Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Community Empowerment Through Enhanced Literacy

Community Empowerment Through Enhanced Literacy


For some years an adult literacy programme called Masifundisane (Zulu: ‘teach one; teach all’, or ‘teach each other.’) operated in KwaZulu-Natal under the provincial Department of Education. It was directed by Mrs Cynthia Mpati. 
It incorporated thousands of people. And while it operated it held out great hope for the most impoverished to better their lives and achieve dignity. Many of the elderly people who engaged with it had seen their opportunities for a sound education evaporate during the apartheid era. The programme set out to redress these discriminations.

The present report is intended to place on record a simple overview of the project. In the writer's view it was a brilliant enterprise, worthy of emulation in part or whole elsewhere in many parts of the world.

The present report was compiled as a result of the writer's participation in the work of a company rendering services to the organisers. These included the planning and introduction of innovations, training, cognitive enhancement of co-ordinators, liaison with outside resources and technical services. 

The methodology for gaining information included direct experience of the project, observation, interviews with senior personnel and field officers, formal meetings and documentary study.
Planned community involvement

The approach was planned in such a way that it was driven by impoverished local communities themselves. It did not depend largely on 'external resources' because these agencies might not adequately address community needs. The originators did not wish to impose a process from the “top” down, and therefore mounted a democratic initiative that would grow upwards from the grassroots community level. For years it succeeded admirably. Therefore, while modifications and adaptations might be needed here or there, it has great relevance to many parts of the world where deep-seated poverty holds sway.

Study in Cuba
In 2006 several senior members of the Masifundisane team visited Cuba and spent two weeks there. They listened carefully to the advice given.  They discussed issues with a wide spectrum of people, conversed with every literacy stakeholder available and generally sought insights from people who had promoted literacy in Cuba from the grassroots up.  It was an exciting experience and the team returned fired with enthusiasm from a visit that had proved stimulating and challenging. It held great prospects for the democratization and spread of education and training in the province and indeed, possibly all of South Africa.

 Within a few days of their return, the findings from the research visit had been thoroughly discussed and brainstormed by members of the unit driving it.

Five objectives 

The strategic plan that emerged after the Cuba visit reflected five objectives, namely to:
  • Provide easy access to the programme for illiterate adults
  • Create partnerships with various parties who could add critical resources to the initiative
  • Create relevant curricula
  • Train facilitators, and monitor and evaluate the programme effectively
  • Develop institutional capacities

Initial steps

Copyright issues were analysed, and care taken to ensure compliance where any external material was to be used. At this early stage a clear picture of the incidence of illiteracy was also gained. Particular attention was given to rural areas, and the magnitude and impact of statistics for unemployment, poverty and illiteracy were identified and clarified. 

 The trend of persons attempting to escape poverty in rural areas by flight to the cities was understood as a major problem, since it often  drove poverty-stricken people from one area to another without improving their prospects. It was resolved to address rural conditions through the programme so that people would be reaffirmed and developed as self-sufficient and productive citizens where their home communities had emerged historically. There should be a re-establishment of pride and competence. People should be proud of who they are and have their self-images and cultures reaffirmed.

Speaking, reading and writing incorporated into the programme
South Africa 2001 statistics were perused in detail and colour-coded maps were obtained that showed the incidence of illiteracy in all districts of KwaZulu-Natal.  Projects could then be mounted in various areas on a firm empirical basis.  Owing to the ease with which illiterate persons could be drawn into political issues, an attempt was made to remain outside any political controversies to ensure that people were defined fundamentally as people and not as adherents to any political persuasion.
Accordingly, the selection of areas to be the focus was dependent on the actual literacy requirements and the other needs of the people living there, and not political persuasion. In this regard, attempts would be made to address such other matters as health including AIDS, TB and malaria, with developments in health also achieved through the literary focus of the programme.  

Implementing community involvement
From the outset, communities were drawn in to give their opinions, advice and ideas. The ‘community mobilisers’ went into the field and invited peoples’ contributions with the words “talk to us”.  Curricula were designed around the idea of “safe” topics” that could be evocative yet non-ideological.  It was a matter of selecting topics for literacy promotion across diverse but always real-life contexts, with the meeting of personal needs as a prime emphasis as they were experienced in the real world.  The thrust would be to unify communities and not divide them.

 Main buzzwords were therefore to ‘affirm people’.  This implied the reaffirmation of individual significance, and the recognition of the full humanity of each participant. Every effort was made to avoid patronization. A further important factor was to gain insight into how the experience of facilitation reaffirmed the humanity and worth of the facilitators themselves.  Indeed the term Masifundisane means “We learn together”.  Yet another rallying cry was: “Each one, teach one”.

A problem-solving methodology was reaffirmed for the literacy programmes, with a powerful social context; yet in the midst of community affirmation the team never lost sight of individual needs.

