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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Hampton

THE SIJWA RECYLING PROJECT

Updated: Feb 9



Along the banks of the Kwando River in Namibia’s far north-east Zambezi Region is a place called The Sijwa Project. It is the most extraordinary riverside venue that will fill your hearts; not only for the innovative, beautiful arts and crafts, recycled from glass, cans and plastic, but with the passion of the artisans, allof whom have a job for the first time.


Video: outdoor shower using recycled glass from The Sijwa Project in the Nambwa Campsite, Bwabwata NP, Zambezi Region, Namibia, by African Monarch Lodges.


I first came to the wonderful Sijwa Project in 2018, when it was still just a dream for Tinolla and Dusty Rodgers of African Monarch Lodges. They had the foresight to see what could be done through waste recycling, turning everyday discarded materials into exquisite saleable objects.



African Monarch Lodges operate in Bwabwata National Park, communal land in the Mashi and Mayuni Conservancies given over to conservation in the Zambezi Region. Safari tourism is the only employer in this neck of the woods, and Honorable Chief Mayuni is the figurehead. His high regard for African Monarch lodges owners, Dusty and Tinolla Rodgers, and his hatred of seeing rubbish discarded along the roadside, led him to offer them a sacred patch of land on an island in the Kwando River, to make Tinolla’s waste recycling projects a reality.


Even Elders and Dignitaries are expected to kneel to show respect to Honorable Chief Mayuni.


One of the first intentions, was to make the waste from Nambwa Tented Lodge and Kasile Island Lodge productive, through re-purposing the base materials. Empty wine and beer bottles seemed a good place to start; putting smashed glass into moulds made from local kaolin clay, then firing them in something resembling a pizza oven - actually a kiln made from Kwando River clay and old termine mound soil. What comes out is exquisite hand-worked glass beads, strung into desirable jewellery. Lodge guests who visit Sijwa cannot resist buying a special piece, knowing its hand-made origins and its return into the community in the form of job creation and training.



 Fulfilling Tinolla's desire to recycle plastic and drinks cans has come from a couple of safari guests with the right connections, who have the ability to provide machinery, equipment and training that could turn plastic into decorative tiles and aluminium into tableware.


Cardboard mashed into a pulp and made into chili bricks also plays an important role in this area frequented by elephants. When lit, the bricks release smoke infused with chili, a known elephant deterrent, helping to keep them away from crops and vegetable gardens in this area.




To set the scene around The Sijwa Project and African Monarch Lodges, animals abound in the parks and conservancies along the Zambezi Region. As the elephant migrate to find better grazing, they wander across roads and through villages, raiding crops and Sijwa’s permaculture greenhouses. Chili bombs help, but so do hanging beehives, which is another Sijwa Project. Hives are strung on wire around the growing area and when elephants inadvertently bump them, the bees come out to investigate and there’s nothing an elephant hates more than a bee up its trunk, so they buzz off! The aim is to place bee boxes in numerous locations, so that every village become bee-keepers and generate revenue from honey.


Exampe of hanging bee hives from elephantsalive.org


A sewing workshop was never part of the original plan for Sijwa, but since Dusty and Tinolla didn’t lay anyone off at Sijwa during Covid-19, they thought a sewing project would be time well spent. Bathrobes, dresses and kaftans were designed courtesy of some professional help, so that garments would be ready for sale once guests returned on safari. The flowing kaftan called the Monarch Dress, is now worn by female lodge staff, as the most elegant uniform I've ever seen. A line of embroidered items ensued, three of which found their way into SA Fashion Week 2022 and sold in a smart Johannesburg boutique for R14,000.




The Sijwa Project was boosted by Covid and then became a sense of purpose during Dusty’s cancer journey. But, just two short years later, sales of the exquisite recycled glass jewellery and garments from the sewing workshop have resulted in N$132,000 in contributions to the community. That does not include almost a million Namibian Dollars in salaries for previously unemployed Sijwa staff, where one income is likely to feed up to 12 family members.


The Sijwa Project is more than a recycling centre. It facilitates training, creates jobs, grows food, propagates mushrooms and if you speak to Tinolla on any one day, she’ll tell you about a new idea she's had. Her enthusiasm is infectious and she reflects, “When I get an idea, I challenge the Sijwa team by asking, ‘do you think we can do this? They always come back saying, Yes we can!”


