Split the Village is an experiment in using performance and installation to capture the essence of place and create a transitory cultural archive. The project’s inspiration is a 14 kilometer stretch of the Phuthiatšana River in rural Lesotho, southern Africa – an area slated to be flooded in late 2013 when construction of the Metolong Dam is complete. Multidisciplinary and community motivated, the performance will revolve around the notion of “intangible cultural heritage” – the practices, representations, knowledge and skills that communities, groups and individuals recognize as part of their heritage.1 In the case of the Phuthiatšana, this includes stories, songs, and dances associated with the river; sites of ritual and spiritual power in the river gorge; local knowledge of river plants and herbs; as well as the community’s visual map of the landscape itself, which will be irrevocably transformed once the flooding begins. While Split the Village is not necessarily “about” the Phuthiatšana River and the Metolong Dam, the fated tract of river valley serves as the theatrical jumping off point for the piece. Starting with the call-and-response echo of river chasm conversations, the pattern of communally chiseled footpaths, and the tall tale of a runaway coffin – the goal will be to create a provocative performance experience that explores the global impact of local loss.
Beginning in 2012, Katt Lissard laid the groundwork for the performance and installation with preliminary research on dam relocations, contact with the archeology team working on the Metolong sites, and interaction with her theatre students and with cultural heritage, history, and development studies colleagues at the National University, where she spent most of the year as a visiting Fulbright. Shell return to Lesotho in March/April of 2013 to record video sequences, work on scenes with local actors and theatre students, try out some acoustic ideas and conduct a series of interviews with colleagues and community members. This material will be used in May in New York to workshop Split the Village as part of IRT Theater’s 3B Series. A crucial installation component of the workshop will be an active, accessible archive of memories, images, descriptions and aural evocations of “place” gathered from across the globe. If you would like to contribute to that archive please go to the Participate link for “Split the Village where you can also read more about the archive and find out how to send images, written descriptions, sound recordings or video: http://www.makeartwithpurpose.net/projects.php?id=23&tp=1
The idea of Split the Village, to generate an artistic response to the community and cultural destruction of dam building, has benefitted from the ongoing work of a team of archeologists on site in Lesotho in the lead-up to construction of the dam. Since 2009, the core of the team from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, UK2, led by Charles Arthur, has been a key part of the Metolong Cultural Resource Management Project, a large-scale heritage mitigation project funded by the World Bank, Metolong Authority and the Lesotho Department of Culture. The team has worked closely with faculty and students from the National University of Lesotho, the Morija Museum and Archives, and community members along the Phuthiatšana, to document the rock art in the river gorge, unearth and assess archaeological deposits, and to carry out interviews and oral histories. The team’s work has been exceptional in many ways, particularly in its pursuit of community connection and participation. That involvement included a training program for young archeologists within Lesotho, which resulted in the formation of The Lesotho Heritage Network (lesothoheritage.org) founded by program graduates.
The Metolong isn’t the first dam to be built in Lesotho, a small mountainous country completely surrounded by South Africa, but it’s unique in two ways. First, unlike the huge Katse and Mohale dams (Phase I of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project - for more information see the About Location link) which siphon drought-ravaged Lesotho’s water off to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the smaller, localized Metolong is designed to bring water to the capital city, Maseru, and water and electricity to the area around the National University. Second, while it’s not the norm for about-to-be-inundated sites in Africa to be recorded or preserved, in the case of the Metolong there was an uncharacteristic pause in construction to allow the profusion of rock art and historical remains in the area to be catalogued, and so that efforts could be made to preserve the intangible cultural heritage of the area.
Wherever dams are built the ecological balance is disrupted along with people’s lives and culture. While the number of families facing relocation because of the Metolong is small, the cultural and environmental impact is significant. Lesotho has experienced decades of destruction, removals, relocations and cultural disarticulation as a result of the Katse and Mohale dams. The country faces more of the same when Phase II of the Highlands Water Project begins this year. Community-centered work like that carried out by the Metolong archeology team, along with efforts like Split the Village to use visual and performance art to reflect the rich complexity of this small stretch of river valley, can transform how we see what is about to disappear, and might serve to reframe the discussion of how, where and if to build future dams.
1.) Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003, UNESCO
2.) Mitchell, Peter and Charles Arthur. Archaeological Fieldwork in the Metolong Dam Catchment, Lesotho, 2008-10. Nyame Akuma 74: 51-62