 Matriculant facilitators

The selection of matriculants as facilitators could be seen as hugely important for these young people, since there is probably no quicker way to learn that to facilitate learning for others. The improvement of their chances of entry to further study in colleges or universities could not be stressed too strongly. It created hope for a lost generation. It also gave them work, and thereby began the address of a major problem in South Africa, namely the provision of employment for school–leavers whose certification might not have brought employment.  It helped them to go beyond the dead-end that many of them had encountered.
Matriculant facilitators were supported by a stipend. Their entry to the programme was made easy by a simplification of bureaucratic entry requirements, while the weaker aspects of  current training were avoided. Advantage was taken of helpful legislation, and in this regard the National Qualification Framework  was seen as an instrument to free the project from the disadvantages of sometimes rigid institutionalized learning.
A great effort was made to ensure that learners “learnt how to learn”. The teacher-centred approaches were therefore rejected in favour of a ‘constructivist view’ in which the learner constructs their own meaningful knowledge-perspective, and in general the approach worked very well. Communities had a choice of who would be recognized as a facilitator; a factor that made the best candidates step forward to prove themselves. The implications for improved social stability and the address of negative activities involving the young adults who would serve as facilitators within communities were clear.

 A flexible approach

The existing ‘Adult Basic Education and Training’ programme was seen as productive in some senses, yet perhaps too focused on the constraints of institutional education and training. It was therefore felt to be defective, since it didn’t look at real and actual needs as they were being experiences in living communities.  It was also constrained by rigidities of the academic ladder, and lacked the flexibility to react as needed.

 Although incorporating mother tongue, the existing Adult Basic Education and Literacy programmes were regarded as too biased towards reading and writing English, which has been allowed to carry a considerable weight of  Western cultural concepts.  Admittedly, the use of mother tongue in learning mathematics has been experienced as difficult because the mother-tongue concepts are sometimes alien to the needs of mathematics literacy and other subjects. The language of mathematics is more attuned to the rich concepts carried by English. 

Local community themes

Local community themes formed the curriculum.  This concept was dependent on research and the careful investigation of community needs. If there were no clinics, for instance, the purification of water would be part of the curriculum since it carried with it skills that were crucial to the welfare of the particular community that had identified the lack of clinics as a pressing need. Facilitators were taught how to mobilize communities and draw from them what their needs were on an ongoing basis.

 As a starting point, within four months people could learn to read in their mother tongue, with 128 hours spent on the programme. To consolidate their literacy they had to produce such documents as a verified report of some event, a self-written letter, and an 'own' personal biographical profile. They could even eventually read with insight the Ilanga Lase Natali newspaper started in 1903 by the famous educationist John Langalibalele Dube at Inanda.  These requirements were regarded as absolutely critical, to provide concrete, verifiable evidence of achievement and justify the award of a certificate.
Motivation was assisted by showing people that, in a sense, they could read; that they did have a starting-point even if it was distinguishing one popular commercial brand-name from another.  Problem-solving, games and visual literacy (achieved by showing interesting pictures and discussing them so that they could eventually record their content in written form) were all important. There was much on which to build.

 A simple methodology

Learners didn’t need to be shown how to hold a pen exactly; it was generally sufficient to simply ask them to do it. Just find a way! they were urged. They were asked to start with circles and straight lines when forming letters, and use them to reproduce the shapes. They were also urged not to drown in technicalities but rather to go from what they knew to what they didn't. They must strive for early success and read and write as they heard and saw things. The facilitators worked often with what people actually did. 
So the workbook of 178 pages included about 23 lessons, each of which was pursued until completed.  Topics came from the local curriculum as revealed by the community needs analysis. The three main categories of learning outcomes were pursued, including skills, knowledge and values/ attitudes.  At the end of each lesson a check was made to ensure that each of the three had been addressed well. Knowledge and skills were actively used in context. 
Lessons were often introduced by a story or discussion, and exercises were evaluated by encouraging feedback. Lots of formative activities were done on a regular basis.

Group work was used for building words and eventually writing sentences, describing the events in pictures and encouraging free thinking about such topics as home industries, domestic violence and substance abuse. Self-motivation was encouraged.

Community organisation

‘Community mobilisers’ facilitated access to opportunities, checked the illiteracy densities of district maps, and made a concerted effort to ensure that strategies were accurately linked to the meeting of community needs. It was envisaged that they would ultimately work in each district from a 'hub office', perhaps supported by a local business of bank.
Local and district stakeholders were identified and incorporated into projects wherever possible. It was clear that the formal institutions of the Department of Education could not achieve all goals in distant communities that had few resources.  There was a critical need for the flexible Masifundisane programme. 
District Councillor support was encouraged since recruitment was facilitated thereby. With District Councillors on board, wards and lesser authorities tended to fall into line more easily. There was then a more uniform understanding of processes. 
Churches such as the Shembe and those affiliated to the South African Council of Churches were also significant role-players. Many people were drawn to these programmes very strongly if the churches supported them. The same presentation was given everywhere.  Recruiting church members as facilitators was helpful since they were seen as upstanding and in tune with community needs. They could network well. The beliefs and culture of the churchgoers were reaffirmed.  The introduction of outsiders simply didn’t work because of distrust.  A further advantage was that church members gained useful employment. Churches often then made available such facilities as venues.
The fact that a facilitator could recruit twenty people for literacy programmes was powerful evidence that they enjoyed credibility in the community.  In a sense, learners then comprised an informal ‘community appointments sub-committee’. Most people were very perceptive and could identify suitable candidates. Such communities of learners had emerged from amongst believers, workers, citizens, communities, government workforces and educational institutions.

