Tell us a little bit about yourself, your history and life until now.
From the time I was able to put together my own dreams, I knew that wildlife would be involved. Having had the incredible privilege of spending the first few years of my life at Phinda Private Game Reserve, with one of South Africa’s foremost conservationists as my father, I was afforded experiences that most children only read about. While conducting my honours degree in Zoology, I started to realise that my love for wildlife was fostered through first-hand experiences and the ability to acquire knowledge about the things that interested me most. Lessons in Conservation was created to share that knowledge, create awareness and facilitate exposure to children from underprivileged communities in the hope that the fire which burns so bright for conservation in us, may be sparked in them too.
What are you passionate about?
I see myself as very much a lover of all life has to offer, but sport, teaching children and exploring the natural world is what really set my heart on fire. I love exploring new areas, meeting new people and helping to do my bit to change the world as we go.
You are the founder and CEO of Lessons in Conservation, why did you start this and what does this involve?
The idea to start teaching children about conservation and ecology was placed on my heart in December of 2017. After completing my BSc in Zoology at the University of Pretoria, I was going to be starting my Honours and realised that I had some experience in wildlife conservation and wanted to create a platform to give other children the opportunities I had been fortunate enough to have experienced. It has been an incredible journey, and the roles and responsibilities I have had to take on have changed along the way. Initially, it was about getting other people interested in the idea. When we had some momentum we realised we needed to formalize things, so we got the right people involved to help us draft a constitution and register as an NPO. From then it was about refining the syllabus I had created and starting to teach. As word got out about what we were doing, I quickly realised that expansion was inevitable. We then branched out to Stellenbosch University and into Eswatini. We had the right people in the right places all giving up their free time to make a difference in their own right, and it is these people, too many to name, to whom I will be forever indebted, for their tireless efforts. From there we started working on measuring our impacts through the use of surveys, and then an opportunity presented itself to expand our footprint into Tanzania and Malawi. Now, with 72 team members and 8 fully-functioning independent teams, I spend most of my time managing the Regional Managers of each team, building capacity within the teams and developing new concepts that will help take us to make a lasting impact.
Tell us more about the trips you do for lessons in conservation and your daily life.
The trips we do are normally to rural areas where the children would not normally have access to environmental education. They are incredibly humbling, and it is impossible not to leave changed when you see the joy in the eyes of a child who has seen wildlife in the wild for the very first time. When not travelling to teach children, I also try to visit each of the 8 teams based in South Africa, Eswatini, Malawi and Tanzania at least once a year to make sure we are all operating according to the internal standards we have set.
Outside of LiC, I work as a game ranger at AndBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve. So my day starts at 04:00, I then experience this amazing reserve with people from all over the world, before returning, normally around 9 or 10 in the morning. I try to exercise every day and then focus on the LiC work that needs to be done, before I head back out on a game drive, normally around 15:30. Often times we are forced to have team meetings late at night when I have returned from the game drives and I am always humbled by the lack of complaint that comes from the teams. For now, working two jobs has its challenges, but I am excited to wake up every day and do what I love, even if it is for 14 or 16 hours most days!
Two stories that have inspired Dean and are bound to do so with you too.
There are many inspirational stories to tell, but I will try to focus on two. The first was a young man from Eswatini Called Phiwokuhle Masimula, and the second was the young blind boy, Philemon, from Zimbabwe who changed my life forever.
We first meet Phiwokuhle (Phiwo) Masimula on our first ever set of lessons in Eswatini in 2018. He was only about 21 at the time, and it turns out he had been heavily involved in organizing the children we were teaching over the duration of this week. The moment we met him, we all noticed that there was something special about him. His quiet, but confident demeanour, the way he interacted with the children, and most importantly, his impeccable organisational skills. We were so impressed, that on the last day of lessons we interviewed him and decided that he had what it takes to become the Regional Manager of a team based at the Eswatini College of Technology. He is now the Operations Director of LiC Eswatini and continues to manage the team based in Eswatini with distinction. His biggest challenge was that he had no laptop, so we invested in one for him, which would make teaching far easier. Since then, he has personally been involved in teaching over 450 children from 4 different schools in the Shewula community of Eswatini. He never ceases to amaze me, often walking for hours to find good cellphone signal to join meetings.
Philemon was about 10 years old when we meet him at a primary school just outside of Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe. He sat quietly in the corner, with a hat over his damaged eyes listening to the team introductions. The teacher then called him up to stand in front of the class and recite a poem he had written titled “disability does not mean inability.” He moved from side to side, using his hands as he flawless completed the 2-minute poem with a smile on his face. He then sat back down and we continued with the lessons. During break time our hearts cried out as he was not able to participate in the competitive game of soccer that was going on, so some of our team sat with him, asking him a few more questions about his life, but struggled to get any meaningful answers. We then headed off to the vehicle, a new Mazda BT-50, to grab some snacks out of the vehicle for him. The car was open, and I heard the door open but thought nothing of it. Philemon asked to sit inside and the team obliged. I walked around the side of the vehicle and was stopped dead in my tracks as I saw this young boy, slowly running his fingers along the seams joining the leather seats. He moved his hands further around towards the armrest and stopped when he felt the button that opens and closes the window. He tentatively pushed the button down, and the window opened, he got a fright and quickly closed it again. He then bent over and felt the textures of the rubber floor mats and stuck his hand into the seat pocket. Tears streamed from my eyes as I watched Philemon drawing some much happiness from something most of us consider mundane. I realised at that moment, that this boy had taught me more than I could ever teach him. Gratitude is universal.
That evening the team and I sat around a fire doing a review of the day’s activity, and the quality of Philemon’s poem came up. We asked the question if he could not read or write, how did he memorise the poem? It turned out the teacher had sat with him and transcribed his thoughts and then spent what must have been hours reciting it back to him, stanza for stanza until Philemon had memorised it himself. Sometimes, it takes a blind person to remind us all how to see.
What do you have planned for the year 2022?
We will be consolidating with the 8 teams we currently have, strengthening our community relations, and ensuring we are all working to the very highest standard. We are also looking at forming partnerships with like-minded organisations that will help us financially to achieve the lofty goals we have set. Most importantly, we want o change the lives of over 1000 children across this incredible dark Continent, and expose them to some of the last true wilderness areas.
In which ways can people support your project?
There is a donation page on our website, a little goes a long way for us. Alternatively, if people can share contacts at reserves or lodges who might be willing to host a group of children for a weekend that would be greatly appreciated. I am always contactable on firstname.lastname@example.org for anyone who might be willing to contribute in any small way.
You can follow and find Dean and Lessons in Conservation at the following links.
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