Sunday, July 12, 2009

African village of Welverdiend believes in the power of good

Children of Welverdiend at play, in high spirits
(all photos and text in this post by Sally Kneidel)

Ken and I just got back from a second visit to Africa that shook, rattled, and rolled us in the best of ways. While in Africa, we visited Welverdiend again, the South African village that had such a huge impact on us in 2007. I wrote several blog posts about the first visit in 2007:

Plan to spend a day in the African village of Welverdiend

An African village seeking solutions

Ecotourism can buffer the effects of poverty

We've been to a number of villages in struggling countries, but Welverdiend is special. It's the people of Welverdiend that make it so. I see that even more clearly now, after our second visit.

We went to Welverdiend initially on the recommendation of Dr. Wayne Twine, a scientist with the University of the Witwatersrand who studies the use of dwindling natural resources by rural villages near Kruger National Park. Many of the villagers have very low incomes, many are single moms, and they depend heavily on local resources that they gather themselves - branches for fuel and fencing, wild greens and fruits for food, river sand for home construction. Many of these resources are diminishing due to population growth, overharvesting by outsiders, and altered rain patterns due to climate change....brought on by industrialized nations like the U.S.

We've been to other kinds of village tours elsewhere, that turn out to be Disney-like historical displays. Fun and interesting, yes. But Ken and I are both biologists - he's a teacher and I'm a writer. When we went to Welverdiend, we wanted to know the ecological and sociological reality. How are the people of South Africa coping with diminishing resources? How are they making a living? What are their options? What are the solutions? We didn't want entertainment or historical education. I wanted the nitty gritty: what is life like here, right now? What are your current challenges and frustrations? What do you see for the future? Will you tell us honestly?

At Welverdiend, they did tell us, during both visits. Wildlife from nearby Kruger National Park and other private game reserves trample their corn, eat their crops, kill their livestock. (Many families keep chickens and a few pigs.) Gardens must be heavily fenced to keep out baboons. As passionately as I love and worry about wildlife on our planet, I learned in Welverdiend that elephants and lions and primates cause trouble for those who live with them intimately.

In addition to hearing the details about frustrations that we wanted so badly to know about, we were also warmly welcomed into the village and learned a lot about the ordinary basics of daily life. For example, we were shown how they prepare pap (the corn-based staple of their diet).

A young woman named Celebrate (above) and her friend Virginia (below) demonstrated how the women of the village grind corn with a traditional mortar and two ironwood pestles to make mealie-meal, which when cooked yields the "pap" they eat at every meal.

Virginia (above) sifted the ground corn into different weights, some for mealie-meal and pap, some for livestock. (More about pap preparation and diet in a later post.)

A Welverdiend weaver (below) showed us how she makes sleeping mats, using stones as weights on a homemade loom.

We learned how the citizens of Welverdiend build their homes and store their grains.
The granary above, of locally gathered wood, keeps corn and other crops out of the reach of wild animals.

We learned to speak a little Shangaan, the first language of Welverdiend. Xinyanyana xile nsinyeni. (Translation: The bird is in the tree.)

And we loved the traditional dances performed by the women of the village - with machetes! Their colorful clothes were fantastic.

Masevasi led the women in traditional dances that looked like a lot of fun.

Masevasi, the leader of the dancers

We had kept in touch with Welverdiend during our two-year absence, and we knew that the 17-member "co-operative" in the village was trying to increase tourism. The co-op is a core group of young adults who are energetic about seeking different options to bring much needed revenue to the village. We knew that the number of village tours had increased since our last visit, bringing in money through tour fees and giving the village women an opportunity to sell their art and crafts (below).

The jewelry, bowls, spoons, handbags, etc., in the pictures above were made by the Women's Empowerment group in the village. More about their crafts in a later post.

But in addition to more tours and more craft sales, the village had accomplished something more that was huge. Ken and I were stunned when we returned to Welverdiend to learn that the village had applied for and received a grant from the South African government to help them get started building tourist facilities and an Olympic-sized pool!

Welverdiend's completed pool for athletes training for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa

We were flabbergasted. Construction was well underway in June; phase 1 will be completed in July of 2009. Phase 1 includes the pool, a kiosk or snack shop, an amphitheater, a curio or gift shop, a reception area and office, a restaurant, and a building for "ablutions." It also includes 50 braai stands (barbecue stands) and an area for camping and picnics. Because the village is just a few meters outside the Orpen Gate into Kruger National Park, it will be easily accessible to the volume of tourists who visit South Africa's biggest park each year. The villagers also hope that the pool will be used by South Africans and by international athletes coming to train for the World Cup, to be held in South Africa in 2010. By that time, the villagers will have completed the construction of lodging for athletes on site. The grant will provide safari vehicles too, to take visitors on wildlife drives - giving the villagers added incentive to protect nearby wildlife.

