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House of Pod Wins Big at Tribeca With Guardians of the River

The Okavango River system, starting at the Source Lakes in the highlands of Eastern Angola, spirals south toward the Namibian border, where it crosses the Caprivi Strip briefly and empties into the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
The Okavango River system, starting at the Source Lakes in the highlands of Eastern Angola, spirals south toward the Namibian border, where it crosses the Caprivi Strip briefly and empties into the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Cat Jaffee
In June, Cat Jaffee, founder of Denver podcast incubator House of Pod, hustled on stage at the Tribeca Film Festival to accept an award for the podcast Guardians of the River. Half out of breath, she explained how improbable it was that the podcast had been written and produced at all.

Over a year ago, in February 2020, Jaffee had just returned from two expeditions completed over four months in Angola, Botswana and Namibia. She had collected hundreds of hours of audio material, on topics ranging from elephant trophy hunting bans to land rights, which she wanted to stitch together into a podcast. Excited as she was about the experiences she had just had, she felt physically unwell, and soon after her return was diagnosed with cancer. It was suddenly questionable whether her podcast would be made at all.

Jaffee grew up in the Colorado Rockies. She approaches both her work and recreation with intensity. Before founding House of Pod, she started Balyolu: the Honey Road, a company in eastern Turkey that ran honey-tasting trekking tours and directed its proceeds to training local women in beekeeping and hospitality. She is no stranger to winning grants and awards for her creative endeavors and exploration, counting among her many accolades a Fulbright scholarship, National Geographic Explorer Grant and Luce scholarship.

After returning home from over five years spent on and off in Turkey, Armenia and Iran, Jaffee founded House of Pod in 2017, eager to build a community of podcasters in Denver. House of Pod offers a one-stop shop for podcast production, with a particular focus on empowering underrepresented podcasters with access to studio space and production expertise. Podcasts that have been made in collaboration with House of Pod include the anthropology series SAPIENS and Living Denver, a podcast on Denver neighborhoods and local residents.

In 2018, Into the Okavango, a National Geographic documentary, recorded Steve Boyes, a conservationist and biologist, in his life mission to catalogue and protect wildlife in the region. Jaffee was invited to join one of their expeditions, and together, she and Boyes’s team applied for a storytelling grant
to produce a podcast on the subject. A key water source for Angola, Namibia and Botswana, the Okavango Delta shelters an abundance of endangered species, such as rhinoceroses, cheetahs and lions. A founder of the Okavango Wilderness Project, Boyes worried that human activity was exploiting the Okavango’s natural resources. Her goal was to follow up on the characters and issues the documentary explored a couple of years after it was made. She secured a National Geographic storytelling grant and, although still lacking a clear vision of the podcast's guiding theme, set out to collect as much audio material as she could.

Over the course of four months, Jaffee explored the Delta and spent time with tribal communities that lived around there. She wanted to probe a case of missing ghost elephants, named for their unusual
white color. They had disappeared and were thought to be hiding from humans in the wake of the 27-year Angolan civil war.

On her trip, conversations with local residents, conservationists and scientists prompted her to spend more time with deep and difficult questions she had never considered at length previously: Does wilderness include humans, or is it separate from humans? How should land be designated? And who gets to determine what kinds of human activity can take place on it? Don’t elephants and humans both regenerate and destroy environments? What is an indigenous community? At the same time, she became interested in the mythology, folklore and oral histories of the people she encountered in Angola and Botswana.

Throughout her travels, Jaffee was unfazed by obstacles that others would be shaken by.

She recalls driving around in a rental car by herself once and getting a flat tire. When tour operators came by to check on her, they were baffled that she was traveling alone and warned her of nearby lion reports. She shrugged it off. “Those were the circumstances,” she says nonchalantly, laughing.

During one stretch, she spent over forty days sleeping in a tent, waking up at 4:30 a.m., “chasing people down to get interviews," she says. At one point, she had to confront sweat bees that gnawed on her skin. “I had beetles biting my arms, making me scab.”

In one interview toward the end of her time abroad, a friend of Jaffee’s said something that stuck with her. “There is nothing crazier...there’s nothing more wild or ambitious, or possibly even naive, than saying this phrase: 'I will do anything in my power to protect this place.’” In that moment, Jaffee’s friend helped her see the audacity of efforts under way to protect the river basin. She had a hunch that interrogating the meaning and value of protection of place would form the backbone of the podcast she wanted to eventually put together.