 Because of a lack of management support, probably due to a lack of available time and other constraints, programmes did not emerge substantially from within factories and industries. Workers tended to be reticent about revealing their low literacy status. They felt that it made them vulnerable to stigma and even ridicule. It could also hinder promotion.
Even dining rooms and garages were used as venues in the rural areas, and schools, clinics and halls were other available options. An attempt was made to find facilities in close proximity to communities because of threats of poor weather as well as other dangers. Venues had to be acquired by facilitators at no cost.

Some schools were used after hours
 Registration 'red tape' for facilitators was limited, with only an insistence on the fact that there must be a Matriculant facilitator who was unemployed, had recruited sufficient learners, and who had a venue available. Entry to courses was also user-friendly, with a one-page entry form in English or Zulu.

 Trophies were awarded to districts with the greatest recruitment, and other trophies were awarded for the greatest monthly growth in numbers.  Some special meetings were held to plan and organise graduations. Despite set dates and times for training and graduations, recruiting was ongoing and relentless throughout the year. Dates and times were set by facilitators and their learners.
Monitoring progress

A check was made prior to the establishment of a learning class, of the facilitator’s matriculation certificate, identity document, application form, name lists, availability of the expected twenty learners, and venue. In some cases where conditions mitigated against a full complement, less that the specified number were accepted. Groups as low as two or three were accepted in special cases.
Broad-based monitoring was carried out by recruited community members, who gave assistance and support without any financial recompense other than a modest travel allowance. They met once a month at district level, with an exceptionally high rate of attendance evident at meetings.  Minutes were kept to record their insights. Every three months a provincial level meeting was held, with major issues discussed and resolved in a democratic way.
Monitoring tended to involve a random sampling of sites, with recommendations made to facilitators and supervisors. Where necessary, Head Office looked into issues raised.  Where the approval of the Superintendent General was needed, issues were channelled via the General Manager.  With twenty monitors in each of twelve districts, there were two hundred and forty monitors.  Each district had two co-ordinators, one of whom would chair meetings while the other took minutes.

 Some teaching principles 
1. Present the conditions for learning language

Rather than to provide formal, structured language teaching to illiterates, it appears best to present supportive conditions under which it can thrive and develop spontaneously in its own way. So, facilitators were asked to foster an environment in which effective language learning could develop.  Learners developed and consolidated personal mental representations and therefore meanings.

 2. Motivation

They were asked to capture interest early by using the learner’s needs and objectives. They should discover and nurture springs of motivation in each learner and assist as motivation waxes and wanes. Students were responsible for their own learning as they worked on weaknesses and insufficiencies.

3. Normal environments and tasks

Learners used language for normal purposes, not artificially. They ensured that it operated close to real communication, with creative expression of meanings and not imitation. Facilitators encouraged participatory activities that were student-initiated, purposeful and task-oriented.  Some were peer to peer activities, others were done in small groups that co-operated on tasks demanding language. Language learning was allowed to penetrate other cultural activities. Culturally probable situations and real-world community activities were found to be most productive.

 4. Non threatening atmosphere.

learners were encouraged to think and feel 'naturally'. No emotional threats were allowed to surface, and peers and teachers helped where necessary.  People were required to be comforting, interested and respectful of each other. They could take risks, with no fear of failure. The even taught each other under the slogan: 'While we teach we learn.'

5. Rules of usage

Rule-governed (phonological, syntactical, semantic, pragmatic) subsystems were covered in an interrelated way. Learners were not left to drift into errors by ignoring a firm structural framework, but rather performed rules actively; they didn't simply memorize or discuss them. They used them.
6. Modalities

Facilitators offered a wide range of modalities, including physical responses to language, explaining drawings, understanding aural inputs, delivering spoken output; also reading, writing, doing word puzzles, manipulation of objects, describing pictures and engaging with song, dance, music, acting scenarios, gestures, facial expressions and making things.

7. Tests

Tests were done solely to help learning. facilitators learnt not to find errors and omissions as a first concern; but to rather allow learners to display their learning experiences.  Learners reflected course objectives and student interests in what they explored, and didn't stick too rigidly to times. Above all, facilitators avoided over-testing, and tended to rely on the production of assigned work.

