Youth are our future – destined to be our planet’s custodians, a role now more critical than ever. Twenty years ago Wilderness Safaris made a commitment to rural African children by founding Children in the Wilderness (CITW), our non-profit partner organisation offering life skills training, leadership development, and environmental education to children from remote villages neighbouring Wilderness Safaris’ areas of operation. To date, CITW has enriched the lives of more than 40 000 children in eight countries – Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, South Africa, Rwanda, Seychelles, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – creating armies of young eco-warriors.
At primary school level, CITW has established dozens of Eco-Clubs, meeting weekly, led by Eco-Mentors (specially trained teachers), and spreading conservation learnings and ethos. Across the regions once a year, Wilderness Safaris camps closest to a partner school close to paying guests so they can host up to 30 local children for four days of immersion in the wilderness, wildlife experiences, practical training, and games.
With YES – the Youth Environmental Stewardship Programme – CITW supports secondary school students who show an aptitude for environmental leadership, building their skills sets and preparing them for careers in conservation and related fields.
CITW also offers up to 600 scholarships annually to help students finish school, as well as post-graduation employment counselling, further training, and internships.
This incredible investment is made possible through funds facilitated by the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, generous donors (our guests and others), and major fundraising events like the Nedbank Tour de Tuli mountain bike adventure (below), held since 2005 and raising some ZAR30 million for CITW so far. COVID-19 cancelled the tour this year and last, but the next one is happening in July 2022 – in fact, registrations have just opened at https://tourdetuli.com/.
Over the years, CITW graduates have gone on to become field guides, chefs, camp managers, pilots, and teachers. Children in the Wilderness highlights over the last two decades are many, but here are 20 milestones along the way, with many more to come:
1. Actor/philanthropist Paul Newman introduces us to the Hole in the Wall Gang concept (including healing, leadership, team building, and other programmes) for seriously ill children, inspiring Children in the Wilderness’ founding – and first camp – in Botswana.
2. CITW’s partnership with Pack for a Purpose launches, encouraging travellers to pack school supplies and other essentials for needy children around the world, now delivering to children in more than 60 countries.
3. CITW launches its partnership with the Mother Bear Project, a global community of knitters and crocheters creating adorable teddy bears to give to disadvantaged African children – in the words of the project’s founder, evoking ‘feelings of comfort and love’, a gift that ‘restores balance to damaged lives’.
4.Tour de Kruger is launched, taking cyclists on a 70-km ride each day for five days in Kruger National Park, and raising R1.4 million for CITW over four years.
5.Tour de Wilderness launches, later becoming the Tour de Tuli, a multi-day mountain bike adventure traversing some of Africa’s most pristine wildernesses in Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe – and CITW’s biggest fundraising event.
6. First CITW scholarships awarded to 36 secondary school students; up to 600 such scholarships are awarded annually now.
7. First Gordon Gilbert ‘Soccer in the Wilderness’ workshops, Zambezi region. Professional soccer player Gilbert and CITW run soccer clinics and discuss conservation with youth in Zambia and Zimbabwe; these are followed by similar workshops in Botswana in 2014 and 2015.
8.CITW’s Youth Environmental Stewardship (YES) Programme introduced, to date supporting nearly 3 000 secondary school students showing particular aptitude for environmental leadership, in training and skills development.
9. First Tri-Nations Camp brings children from Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe together at UNESCO World Heritage Site Mapungubwe National Park, where they learn about Transfrontier Conservation Areas; tracking skills; the web of life; teamwork; and other subjects. Aimed at giving back to the communities traversed in the Tour de Tuli mountain bike race, the camp is subsequently repeated in the following years until the pandemic lockdown.
10. First Shoe That Grows donation comes in to CITW, providing durable shoes that expand five sizes, for children in Botswana.
11. CITW kicks off its partnership with Southern African Wildlife College, offering CITW graduates a six-month conservation bridging course, exposing school-leavers to environmental education theory and practice, and to life as a field ranger.
12. ‘Sports in the Wilderness’ programme hosted across 15 affiliated Eco-Club schools, Botswana. Funded by the Diacore Gaborone Marathon, Botswana’s largest charity sporting event, CITW hosts environmentally themed track and field events, such as soccer, netball, volleyball, and running races – all geared towards building children’s confidence, environmental ethos, fitness, and teamwork.
13. Scholarships awarded to eight Bisate students, Rwanda, for the full duration of their secondary school education, with funding provided by OM Digital Solutions Corporation and Wilderness Safaris’ Bisate Lodge guests, covering school fees, books, and uniform costs. Scholarship recipients are awarded on the basis of their academic performance and participation in their local Eco-Club.
14. Three-year partnership with FNBB Foundation launched to further the Eco-Club programme, Botswana, aimed at exposing more than 200 children to the urgency of sustainable conservation. The FNBB Foundation is committed to preserving the environment for future generations, working in Botswana to support youth empowerment and environmental sustainability.
15. CITW partnership formed with Peace Parks adds Eco-Clubs to 12 schools in the Simalaha Community Conservancy, Zambia. Peace Parks also donates Groasis boxes to all schools in the Conservancy to support ongoing tree-planting and cultivation to assist reforestation initiatives.
16. Scholarship awards to secondary school students across six partner schools in Rwanda hit 110, including 30 new six-year scholarships awarded at the start of the school year in October. Awards are made based on students’ academic record and Eco-Club participation; scholarship funding comes from Wilderness Safaris’ guests staying at Bisate Lodge and/or Magashi Camp.
17. CITW holds five-day Conservation Science Camp for 30 girls from Ngambao Community Junior Secondary School, Seronga, Botswana. Part of a one-year project funded by the US Embassy-Botswana, it is the first Environmental Science and Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM)-focused project for school girls in the country, aimed at empowering and encouraging them to consider conservation as a career.
18. More than 850 solar lights are distributed to schools in Tsholotsho region, Zimbabwe.
19. Books for Africa donates another 200 boxes of books to CITW, delivered to 17 schools around Victoria Falls – bringing the year’s total gifted to CITW to more than 30 000 books, enhancing the lives of thousands of school children.
20. Wilderness Safaris’ annual ‘Africa in Focus’ international photo competition raises a total of ZAR200 000 for Children in the Wilderness – specifically for its Eco-Clubs and Eco-Mentor training.
Written by Melissa Siebert