Wild about the bush

When Patlego Machete lived with her grandmother in rural Mpumalanga, she couldn’t wait to escape to the bright city lights. It was only years later that she realised the bush had always been calling her back – and now she is imparting this rekindled passion for nature to children as a conservation facilitator at Good Work Foundation (GWF).

As we celebrated World Wildlife Day earlier this week, Patlego and other young conservation champions wish to drive home the importance of educating children – as future custodians of our natural heritage – about conserving wildlife and caring for the environment.

Patlego’s journey may have since come full circle but, as a young village girl, “I wanted a different kind of life – I envied the city life. I needed to go and find myself,” she reminisces.

After matriculating, she had hoped to become a chartered accountant but was not accepted into college. Then she heard about GWF’s Conservation Academy and decided to enrol, not really knowing what it was all about.

“Three months down the line, I fell in love with nature – it was insane!” laughs Patlego. She would stop to identify rocks as she walked home, eliciting curious stares – “and that’s when I realised this is for me”. Accounting was history!

Today, Patlego is a qualified GWF conservation facilitator who loves taking schoolchildren into the bush on educational game drives. She says they get so excited seeing lions, zebras, wildebeest and elephants for the first time – even though they live close enough to these wild spaces to throw a stone in there, most have never had the opportunity to visit a game reserve because of affordability.

“If you have a dream, it’s better to go for it than to just do nothing and feel sorry for yourself. My dream came true, and I’m grateful for the risks I took and the people who helped me along the way.”

Neo finds her groove as a game ranger

 

Neo Mnisi, another GWF conservation graduate who works as a ranger and guide at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, was hooked on the great outdoors from an early age.

Neo grew up with her grandmother in rural Bushbuckridge, where life was tough. “When the rivers were full [and impassable], there was no going to school, even though I was a top student, getting 100% for my Natural Sciences tests. Sometimes, I would go to school with no lunch.”

Her career aspirations were put on hold when she fell pregnant at 18. To make ends meet, she took a job packing macadamia nuts on a farm. Years later, a glimmer of hope arose when she moved to Tshabalala village near Hazyview, and learned of the opportunities offered at GWF.

Despite a decade having passed since school, Neo took the plunge and enrolled at the education non-profit’s Bridging Year Academy in 2020, and after that its Conservation Academy. “I’ve always loved reading and learning, so for me it was easy to go back to school,” she declares. “And I love nature.”

Thanks to GWF’s network of hospitality contacts, Neo landed a job as a transfer driver at Sabi Sabi. “They gave me a chance, enabling me to gain confidence as a driver. My driving improved a LOT in those first three months!” Neo then became a trainee ranger and, in February 2024, she qualified as a ranger.

“I get goosebumps when I think how much I love my job – it’s so amazing to see the faces of guests when they see an elephant for the first time in real life, not on TV. Some of them start crying,” she says, adding that she enjoys teaching children in her village about different bird calls and the importance of not harming wildlife.

“We should respect nature, and nature will respect us. Animals are dying because we are building everywhere and limiting their movement. We need to protect nature and wildlife and preserve it for future generations, otherwise they won’t know about their natural heritage.”

A conservation hero who never rests

 

Zuzumuzi Gumede, a facilitator at GWF’s Conservation Academy who has also worked at the Open Learning Academy, is a natural teacher who thrives on activity. “My favourite animal is an elephant – because elephants are always busy, moving around and doing something. They seldom rest.”

This animal lover was named a conservation hero during last year’s Extra Mile trail run (an initiative of the More Community Foundation) that passes the GWF’s campus in Huntington village – small wonder, as his passion for bringing conservation to life for young people is plain for all to see.

“There are a lot of issues related to human conflict with the natural environment, like poaching,” he says, explaining his passion for kindling a love of nature in young people.

“The natural environment is part of us as human beings – without it, we are nothing. It’s our duty to protect and sustain it. If we damage our ecosystems, humans are the next to be damaged. So we should learn to conserve our environment so it can sustain itself,” says Zuzumuzi.

 

 

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