School in a bag

• March 28, 2012
Responsible tourism

Real smiles... go for miles!

We recently got to bring some pleasure to a remote community in rural Swaziland. The occasion was the distribution of donated school bags and equipment to pupils of Mphaphati Primary School. Whilst we at Swazi Trails can’t claim to have been responsible for anything other than helping to distribute this thoughtful donation, we certainly got to witness the hundred’s of smiles that the day generated.  It was a great day, and we’re somewhat glad to be able to share the story.

Mphaphati is an area within the Shiselweni region of Swaziland. Its one of hundreds of small rural communities dotted across the landscape, identifiable only by its school – the only real public infrastructure to speak of. Like many rural areas it is scenic and peaceful, but plagued by the economics of modern development which sees jobs, money and opportunities clustered around the cities or large agricultural estates. Those who live here live a subsistence lifestyle that is hard at best and desperate more often that not – especially in those years when too little or too much rain destroys household crops. There is a constant “brain-drain” to the cities where opportunities for employment hold more promise. Homes in the rural areas are mostly left to the elderly, the uneducated and in many cases the despondent. Its in this environment that hundred’s of kids start out their lives. Success in achieving a better quality of life is closely tied to education, but despondency can often set in here too, as rural schools struggle to attract quality teachers, equipment and teaching aids. Families also fail often to finance even the most basic of necessities – pens and pencils. Forget iPads and Smartboards… the reality here is much less glossy.

Sustainable tourism is built around relationships

A well-stocked school bag

So against this background our short story starts: ” We’ve had a relationship with this particular community for more than 20 years,” explains Swazi Trails Managing Director Darron Raw,” as they are our host community on the Great Usutu River and the people amongst whom we’ve run our white-water rafting business for the past two decades”.

“We been able to make a number of contributions to community development at different points in time, but in this instance it was just a case of spotting an opportunity… and helping to join the dots.”

Swazi Trails, through its Managing Director, is involved with Swaziland’s annual Bushfire Festival where a chance discussion with Toby Allison, another committee member, led to the start of this exchange.

“Toby is a local legend,” says Darron, ” he’s a super-busy guy – I mean you’ve really got to visit him at his massive workshop at Steel & Wire International to appreciate this – but he’s always got a hand in one charitable activity or another.”

On this particular day Toby was looking to identify suitable recipients for a large consignment of donated school bags which had not yet been fully distributed. They originated from the global do-gooders Piers Simon Appeal (PSA) a charity borne from the tragic loss of Piers aged 33 who died in the Indian Ocean Tsunami on the island of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand on December 26th 2004. The charity is run by his brother Luke and their parents in the UK.  It has to say something about the tenacity of the human spirit that something so good can evolve out of an experience so dire.  One of the PSA initiatives is the School in a Bag  project – which held hands with another UK-based charity Shelterbox, to provide a response to Swaziland’s HIV-Aids epidemic and its impact on vulnerable sectors of society, especially children.

“These bags need to go to kids who really need them,” said Toby, to which Darron raised his hand and offered to help.

Responsible tourism is a win-win formula for building relationships

It was like Christmas...

Two weeks later rafting guides Marius Gerryts and Bongani Dlamini together with Swazi Trails senior tour guide Sandile Mashaba, unloaded over 260 bags in the dusty yard of Mphaphati Primary School. Teachers maintained disciplined lines of pupils and the process went really smoothly. The only thing that couldn’t be controlled were the smiles, they were infectious.

Responsible tourism starts with engagement

When I was at school...

Joked Bongani, “This was my primary school, I grew up here… maybe if I’d been lucky enough to get such nice things when I was studying I’d be the boss of the company today and not just a worker!”

Postscript: The Head Teacher at Mphaphati Primary, Mrs Lukhele, specifically tasked us with  conveying their thanks to the people “whoever they are”, and “wherever they are”, who were responsible for the donation.  When Swazi Trails refused to take any real credit for it she was worried about who to thank, “because for something as great as this we really have to say a big THANK YOU”.

So “thanks”, if you’ve made a contribution to the Piers Simon AppealSchool in a Bag or  Shelterbox at some point in time, give yourself a pat on the back – you’ve made some kids at the end of a long line of dots very happy.

Post-postscript: … and in fact with all those pens and pencils thate line of dots isn’t going to end any time soon. No doubt more lines will be drawn, more dots circled… and these kids themselves will grow up to be a vital linkage to this Swaziland community and its ongoing quest for development.

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