Words and photos by Howie Minsky
On this trip—which is conservation-based—I am learning it is not all about the animals.
It is not enough to simply protect wildlife and its habitat; it’s just as crucial to involve the community surrounding that habitat. The people here are hardworking and for the most part, poor—and they want the same things we all do: to live with their families in a safe, self-sustaining environment.
A strong conservationist must be a caring community leader. All too often well-meaning conservationists come to preserves like this one and dictate to the local community what they need to do to save wildlife through impassioned speeches, shoving abstract ideas down the throats of people who may be more interested in where their next meal is coming from. It’s not that they don’t care about the animals—but they also have some practical matters to resolve like food, clean water and education.
A good conservationist must create a long-range plan that accommodates these concerns. As part of our community outreach, the team has built a one-room schoolhouse for k-6 children living in the surrounding area. It is gratifying to help install pipes to carry water from a local well, or plant trees to provide shade in the coming years, or till the soil and plant a vegetable garden to help feed the students. The greatest reward is seeing these kids so excited to attend school. These rural families have great appreciation for education and the opportunity to improve their children’s lives and those of their families.
Today, we are heading to the school to work on the vegetable garden, plant more trees and help with any building maintenance. It’s a two-hour drive down a winding and very bumpy dirt road deep in the bush. Along the way we pick up garbage visible from our 4×4. Surprisingly, there is not much trash to pick up, but we make a game of it seeing who can spot and retrieve the most.
As we arrive at the school, the kids are already lined up for the one daily meal the school provides: mashed maize similar to mashed potatoes, vegetables and a bit of meat. This may be the only meal a child may eat that day.
Even more mind-numbing is the fact that children as young as 6 years old may walk 3 miles to school—on well-worn paths through the African bush also used by giraffes, zebras, baboons, elephants and sometimes lions.
The vegetable garden is a great accomplishment, given the rocky soil and dry season. We have established a productive garden of cabbage, tomatoes, carrots and onions despite the conditions.
We get to work expanding the vegetable garden, planting more trees in the orchard and fixing a leaky pipe drawing water from the well. It’s hard work in the heat but we know the pay-off is huge: our community improvements have resulted in minimal poaching issues on this preserve. We have a clear line of communication with the community and its leaders. Most importantly, we are a part of the community and are excited to continue to improve people’s lives and protect the wildlife and its habitat for decades to come.
To read more of Howie’s adventures, visit Our Man in Africa on our website.