You know when you speak to someone and could just spend hours and hours listening to their story? Well, this was definitely one of those times. Sarah is such an inspiration. Her energy, sincerity, love and passion are totally contagious and has a way of warming your soul.
Sarah is a rare, brave human pioneering a way to fight poverty and poaching in South Africa. Through her non-profit called Nourish, Sarah’s developed an eco-villiage concept that blends conservation, agriculture, and economic empowerment for the local community. I can’t wait for you to read her story and perhaps join us on our South African trip so you can actually meet her in person.
Let’s start at the beginning, what did you do before opening Nourish and how did you come to the decision to open an Eco Village?
Thank you for reaching out it’s really exciting for me and quite an honour. I think I deflect attention a lot and what Nourish has become – sometimes I forget to highlight that I started it as a girl, just 22 years old.
I was home-schooled and my mom still remembers when I desperately wanted to do some good in the world and organised a Girl Scout group called ‘The Buttercream Toffee Gang’ and we would bake cookies for old age pensioners in homes. I wanted it to be a group that made a difference to other people. I put flyers up all over town coz I wanted people to join my ‘do good’ gang but nobody joined. I was pretty devastated but didn’t give up. I really wanted to find a way to be meaningful, and by the time I registered Nourish, it was almost like the unfolding of something that I knew I wanted to do. I wanted to create value and mean something to people and Nourish gave me the platform to do that. I often talk about how grateful I am because I can’t imagine not being able to do this. It’s given me the most amazing platform to meet people and be involved in people’s lives and create change. Not everybody has that. Even with your trips with people travelling and donating, they are seeking a way find that same fulfilment. I get the joy of having it all the time.
How did the idea for Nourish evolve and how has it unfolded from your initial idea?
I grew up in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. My dad was a guide and my mum worked in reception. The way it worked was every six weeks we would get a two-week holiday because you would work six weeks consecutively. I had the most fortunate childhood, seeing animals and elephants drinking from the pool in front of my house and going on game drives everyday. I love the Bush and was so lucky, but whenever we got in the car and drove outside of the nature reserve, we’d go through township areas and rural villages. It was a huge realization, because that was where the staff lived. I had just come from a beautiful reserve, and just a few kilometres away I was seeing homes and buildings falling apart that were barely a shack, children walking barefoot to school – if the schools were open because sometimes the schools didn’t get their books for six months. It hit me hard. I thought, my god these children’s parents or parent are working away for weeks in the reserve and surrounded by people who can afford to enjoy animals for luxury. I realised that none of the money was making its way back to the villages where these people live, so they are living in absolute poverty but then having to work in this fake luxury. And worse, we were really just shutting the guest’s eyes from seeing the reality of the area they were staying in.
It really bugged me that children growing up in the village couldn’t see an elephant, but a 12 year old from England with rich parents they could. I often say to people, I’m so glad I saw this when I was so young because we develop blinkers as we get older to stop us from feeling so guilty. Guilt doesn’t feel good so when we put blinkers on, we feel a bit better when we travel. The great thing about being young is you ask questions, and I used to ask “but why is no money going to help people in the villages? How do we expect people to come to work and love wildlife when their family is barely making minimum wage?” I started realising that lodges would brag a lot about the amount of jobs they had created, but family structures were crumbling in these communities because the breadwinners would be away for weeks and weeks on end. Children would be left alone with a granny who didn’t speak English, which meant leaving children playing on the streets in the afternoon so there were high rates of rape and kidnapping and all these other social problems. As I started to look at this, I knew there was a big gap and it didn’t sit well with me. I love conservation and wildlife, I live in it, but people are utterly excluded and that’s not ok.
