Webinar – Mitigating social and environmental harm through Participatory Theatre: a case study from artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Ghana

You can watch the recording of this session here.

The second talk in our series was a very interesting presentation on how to use participatory communal theatre to address issues of concern in a community. In particular the presenters Prof Paul Kerswill, Mrs Margaret Ismaila, Dr Gladys Ansah and the rest of their team, are working on how to engage communities and bring awareness of the negative environmental effects of artisanal small scale gold mining (ASGM) in Ghana. The project is specifically part of the GCRF Impact Development round and offered great insight into how to create impact in a natural and quite enjoyable way!

Participatory Theatre targets specific contexts to tackle specific issues in communities as a way to engender discussion that leads to remedial action. In this particular context ASGM leads to among other things: water pollution, violence, human danger, stigmatisation of pandemics like HIV/AIDS, unwanted/teenage pregnancies and other societal destabilisations. Participatory Theatre is used in these contexts to raise issues of concern with the ‘audience’ who then reflect on them collectively. But it is important to note that this is not practice that is imported into the community but rather capitalises on how things are done in the community already. This approach is already used to disseminate information as part of civic education as a way to externalize and share problems and stimulate reflection to feed social transformation.

To illustrate what Participatory Theatre looks like in practice, we saw a clip of a performance by University of Ghana students studying Developmental Theatre with particular reference to addressing issues to do with increased teenage pregnancies. There is an interesting display of multilingualism in the interaction which starts in English but gradually moves into the local language Ga as well as members of the audience spontaneously participating to give input and interpretations of the proceedings so that more people could understand. Kerswill and Ismaila stressed that the role of language in providing access to such performances and interactions with the community is a crucial one that is often overlooked and which their project aims to enhance. It may be, for example, that in an Akan speaking area there are speakers of other languages who have migrated into the area and so it is crucial to ensure that they too contribute to the societal discussions and solutions. 

In terms of impact, the clip shows how consensus is organically arrived at with the community participating in the performance, giving advice, and crucially steering how the story unfolds. In this way they collectively decide what the expected action should be in a situation. It was clear this is a particularly successful engagement methodology, where the researcher does not try to coerce their participants but rather the participants are the constructors of knowledge and practice.

Finally, but quite crucially, in order to conduct this kind of work requiring community involvement on quite a large scale – the performances are usually in the community/village square – there are many permissions to be obtained from local politicians, community representatives, local police and security service personnel, community chiefs, elders, traditional leaders and district representatives at various levels. This as such involves many meetings and presentations on the project in the local language/s as well as obtaining permits and consents. In this case this also involved offering a libation to the chief’s representatives as part of the cultural practices to allow a request to be made to the Queen Mother as this related to her subjects. Performances must also as such incorporate and be conducted with reference to indigenous knowledge so time must also be spent to understand what these are to ensure they are appropriately represented. These are some of the activities outside the actual research that must also be factored into both funding and timelines in this kind of work. What was striking though was how welcoming and receptive the communities were and the significance of face-to-face contact to building confidence and trust and making the project acceptable across a broad base.

Extra Q&A

Paul, Margaret, and Gladys kindly provided answers to some of the questions we didn’t manage to cover during the session

What is a zongo?

Zongo is a term which derives from the Hausa word Zango – meaning temporary settlment. Zongo is a settlement (usually densely populated) in Ghanaian towns where  West African migrants who typically identify as Muslim and Hausa speaking are dominant. It is important to emphasise that groups of people other than Hausa-speaking West African migrants, e.g. migrants from northern Ghana (in the south) also tend to live in zongos.

Paul I am wondering if you will write about your experience about your time in Ghana?

For twenty years I’ve been interested in the impact of language choices on development potential – ever since Dr Salifu Mahama (now at the University for Development Studies) became my PhD student at Reading. He invited me to accompany him on a fieldwork trip in northern Ghana; I was immediately struck by how important it was to take a sociolinguistic approach to language choice in getting development messages across. Although we recently published a chapter together on this topic (in the Routledge Handbook of Language in Conflict), linguistic issues in development communication remain relatively neglected. Later on, as external examiner at the University of Ghana for several years, I learnt about language in a higher education context and got to read many interesting student projects. More recently, I have been part of an interdisciplinary York-Ghana team which bridges environment, the arts and the social sciences – this theatre project is part of that. I look forward to further work in this area, beginning with a new, joint project next year on the use of language in communication about Covid-19 in two communities in Accra.  

A key question in my mind is when in the events does the language shift from English to a local language(s)? The code-switching aspect seems critical. We (think we) know why, but the how, especially timing with regard to clock, content, and pace, is interesting.


Primarily the language for communication at a participatory theatre event should be the L1 of the community. However, for the benefit of migrant community members and stakeholders who may not speak the L1 of the community, English and any other language spoken in the community is used to fill in the gap to ensure that everyone at the space where participatory theatre is taking place gets to learn and share ideas for collective action and community ownership. 


With specific reference to the excerpt (teen mothers) shown in the presentation, we can only conjecture since we were not involved in the creation of that particular theatre. However, speaking generally about code-switching (in Ghana), the practice could be triggered by a number of sociolinguistic situations including:

expression of in-group/out-group identity
expression of social/educational/economic status
expression of cultural/ethnic pride/affinity
acknowledgement of a multilingual assembly
a show of multilingual ability
to achieve expressivity

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