It all began with a cup of tea.
“Never underestimate the power of Earl Grey” chuckles Nikki Brighton as she recalls her first meeting with Con Roux, commercial manager of N3TC. Unsure quite how to entertain corporate city types, she set the tea tray with a colourful mish-mash of tea cups, put the kettle on and decided to wear shoes.
A year or so earlier, Nikki had been asked by the Midlands Meander Association to ‘do something’ with a small grant for their newly conceived social responsibility programme. “I think they were sick of me asking how much paper was used to produce the annual guide and disrupting meetings with requests for donations to plant trees.” She says. “To be honest I was a bit daunted. I was a crafter, and used to spending my days painting fabric and being friendly to customers who ventured to the top of our hill”. Trying to spend the money as sensibly as possible, she soon realised how huge the need for creative education in local schools was and was pleased when a mutual associate put her in touch with N3TC who were also just starting out on their CSI path. The Midlands Meander Education Project (MMAEP) and the N3 Touching Lives programmes have blossomed alongside one another over the past 6 years.
While the Meander was, at heart, committed to building community, limited funds meant that the programme would have had little impact without the annual grant from the N3TC. Nikki is extremely grateful for the opportunity this provided her to contribute to local communities in a meaningful way. “Although, I didn’t think of myself as a leader and was not sure I had the necessary skills to run this project, I soon realised that leadership was more about inspiration and right action.” A great team grew organically, in response to the needs of schools. New talents and fresh ideas were incorporated constantly and ensured that the midlands eco-magic just kept on spreading.
The project began with a focus on environmental education and tourism programmes in schools but it soon became apparent that a more holistic approach was necessary. Food gardens and creative lessons were added. Later, after observing the trauma many children face, the programme responded to address these issues too, with values based lessons, ‘quiet time’ in class and trauma counselling. “We couldn’t really expect a hungry or abused child to care about dogs and frogs and trees” comments Nikki. More recently, school libraries have become the focus of attention.
Being part of the creative Midlands Meander meant that things could, and were, done differently. To create an unforgettable impression, facilitators become “Bugs” dressed in colourful costumes on special days and use brightly coloured magic hats to inspire and enthuse the learners and teachers. A philosophy that learning should be fun was the cornerstone of Bug activities, as there is no doubt that happy people learn better and are able to contribute more to a happy planet.
Nikki is renowned for remembering everyone’s names and teacher’s birthdays and sending cheerful greetings. “I believe it is the small things which really count. Often the little things add up to something big.” The MMAEP set an example of treading lightly on the planet -reusing paper, recycling everything, promoting food produced without harm and limiting travel.
Brendan Grealy, Board member of the MMA comments: “Nikki might say she wasn’t sure of her abilities, but the success of this project belies that. If something is working, it’s right. There are no rules. Fundraising is not an easy task, but funders are enchanted by the magic which surrounds the project and there is more money coming in than going out. Facilitators have grown in confidence and capability with new opportunities – many started out as volunteers, as Nikki did herself. I think it is an innovative business model and should be studied to help others avoid reinventing the wheel. Why do we have to do things the old way?”
Thami Sokhela, Principal of Nottingham Road Combined School adds “I remember when I met Nikki and I complained that our vegetable garden was too wet. I was so surprised when she said that we were lucky to have a wetland in the school and all we needed to do was move the garden! Our school is different now and it is all through Bugs. You made us famous with newspaper articles about our achievements and now so many organisations are involved in our school. It is amazing how the Bugs can just make wonderful things happen – wherever they touch, gardens turn green. I have even planted the flowerbox in front of my office with spinach now. You have inspired us as teachers to do better, ngiyabonga my sister.”
Nikki believes that livelihood should embrace building wealth in one’s community, not only personal wealth. Since relinquishing the role of head Bug, she has time to give to other organisations – mostly the Midlands Conservancies and the Dargle Local Living initiative. A firm believer in ‘local is lekker’, she aims to protect biodiversity, increase food security and build resilience in her community so they will be better able to adapt to the challenges which climate change will bring.
Feathered and furred creatures of the KZN Midlands have a firm friend in Nikki Brighton. For the past decade she has worked in various ways to improve the lot of frogs, dogs, birds and butterflies. “I am aghast at the disrespectful treatment humans dish out to other species” she says passionately, “Honestly, do we really believe that the incredible biodiversity on our planet is here only for our benefit?”
Nikki understands that it is unlikely that people will value things they have no knowledge of, so her efforts are focussed on sharing local treasures. Her work as a member of the Midlands Conservancies Forum has enabled her to organise regular walks across a vast range of habitats, giving access to private properties that are usually out of bounds. The walks are popular with Birding and Hiking Clubs and many return each season to observe the changes in Nature.
Encouraging residents to gather and report the wildlife they see every month has resulted in Wildlife Sightings becoming a firm favourite far and wide. They offer a visual feast that celebrates the diversity of the KZN Midlands. These informal records could become very useful to monitor adaptations to Climate Change – regularly there are reports of birds ‘out of their usual range’
Despite living right beside vital eco-systems – forest, grasslands, wetlands, rivers – and with rare species like Cranes, Oribi and Samango monkeys right on their doorstep, many Midlands’ children do not have the opportunity to explore them. Nikki believes that everyone should be exposed to wild places to stimulate curiosity, inspire creative thinking, and foster a sense of connectedness to the environment. Under Nikki’s wing, youngsters have enjoyed flower walks, climbed hills, explored caves and swum in streams. They have watched birds swirl through clouds; beetles scurry over rocks and felt the tickle of a songololo’s thousand feet in their palms.
As all life on our planet struggles to adapt to the rapidly changing world, Nikki, ever upbeat, concludes “We need to pay attention to the little things. Small actions often have a big impact that is not always clear at first. Everyone can contribute.”
Nikki also thinks she is the luckiest person on the planet – being part of a caring community, growing food, walking across the hills with her dog Dizzy, and of course, drinking tea on her verandah every day.