‘The one who gathers knowledge’

For Moji Kitsi, the bush is the best teacher. We joined this inspirational wildlife education guide on one of his outings in the Waterberg.




It’s a hot November morning when I meet Moji Kitsi at the gate of Welgevonden Game Reserve, about 24 km north- west of Vaalwater in Limpopo. He’s dressed in the colours of the bush: olive-green cargo shorts and a golf shirt that’s clearly seen a lot of sun. His short dreadlocks are rolled up under his cap. We shake hands, then I hop into the white and green minibus used by the Welgevonden Environmental Awareness Programme (WEAP). As co-ordinator of WEAP, Moji spends a lot of time on the road in this bus, carting schoolchildren back and forth between towns like Vaalwater and wildlife refuges like Welgevonden. Three youngsters from Vaalwater are already on the bus: Thembi Momene (22), Thabang Mkoe (18) and Mpho Motsomane (19). Moji has worked with them before and knows them well. He imparts knowledge about the bush as we go, in an easy, conversational tone. A solifuge (a sun spider) scurries across the road and we all get out to take a look before it disappears.

Moji segues smoothly into a lesson: “In nature, nothing functions by itself,” he says. “We have three types of symbiotic relationships – do you remember them? Mutualism, parasitism, and commensalism. Mutualism is like when you buy bread, your friend buys chips, and then you eat together. Commensalism is when you buy bread and your friend buys nothing – but that’s okay because she doesn’t eat with you anyway. And parasitism is when you buy bread and your friend buys nothing – but she eats all the bread!” He laughs and then moves onto explaining how lichen is a composite organism in which algae and cyanobacteria share a mutualistic relationship. “Lichen only grows where the air is pristine,” says. “You kids always want to go to Pretoria or Joburg but you won’t find lichen there…” We’re standing under a silver cluster- leaf tree and Moji doesn’t waste the opportunity to level with the kids in a way that they understand: “This time of year you can smell the pollen of this tree – it smells like someone who has come from playing a soccer match and taken off his shirt. “Can you see that agama there?” We crane our necks and spot it on the trunk of another tree. “It’s a male, you can see by its breeding colours. In nature the male is usually more beautiful because he must attract a female and spread his genes – not jeans, not your Levi 501s! Genes, as in genetics…”

Our time with the kids ends a couple of hours later, after Moji helps them dig up a giraffe skull. The animal died in the reserve some time ago and Moji got the kids to bury the skull so they could understand the decomposition process. After his demo, Moji and I find a quiet place near the reserve reception to sit down and talk. Born in Brits in 1983, he’s the second youngest of seven children. His mother, Elizabeth, is from the Free State and his late father, Tsietsi, traced some of his roots to Botswana. It’s strange how a name can manifest the person who carries it. Moji tells me that in Setswana, his name means something like, “the one who eats”, or more figuratively “the one who gathers, who brings things together”. “And ‘Kitsi’ means ‘the one who knows, who understands’. In Setswana, knowledge is ‘kitso’, and if you know and have knowledge, you’re a ‘kitsi’,” he says.

“Every generation has its own struggle. For your generation, it’s an environmental struggle. And you can’t win a struggle unarmed, so we’re arming you guys now, with knowledge.”

Moji Kitsi has been gathering knowledge about nature from an early age. He was just 10 years old when he realised what he wanted to do with his life. That year, in 1993, some SANParks rangers came to his school to do a talk about the environment. “They brought feathers, animal skulls and a tortoise shell,” he says. “Every time, when I wonder whether we’re making a difference – whether we’re winning the battle of environmental education – I think back to that day. For us as the Welgevonden Environmental Awareness Programme, even if we just inspire ten kids who are half as crazy as I am, it’s a victory in the long run. Every inspired person is an investment, because they can reach even more people in turn.” Earlier, I heard him tell the youngsters: “Every generation has its own struggle. For your generation, it’s an environmental struggle. And you can’t win a struggle unarmed, so we’re arming you guys now, with knowledge.”