Graduation and testimony

During the terminal phase of the project I attended a graduation ceremony at the Pietermaritzburg show grounds in Natal. Thousands of mature students were present, each decked out in the colours of the region from which they had been transported. They sat in a massive tent the size of a football field. In turn, each region was acknowledged, and a number of certificates were handed out.

Recipients ranged from 19 years to gogos (grandmothers) in their 90s. Many took to the stage to bear witness to how the programme had helped them. Some danced for joy, expressing their delight at being accredited as sufficiently literate to read a newspaper in Zulu or English. One elderly matron, not present, was reputed to be 101 years old.

Although as a comparative outsider it was difficult for me to establish each participant's level of achievement in an objective academic way, the anecdotes of  empowerment and competence were frequent, unrehearsed and stated clearly in public. 
The Masifundisane project generated enormous potential for good, with obvious benefits for self respect and an alleviation of the 'victim' mentality. It is no doubt worth adapting and pursuing, in part or whole, as a broad model for the enhancement of literacy in many other parts of the world.

Further, meticulous and detailed research would no doubt uncover the triumphs and problems inherent in a system as extensive and spontaneous as this. Modifications and refinements would no doubt be necessary to gain optimal achievements.

In South Africa it seems to have been seen finally as a single, historically-located project set up to alleviate the deficit caused by apartheid.

The process continued under the banner of the prevailing Sector Education and Training Authority system and national grid of qualifications. These offered ongoing, alternative literacy programmes under the Adult Basic Education and Training curricula.

Further recommendations

In the author’s view, while it functioned for some years the project was one of the finest anywhere in the world. The principles of care and nurturing were brilliant markers in an otherwise fundamentally uncaring environment. It is worthy of resuscitation in my own country and wherever in the world illiteracy is widespread.

Further developments worthy of future consideration could include the development in each participant of a wider range of literacies such as home language, language of the economy (English?), numeracy, thinking skills, life skills, entrepreneurship, business practice, financial literacy, computer skills and cell phone literacy.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Gala and the Great Zulu King

Gala and the Great Zulu King

Have you read the stirring ballad or epic poem Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? In stirring verse, it tells of incidents in the life and times of Hiawatha, a legendary indigenous American.  
If you’ve not read the American epic, perhaps you’re familiar with The ballad of Abdul Abulbul Amir, dealing with an incident in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877? It reflects a battle to the death by two powerful military protagonists who will give no quarter. It was written by Percy French. Both are worth reading if you like fairly robust, descriptive work, and have not done so before.

 You might need a snippet of Zulu history to appreciate the ballad I have written and reproduced below. It refers to an incident that happened in 1828, almost a year after the death of King Shaka’s mother Nandi. It occurred a few months before the death of the king himself at the hands of his servant Mbopha, and brothers Dingane and Nomahlanjana.

King Shaka ka Senzangakhona
As was customary after the death of a significant royal, the king of the Zulus ordered a period of national mourning when Nandi died. During the tumultuous year that followed, many people killed cattle as sacrifices and tokens of grief, ate little solid food, and bore no children. Those who disobeyed were treated harshly. Some were executed.
Eventually in frustration at the loss of livestock and even human lives, a brave man by the name of Gala confronted the king directly, roaring out his fury. His actions were done more an act of loyalty to jar the king from his misery, than as a simple show of defiance. Gala, who no doubt anticipated being put to death, took an astonishing risk on behalf of the nation. The result is recorded here in ballad form.
The author of the present ballad has no pretensions to conceiving great epic poetry, but felt that South Africa should not be left out. We have many remarkable historical traditions that lend themselves well to an epic poem or ballad. The ballad below follows the same distinct, throbbing rhythm of the two great epic poems mentioned above.

The ballad.
He sat stony-faced with a shield on his knees,

And sealed neighbours fate with an army like bees,

Moments of kindness, and then hard to please.

Muscles of steel and thighs like young trees,

The great Zulu king!

His praises still ring.


When his mother died it stunned him a while,

Wept on his shield, no hint of a smile,

The people were shocked; was this the king’s guile…

He’d never shown weakness, most easy to rile,

This stern man of war!

He’d laid down the law.


The king gave his orders, harsh and grim,

Mourn deeply his mother, or answer to him,

Take no solid food, or risk life and limb.

‘We kill many cattle to comply with each whim,

For the king will not bend…

Oh, when will this end?’


But then came a brave man, Gala his name,

Strode up to the king, erect was his frame,

‘The cattle are dying, long gone are wild game,

Your people are starving, will you take the blame?

The harvests all wither; there is no corn…

You’ll soon have no army; no children are born’


Shaka was angered, he stood tall and proud,

He turned to the councillors and then to the crowd,

‘Who brought this man here? Go find him a shroud.

Glowering down now, he bellowed out loud,

‘The stranger has drawn his very last breath,

Impertinent dog, you ask for your death’.


