SAVING THE WORLD ONE BIRD AT A TIME
I’m not normally one to post articles not written by my very own self. However, since my dad and Jason are both bird-watchers and I love our nature and children, I had to post this. Read it, it’s worth it.
Durban recently hosted the COP 17 International Environmental Conference which turned out to be a multi-million Rand Bean-feast. Delegates came from all over the world to tub-thump, grandstand, and make dire pronouncements about where the world was heading. But in the end, all that came out of it was enough hot air to increase Global Warming by several points.
Meanwhile, in little Van Reenen Village, one man was going quietly about his business and doing more for environmental protection than all the delegates to COP 17 put together. His name is Bonginkosi Ndaba. He is a local man who runs the local chapter of the Nakekela BirdLife Educational Programme sponsored by BirdLife South Africa. He was not tub-thumping or grandstanding. He has simply got a group of disadvantaged local school children together, called the “Nature Heroes”, and he is teaching them about wild birds. These children are aged from 9 to 15, and at their rural schools all they are taught is how to speak rudimentary English and how to add simple figures. The great wide beautiful world outside their windows is known only to them as a frightening elemental entity, when a storm bursts on them while they are walking home from school, or when it is freezing cold and they do not have enough clothes to stay warm.
But now they are learning about the different bird species: how to identify them by the shape of their beaks, by their colouring, by the way they fly, and the areas where they nest and forage. Where birds were once just shadows that flitted around out of reach and made a noise in the morning, now they are fascinating creatures, each with a unique character, lifestyle and habitat. The children have realised that these birds are all over the place. They know the excitement of discovering a species new to them: of being the first in the group to sight and report it. They have become bird lovers.
At 9 to 15 years of age children are in their formative years. This is the time when their minds are open to all sorts of influences. Now is the time when they learn fastest and best. All too often these influences are the wrong ones, and the lessons they learn teach them only to do bad things, or what is worse, to be totally indifferent to the world around them. This is the time when a naughty child, given no direction in life, can become a teenage tsotsi and then an adult criminal. But these 34 Nature Heroes have a very good chance of becoming useful and productive members of their community and a credit to their country: all because they were given at an early age, an opportunity to develop an interest and choose a direction in life.
It is only birds. A trivial pastime? Not at all. To be a bird lover you have to become a lover of the environment in which they live, and a staunch advocate of its protection. These children are learning that the habitat is everything: without habitat there will be no birds, no insects or wild plant seeds for them to feed on, no prey for the winged predators. They are learning that everything in Nature is linked to everything else, and we humans, supposedly right at the top of the pyramid of life, are as vulnerable to environmental degradation as the lowliest sparrow.
But it has gone beyond even bird watching and environmental awareness. These children battle with their English. In spite of being at school, most of them are functionally illiterate through no fault of their own. They would have gone through life being illiterate, but now they are insisting that they learn English so that they can decipher the complicated scientific names of the birds they discover in the bird books. So Bonginkosi is teaching them English, even though he is not an English teacher. The English that they learn is not going to be confined to scientific bird terminology, so they will become generally better able to communicate in the universal language of commerce and communication.
Bonginkosi has been working for quite some time with the Nature Heroes, but his real breakthrough came only last week. Going home in the late afternoon after a hard day’s work, he was confronted by a group of Nature Heroes who insisted that he follow them to a local dam where they had spotted an unknown bird. An entourage of 34 children led Bonginkosi to the dam and pointed out the unknown bird. Bonginkosi was able to identify it. Then he gave them a spontaneous test. He mis-identified another bird , and the children immediately corrected him. He pointed out five water fowl : four had red crests, the fifth had none. The children told him correctly that the non-crested bird was a non-breeding juvenile. This proved to him that these children are now “hooked” on bird watching, and will expand their knowledge of birds, the environment, and their own place in it on their own accord, without being pushed by any adult. In 25 or 30 year’s time these children will be adults who will find it impossible to be indifferent to what goes on around them. Many of them will have gained the knowledge and wisdom to point the way to a more beautiful and cleaner world, without having to resort to the uninformed hysteria we are experiencing now from many “Greenies.”
That is what Bonginkosi has achieved: he has changed the direction of 34 young lives for the better: one man on his own, working from day to day without fanfare and without much material reward. It is this kind of person who should get the accolades, not the pseudo-scientists who travel, eat and sleep in luxury at public expense and shout meaningless rhetoric to crowds of thousands. And he lives and works right here in this district.
Bonginkosi could do with all the help you can offer. If you are an ornithologist, maybe you could go out with him and his Nature Heroes and offer your knowledge and experience to him and his group. If you are a teacher, maybe you could mentor a couple of these children and help them improve their English. Even half an hour a month will help. If you want to know more about this project, or if you want to offer your help, phone the Van Reenen Tourism office on 082 560 6306
Submitted by David Short
P O Box 880 Harrismith 9880
072 629 8694
Member Tourism Van Reenen