Gran plan – rural gogos embrace technology to protect elephants and boost human-wildlife tolerance

Mar 5, 2023 | Commentary

By Mokgadi Mogy Mashako – Daily Maverick

A rural project in the Greater Kruger area in Limpopo is empowering grandmothers to fly the conservation flag using technology.

Rural grandmothers in Limpopo, brought together in the Ndlopfu Gogo programme by Elephants Alive, now have more tools in their mission to protect elephants.

Armed with tablets provided by the nonprofit goGOGOgo and a wealth of knowledge passed down through generations, these women are making a big impact on the future of elephants in their region.

Through a collaborative programme between Elephants Alive, goGOGOgo, Koru Camp and the Tshemba Foundation, these elders have been trained to collect and share crucial environmental and educational information about elephants and wildlife in general. As second- and third-generation educators within their communities, they play a crucial role in fostering human-wildlife tolerance.

By combining traditional wisdom with modern technology, the grandmothers are helping to build a comprehensive understanding of how to protect these majestic animals and preserve the natural world for their grandchildren.

limpopo elephants gogos

Rural elders have been trained to use tablets to collect and share crucial data on elephant movements, behaviour and interactions with people. (Photo: Jane Simmonds / goGOGOgo)

Grandmother to three Leanette Sithole (68), from Acornhoek, about 37km from the Kruger National Park’s Orpen Gate, believes sharing knowledge is the only way to overcome conservation challenges.

“People look at us and think we are old and rural and cannot embrace technologies,” said Sithole. “However, after this training programme, we are showing others that we too can use smart devices for the benefit of our communities.

“We have been able to assist researchers with the old and traditional ways of sourcing medicinal plants from nature, [the] hunting and farming we used in the past. Over time, we have become isolated from neighbouring protected areas. However, because of this incredible team effort we can now use technology to teach our children and grandchildren how to live in harmony with animals. We can reconnect them to the world we knew.”

New ways to engage

Over the past few years, Leanette has been part of the Ndlopfu Gogo programme, in which gogos are introduced to wild elephants. Through these encounters, the Gggos immediately resonate with the responsibility that elephant matriarchs carry within their herds.

Through partnering with goGOGOgo, a unique programme named Ndlopfu iGOGO was created. Leanette was one of 14 gogos who not only received medical advice through the Tshemba Foundation, but learnt how to use technology as a gateway to empowerment, education and conservation. The iGOGO learning sessions were held at Koru Camp in Greater Kruger where immersive wildlife experiences are reinforced and remembered. The gogos are now given a new way to engage with younger generations.

“Most of us could not afford smartphones and tablets, so it was near-impossible to assist our grandchildren with homework and research projects on subjects we are not familiar with,” Sithole said.

That more than four million children in South Africa are in the care of their grandmothers highlights the critical role that these women continue to play as household matriarchs – much like the leadership style observed among elephants.

“With my tablet, I am now able to track and see where the elephants are moving that the Elephants Alive researchers have introduced us to,” Sithole said excitedly.

The smart devices they had received had opened a new channel of communication, which was rare among the elderly in the community. “Now, I am able to send important messages to other gogos by sending photos of rivers that are full. I can even video-call, which was not possible before the iGOGO technology classes.”  

To most rural grandmothers, the internet has negative connotations of identities and money being stolen, and children watching pornography or learning about the destructive ways of the world. The iGOGO project targets grandmothers who are usually the internet gatekeepers in their families and liberates them to use it meaningfully.

limpopo elephants gogos

From left: Makhegu Mathebula, Tirhela Mashabani and Bafelele Sithole apply what they learnt during the iGOGO training session at Koru Camp in the Kruger National Park. (Photo: Jane Simmonds / goGOGOgo)

“For me, the beauty of a gogo leading a South African family and the synergy with the elephants’ matriarch leading and protecting the elephant family was a beautiful extension of an elephant example from nature and how we can all learn from this. The wise gogos need to keep interacting with the wise matriarchs in elephant society to bring about change,” said Michelle Henley of Elephants Alive, a local NGO with the mission to support elephant survival and the harmonious coexistence between elephants and humans.

Jane Simmonds, founder of goGOGOgo, said: “Grandmothers are the most marginalised and vulnerable population in South Africa, especially poorer and rural gogos, but they have the ability to change and embrace change,” said Simmonds.

She said the donated tablets were assets to households because they were mainly used for education for the entire family. This does, however, highlight the need for funding for data to keep the gogos connected.

“Data should be a human right now. It controls your access to learning, jobs, varsity, grants, banking and everything. This was our first rural intervention and I thought it would be challenging for a rural community to be swiping and engaging with the technology, but the gogos took to it like ducks to water.” 

Elephants Alive and goGOGOgo make the point that these valuable synergies will be perpetuated across generations, just like knowledge is carried over between elephant generations.

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