A gravel road in the Afsaal area of Kruger National Park, South Africa. On either side is rough, pale-yellow grass and a few green trees, distanced from each other.

The passionate student who teaches from the heart

Every teacher starts out as a student in one way or another. It’s one of life’s natural rhythms, like breathing in and out, or putting one foot in front of the other. For every story about how a teacher finds themselves standing in front of a classroom of students, there is a student who once sat waiting to be inspired. And so it was for Rifumo Mathebula, who at the tender age of 24 is still within touching distance of his student years but is also proud to be introducing the next generation of students to all the potential that new knowledge can bring.

“You know when you get an invitation to attend something but you’re not even sure about it?” laughs Rifumo, recalling his first encounter with South Africa-based Wild Shots Outreach (WSO). A Not-For-Profit organisation, WSO uses photography to connect young people living around the borders of Kruger National Park with the wildlife and wild places on their doorstep. Rifumo had been invited to attend a WSO course, run by Wild Shots founder, Mike Kendrick, through his local youth group, but he had absolutely no idea what to expect. He had never even picked up a camera before and knew nothing about conservation. “It was a really great opportunity for me, but I didn’t have an idea of what was going to happen. So, I got there, and Mr Mike started teaching us. And I got the passion…” he sighs. “I just fell in love.”

‘Inspiration’ is a word that is sometimes overused, but when a teacher opens the door to a new world for a student, there are no substitutes. “Mike was really a very huge inspiration to me. Even now he’s a big inspiration to my life,” says Rifumo. “I wanted to be a teacher and the way he teaches was very understandable. He has logic and makes it easy – even through the practical studies, you don’t struggle.” When Mike gave the students cameras to take home and an assignment to complete, Rifumo threw everything into the task, enlisting a friend who was good at drawing to be his model and documenting the process of his art. “And I thought ‘actually this is fun!’” By the time the WSO course was through, Rifumo had made his decision. This was a world he wanted to be a part of. He contacted Mike directly and asked if he would be willing to come to his school and hold a workshop for his peers. And in return, Mike invited Rifumo to assist him on a further session. And so, a teacher in the making took his first steps.

Seven people sit in an open-topped vehicle. Five wear matching bright blue t-shirts and two people at the front of the vehicle do not. The person on the left wears black trousers, a white shirt and a blue bucket hat. Next to them is a man in a black t-shirt with a bright blue ‘wild shots’ logo on the front. He is the only person not holding up a camera as though to take a shot.
Taking students out on game drives is all part of the programme. It’s an exciting way to experience the ecosystem of the park and put their new photography skills to the test.

After participating in the WSO Advanced Course as part of the Canon Young People Programme, Rifumo began to take on photographic assignments, internships and work experience. Capturing the realities of elephant collarings and rhino conservation operations in Kruger National Park were as much about gaining a new understanding of his immediate environment as they were about exercising his freshly learnt photography skills. Taking and presenting these stories gave him closeness to the safari industry, as well as the ability to share his experiences with the world. Which he did through an appearance in the award-winning short film Beyond the Fence. The film documents Rifumo and fellow WSO graduates and young photographers Queen and Wisani, as they strive to inspire their local community to protect their precious local natural heritage. It was following this wider experience and the internships that he began to lead his own WSO workshops.

Working with Wild Shots Outreach and Conservation South Africa means that the education he delivers is quite unlike any other. A lot of work is involved in connecting with organisations through which he can hold workshops, as well as the planning involved in actually delivering them. “The organisation part of it is very tricky,” he explains. “You need to organise the venue. You need to make sure the place has electricity. You need to travel around.” This planning is even as detailed as keeping on top of the student numbers and finding replacements when anyone drops out. The workshops themselves are similarly intense and varied. “You go there and teach, you come back and edit the pictures and the next day you show them the pictures, continue with the workshop, go for a game drive…” Because, of course, at the very core of Rifumo’s work is the environment, educating students around conservation and the incredible natural world that many students have never even encountered, despite living alongside it every day.

Eight young people in two rows of four stand holding ‘wildlife photography course’ certificates from Wild Shots Outreach. To their left is Rifumo, wearing a WSO t-shirt and smiling proudly.

He is always busy and 100% committed, heading out to youth centres, schools and communities in the name of education. This year he will also join Canon South Africa to teach as part of the Canon Academy online training, and his face lights up as he speaks about the fantastic work ahead of him. “You know when you enjoy something? When you do something coming from your heart? You don’t even mind about the time. You don’t even care about time. You just do it because it’s in you.” The very fact that he is now seeing the results of the work of WSO as students head off to university or begin careers in the media is a source of huge pride to Rifumo. He encourages them to stay in touch through WSO social media and keep them updated on how they’re doing. He also has an active WhatsApp group for the unemployed youths he’s met through the organisation and regularly updates it with opportunities for jobs, bursaries and more.

But the best part of teaching? “The moment when you see the proof of what you have taught them. When they do it exactly the way you taught them to do it, even if they come across challenges,” he says. “And amazing pictures! Sometimes they just make me go ‘wow!’” Every moment like this brings him genuine joy – because a teacher’s happiness is so often reflected in the success of their students, but even more so because Rifumo knows that the work he is doing is not just making a difference to the young people he teaches, but to their shared home. Giving local young people a chance to experience life inside Kruger National Park, to tell its stories and see its impact of on the economy and ecology of the area, can change their world view – as it did Rifumo’s. Perhaps he will see some more students becoming teachers in the future? “That’s something that would make me very happy,” he smiles. “And inspires me to do more, reach even more youths and to inspire others.”

Find out more about our Young People Programme and the work we do with organisations like Wild Shots Outreach to help young people harness the power of visual storytelling and spark positive change.

Written by Louise O'Driscoll