by Roderick Gilchrist, The Telegraph, April 1, 2019
The children saw the lions before the lions saw the children. Woken by their chatter, the big cats rose up from the long gold and green grass, yawned, stretched, sniffed the breeze and looked out over the vast riverine plains of their kingdom.
Dawn had broken and the sky was beginning to blur from inky black to the softest peach, but already the new day hummed with mysterious insects. The larger of the two young lions shook his shaggy head and thundered out a wood-sawing roar, the carnivore’s reveille. It echoed across this wild land. The bush was waking up.
“Shumba, shumba!” the children cried with uncontrollable excitement. The shumba – meaning lion in Kaonde, a Bantu language spoken mainly here in central Zambia – looked at us with regal nonchalance.
“Lions think our vehicle and we are all one, so if we sit still and keep quiet, all will be well,” whispered Newton Muringa, our guide from nearby Shumba Camp. Fat chance. “Shumba, shumba!” the children chorused again. From our front-row vantage point in the jeep, we could see the lions’ sabre-like incisor teeth and almost feel the earth shake when they roared. This was the most thrilling moment of the children’s lives.
Shumba Camp is one of 39 properties owned throughout Africa by Wilderness Safaris – all marketed to high-net-worth individuals who want to immerse themselves in the Out of Africa experience while cocooned from the raw drama of life and sudden death in the bush. Guests rise at dawn from colonial-style canopy beds to float in hot-air balloons above herds of stampeding game, a flight made more intoxicating still by champagne sipped at treetop height. An artful stylist has designed this remote outpost, on a wooded island on the Busanga Plains, in the contemporary tropical mode.
But luxury safaris are not the whole story. For one week every year, Wilderness closes Shumba and other camps to paying guests and fills these Savoys of the savannah with underprivileged children from local communities, part of an initiative run by Children in the Wilderness – a saintly charity with a serious mission.
Like many safari operators, Wilderness had grown frustrated by the failure of African leaders to crack down on poaching, which is driving lions, rhinos and elephants to near extinction. Now, it is leading from the front with an ambitious programme to win the hearts and minds of the next generation of Africans.
The company’s aim is to foster in these children an understanding that the survival of Africa’s wildlife is down to them – and is inextricably linked to their own livelihoods. If the great beasts disappear, so will the visitors who fund the local economy – with the loss of the jobs, roads and other infrastructure that can eventually spring from well-managed wildlife tourism. Most of these children have never seen animals in the wild. Those who have are often traumatised, having witnessed violent animal-human conflicts such as crop-raiding elephants being shot dead by villagers.
Hence this inspired education programme, taking advantage of accommodation and facilities that already exist. Since 2001, Wilderness has been organising conservation classes in hundreds of schools near its lodges – and today’s excitable crowd are the most receptive of those pupils, hand-picked for this experience of a lifetime.
But are they getting the message? I had a small but illuminating affirmation that they are on our journey across Zambia’s wide ocean of gloriously untouched grass. After leaving the lions in search of snorting hippos, we found ourselves bumping down a dirt track in Kafue National Park, stirring up whirlwinds of terracotta dust.
Straight ahead, Newton spotted an army of black soldier ants crossing the track in regimental single file. Unwilling to crush them under the wheels of the vehicle, Newton slowed down. The children could see the ants now and began to chant their anthem. “Ketewa binjama,” they chorused. (Kindness to the animals). We waited for the ants to cross safely before setting off again.
There were 24 children at Shumba Camp when I was there, aged between 11 and 13, with an equal mix of girls and boys. They come from two primary schools in the villages of Kamakache and Jifumpha, 150 miles to the south. It would still have been dark when they left their homes of termite mud and grass, in which they sleep on earth cemented with cow dung, along with up to 15 siblings. Some walk the six miles to school every day barefoot. Their homes have no electricity and no running water – just a borehole where families queue with a bucket. Women wash clothes in a tributary of the Zambezi, where the crocodiles lying submerged in the shallows have made many an orphan. Meals consist of simple maize porridge and when sickness strikes, it is the tribal doctor who offers hope with his remedy for all ills (boiled berries and a consultation with the spirits). The nearest medical centre is 80 miles away and costs money which these people do not have.
Samuel Siamas Ngna is typical. His family exists on less than £25 per week by selling chickens for £2 each at the market. Samuel had never eaten an egg before his time at Shumba Camp, because the eggs have to hatch in order for the chickens to be sold.
“Can I have some more?” he nervously asked on first tasting one, holding his plate out like Oliver Twist. “Eat up,” urged James Mwanga, one of the camp mentors. “The more you eat, the more you see.”
Quietly, he explained to me the meaning behind his statement. “You can’t teach a hungry child – and education is our best weapon for change. We only preserve what we love, so we are teaching these children to love nature.”
There were lots of other firsts for the children. Eating with silver cutlery was one of them – they usually eat with their fingers – but there were also the pleasures of crisp linen, a decent bed, excellent food and a flushing lavatory – the sight of which filled them all with wide-eyed joy and giggles. One boy was so overcome by this miracle that he had to be gently stopped from flushing over and over again.
Then there was the accommodation: six canvas cottages set among date palms, with private verandas, wooden floors and bathrooms with gleaming copper basins plus indoor and outdoor showers. The children had never seen such luxuries, and it made me wonder about the complex feelings evoked by a world so different from their own.
On arrival they had also been given a smart uniform each, comprising bright orange T-shirt, colourful bandana and wide-brimmed bush hat, along with a pencil and notebook to write about the animals they saw.
There were lessons in wildlife identification, the cycle of life, choosing a career and working as a team – in which one class played out a game of sudden death, with tragic parallels in their own lives. Five sheets of A4 paper were placed on the ground which the children had to imagine were lily pads, offering safe passage across a crocodile-infested river. The team had to work out how to help each other across without being “munched”, as it was graphically put.
In the career workshop the boys and girls, who had hardly ever seen a vehicle in the backwoods, were invited to sit behind the steering wheel of a car, turn the ignition key to start the engine and rev it by putting their foot down – which they did with amazement and glee. Every day the camp rocked with their singing and the beat of tribal dancing.
“We want the children to have fun,” said Shuvanyi Tanivinya, another mentor, “but also to realise there is another way of life. We want to give them a vision of what is possible.”
In its 17 years, Children in the Wilderness has touched the lives of 10,000 children, helping with the costs of primary school fees and university education. I am told with pride that the number of doctorates funded is now into double figures. Many Children in the Wilderness “graduates” have also found employment in the camps as guides, cooks, managers and house staff.
In total, Wilderness Safaris ploughs £2 million a year into community projects ranging from drilling boreholes for schools to serving up a lunch of maize and purple beans at break time – for some children, the only meal of the day.
On the morning I left Shumba and headed to the airstrip – which the pilot buzzed to clear zebras from the runway – the children insisted on coming with me to wave goodbye. As the tiny, prop-driven Cessna took off, I could hear them singing even above the roar of the engine: “Mayende bwino, musi tukebele” (Goodbye, goodbye, we are going to meet again.)
It would be a hard heart that didn’t wish it could be so.
Children in the Wilderness
In Zambia, Toka Leya and Busanga Bush Camp host Children in the Wilderness weeks, as does Davison’s in Zimbabwe – but they are not open to paying guests. However, a “Travel with Purpose” itinerary allows guests to volunteer and participate in the Children in the Wilderness programme. This year’s camp will take place from Dec 2-5 at Davison’s and costs $3,449 (£2,608) per person sharing, based on four guests travelling. For information about the charity, see childreninthewilderness.com.