Jaffee returned to the States in February 2020 ready to get to work on the podcast. She felt a bit off, but hospitals were just starting to feel the strain of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors dismissed her concerns, writing off her symptoms as effects of altitude sickness, and diagnosed her with malaria and dengue fever. Things still didn’t feel right after she took the prescribed antibiotics.

Eventually, she learned she had stage IC ovarian cancer — a diagnosis that came after misdiagnoses because it was unusual in a healthy 33-year-old woman. All of a sudden, she had to make several important decisions: whether to close House of Pod during the pandemic; whether to freeze her eggs; and how to work on the podcast for which she had just spent months collecting hundreds of hours of audio.

The intense chemotherapy she was undergoing killed her appetite and made it difficult for her to remember basic facts like the names of people and places. As she headed into treatment, she resolved not to forget the podcast. She made a point of talking about it every day on the phone with Kerllen Costa, Okavango Wilderness Project’s director in Angola, and eventually host of the podcast. She enlisted a producer at House of Pod, Juliette Luini, to comb through the raw material and map out the story. Luini switched off with her co-worker on visiting Jaffee — since only one visitor was allowed at a time per COVID restrictions — and they sifted through the tape. Sometimes she even had them listen to audio for her; now, in hindsight, she could recognize that she had gradually been getting sick on her expeditions, and it was too traumatizing to relive it.

Ultimately, they agreed that each episode of the podcast would feature a distinct guardian of the Okavango Delta. They included local people who burn parts of the forest as a traditional practice of what they see as rejuvenation of the landscape as well as those who are pushing to make the surrounding forest in the Okavango Delta a national park. The result is an eight-episode podcast series, Guardians of the River, six of which have been released. They explore topics as diverse as the impact of wildlife surveys, an isolated town named Tempué debating whether or not to redevelop ties with the rest of Angola, the importance of ghost elephants to preservation efforts, and more.

The first episode was released in the beginning of June. In addition to celebrating the release of the podcast, the team had another reason to be excited: It had been selected for recognition in the nonfiction-podcast category at the Tribeca Film Festival. Jaffee promised her team that she would fly everybody out if the series got in, and it did, to their surprise. So the team headed to New York. They didn't take the trip too seriously, happy just to be invited; they planned to fly back home a day ahead of the announcement. And Jaffee had other to-dos to take care of in New York. Over a year after her intense chemotherapy had begun, she had promised herself that she would get tattoos — "ambitious tattoos…to take back my scars from cancer” — if they got in. When they got to the festival, however, Jaffee was told by members of the jury to seriously reconsider her decision to leave early.

At 3 p.m. the afternoon of the festival's award announcement, Jaffee waited anxiously in pajamas on the side of a street for her friends to pull up. She hadn't planned to stay the extra day, and she didn't have another set of clean clothes to wear. Her friends arrived with brand-new olive jumpsuits in two different sizes. She grabbed one, changed on the spot, then rushed upstairs to catch the award ceremony, running on stage to deliver a forty-second speech, price tags and backpack still on.

Guardians of the River had won the inaugural nonfiction-podcast award.

“I never in my life ever even thought anyone would listen or that the thing would get made or that I’d be on a stage like this, so I’m deeply grateful,” she said in her acceptance speech. It was a big win not only for Jaffee, but for House of Pod.

She had been in a rush to leave the Tribeca Film Festival because she had organized a bike-packing trip for young cancer survivors like herself. Despite flying into it a day late, she says it ended up working out.

Now Jaffee is training for the Silk Road Mountain Race, a two-week cycling race over 1,000 miles in length that takes participants through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, which she’ll take part in this month — a race that she notes has only a 20 percent completion rate. If she finishes it, she says, “it’s going to be the biggest achievement of my whole life.” Mere months after cinching the Tribeca award, Jaffee is already eyeing her next challenge.

“I know that the series of events are: I went there recording this show, I came back with cancer, and then I had to get my body through it all — push through to make the show. To me, inside the show is blood sacrifices, sweat, tears, relationships, love…" she says. "When you put all that on the line, and then you think about nobody caring, it’s really daunting. So it was just so cool to know there’s somebody here."

For more about Guardians of the River, visit House of Pod online.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify and correct multiple details of Jaffe's story.
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Jasmine Liu writes about arts and music for Westword, where she is currently a reporting intern.
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