Gran plan – rural gogos embrace technology to protect elephants and boost
Mokgadi Mogy Mashako, The Daily Maverick
February 28, 2023
for photo & audio of article.
Rural grandmothers in Limpopo, brought together in the Ndlopfu Gogo
programme by Elephants Alive, now have more tools in their mission to
Armed with tablets provided by the nonprofit goGOGOgo and a wealth of
knowledge passed down through generations, these women are making a big
impact on the future of elephants in their region.
Through a collaborative programme between Elephants Alive, goGOGOgo, Koru
Camp and the Tshemba Foundation, these elders have been trained to collect
and share crucial environmental and educational information about elephants
and wildlife in general. As second- and third-generation educators within
their communities, they play a crucial role in fostering human-wildlife
By combining traditional wisdom with modern technology, the grandmothers
are helping to build a comprehensive understanding of how to protect these
majestic animals and preserve the natural world for their grandchildren.
Grandmother to three Leanette Sithole (68), from Acornhoek, about 37km from
the Kruger National Park’s Orpen Gate, believes sharing knowledge is the
only way to overcome conservation challenges.
“People look at us and think we are old and rural and cannot embrace
technologies,” said Sithole. “However, after this training programme, we
are showing others that we too can use smart devices for the benefit of our
“We have been able to assist researchers with the old and traditional ways
of sourcing medicinal plants from nature, [the] hunting and farming we used
in the past. Over time, we have become isolated from neighbouring protected
areas. However, because of this incredible team effort we can now use
technology to teach our children and grandchildren how to live in harmony
with animals. We can reconnect them to the world we knew.”
New Ways to Engage
Over the past few years, Leanette has been part of the Ndlopfu Gogo
programme, in which gogos are introduced to wild elephants. Through these
encounters, the Gggos immediately resonate with the responsibility that
elephant matriarchs carry within their herds.
Through partnering with goGOGOgo, a unique programme named Ndlopfu iGOGO
was created. Leanette was one of 14 gogos who not only received medical
advice through the Tshemba Foundation, but learnt how to use technology as
a gateway to empowerment, education and conservation. The iGOGO learning
sessions were held at Koru Camp in Greater Kruger where immersive wildlife
experiences are reinforced and remembered. The gogos are now given a new
way to engage with younger generations.
“Most of us could not afford smartphones and tablets, so it was
near-impossible to assist our grandchildren with homework and research
projects on subjects we are not familiar with,” Sithole said.
That more than four million children in South Africa are in the care of
their grandmothers highlights the critical role that these women continue
to play as household matriarchs – much like the leadership style observed
“With my tablet, I am now able to track and see where the elephants are
moving that the Elephants Alive researchers have introduced us to,” Sithole
The smart devices they had received had opened a new channel of
communication, which was rare among the elderly in the community. “Now, I
am able to send important messages to other gogos by sending photos of
rivers that are full. I can even video-call, which was not possible before
the iGOGO technology classes.”
To most rural grandmothers, the internet has negative connotations of
identities and money being stolen, and children watching pornography or
learning about the destructive ways of the world. The iGOGO project targets
grandmothers who are usually the internet gatekeepers in their families and
liberates them to use it meaningfully.
“For me, the beauty of a gogo leading a South African family and the
synergy with the elephants’ matriarch leading and protecting the elephant
family was a beautiful extension of an elephant example from nature and how
we can all learn from this. The wise gogos need to keep interacting with
the wise matriarchs in elephant society to bring about change,” said
Michelle Henley of Elephants Alive, a local NGO with the mission to support
elephant survival and the harmonious coexistence between elephants and
Jane Simmonds, founder of goGOGOgo, said: “Grandmothers are the most
marginalised and vulnerable population in South Africa, especially poorer
and rural gogos, but they have the ability to change and embrace change,”
She said the donated tablets were assets to households because they were
mainly used for education for the entire family. This does, however,
highlight the need for funding for data to keep the gogos connected.
“Data should be a human right now. It controls your access to learning,
jobs, varsity, grants, banking and everything. This was our first rural
intervention and I thought it would be challenging for a rural community to
be swiping and engaging with the technology, but the gogos took to it like
ducks to water.”
Elephants Alive and goGOGOgo make the point that these valuable synergies
will be perpetuated across generations, just like knowledge is carried over
between elephant generations.