Following our previous post introducing ‘Beyond Borders’, here is a continuation of the international happenings.
We were all lined up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at 7 am, awaiting the imminent delivery of the 15 or so children from the local high school in Zumbu community, with whom we would be working over the next week.
It didn’t take us long after the kids were unloaded from the vehicle to realise the extent of the language barrier. When greetings of “Hi, I’m Andrew” were met with “I’m fine and you?” we knew it was going to be interesting. In areas of northern Mozambique as remote as this, we knew how unlikely it would be for English to be a household language. So, with the help of Chawalo’s very own Mike, and the occasional assistance of some of the teachers, all the lessons were translated, slide by slide and sentence by sentence, into Portuguese.
Dean really has a way of getting into places that are difficult to get to. His infectious enthusiasm had soon melted its way through the membrane of mutual lack of understanding. His bright vocal tones were balanced with rapid gesturing and that made the kids – if absolutely nothing else – curious as to what exactly was going on with this crazy Mzungu.
The lesson content itself was interesting too. Having not been personally involved in the actual delivery of too many lessons prior to this trip, I had a good time in analysing them now. Enfolded within, there was an obvious kind of three-part logic to them. The first and most straightforward parameter was content relating directly to conservation. Information was driven home with the help of various examples which were as practical and relevant as possible based on the current state of whichever community they were being taught in. Each place has its own unique set of contextual circumstances.
The information was laid out in the hopes that it might appeal to some sense of dormant understanding within themselves. A plucky spark making a first-time connection and then sticking, trust me – no mean feat. But the thing I had to remind myself of at times, is that if we had to cycle through a hundred students or more, just to find 1 individual who was inspired to bravely challenge the behavioural norms of their communities, to strive to create new and better patterns, to start conversations, share information and be a local voice. Then it was worth it.
In addition to the obvious, the lessons had supplementary parameters which gave them a certain discerning sophistication. Teaching is, after all, a complex beast, not least for kids in the sweltering heat, being taught in a foreign language. In an effort to combat these difficulties, the lessons were strategically interjected with fun and interactive segments. Ranging from everyone ‘flapping like a bird’ or ‘jumping like a frog’ or the simple dance breaks that were sporadically included when minds looked like they were beginning to wander. The energy constantly injected by the young LiC team meant that the only people who enjoyed the lessons more than the kids were their highly competitive teachers.
Lastly, there was plenty of content included simply for the sake of interest itself. The cultivation of an organic sense of love for the magic that is nature is most certainly part of the LiC agenda. At the end of the day, we don’t just want these kids and their communities to co-exist in harmony with the natural environment simply because they have to, but also because they want to. We want them to want to come home at the end of every lesson and tell their friends and family all about the new things they learned.
The first lesson was ‘Nature Working Together’. By its end, we could tell the kids were starting to relax and get a feel for the atmosphere. The lessons were held at Chawalo Safari’s upstairs Lapa area which would otherwise have once been used as a bar. Once packed with chairs, the little venue was the perfect space for the lessons to take place.
After a brief intermission, during which the kids received juice and freshly baked rolls with butter and jam, we began the second lesson for the morning. ‘The Big 5’ lesson was one of the first lessons developed by LiC and has been a constant ever since. As the lesson ran its course, we began to see some of the personalities starting to emerge. We started to get a sense of which kids looked like they were showing signs of being genuinely interested in the content. Equally, at the end of the 4 or so hours, we also got a sense for those who seemed more likely to doze off.
Before we sent the kids home for the afternoon, we had them all set insect traps, in preparation for the insects’ lesson the following day. The idea was for them to discover just how many insects there are, right under our noses, lurking around so close to the ground that we otherwise hardly pay them any mind.
The day had been hot. As the sun began to lose some of its potency, we assembled on the dock area with cooler boxes packed and Peaceful Sleep pre-emptively in hand. Alex guided us through the network of tight river channels, past numerous hippos and crocodiles. The wind blowing in our faces, the freedom of the waters in front of us, these would be some of the fondest memories we took home of this place.
The scene was set quite perfectly as another record-breaking sunset assembled in front of us. We found perfect harmony in the stillness of the moment – the engine quiet, the gentle lapping of the water against the side of the boat, the circling and cries of the African Skimmers overhead. We allowed the glow overhead to permeate our faces as they were cast, upturned to the flowing kaleidoscope of colour. In a moment of clarity, we noticed a blemish in the faint blue of the evening sky. The tiniest silver wisp, the faintest trace of a moon brand new. Barely visible. An omen, a new beginning on a new frontier for LiC in Mozambique.
