For Kenya’s Yiaku, medicinal herbs are their forest’s blessing and curse

For Kenya’s Yiaku, medicinal herbs are their forest’s blessing and curse

Naisimari Lentula, a Yiaku herbalist, with a community forest scout outside her house. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.Naisimari Lentula, a Yiaku herbalist, with a community forest scout outside her house. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.

  • The Yiaku, hunter-gatherers turned herders who live deep inside Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya, have relied on herbal remedies for ages, with knowledge passed orally from one generation to the next.
  • However, high demand for the herbs from neighboring communities is exposing the forest to new threats — a trend mirrored across the country.
  • Recognizing that traditional knowledge is crucial to forest conservation, the government has taken steps to protect it, at least on paper. However, the Yiaku have received little support, even as their most knowledgeable elders pass on and their community becomes increasingly assimilated to their pastoral neighbors.
  • This is the third story in Mongabay’s three-part profile of the Yiaku’s management of their ancestral forest.

LAIKIPIA, Kenya — Naisimari Lentula, 80 years old, strolls carefully along a narrow footpath through the forest. Suddenly, she stops, her eyes fixed on several aromatic shrubs with bluish flowers that are tumbled over near the path. “This is the work of encroachers,” she says bitterly, then neatly sets the shrubs back to rights with the help of her walking stick.

For Lentula, inspecting the condition of the plants around her homestead is a routine she has perfected and performed every other morning for decades. “I have been using these shrubs for medication and used their fruits and tubers as food all my life,” she says.

A mother of four and grandmother of a dozen, Lentula is a Yiaku. The indigenous group lives deep inside Mukogodo Forest in central Kenya. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, the Yiaku have embraced pastoralism in recent decades. Although the Mukogodo area is well served by several government and privately owned hospitals and clinics, the Yiaku tend to frown on conventional health care, instead sticking to herbal medicines they gather from the forest. Like many elderly Yiaku, Lentula is a walking encyclopedia of traditional medicinal plants.

“You have to know the value of each and every tree here in order to survive and sustain your family’s livelihoods,” she tells Mongabay while stripping a piece of lichen-encrusted bark from a tree to administer to her sick neighbor. Her concoction includes the boiled bark of several tree species, mixed with fresh goat blood and honey — an instant cure for diarrhea, she says.

Despite her frail appearance and failing eyesight, Lentula doesn’t plan to retire from her calling as an herbalist any time soon. Nor does she take lightly intrusions that interfere with Mukogodo’s forest ecosystem. Like other Yiaku, Lentula has made it her sacred duty to monitor the 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) forest and ensure it remains intact.

In fact, the Yiaku are the only indigenous group to whom the Kenyan government has given full responsibility for managing its ancestral forest. They have been so successful at doing so through forest patrols, strategic placement of defensive beehives, and traditions such as the designation of sacred shrines and taboos against cutting trees, that the government plans to spread the model to other communities around the country. Medicinal plants are an important motivation for the Yiaku to conserve Mukogodo.

“We can only access medicinal plants if we protect this forest,” Lentula says.

However, high demand for the herbs, from neighboring communities, is exposing the forest to new threats. In addition to regular small-scale disturbances like the one Lentula observed, community members say outsiders in search of medicinal plants felled several cedar and olive trees in the last year. What pains Yiaku elders most is that some of these were highly treasured trees in a sacred shrine that serves as a water source for the community. They say the intrusions occur mainly during dry seasons when other communities’ habitats have been devastated by drought. The forest suffered the longest spell of intrusions in recent memory this past year.

“The encroachment by outsiders in search of herbs could put us on a collision course with the authorities and affect our livelihoods,” says Matunge Manasseh, a Yiaku elder. “We harvest these herbs with a lot of caution so as not to affect the life of a tree, but these encroachers lack the technique and know-how of which specific part of a tree has these medicinal values and instead they cut the entire tree while only the bark has medicinal value.”

Manasseh tells Mongabay that the Yiaku community has been generous with information about medicinal plants, but that in return the recipients have ended up using it to damage the forest. “We are now becoming cautious about who we share this knowledge with and for what purposes,” he says, adding that the community must focus on protecting rare tree species that are most sought after by outside herbalists.

