Centring People in the Story of Ivory

News | Posted on Friday 21 October 2022

Over the past few months, Molly Brown and May Sumbwanyambe have collaboratively worked towards writing a BBC Radio 4 drama as part of the LCAB Artist Residency program. The play uses a Zambian father and daughter’s disillusioned relationship to delve into the complex debate around ivory.

For Molly, this work has involved going beyond the focus of her PhD research on ivory demand to curate a synthesised evidence base about the different perspectives held towards ivory trade across the UK and Zambia. Interviewing Zambian wildlife experts was critical for this process as there is a lack of evidence available about Zambian perspectives regarding ivory trade futures.

Finding Zambian participants for interviews was facilitated by organisations working directly in the community conservation space in Southern Africa, such as Jamma International. Their work endeavours to promote African expertise and bring community voices to the forefront of the conservation agenda. Challenges were to be expected when seeking out opinions on a very controversial and politicised subject. However, besides the odd delay for emergency conservation efforts such as calls to help injured wildlife, there has been resounding ease in talking to Zambian conservationists about the future of the ivory trade.

It's important to ask oneself here, given that there are plentiful opportunities to engage with African experts who work directly with communities whose lives and livelihoods are affected by African elephants and have a direct reliance on natural resources, why are their voices not being championed in the ivory debate?

Over this learning period, it has become clear that the NGO voices most often heard in the UK ivory debate do not seem to meaningfully listen to African voices that hold differing opinions to those amenable to Western sensibilities. Given the depth of knowledge conveyed in this time-limited exercise to gain a better understanding of Zambian perspectives towards ivory, it seems that far more could be done to listen to diverse African perspectives to find sustainable solutions for complex issues such as ivory stockpile sales in the future. Hopefully, the lived experiences back boning our play provide food for thought for considering how to bring people into the picture for the future of the ivory trade.

For May this has involved creating story treatments and a first draft script. The central questions May has been focusing on is character and structure.

For May, character is much more than the person depicted –  much more than the facts and figures and position they may take in the ivory debate. it is more to do with the way in which that person is revealed when put under pressure – and to depict the journey that person is on, and what the outcome is.

The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self.

Using all the information that Molly has managed to generate, May firstly developed actions and objective for his characters. The key to writing a piece of drama is thinking about what are your characters wants – what is their conscious desire? In our play the central characters have diametrically opposing objectives. On the one hand we have an immigrated Zambian conservationist attempting to lobby for better wildlife trade regulations, and on the other hand we have his daughter's perspectives of loosening the ivory trade bans. These two goals drive the drama forward. Creating a treatment was then a question of thinking about what the characters outer conflicts were.

The outer conflict is between what the characters want in the public or immediate area of their life and the obstacle that is preventing them from achieving it. As dramatists, we often frame this as “the obstacle” – or what is getting in their way. The important thing is that this should be stronger than the want of the character so that there is a struggle to try to overcome this. In developing the treatment I also thought a lot about the characters' inner conflict – their need in the inner area of their life and the inner obstacle to achieving it. In drama characters often do not recognize their inner conflict but the writer needs to know it. So far the drama we are creating is not only about opposing views in the ivory debate, but also a reconciliation of the lives of an estranged father and daughter which hopefully speaks to the relationship between the west and Africa.

Related links

Find out more about Molly Brown's research.

Related links

Find out more about Molly Brown's research.