in this interview with Ombetja Yehinga Organisation founder Philippe Talavera.

By Lindsay Alissa King

All images courtesy of Ombetja Yehinga Organisation

Namibia, a famously dry country in southern Africa, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, has only 2.7 million inhabitants spread out over a vast tract of land even bigger than Turkey. Despite its small population, Namibia ranks as one of the most linguistically diverse countries on the planet, with nine languages considered commonly spoken in Namibian households.

What does the combination of a small population with remarkable linguistic diversity mean for art in Namibia?

It means that if you want to share a message with the entire population, dance—a nonverbal but often narrative art form—is one of the most effective means of communicative.

This is how Philippe Talavera, a French immigrant to Namibia with a background in biology and theater, found himself the director of the only full-time traveling dance company in Namibia. Talavera is the founder of Ombetja Yehinga Organisation (OYO), a nonprofit that uses arts, including dance, to raise awareness about important public health and gender-based issues.

“Using verbal forms of communication is very difficult because you’ve got too many languages, and for each language, you’ve got a fairly small population,” explains Talavera. “So we realized step by step that all the traditional verbal types of communication were very difficult because there was always a need for translation—and in translation a lot is lost. So we moved step by step to more and more movement, less and less word, and sort of formally in 2008 we moved toward dance and in 2009 we created OYO dance troupe.”

Unlike a traditional dance school or a public health-focused nonprofit, OYO fills two niches for the Namibian population. It is one of the country’s main organizations devoted to raising awareness around topics like HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, and now Covid-19 with students and adults across Namibia. It is also home to the only full-time dance company in the country and a premier incubator of new dance students.

Talavera, whose research in the field of biology took him to South Africa over 20 years ago, relocated to Namibia two years later. Only a few months into his time there, he fell in love with the country.

It was during this time, Talavera recalls, that AIDS was devasting Namibia’s population, as other political and cultural issues took centerstage to health education. Talavera found himself reflecting on how he could leverage his training in theater, which had been his secondary topic of university study, to combat the AIDS crisis.

It was then that OYO was born.

Initially, explains Talavera, OYO used theater performance to raise awareness about public health, particularly as it related to HIV and AIDS. OYO sent performers around the country to schools and community centers in rural and urban settings. Relatively early on, however, Talavera realized that dance, as a nonverbal art form, could be a more effective way to reach more Namibians since there was no guarantee that all audience members would understand the language of a play.

Since then, OYO has become not only an important partner for improving public health in Namibia but also the only permanent dance company in Namibia.

Unlike South Africa, its neighbor to the south, Namibia has little dance infrastructure. The College of the Arts in Windhoek offers dance training, including ballet, and there are some ballet schools. But OYO is the only dance company in Namibia that employs its dancers on a full-time basis and travels across the country offering performances.

Talavera says, with a laugh, “For a long time we were in denial that we were even a dance troupe because there was no other model in Namibia…but then after putting dancers on the payroll, we thought that makes you a dance troupe if you start having dancers on the payroll!”

Talavera did not want to create a company of dancers who spent most of their time teaching. Instead, the OYO company has a rigorous performance schedule of over a hundred live performances annually that take on issues like teenage pregnancy and menstrual health.

The company takes its message to people of all ages and walks of life in Namibia.

This includes members of government, notes Talavera: “We’ve even been invited because it is a nonthreatening means of communication to perform on more sensitive issues with members of parliament or with high-ranking officials because, [dance] being nonthreatening and nonverbal, it allows some difficult topics to be addressed. For example, in Namibia homosexuality is still prohibited so we had a couple of pieces about that, and in particular about HIV in correctional facilities and condoms in correctional facilities.”

Incredibly, along with a deep passion for their public health mission, Talavera and his team feel equally strongly about the need to improve dance education in Namibia. Instead of requiring that company members spending extensive time teaching, Talavera and his team have found another innovative way to contribute to the otherwise limited possibilities for dance education in the country.

Partnerships with regional youth organizations, says Talavera, is the key. He explains: “Through [our partnerships with] the groups, we also often spot natural dancers, natural talent, and we invite them to join us in Windhoek. Then the trained dancer—the one that we’ve trained—becomes a mentor for the new ones. We’ve developed this system where those who have worked with us three, four, five years take the new person under their wing and train that person.”

Not only that, but the company also offers an internship program that brings young international dancers to Namibia to gain experience working with the organization but also to share their dance expertise with OYO’s young trainees. Like most dance companies across the world, OYO was forced to cancel their in-personperformances this year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. What as the company been up since then?

“We were approached very, very quickly—and that saved us, I think, asserts Talavera—by the Ministry of Health to develop simple-to-understand messages around Covid but also messages around some of the foreseeable consequences of the extended lockdown. We have an increase in teenage pregnancy, an increase in gender-based violence. We were asked to do those projects online.”

The clips, which covered issues such as the importance of handwashing and social distancing during the pandemic were shown frequently on Namibian television and brought a new level of publicity to the company. In fact, for the first few months, the dancers enjoyed learning the new skills associated with being in front of a camera.

But now, Talavera says emphatically, “We are dying for an audience! We are dying for a live audience!”

Are you a young dancer interested in an internship with OYO? Contact director Philippe Talavera to inquire at philippe@ombetja.org. If you’d like to support OYO, you can make a contribution here. Thank you for supporting dance around the world!

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