It All Starts With an Eco-Club: The Story of How Children in the Wilderness is Changing Lives

Written by Kate Collins – Wilderness Safaris Copywriter, Blog and Instagram Manager

“It all starts with a Children in the Wilderness (CITW) Eco-Club.” That’s how Sue Goatley (Zambezi Region Community Development Liaison and CITW Programme Coordinator) describes the day-to-day buzz that’s rippling through rural communities bordering Wilderness Safaris’ concessions in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. The buzz we are talking about is a project to create small, self-sufficient businesses that have already brought renewed purpose and income to villagers living in these remote areas.

I am chatting to Sue Goatley, the Community Development Liaison for CITW, Zimbabwe. The reason for our meeting is to find out more about these thriving businesses – how they came about, what they do, and why they exist. This is a topic that Sue could talk about for hours…

We decide that two hours will do – and our talk centres on the vital role that CITW plays in bringing about change. We go back to the starting point… Eco-Clubs. Sue’s main focus is on making sure that children in these rural villages are able to attend schools. CITW relies on these already-existing schools’ systems to run Eco-Clubs as part of the curriculum, an opportunity to provide the skills and education for school children to learn more about their natural environment, with the aim of becoming future custodians of wilderness areas such as Hwange National Park.

As Sue points out, before a child can attend school, the first thing is to ensure that the children (and their families) have access to clean drinking water and nutrition. The wellness of the community is of utmost importance, and sanitation and having an accessible clinic to provide healthcare are essential.

“Only after that, once you’ve looked after the well-being of the community, can you start with wish lists and community projects. Building does not start before this… After all, you can always teach under a tree.”  Sue explains that there are five schools in the areas where she works, servicing around four to five villages. Each village is comprised of roughly 70 people. School, however, is not free in Zimbabwe and this means that villagers are required to pay fees for their children – the fees equate to $10 – $15 per child per term.

But how can you pay for your child’s education without a source of income? This is where Sue steps in, takes off her CITW hat, and begins her community role – one that is vital for ensuring the continuation of CITW programmes.

In order for schools to continue, it’s up to the families to police one another to ensure that school fees are paid. Appointed chairmen and treasurers in each village are also tasked with holding residents accountable, and making sure their dues are paid.

 

The projects that Sue works on are varied and numerous – but the ones I’d like to mention first are community school projects. These are projects that are driven by the school, through a committee at each school. The committees are comprised of a headmistress, a few parents, teachers and two individuals from CITW or Wilderness Safaris. Sue stresses that the committee is only permitted to have eight members. The committees meet up at the beginning of every term and get together to chat about what they’d like on their wish list. Sue is in charge of working through the lists but the suggestions are all presented from the committee. It is up to each committee to discuss what they need in their village and prioritise no more than 10 items on their “wish list”. This process usually takes a couple of days to iron out before everyone comes to an agreement. Interestingly, Sue has noticed that the first two items are usually school and teacher-related before other projects are listed.

The “wish lists” range from solar panels to vegetable gardens and goat projects. When it comes to business management, Sue lays down rules, gives the training and then lets each person take ownership.

Guests visiting our Wilderness camps in Zimbabwe also have the opportunity to visit the schools and communities, engage with locals and meet the young, bright learners of Children in the Wilderness. It’s also possible to fund some of these projects, and indeed, many guests have supported the projects that today have grown from “wish lists” into small and successful enterprises.

Here’s a brief synopsis of two current projects that are being driven by the communities.

Turning Waste into Beauty

“This project began as a result of a litter problem – we had plastic bags, chip packets and biscuit cartons strewn around the community.” Sue’s solution? Create something beautiful and usable from the waste…

Sue explains that there are 11 women’s groups throughout the area where Children in the Wilderness operates. The women’s groups already had individual skills and were making products to sell. Sue introduced a sewing and basketry course to provide further skills and find ways for the ladies to experiment with their creativity. Sue says, “The products they were selling were becoming overdone and could be found everywhere. We needed to find ways to make the wares more marketable, quirky and fun”.

The result of this project are these beautiful and colourful baskets and mats. The wares are made using plastic that is wound around strips of the local invasive sisal plant. The sisal is grown into a living hedge to keep out goats and cattle, and is also used as the material with which the mats and baskets (along with the plastic) are created.

Both Little Makalolo and Linkwasha now use the mats as tableware in camp and there are hundreds of ladies working on baskets, placemats, bowls, trays and coasters! Their main market is ecotourism lodges.

Winning the war on litter

Plastic, once a problem, has now become a scarcity in the villages… As a result, our Wilderness Safaris camps in Hwange deliver used plastic bags, maize meal, and vegetable and rice sacks on a weekly basis to each of the women’s groups.

Making Bricks and Beads from Recycled Glass

Inspired by the women’s group projects, another initiative has come to life.

The glass recycling project is headed up by 15 men from Ngamo and Ziga villages, who substitute river sand with finely crushed glass materials to make breeze blocks which are then sold to Wilderness camps, the community and surrounding lodges.

Empty wine and beer bottles from our Hwange Wilderness camps are collected and used as the crushed glass component. Coloured bottles are used to make the concrete breeze blocks, while the clear bottles are used for bead-making, a project that is still in its infancy.

“This group of male volunteers approached us to help them set up a new business of their own. After we produced start-up capital, and the glass crusher was ready, this incredible team wasted no time in getting the job done. After just a few months the product is now selling, the group members are earning a living and they are able to support their families.”

From this, the community is able to make an income, pay school fees, and use their skills and recycle, all at the same time! 

It’s something that goes back to what Sue says. All of this, these inspiring projects, are only possible because of the presence of Children in the Wilderness – a single Eco-Club at a school creates this enabling environment… Something that starts off small – an Eco-Club in a school – morphs into SOMETHING THAT REALLY IS LIFE-CHANGING!