To combat incursions from herbalists, the Yiaku have become more vigilant. They don’t allow strangers inside the forest without the elders’ consent. Early this year, the community’s forest guards arrested three intruding herbalists, turning them over to the council of elders for disciplinary action, which typically results in the imposition of curses.

It is unclear how many other arrests the guards made recently. Forest encroachment is a politically sensitive issue nationally, and especially in Laikipia county, where Mukogodo is located, and it’s common for conflicting accounts to emerge. The Yiaku forest guards claim to have arrested several individuals cutting down trees or taking medicinal plants in Mukogodo and to have handed them over to local authorities. However, the guards couldn’t say how many arrests they had made or when, and the provincial administration chief and Kenya Forest Service (KFS) conservator both denied having received the alleged culprits.

Map shows Laikipia County in Kenya, where Mukogodo Forest is located. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Map shows Laikipia County in Kenya, where Mukogodo Forest is located. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Map of Isiolo, Meru, and Laikipia counties in central Kenya shows Mukogodo Forest (center). Cick here to enlarge. Image by Yvonne A. de Jong and Thomas M. Butynski,
Map of Isiolo, Meru, and Laikipia counties in central Kenya shows Mukogodo Forest (center). Click here to enlarge. Image by Yvonne A. de Jong and Thomas M. Butynski,

A national problem

The Yiaku aren’t alone in facing down forest degradation for medicinal plants, and the trend has drawn the government’s attention. In Kenya, as in many African countries, the use of herbal medicine is on the rise, in part because conventional health care is unattainably expensive for many, or simply unavailable, especially in rural areas, according to a 2008 government brief. With just 15 doctors per 100,000 people, “The conventional system provides for only 30 percent of the population, implying that more than two-thirds of Kenyans depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs,” the brief states.

That reliance is taking a toll on the country’s forests.

“We are losing important medicinal tree species to commercial herbalists who are overharvesting trees that are premature,” says Peter Kitelo, a member of the Kenya Forest Indigenous Peoples Network, a Nairobi-based advocacy group. Kitelo says unscrupulous herbalists are exacerbating forest destruction and the loss of medicinal plant biodiversity in the Mau Forest Complex, home of the Ogiek indigenous group to which he belongs, as well as in other forests across the country.

The view is shared by conservationists, who note that rising human populations are raising the pressure on forests.

“Communities are increasingly encroaching on forests due to climate change and to expand their agricultural land, thus putting pressure on forests and medicinal plants,” says Joseph Mungai, a technical consultant with USAID who is advising the Kenyan government on forest conservation and climate change resilience.

By the same token, because traditional medicinal knowledge among the Yiaku and other indigenous peoples plays a vital role in their conservation of forests, researchers are concerned about the rate at which this knowledge is being lost. Over the past century the Yiaku have adopted the culture and language of their pastoral Maasai neighbors, and most of their old people have died without passing their immense wealth of traditional knowledge on to the next generation. Currently there only two remaining elders who can fluently speak the Yiaku language.

Yiaku elders Moses Litiku (left) and Naisimari Lentula (right) walk in Mukogodo Forest. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
Yiaku elders Moses Litiku (left) and Naisimari Lentula (right) walk in Mukogodo Forest. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.

Edmund Barrow, an independent community conservation and governance consultant based in Nairobi, says the traditional knowledge of indigenous communities is crucial to sustainable land and natural resource management. Indigenous people know more plant species and their medicinal properties than most researchers do, he says, adding that this knowledge should be incorporated into forest policy, both to safeguard it and help conserve the forest.

He also says it should be added to school curricula to keep it alive. “We need to bridge this gap in order to ensure the knowledge doesn’t die with the elders,” he says.

“Traditional knowledge about biodiversity is inadequately protected” and used, says Barrow. “We have very good laws [and policies] on paper but implementing them remains a challenge.”

Since 2009 Kenya has enacted progressive laws and taken other steps to protect and conserve indigenous and local communities’ intellectual property rights over their traditional knowledge, skills and practices, including traditional medicines. However, implementing them has remained a pipe dream, despite the formation of institutions dedicated to the effort.

For instance, in 2009 the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI), the government agency in charge of patents and trademarks, introduced the Traditional Knowledge and Genetic Resources Unit. One of the unit’s main initiatives was to establish a comprehensive national database of traditional knowledge, in partnership with various Kenyan research institutions, according to Stanley Atsali, a patent examiner with the KIPI.

