‘I was unemployed …’ began Nompilo Bhile before her words were lost in the loud unharmonious chorus of grunting, snorting hippos a few metres away.
We had stopped for sundowners (that ubiquitous evening tradition of a safari anywhere in Africa) on the banks of a dam in the Mjejane Private Game Reserve and I was intrigued to learn more about Nompilo’s career. Young guides from local communities, especially young female guides, are sadly still something of a rarity in South Africa.
‘I was unemployed …’ she tried again, more successfully this time as the cacophony subsided, ‘and living in my village near the Swaziland border when a group of people from the Wildlife College came to chat to us youngsters about careers in nature conservation. I immediately decided to apply and was so happy when I was accepted,’ a lovely warm smile creasing her pretty face.
‘The next thing I knew I was enrolled at the college to do a three-year FGASA course in learning to how to be a guide. I finished in 2012 and was lucky to get a job at Mjejane straight away.’
‘And you?’ I said turning to ‘Doctor’ Ncube the young man who had spent the day sitting next to Nomplio as she expertly manoeuvred our game viewing vehicle along the rough bush tracks. Every now and again he had interjected shyly to share the odd tidbit about animal behaviour he had learned. ‘I am also keen to become a field guide,’ he replied earnestly, ‘I have now done two years of my guiding diploma and hope to finish soon so that like Nompilo I can also drive guests around the reserve.’
‘He’s doing well, but still has lots to learn,’ buts in a grinning, leg-pulling Nompilo.
The easy charm of these young conservationists really lifts my spirit as it is people like them in whose hands the future of African conservation lies. In fact I found Mjejane as a whole to be an inspiring story.
Originally the reserve was a cattle ranch together with fruit orchards and some cane fields, but when South Africa’s new political dispensation came about in the 1990s the original community that had lived in the area made a successful claim to have the land returned to them. The original intention of the Mjejane community was to use the land for housing and some farming but it was finally agreed not to resettle the land and that conservation and tourism held the better options all round.
Understandably such processes are complicated. Mjejane’s enthusiastic conservation manager, Jaco Badenhorst, gave me a brief overview of the lengthy negotiations that took place and how the vision prevailed: ‘Our 4000-hectare Mjejane Private Reserve is proving to be an exciting model of how a new conservation area can come about as a result of partnerships spanning the community, developers and private land ownership.’
Badenhorst also explained how Mjejane’s physical situation has been a key factor in the vision as the reserve spans a tract of land stretching from the N4 (the main highway linking the country’s industrial heartland with the Mpumalanga lowveld and beyond into neighboring Mozambique) northwards to the Crocodile River which forms a common border with the world-famous Kruger National Park. Historically, their land also extended beyond the river into Kruger itself.
‘I would like to spend more time talking to you about Mjejane and our collective plans,’ he said glancing at his watch, ‘but I have to leave now for a meeting with people from Kruger.’ The relationship with Kruger is clearly a major key to the future as Mjejane is to be run as a contractual park, forming an integral part of the greater Kruger environment.
Notwithstanding all the exciting plans, however, commercial enterprise is already underway in the form of the 20-bed Mjejane River Lodge built around the redevelopment of the original farm homestead, and the sale of some land to private owners for the building of their own homes. The Mjejane community are the beneficiaries of these initiatives, but not just in the direct income from the lodge and real estate sales for even more important in the long term are skills training, jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.
These are the true foundations of Mjejane’s future, a future where many more young people like Nompilo and Doctor are the passionate heartbeat of this beautiful corner of wild Africa.