One of the most exciting aspects of the new grant and construction project is that it's providing jobs for many of the villagers. In fact, most of the construction workers are single moms, for whom the income will be a tremendous boost. Added income will allow them to perhaps buy some of their fuel for cooking, reducing the pressure on overharvested village trees. I can imagine the excitement the villagers must have felt when they learned they'd been awarded this grant. I wish I could have been there.

But here's what I love most about Welverdiend. The villagers decided to hand out the highly-coveted jobs by drawing names from a basket. And it just happened that no one family got more than one job, and that most jobs went to those who would benefit most, such as single moms.
A Welverdiend mom who got one of the construction jobs, developing the new resort.

I don't see the people in Welverdiend patting themselves on the back, or bragging about their accomplishments. When things go their way, they're more likely to say, "God was with us that day." Such as the day the jobs were allotted randomly and blindly, but justly. They believe in the power of good. They believe in the capacity for change. They believe in a sustainable future.

I love them for that. I appreciate them for that, because just watching them helps me believe it too.

I'll be writing more about the people of Welverdiend in future posts, people such as Andres, a powerful and passionate spokesman for the village, and Clifford, an articulate writer who's kept in touch with friendly e-mails all these many months, and Robert, another of the co-op leaders who explains things so we can understand. I want to know Saltah better - a kind and gentle female leader in the co-op, and Nomsa, a member of the Women's Empowerment group, as well as Masevasi, the woman who leads the traditional dancing. I want to know all the people of Welverdiend better.

Our dear friends: Robert, Clifford, Justice, Saltah, and Andres

I'll be writing more posts about the inspiring variety of folks in this special village I've come to love, as well as our other adventures in Africa. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, if you want to tour Welverdiend and be inspired like we were, contact Dr. Wayne Twine at or Clifford Mathebula at The villagers welcome families, school groups, and tourist organizations such as Elderhostel and Honeyguide. They are happy to adjust the tour to address the particular interests of each tour group. The villagers who lead the tours speak excellent English; no interpreters are needed.

All photos and text above by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Key words:: 2010 World Cup training pool in South Africa Welverdiend South Africa Kruger Park Kruger National Park village tour wildlife fuel wood sustainable natural resources resort at Kruger Park

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Plan to spend a day in the African village of Welverdiend

Enery and Saltah grinding mealie-meal from corn in Welverdiend.
The leadwood pestles were almost too heavy for me to lift.

If you are planning a trip to Africa, and want to get a grassroots understanding of the issues rural Africans grapple with, I recommend a tour of the village of Welverdiend in South Africa. We arranged the visit through the Wits Rural Facility of the University of the Witwatersrand. The WRF and the village are adjacent to Kruger National Park, just about 15 km from the Orpen Gate on the park’s west side. The WRF is a university research outpost with accommodations for tourists, scientists, or student groups (high school as well as college, etc.). Wayne Twine was our contact person for the village tour – he is a scientist based at WRF who studies the use of natural resources in 13 rural villages nearby, and supervises student research. Geoffrey Craig-Cooper is the manager of the WRF and books accommodations for visitors; he can also arrange a variety of other educational and recreational outings in the immediate area, including guided wildlife drives within Kruger National Park. Geoffrey can book transportation (ground or air) between the WRF and Johannesburg (or wherever) as well. See the WRF web site for more info about WRF lodging and the nearby outings. (

Before we went to Welverdiend, we had visited other African villages that were simply Disney-like recreations of village life 100 years ago, or that gave us canned speeches. But Welverdiend is not a re-creation or dramatization of village life. It is a contemporary, functioning village. We spent the day walking from home to home within the village, on foot like everyone else. We met with the village “headman” and the village medicine man. The women showed us how they grind and sift corn to make mealie-meal, a staple of their diet. They also prepared a delicious feast for our lunch. Most of the delicacies were foods I had never seen before – including mopani caterpillars that were surprisingly tasty! With around 1200 households, the village has schools, a preschool and a women’s guild. The women’s guild and a group of enthusiastic children demonstrated some of their traditional dances, using musical instruments made of the long spiral horns of kudu – a local antelope. I didn’t see any shops other than a tent that some boys had set up to sell haircuts.

One of the village youngsters toots a horn from a kudu as his friends do a traditional dance

Some of the village men work at lodges within Kruger Park, or for nonprofit organizations, and we found them very well informed about the changes and challenges the village faces. The households rely heavily on natural resources as a source of fuel, food, housing material, fencing, and so on. The residents talked with us very openly about their dwindling supplies of these resources, such as fuel wood, and about their frustrations with elephants that trample their crops, and lions that kill their livestock. They were refreshingly frank about their options in dealing with these issues. The visit had a profound effect on my understanding of world conservation – I can’t overstate the effect it had on me, and I’m not sure I can analyze it. But I do know that eight months ago, my sympathies, my hopes, my anxieties were exclusively focused on wildlife and the coming mass extinctions due to habitat loss and climate change. And still, those worries occupy my mind. But I see now that the issue is much more complex than just saving wildlife.

