SODWANA BAY, South Africa — Africa Refocused –– a collaboration between Nature, Environment and Wildlife Filmmakers (NEWF) and the National Geographic Society –– hosted a ceremony today to officially open the Sodwana Bay Storytelling, Research and Dive Center. Adjacent to iSimangaliso Wetland Park, an UNESCO World Heritage site and popular dive spot, the center will be dedicated to offering training for African storytellers, scientists and conservationists, as well as engaging the local community through education and events.
National Geographic Explorers and NEWF co-founders Noel Kok and Pragna Parsotam-Kok welcomed the chief and representatives of the Mbila traditional council of Zikhali, representatives from the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, collaborators from the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission and National Film and Video Foundation, local community members, NEWF fellows and National Geographic Explorers to participate in this milestone celebration. NEWF Fellow Silindile “Sli” Mbuyazi, who is a Sodwana Bay local and a 50 percent owner of the facility, will also be in attendance. She will be the first local Black African to manage a facility of this kind in the region and will be at the helm of future community engagement efforts.
“NEWF Fellows have affectionately called the center eKhaya, a Zulu word that means ‘home.’ It is important to us that the center is not just for NEWF and NEWF Fellows, but also a space for meaningful engagement with the community with Sli’s leadership,” said Parsotam-Kok. “This is part of our vision for NEWF –– and by extension, Africa Refocused –– to ensure that the stories of Africa and its wildlife will be told by and from the perspective of African people.”
Although NEWF started as a network to support African visual storytellers and producers, 30 percent of NEWF Fellows today are marine scientists and storytellers. Through NEWF Labs, they’re able to earn dive certifications –– and gain other specialized skills, like underwater cinematography –– which give them better access to conduct research in the field and communicate their findings through collaborative visual storytelling.
The center will host hundreds of Fellows per year and offer specialized training in scuba diving, cinematography, music composition for film, science communication, photography and post-production. In addition, the center will support the local community by providing the facilities for swimming lessons, film screenings and discussions.
“The African continent is surrounded by 30,000 kilometers of coastline but historically, many African people — in particular, Black and Indigenous African people — were made to feel that these places weren’t for us. This means that our voices and perspectives have been excluded from the stories about our oceans,” said Kok. “With the opening of this center, we can provide more support to our Fellows’ in growing their careers and –– we hope –– change the stories of Africa, and inspire the next generation right here in our community to see themselves as custodians and future storytellers, scientists and conservationists.”
Mbuyazi says community engagement is one of her highest priorities for this facility. In 2021, after she became only the second local Black African woman from the area to earn her divemaster certification, she went on to qualify as a dive instructor and partnered with NEWF to build the center on her land in Sodwana Bay. She actively mentors other women and girls who aspire to careers in ocean conservation. One of her young students now dreams of becoming a marine biologist and she has shared this world with her own girls too.
“It was a long and difficult journey from my first dive to finally becoming a divemaster and instructor. Now, I will be able to teach anyone who comes here to learn,” said Mbuyazi. “This center means a lot to me as a single mother who has achieved a big dream, and my community sees that. Women and girls in my community view this center as something they are able to be part of and take inspiration from.”
On Tuesday, November 14, Mbuyazi will lead a community swim for local students between the ages of 15-23 years old, and National Geographic Explorer and NEWF Fellow and mentor Jahawi Bertolli will lead an underwater cinematography lab for NEWF Fellows. The story of Mbuyazi’s journey will be told in an upcoming film that features the work of Bertolli and several NEWF Fellows produced in collaboration with Mbuyazi.
“At the National Geographic Society, we believe in the power of science and storytelling working together to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world, but we know that storytellers and scientists need the access to the right opportunities and platforms to make the biggest impact,” said the Society’s Chief Storytelling Officer Kaitlin Yarnall, who also attended the grand opening. “We are thankful that Noel and Pragna trust us to help them scale their efforts and support more African storytellers and scientists in creating and sharing stories that celebrate and advocate for the protection of the environment and wildlife in Africa.”
ABOUT NATURE, ENVIRONMENT, AND WILDLIFE FILMMAKERS (NEWF)
NEWF is a platform in Africa for filmmakers, conservationists and scientists to engage, network and contribute through storytelling towards a shared vision of protecting the earths’ natural assets for future generations. NEWF started out as an annual Congress in 2017 and has grown to become an all year round capacity building, impact and outreach organization building a connected network of Africans advocating for the protection of the continent’s natural habitats and wildlife through visual storytelling. NEWF’s vision is that the stories of Africa that celebrate and advocate for the protection of her natural history are told by a connected network of visual storytellers organically led by indigenous African voices. NEWF’s mission is to remove the barriers to entry and build capacity in order to enable access, support inclusion and foster a culture of equity for African nature, environment and wildlife visual storytellers.