CHIKOMBEDZI, (Lowveld Post)
COMMUNITIES in southern Zimbabwe feel a sense of ownership of the world-acclaimed Gonarezhou National Park following the peace and harmony now prevailing between them and operators of the facility.

Mr Elias Livombo (in uniform) with a guest. Tsonga Communities benefitting from Gonarezhou, Photo by Patrick Chitongo, Lowveld Post Chiredzi Bureau

The communities are largely VaTsonga commonly known as VaChangaana), a minority tribe but whose language is one of 16 in Zimbabwe.

Frankfurt Zoological Society, a Germany based wildlife conservation organisation, now runs the national park famous for its pristine wildlife, including thousands of elephants.

The organisation started operations in 2017 under a 20-year lease agreement with the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

Part of investment poured into Gona reZhou’s Vatsonga people, Chiredzi District

Before the arrangement, relations between authorities and local communities were strained as the latter argued they were being shut out of conservation efforts and denied opportunities.

There were incidents of violence largely perpetrated by armed security guards who would beat up and arrest locals accused of vandalism of park properties.

Since its takeover, Frankfurt Zoological Society has adopted a business management plan that embraces the VaTsonga community.

The plan states that the new owners have to engage the community for the sake of development of the tourism industry as well as the country.

Among the highlights, Frankfurt Zoological Society formed community-based initiatives, including one called Mpfuka.

Mpfuka is a Tsonga term for “Let us walk together.”

The project involves disadvantaged women and widows in the communities of Chibwedziwa, Chilonga, Gulugi, Chambuta and other localities in Chief Sengwe and Chief Tshovani.

They work in various face-lifting projects like brick moulding, building, carpentry, thatching and painting.

Gonarezhou pays them for their labour, a welcome development in a country battling unemployment.

The women regularly meet for food and drinks.

“On this big Mpfuka we have time to feast with locals. We also take this time to hear issues affecting the community and how we can address them together.

“On our part we present issues to do with animal conservation and the need for communities to safeguard animals and the park at large,” said Elias Livombo, Community Liason Officer in charge of projects at Gonarezhou.

Community women are currently involved in building and crafting of guest chalets at Masasanya dam, Makonde and Mabalauta camps.

The chalets are Tsonga themed and all face the majestic dams to allow quality game viewing during the day and at night.

Since Frankfurt Zoological took over from Zimbabwe National Parks, Livombo said they decided to create peace with locals because they are key stakeholders.

“It appears they had some issues with national parks. So we said this is now a new thing. Let us come together and walk together, hence the name Mpfuka,” Livombo explained.

“In whatever we are going to do, we are going to work together with the community. They provide the park with human resource and we pay salaries. All the 250 workers here come from these communities and not elsewhere.”

Another project, Tiiselani, also involves groups of women who partake in thatch grass cutting, sorting and polishing.

Gonarezhou provides transport to carry the women from their homes as well as their thatch grass from the park.

Game scouts escort them and offer protection from animals.

Apart from these projects, Gonarezhou also started a hospitality and tour guide school for locals where they are trained for free and absolved in the organisation.

“We launched this tourism school so that we can get our human resource from locals other than getting it from trained people elsewhere,” Livombo said.

“Once students finish their courses, they do not have to go looking for jobs because they are given the opportunity to work as waiters and tour guides here. We feel these communities must be empowered. They are also paid standard rates in hard currency,” Livombo said.

Hugo van der Westhuizen, the director at Frankfurt Zoological Society, said the new initiative was helping in creating a good working relationship with villagers.

He also elaborated on the contentious fence erected by the Department of Veterinary Services around the park.

The fence was meant to protect animals from mixing with cattle to curb the spread of foot and mouth disease.

“There is a misperception among villagers that we fenced off their livestock from accessing grazing pastures. We are not responsible for that fence. It was erected by government through veterinary services in a bid to control foot and mouth. In fact, we prefer buffer zones to allow free movement of animals,” he said.

He welcomed the fact that local communities appreciated the organisation’s projects aimed at uplifting them.

“Apart from that the communities are involved in, we are also equipping libraries in local schools by donations of books. To date we have donated over 1 000 books in all schools around us,” van der Westhuizen said.

Chief Sengwe confirmed the new developments and pledged to support the Gonarezhou game park to achieve its goals in animal conservation.

“There is a new approach at Gonarezhou. We are happy that the park is now assisting our people. We are also encouraging our people to stop poaching and cutting of parameter fence like before. We cannot bite the hand that is feeding us,” the traditional leader said.

Established in 1975 and measuring 5 053 km2, Gonarezhou is the country’s second largest game reserve after Hwange National Park.