Before the start of the day’s lesson, we split into 2 groups and took the kids on a walking excursion to the nearby waterhole, which (in all honesty) was looking suspiciously like a muddy puddle at this time of year.
Today, along with the usual group of children and their teachers, we received the previous district commissioner who had since retired from office but still acted as an advisor for the current governor. He was also a hugely respected figure in the community. He had the taut, dried-up face of a man who had worked in the sun for much of his life and he looked much older than his 57 years.
He was generally a quiet and subdued kind of guy. He didn’t speak any English either. But during the course of the morning’s walk, we watched him come alive. After Mike had finished translating whatever piece of trivia Eugene had dished out, the old mudhara would begin to speak.
The way he captivated the attention of the students was something that could only be borne out of an organically built respect. We were so grateful for the buy-in we were receiving from the old man, we could see the value of the impact he was having on the kids. They all gave their undivided attention as he passed on whatever piece of wisdom from an era since passed and as we watched, more often than not, by the time he had finished they would all be in stitches.
After the excursion, we returned to the classroom, where one of the teachers showed some misgivings about proceedings. Indeed, he had compiled a comprehensive list of queries and now, in front of the whole class, brought them to the attention of Dean. Most notable of his indignations was what exactly the purpose of conserving insects was. Unable to wrap his mind around the concept spoken about the day prior, ‘all biodiversity is important and linked together.’
He couldn’t have picked a better moment to raise this particular query, as the insects’ lesson was about to begin. The rest of us watched with interest as Dean began to explain the role of insects in the food chain. Explaining pollination and how the survival of all crops and fruits are wholly contingent on the impact of insects as pollinators. After the lesson had run its course the same teacher went back to Dean, barely able to contain his excitement. He told him how he now completely understood the importance of insects and that he now wanted to conserve them. This kind of feedback goes a long way.
Seeing that lessons had ended with a little extra time to spare today, we stuck a few sticks up in the front lawn in front of the Chawalo Lapa and created a temporary pitch adjacent to the river. What began tentatively at first, very quickly became an intense and very competitive football match. I can tell you definitively that, if nothing else, those kids were extraordinarily fit. After about 20 minutes in the blistering midday heat, I had to take early leave lest my chest had the sudden conviction to be overcome by seizure. I considered briefly, as my heart rate surged to the very maximum, a life in which these kinds of temperature conditions would need to be negotiated on a daily basis. It was an unsettling thought.
We began the river systems lesson shortly after 7 am. This segment of the lessons had been a key focus for us leading into work with this community, with the river being such a focal point in the area. Their relationship and reliance on the Zambezi for food, employment as well as the crocodile and hippo situation would be a focal point.
I will provide a quote out of Dean’s dialogue that stood out for me which I thought a good yardstick as to how the rest of the lesson went.
“If we fish every day of the year and you take all the fish, even the little ones, until there are no fish left in the river. What are the crocodiles going to eat, what are we going to eat?”
The example resonated with the kids who reacted with a chorus of nodding. Dean explained that taking out every tiny, underdeveloped fish through the expanses of fishing nets that span the river confluence, means that those fish won’t ever get the chance to grow into more substantial catches and, more critically, be able to reproduce and create more of themselves. Useful knowledge, if your sole financial vocation in life, is fishing.
One of the interactive segments of this lesson was getting the students to go about building a bird’s nest of river-faring quality. The resulting nests were of startingly exquisite quality, remarkable how good these people were with their hands. While collecting materials for their construction, we came across a Western Yellow-Bellied Sand Snake. Eugene collected the speedy snake before displaying it to the kids, none of whom had ever had contact that close with a snake before in their lives. The snake’s discovery was perfectly timed, and we transitioned seamlessly into the next lesson: Snakes and Spiders.
After the day’s lessons were completed, and the kids were having their snacks, the team stole away to the water hole (mud puddle), got into our swimmers and began sliding around in the mud doing our very best crocodile impressions. A short time later, the cruiser arrived with all the kids, who wore some bemused expressions, to say the least. After doing our best to make fools of ourselves, one or two of the braver lads decided to join us as we tossed a tentative mud ball or two in their direction. Eventually, after much-animated persuasion from the madala, we had achieved critical mass and mud was being flung in every direction you looked.