At the same time, back when I was growing up there was a lot of wildlife crime. Cheetah’s were being poached and the cheetah numbers were really declining. Then it shifted to elephants, and now it’s rhino and pangolins. And then on the other side, there’s this awful poverty. Trying to pick a career when I finished school made me realise that I can’t go into just one area because they’re actually exclusive of the other. The options were: I could either go and work in an orphanage or a school, or, I could work in research, conservation or rehabilitation. I couldn’t really find anything that that brought these two worlds together… that brought wildlife and care for nature, living better, and tourism with children being educated or having food and having access to their own heritage. I didn’t find anything that was like that and it made me want to start something that combined both.
I started feeling uncomfortable with the status quo and with the opportunities out there to make a difference. My mom advised me against it because there’s no money in charity, but encouraged me to look around and see what other NGOs were doing. The only thing that I could find that brought together wildlife and communities was environmental education. I liked that there was environmental education going on, but it didn’t feel like enough. Looking at the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I realised education and self-empowerment are not on the bottom level of need – and lot of children in these communities were on the bottom. They needed shelter, they needed food, they needed access to water, and they needed safety, security and education. Then and only then can we move to them having appreciation.
We were not actually doing anything to care these communities. We were teaching children to care for what we care about in the environment, such as lions and elephants, meanwhile they’re coming to the classroom with no shoes and they’re leaving hungry. They’re going home to a granny who doesn’t speak English, or to a dad who has no income opportunities so he will probably end up poaching in a week’s time but, at least we educated the child about elephants.
There were so many things I wanted to change and I couldn’t find anything that was even close, so after a brief spell of working in a lodge, which made me feel hollow, I did some work with elephant research, which was meaningful but it excluded the community element.
Everything until that moment was just compounding my idea that we needed a people-first approach to dealing with these social issues that are impacting conservation, so that’s what started this journey of Nourish. I look around now and I find it’s just as relevant today as when I started because it’s still a problem. There’s still such a hard silo approach to conservation and anti poaching and the people projects. That’s what Nourish was about at first – seeing these problems and not knowing where I could find a solution, other than creating one.
How would you describe to somebody who’s never heard of you what you do and why?
We connect communities to conservation through the Eco Village model. We create a safe space where we can roll out programmes and projects, but the goal is always to connect communities back to conservation. We always say we’re addressing the dual issues of poverty and poaching by growing resilience, so everything that we do is to build people’s resilience. Back again to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Imagine you’re a young woman living in Hoedspruit and were approached to pass on a bag of guns to the next man that walks through your house for 1000 Rand. You would probably say no and phone the police because you have the luxury of being able to do that. You have a roof over your head, money in the bank account, your child’s at school and you’re going to work. You have the luxury of choice, so you are resilient to those negative opportunities. A woman in the village isn’t. They have no income stream, really low social grants, their child might be struggling in school, they’re not employed, their resilience is low. Everything we do at Nourish is with the goal of growing resilience and to connect people back to conservation and nature.
We are also very holistic. When you visit, you’ll see 100 projects going on and you’ll probably wonder why we’re not doing fewer projects better with a higher level of proficiency. Everything is kind of ramshackle and we’re trying to fundraise for 20 things at the same time, because to grow someone’s resilience you don’t only need one thing. If I approached a woman that’s struggling, she doesn’t only need shoes, she needs sanitary products, an education – she has a life with needs. There are all these gaps that need to be filled. She needs programmes and projects that support her to be strong enough to make her own decisions. We’ve had to add programmes and projects as we go because we need a holistic model to building resilience.
Can you tell me about the new project that you’re working on with women and sanitary towels?
Over the past few years, we had a sewing project linked to reusable sanitary products. I think everybody is aware of the issue that girls drop out of school when they start having their periods because they just don’t have access to sanitary wear and for us it was a no brainer that instead of purchasing from someone else it gives us an opportunity to create an income stream. Ivy, one of the ladies that sows for us is phenomenal. She’s handicapped with shrunken arms and legs, but she’s modified her sewing machine and she sows the most perfect products. By sowing for us she can provide for her family. In fact, she is the breadwinner of the family despite being totally handicapped in a wheelchair.