The sycophants raged, they ranted and cursed,

But Gala spoke on, his veins near to burst,

‘I have more to tell you, and then do your worst…

Stuff a stone in your gut; you’re not the first,

To lose his mother in Zululand.

Like any loyal man, here I stand.’


The counsellors gasped, the crowd fell back,

Would this brave stranger now pay for his lack,

Of courtesy…   or take a tack,

That begged forgiveness or sought a crack,

In the king’s stern countenance…

Atone to him for the grave offence?


For an age Shaka stood, lost deep in thought,

Fighting once more the great battles fought,

And, wondering again at the virtues brought,

By such men as Gala who often had nought,

But to offer their lives,

That the nation might thrive.


Then Shaka relaxed, and quite soon he said,

‘It’s better for all he’s alive and not dead.

How can I kill him, he speaks words so true,

When will you councillors do so too?

Toe to toe, and eye to eye,

He is a man prepared to die’.


‘You have no head ring’, he said to the man,

‘I give you the honour, and know that I can…

Honour the fighters who fight for your clan,

And that I do gladly, as part of my plan.

Great courage you bring,

…Your men have the ring.


‘I reprieve you Gala, brave amongst brave,

You spoke well of a mother now in her grave,

The great she-elephant, head of her clan,

Stern in her wisdom and strong as a man.

See that he sleeps, and see that he’s fed,

And give him a hut and make up a bed’.


Gala left early, set forth on the trudge,

Leaving a king who bore him no grudge,

For the harsh words he spoke and the bellicose tone,

And the blunt admonition to swallow a stone.

Whatever they say of the great Zulu king,

Courage it was, that made his heart sing.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Call of the wilderness: how to conduct a nature hike

The call of the wilderness: how to conduct a nature hike


National treasures

The late Dr Ian Player spoke often of the periods of contemplation and silent meditation he invited participants to take when he guided them on nature trails in the Umfolozi Park. Each hiker would be asked to seek out a suitable spot distant from the others, to reflect and soak up the character and atmosphere of the wild during an evening vigil.

For most it was an unforgettable experience. There was something primeval about making contact with the ‘collective unconscious’ of humankind. The hikers tapped as best they could into the distant wild heritage of humanity, and explored the way our lives on the African savannah had influenced and formed our minds, physiology, instincts and social predispositions.

Grave, courteous and kindly, Player never gave up on the idea of a Creative Being in charge of it all. He would ask the hikers to relish the silence, distant from the shallow-grounded mercenary hustle and bustle of the cities that most had come from.

 As a young man I devoured his anecdotes of canoeing excursions on the Phongola River and canoeing races in the early 1950s with Ernie Pearce, father of my sister-in-law Linda. Despite the Umgeni being negotiated first in 1893 by Foley and Marianni in a sixteen-foot canvas canoe, it was the races between Player, Pearce and a few others more than a half-century later that started the ‘Duzi marathons’.

Player was, and remains, one of the national treasures of KwaZulu-Natal. Indeed, so is Pearce, who with three races behind him undertook the organization of subsequent events and sustained the competition when Player moved more deeply into conservation.

Another great conservationist was Hugh Dent. Tanned, slender of build and gentle in temperament, Dent was a man deeply committed to nature. In 1962, he guided an excursion of schoolboys I was entrusted with leading in the wild by the (then) Northlands Boys High School. I have never forgotten the sharp reprimand he dished out when I approached too close to a herd of white rhinos. I was just twenty years old at the time. It was a memorable first lesson in safety in the presence of large game, and the mistake was never repeated.

Another fine conservationist-ranger was Graham Verceuil, resident instructor at Phinda Nature Reserve in Maputaland. A thoroughly professional martinet, Graeme instructed his ranger-guides with commendable clarity and conviction, and produced a stream of remarkable young men and women for service at such parks as Phinda, Londolozi and Madikwe.

My role at Phinda and later at the other two reserves under the (then) Conservation Corporation Africa, was to accredit their rangers within the SETA system. I did this during the early 2000s, while knowing full well the privilege it was to engage on a series of day and night drives with people whose experiences were honed daily by endless encounters with a range of wild creatures.

These were the happiest days one could imagine, let alone experience. The experiences were leavened by collaborating with Roy Cowgill on training tourist guides under my (then) company Alex Educational, and basking in his extraordinary knowledge of biology and especially avian subjects.

On a theoretical level, I found the writings of Robert Ardrey (The hunting hypothesis), Desmond Morris (The naked ape) and other writers on history, anthropology and palaeontology informative in their exploration of pre-human development in the wilderness of the African savannah.

The great skill was to keep two huge ideas in mind simultaneously and without apparent contradiction; that is, to believe in a Creator while accepting the evolutionary explanation in the face of overwhelming evidence. There is no doubt that the intricate order and interrelationships within ‘wilderness’ make the usual meaning of the term, a disorderly jumble or tangle, inappropriate. The brilliance of the natural order puts our human culture and technology to shame.

