Herd of puppets to trek 20,000km to highlight urgency of climate crisis

26 02 2024 | 11:11Lanre Bakare / THE GUARDIAN

Team behind Little Amal puppet hope to create ‘visceral engagement’ with issues caused by climate emergency

The production team behind the Little Amal puppet, which raised awareness about the plight of the refugee crisis in Europe, hope their next project – a herd of animal puppets going on a 20,000km trek – will start a new global conversation about the climate crisis.

Amir Nizar Zuabi, the Palestinian artist who helped launch the Amal project, said The Herd – which will tour through several African and European cities and feature dozens of puppets – will be a “soft, beautiful evocation to think differently” about the climate crisis.

“Climate change is the biggest story we’re facing now,” said Zuabi. “It’s often presented in terms of emissions and the Kyoto agreement – people struggle to fathom that, but what Amal did beautifully and what we hope The Herd becomes is a visceral engagement with the issue.”

The Herd will start its journey in west Africa in spring 2025 – the precise point is still to be confirmed. The planned route includes Senegal, Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and finally Norway.

The “core” herd will contain about 30 puppets representing the migrating animals of the Serengeti, but they will be joined by a “massive migration” of different animals as they arrive in new locations – creating a herd that could swell to many dozens of puppets.

“The idea is that we’re migrating with an ever evolving, growing group of animals,” said Zuabi.

Little Amal’s journey was created by The Walk Productions in association with Handspring, the South African company behind the War Horse theatre show puppetry. For The Herd, The Walk Productions will work with another South African firm, Ukwanda, to produce the puppets.

Little Amal reached an estimated 2 billion people (including online interactions) on her 8,000km journey from Turkey to the UK, which turned the 3.5-metre high puppet of a nine-year-old Syrian girl into a global icon who even met the pope. “We hope to reach the other 5 billion with The Herd,” said Zuabi.

The Palestinian artist said he had been warned that coming to the UK “might be tough” because of the intense political debate over migration. “But the people of Folkestone, Dover and Kent more widely were generous and showed up in huge numbers and of course there is always a small minority which will shout loudly,” he said. “But I think if people are given the chance to show good will, then they will.”

“It’s a huge responsibility because we are the voice for a lot of children who don’t have a voice, but it’s also a joy.”

Zuabi sees The Herd as a continuation of the Little Amal project because when he spoke to refugees he met while walking through Europe with the puppet they would often say drought and climate change were triggering waves of migration.

He said: “We just came back from the US and Mexico. And there, a huge part of the migration crisis is generated by the climate crisis, because of failing crops and lack of income.”

Starting The Herd in the global south will focus attention on the people who are most affected by the climate crisis, said Zuabi, who believes the west often sees the issue through its own myopic filter. “For them it’s not theoretical, it’s not an exercise in recycling,” he said.

Zuabi grew up in Nazareth, and has produced award-winning plays about the aftermath of the Nakba, when Palestinians were expelled from Israel. He says the current conflict needs to be a turning point in the Middle East. “After this atrocity that is unfolding on the ground I need to hope that we will learn something and evolve into better creatures,” he said. “I need to believe that there is some flicker of hope for a better future for us.

“I think we’re going through a dire time not just for Palestine and Israel because this latest round of violence has unearthed some deep truths about the world. There will be a lot of soul-searching afterwards.”

Cover photo: An artist’s impression of The Herd on their journey. Photograph: Imagery by University of the Arts London