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Hitchhiking Pays Off: Four Key Takeaways from NEWF, Africa’s Nature, Environment & Wildlife Film Congress

by Hilary Sparrow.

Sometimes serendipity opens doors you never even knew were there.

I met Noel Kok at the Jackson, WY airport last September. I was eavesdropping on a phone conversation between Noel, his wife and kids. He let them know he’d safely landed after a long journey and would now find a taxi to the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival about an hour to the north.

I had a rental car and was heading that direction and I figured wife, kids, foreign accent, what could possibly go wrong?

As fate would have it, turns out my hitchhiker is a visionary and the Congress he’s building year-by-year in Durban South Africa is the most powerful, creative and impactful collaboration between filmmakers and conservationists I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

South African Noel Kok and his partner Pragna Parsotam-Kok founded the Nature, Environment and Wildlife Film Congress to celebrate African science, tell African stories and cultivate the modern African storyteller & natural history filmmaker.

Hilary Sparrow with Noel Kok and Pragna Parsotam-Kok

In its 2nd year, this fledgling festival is breaking molds about what it means to be both a filmmaker and a conservationist in Africa.

And during some of the seven most incredible days of my life, here are four takeaways from NEWF that will really stick with me.

1. I heard Africans pitying Americans

Sometimes Americans assume everyone wants to move to the US if given the chance. But I heard Africans celebrating their continent and pitying Americans. They pitied our lack of nature and connection to the natural environment. In Africa, indoors is a place to sleep, cook and maybe relax a bit. Outdoors is the place to live, to socialize and to experience the world. Africans suspect Americans are far removed from their natural environment and for many of us, they are right. At NEWF, African’s deep connection to the natural environment is honored and celebrated.

Moderator Jolynn Minnaar with Jackson Hole’s Lisa Samford,
keynoter Paula Kahumbu and Hilary

2.Culture is Africa

As a Southerner, I thought I knew what it meant to be connected to a culture, but I’ve never experienced anything as powerful as African culture. All the Africans I met repeatedly referenced their culture as their guiding force. It felt like a steady connection across time and generations as well as across community. I observed culture steering choices, providing moral guidance and a deep grounding and sense of duty. At NEWF, cultures from across Africa are represented and honored.

3. Locals know their conservation solutions best

I have studied and researched the complicated dynamics of poaching and have been working for many years on powerful films & social impact campaigns like Racing Extinction and Naledi crafted to inspire action and save species.

But being in Africa, I realized how much of this we did in a vacuum. I met people like Paula Kahumbu, CEO of Wildlife Direct in Kenya, Andrew Venter CEO of WILDTRUST in South Africa and Luwi Nguluka who runs a wildlife crime division in Zambia and I realized these are the experts who know and live the nuance and vast complexity of the issues.

These are the people we should be funding to drive change. At NEWF you’ll hear the best local stories and solutions from people on the ground driving change.

4. Africa has many successes to celebrate

Westerners are inundated with negative stories about Africa.

  • In the last 20 years, the humpback whale population migrating from Antarctica along the Western coast of Africa rebounded to 15,000 whales thanks to global action and collaboration against whaling countries.
  • In the last year, some of Southern Africa’s parks have reduced rhino poaching by nearly half.
  • Corridors are being connected across Africa – so animals can roam as they need.
  • One of the most popular NEWF panels featured 4 African female scientists working across Africa.

Success stories abound, they just aren’t being told. As NEWF cultivates the next generation of African filmmakers, this will change.

From left: Yonela Nxokwana (NFVF, National Film and Video Foundation), Pamela Mashiane (North West Parks Board), Shadrack Bokaba (Acting CEO, NFVF), Yolanda Ncokowana (N.E.W Pitch Judge, NFVF, with her back to us), and Noel Kok

Just Go!

I’m honored that Noel and Pragna invited me to join the advisory board of NEWF and I’m thrilled to continue working in that capacity.

And in my advisory role, I’ll offer advice to all of you, which is “JUST GO TO NEWF!” It will change your perception of what you think you know.

Hilary Sparrow is a veteran of Vulcan Productions where she specialized in Outreach campaigns. Hilary now serves as a Communications executive with Microsoft‘s XBox group. 

Photos with thanks: Harry Lock