About a month ago, I was privileged to attend the Elephants Alive Nlopfu Gogos Program Exhibition. This is a little reflection I wrote from the day. Posting today as it is Heritage Day here in Mzansi South Africa and it seemed appropriate. A very big thank you goes to Dr Michelle Henley for the invite and also the edits of my words in this story… Happy Heritage Day, Mzansi!

It’s a bright blue-sky day at the end of August as we make our way from various parts of the Greater Kruger area to the Jesus our Hope church near Acornhoek.  We are coming to the end of Women’s Month here in Mzansi. What brings us together this particular Saturday is a celebration of a special group of elder women in the community who took part in the Elephants Alive Ndlopfu Gogos project earlier this Women’s Month.

The first iteration of this community empowerment initiative took place in 2019. The brainchild of Dr Michelle Henley, founder and principal researcher for Elephants Alive, together with Joel Sithole, Elephants Alive researcher. Joel had been communicating to Michelle just how much his mother and grandmother were interested in seeing the work he did as part of the Elephants Alive team. In particular, they showed a deep concern for Matambu, a severely injured elephant known to Elephants Alive for almost 20 years. And so the Gogos project was born when Michelle decided to facilitate the meeting of elders with elephants with the help of Joel. This Gogos project ensures the wise elders of the community adjacent to the legendary Kruger Park meet the wise matriarchs of the elephants Michelle and her team are dedicated to protecting.

In June last year, the Ndlopfu Gogos Project added to its itinerary taking the Gogos from Acornhoek and surrounds to the stunning Koru Camp in the Mvuu Reserve. This camp is a recent start-up of ecowarrior Peter Eastwood, founder of the Tanglewood Foundation. Tucked into a beautiful spot on this reserve in the Greater Kruger area, the Gogos spent a couple of nights. The days were filled with learning more about conservation, going on game drives to see elephants, sharing their knowledge on the benefits and uses of indigenous plants, dancing and singing and generally sharing the joy that life and togetherness can bring. The Elephants Alive team spent intimate time with the Gogos throughout their time at the camp, teaching them about their work, learning from their incredible wealth of traditional knowledge and opening a space for them to reconnect with their natural heritage.

A film crew from the television show 50/50 accompanied the EA team and the Gogos on their adventure. As well as this a few budding photographers from the Wild Shots Outreach program join the Gogos to capture the most memorable moments.

A true Conservation Collective has been established to bring this initiative to life and ensure its meaningful impact.

And so here we are at the end of another Women’s Month and it is time to celebrate what has been achieved through the Ndlopfu Gogos project to date.

Ayub Ogada’s beautiful song Kothbiro is playing as the Gogos and their families arrive. There is an expectant excitement as everyone greets each other warmly. There are smiles, tears and hugs. A vuvuzela sounds as spontaneous song and dance erupt at intervals. A wonderful atmosphere of celebration pervades the church hall.

A fabulous array of photographs from the Gogos program is on display at the back of the hall. The Gogos and their families take time to wander around looking at the photos. There is much joy and laughter as these smiling matriarchs make a point to share the memories each image evokes.

The festivities begin with a welcome from Vusi Tshabalala, a community leader. This is followed by a screening of the 50/50 episode as well as an emotive video clip about the Ndlopfu Gogos project filmed and produced by Justin Sullivan. An elder from the traditional authority formally acknowledges this celebration before Joel from Elephants Alive, Kulani from Koru Camp and Rifumo from Wild Shots address the crowd with words of gratitude. Next is a wonderful ceremony where each of the 65 Gogos is presented with an envelope of five photos depicting them participating in the Ndlopfu Gogos program. They can’t run fast enough to collect theirs when their name is called out! The celebration is closed with a song and dance together as well as a special performance of traditional dancing.

It’s a spectacular day of tears of joy, warm laughs and big hugs. It is obvious that everyone involved in this significant event is dedicated to its meaningful impact, especially the Elephants Alive team. This incredible team of elephant conservationists is not just about the matter-of-fact work of conserving elephants. They are the glue that is helping to connect Community back with Nature.

It is also obvious the impact this project has had on the Gogos and their families. As Leanette Sithole says, “we used to look after the environment.” Through this project they have the opportunity to remember the importance of the elephant matriarchs, thinking about Nature in a different way. Tapping into the true spirit of Ubuntu. “Now”, Leanette says, “there is a chapter of knowledge I need to pass on.”

Joel from Elephants Alive expresses this about the Gogos project, “It’s the wise meeting the wise…. planting seeds of love.” He reminisces about the quiet reflection that happens as the Elephants Alive team return home at the end of the Gogos program, each participant taking time to reflect and process all that has been learned, all that has been accomplished. As they relive the endearing things the Gogos have said, there is not a dry eye amongst them.

Love, compassion, kindness, wisdom. So many of the qualities that make humans human, make elephants elephant. As Michelle says, “elephants are our teachers.”

Days like today remind us of just how deeply we are connected to each other and to the other beings we share this planet with – the true spirit of Ubuntu. Days like today tell us that is not only the younger generation that we need to look to for solutions to our wildlife and wild places crisis. A critical piece of the Conservation Collective puzzle is to look to the past for its lessons, its wisdom, its guidance, its anchoring. The past’s slow burn should be what fuels the fires of change present and future.

How do we channel the spirit and energy in days like today? What a force for good that would be. And so, long may the Elephants Alive Ndlopfu Gogos Project grow and thrive allowing more of the Wise to meet the Wise.