Cross-cultural connections made in the silence of the African bush

Investing in the Environment: Corporate Award

Finalist: Cathay Pacific

Niki Moore

Take a group of youngsters from the crowded Philippines or high-rise Hong Kong, dump them in the vast African bush for a few days, and sit back.?Some kind of spiritual awakening is bound to happen.?And it does.

“I’m from Manila,” says a bespectacled student.?”I’m used to traffic, people, buildings and noise.?This,” with a wrinkling nose he holds up an antelope dropping, “I’m not used to!”

As they say, there’s a fine line between heaven and earth and these young people, although getting their hands dirty with earthy things, are clearly in heaven.

For the past seven years, Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific has brought teenagers from the Pacific Rim and the Middle East to South Africa for nine days of wilderness and goodwill. They are joined by South Africans, selected from different areas and contrasting cultures.

The 60-odd young adults are taken into the bush at the Rustenburg Nature Reserve, in the Magaliesberg mountains, to rough it. Supervised by camp counsellors, they sleep under the stars, keep night watch round a fire, take nature hikes and get closer to wild animals than most of them (South Africans included) have ever been in their lives.

It is an intense ecological learning curve. But at the same time they teach each other about their cultures and lives. Each night, the kids take part in a variety show in which they highlight an aspect of their own lifestyle.?They are also called upon to coordinate a mock wedding in their own traditional style, usually using their new-found friends as extras.

In this way, teens from Hong Kong learn the haka, New Zealanders learn Shosholoza, Filippinos learn the Turkish belly dance and they all learn the correct way to hold a boa constrictor.

They spend their days hiking and listening to lectures on the ecology.?At first it is the South Africans on their home ground who answer all the questions, but soon the whole class is buzzing to show off their newly acquired know-how.

“This is a very valuable experience,” says a 17-year-old from Hong Kong. “We would not normally get a chance to live in the wild and to experience complete silence.”

It is this kind of wide-eyed wonder that fires the enthusiasm of Cathay Pacific’s marketing manager in South Africa, Tertius van Zyl.

“The aim of this Wilderness Experience is to alert youngsters to the idea that everything is inter- connected and that we are all part of a greater whole,” he says. “Their own culture is a part of a worldwide diversity, and our attitude towards what is around us will influence the way we live our lives.”

It is a lesson well-learned.?Letters sent to Van Zyl by delegates show the youngsters go home with a changed idea of their own place in the world.

For the South Africans, the experience is equally valuable. Not only do they meet cultures from outside our borders, but also the cultures within.

When the group prepares to part at Johannesburg airport, the air is full of unspoken conversations. A South African begins a haunting farewell Zulu chant.?It is taken up in the various accents of her new-found friends, and onlookers at the airport stop to listen.

The foreigners take with them a better understanding of the magic of the African bush and the complex dynamics of South African society.?Equally important is what they leave behind a sense that this diverse wilderness of ours is part of an even larger global diversity.

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