Last year one of the reserves approached us to build a centre for young women because at the moment they don’t have a place to go to talk about girl/women issues. We are in the process of building this centre for girls, so they have a safe place to speak with role models. The reserve that approached us realised that girls were getting embarrassed to wash their reusable sanitary pads at home because they had to dry them in a communal area. We’re in the process now of figuring out this programme. Will there be weekly engagements with the girls? Will it include art, yoga etc? I want a robust programme that supports these girls, maybe with women in conservation coming to do talks with something like a yoga and a place for social workers to talk to these young women about teen pregnancy or birth control which is such taboo subject in African cultures. Men often don’t like wearing condoms and it’s incredibly frowned upon for young women to take contraceptives, so they have many questions but don’t have the space to ask them. What we want to evolve into is a fully fledged women’s empowerment programme.
This is definitely needed in many third world countries and definitely something Sia Mondo will be supporting and watching evolve.
On our trip we are spending 2 days at Nourish, what kind of activities can we actively be involved in?
Coming to Nourish is nothing like a tourism show. You’ll be pleased to know it’s more of an immersion. It may include helping in the garden with a mini permaculture lesson about the principles we use, then helping the granny’s make the pap over the fire, chopping up the spinach and seeing the hard work that goes into feeding 100 children daily. Spending time with the preschool children with an art activity, or go to Enevita’s house who will show you the art of traditional mat weaving and also how she makes her delicious peanut butter. One of our other granny’s, Rojda, who’s husband is still a functioning medicine man in the village and very respected, he’s actually called in from the neighbouring lodges when someone isn’t feeling well, and you can meet him. We really try for an authentic experience, no-one is wearing clothes from 80 years ago, no-one is being made to do something that is not part of their daily routine. It’s also a chance for you to learn a few words of Tonga and get a feeling of what it’s like to live in post apartheid South Africa in 2021, and perhaps meet the young women when our new centre is finished. We will also have an African yoga session in the garden which is a really lovely experience.
I think there’s a fine line with helping in these situations and devaluing people’s dignity. Everybody has a genuine desire to help but helping has damaged Africa so much by discrediting their own abilities to create something for themselves. I’ve done this myself so don’t get me wrong. In the beginning of Nourish’s journey, I gave out donations because I wanted to help people and realised that there is nothing empowering about getting something for free, it really doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. Giving families a box of stuff creates a situation that their children no longer look up to the parent, they look up to us the white visitor. I really want your group and other visitors to understand the journey Nourish has gone through, which is why we have a thrift shop not donations. I want them to understand this process so that when they leave, they feel that they can either contribute emotionally through their connection with one of the staff, or that they can contribute intellectually, maybe from something they saw at Nourish but it didn’t resonate at the time but resonates back when they are at home.
I think one evening it would also be good to do a girl’s sundowners at the dam with the woman in our team and the women in your group. It’s really lovely to spend time with women who have made it in different fields, who are travelling without a man. It’s eye opening and empowering when two women connect from different sides of the worlds and each will learn something from each other. It’s not an exchange of hierarchies or anything, it’s just an exchange of just something from within its different, and I think that’s what I love about your approach to wanting to speak to me before coming out to Nourish, because you are not coming as a woman who is superior and will come and help the poor women in Africa. You know it’s not that at all, it’s really that as equal people we could sit together and share space and time and learn about each other and both leave a little bit better off for the experience.
How can people contribute to Nourish. I think we all want to help but it’s really about helping in the right way and the right way for Nourish?
We have a thrift shop where everyone is welcome to donate anything from curtains to clothes and shoes. Instead of distributing it, we put it in the thrift shop and the villagers can come and buy it for incredibly low amounts of money. If families don’t have money, we accept recyclables, so they bring their recycling. We give it a value and then they buy from our shop. We just put the dignity back in into our donations so it’s really a community shop.