After the fun was had by all, we walked back to Chawalo to rinse off. We felt the mud hardening on our bodies as we went. We couldn’t believe people in beauty spa’s all over the world were paying huge sums of money to do what could easily be achieved in a small puddle down at the local water hole! And even if our phone cameras disagreed with us, we all certainly felt much more beautiful.
The last day with the kids had finally arrived. So far everyone felt things had been a great success. We’d had some great buy-in from a number of the kids, many of whom were really enjoying getting involved with the content. Investing large amounts of their energy into coming up with solutions in their presentation tasks and answering the questions posed by Dean and Eugene.
The last lesson on the program was employment in conservation. We had a guest speaker in the form of Paolo (nicknamed ‘big 5’ by the rest of the group on the first day for some unknown reason) who was part of Chawalo’s anti-poaching unit.
Everyone was very excited for the afternoon excursion. The kids enjoyed a motorized boat ride out to one of the islands in the river, courtesy of Chawalo Safaris. We found some fresh hippo and crocodile tracks on the island, along with a retired fishing net, which made for the perfect conditions to emphasize the points discussed during the lessons.
At one particular juncture later on in the afternoon I tried my best to do some work, despite myself, praying the breeze would blow just a little stronger where I was sitting at the bar area, overlooking the river as I punched away at my keyboard. Megan came up the stairs to see how things were faring. She looked out across the river, admiring the scene.
“Are those rocks moving?” She suddenly announced, her voice tainted with a healthy dose of excitement.
The river islands across from which Chawalo Safaris was situated, we had been told, were home to some 100 odd elephant – and they had finally come to say hello! We watched as they wandered up and down the opposite bank, trumpeting their approval across the water which separated us. Undisputed kings of their island, and indeed of any other place they happened to find themselves. Aside from, of course, the masses of their once widely traversed terrain, now dominated by and dedicated to human development.
Day 9 and 10:
Having moved through the lesson content a day faster than expected, we now had 2 full days to ourselves – which we were all going to start by using for a much need sleep-in. Easier than it sounds when it’s gone 30 degrees by 8 in the morning.
We used the days to finish up reports and creating some awareness for our sponsors while enjoying the magnificent piece of Africa we were lucky enough to be in.
In all the 200 000 hectares of concession, Alex spoke of a particular Baobab. He took us there today, about a 25-minute drive from camp, where we planned to take some pictures for a few of our sponsors: Ruggedwear and Mopani Pharmacy. Despite the incessant attentions of the Mopani flies, we couldn’t stop our mouths from hanging just a little bit ajar at the sheer enormity of this tree. The tree had what looked like the trunks of multiple distinct Baobabs, all writhing and folding in on each other, fusing together to leave at its centre a hollow. The bark was textured in course contours, aged and gaunt. The trunk horribly asymmetrical, thinner at the exposed end and sloping endlessly upwards. The sheer sides were spit spotted with what could have been hundred-year-old ladder pole holes. Evidence of old, cut pieces of stick, wedged into some of them to facilitate the ascent of whoever was brave enough to stake their lives on the sweet honeycombs that lay suspended far above.
We reflected on the majesty of the tree as Zandré began excitedly digging at an exposed piece of what looked like pottery. Paulo’s voice went eerily quiet as he explained that in the native culture, one must bury a jar filled with sacrifices at the base of a baobab tree to commune with spirits and ensure successful and safe hunts in the future.
On our last day, Paulo took us up to the top of the local Zumbu mountain. We began the ascent just after 5 in an effort to avoid some of the heat of the day. From our vantage, at the summit, we had an unparalleled view into the unblemished floodplains of the 3-country drainage basin. The mountains in the distance encircling, the river wound a tight dance with itself. Like a mess of tangled serpents, fighting their way through the ages. In the distance, we saw the river broaden into the start of the immense Cahora Bassa. As far as the eye could see, barely a trace of concrete or steel. Wonderfully, spectacularly Africa.
In the radiant aftermath of a sticky, hot day we welcomed its conclusion. The floating cloud above our heads was the perfect net that captured what stray rays managed to escape from the thick, molten-gold beam that now hovered over the horizon. We sat in perfect silence until the gold had turned to red, first bright and then deeper. As hundreds of swallows appeared from nowhere and traced their path along the river to some unknown destination upstream, their distinct, angular forms silhouetting against the morphing backdrop.
We watched until all the brilliance had turned until the mountains were nothing more than a faint outline against a now washed-out, colourful distant night sky. We felt our spirits return to our bodies and the mozzies to buzzing around our heads. We were going to miss a lot of things about The Zambezi, but the mosquitos weren’t one of them.