But nearly a decade later, nothing has been done. This despite the country’s adoption, in 2016, of the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Expression Act, which specifically mandated the establishment of the database and gave the national government powers to consult with county governments to make it happen.

“We are yet to kick off the process,” Atsali tells Mongabay. “We are working with county governments and research institutions to fast-track this process.”

None of the high-level initiatives have trickled down to the Yiaku. They say they have yet to receive any support from either the national or county governments in documenting and protecting their traditional knowledge, despite the government’s acknowledgement that it has been so critical to conserving Mukogodo Forest.

Article Courtesy of Mongabay.  Shadrack Kavilu is a freelance environmental journalist based in Nairobi. He has published in local and international media outlets, including the Mail and Guardian and Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

A view of Mukogodo Forest, a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) tract of largely intact dry forest that is home to 45 mammal species, including threatened elephants, buffaloes and leopards, as well as around 200 bird and 100 butterfly species. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
A view of Mukogodo Forest, a 302-square-kilometer (117-square-mile) tract of largely intact dry forest that is home to 45 mammal species, including threatened elephants, buffaloes and leopards, as well as around 200 bird and 100 butterfly species. Image by Shadrack Kavilu for Mongabay.
In Uganda, Catholics protest as archbishop asks government to enforce tithe

In Uganda, Catholics protest as archbishop asks government to enforce tithe

A nun reflects during a solemn moment as Pope Francis leads a Holy Mass for the Martyrs of Uganda at the area of the Catholic Sanctuary in the Namugongo area of Kampala, Uganda, on Nov. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

KAMPALA, Uganda (RNS) — Thousands of Catholics in one of the world’s poorest nations are objecting after the church asked the government to collect a 10 percent tithe from worshippers on its behalf.

A similar “church tax” in Germany has generated record revenue for the Catholic Church there, according to the German Handelsblatt newspaper — but the policy is also blamed for driving millions of people to leave the faith.

“Why should the church keep asking for money all the time?” asked John Mayanja, 46, a teacher at Kitante Primary School in the East African nation. “We are supposed to give tithe willfully and without any threats from our church leaders.”

During an Oct. 28 Mass at Rubaga Cathedral in the capital city of Kampala, Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga urged the Ugandan government to immediately begin deducting a 10 percent tithe from the monthly salaries of all Catholic believers to ensure the church’s work does not stop because of lack of funds.

Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga. Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Kampala

Lwanga said many do not voluntarily give the church 10 percent of their incomes.

“We lie to God that we pay church tithe off our monthly salaries. But during a Mass like this, whenever we ask for tithe, everyone gives only what they have at that time,” Lwanga said.

“The Bible says a tenth of whatever you earn belongs to the church, and you should give me support as I front this proposal because it is good for us.”

Some Ugandan Christians questioned the church’s motives, saying a church tax forces poor people to fund extravagant lifestyles for some priests and bishops.

“They should understand that we are paying fees for our children and servicing government loans. We have no money,” Mayanja said.

More than a third of Uganda’s nearly 43 million people live on less than $1.90 per day, the international marker of extreme poverty, according to World Bank. The Brookings Institution reports 3 in 10 households in Uganda spend more than 65 percent of their income on food.

Lwanga said he wants Catholics in Uganda to emulate their counterparts in Germany, where 8-9 percent of churchgoers’ income is deducted and channeled to the respective faiths.

“The money is used to build and renovate their churches,” said Lwanga, who also serves as chairperson of the ecumenical Uganda Joint Christian Council. “If an employee in Germany gets $10,000, the government deducts $1,000 and gives it to the church, and it is working very well.”

The Catholic Church in Germany collected a record $7.1 billion last year in taxes, Handelsblatt reported, although more than 2.2 million Germans have formally deregistered from the church since 2000. Those who deregister are no longer subject to the church tax but can no longer participate in church life — an outcome Archbishop Georg Gänswein has called a “serious problem.”

Several other European nations also collect religious taxes, which are sometimes voluntary, according to the Pew Research Center.

Catholic faithful pray in front of a cross of Jesus Christ erected by a roadside in Kakoge, north of Uganda’s capital Kampala, on October 18, 2015. Photo by James Akena/Reuters

The idea of deducting tithes from salaries was widely supported by some Ugandan officials who are also Catholic believers. Many dismissed the archbishop’s critics, saying Lwanga’s suggestions were based on Scripture.