So, I have been fortunate in the people who have influenced my thinking on wilderness. In the section that follows, I share some of the experience with you the reader. You can use the guidelines that follow in this chapter to meet many of the requirements for conducting nature experiences on a one-day nature excursion.

The text is nevertheless only a basis for much further research on the part of any future nature guide. And, you will need to adapt the points to accommodate the level of hike involved, including matters of duration, topography and terrain, weather and external threat.

Conduct a nature hike

Prospective guides must do many practical field activities before they can expect to achieve competence. Constant and varied practice done in a wide variety of habitats, and under varying conditions with different types of clients is essential if one is to acquire expertise.

Note that when in unspoiled natural wilderness where serious threats are present, a maximum of about eight participants is usual. The number might be twelve if there are two guides, or a tracker.

Regarding early planning, the conscientious guide will ask himself or herself many questions. Have you found out the precise date, time of departure and duration as well as the route (with options) for your nature walk? Do you know who your guests are? How many are there? Have they any special interests?

Are there any medical conditions amongst any member(s) of your walking party that might endanger them? You can’t afford to have someone collapse after a rigorous climb, due to a heart condition of which you were not aware. If your principals (company, lodge manager, head ranger or whoever has joint responsibility) have not informed you meticulously about your guests, you have the duty to find out for yourself. The responsibility works both ways. The safety of all, including yourself and other field staff, is a main concern.

Ensure that your mental and physically fitness is more than equal to this demanding job. With regard to prior preparations, have you considered the duration (total time) of the walk, time of day, likely weather conditions, difficulties of terrain that might affect equipment choice, and prior instructions to be given?

You should have access to an electronic communication system; perhaps a small radio communication set, and if it is not available, at the very least a cell phone to alert your principals to any mishap. The use of this equipment must not interfere with enjoyment of the walk. There is no need to misuse or over-use it.

Have you worked the route out carefully to meet the interest and experiences of clients? Does it offer possibilities for photography? Does it accommodate the level of client fitness? Does it take the clients safely to where their interests can be satisfied? For example, if they want forest fauna and flora, don’t take them on a grasslands walk or to a sodden vlei unless there is exceptional interest there. Will there be sufficient safe rest stops? Have you considered alternatives within the route, if problems arise?
Have you considered their preparation to endure possible extremes of weather, including rain, heat or cold, to ensure maximum safety? Is the clothing of yourself and your clients appropriate, including the use of boots or strong walking shoes? Open sandals are possible for some walks, but they leave your feet open to stings, bites, envenomation and other wounds. Strong boots with a decent tread are usually best.

Do your clients each have a broad-brimmed hat that ‘breathes’, with a neck shade for summer; also water/liquids, binoculars, also if necessary insect repellant, sunscreen lotion, first aid items, and cameras? Have you collected and checked your own equipment, perhaps including a light rucksack, water, cell phone, small first-aid box (and your rifle, ammunition and pouch if necessary)?

Do you know basic first aid, and how to treat snakebite without endangering a patient further? Have you taken these first aid skills seriously enough? In some countries, you may not register as a guide without them. Note that for legal reasons you cannot act as a doctor might, and give prescribed medicines. Update yourself on the current legal requirements.

Have you brought one or two books on birds or trees for further reference if necessary? It is not considered good form to bring books on the obvious things like the larger flagship species, but books on birds, trees, flowers and grasses are useful because you cannot know everything there is about the thousands of species encountered, including the infinite data that accompanies each. Use the books for detailed reference, and not as a replacement for your comprehensive, ever-ready knowledge. Many guests will bring their own books.

When meeting guests, have you introduced yourself and your tracker (if you are accompanied by one) courteously?

“Good morning, I’m John and I’ll be your guide for the day. I hope you had a good night’s sleep because we’ll be starting promptly and it’ll be a long day for us all…” Guests like you to address them as individuals and most prefer you to engage in interaction early. Do not leave people out; they usually won’t like it if they feel you are ignoring them. Consider their social and ego needs.

Have you found out any special interests such as birding, or viewing a particular species of big game, amongst your clients? Are they especially interested in any order, family, genus, or species? Have you considered the insects, grasses, flowers that might appeal to a few specialists? This might influence the one or two books you take with you (you can’t carry too many; they’re too heavy!

Have you found out as much as possible from your principals well prior to the walk, noted essential details and planned accordingly? Are there any special health problems such as obesity, heart condition, lameness, eyesight and hearing that will affect your anticipated hike? It must be within the scope of all persons due to participate in it. No-one will appreciate being put in danger, or alternatively, be hampered in their experience because of poor planning.
When you meet the group, reassess the situation. Have you also asked your guests about medical conditions; very, very discreetly and sensitively, and make final adaptations. You might have a problem deciding the rights of the group to a rich experience, weighed against the right of a single guest to the protection of their health. Decisions are seldom easy, so prepare for any eventuality prior to the walk and err on the side of safety.

