/ 3 October 2022

Teachers are the key to achieving a future in which conservation is locally led

Many students don’t know about career possibilities as biologists, conservationists, ecologists, storytellers or education specialists, mainly because they haven’t been taught about them

I grew up a bus ride away from one of the world’s most iconic wetland wilderness areas, but never learned about it in school.

It would be another 20 years before I truly understood the importance of the Okavango Delta and the rivers that feed it. The region is rich in biodiversity, economic vitality and home to thousands of people whose lives and cultures formed around it. 

When I finally did learn about this area, it was often from people who are not from Botswana. Many students don’t know about career possibilities as biologists, conservationists, ecologists, storytellers or education specialists, mainly because they haven’t been taught about them. And how can students be expected to protect places they’re not aware of, or familiar with? 

As a proud Motswana from a long line of teachers, and as a National Geographic Explorer, I’m determined to change that reality for my daughter and all young people. To ensure the next generation can experience one of Earth’s last wetland wildernesses, now is the time to protect it.   

This remarkable natural resource is under urgent threat from climate change and the pressures of development. At stake is the health of this entire ecosystem and the water security of over one million people, half the remaining elephants on the planet and countless other species. 

How can we save this special place? The key is through education. I believe the best way to secure the future of the Okavango Delta is to empower local educators and equip them with the tools and resources they need to inform and engage the next generation.

I envision a future where Botswana students not only have a rich understanding of the Okavango Delta, but are excited about the possibilities of safeguarding this magnificent region. And a future where young people want to be part of the conversation and the solution — where they’re pursuing careers as scientists, storytellers or educators to inspire the next generation of planetary stewards. To realise this vision, teachers need to be able to prepare their students for such possibilities. Knowing what to teach — and how to teach it in an engaging way — are equally important.

When educators in Botswana can engage young people with learning experiences that are hyper-local, immersive and interactive, students have the opportunity to see real people, in real places while experiencing real scenarios. Imagine what a lesson can inspire when students can not only track hippos in the cold waters of the river, but also learn what hippos’ movements can tell us about water quality. 

Or when they can tend a garden with the Delta’s traditional foods? Or when, under the guidance of National Geographic photographers, they learn to capture photos and stories about how the Delta’s waters connect us? These are the types of experiences that excite students about their home and heritage. 

With support from the National Geographic Society, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project is working with local communities and regional governments to protect the Delta in Botswana and its headwaters in Angola. The project is accomplishing this through scientific research, powerful storytelling and, of course, education. 

One way we’re accomplishing that is through Educator Expeditions, a professional development programme for primary school teachers. It challenges the norms of rote textbook teaching and helps teachers develop lessons that incorporate science and traditional knowledge of the Okavango Delta. 

But we also can’t expect teachers to transform the classroom experience if their basic needs aren’t met. After conducting a survey of primary schools in the region, we have begun to address some of those needs, including reliable internet connection, access to textbooks and transportation to safely get students to school and the places they’re learning about.

Higher education institutions are also valuable partners. Currently, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project is supporting master’s and PhD candidates at the University of Botswana. Still, we have more work to do to encourage these students to stay in science, and provide them the financial, academic and social support to flourish. 

For too long, local scientists’ contributions have been sidelined by Western researchers. Our emerging scientists deserve environments that respect academic science and traditional knowledge. Both can play an equally pivotal role in informing conservation policies. 

Taking a multi-country approach to reimagining education is also crucial. The Okavango River Basin flows through three countries — Angola, Namibia and Botswana — and students should have the chance to learn about each other’s languages, histories, natural wonders and environmental leaders. What if Batswana students learned about the seasonal rains in Angola that flood the Delta and, thus, give them water? What if students in Angola and Namibia were able to learn Setswana and about crafting a mokoro (dugout canoe)?

Teachers are the key to achieving a future in which conservation is locally led. What could be more important than celebrating the people who taught us to read and write?  When we invest in their professional development, they can turn our students into the next generation of scientists, educators and storytellers right here in the Okavango Delta.      

Now is the time to protect this ecosystem, because the actions we take now will ripple through the next decade.                                                            

Koketso ‘Koki’ Mookodi is a National Geographic Explorer and managing director of the Botswana Wild Bird Trust.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.