I wanted to start at the very beginning of our journey, before the real action started as it sets the scene for much of what was to come. The Hunger Project New Zealand – Awaken Leadership Development Programme has been coming together over many months with participants working hard to raise $10,000 each to invest in the sustainable termination of hunger and poverty.
On Saturday we arrived in Malawi – a diverse county in southern African which is home to over 18 million people. We flew into Blantyre, which is not the capital, but the largest city. It had been a long journey – from Auckland, through Perth and Johannesburg, over 30 hours of travel. As we descended into Blantyre, I was surprised by how undulating and green the land was. Whilst it is the rainy season in Malawi right now, the volume of rain that Malawi and neighbouring Mozambique had experienced in the preceding weeks had caused the worst flooding the region has ever seen.
Upon landing in front of the small terminal building, we were surrounded by lush green vegetation as far as the eye could see. There were armed guards posted at various points along the perimeter fence – facing outward into the bush and we wondered what they were protecting us from. There was a gaggle of local children clinging onto the fence, waving madly – they were to become the first of many children we would wave to during our journey.
It was hot while we queued haphazardly to secure our visas for entry and handed over our cash. The set up was basic and not particularly security minded. I remember thinking that I needed to relax and try to adjust my approach, so typical of someone living in a developed country and all the efficiencies that come with it.
We were met by some of our extended group who had arrived in the days before us and it was a jovial reunion for those within our group who have made this journey before. I was struck by the genuine warmth of the women who would subsequently become known to us as “the three wise women”, for me, they provided a sense of security as they have travelled this path many times before.
We navigated our way through the throngs of locals who wanted to assist us with our luggage (tipping is expected in Malawi) to our bus and commenced our journey to the south west where Majete Wildlife Reserve would be our home for the first two nights. There was a lot of chatter on the bus but my eyes were drawn to countryside as we wound our way up and down hills, past clusters of villages, comprising tiny red brick houses with mainly grass rooftops. There were hawker shops lining the streets, women in brightly coloured chitenje (which is like long patterned sarong), carrying buckets, sacks and even something that resembled large pumpkins on their heads.
As we reached the summit we were presented with an expansive view across the flat lands. We would come to appreciate this view in different light each time we experienced it over the days that would follow. Much of the land was visibly devastated by the floods, the water had largely receded leaving behind flattened maize crops. Later in the week we would come to understand just how much of an impact that crop damage would present to those whose welfare depended on it.
The roads eventually become rougher as we approached the reserve, the bush was dense and it was getting hotter. We passed mud covered cattle as the bus lurched from side to side. We arrived at the reserve and found a wonderful, natural, open environment where visitors and animals share the same space. There was a large dining area, with an outdoor fire and a nearby watering hole. I was relieved at the prospect of not having to share a room, given I am not a naturally social person and especially not when I’m overtired. However our accommodation was a series of individual tent/cabins dotted throughout the bush and the realisation that I was going to be in the bush, on my own with nothing more than a tent flap between me and the wildlife was a bit daunting.
After we settled in, we took the opportunity to take a drive with one of the local guides around the park and learned about the incredible transformation that has taken place here. Due to the prevalence of poverty in Malawi, this region had been devastated and left devoid of any wildlife. There had been enormous tension around the use and purpose of the park. The following text I have taken directly from the African parks website for accuracy:
“Over just 15 years, Majete has transformed from a once-empty forest with no employment or tourism and only a few remaining antelope within its perimeter, to a productive and flourishing haven for Africa’s most iconic wildlife, generating revenue and benefits for local communities. Decades of lawlessness and poaching had seen the reserve’s wildlife completely eradicated by the 1990s. This all changed in 2003, when African Parks assumed management of Majete, the first park to enter our portfolio. We immediately began to revive the park through a series of species reintroductions. Today, Majete is flourishing, so much so that wildlife is being moved to populate other parks and private reserves within the country.
Black rhinos were brought back in 2003; elephants followed in 2006; lions in 2012, as well as a host of other wildlife making this budding reserve Malawi’s only Big Five destination with now more than 12,200 animals thriving within its perimeter. We’ve maintained a 15-year track record of zero poaching of rhinos and elephants since their introduction; and tourism has increased 14 percent from last year, with over 9,000 visitors, half of whom were Malawian nationals bringing in over US$550,000 to the reserve and communities.
- More than 2,500 animals have been reintroduced including black rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, sable antelope, impala and buffalo. The restocking of the park has led to Majete becoming a ‘Big Five’ reserve, and Malawi’s premier wildlife destination.
- By 2017, the elephant population had grown to over 430 individuals since 2006 resulting in the ability to translocate 200 individuals from Majete to Nkhotakota to help repopulate that reserve as part of our historic ‘500 Elephants
- Effective law enforcement and close community engagement have resulted in a significant decline in the number of poaching incidents in the reserve year after year, with not one rhino or elephant poached since 2003.
- Employment has risen more than ten-fold at Majete since African Parks assumed management in 2003.
- The local economy has been transformed by creating economic opportunities and provisioning of services through the construction of infrastructure, including schools, clinics and safe roads.
- Tourism has been on the rise, with over 9,000 tourists visiting the park in 2017, a 14% increase from 2016, generating more than US$550,000 in revenue in 2017.
- In 2014 a state-of-the-art malaria research and prevention centre was constructed in Majete with the goal of reducing malaria by 80% in surrounding communities by 2018.
- A scholarship programme has been set up to provide school fees for local children who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to attend school.
- In 2018, four new lions, two males and two females, were translocated to the reserve from South Africa in order to increase the population’s genetic diversity.
Photo borrowed from Millie Allbon, as all I managed to get was a fuzzy brown blob of a hippos backside!
Being present at the park was an important part of the process, it enabled us to bear witness to the incredible impact of partnerships. The Hunger Project serves an indigenous population of circa 90,000 people throughout 8 epicentres around the Majete region. By working in partnership with African Parks, our epicentres were located near poaching hot spots and as a result of the education programmes implemented, former poachers are now engaged in environmental enterprises such as forest based honey production. This particular example of honey production has recently been scaled, following a Dutch tourist identifying its quality and possibility. The tourist subsequently commenced a partnership with the local farmers who are in a production cooperative and the product is now distributed throughout the Netherlands.
Being present in the park was also an important part of the leadership development journey for us personally. We needed to extract ourselves from our normal lives and immerse ourselves in the environment. For me, in particular, I recognised just how uncomfortable I am without my home comforts. Whilst I didn’t feel homesick, I felt deeply uneasy about the environment I was in and I think this was recognised by others. The prospect of sleeping alone in a tent with nothing between me and wildlife was something I wasn’t comfortable with at all. I was offered the opportunity to change my sleeping arrangements and bunk in with others. I considered how easy it would be for me to take that option, but reflected that it was important for my own development to get out of my comfort zone, stop being such a wimp and suck it up! And I did.