Jo Pope of Robin Pope Safaris has made Zambia's South Luangwa National Park her home for the best part of two decades. A born organiser, her many successful co-ventures - from impeccably designed bush lodges to much-improved schools - bear testimony to her commitment both to the future of a Zambian tourism and to the general welfare of the local community. Last year she received a prestigious international Responsible Tourism Award for her achievements. Huw Williams reports.
After meeting Jo Pope you can’t help asking yourself if you are doing enough with your life. She is a dynamo, packing more into a day than many people manage in two or three. Affable, self-deprecating, intelligent and bubbly, she has a personality that is immediately appealing, and you soon find yourself being washed along in her boundless wave of energy.
We met for breakfast overlooking the Luangwa River, close to where she and her husband Robin run one of Zambia’s most respected safari operations, Robin Pope Safaris. As we ate, with impala and a family of warthog in the background, we chatted about one of her latest projects, building a series of boutique safari houses from scratch, each carefully designed to provide a unique, stylish ambience. The first involved erecting huge tree trunks to form the skeleton of the structure; beautiful, but not the easiest option. But then that’s Jo: if a job’s worth doing, do it right. If it’s hard work, just get on with it.
If Jo has a weakness, it is her inability to say no to any project she is passionate about. She is in love with South Luangwa and deeply committed to seeing it thrive. Contrary to conventional business wisdom, she felt the key to the success of the travel industry in the national park lay in co-operation rather than competition. She set up and co-ordinates Zambian Horizons, a group of safari operators that combine forces to increase Zambia’s profile in the international market. One of the problems the travel companies faced in South Luangwa National Park was getting people out to this remote area; there just weren’t enough flights. Jo swung into action and helped establish a tourist airline, Airwaves Zambia. Yet despite all her commercial commitments, it’s her work with the local communities that is closest to her heart.
“When I first came to work in South Luangwa as a young fresh English rose, eighteen years ago, I got to know all the camp staff and their children, and went to see the local school, Kawaza Primary. It was absolutely shocking. There were three teachers and four hundred kids. The roof leaked, there were barely any desks, there were bats everywhere, it was foul and very depressing.”
So, Jo being Jo, she decided to do something about it. “It started with minor renovations and helping to pay for teachers’ salaries. Then I was extremely lucky to get one big donation and that sparked off our school building programme. Since then, other big sums have started coming in. We now have a much better ratio – seven hundred kids and twelve teachers, eight of whom we pay for. As well as the building programme we have a teachers programme and we’re sponsoring 52 kids through secondary and tertiary education. We’re not just handing out pencils any more.”
She firmly believes that by giving children a chance to learn they will be able to gain more from the economic prospects that tourism brings to the area. So with Kawaza Primary School now well established she wants to expand her work to help other children.
“There’s another school four kilometres down the road which is in the same state Kawaza was in eighteen years ago. I’m going to bring that school up to the level of Kawaza. After that, I’m looking at developing a secondary school. There isn’t one in the area. At the moment, in order to go to secondary school you have to board and that’s just way beyond the means of most families.”
Despite all the help the local schools have received there are still many children who are not getting an education ,so Jo has also been working with the villagers to set up a series of community schools, the first of which has already opened.
Education for the next generation is the key to all of Jo’s endeavours, but it’s not the only way that she has been helping the community around the national park. Jo set up a scheme to bring a doctor to the area on a six-month rolling placement, funded by Robin Pope Safaris and the other tour operators. It’s the only local clinic in Zambia with a doctor; part of their job is to provide medical care for tourists, but they’re mostly engaged in caring for the community. Although her concerns are genuine, Jo’s motivation isn’t simply philanthropist; she firmly believes that if the national park is to survive, and the tourist industry thrive, then the community must also reap the rewards made possible by the money brought in by visitors.
“There is such a wide gap between the way the tourists and the local community are living. There’s real poverty here and that is why I think it is absolutely essential that local people experience immediate, tangible benefits from tourism. They need to be part of the whole picture. There must be flow-back to the community – bore holes, education, training. Tourism can’t be walled off, or the resentment would be impossible, and understandable.”
Yet another of Jo’s projects is providing a platform for change for local adults through the Kawaza Village Project.
“We take a lot of our guests to the school, which is a great experience, and after one visit I was sitting having lunch with a guest who said they would just love to spend longer with the villagers. She said that, in fact, she would have loved to have spent a night there. I thought: Yeah, why not? So I went to the village and said: What about this idea? They put some extra huts up, we trained some people to be guides – how to handle the guests and answer questions, that sort of thing. The guides are paid a salary and guests can either come for the day or stay the night. There are lots of activities, like the village walk where you just stroll through the villages in the area and whatever is happening is happening and you meet and talk with whoever is around. It’s not pre-planned, nothing has been altered for the benefit of tourists, life just carries on regardless.”
The changes that Jo has helped to bring to the people who live near South Luangwa National Park are no mean achievement. Although she has had much support and assistance, much is down to her drive, humanity and foresight. And she’s not finished yet.
“I don’t know how to say no! There’s so much to be done and has to be done. I’d love to learn how to slow down, but I can’t!”