Asilia Africa: Positive Impacts

By Wandering Maasai | 20 May 2016

By Stuart Butler

Heavy rain the previous night had turned the dirt track into a slippery, gluggy mess along which we didn’t so much drive as slide. Occasionally we would come to stream swollen with so much rain water that it had taken on ambitions of being a river and we would inch, slowly and cautiously, across it, all hoping that the water level wasn’t high enough to lift our jeep up and carry it, like a stricken boat, downstream. Around us waterbuck and a few zebra trudged warily through the mud while throwing occasional glances our way.

We were on our way to Mbali Mbali village, a few kilometres beyond the northwestern boundary of the Serengeti National Park. Head north of Mbali Mbali a short distance and you’ll reach the border of Kenya while travelling half a day to the west will bring you down to Lake Victoria’s sultry shoreline. I was intending to meet Charles, the headmaster of the local Asilia Africa supported school, there, but a combination of the weather and the dreadful road meant I wasn’t wildly confident that I’d make it.

When, some hours later than expected, we skated our way into the large, grassy compound of the village school Charles was stood among a group of villagers looking, with some concern, up at the dark and menacing sky. “I didn’t think you’d make it. It’s easy to get stuck on that road and there’s very little traffic so you might have been stuck all night out there with the animals”. Well, that was a comforting thought…

It was Easter weekend and the school was closed for the holidays, but that hadn’t prevented a cluster of children and their parents turning up to see what was going on. With our entourage following us, Charles led the way into one of the classrooms where we sat down at an old-fashioned desk, painted with an Asilia logo, to talk. Wearing a grey pin stripe suit jacket over a tee-shirt emblazoned in the statements of one of Tanzania’s political parties, Charles sat with crossed arms and told me about the relationship between Mbali Mbali and Asilia. Behind him the blackboard was still covered in the algebra lessons of the last class before the holidays. “I have only been at this school for six months, but I’ve been teaching for twenty-three years in the Serengeti region. I came to this school just after Asilia began to support it a year ago. Before that I’m told there were very few facilities here in this school, but now we have good desks, classrooms and equipment”. Together, Charles and my translator, Dixon, a guide at Asilia’s Sayari Camp, told me how Asilia support three primary schools in the communities around the edge of the northern Serengeti. It seemed that Asilia’s support had done more than just improve education standards in the community though as became clear when Charles went on to tell me that although nobody in the Mbali Mbali community thought it should be an obligation of Asilia and other private safari companies to support the villages and their childrens education, but that by doing so they were making a big difference and, perhaps, most importantly, the villagers were suddenly starting to feel as if they were gaining some value from the presence of the Serengeti. This kind of statement intrigued me and I asked for an explanation. “Before”, Charles said, “most of us didn’t really like the park. We can’t graze our cattle there legally and there are animals that eat our crops. We are Koria peoples (one of Tanzania’s many tribal groups) and we like to eat meat, so we used to go and hunt for wildebeest and other antelopes in the Serengeti, but today, around here anyway, that doesn’t happen. We like the park and that the tourists come to see the animals”.

Some days later I was sat under the shade of an acacia tree at Little Oliver’sin Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park talking to Yohannis Solar, the Positive Impact Co-ordinator for Asilia, about the importance of conservation companies like Asilia working alongside local communities. “We spend around US$100,000 on community and environmental projects each year. As well as school based projects these include vegetable projects and lots of wildlife projects such as human-wildlife conflict projects, the Serengeti cheetah and lion projects and many others”. He went on tell me how he himself had seen the positive benefits of Asilia working with local communities in order to give them a stake in the natural heritage of Tanzania and how the attitudes of villagers, which in the recent past had so often regarded the protected areas as mere playgrounds for rich white foreigners, had changed so dramatically. People were suddenly proud of their wildlife and wanted it to thrive. That Yohannis had played a part in this turn around is a credit to him, but his proudest achievement though is Asilia’s recently established Twende Porini project (which means Let’s Go To The Bush). “In this country there’s really no kind of conservation knowledge that you get unless you come back and work in the bush and in the camps and parks. I felt that there was a gap and that the kids here in Tanzania were growing up missing a link between conservation and themselves. So, we came up with the idea that if we brought [the local school children] to these kind of luxury camps and gave them the full camp experience that they would gain from it. This is what the Twende Porini project is all about. The camp is closed to paying guests and we put the children in the guest rooms and they say ‘Ahh, this bed is just for me?!’. We have our guides take them on safaris and bring in experts to teach them about conservation. I think this is an experience that they do not forget and it stays with them. We ran it for the first time last year and sent the children to Sayari Camp in the northern Serengeti. This coming year the children will come here to Olivers Camp and to Rubondo Island (Lake Victoria). In 2015 we had ninety children go through the course and this coming year we hope it’s many more than this”. When I asked about the economics of it all Yohannis says that “Yes, it’s an expensive project. We have to shut down camps, transport the children to the camp, pay for all their food and so on, but it’s well worth doing. Really this is what our guests at our camps are helping to pay for. In the future I want to make it even bigger. I want to bring in children from Zanzibar, Dar es Salam and even other countries. They will all come from different backgrounds and will mix together, which will be wonderful. You know though we can’t get to all the children so we have also set up eco-clubs in sixteen schools. We give them a programme that they can work with. At the moment they are concentrating on recycling issues. I hope that some of these children will become the future guides and camp staff of Asilia”.

Outside a clap of thunder reverberated through the heavens and the lights flickered in the Mbali Mbali school classroom. Dixon looked at me and said with a degree of anxiety, “We must go. If the rains come down heavy we might not make it back along that road. Let’s get back into the bush while we can”…

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