The mushroom farm is one of those unlikely schemes, because as she points out, who is growing mushrooms along the Zambezi?  It seems sensible to at least try, rather than import them at great expense from South Africa, for the gourmet dishes served at 5-star Nambwa Tented Lodge. The intention was set and released into the universe, for it to be realised when a mushroom expert came into Sijwa's sphere. He trained staff in the delicate art of growing both edible and medicinal mushrooms.


African Monarch Lodges have long been known for giving back to conservation and the community and their vision for The Sijwa Project became a reality, “Our vision is to turn the waste generated at our lodges into a commodity skilfully crafted by our community and into produce grown organically to reach our guest tables as well as our people.” Their commitment to repurpose, reinvent, and rejuvenate is a testament to creative sustainability and the transformative power of conscious recycling.



My re-visit in December 2023 found a thriving, self-fulfilling, self-funding Sijwa Project, employing 25 people. It’s more than realising its intentions for job training, local employment, waste recycling and community upliftment. And in the same way that African Monarch Lodges donate 12% of their turnover back to the community, so does The Sijwa Project.


The demonstration of commitment and ability to follow through and create something from nothing, encourages influential non-profit organisations to support them. Like ERP (Elephants, Rhinos and People) and the Capricorn Foundation. Most recently with a ‘bike drop’ that donated 110 bicycles to the Mayuni Senior Secondary School to help learners get to school and get to Sijwa for extra training, like the junior sewing school. ERP’s impact assessments have shown that school attendance and grades improve immediately. The purpose is also to prepare the matriculants for jobs by helping them appreciate the value of wildlife and the reasons to protect them, in an economy where tourism is a major employer.



The Sijwa Project is shaping a sustainable future for rural people, at the same time as fostering cultural richness, community development and conservation. Notable people in the sustainability and conservation fields have nothing but praise for The Sijwa Project. Richard Diggle, the Business and Sustainable Financing Director of WWF in Namibia, says, “Nothing comes close to Sijwa for scale, innovation, diversity and sustainability. It is a unique model to be learned from.”  Head of ERP Namibia, Tinus Hansen says, “Sijwa is the benchmark community project in Namibia if not Southern Africa.”


Summary of Sijwa's projects:

 

 

Where is The Sijwa Project?

It’s in Namibia’s Zambezi Region, which offers affordable tourism in the unfenced Kwando River Wildlife Dispersal Area between Angola, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. It’s in the heart of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (take a look at the brochure I wrote on KAZA), and is a long strip of land bookended by the Kavango River in the west and the Zambezi River in the east, with the Kwando-Linyanti-Chobe (all one river, its name depending on location), forming the southern demarcation.



The Zambezi Region is an astonishing collection of 16 conservancies, with nine different tribes and multiple land use, traversed by migrating animals and bisected by 200kms of tar road. Animal migrations, particularly elephants, occur in this region and create inevitable human-wildlife conflict, with wild animals in close proximity to villages, raiding crops and causing havoc as people go about their daily lives. Lions too travel through this area, creating danger to domestic herds of goats and cattle. Various conflict mitigation measures are in place.




How to Get There?

Safari self-drivers can easily reach The Sijwa Project and African Monarch Lodges; Nambwa Tented Lodge and Kazile Island Lodge, as well as the Nambwa Campsite, with border posts into the area from all the neighbouring countries. There are other accommodation options along the Kwando River of the Zambezi Region, but no others in Bwabwata National Park, and none, in my opinion, more beautiful, comfortable and rewarding than Nambwa and Kazile. If arriving by air, the nearest airport is Katima Mulilo. This is the regional capital on the banks of the Zambezi, with a bridge crossing into Zambia.


When to Go

It’s uncanny how many hundreds of elephants disappear as soon as they get a whiff of rain usually in November. They no longer need to stay near waterholes and are attracted to greener pastures to the north in Angola.  One day there are plenty in Bwabwata National Park and the other protected areas along the Zambezi Region, then they are gone. But even without them, the landscape is mesmerising, the floodplains abound with antelopes and migratory birds arrive.


Read more about the wildlife migration corridors of the KAZA area here.




It’s interesting to note that local rainfall from November to March may turn the landscape green, but it’s not what makes the Okavango Delta flood, the Chobe River floodplains fill with water, or the Victoria Falls gush with fury. These spectacles are caused by the arrival of floodwaters from the Angolan highlands, which have travelled south for about four months to reach KAZA territory in about May each year, before spreading across the Kalahari sand basin. This enormous volume of water, filling the Okavango Delta, swelling rivers and submerging vast grasslands, means that the landscape in the dry season is nothing like the landscape in the flood season.



Follow me on Instagram: @safari_tart https://www.instagram.com/safari_tart/?hl=en

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