“The archbishop was reminding the church and only Catholics that they need the money to run church activities,” said Betty Nambooze, a legislator representing Mukono, a town in central Uganda.

Catholics are Uganda’s largest religious group, but the Catholic share of the population has declined slightly in recent years. Catholics made up 39.3 percent of the population in the 2014 census, down from 41.6 percent in 2002. Around 32 percent of Ugandans are Anglican, and 14 percent are Muslim.

Religious leaders from other denominations questioned Lwanga’s strategy.

“Any believer who is not paying his or her tithe has no space in heaven. They are stealing and cheating God,” said Pastor Moses Mugisa of Redeemed Church of God, a Pentecostal church. “So there’s no need of forcing believers to pay tithe through government.”

Some vowed not to support the idea, saying the Bible does not sanction governments to collect tithes and offerings from worshippers.

“I want to ask the government to revoke credentials of any priest or bishop that petitions it to help them collect tithe,” Cyrus Rod, a bishop at Dominion Temple International, a Pentecostal church, told journalists in Kampala. “The clergy are working purely for material reward and we’ll not allow them to mislead the country. The role of priests is to collect tithes and offerings. It’s a not a political role.”

Mayanja and other Catholics said they will oppose Lwanga’s proposal because they believe it goes against Catholic teaching.

“God does not demand a certain amount of money from his people,” said Mayanja. “We give offering and tithe from our hearts. What our leaders are doing is extortion and is not based on the word of God.”

Uganda, in red, located in eastern Africa. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Ethiopia Gets Its First Female President

Ethiopia Gets Its First Female President

Video Courtesy of SABC Digital News


Ethiopia’s parliament has made Sahle-Work Zewde the country’s first female president. And while the role is largely ceremonial, her appointment carries power in what it signifies.

Sahle-Work, an experienced diplomat, is the first female head of state in Ethiopia’s modern history. In June, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Sahle-Work as special representative to the African Union and head of the U.N. Office to the African Union — the first woman in the role. She was previously director-general of the U.N. Office at Nairobi and held a range of diplomatic posts, including Ethiopia’s ambassador to France and Djibouti.


Tired of war, South Sudanese pray for latest peace deal

Tired of war, South Sudanese pray for latest peace deal

JUBA, South Sudan — During a recent Sunday service, Pastor Jok Chol led the congregation at his Pentecostal church to pray for a sustainable peace after President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar signed the latest peace agreement in neighboring Sudan.

The two leaders signed an agreement in mid-September, hoping to end years of conflict.

“I want to rebuke the spirits of confusion in our leaders,” Chol prayed, amid cheers of “Amen” from hundreds of worshippers. “We thank God and pray that he touches the hearts of our leaders so that they can embrace the new peace agreement.”

During his sermon, Chol urged his congregants to have faith and hope and continue to pray for a sustainable peace. He said they should refuse to be divided by political leaders along ethnic lines.

“We are all children of God,” said Chol, 55, a father of three. “We should treat each other with the love of Jesus Christ. Please don’t do anything wrong because your leader has told you. Follow what the Bible says and you will be blessed.”

Chol and his congregants are among thousands of Southern Sudanese gathering in churches and various mosques across major cities and refugee camps to pray for their country, which has been embroiled in civil war since 2013.

South Sudan, red, in central Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

South Sudan erupted into civil war after a power struggle ensued between Kiir and Machar. The conflict spread along ethnic lines, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing millions of others internally and outside the border. The economy has collapsed as a result of the ongoing war. Half of the remaining population of 12 million faces food shortages.

The latest treaty is the second attempt for this young nation to find peace. South Sudan became officially independent from Sudan in 2011. In 2013, civil war broke out after Kiir fired Machar as his deputy, leading to clashes between supporters of the two leaders.

A previous peace deal in 2016 tried to bring warring sides together so they could find a permanent solution. But fighting broke out in the capital city of Juba a few months later when Machar had returned from exile to become Kiir’s vice president as outlined in the peace agreement.

Under the new power-sharing arrangement Machar will once again be Kiir’s vice president.

