Responsible Travel Article
Life beyond safaris – Zimbabwe and Zambia
Women from the Vugani Project making beads from recycled paper Photo © Will Whitford
by Sue Watt
The word ‘safari’ is synonymous with Africa and its wildlife. In Swahili it simply means ‘journey’, but it’s come to evoke holidays full of exciting game drives exploring endless savannah searching for the famous Big Five – elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo. At the top of every first-time safari-goer’s check list, the Big Five are closely followed by elegant antelopes like eland and kudu, and elusive predators such as wild dogs and cheetah. Even determined dung beetles and tiny termites grab the imagination with their vital environmental roles in the bigger picture of the natural world.
Africa’s people are part of this picture, yet all too often they’re forgotten in the scramble to see the wildlife, leaving visitors with a romantic, Disney-esque image of the continent, oblivious to the harsh reality of life for locals beyond the safari scene.
In Africa, living alongside wild animals isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t romantic. These people often eke out an existence in abject poverty. Exacerbating this, lions kill valuable livestock and in a single night elephants can destroy crops that might have fed a family for a year.
The ‘value’ factor
In such circumstances, local people need to have an alternative to poaching or retaliation killings: wild animals have to be worth more alive to them than dead. This is where tourism comes in. If wildlife conservation brings in tourism, creating long-term, sustainable jobs and incomes, and if tourist-funded community projects bring in better education and health care, then wild animals will be far more valuable to local people, giving them reason to protect them.
Conservation and community development go hand in hand, and various initiatives across the continent are now working on this principle. Here are some projects in Zambia and Zimbabwe that demonstrate just what a difference responsible tourism can make.
Kawaza Village Project and Robin Pope Safaris, Zambia
Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is a special place. Brimming with wildlife, it’s where walking safaris were born back in the 1950s and has been the stamping ground of legendary guides like Norman Carr and his protégés Robin Pope and John Coppinger. These guys lived in the park, forming close bonds with local communities, and were strong proponents for ‘responsible tourism’ long before the term became a popular buzzword. Many of their staff came from these communities, particularly from Kawaza and Mkasanga villages.
When I took my mother on her first trip to Africa, I wanted her to see village life as well as wildlife. First, we visited Kawaza while staying at Robin Pope Safaris’ Nsefu camp (www.robinpopesafaris.net/camps/nsefu.php).
At the school, the pupils sang and recited poetry, and spoke about their ambitions – to be a doctor, a safari guide, a teacher – ambitions that would seem unrealistic in many rural Zambian schools, particularly for girls. But Kawaza School is different.
Robin Pope’s wife Jo helped set up the project, focusing initially on the school. ‘It had 250 kids and only three teachers in three classrooms with no windows, no doors, and few desks,’ she told me. ‘At first we simply took a few guests. Then it snowballed and the funds started coming in. We rebuilt the school and now it has nine classrooms, a computer room, a library, over 1000 kids and around 20 teachers.’
One of the most important lessons is wildlife conservation, which is inextricably linked to the school’s success. Headmaster Felix Kaluba explained: ‘You’ve come here to see the animals. But once you’ve seen them, you’ve come to see us, and we’ve benefited from you. The wildlife provides the beauty in this area. And because we are its direct beneficiaries, we should be its first conservers.’
You can spend the night in Kawaza in thatch huts specially built for guests. This experience isn’t a set-up for tourists though – you can get involved in genuine village activities like traditional cooking, tending the fields, brewing beer, meeting a traditional healer or visiting the health clinic. With no electricity, the lively evening entertainment includes dancing, drumming and story-telling.
Photo © Sue Watt
Mkasanga Village Project and Remote Africa Safaris, Zambia
Mkasanga village is home to many of the staff at Remote Africa Safaris’ Tafika camp (www.remoteafrica.com). Tafika’s owners John and Carol Coppinger have lived in the Park for 30 years and through guest donations they have helped to fund the local school, offer scholarships for further education and built an outpatient’s clinic for the village’s 2000 residents.
As with Kawaza, it’s a different world from ours, with mud-and-thatch houses, dirt roads and no electricity or running water, yet my mother was overwhelmed by the warm welcome we received, evidence of the village’s intimate connection with Tafika. She listened intently as schoolchildren recited poems on issues ranging from gender equality and HIV/AIDS to the importance of conservation.
We loved the melodic, uplifting singing of the young church choir and walked around the village chatting to women and children. They were as keen to learn about our lives as we were about theirs, and gave us a fascinating insight into what goes on behind safari scenes.
Dete and the African Bush Camps Foundation, Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s once-thriving tourism industry has had a rough ride in recent times, a result of Mugabe’s dictatorial regime with its political volatility, hyperinflation and land-grabs. But latterly it’s experienced a quiet resurgence, with responsible tourism operations bringing much-needed opportunities for employment, education, community development and conservation.
Hwange National Park is home to more than 100 different mammal species and 400 species of birds. Under dramatic stormy skies, we saw lions, zebras, wildebeest, impala, giraffes, jackals, sables and hippos roaming the beautiful open plain dotted with acacia trees, along with literally hundreds of elephants as they migrated to and from Botswana. Zimbabwe’s national parks desperately need tourist dollars to contribute to conservation and gate fees, and to prevent them having to resort to alternative revenue from hunters. But conservation will only be successful if communities benefit, too.
African Bush Camps (www.africanbushcamps.com) owns Somalisa Camp in Hwange and Kanga in Mana Pools National Park, and has its own charity, the African Bush Camps Foundation. A percentage of its guests’ rates go directly towards education and micro-financing projects in Dete, a village of basic mud-and-thatch huts near Hwange that is home to around 30,000 people.
To African Bush Camps’ owners, Zimbabwean Beks Ndlovu and his wife Sophia, the charity is pivotal: ‘We’re both passionate about the Foundation and tourism allows us to pursue that passion,’ Beks explained.
We visited a chicken farm, an organic vegetable garden, a project making chic jewellery from recycled paper and a sewing group selling fabulous clothes to tourists, all run by women for women with a palpable sense of pride in themselves and their work – all made possible by the Foundation.
Pride also shone through teachers and children in two basic primary schools the Foundation supports: their rising standards have for the first time enabled two pupils to go to secondary school, sponsored by African Bush Camps.
What all these projects had in common was the warmth and welcome we received from everyone we met, people who had little to give us other than smiles – and their gratitude for simply visiting their country and their community.
A useful portal for researching different tour options is www.safaribookings.com.
Photo © Will Whitford
© Sue Watt has been travelling to Africa for 15 years and strongly believes that tourism must benefit communities and conservation. She is a regular contributor to Travel Africa magazine and is frequently published in UK national broadsheets and magazines including The Independent, The Times and Wanderlust. She co-wrote Footprint’s Tanzania guidebook in 2009; and is a major contributor to Bradt’s Namibia Guide 5th edition and Zambia Guide 6th edition. Her travel articles have also been widely published in Australia. Her articles can be seen at www.suewatt.co.uk.