Drilling for oil and gas in or even near a UNESCO World Heritage site is nothing to laugh about—but if anyone can find helpful humor in that scenario it’s Botswana’s Sendimba Shitah, whose stage name is Yellowbone. He is using his comedic social commentary to stir up activism in Botswana to protect the Okavango River Basin and its communities from oil and gas exploration. Although he got into comedy back in 1998, Yellowbone calls himself a true conservationist at heart. His family has been closely connected to the Okavango for generations. As a boy growing up in a Hambukushu community within the small town of Ditheta in Botswana, the waters of the delta defined his upbringing.
“I come from river people, the Hambukush,” Yellowbone says. “My roots are based in the Okavango Delta. Our lives depended on the delta in terms of fishing, and the gathering of reeds. We were taught how to live with the animals, and we were taught how to live with the plants. We were taught conservation at a tender age. We used everything wisely knowing that the delta defined us.” In Botswana, Hambukushu communities are some of the most marginalized groups in the country and many live in poverty. Traditionally, the seasonal waters of the Okavango provided the hunter-gatherer communities with food, reeds for constructing home and even materials to build fishing gear. Although many communities no longer live traditional lifestyles, they still depend on a healthy and thriving delta ecosystem. Yellowbone is now based in Maun, where he works both as a comedian and as a professional freelance tourism guide. He notes that as a guide he is thrilled to share his personal life experiences with guests as he introduces them to the region. He is also an avid birder, with a strong affinity to the oddly delightful Kori Bustard (one of the world’s heaviest flighted birds). Most people find it striking that Yellowbone juggles his life as a comedian along with his life as a guide. But he would be quick to correct any distinction between the two.
“I think they are one and the same,” he says. “Being a comedian and a tour guide are all about hosting and entertaining. As a conservationist, and as a comedian, I am someone who has an influence on other people's lives, someone who is able to change people's minds through comedy.” In 2015 he was thrust into the national spotlight after winning the 4th annual President's Day Competition in the performing arts of comedy. This country-wide event has become the pinnacle of Botswana’s heritage month celebrations and is a showcase of its cultural diversity. Competitions range from fashion and pottery to poetry and -- of course -- comedy. Yellowbone is humble about his comedic success, but he is now harnessing his popularity with audiences to raise awareness about oil and gas exploration in the Okavango River Basin by Canada-based company ReconAfrica. “I have to try by all means to protect the Okavango Delta as someone who operates in this area,” he says. “That's why I'm against the ReconAfrica initiative.”
Being fluent in Thimbukushu, Ssewana, and English, Yellowbone capitalizes on his ability to translate resources about ReconAfrica’s activities in the area. Many communities including Hambukushu people have expressed that they were not properly consulted before the government of Botswana purchased part of ReconAfrica’s lease to explore for oil and gas in the Tsodilo area of Ngamiland. Many of these community members have been overlooked and have lacked properly translated materials to understand these proposed activities associated with the exploration process. In a video Yellowbone shared to his Facebook page in March of 2022, speaking in Setswana, he pleaded for a halt to oil exploration. He stressed that just a single drop of oil can contaminate over 600 liters of drinking water, affecting far more than the plants and animals of the delta but the people who depend on it. "I encourage you all to say no to the drilling of oil in the Okavango Delta. I do not ask that you do this for me as a conservationist, or for me as a comedian. It is for us, it is for you, it is for our future generations who will have to live here,” Yellowbone says in the video. As a comedian, Yellowbone is weaving environmental activism into his performances. For an upcoming comedy show he is working on a set that highlights the importance of conservation. And though his primary way of talking about issues like oil and gas exploration in the Okavango River Basin is with humor, he’s serious about protecting the wild.
“I'm not doing this for myself. It's not about me. It's about you and me on the same page trying to protect Okavango Delta, trying to protect the ecosystem, our habitat. We're talking about how many species we're trying to protect of plants and animals which could be wiped away by those selfish individuals who are just thinking about the profit. So ReconAfrica, I want to say this to you. We are saying no to the drilling of oil."