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

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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)

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