Aping motions: Sbo Ntshebe, centre, leader of the Walking Tall Educational Theatre Project, with co-actors in a scene from one of its plays. The troupe acts out stories illustrating human origins. Picture: SUPPLIED
Aping motions: Sbo Ntshebe, centre, leader of the Walking Tall Educational Theatre Project, with co-actors in a scene from one of its plays. The troupe acts out stories illustrating human origins. Picture: SUPPLIED

Trying to get a handle on how human ancestors walked millions of years ago can be difficult. It is not something that can be looked up on Google, says Sbo Ntshebe, but chimpanzees provide some clues.

Ntshebe is a lead performer and co-director of the Walking Tall Educational Theatre Project and for years has had to mimic the way human ancestors moved. "It is hard, but what we do is observe apes and humans and we create something in between," he says.

On Friday an audience will have an opportunity to see Ntshebe’s interpretation of some extinct ancestors when he and two other actors launch the 17th season of the Walking Tall Educational Theatre project.

Over the past 16 years, 1.3-million people across Africa have seen the production, and the organisers at the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST), which produces the project, believe they are making a difference in getting Africans to understand science and their origins. With the new season comes a different story but with the same themes.

"Now it is about this boy whose village is fighting another village, because they believe they are polluting the water," Ntshebe says.

"There is an explosion and he passes out and he finds himself in a dream-like world. There he wonders where he is and he meets different people, as he tries to find the wise one."

Ntshebe and his fellow actors will tell this through physical theatre — where the actors can’t lean on props but relate the story through the movement of their bodies.

"They use their bodies to illustrate different kinds of pre-historic creatures, different stages of human evolution. It is quite amazing," says Prof Rob Blumenschine, PAST’s chief scientist. PAST was founded in 1994 to fund palaeontological research and education in Africa. When Blumenschine was introduced to the concept of the Walking Tall project, he was sceptical.

"But since I have been working with Walking Tall, I have discovered that it is an absolutely marvellous way to introduce kids and community members to this science," he says. "We don’t bombard audiences with information."

The science covered in the 45-minute plays includes palaeoanthropology, genetics and the origins of the universe.

"We have worked hard to really try to get the social relevance of the palaeo sciences into a very easily communicated series of messages. It boils down to this concept of shared origins," he says. An important aim of the show is to eliminate all forms of discrimination. There is a question-and-answer session after every performance. The plays have another important role to showcase to their donors the work they are doing.

"We rely on them to sponsor our research programmes; PAST gives out research grants to senior researchers and bursaries. All of that is designed to increase African leadership in the field," he says.

Teaching science is challenging, and Ntshebe experienced this while in Ethiopia. The country produced some of the world’s most exciting hominid fossil finds, but its citizens are deeply religious and at times sceptical of evolution and science.

"We never met any challenge as big as it was as in Ethiopia," he says. "They were saying forthrightly that they don’t accept this because they believe in their faith."

"We explained to them that there is no conflict between religion and science and that it is a misconception that when you talk science you are against religion. Most … did understand when we explained."

The Walking Tall project has also toured Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

"We were in a very rural part of Zambia, where English is not spoken by many people. Instead of a full performance, what we did there was perform the physical theatre vignettes depicting the evolution of life and humankind and explain what each scene was depicting," says Blumenschine.

PAST has monitored the success of the Walking Tall project through surveys and questionnaires and believes it is getting the message across.

Ntshebe first joined the cast of Walking Tall in 2008, left a year later and returned in 2015. In his time with the group he has noticed that audience attitudes have changed. He says:

"At first, some schools wouldn’t even let you in, but over the years, it has got better."

• The new season of Walking Tall launches at the Origins Centre Museum on April 27.