Bridging the Cultural Divide

Despite the breathtaking vistas of its unique, semi-arid mountain-desert, the Namaqualand region of northwestern South Africa is woefully impoverished. But a handful of progressive Connecticut educators are working with African communities to build a foundation for global sustainability.

Jerry Birdsall (right) directs Connected Cultures’ outreach programs, bringing South African students to the U.S. and building a new school in Madagascar.
Courtesy of Connected Cultures

"The Namaqualand has the highest biodiversity of any habitat like it in the world," says Jonathan Kingwill of Eco-Africa, a South African environmental consulting firm. The region"s spectacular Richtersveld National Park protects threatened wildlife like Hartmann"s mountain zebra, leopards and klipspringer, and it supports one of the world"s highest concentrations of succulent plants—more than 50 percent of which may be endemic, according to South Africa National Parks.

Social and environmental problems have intensified in the Namaqualand as local diamond mines are becoming depleted. Many towns have endured unemployment rates as high as 70 percent, according to Kingwill, and severe water shortages have compounded the suffering. Under apartheid, the indigenous Nama culture had been forcibly and effectively suppressed, leaving the deeply fractured communities with scarce resources.

For the past few years, Jerry Birdsall of Southbury, Connecticut has been working to empower the Nama people to solve their own ecological and economic problems. The nonprofit, grassroots organization he founded—Connected Cultures—provides invaluable information and resources to communities in need. Birdsall, who has a master"s in environmental education, uses the Internet to teach topics such as renewable energy, while Connecticut teachers and parents collect used and donated educational materials. The group has sponsored orphans and established a new library and school in the impoverished community of Masoala, Madagascar. A continuing program involves the sale of sustainably produced, indigenous Malagasy crafts in America.

In May, Connected Cultures brought 12 primary school-aged students and their teachers from the Namaqualand to southwestern Connecticut. Besides demonstrating some of their native customs, the travelers participated in a rigorous exchange of ideas with American students. Youth from both continents, under the guidance of the Connected Cultures team, hashed out detailed, practical solutions to safeguarding the South African environment and fostering eco-tourism and sustainable economics. "In 10 years," says Birdsall, "these kids will become leaders."

The students outlined plans to limit trail erosion, four-wheel driving and overgrazing. One imaginative proposal suggests using donated chainsaws to remove some of the region"s invasive, water-wasting trees. Local artisans could then fashion the wood into sellable crafts. Birdsall hopes to oversee the implementation of such multinational projects, and he is planning more Internet lessons and publications. He also hopes to build new cultural bridges with communities in China and South America.