Religious leaders such as Chol are optimistic that the latest peace agreement will hold up. They believe it is an answered prayer for thousands of faithful.

“I have hope in the new peace agreement,” said Bishop Emmanuel Murye of Episcopal Church in South Sudan. “We have been praying for peace to return to the country and we are happy that our leaders are committed to bring peace.”

Murye has been holding evangelistic meetings in refugee camps in Uganda, where more than 1 million South Sudanese have taken refuge. He said people in the camps have been praying for leaders to embrace the new deal.

“People want to come back home,” he said. “They are tired of staying in the camp. Life in the camp is not easy because there is no food to eat and children are not going to school. They have been praying for peace and they believe this is an answered prayer.”

But others still doubt the new peace deal.

South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, center, and opposition leader Riek Machar, right, shake hands during peace talks at a hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on June 21, 2018. The two leaders signed an agreement in mid-September. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Fighting broke out in the country, killing 18 civilians, two days after the warring sides signed the latest agreement to end the civil war. Kiir and Machar supporters blamed each other for the attacks.

Religion has played a major role in South Sudan’s conflicts.

According to a recent report by Pew Research Center, Christians make up about 60 percent of the population of South Sudan, followed by 33 percent who are followers of African traditional religions. Six percent are Muslim.

The war for South Sudanese independence was often framed in religious terms — pitting Christians and followers of traditional religions against the Muslim leaders of Sudan.

Achol Garang, a catechist at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda, said God was punishing her country for its sins. She said political leaders in South Sudan used religion as a tool to fight for independence from Sudan.

“They called themselves Christian liberators when they were fighting and promised to take us to the promised land of self-government,” said Garang, 45, a mother of five who fled Yei town in southwest South Sudan in 2015. “They lied to God and that’s the reason we are suffering now. We should just continue to pray for forgiveness of sins. We will get the answer one day.”

The South Sudanese government has accused church leaders of promoting violence among congregants by dividing them along ethnic lines.

The East Africa nation has two major tribes that have been involved in the civil war. People from Dinka tribe are loyal to Kiir, while people from Nuer tribe are led by Machar.

Religious leaders agree there has been ethnic conflict. But they say the church still remains strong.

“While individual clergy may have their own political sympathies, and while pastors on the ground continue to empathize with their local flock, the churches as bodies have remained united in calling and for an end to the killing, a peaceful resolution through dialogue, peace and reconciliation — in some cases at great personal risk,” John Ashworth, who has advised Catholic bishops and other church leaders in South Sudan, told Inter Press Service in Juba.

Chol, the Pentecostal pastor, believes the country has now found new peace after prayers.

“We must have faith that we have already found peace,” he said. “God has promised that he will never abandon his children, and we are happy he has answered our prayers.”

Christian Surgeon who recites Bible and Quran to patients wins UN award

Christian Surgeon who recites Bible and Quran to patients wins UN award

Video Courtesy of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency

NAIROBI, Kenya  – Dr. Evan Atar Adaha knows that faith matters to many of his patients at the Maban Referral Hospital in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.

So, before administering the anesthetic for surgery, he recites verses from the Bible or the Quran with patients. Then the 52-year-old surgeon, who is Roman Catholic, follows with a short prayer — according to the patient’s faith — before taking up his surgical knife.

“My faith contributes a lot to my work,” said the surgeon, who is known simply as Atar. “I am inspired by a belief that we are all from one God. As we work, I keep telling my colleagues that we are one family and we must save lives.”

Atar is the only surgeon in Maban Referral Hospital. For more than two decades he has provided medical services to people fleeing war and persecution in Sudan and South Sudan.

Along with his surgical duties, he can also be found pushing the operating table, playing with a newborn or even fixing a light.

On Sundays, he relaxes by going to church.

For his service to refugees, the doctor has been named the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 2018 Nansen Award winner. He received the award Oct. 1 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Dr. Evan Atar Adaha accepts the 2018 Nansen Refugee Award from UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Oct. 1, 2018. Atar runs the only functional hospital in Upper Nile State, South Sudan, where he and his team carry out an average of 58 operations per week with limited supplies and equipment. For more than 60 years, UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award has recognized those who show outstanding dedication to the refugee cause. © UNHCR/Mark Henley

“Dr. Atar’s work through decades of civil war and conflict is a shining example of profound humanity and selflessness,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, in a statement. “Through his tireless efforts, thousands of lives have been saved, and countless men, women, and children provided with a new chance to rebuild the future.”

