“We are so blessed”

When Jaytee Makhubele (15) walks onto the stage at Zivuko Secondary School, she can’t hide her joy. A conscientious student, she’s used to doing well, but this Friday morning’s assembly is special. It’s not her academic talents that are being recognised, but rather, her skill as a photographer.

In 2019, Jaytee was selected to participate in a unique educational programme hosted by Selati Game Reserve called Bush Buddies. Her prize of an Olympus camera sponsored by Wild Shots Outreach is the culmination of what she describes as “a life-changing experience.”

“Thanks to Bush Buddies, I am more aware now of the species we are losing and how our lifestyles affect the wild,” she says.  “I really learned that taking care of the wild is about taking care of ourselves,” she says.

The Bush Buddies’ programme is different to other youth conservation projects in the area in that it brings kids from diverse backgrounds together to learn about conservation – and each other – through a series of wilderness weekends. It pairs learners from Penryn College in Nelspruit (also the home of Penreach, one of Africa’s largest education outreach initiatives) with learners from Zivuko Secondary School in Limpopo, creating connections between young people that may not otherwise exist. The weekends are sponsored by the Selati Wilderness Foundation NPC.

“We are so blessed. We’ve been part of Bush Buddies for the last several years, and it just keeps getting better,” says Zivuko’s Headmaster Luke Mokoena. His school has a reputation for motivating learners and staff to do well, no matter what the odds. “We are a school that values excellence, and these kinds of initiatives are part of why our learners are successful,” he says.

Bush Buddies’ weekends take place in the 27 000 hectare Selati Game Reserve close to Kruger and are a highlight for the youngsters selected to participate. The reserve is home to over 50 different species of mammals, including elephants, sable antelopes, lions, leopards and cheetahs. As well as seeing amazing wildlife, the learners are introduced to bushcraft basics like identifying and tracking animals, as well as how to assess river health, map the heavens and even dissect an animal.

They do all of this without access to cell phones or social media, getting to know each other without the help of an electronic interface. “At first I was a bit scared as it’s a new environment. But it’s also a very fun one. Making friends with people from different backgrounds will help fight discrimination, because out there, we are just young people having fun – even without our phones!” says Jaytee.

The weekend isn’t completely tech free though, as in 2019, Selati teamed up with Wild Shots Outreach to present a photography workshop to the learners selected on academic merit as part of Bush Buddies programme.

Wild Shots Outreach uses photography to engage the hearts and minds of young people who live around the Kruger National Park in conservation. “There is a passion that burns in these kids. They have an affinity for nature but no opportunity to exercise that affinity. Most have never been to Kruger, despite living nearby,” says Wild Shots Outreach founder and photographer Mike Kendrick. This was true for Jaytee, who saw her first giraffes and other species in the wild as part of Bush Buddies.

All the learners from Zivuko and Penryn produced amazing results, but Jaytee’s photos in particular stood out. “Sometimes we find students who have a natural talent for photography and interest in wildlife,” says Mike. “Everyone from this Bush Buddies’ group was really motivated and produced beautiful images. It was difficult to single out one person, but Jaytee’s photographs showed a real understanding of the topics taught and a natural eye for composition. I hope this camera will help her to develop her photography and continue to enjoy it.”

To date, Wild Shots Outreach has taken nearly 220 learners through its photography workshops. Each workshop culminates in a trip into a game reserve to apply their new skills to real-life wildlife encounters. Wild Shots graduates help to facilitate workshops and a number of them have gone on to industry and tertiary education placements, thanks to Wild Shots Outreach support.

“I am not surprised Jaytee was awarded this camera,” says her English teacher, Olivia Mbokazi. “She’s smart, hardworking and competitive. I think Bush Buddies is great and I loved being able to attend the photography workshop with Mike too. It is very motivating to have these opportunities to see our students do well.”

In the long term, the Selati Wilderness Foundation’s NPC hope is to play a meaningful role in breaking down barriers and enhancing inter-societal understanding and learning among the next generation, while also encouraging interest and passion in conservation,” says the foundation’s Alan Du Toit, who takes Jaytee’s talent and enthusiasm as sign that the programme is working as envisaged. “Whether it’s a career in conservation, photography, or something else, the Selati Wilderness Foundation NPC will continue to support Selati Game Reserve’s vision to contribute to the social upliftment of all South Africans through sustainable conservation practices.”

Some images taken by Jaytee:

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