Moji grew up in a village called Maboloka just north of Brits. His mother raised him and his siblings, and four other children, on the R180 a week she earned working at a shop. His father was responsible for imparting much of Moji’s early knowledge of nature. “He was closely related to the Bushmen in Botswana. He used to fight with the cattle herders in our area because he would remove the snares from the veld. Every Saturday morning we went together to remove snares, and I didn’t know why. He told me: ‘You only kill something that you are going to eat.’ Snaring, he said, was inhumane and not even real hunting – if you hunt something you must give it a chance. He ate from the bush, from the soil, and he loved fishing. He could track like no other man I have ever met, and he knew bird calls and whether it was a mating call or something else. He even knew when the butterflies would arrive every season. “I remember when he told me about the coming of the common mynahs. He said that the first time he observed them in our village was in 1988. Most people from the township didn’t notice such things, but my father did.”

After Moji matriculated in 2001, he stayed at home even though he had the chance to study. Some teachers at his school had put money away to help him, but Moji felt he had to stay home for his mother’s sake. His parents had been divorced for almost a decade at this stage, and a sense of stability was hard to find. “We moved houses four times during my teenage years, trying to find a stable place. Eventually my mother bought a stand and we built a house with our own hands. My mother still lives there. I would be lucky if I have a fraction of my mother’s strength,” he says. “I wouldn’t have survived without her.” Moji first worked as a volunteer for a local HIV/Aids awareness organisation, and then as a welder in Brits. A factory job in Garankuwa followed, but he still spent his weekends at home in Maboloka whenever he could, educating others in the township about how they should be looking after their dogs, or going fishing with his father to learn more about nature. “Things changed for me in 2007. I joined Facebook and quickly found anti- poaching groups, animal rights activism groups and so on. In 2009 I got arrested at the Chinese embassy because we held a march against rhino poaching. This was all organised via Facebook by a group of middle-aged white women with whom I became close friends. “I was sitting in the back of the police bakkie with these women, and one of them asked me: ‘Moji why don’t people in the township understand that it’s important to save the rhino?’ I told her that it’s impossible for somebody to care about something they’ve only ever seen on TV or read about in books. She asked, but how can we change this? And I said, ‘Education, education, education. There’s no other way.’”

“Some see nature as a place where you can go to find peace and quiet, or beautiful scenery. But I think nature is a place where you can find yourself. Nature starts with you.”

In 2012, a couple of things fell into place. Moji briefly worked at a game reserve near Mookgophong and was sent to do anti-poaching training in the Western Cape. There, he met a man called Chase Jordaan who worked at a game reserve in the Waterberg. Chase immediately recognised the natural educator and communicator in Moji and tried to convince him to move to Vaalwater. In 2017, after his father passed away, Moji made the move. “When my father was on his deathbed, he told me: ‘No matter what you do in life, you must never leave the bush.’” Moji spent a while with Chase, familiarising himself with the landscape and reading guidebooks to educate himself. “I also met the legendary conser- vationist Clive Walker,” Moji recalls. “We got on like a house on fire! Soon after, the job I’m doing now came up. Back then it was all just an idea: to take kids from the township and expose them to the bush. I came for the interview and got the job.”

It wasn’t plain sailing at first and Moji spent time trying to figure out which approach would work best. “Every school is different, the demographics are different, the realities of the townships are different… You can’t just come up with a single environmental education programme. It might work in one place but it will be useless somewhere else. So, I went back and redesigned it. I wanted it to be relevant, to resonate with everyone. It shouldn’t just be about bringing kids to the reserve. They see animals and go back. There must be a link, something to measure our success with. I took the concept to the Department of Education and they loved the idea of bringing our programme into the schools.“Currently, we work with about ten schools in the Waterberg. In the primary schools our programme is fused with Natural Science. I go to a school, look at the curriculum and see where my work can fit in with theirs. The programme is now seen as a necessity rather than a nuisance. It mustn’t be seen as extra work for the kids but as something that complements what they’re already doing. “With high schools, we blend the programme with Hospitality Studies and Tourism. A big percentage of the economy of the Waterberg revolves around tourism. We visit lodges and hunting farms and we interview everyone from the manager to the guy who sweeps the floor, to show how each person adds to the package that the tourist buys. “One of the first things we do with the kids is to introduce them to plants. You put a seed in the ground and you look after it, and eventually it sprouts and grows. These days people don’t find pride in hard work, they want things to come fast and easy. The seed helps to instil an understanding that patience is an investment.”