We do have a craft and coffee shop with a little art gallery, but because of covid we’ve had to temporarily close it. The shop has beaded animals, bottle top earrings, hand sewn handbags by design, yoga straps and some other unusual items. We are going to set up a sewing station run by young vibrant seamstress named Merlin who will make the bags. There will be different coloured African fabrics that people can walk in and be like “ohh I would love to buy a handbag but could it be from that material” and she will produce it while they’re waiting.
I know this is a money exchange thing, but we also do have a sponsor a child programme in our preschool which enables people to pay for a child’s school fees every month for a year. We don’t allow it to be for say 3 months just because it doesn’t actually allow us to build stability into our programme. We do charge the parents because we believe that nobody should get something for free, if you get something for free there’s no appreciation. Some parents struggle to pay the fees, so they bring recycling. We charge the parents 3 euros per child to provide two meals, a snack, to have four teachers, pay electricity, water, paper security etc. It doesn’t cost 3 euros per child, it cost us almost 50 euros a child, so we run our preschool at a deficit. It’s for the mothers who need to be able to go to work and for the granny’s that need to be able to go and collect firewood and water, so that’s why we’ve created the sponsor child programme. People feel more connected once they’ve met the children and the teachers and seen how we run Nourish. We’ve got the most wonderful women working at Nourish. You’ll meet Mel B in the office and she is just amazing – I mean during covid she decided to do cooking classes for me on YouTube, she’s just fabulous.
Nourish must take up every minute of the day, do you get time to peruse hobbies of your own?
I’ve actually just qualified two months ago as a Bassi yoga teacher so that’s something I love to do. I used to be at Nourish everyday but there’s recently been a change of management. I resigned my position leading Nourish and instead sit on the board running marketing and fundraising. I was so busy doing everything I decided to appoint someone to manage what I was doing. It’s a difficult process to let go of my baby, but it’s the only process that we could go through that will make sure Nourish continues to exist without Sarah. If say I decide to travel abroad or just get burnt out, Nourish will just implode and I don’t want that. Nourish should always be a self-sustaining, beautiful community programme for many many years.
You mentioned travelling. Do have you a bucket list of places you would like to go now you have the opportunity?
I don’t actually know at this point. I feel my bucket has changed so many times. I would I love to travel to Ethiopia, The Philippines and South East Asia. My family come from America, so I’ve seen a little bit of the States and some of Europe when I was younger. I’ve travelled southern Africa extensively and honestly if I couldn’t go to Ethiopia or The Philippines, I would gladly plonk myself in Namibia or Malawi and be blissfully happy because the people are so genuine and friendly, and your soul has a lot of space. Right now, I’m pretty firmly in love with Africa so even though those places are on my bucket list, I see myself venturing on a road trip and kind of re-acquainting with a lot of southern Africa that I’ve really missed. There’s a lot to be learned for Nourish in terms of visiting these places and seeing how they engage with wildlife, how they engage with communities, how they run inclusive tourism experiences, like with the San People. I feel with all my travels I’m just constantly learning and applying it back to Nourish.
I do think travelling is about learning and you always bring something back that enriches your own life. I’m sure you’ve also found that with starting Nourish?
That’s so true. Not just if you have a project but just in general, we’re constantly absorbing, learning and simulating that information into who we are.
You know I’m sitting here today, and this year is Nourish’s 10th birthday. I can’t believe my child is growing into a teenager and it’s really exciting. When you’re living your purpose, everything will fall into place. Some months you’re terrified but it’s just part of building the bigger picture. I often say to people I’m so glad that Nourish had no money and still has no money because otherwise I would have just come into this magnanimous big project and I would have bought this giant thing that I thought was right for Africa, but instead I’ve had to come in really humbly and make mistakes. I’ve had projects fail because they weren’t right, they were patriarchal. I’m glad that I had to struggle because it means that everything that developed was organic and it was required by the people. It’s made me understand so more than if I succeeded from the start.