TEKOA, a teaching beyond….

Author Friedrich Alpers testing his tracking skills
Author Friedrich Alpers testing his tracking skills

Most of the 6,000 residents of north-eastern Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park count themselves as the descendants of the world’s first peoples, known collectively today as the San. For countless years they lived throughout southern Africa as hunter-gatherers with an impressive subsistence lifestyle that made little impact on the natural environment. In the strip of Namibian soil sandwiched between Angola and Botswana, a group of Khwe elders, with support from TEKOA are determined to work with their youth to regain some of the skills they have lost, in the hope that these skills will renew pride in their identity and culture, but also create opportunities for self-growth and for some to obtain employment in Namibia’s fast-expanding economy.

The community living inside the Bwabwata National Park benefit through Kyaramacan Association, who are jointly managing the natural resources with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET).  Tracker training and evaluation activities in the BNP started some 5 years ago, since then some long walking and talking trips took place – the youth were excited about something new, possibly with their elder teachers. The first step was to find active and able traditional knowledge bearers and after some years, a group of Khwe elders (mainly ex traditional hunters) joined the long walks and talks in the park. Thereafter assessing and evaluating their tracking skills (making use of the CyberTracker system pioneered by Louis Liebenberg), the first local teachers, all with exceptional high local level PhDs were identified. In some cases their waning eyesight and ageing limbs reduced mobility, but their ingrained tracking skills were evident, even without hunting and some cases of cultural erosion for almost 40 years.  A core group of traditional knowledge bearers with exceptional high knowledge levels (once again PhD levels and beyond), were identified and are now the start of something new and exciting – TEKOA – the next phase!

In December 2012, the first larger groups of youth and potential trackers were tested, local groups totaling 60+ were accommodated over a few weeks. They were all evaluated in tracking skills and allowed to explore in their learning abilities, beyond school books, including themes on wild animal tracking, animal sign reading and ecological awareness in these biodiversity-rich woodlands, which is home to this community, together with thousands of elephants and other wildlife species.

Despite regional increased poaching, especially high value wildlife species, such as elephants, the wildlife numbers in Bwabwata are booming, to the extent that the wild animals are relocating back to historic ranges, as they are moving back into once depleted parts of southern Angola and beyond, essential for the KAZA strategy.  The success of Bwabwata lies in the close and trusted collaborative park management relationship between KA and MET, which paves the way for locally-employed community game guards to carry out daily foot patrols and wildlife monitoring activities, together with MET colleagues. These skilled community game guards have carried out a local natural resource monitoring system for the past two decades, and are now using their tracking and ecological awareness skills to pass on to their youth and other interested partners, even MET field staff are eager learners, as they are learning skills and being coached by ‘’old master hunters’’ knowledge and intricate detail that cannot be taught in schools, nor from books.

It is December 2012, on a humid morning in the park. Alfred and Benson, two of the Khwe tracker trainers, look at the milling group of school kids, ages between 6 and 14, all excited, standing on a fresh large male elephant track, looking ahead into the thicket as the vegetation closes the distinct and clear path, to some…. Alfred organizes the group into a single file, and there is silence and anticipation as the next three hours + reveal much more than sighting a large elephant bull. During the slow, but adrenaline rushing walk the kids are taught and exposed to all signs and trails of any living creature, which crossed  their way, from any reptile, insect, rodent, bird, mammal, and amphibian, yes even crawly invertebrates. This morning is good, as the path has been busy at night with all sorts of exciting tracks, signs and trails, like reading the daily morning paper, plenty movement in the ‘stocks market’. With no animals in sight nor seen, the ‘morning paper’ reveals faint markings and trails of millipedes, trap-door spider trails leading to hideouts, the clear trail of a now-sleeping scorpion’s nocturnal activities, an ant-lion seeking a new site for a trap, the tracks of a spider wasp drugging and then dragging a fat caterpillar for four feet and burying it into a carefully crafted hole with newly laid egg inside, an impala ram scent marking his territory by the scent particles rubbed onto a grass tuff, a tree gecko catching a moth for last nights’ meal, a faintly recognizable gait of a scrub hare, a porcupine and not a honey badger, as the clearly defined track of the porcupine shows its claws closer to its toes and the clearly padded hindfoot, a puffadder snake winding across the track, a yellow billed hornbill (easy one) landed and pecked at a buried ground larvae, a small spotted genet with clearly rounded toes, a sable antelope male herding his group of 7 adult female and 5 young, then the emerald spotted wood-dove criss-crossing the path’s leaving its early morning trail looking for food, the dikkop (yes very clear, as it has no rear toe), the tree squirrel with its clear leap gait and its two rear feet aligned, then the spotted hyena… no, it is a leopard on last nights’ prowl as the toes are evenly spaced and the claws are drawn. Forgetting the elephant and school books, the kids are beaming with excitement, ‘’this outside school is much more exciting than our normal school, and we learn so much more, not just about animals, also conservation, ecological balances and yes our culture and values, like respect for each-other’’.

This continues until the children are saturated with information overdose, the two elder trackers stand back satisfied and smile, no more questions and the sun is warming as the group head back to camp, to share, reflect, explore and tell stories of the people, the animals and their behavior. This morning 36 different species were positively identified and recorded, all based on recognizing the signs of each of the animals movements. Not many animals was seen, except the normal passers by, but all were accurately identified by the unique signs and trails left behind from the previous night and early morning activities. The kids are beaming with enthusiasm and eagerness to continue to explore and learn, the never ending rich knowledge, the skills development of tracking, the learning of animal behavior ecology, the monitoring of endangered wildlife, such as cheetah, wild dog, roan antelope and other rare species found in their park home.

Through this innovative approach, the elders are once again restored as worthies in their community, the youth humbled, as they realize that operating a smartphone, offers limited excitement and becomes boring compared to the vastness and richness of discovering a new sign and opening a new page with each step. This new training and information sharing project is called TEKOA, Teach Each-other Knowledge Of All and is in the process of establishing a field training center inside the Bwabwata National Park, to offer these valued training and skills development activities to not only Khwe youth, but also to any interested natural environment observers, citizen scientists, MET staff, conservancy staff, regional youth groups, KAZA ecological monitoring staff, the global community and more.

It is therefore of uttermost importance that these children and others are given the opportunity to explore new thinking, new learning and to allow to develop themselves, through a simple activity such as tracking wildlife. Over the next years, TEKOA hopes to make it possible for more local, regional and global children to visit this training and information sharing center in Namibia’s remote north-east to learn from the skills of these old hunters. To also apply these skills to self-growth and each one to develop as an individual to become a part of the solution and not the problem in addressing global challenges in development, education, leadership, dignity and respect for self and others.

This community might again be the teachers and true restorers.

Friedrich Alpers
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