Villagers benefit from well-heeled visitors

Kids in the community
The children in the Welverdiend community are jubilant, greeting visitors with smiles and waving at the cameras. They enjoy singing their English songs to tourists, who bring items such as coloured pencils for drawing. Inside, there are spaces for various activities – a cutting corner, a space for fantasy play with stuffed animals, and blocks for colour and counting. (Images: Melissa Jane Cook)


• Valeri Mouton
PR Manager
&BEYOND
+27 11 809 4332
valeri.mouton@andbeyond.com


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Melissa Jane Cook

Along the western edge of the world famous Kruger National Park lies the upmarket Timbavati Reserve, a Big Five private game reserve that shares unfenced borders with Kruger, in Mpumalanga. It is an incredibly wild and alluring part of the world.

Ngala Safari Lodge, an &Beyond property, is in a prime position, overlooking Kruger. But for the lodge and its travel company owner, it is not only about the animals. Both have a long-standing commitment to give back to the communities where the properties are situated – &Beyond owns luxury lodges and resorts across Africa. It believes its contributions, leadership and volunteer efforts, help to create strong, energetic pockets of society where its businesses can flourish and its employees can live and work well.

As with the parent company, giving back to the community is a large component of Ngala Safari Lodge. Aside from the wildlife – leopards walk across the patio – attentive staff and luxury accommodation, a draw card for visitors is the lodge’s incredible community focus.

Ngala strives to create meaningful and lasting benefits for the natural environment and the communities that surround its operations. Its social and conservation principles are deeply entrenched and it prides itself on creating a positive culture within the community. In working with the villagers, Ngala has a three-pronged approach: a focus on education, health care and income generation.

Sustainability and conservation

That community is Welverdiend, a rural village just a few kilometres outside the Orpen Gate of Kruger National Park. In Welverdiend, the community is “working hard towards sustainable livelihoods and protection of our natural resources”, it says on its blog. It offers group tours, on which visitors are able to learn about the traditional way of life and the challenges villagers face in a changing environment.

Welverdiend means “well-deserved”. There is calmness in the community, a feeling of quiet. The homes are spaced out, littered with patches of green. Elvert, a driver at Ngala who brings tourists to the village, has a deep passion for the community. He says that there are about 12 000 people, guided by one chieftain.

There is a craft centre where locals sell their handmade products to tourists. Colourful bracelets, intricate beaded belts and wooden bowls are among the items made by the 24 women and one man who supply the centre.

craftsinner
There is a craft centre where locals sell their handmade products to tourists. Colourful bracelets, intricate beaded belts and wooden bowls are among the items made by the 24 women and one man who supply the centre.

Creating employment

Ngala believes the ideal for sustainability is to create employment, which it puts into practice in its work with Welverdiend. The community benefits greatly from the lodge, not only from its visitors. One local generally supports about eight people, which means that having employment, at any level, at Ngala makes a huge difference in the lives of villagers. Elvert says that tourism is a sustainable industry so “we must look after the animals as they bring the tourists who help support the communities”.

There are three primary schools, catering for 2 400 children, and one secondary school serving Welverdiend. The language spoken is mostly Northern Sotho and Shangaan. A nursery school, called Hlalala, has 76 children, aged from a few months to about four, and three teachers. The pre-school was donated by tourists, and Ngala works with the Africa Foundation in keeping it afloat. The teachers are all volunteers and play a significant parental role in the lives of the children. At school they are fed breakfast and lunch.

The children are jubilant, greeting visitors with smiles and waving at the cameras. They enjoy singing their English songs to tourists, who bring items such as coloured pencils for drawing. Inside, there are spaces for various activities – a cutting corner, a space for fantasy play with stuffed animals, and blocks for colour and counting.

At Mahlale High School, Moses Hlungwane, a former student, greets visitors and takes them on a tour of the school. In 2013, there were 185 students and they achieved an 87% pass rate. It is a no-fee school and students are given a meal a day. It is what you would expect from teens – girls with their skirts hitched high and boys with their shirts out, sitting outside classes or trying to bunk.

But in one section, the classrooms are uninhabitable. They are in a dangerous state of disrepair and old desks and books spill around the dirty rooms, strewn with litter, on uneven concrete flooring. Hlungwane says they have been asking the government to fix this for years; the wait continues.