Successful wildlife conservation plans must give local people economic incentives to participate and support the plans. And more than that - local people want and are entitled to an active voice in mapping out conservation plans as well. If elephants trample their crops, they must be compensated. When villagers call park officials about lions or Cape buffalo in the village, someone should respond. Parks and wildlife preserves should offer training to local people for employment in wildlife tourism - in lodges or preserves or parks - which is happening, but needs to happen faster. When the billions of wildlife-tourism dollars flowing into Africa wind up in the hands of rural villagers near the parks, everyone will benefit: local families, animals, community stability, etc.

Clifort, Robert and Andres talk to Ken (my husband) about elephants in cropfields

The issues involving resource use and conservation are complex and daunting all over the world, but perhaps especially in Africa – a place with more cultures, more languages, more animals than anywhere else on the planet. I am grateful to the villagers of Welverdiend and to the faculty and staff at WRF for giving us a huge leap in understanding these issues.

Contact information:

Cliford Mathebula (Welverdiend resident) at

Wayne Twine at to book a village tour

Geoffrey Craig-Cooper at to book accommodations at Wits Rural Facility, transportation, and other activities in the WRF area

Me (Sally Kneidel, a tour consumer) at

Keywords:: Africa cultural village Shangan community visit tour South Africa Wits Kruger National Park Witwatersrand elephants WRF welverdiend tour south africa village tour welverdiend village tour visit south african village visit village near Kruger National Park south african village life welverdiend village tours

An African Village Seeking Solutions

Children of Welverdiend, a South African village just outside of Kruger National Park

In an August 6 post I briefly described our June visit to the South African village of Welverdiend. We were able to spend a day there talking with the villagers about the challenges of village life in 2007, such as dwindling supplies of fuel wood and damage to their crops from elephants. That was a remarkable day for me - the visit put faces on issues that had just been abstractions to me before.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, the village is only about 15 km outside of the Orpen Gate, one of the main entrances into Kruger National Park on the park's west side. So the village can easily be included in any visit to Kruger. If you're interested in a village tour, contact scientist Wayne Twine of the University of the Witwatersrand ( The university has a rural research facility on the Orpen Road, just a few km from the village, where anyone can stay.

One of the village's biggest challenges:
For centuries, villagers in Welverdiend and other communities have harvested wood sustainably, by cutting only dead branches. But due to increased harvesting by outsiders, often for commercial purposes, dead wood is no longer available. This is a major problem because the villagers use branches to build homes, animal corrals (kraals), fencing, and furniture, as well as fuel for cooking and heating. They depend heavily on natural resources such as wood that historically have been free. But with diminishing supplies, harvesting of wood now often means cutting green branches, which damages trees and is not sustainable.

A household kitchen in Welverdiend, South Africa, constructed of branches cut from trees in the village commons

The solutions are not easy. The villagers have resolved to use wood only for fuel. Their goal is to use metal fence posts when building more fences, and to use cement blocks for new home construction. But that's easier said than done. They use river sand to make the blocks, but supplies of river sand are diminishing too. Kruger National Park takes sand from the same site, and the villagers say that less sand is deposited by the river these days. Why? Global climate change. Less rainfall in their area means that less sand is carried and deposited by the river. And who's causing the global climate change? They know who. Americans are responsible for climate change more than any other single country, by far.

In addition to the shortage of sand, villagers have to pay a block-maker to form the blocks, using a special mold. The expense is so high that it may take 10 years to build one home.

A Welverdiend home of blocks made from river sand and cement.

But even though their resources are changing as rapidly as the political scene in South Africa, the village is brimming with optimism and positive energy. There's almost no crime in the village, and the residents have formed a cooperative to create job opportunities. Wildlife tourists, many from the United States and Europe, bring millions of dollars into the Kruger area every year, and many of the villagers are being trained at the nearby Wildlife College (supported in part by the World Wildlife Fund) to help them get more involved in tourism at Kruger and at two private wildlife reserves bordering the village.

A leopard that we saw near Welverdiend

If anyone should benefit from wildlife tourists' dollars, it should be the local villages that live intimately with the native wildlife, not lodge operators based outside the country. One way to help the villagers of Welverdiend to help themselves is to tour the village, have the same fantastic experience we had, and to tell others about it. If you know anyone - tourists or student groups perhaps - who would be interested in a village tour, please direct them to this blog post or to Wayne Twine, email above, or to me (Sally) at

The Women's Guild at Welverdiend demonstrating some of their traditional dances to us

by Sally Kneidel (as a consumer of an enlightening Welverdiend tour)

Keywords:: welverdiend south africa welverdiend village tour Kruger Park wildlife fuel wood sustainable natural resources welverdiend tour south africa village tour visit south african village visit village near Kruger National Park south african village life welverdiend village tours