The Umzi Wethu Conservation Academy takes the concept of “our home” to another level by helping socially vulnerable youth transform into highly employable adults.
Through a one-year social development programme the academy trains future conservation leaders as field rangers or field guides, providing them with an NQF2 qualification or a FGASA Level 1 qualification respectively.
Students are trained in the picturesque town of Somerset East, in the Eastern Cape.
Over and above the intensive course, Umzi Wethu also helps individuals improve their life outlook through emotional, residential and vocational support.
“Our students are orphans or partial orphans, those who have lacked opportunity but have the potential to push themselves into the future,” says Pinky Kondlo, director of support services at Wilderness Foundation.
“We take them as they are and provide basic needs: shelter, food and obviously guidance. They receive counselling and therapy, both group and personal, and they are in a safe environment where they can process their trauma.
“In the residence, the students are surrounded by others who have been in similar situations: the most important thing they learn is that they are not alone.”
Umzi Wethu also assists with fundamental yet easily overlooked issues such as eye health. Students visit SpecSavers for an eye check-up and those who need glasses are provided with a free pair.
Located close to the Boschberg Mountain Reserve and other private game reserves, the academy is situated in two historic buildings that were previously home to Bellevue School.
The students are in a safe, dependable environment where their main responsibility is to focus on their work and do the best they can. “This is one of the key aspects. They don’t have to go home, they don’t have to worry about putting food on the table. For many, it’s the chance to actually be a kid again.”
Situating the academy in the reserve allows students to get practical wildlife experience in the locale. “We really believe in nature. All aspects of the training are interweaved, but it’s when they are in nature that their leadership and development really begins to shine through.”
As a result of the course, the “vulnerable youth” transform into empowered young people who are motivated and resilient.
In the process, they also become role models in the community and young people begin to see conservation as a positive and aspirational job.
Since 2008, over 115 field rangers have graduated, with over 80% in permanent jobs. Many graduates are in management positions or running their own small enterprises.
But no matter how far they go, graduates still keep ties with Umzi Wethu, acting as ambassadors for future field rangers who will one day guide others.
“They are there to teach and guide the new generation: the message is that there is an interconnectedness between human beings and nature. If you are there for nature, nature will be there for you,” says Kondlo.