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Puppeteer pulls the strings of community art

Written by: Galoome Shopane

The Free State's Pesa Pheko has performed on many local and international stages. He is now determined to give back to his community.Pesa Pheko uses art to heal and uplift young people in his community.

Cultural activist and puppeteer Pesa Pheko is getting the children in his home town of Botshabelo to dance to their own tune.

Pheko is committed to fostering community art development through his Botshabelo Arts, Culture and Heritage (Bach) Centre and Legacy Kiddies Village, which teaches children as young as three the art of puppetry, oral storytelling, dance, music and drama.

He is currently working with 30 early childhood development centres and four schools in Botshabelo and interest has been shown in his work by people in nearby Marquard and even from Lesotho.

Situated in a high crime and gang-ridden area, the Bach Centre hosts a Thursday Story Tellers programme to enable community members to come together and tell their life stories, which helps with the healing and upliftment of the participants. The centre also works with former gangsters and offenders and has trained 58 puppeteers and 25 puppet directors across the Free State. Soon, Pheko hopes to open a ‘shack theatre’ in Botshabelo.

While Pheko has received some funding from the National Lotteries Commission, most of his work is self-funded.

Pheko was introduced to the arts about 17 years ago when he auditioned for Sarafina while in high school and impressed the judges. He went on to perform in shows such as The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera and Moshoeshoe.

His formal education was limited but he believes real-life experiences have provided valuable lessons.

His love of dolls started while working as one of the production managers and screenwriters for the 2010 FIFA World Cup opening and closing ceremonies. He was part of the team behind the championship mascot Zakumi.

“When I was young, community drama competitions were common, but now gangsterism and alcohol abuse dominate the lives of young people. I’m tapping into this space to say, we need to change this.”

Pheko hopes that the centre will go mainstream and offer arts and culture qualifications and groom educators in the creative arts industry.

Pheko said working with children has helped him redefine his journey as an artist and human being.

“Kids are the most honest audience you can find.”