September 7, 2018
Claudine Spera & Irene Baqué, The Guardian
See link for video, chart, photos & map.
A moment of quiet descends on the park. The girls lean forward to get a clear view of the huge crocodile creeping towards the river. Safe inside a truck, they sit mesmerised. Despite living just a few miles from the area, it’s the first time many of them have seen the reptile in real life. And this safari is all about opening their eyes.
Situated at the southern end of the great African Rift Valley and at the centre of Mozambique, Gorongosa is one of the country’s biggest national parks, spanning 4,000 sq km (1,540 sq miles).
The girls live in the buffer zone, a bridging area between the park and surrounding towns, home to about 177,000 people.
Many villages in the buffer zone don’t have electricity and water. Schools and hospitals are often inaccessible, and families experience high levels of poverty, with women and girls disproportionately affected.
“Girls here don’t have as many opportunities and chances as boys do and education is a challenge,” says Larissa Sousa, who manages a girls’ education programme set up by the park. It is a crucial part of efforts to restore Gorongosa and its people, who are still recovering from 16 years of civil war and more recent incursions by rebel forces.
The aim of the programme is to warn girls against early marriage – nearly half of all girls in Mozambique are wed before their 18th birthday – and “give them tools for life”, says Sousa.
About 2,000 girls attend clubs across 50 schools. Park visits are a highlight, but meetings cover literacy and, critically, provide a safe environment in which to discuss the pressures and pitfalls of becoming a child bride. The legal age of marriage in the country is 18, but 16 with parental consent.
Toneca, 15, lives in Canda, just north of the park. She regularly attends meetings and is adamant she won’t marry soon. If her parents insist, she says she’ll refuse. “I’d speak to a Girls’ Club madrinha [carefully selected women from the family and community] for help,” she says. “But my father is against early marriage because if a marriage ends – after that, what? You’ll never lose your education though.”
When the project began in 2017 reaction was mixed. “They asked, ‘Why are they taking our daughters to the park?’ Men were sceptical, especially because we are telling them, ‘Don’t marry your daughter off,’ and [they’re] the ones to receive the dowry,” says Sousa.
But with support from madrinhas there is growing trust. The message is spreading in the community and police are actively looking into reports of early or forced marriage and abuse. “If it doesn’t work in the soft way, we need to go in the hard way,” says Sousa.
Waterbuck and warthogs roam freely across the floodplains of Gorongosa park, which is so vast it cannot be fenced. Hippos wallow and elephants wander the forests, snacking on palm and fever tree leaves.
Yet it has a troubled history. During the 1960s the park was a popular holiday destination for the wealthy. Black Mozambicans were not welcome, unless they worked there or were given a special invitation.
Rebel forces from the Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) made Mount Gorongosa their base, and thousands of animals in the park – close to 90% – were killed, slaughtered for meat to feed soldiers or to trade their ivory for weapons. The park was all but destroyed, and those animals that remained became fearful of people and aggressive.
Recovery was slow. Park warden Pedro Muagura, who grew up in the area, remembers the park as being close to extinction in the years following the war. “You used to walk for a day and see perhaps just one warthog,” he says.
Regeneration of the park began after Gorongosa caught the attention of entrepreneur and philanthropist Greg Carr. He visited the devastated plains and was shocked at what he saw. He believed with the right support and investment Gorongosa could be rebuilt and repopulated, as long as human development was prioritised alongside wildlife.
Talks with the Mozambican government followed. In 2008 the Carr Foundation, a US non-profit organisation, signed a 20-year contract to work with the government to manage and rebuild the park.
Under the agreement, Mozambicans would work with international scientists to develop conservation, restore the ecosystem and attract tourists back to the park, encouraging sustainable development for the buffer-zone communities.
In 2012 violence flared between Renamo and government forces, threatening to slow down the project. But the park became the backdrop to peace negotiations and in 2014 both factions signed an agreement at Gorongosa.
The park is seen a safe place, says Sousa. “People here are not preoccupied with which party you belong to. It’s about how together we can solve the communities’ problems. It’s about being able to live with your neighbour.”
Ten years into the regeneration project, the park is thriving.
Muagura says building trust with local communities has been essential to the park’s restoration.
“The number of poachers has declined. It’s now very small and we receive support from police, teachers. Before it was not like that.
“Poaching isn’t just about a tusk – it’s about not having money. The park creates industry. It’s a huge compliment when an elephant stays. If it comes, and then moves on, something is wrong.”
Gorongosa is one of Africa's most biologically diverse national parks. Its science department aims to inform the ongoing restoration, and support studies around the world.
And its female scientists and researchers are leading the way.
Dominique Gonçalves is the lead researcher on elephants in Gorongosa. Born in the city of Beira, she studied ecology and conservation in Maputo and, with support from the Gorongosa project, went on to study an MSc at the University of Kent.
The elephant population was particularly affected by the civil war. In 1972 the park was home to about 2,500 of the animals but by the end of the conflict there were fewer than 200. And the ones that survived were traumatised.
“They remember,” says Gonçalves. “Most of our elephants were killed for ivory. Some of them are becoming more tolerant of our presence. Now that the population is growing and they’re in a safer environment, we hope their behaviour changes back to how it was before.”
The park’s strategy to support homegrown talent includes the offer of internships. Most schools in the area have limited resources, with science often taught from text books and photographs, so the opportunity to study in the “living laboratory” of the park is invaluable. And girls are keen to learn.
The director of scientific services, Marc Stalmans, says that there are already more women involved in Gorongosa’s science programme than men. “Obviously the senior positions are still male-dominated but I think that’s going to grow too. The number of applicants and the number of people coming to do research in the park – most of the PhD students are female.”
Mozambican Norina Vicente is one such example. After completing her secondary education in 2013, she studied ecotourism and wildlife management before discovering a passion for insects. An internship at Gorongosa gave her the chance to take part in a biodiversity survey, which led to further study of entomology.
“Other people were choosing big insects, so I said no – I want to prove that small insects have great importance in our ecosystem,” she explains.
“We have women in each area, and that gives us a lot of opportunity. Women should get into this kind of thing – be a scientist, study more, grow. Each day you discover new things.”
The girls arrive back at Chitengo camp excitedly chattering about the lions they spotted while out on safari. What is the one message Sousa hopes the girls remember from their day out? “It’s their park. They need to know that a woman can study and become anything in the world.”