The Sunday Mail
Online News Editor
Charlene Hewat, popular to many as the “Rhino Girl”, should, now that she is 56 years old, be as well called the “Conservation Gogo”.
She says as much as she is still passionate about the environment and conservation as she was 30 years ago, she wants to slow down a bit, take one day as it comes.
“I am now a gogo and no longer have the energy that I had, say three decades ago,” she laughs off as she helps sort out waste at Victoria Falls Recycling, “and now am more comfortable working for the environment for a smaller community like this resort town.”
It is for this reason, wanting a laid-back approach, that she says she will not be bothered if anyone would approach her and ask to replicate the Victoria Falls Recycling model anywhere in the country, or world.
“I am not taking this model anywhere else outside Victoria Falls, my future is here. I am now too old to be going around the country setting up similar models,” another laugh.
“Victoria Falls, yes. And the surrounding communities here, especially the small-holder farmers that we are helping mitigate climate change in areas just outside Victoria Falls and Hwange. Or the school children whom we are helping with bicycles so that they go to school in an easier manner.”
Charlene was born on a farm just outside Chinhoyi in 1963, where her passion for nature took its root. Then as fate would have it, on a family holiday in Mana Pools in the early 80s, she had a life-changing encounter.
“On one of the excursions during that family holiday, we came across a poached rhino. When we got back to the main camp, I asked what was being done about rhino poaching and I was told nothing.”
This incensed Charlene so much that she thought of taking rhino conservation into her hands – which was to be the birth of her involvement in environmental issues. And little did she know that the sight of that grossly killed rhino was also to propel her into being a global icon and conservation star.
With her friend, Julie Edwards, she hatched a plan to take rhino conservation to another level.
“We found ourselves at (Harare) international airport and hopped into an Affretair plane onto London,” she recalled. Affretair was the cargo arm of Air Zimbabwe.
The idea of flying to London was to embark on a gruelling 22 000km journey back on bicycle to Victoria Falls to raise global awareness on what was happening to the black rhino in Africa.
But before tackling Africa, the duo had some business to complete in Europe, riding into and across Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Germany, Austria, France, Spain and then onto Portugal.
“It was both challenging and great fun. Who didn’t we meet on our bike ride? From Maggie (Thatcher), Pope John Paul II, Prince Phillip, George Adamson to Phil Collins and a host of other big names, we took our message of rhino conservation,” nostalgia written all over her face.
After the European round-robin, the duo hopped into another cargo vessel, this time a ship, and landed in Egypt to begin the almost Cairo-to-Cape journey.
“When we thought Europe was challenging and fun, real challenges were waiting for us in Africa. There were times when we had to dig for water or camp in the hills. That is when we knew the importance of water.”
Against all adversity that was stacked before them the two girls rode into Victoria Falls to wild applause in 1986, where the streets of the resort town were lined up with a flag-waving, highly expectant crowd.
“And Minister Victoria Chitepo, may her soul rest in eternal peace, was there to meet us. What a great time it was to be alive, seeing all those people to meet us? Our message had gotten home and the world knew of the menace that our rhinos were facing in the bush.”
Mrs Chitepo, widow to the national hero Herbert Chitepo, was the Minister of Tourism and Hospitality Services then.
With the initiation done, Hewat was ready for the big time, conservation taking centre-stage of her heart. This was to see her, in 1990, launch Environment 2000, which later morphed into Environment Africa.
“Right now the organisation is now in four countries and I thought I had done enough there. In 2014 I started Greenline Africa, which besides working with Africa Albida Tourism on Victoria Falls Recycling, also works with small-holder farmers in areas surrounding Victoria Falls and Hwange. I now concentrate on conservation and communities, there are great strides to be made in that domain.
“Recently we had a small-holder farmer who earned equivalent of US$600 per month from his harvest and these are the success stories that are close my heart now, seeing an impact on the ordinary person.”
Adamant that she is no longer cut for life behind the desk, but rather be with the communities, especially the Victoria Falls community where she has spent the better part of the past 25 years, she says the recipe to success for any project is to start small and grow.
“We have Greenline Africa, and we have started small and we are growing. But we don’t want to grow beyond Victoria Falls – those who want to come and learn from us, copy our model, they are free to do so. This model can be replicated in Kariba or any other resort town in the country. Or any town which is not a resort town. Absolutely anything and everything is possible.”
Turning back to the game-changing 1986 bike ride, Hewat says she is always teasing her niece: “I always ask her what she has done for conservation at 23, because at that age I rode from Glasgow through Europe and into Victoria Falls. All in the name of our environment and conservation.”