At the Intersection of Art and Nature
by Raeesah Chandlay
Growing up in Swaziland (now Eswatini), a small home in the secluded bush was the first canvas in the life of the eco-creative. Dane Armstrong hails from a family of artists with an ethos deeply rooted in nature. Brought up vegetarian in an outspoken family, he was raised to be aware—of the earth, its lands, its creatures, its people, and its politics.
Owing to his half-Finnish heritage, Dane had his academic start in Europe, where he studied economics. But this didn’t quite click. Upon returning to Swaziland as a young adult, he found himself delving deeper into the creative sector, ultimately co-founding a contemporary art gallery and design studio called Yebo. He also began working in permaculture, growing his own food, and embarking on various community food projects. After undertaking further training courses, Dane knew that this was something he wanted to dedicate himself to. But at this point, he felt that he had hit a brick wall.
“It’s easy to care, but what do you do about it?
Around this time, Dane remembers reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and attests that this was a turning point in his life. He had also found what he really cared about and began to forge his path, bringing it all together into his life’s mission. He went on to complete his Master’s degree in climate adaptation and sustainability, focusing on food systems.
Eswatini is heavily reliant on imports for food, and Dane sought to evaluate the role urban agriculture can play in resolving the country’s food security issue. This academic feat materialised into a functional project, and the Mbabane Urban Garden was born. Sadly, the project is threatened to be taken down by the city council—an amazing opportunity thwarted by red tape and archaic governance.
But as an (aspiring) optimist, Dane prefers to focus on the positive. People in Eswatini have become a lot more aware of the climate crisis over the last five years and a lot is happening, both on a political and a public level. Sadly, the awareness was largely born out of the tangible effects of climatic events over the last few years, such as the severe drought that lasted from 2015 to 2016.
Climate change entered the radar as people witnessed the effects firsthand. And other issues such as water mismanagement were highlighted. But Dane realised that as soon as a crisis subsides, people—especially in the middle and upper classes—tend to forget. And efforts to combat climate change are inconsistent as blips of events bring it to the surface.
The next reminder emerged in the form of cyclone Eloise. When such disasters strike, farmers that live day to day are often the hardest hit. Dane stresses the importance of being sensitive to the nuances that affect each situation when tackling climate change, especially when it comes to socio-economic issues.
One of the gravest concerns is the uncertainty of the effects of climate change, as the region Dane lives in is highly at risk. He fears what a changing climate would mean for him, his family, his animals, his river, and his community. But he maintains that this is a “healthy kind of selfishness” as it motivates him to create a better future for his community and the people he cares about. And as he is soon to be a father, these concerns have become more vivid, giving him even more reason to continue his work in order to create a better life for the next generation.
While Dane remains optimistic, he maintains that it’s important to be aware and prepared in order to build a more resilient community. Being vastly unprepared, the region could be just one disaster away from complete collapse.
“It’s not preparing for the worst and turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s about designing the future that you want to create.”
Dane is interested in the intersections between politics and climate justice, finding the balance between micro-adjustments and policy. He believes that while it is important to grow your own food, recycle, and educate youth about the climate crisis, it is also important to have the end goal of systemic change in mind and a road map on how to get there.
As one of the founding members of the Mbabane Hub of the Global Shapers Community, Dane was one of about 30 African youths selected to attend the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Los Angeles in 2018.
From the training, the toolkit, and the people he connected with, Dane gained the confidence to get up and talk about climate change.
The experience helped catalyse future engagements and activities and created a healthy pressure to get moving.
Dane now works as a climate researcher and consultant for the NDC revision process with the government of Eswatini, as well as other development organisations, which has given him an insight into the policy space.
In 2019, he created an advocacy network called the Eswatini Climate Coalition (ECCO) – “a grassroots collective promoting awareness, action, and civic engagement around climate change and climate justice in Eswatini.”
The collective spawned a youth initiative called Hlumisa which is a predominantly female-led platform for young people to play a role in climate action. Dane is passionate about helping youth link up and mobilise. His primary goal is to mentor these initiatives to independence, believing his role as merely a facilitative one in bringing people together.
Dane continues to run the Yebo Art Centre in Ezulwini with his family and often incorporates aspects of climate change into projects and exhibitions.
“Creative thinking is the only thing that’s going to get us out of this mess.”
Through ECCO, Dane coordinates campaigns against fossil fuels projects in Eswatini. In the coming months, he will be engaging with the public on the pending coal-fired power station the country is planning to set up over the next few years.
His advice to fellow climate leaders is to believe in themselves and find people within the network to connect with. He attests that there is power in numbers and maintains that courage is the biggest ingredient to stepping up, speaking out, and making a difference.
African Voices for Africa’s Future