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Part Two: A pluriverse of personal stories

No time like the present!

Unlearning separation in the wilderness

Shirley Walters

In June 2023, I participated in an immersion in the Imfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa.  The section we inhabited for 6 days is only accessible on foot. We walked along animal trails, carrying all provisions, sharing our experiences with magnificent life including elephants, rhinos, giraffes, trees, rivers, termites, and leopards.

                                                                                      At night we camped under the stars, cooking around the fire, taking                                                                                          turns to keep fire-watch. One of the nights I was on duty at around                                                                                            3am, I heard a loud sawing noise...I heard it again, this time much                                                                                              louder. Immediately 3 of the wilderness guides were up, flashlights                                                                                          and rifles at the ready. A leopard was marking his territory on the                                                                                                other side of the river, 200 metres away. Baboons started barking,                                                                                              warning their family of the danger. 

One of the purposes of the Wild Self Trail was to ‘unlearn separation’.  There was a conscious move from one world to another – on the first night we met at an environmental education centre outside the Reserve to become acquainted with one another and be briefed. When we finished the trail, we returned to the same accommodation to debrief – the process of transition is delicate – you feel torn between two worlds, and as wilderness guide, Sicelo Mbatha, advised, you can feel reentry depression. There were two process facilitators who worked with the group over the 7 days.


An important part of induction to the `other world` was to leave watches and

phones behind so that ‘we could respond to the calls, follow the flow of life,

and go into the world of our ancestors, shaped by movement of sun and stars,

awake to the present moment’ (Nedel & Roth, 2023). We were reminded that it's

only in the last three hundred years that Western knowledge has taught us

separation from other life forms – digging into our own histories reveals this.

Daily rituals included solo time and group circles to honour and deepen

connection to ourselves, each other, and the land. Storytelling, deep listening,

silence, paying attention to all around us, were part of the practice. There were

thirteen of us in the group, ranging in age from 28 to 82 years old. Main

languages spoken were English, Zulu, German and French. There were 4 Zulu-

speaking wilderness guides, who have deep ancestral roots to this land. The

lead guide was Sicelo who disrupts the conventional approach to the natural world with an immersive, respectful, and transformative way of being in the wilderness. He showed us in practice that, ‘Sharing spaces is only possible if the animals are relaxed, if they accept and trust us’ and `if we trust them not to harm us.’  (Mbatha, 2021, 103) For example, as Sicelo sensed a herd of buffalo, he communicated with them, so they were not surprised by our presence – we were visitors on their land. We were advised that there are two types of trailists, ‘tourists’ and ‘explorers’ – we were encouraged to be the latter, learning through all our senses, questioning, not leaving a trace, recognising that we are all interconnected beings; we are all Nature.   

During the immersion, I was aware of major contradictions. In a general sense, colonialism and patriarchal, racial capitalism have been key to humans learning separation from all other life forms. The place our group went to `unlearn separation` is a Game Reserve which is built on Western conservation’s colonial foundations. There are powerful critiques of Western forms of conservation. In the case of the Imfolozi, a visit to the Exhibition Hall graphically illustrates the colonial, capitalist, patriarchal and racist history. 

On the border of the Imfolozi is a coal mine, where communities are resisting the destruction of their lives and livelihoods. So, while we experienced the tranquillity of the wilderness, we were aware of impoverished communities struggling to survive just over the hill. Also, as the wilderness guides mentioned, some of their own families, as black South Africans living under colonialism, experienced forced removal to make way for the Game Reserve in the 19th century. In general, black communities under colonialism and apartheid were brutally separated from the natural world through the oppressive system. Here we were mainly `white`, middle-class participants from South Africa and Europe, being taught by those who had been colonised and oppressed, to find our `wholeness`! What is very clear to me, without confronting capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and neo-colonialism, `unlearning separation` in the interests of socio-ecological justice is barely possible. 

Another juxtaposition of different realities, came at a gut-wrenching moment finding a slaughtered rhino – it had been killed two days before – its horn, ears, genitalia, and tail had been removed. It was shocking. This led to deep conversations about rhino poaching carried out by unemployed, impoverished young men working on behalf of cartels which link through criminal networks to international trade. Some local communities are alienated from Imfolozi as they see no economic benefit, so they aid poachers. As Sicelo stated, ‘White people are hungry in their souls, black people are hungry in their stomachs’. 

