Students pile out of the back of the landcruiser clutching quadrants, clinometers, ranging poles and infiltration rings. Carmine bee-eaters look down inquisitively from their perches above the dried up Chipandaure River as the morning’s geography class starts. Interspersed between sedimentation and drainage experiments the students learn about plants, spoor and traditional remedies. This is not your normal classroom; this is one of a week’s worth of experiences at RIFA.
Established in 1981, the RIFA conservation educational camp, just a short distance upstream from Chirundu on the Zambezi River, gives 1,200 children annually a unique wildlife, conservation and environmental experience. It operates at full capacity from March to October, accommodating up to 30 children in dormitories, plus their teachers, and has a long waiting list from a variety of educational establishments. Primary and secondary schools from cities and rural areas return to RIFA time and again to make the most of the special educational environment.
RIFA is not all about classroom syllabus though. The days are filled with a variety of activities, some of which, like the mud fight at the nearby natural hot spring, is just good old-fashioned fun. Structured lessons include geography practicals, learning about the local flora and fauna, an impala dissection and subsequent biology revision, firearm identification and shooting practice.
Students are split into teams which take turns at camp to wash up, assist with meal preparation and produce an evening power-point presentation on their day’s activities. Impromptu learning experiences are integrated into fishing trips, informal art classes, camouflage games, reconstructing carcass bones and volleyball on the beach.
There is, in-between activities, the opportunity to sit and observe the action along the old Zambezi River floodplain on the edge of the camp. RIFA is home to four of the Big Five, a variety of antelope and 155 bird species – which include four vulture species. Throughout the day elephant meander to the spring on the far side of the floodplain before disappearing on their daily foraging routine.
There is so much to be seen and absorbed at RIFA, formally and informally, that it is virtually impossible not to learn something hourly. A week of practical experiences and lessons at RIFA far outstrips the equivalent time spent in a classroom. The only drawback is that there are not more RIFA camps out there so that more children can benefit.