Note that many efficient companies will insist on clients completing a simple form to declare any health or other problems prior to the walk. Ensure that you know about these and plan for them, with company administrators involved if necessary.

Give an initial briefing before the walk. Outline the route (you might use a good map here), warn of dangers and provide routines for safety. Ban alcohol (you can’t allow uncontrolled reactions that might spoil the walk and endanger guests), smoking (the smell of tobacco does not go well with nature), noise (which will chase away the game), bravado (which could endanger a guest or the whole group), and separation (which could break the group up and endanger individuals).

Have you invited open communications of any serious problems, and yet stamped your authority on the group? Getting their respect is usually a result of your obvious professional competence. You should never have to resort to harsh words or even threats. If you have a problem with an individual, take that person aside and deal with them individually; if a group of people presents a problem, only then must you incorporate the entire clientele.

Are signals agreed and repeated by guests: stop (hand up), look (point to eyes, then direction of sighting), listen (hand to ear), sit (hand down gesture), come here (beckon), back off slowly (hand pushes away), quiet (finger to lips, pained expression)! Do you advise them to look at you at intervals, to maintain contact?

Does the party keep closely to the pathways selected by the ranger-guide, as appropriate? Do you avoid thickets, reeds or long grass where unexpected dangers might lurk? Most large and potentially dangerous creatures will give way unless they have young, are cornered or in breeding mode, but it is better to take no chances.

You do not want your group walking abreast and shoulder to shoulder like a spread-out hunting line; it’s inefficient because of obstructions off the path. Nor do you want damage to vegetation away from paths or on fragile banks. You need to know where everyone is. Do check regularly, and perhaps ask a responsible person to be in the rear. If available, a second guide or tracker will usually be there.

 Do you insist that guests keep disruptive sound to a minimum? Note how voices can carry on a quiet day and across open grasslands or a valley. What is the point of a walk in a forest habitat, where everything is at close quarters, if there is continual talking and noise? Are there any irritating jingles and jangles from equipment? Do cameras buzz and whirr at awkward times? Do you need a rule to govern camera use? Do you need to authorize the time of use where camera motors are involved?

Honour conservation ethics so that no litter remains, no branches are broken unnecessarily, and no wild creature is unduly disturbed. Ask yourself; have you really respected the animals’ and even plants’ rights to a secure and largely undisturbed environment? Does your party ‘leave nothing but footprints’?

Are all human senses of sight, hearing, touch, perhaps even smell and taste used to experience the wild intimately? Do your clients get to feel the roughness of bark, the smell of herbs and perhaps the taste of an edible berry or fruit? Usually, we humans rely greatly on sight and to some extent hearing (e.g. bird sounds) and need to use the other senses more if we are to experience the wild most completely.

Do the clients get to appreciate the wild creatures’ acute senses of smell, sight and hearing, and the effect on sightings that a blundering approach can exert? Have you considered the effects of wind direction sufficiently? Have you ever thought about your own disadvantages, when your senses compete poorly against the acute sight, hearing and smell of many wild creatures? Tell your clients some anecdotes to show it, or prove it by observation on the trail.

Are signs such as spoor and faeces (dung; droppings), markings and scrapes identified and interpreted well? Have you got at least one book to help you with this? It is very necessary to interpret flagship spoor and tracks accurately and with confidence, and precise interpretations will impress your clients if you can offer them for the more obscure signs you encounter.

Is there willingness to let nature ‘speak’ to the group, rather than to impose the group’s presence on nature? This means sometimes sitting in silence as Player and Dent often did, stopping all activity except your heartbeats and stomach rumbles and enjoying the sights and sounds that come to you. Do this occasionally, especially if you want a change in tempo.
Is safety a priority, with the guide leading only on walks and in areas where he/she is legally entitled to do so? Do you keep a sufficient distance from wild creatures to not disturb them? This implies never entering their ‘comfort zones’? Alternatively, do you give way to arrogance or bravado, forcing the wild creatures in your vicinity to become alert, or alarmed, or to even adopt a flight or defense mode? If you do so, you have failed badly as a nature guide. Always brief guests about the importance of safety, and let them know early that you will not exceed the bounds of good sense.

Obviously, many wild creatures can pose a threat. I recall a walk along a wetland stretch of coastal grassland in the lake St Lucia area of Zululand. My wife and I were winding our way between shallow lakes when we encountered a stretch of water deeper and greater in extent than what we had negotiated. Stretching along the middle of the lake was a long tongue of marshy land that led through shallow water to land on the other side. From the water grasses growing on it, we could judge that the water along the tongue was ankle-deep and quite negotiable.  We began the hike, and with nothing in view, proceeded to about half way along the sodden spit. Then I heard the low, reverberating grunt of a hippopotamus, one of the most prolific killers of human beings in Africa. A huge, dark head had risen to the surface a hundred metres away and fifty metres from the tongue we would traverse. Then we saw a second head, and then another.

