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Siya Maswana photographed in front of the Umlibo artwork.

Siya Maswana

Climate awareness and creating practical solutions

Siya Maswana’s rural house house sits on a high plain above the small town of Hamburg, and each day when he starts the long walk down to the town to the Keiskamma Art Project where he works, he carries more than just his artist’s tools.

He is burdened with the question of how to raise awareness about climate change and his mind is as busy as the tapestries he and his fellow artists are working on.

Siya was born in Gqeberha (then Port Elizabeth) in 1983 and because of the forced removals of people of colour during apartheid, his family of six was relocated to Mdantsane, an urban township 15 km away from East London. There he was enrolled in school, and that is where his love affair with art, storytelling, music, acting and handwork first began.

Today his accomplishment as an artist, sketching and designing the concepts, appears across the many beautiful pieces produced by the Keiskamma Art Project that he joined in 2015.

With their latest masterpiece focusing on climate impacts and sustainable livelihoods for vulnerable coastal communities in rural areas such as Hamburg, Siya is grappling with how to open people’s minds.

“I see in Hamburg we have got different cultures. There are Christians and there are traditional Xhosa beliefs. Some people have both. It is hard for people to understand what is going on around the world and how to face things like global warming,” he says, “because these are not things we are taught as we raise kids the way we have always done.”

He says the trajectory of life in his village is that you “go to church, go to school, take care of your homestead, keep your house clean, think about your cows…”

In the minutiae of everyday life, the bigger picture gets blurred, but Siya believes very specific education is needed with climate impacts – and solutions – as a focus.

“We need to come up with solutions. We need to bring people together and teach them about global warming because it affects everyone, rural and urban. Questions need straight answers that people can see in their own lives.”

Because of this, says Siya, the focus should be on the local and not just the global, the real and not the abstract, the visible and not the theoretical.

“Tell people how it will affect our cows and livestock, or our shoreline sandfish stocks. Then they can understand,” he says, while checking on a guava that hangs off a tree next to his house.

Something clicks in his mind.

“Right now, we have a problem with rats here – big scary rats that are different from the ones I used to see in Alex near Joburg. People are complaining about these rats. We must ask: is it to do with climate change, and if so, we must give people information they can easily understand.”

Siya also believes that gender is a barrier to raising awareness in his community.

“Women take care of the plants and gardens. They wake up early and prepare kids for school. They are the ones who see what is going on in the outside world. But men should understand that they are also going to suffer because we are living in the same world.”

Information and education are key, he says, and then shares an anecdote about the wind turbines that line the inland Hamburg horizon like giant ballerinas spread out on a stage.

“Last Saturday, the wind was howling at 1am. It woke me up. The electricity went off and stayed like that for a week. I chatted to a guy who works for the turbines. I see they are operating so I ask the guy why they don’t give us electricity in Hamburg since they are so close to us.”

He goes on to say that nobody ever explained to the community whose turbines they are, why they are there, or who will benefit. He said this could have also been a chance to explain the benefits of renewable energy to the community and why it is far better than burning coal for electricity.

If this happened, the community would understand the negative health and environmental impacts of burning coal and that digging into the Earth to extract coal disturbs water sources and nature.

They would also understand that by harnessing power from the wind, clean energy could be generated over and over.

“They never explained anything to us before they planted those turbines there, and people are still complaining about them. Maybe it’s a good thing to have them – instead of using fossil fuels we can decrease global warming – but we need information before something comes to our village.”

Siya holds much hope that the imagery on the tapestry, including a string of wind turbines, so lovingly stitched by the artists, is going to open conversations.

“The tapestry will spark the community’s imaginations because they will see something in front of them and wonder what it’s about. They will see this is done here in Hamburg, in our village, and that will make them proud.”
Again, Siya talks about the men. He says a friend saw his social media post about the tapestry and then asked him, “Siya, what are you doing? This sewing is for old woman.”

But Siya responded, “No, bra, that is your first mistake. I grew up in an urban area, a township, and I realise this type of thing is not only for women. It is not about embroidery. It is about ideas and interests.”

“It’s all about ideas and solutions," he says.


  • Scaling up natural climate solutions (for example, restoring degraded forests, grasslands and wetlands) could create as many as 20-million new jobs globally. Ecosystem restoration creates 3.7 times as many jobs as oil and gas production per dollar.
  • South Africa could create 130 000 direct and indirect full-time equivalent job years through wind energy between 2022 and 2026.
  • Global statistics show that currently, only 53% of countries have climate change education in their national curricula, and 70% of learners cannot explain what climate change is, yet education is an important solution for addressing climate change awareness.

Siya Maswana looks out from his home after a long but fruitful day at the Keiskamma Art Project.

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