Named after Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, the award honors extraordinary service to refugees, displaced people and the stateless. According to the UNHCR website, the award includes $150,000 to fund a project designed in tandem with the agency.

“I am humbled by this award. It comes with some resources. We will use them to meet our next challenges,” said Atar, who is also the medical director in the 120-bed hospital, located about 600 kilometers southeast of the South Sudan capital, Juba.

Over the years, his hospital — which handles all manner of medical problems, including gunshot wounds, malaria and cesarean sections — has become a lifesaver for more than 200,000 people in the troubled region. Of these, 140,000 are refugees who fled violence in Sudan’s Blue Nile region.

Originally from Torit town in southern South Sudan, Atar studied medicine in Khartoum and later practiced in Egypt. In 1997, he moved to Kurmuk in Blue Nile State at the height of a Sudanese civil war. Amid falling bombs and intense fighting between government forces and rebels, he ran a health center that treated both civilians and fighters.

Increased bombing by the Sudanese air force in 2011 forced Atar and his team to flee with thousands of refugees to Maban, where he continued providing similar services.

“We started from nothing. At one time I had to bring down a door for use as an operating table,” he said.

Dr. Evan Atar Adaha accepts the 2018 Nansen Refugee Award on Oct. 1, 2018, in Geneva, Switzerland. © UNHCR/Mark Henley

The health center eventually grew into a hospital, with assistance from the UNHCR and from Samaritan’s Purse, the international evangelical relief organization run by Franklin Graham. “We still are trying to see how we can expand the hospital to offer more services to the people.”

In South Sudan, health care is often is short supply. There are serious shortages of drugs, equipment and skilled medical personnel. Armed groups also loot medical facilities and have kidnapped, detained and killed doctors and nurses.

When the country became independent in 2011, there were 120 doctors and 100 nurses serving a population of 12 million, according to UNHCR. In Maban, Atar has a 53-member staff, including three other doctors — two from Kenya and one from Uganda.

Atar’s wife and three children live in Nairobi. He sees them only a few times a year.

Most of his time is consumed with keeping the hospital running. Atar says his staff needs more training and equipment. And there’s never enough room for patients.

The hospital’s maternity ward has 30 beds, said Atar. He’d like to see that number doubled. At times, he said, there’s not enough room and maternity patients have to sleep on the floor.

“We still face many challenges,” said Atar.

South African artist talks art, apartheid with US students

South African artist talks art, apartheid with US students

South African artist Thokozani Mthiyane, center, poses with students from the Ember Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y. after an art workshop in Johannesburg on Sept. 29, 2018. Dozens of students from a Brooklyn charter school are visiting South Africa to explore African cultures and South Africa’s journey from racial tension to reconciliation. (AP Photo/Christopher Torchia) (AP Photo/Christopher Torchia)

South African artist Thokozani Mthiyane told dozens of children from a Brooklyn school to close their eyes and imagine “the worst scenario that you can.”

Then he told his hushed audience at a Johannesburg art gallery to “find a way out,” through imagined trees and sky, to “where we would like to be.”

That was his enigmatic answer to a question about why he is an artist, delivered during a workshop for visiting American students from low-income families at the Ember Charter School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Bed-Stuy is known for its African-American heritage, and the trip is a chance to expose the children to African cultures and South Africa’s journey from racial tension to reconciliation.

The children also visited the Constitutional Court building, constructed in part from bricks that were originally part of a prison during white minority rule known as apartheid.

“We have an opportunity to explode their minds,” said school founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din.

Mthiyane told the dozens of children, many in their early teens, about his eclectic influences — artists Mark Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat, poet Langston Hughes — and encouraged them to find inspiration within themselves.

“How do you feel?” he asked after a drawing exercise.

“It made me feel excited to see what the outcome would be,” one student said to applause.

A student asked: “Did you live through apartheid and if so, what was that like?”

Yes, Mthiyane replied. He said the system that ended in 1994 with all-race elections made him ask “taboo” questions about why it existed.

Apartheid, he said, was bad not just for the people it ostracized but also for “the person who’s exercising that power over you.”

Video Courtesy of Art Eye Gallery