As Lange (2023) argues, we have all known wholeness – for all our ancestors hundreds of years back, relationality, interconnectedness amongst all life forms, was the way of life. So, deep in our lineage we have known integrative ways of being. Digging deep to understand our historical connections to the land will be very different depending on who we are and where we stand. Being in the wilderness, walking with animals far larger and stronger than ourselves, we reconnect with the awe and wonder of not being the dominant species; we have no choice but to walk carefully, knowing we are slow and vulnerable amongst bigger, fiercer creatures. We tap into our most ancient instincts and are humbled by the great beauty.  Specifically, the beauty of coexistence, remembering that our role in this circular natural world is to steward and tend it for all our sake – so all life can thrive. Deep respect for other life forms, self-reflexivity, humility, unknowingness, curiosity ...and more, are important ways of being to ‘unlearn separation’.  

Thinking pedagogically

The immersion into the other world required us to change our behaviour – to help us do this, essential technological props needed to be removed – our phones and watches – both entities focus our attention on efficiencies, on planning, on immediate communication, rather than on the spaciousness of being in the moment, going with the natural flows and rhythms. It took me 24 hours to stop looking for my watch, but after this I sank into other ways of being – I listened more to other life – when do the crickets and birds awake, when does the moon rise and set?

The experiential learning cycle - experiencing, reflecting, thinking, acting – was captured through daily practices. Talking around the fire, we were taught how to keep pots clean by covering the outside with mud; to clean our tin plate and cup, we used mud first before rinsing with water; to keep a fire going, Mandla Buthelezi inducted us into the notion of ‘happy space’, leaving room for wood to breath and oxygen to flow – the word ‘tending’ a fire took on deeper meaning. The regular circles provided space for storytelling, for new insights, for ideas to be debated, for people to speak from within, for self-reflection. Several of us, including myself, kept a daily diary. The wilderness guides were travelling teachers – teaching us as we walked, stopping at a termite mound, dissecting the skull of a giraffe or buffalo, showing us how to behave in the presence of a large rhino or herd of elephant, or describing the cultural significance of the buffalo thorn tree (Ziziphus macronata), or telling the history of King Shaka, known as the `first black conservationist`.

Deep respect for the ‘other’ whether human or more-than-human is required. As Bonnett, (2003) suggests, attitudes of mind that sanction the injustice of exploitation and oppression, be it towards humans or the natural world, are essentially the same. This infers that the same pedagogical strategies that have been crafted over years to challenge oppression of all kinds amongst humans, can be instructive in ‘unlearning separation’. 

Unearthing to `unlearn separation`

As the youngest of the wilderness guides, Njabulo Ngwazi, said, ‘The natural world is the elder – they have been kind to us humans, but now they are fed up – we must be like the natural world and do the right thing!’ So, unpicking false assumptions and unearthing the very roots of Western thinking and being, are part of what we as educators, both as citizens and in our professional capacities, are obliged to do to gain more profound understandings of the ecological crisis.  Unlearning separation and relearning relationality - the interconnectedness amongst all life forms and integrative ways of being that our ancestors understood - are vital to our collective transformation towards a pluriverse of possibilities.

Note - an adapted version of this article will appear in Clancy, S., James, N., Orr, K., (Eds.) The International handbook of teaching and research on adult learning and education, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, Spring 2024. 

About the Author

Shirley Walters lives on the foothills of Table Mountain in Cape Town. The mountain, the surrounding oceans, and the floral kingdom all infuse her understanding of the world. She is an African ecofeminist, educator, activist, scholar who continues to unlearn, relearn, learn how to live relationally towards a just planet. She is professor emerita of adult and continuing education at University of the Western Cape and PIMA president. 


Bonnett, M. (2003), Education for Sustainable development: Sustainability as a frame of mind. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 37(4), 675-690.

Lange, E. A. (2023.) Transformative sustainability education: Reimagining our future. Routledge, UK.

Mbatha, S. (2021). Black Lion: Alive in the wilderness. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town.

Nedel, W. and Roth, C. (2023). Wild Self Trail Journey in Imfolozi: Information Letter.

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