Rob, January 2011

African Wilderness

Over the last ten years I have been drawn into an increasingly deep love of wilderness and since my first visit there in 2004, particularly to the wilderness of Southern Africa and its peoples.

Perhaps the most succinct way to express this “essence” is to recount an event that happened to me in 2008 when I was invited to the home of the person who has become my Zulu brother, Siphiwe Methetwa, in Groutville near Durban. Siphiwe has just now completed 4 years training as a trail-guide for the Wilderness Leadership School based in Durban.

I was privileged to be invited to the home of Siphiwe of the Mthetwa clan of the Zulu, rob3a good trail-guide friend. A goat was slaughtered and roasted and my friend’s venerable grandmother introduced me to the clan ancestors, burning the sagebush, imepepho, which welcomes ancestral spirits. This was a great honour which was accorded to me. Every part of the goat was utilised, the flesh, the skin, the blood, the viscera. Waste is profoundly disrespectful.

Grandmother told me something of her life and this anecdote concerning her mother.

Just after her mother, called Uzimellele, had her first child, she suddenly disappeared into the bush, leaving the baby, by default, with relatives. No-one could imagine where she had got to and she was gone for three months.

One day, she suddenly re-appeared in the village, dancing and singing and holding a leopard cub. The people were worried that there may now be an angry she-leopard in the vicinity who would come searching for her cub. They searched the surrounds extensively but no such animal was found.

Then the sangoma (shaman) was called and he told the people that all was well and that the leopard cub was a gift from the spirits of the bush and must be killed and its body parts used for their muti (medicinal properties). He also told them to expect that Uzimellele would manifest a special gift which the spirits had bestowed upon her.

Sure enough she had acquired great powers of insight and subsequently made a good and useful living utilising her gift to advise people. She charged just ten cents a consultation but so renowned became her abilities that over the years she built up a very healthy herd of cattle, the measure of wealth among her people.

I pondered aloud to Grandmother what might have happened to a woman in modern western society who disappeared at the birth of her child and reappeared sometime later dancing and singing, holding an infant wild animal. The men in white coats, earnest diagnoses of post-natal depression becoming psychotic, suppressant drugs, incarceration, family scandal and despair? Grandmother couldn’t believe her ears. “No!?” she guffawed in apparent disbelief, though I suspect that in fact she probably had a pretty good idea of the ways of modern Europeans with regard to “mental health”.

Wilderness Foundation

In 2006 I was directed by a friend to the UK registered charity, the Wilderness Foundation www.wildernessfoundation.org.uk which is an offshoot of the Wilderness Leadership School in Durban and, it goes without saying, has an office near Chelmsford!

This led me to participate in my first wilderness trail with the WLS in Imfolozi Reserve in September of that year. Though on this first occasion I was battling with a deep dread of being eaten or squashed for the full five days and four nights and trying to maintain a stiff upper lip at all costs, I got hooked and have participated in a good few similar trails with the WLS since, including in Pilanesberg, Okavango and the Kalahari.

Walking simply through the bush, building a fire and keeping watch at night, encountering our fellow-species (wild dog, spotted hyenas, lions, elephant, rhino etc.) close up on pretty much equal terms, has completely opened my heart and mind to the words of the co-founder of the WLS, Dr Ian Player, to the effect that the mistake humans made was to start building temples and churches. The bush is the most sacred place I have ever experienced and I am profoundly grateful to Dr Player and his WLS co-founder and spiritual mentor, the late Magqubu Ntombela, for their work.


Also in September 2006, again under the auspices of the WLS Durban and the WF UK, I made my first visit to Mabandla which roughly translated from Zulu means “Coming Together”. This is a community of about 40,000 people living in about 14 villages in the remote foothills of the Drakensbergs, about 5 hours drive from Durban in good weather.

Mabandla is headed by Chief Lawrence Baleni who is resisting the encroachments and blandishments of the mining companies which are keen to extract the minerals thought to be beneath the land of the community. At the same time there is much desperate poverty among the people and in order to provide jobs and income for his people Chief Lawrence and his father have established a sustainable forestry business which has been running successfully for 10 years.

Also established and running successfully is a scheme under which the WF UK sends young people from the UK to stay with families in Mabandla for short periods during which they engage in useful work for the community and their accomodation fees provide some welcome additional income for the families. Added to this of course is the immeasurable benefit of people from very different backgrounds coming into close contact and learning about each other.

Mabandla is keen to establish some serious ecotourism too since despite the success of the other enterprises a vast amount more income is needed, not least to help build up reasonable educational and health-care infrastructures.

A few years ago the son of Mr John Ngubo, a Mabandla resident, died of AIDS and in response John started up an HIV/AIDS education and support group which now involves a good number of young people, mainly young women, who knock on doors, distribute informative literature, female condoms and give support and palliative care. John is constantly struggling with a desperate shortage of resources and funds and has achieved a great amount in the circumstances.

Similarly the education infrastructure is desperately under-resourced and only God knows how much talent is going to waste.
I have stayed as a guest at Mabandla many times in the past few years and have always been made most warmly welcome. I have helped where I could with resources but it really is the proverbial drop in the ocean.

This is why I am seeking partners who are interested to learn more and to investigate the possibilities for bringing more significant resources of time and money to bear in order to support the efforts of the people of Mabandla to improve their situation.

Rob Leech
Tel/Fax. +44 (0) 1273 587 557
Email: leechr2@aol.com

Rob, 2 September 2007: I am now returned from South Africa having shared many wonderful and inspiring experiences with Alim at the Mabandla Community Project and with Alim, Kunderke and Ian at the Umfolozi Game Reserve.

I attach three pictures above. The first shows Alim at Mabandla at a gathering of people of the Shembe religion where we were made warmly welcome with roast goat and home-brewed maize beer. (Shembe is a revival of the traditional Zulu religion based upon ancestral spirits as mediators with the divine). In the centre above are the Mabandla Community Trust HIV EducationTeam. The third pic shows everyone (except me) at Umfolozi. Seated is our head guide, Paul, a zoologist….very knowledgeable and totally dedicated to conservation to the extent that he has willed that if one of the critters gets him he wants his remains to be left for the hyenas! Standing from the left are Jabulani, our back-up guide (senior trainee ).He is also a domestic violence and HIV counsellor. You can also see three of the four student guides I am sponsoring: Sipho, Lihle and Siphiwe along with Ian, Kunderke and Alim.