We backed away cautiously, eyes fixed on the water to see if any more surprises might surface closer to us. There was nothing, but the bull renewed his threat, gaped his jaws wide and began to advance steadily. The opening of the great beast’s jaws was not a comforting sign; but my wife, an experienced campaigner in these matters, was already backing off. The hippo slowed perhaps forty metres away and eventually stopped to stare motionless towards our retreating forms. There was then no need to run to the trees we had identified as safe havens behind us.

The incident was not a close shave by any means, but it presented a lesson in planning. Had we taken the trouble to study the water in advance, we might have seen the bull surface. I calculated at one stage that, had he charged purposefully, it would have been a close thing. In that sodden environment, I’d have put his pace at twice or thrice what we could muster.

A more serious threat from hippo occurred while I was walking along the shoreline of Lake St Lucia when I came across a spoor that left the water and travelled inland, away from the lake. There was no sign of a re-entry spoor. I backed off. Should the hippo have decided to return as I walked at the lakeside, the consequences could have been unpleasant.

At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of size, are tiny insects such as mosquitoes and flies that can ruin a nature trip. Perhaps my worst experience with the small creatures was with flies my wife and I encountered in New Zealand. We were travelling up the west coast of the South Island, at Haast River, before going further north to hike up to the ice scarp of Fox Glacier. In those conditions, one would not expect flies. However, it was summer and there they were; sand flies in millions. I was stung on the right wrist, and the sand fly might have laid eggs because the festering pinpoint took fifteen months to heal. I am wiser now. If I returned, I’d be in long sleeves with whatever repellent works.

Interpretations take some practice, and nature walks provide a catalyst for the guide to use a wide variety of interpretations that can add interest and knowledge to the clients’ experiences. Check yourself to see if your commentary is sufficiently diverse. Do you use various methods (formal, informal, multi-cultural, storytelling, questions and answers) to give variety and richness of interpretation to your nature trail interpretations?
The formal method implies giving a ‘lecture’, perhaps on the dining deck of a lodge, or even in a theatre or library, or during a refreshment stop, on some topic. It means the topic has been chosen beforehand, to be delivered in a formal context. Nature guides use the method very occasionally.

More often used is the informal method, where wild creatures appear and then disappear during the walk. There can be no real formal preparation and the guide relies on his or her innate knowledge. It means a more spontaneous type of interpretation.

Also used frequently is the question and answer method. This will sometimes test you, because it relies on your spontaneous knowledge and ability to do book-research quickly.

The multi-cultural approach means giving interpretations from different cultural perspectives. For a westerner, nature might mean an aesthetic experience. For a person living closer to wild creatures in a wild environment, wild creatures might imply sustenance for their families. Always retain sensitivity.

Storytelling and anecdotes. These may be used at rest-stops, or around a campfire or at a lodge during evening meals. Guests like to hear lively anecdotes from your personal experience. Do work on this, and build up a few humorous stories. Success can define you as a guide.

Dirty jokes, racial comments, continuous babbling without a stop, arrogance, focus on the self instead of nature, and a reluctance to say anything at all, are considered ‘bad form’. Do interpret when you really have something to add to the experience, and don’t ramble on without any pause for the sake of being heard. Guests will welcome quite long pauses without commentary, as they simply soak up the nature experience. Your commentary is most valuable at meaningful and critical times.

Having a good sense of humour is a great advantage. This can be quiet and not uproarious for best effect, but if it is not present, you will have nothing special to fall back on during times when nature is quiet.

I recall a campfire in the wilds of Maputaland where well-known author and photographer Roger de la Harpe and a few journalists each told a joke or two. One was about the king who experienced an unfortunate accident when an ornately carved chair fell out of the roof thatch of his hut and injured him. He learnt that ‘those who live in grass houses should not stow thrones’. Silly, but we laughed for hours at this and other snatches of humour, since it was the right place and time after a tough day for a bit of nonsense. It’s always difficult to relate the funny bits from jokes told because, as someone once said, analyzing a joke is a bit like dissecting a frog. It’s not a pleasant thing to do, and the result when revealed isn’t much fun.

Do you have a sufficient store of back-up knowledge such as found in a contemplation of broader ecological issues to enrich your explanations? When nothing much is being observed, it’s good practice to talk about something like the trophic pyramid, or symbiotic relationships, or food chains or webs as concepts.

Ensure that you conclude the nature experience properly, courteously and decisively with a brief summary and analysis of interesting events, followed by farewells. The worst thing to do is drift away mumbling. Good wishes for the rest of the holiday are usually in order.

Do you write in your diary a brief report on the game walk? Do you expand into detail when reporting on any event that might have been problematic? Have you reported it to your relevant senior? You should do so, for legal reasons!

Have you also considered how well or badly you conducted the walk, and what things you could improve for the next excursion? Quality is not the most important thing, it is the only thing.