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Sustainable SA: Environmental Initiative Uplifts Community through Tourism

We love sharing stories about sustainability in South Africa and this one really proves how small changes can have a lasting impact…

One woman’s determination to clear away invasive alien trees in her village has completely reversed the fortunes of an entire community, and given rise to a new income stream – eco-tourism. 

It all began when Bongi Mafuya, who trained in tourism and worked as an executive chef at various game lodges, decided she wanted to learn more about the environment. With her employers’ permission, she started to spend less time in the kitchen and more in the field, and began learning about how nature, human beings and wildlife interact.

That small change led to much bigger changes for Mafuya, particularly as she started to look the landscapes around her with a renewed focus. “It struck me when I was home one week, that the environment around my village was in a very bad state,” says Mafuya. “I wanted to go back to my homeland and do something about it. There was a lot of degradation of the soil. The wattle was a problem, and the rivers were no longer the same. When I grew up, there were huge wetlands that were no longer there,” she says.

Mafuya hails from KwaBhaca – a region encompassing the small towns of the former Transkei homeland such as Mount Frere, Umzimkhulu and the surrounding areas. Armed with her new environmental knowledge, Mafuya gave up her job and started an NGO that focused on the environment and developing the amaBhaca nation.

She began by networking. “I started to find NGOs and organisations I could associate myself with,” she says. “I met everybody. I met people from the Environment and Endangered Wildlife Trust, from Conservation International and wherever I went I stated my case – who I was, what I wanted to do. And they were all happy to come on board. The way I saw it, it was up to me to make it happen. It was not up to them to make it happen for me.

Mafuya’s amaBhaca Development Trust began working in local schools, educating children about alien plants and the health of the river. She also began to work on clearing the black wattle that was choking the river. “We set up task groups of young men to cut and sell the wattle. There were five guys to one tractor, and we taught them how to clear it correctly,” she says.

Her next focus was the rangelands for the community’s cattle – these were not being managed properly, or allowed to rest. The cattle just ranged wherever they wanted to, and the wattle was also encroaching on the rangelands, which meant they were declining, and the system was just getting weaker and weaker.

She formed a livestock association to manage the land better, and slowly they started to see results: “When we cleared up the wattle, the water started to flow again, and the land was restored so that the cattle could thrive,” says Mafuya.

Healthier cattle meant income in the form of a cattle auction, which Mafuya set up for the seven villages she was servicing. There was some initial resistance, but as soon as people saw the prices the cattle were fetching, they started to see the benefits.

Mafuya also turned her attention to the trees in the area – planting indigenous trees near the river, and replanting the yellow wood forest nearby. “There’s an indigenous forest of yellow woods connected to the royal family, but people had been cutting those down,” she says.

The school kids asked if we could replant the trees, and with the replanting of the forest, we are seeing the Cape Parrot returning to the area. But we also wanted to replant the trees because to us they are precious. And they are an important part of the water cycle. So they are putting life back into the community.

As the rivers, lakes, forests and waterfalls were revived, Mafuya realised there was an opportunity for eco-tourism. Conscious of the rich history of the battlefields in the area, she wanted to preserve the land in a way that would uplift the community. “We had revived the rivers, waterfalls and historical lakes, and I wanted to bring people to see the land, see the beauty. I just didn’t know how to sell the idea, how I could bring people to the area,” she says.

But the answer was right in front of her – in the form of the traditional rondavels people lived in. With the help of the community she set up a museum that tells the story of the amaBhaca in one of them, and found women who would open their homes and provide accommodation to tourists.

The amaBhaca also have a traditional muti ceremony, performed at a sacred lake, that Mafuya wanted to include as one of the ecotourism attractions. “I thought if we could bring that back, we could really bring the lake alive. So I spoke to the chiefs, and they agreed. And to my amazement, they also agreed to allow people to visit the royal burial sites,” she says.

Mafuya trained a youth as a tour guide – he does forest walks and tells the story of the amaBhaca people. Women in the community make and sell reed mats and brooms now that the reeds have returned to the river. All of which means it’s not just livestock owners who are earning an income.

These are just some of the developments that have sprung up since Mafuya quit her job and headed home with new vision. Today she not only continues her work through her NGO, but is also an training partner for Avocado Vision, where she trains communities in the area in financial literacy and other enabling life skills.

Many lives have been positively influenced – all because one woman wanted to restore the environment to its former state.

Isn’t that the most incredible story?

Bongi Mafuya has been such an incredible blessing to her community – and now she will be adding to the community in more ways than one – in 4 ways in fact – as she is soon to welcome her naturally conceived quadruplets! What a blessing indeed!

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