In Zimbabwe, Sue Watt meets the local people of Hwange, Cecil’s beautiful former home, and discovers how safari operators are helping them to improve their lives.
Hwange is the largest National Park in Zimbabwe and the third largest in Africa, with the highest density of elephants on the continent (around 40,000) and a healthy lion population of around 450. One of those lions was Cecil who was killed last year by a trophy hunter, thrusting the park and the issue of lion conservation onto the world’s media spotlight.
But little has been written about the people who live alongside Hwange. So on my recent trip, with grateful thanks to Zambezi Safari and Travel Company, I spent time with three safari operators who work closely with the local communities of Hwange: Imvelo Safaris, Wilderness and African Bush Camps
- “Just being a travel company for the sake of people’s pleasures isn’t enough,” Beks Ndlovu, CEO of African Bush Camps explained.
- “It’s a wonderful paradise inside the park but it’s not so nice living next to it,” Mark Butcher, Imvelo’s founder told me. A young schoolboy called Bright, who certainly lives up to his name, agreed. “Lions eat our cattle, and elephants and buffalo eat our crops,” he said.
Between them, these companies support schools and education. They build classrooms and teachers’ accommodations and provide teaching materials. They give eco-lessons and arrange conservation clubs, and offer scholarships for pupils whose families can’t afford school fees. And in the dry season, when drought threatens, they provide school meals for the children.
They support women’s groups in the area who make jewellery, knitwear, bags and fabrics. The ladies also grow organic vegetables, and breed chickens and goats to earn income to pay for school fees. “Everything we do must be sustainable,” Sue Goatley from Children in The Wilderness explained. “Helping women earn their own money is part of that sustainability.”
Each of the operators concerned has recently opened (or reopened) new lodges here. Imvelo’s Jozibanini, Wilderness’ Linkwasha and African Bush Camps’ Somalisa are all very different in style and atmosphere but all positively welcome guests visiting their projects.
For me, when I’m in Africa, meeting local people is as important as going on game drives. It gives a far deeper understanding to life in the bush, and leaves lasting memories.
At 6am, I joined youngsters on their way to school, chatting about their lives. Bright wants to be a pilot, others aspire to being a doctor, teacher or guide. I listened to their melodic singing at assembly, loving their last song “Happy Days,” and sat in class chatting to them about their work, realising their handwriting was far neater than mine.
In the women’s groups, I was amazed at the quality of the brightly painted wooden beads they’d made that wouldn’t be out of place on a market stall in Covent Garden. I loved the intricate baby clothes they’d knitted and the funky mats made from plastic bags.
But it was the pride of the women I’ll remember most, and their excitement about an upcoming craft trade fair in Arusha where they were hoping to find new markets, something probably unheard of just a year ago.
There’s a broader picture of course. Conservation and communities are intertwined - people need to get a benefit from wildlife if they’re to protect it. But it’s a simple concept - look after people and people will look after the animals.
“I love wildlife because it brings in the safari industry,” Johnson Ncube, headman of Ngamo village, explained. “Tourism has changed. These companies connect tourists to communities now. They bring education and employment. They bring light into our life.”