Because Moji is largely self-taught, he pays attention to the kids and the sometimes surprising knowledge that they share. “It’s not always about the stuff in books,” he says. “You can learn so much from being observant in the veld. For example, I’ve seen a fork-tailed drongo take a burning leaf from a fire and use it to start a fire elsewhere. The new fire drives insects into the air – easy prey for the drongo. I told my father and he said, ‘Ja, ja, they do it often.’ But I couldn’t find anything in the books to back it up. Fast forward to 2019 when I was doing a lesson at the farm school at Boschdraai. I was talking about the weird things that animals do and an 11-year-old boy told me he and his father have seen a drongo do the same thing on several occasions.”

Helping hands have sometimes come from unexpected places. Once, Moji was busy with a class at another district farm school when his lesson was interrupted by a man who told him his employer, a certain Mr Willie Botha, wanted to see him. Not knowing Mr Botha, Moji thought he might be in some sort of trouble but he went along after he finished his class. “So, I get to Oom Willie’s farm and he points to me in front of all his workers and says: ‘This is the guy I’ve been telling you about!’” Although Moji had never met Willie, word had got around and he wanted to offer the use of his farm for Moji’s educational programmes. “The great thing about Kleinplasie – Oom Willie’s farm – is that you can walk safely because there aren’t any big, dangerous animals. It’s one thing when you take kids out on a game drive and show them elephants, but you miss out the small things. On Oom Willie’s farm, we can walk for two hours, covering just 2 km, stopping to study droppings, tracks, a toktokkie… My father told me the bush floor is like a book. You read and learn what happened the previous night. After the walk, Oom Willie provides some refreshments for the kids. I have a very strong bond with him now. “Everyone learns differently – some kids learn in a classroom, but others must go into the veld, touch the ground, feel the dung in their hands, touch the grass, smell the terminalia plant. That’s how I learnt. I didn’t learn from sitting in a classroom. I think that’s how kids should be taught about the environment, by going out and seeing it.”

Although Moji clearly loves his job, he yearns for his own children. Vaalwater is about 250 km from Brits and Maboloka, where his wife, Grace, lives with their daughters Kemoneetswe (7) and Kemoneilwe (3). “I can only visit them on weekends and that breaks my heart because they’re the centre of my life,” he says. “Everything I’ve ever known I’ve learnt from that place, Maboloka. Even if I win the lottery I won’t move away. I know I’ll never be able to repay my mother for everything she’s done for me, but I want to help support her for her remaining years.” He would love to find someone to train as his successor, but Moji knows that the kind of passion he brings to the job is hard to find. “You can have all the degrees in the world, but if you’re not passionate about something you won’t do it adequately. Once you see environmental education as a job, you’ve lost before you’ve even started. This is a way of life. I get people knocking on my door in the middle of the night because they’ve seen a weird spider in their house. By getting up and addressing it, you show these guys how important all living creatures are. You can’t ignore people with a trivial request or question. If you do, you’ve missed out on an opportunity to educate them.”

Image: Moji Kitsi shares his knowledge with a group of students. Moji holds a giraffe skull which he had previously buried to show his students how it would decay over time.

Moji is forever looking for people who share his “madness”. “That’s how you find your brothers and sisters!” he says. “Being siblings is the mere coincidence of being born from the same parents, but brotherhood and sisterhood are relationships that you work on – relationships that you water and nourish. It’s important to nurture my successors and to make sure the kids that we influence don’t just disappear into the township again. When new field guides need to be trained for working on game reserves, these kids must be first in line. “Some see nature as a place where you can go to find peace and quiet, or beautiful scenery. But I think nature is a place where you can find yourself. Nature starts with you. We need to discard the notion that humans and nature are separate. We’re not – we’re part of it, and every part of nature has a right to be here as much as we do, maybe even more so. Every single thing in nature functions for the betterment of the whole system. Except us, we’re the only species that works against nature, even though we claim to be intelligent.”

Moji’s work brings him into contact with many kids, and he shares in the harsh realities of their lives. “When I go into the township to teach a child about a tree – if that child was raped two days ago, if that child slept on an empty stomach five days ago, if that child doesn’t have clothes – then my message will not get across. I must be aware of these things, sometimes even address them directly. Some of these things mess me up, and when I feel messed up I go into nature, often to a mountain near Melkrivier, and I sit there and I speak those things out loud to get them out of my system. “We must find the time to humble ourselves. If you can calm down, bring yourself down, bring your soul down, then you can understand how you are part of nature.”

Thank you Weg/Go Magazine and Toast Coetzer for sharing this amazing article and for shining a spotlight on the incredible work of the Welgevonden Environmental Awareness Programme.

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