“I touch the future. I teach.” – That quote, from American high school teacher Christa McAuliffe (who died in the Challenger space shuttle tragedy in 1986) sums up the people at the Lapalala Wilderness School in the Waterberg region of Limpopo.
They are not only helping educate children and adults about the wonders of nature which surround them, they are in the front line of the battle to save our planet from environmental destruction.
Lapalala Wilderness School
School director Mashudu Makhokha has been in conservation for 16 years, most of those with the school, and believes fervently that education should be focused on sustainable development.
“We have to teach our young people about biodiversity but at the same time, we have to give them the tools they need to help sustain themselves and their communities,” he says.
The school not only talks the talk, it also walks the walk when it comes to spreading the message about conservation – but also in educating people in using natural resources in a sustainable way.
Communities around the school – which is located alongside the Lapalala Wilderness – have been provided with assistance to set up beekeeping projects, small gardens and women have been trained in baking.
“The aim is that we will buy the products from them and then later, they will be able to sell their honey and their bread to the lodges in the area,” adds Makhoka.
Successful outreach programme
Lizzy Makgamatha is the school’s outreach coordinator and, like Makhoka, is a long-time staffer at the school, having first been exposed to it when she was a teenager and went on the environmental education programme with her school.
“I knew then that this is what I wanted to do so when an opportunity opened up for an internship here, I applied and was accepted. And I have been here ever since.”
She and fellow teacher Johannes Monyeki have established a highly successful outreach programme with junior and high schools in the surrounding districts, as well as further afield in South Africa – and the Lapalala model is also being considered in some other African countries.
Monyeki says: “We found out that there was a need in the schools for teacher education, too, so we expanded the outreach to help them, too.”
Supporting teachers has already shown dividends with a number of schools in the programme having produced markedly improved matric pass rates.
Conservation projects and programmes
But the Lapalala team is also proud of their success in encouraging pupils to taking part in debating competitions, as well as conservation projects.
“Through these programmes, our young people are not only becoming aware of the environmental problems facing us, they are also becoming activists,” says Makhoka.
“We had some pupils who went back to their school with an idea of planting food gardens, while others are now outspoken about the dangers of rhino poaching…”
Lapalala Wilderness School came out of the vision of conservationist Clive Walker who, together with Dale Walker, set up The Wilderness Trust in the 1980s to help preserve the magnificent mountain wilderness in the northwest of the country, bordering Botswana.
The school was set up in 1985 in a restored farmhouse close to the Palala River and, earlier this year, moved to a new, modern campus alongside the Lapalala Reserve.
The new state-of-the-art facility, which will be officially opened tomorrow, features environmentally low-impact technology and has lecture, accommodation and catering facilities for both teachers and pupils.
Monyeki says: “We don’t really need classrooms … all around us is our classroom.”
Lapalala Wilderness School funding
The school is entirely funded by private sector donations from a host of sponsors and shows what can be done with dedicated staff, professional and accountable management and a vision.
In some cases, the donations are critical in helping vital operations like the outreach programme.
Makgamatha says, for example, the four-wheel-drive Ranger Double Cab bakkies supplied by Ford South Africa to the school, are invaluable.
“Without these, we couldn’t reach some of the schools because the roads are so bad.”
The vehicles were part of a batch of nine new locally built Ford Ranger Double Cab 4x4s handed over this year by the Ford Wildlife Foundation (FWF) to some of the conservation projects is supports.
FWF manager Lynda du Plessis says the foundation currently supports 26 projects across SA, with one in Mozambique.
“We have 16 conservation projects, six research projects and five environmental education projects that play an essential role in creating awareness around the impact we have on our environment, and empowering communities to help protect our precious natural resources.”
Vehicles are loaned to the partner organisations for two years, with servicing and maintenance provided by the Ford dealer network.
Makhoka says: “Our sponsors recognise that the work we are doing is an investment, not only in the future of our children, but in the future of our country and our planet.”