He admits that he was a good learner and came back to teach others. He is seen as a father figure, and encourages the students of today to strive to do better. At the gates of the school as you leave is a large sign: What did you contribute?

mosesinner
Moses Hlungwane, a former student at the school is now a teacher there. He is seen as a father figure, and encourages the students to strive to do better.

Good deeds

It is said that “deeds of giving are the very foundations of the world”, and this has given credence to the work that supporters have done in Welverdiend. The pre-school, classrooms and craft centre, were all are donated by tourists.

Employing and buying locally and setting up business relationships with local people, it is believed, will help to create employment, stimulate entrepreneurial activity, increase investment in infrastructure and boost the overall standard of living in the region. Supporting local economic growth is therefore key to long-term success.

Ngala Safari Lodge manager Stephen Smith explains that Ngala has regular interaction with the local Welverdiend community, where they have “worked with, not for” the community to foster health care, education, employment and skills development. The lodge supports conservation lessons for the pupils, and locals have received bursaries in travel, tourism management and business training. One villager was given a bursary by French champagne group Moët & Chandon to do a hotel management course and train in restaurants in France and the USA.

Through its education initiatives, more than 10 classrooms have been built, along with kitchens for two schools and sanitation blocks. Classroom overcrowding has been reduced, hygiene improved and school nutrition programmes supported.

Practical help

In terms of conservation, the vast majority of the community has never been in a national park and does not understand the value of conservation. Hundreds of children have been taken on conservation lessons and the children are given opportunities to explore their natural heritage and learn the value of conservation.

Other initiatives are more practical. Water supply is sporadic and many hours are spent carrying heavy water buckets. Just under 1 000 Hippo Water Rollers have been distributed. This innovative product allows water to be collected far more quickly and easily, freeing up more time for income generating activities or education.

In addition, a food garden was planted at Mahlekisana Primary School and training in permaculture food gardening was provided. The school garden now feeds 4 000 schoolchildren and community members a month. It functions as a resource centre where people are taught organic farming and the nursery provides seeds for community initiatives.

waterwomen
Water supply is sporadic in the community and many hours are spent carrying heavy water buckets. Just under 1 000 Hippo Water Rollers have been distributed. This innovative product allows water to be collected far more quickly and easily, freeing up more time for income generating activities or education.

Health care

Respect for local culture and support for social development are integral to responsible tourism practice, considering the effect tourism can have on local communities. &Beyond also recognises that its most valuable asset is its staff. Spearheaded by positive health trainers David Patient and Neil Orr, in 2003 they created a dynamic training course built around natural vitamins and minerals, affordable foodstuffs and the power of positive thinking. It is geared at preventive health care and at improving the health of people living with chronic disease.

Patient is the longest documented HIV-positive survivor in the world, at more than 31 years and counting, 22 of which were without antiretroviral therapy. He was diagnosed with Grids on 13 March 1983, while living in Las Vegas in the USA. Grids was later to be more commonly and universally known as Aids. Orr has a Masters degree in research psychology in the area of psychoneuroimmunology, which is concerned with the role that attitude plays in maintaining health.

They motivate and empower people through Positive Health training, and encourage them to take positive action in dealing with all current health challenges, not just HIV/Aids. Working with &Beyond, the Positive Health programme has reached over 30 000 individuals among staff and rural communities. The programme was voted one of three finalists in the 2005 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards in the Investor in People category.

Goal is life

To increase motivation to stay healthy and start a culture of developing life goals, &Beyond created its The Goal is Life programme, linking the universal game of soccer and the great game of life. It involves working with World Wide Sports and listening to soccer stars spread the message that to achieve your goals, you need to maintain a healthy body and a healthy mind. Soccer stars have held workshops in surrounding communities to inspire and uplift the staff and neighbours, and to help spread the message of safe sex and healthy living.

There is also a Sing for Life programme, which celebrates the ancient African arts of drumming, singing and dancing. Across Africa, &Beyond’s properties hold staff performances of song, dance and drumming. It also held an international competition with staff from its properties. Competing against each other with virtuoso performances of modern and traditional song and dance, they gathered on a single stage and celebrated life, heritage and their magical continent.

&Beyond’s community development partner is the Africa Foundation. The latter facilitates the socio-economic development of rural communities living in or close to the continent’s conservation areas. The former provides direct employment for nearly 2 000 people, and in some cases has boosted the employment level on the land by 1 000%.

You can visit their website at www.andbeyond.com