Criminal tamed by wild trip


By Myrtle Ryan
Vusi Jali still has bullets in his body, a relic of his life of violence, but a recent
wilderness encounter has seen him turning his back on crime.
Jali’s transformation could be attributed in part to a non-violent man of books.
Librarian Hector Mgobhozi selected him as a likely candidate to participate in trails
being offered by the Wilderness Leadership School in iMfolozi Game Reserve.

Speaking to the Sunday Tribune from his home in Groutville on the North Coast of
KwaZulu-Natal, where crime is rampant, Jali, 36, described himself as “an angry
man”, one who had not hesitated to do armed robbery or deal in drugs. He spent
two-and-a-half years in jail, and was only released on March 17 this year.

Before the trail he had never seen wildlife, and two things in particular stood out for
him. One was that the rangers on the trail carried guns only to be used in self
defence as a last resort. For Jali, a gun had served only one purpose: to further his
criminal activities. The second was how, on his second morning on the trail, on the banks of the Umfolozi River, he had seen rhino and buffalo drinking.
“They were not aggressive or dangerous. Then I realised that was the same water
I was drinking and that they were also God’s creatures,” said Jali. “My heart and
mind suddenly changed. I had been looking for life in the wrong direction. God did
not create me to kill and do all the wrong things I was doing.”
That was the moment when he began to enjoy his wilderness experience, but this
transformation was not sudden. He said in jail he had asked God to change his life.
He believes the trail is where that plea was answered.

An Alaskan conservationist participating in the trail, Mike McBride, bonded with Jali
and the two became so emotional about what they were experiencing, they wept.
Jali said he now avoided his criminal acquaintances and did not drink liquor. “Even
if I don’t have money in my pocket, I have been able to change,” he said happily.
According to conservationist Paul Dutton, McBride had been so impressed by the
change in Jali, he had offered to pay for two other similarly disadvantaged people
to go on the trail.

Dutton said Groutville was at the centre of a host of up-market housing
developments mushrooming along the coast. As a crime hotspot, it had the
potential to do damage to the tourism trade, with the possibility of hijackings and
other violent incidents along the N2 motorway.

Dutton believes if people like Jali can take the message home that there is another
way of living, it could make a difference.
He said meeting Jali again after the trail had left him in no doubt as to the
life-changing impact that the wilderness trail had on people of any race, religion or
“Vusi might be considered ‘a drop in the ocean’, but gaining some measure of
self-esteem will no doubt change his attitude and be infectious to others living in
the depressing environment of Groutville without any meaningful work
opportunities,” said Dutton, who believes this Wilderness Leadership School
initiative needs to be expanded.
“The magic energy of self-esteem can, in the long run, encourage greater effort in
expanding skills and therefore enhance greater opportunities for work,” said

Renowned conservationist Ian Player feels it is not enough to transform hearts.
“We have to find jobs for these people so they don’t return to a life of crime,” he
He thinks organisations such as Business Against Crime could find this an ideal
way to win hearts and minds.

This article was originally published on page 3 of The Sunday Tribune on
April 27, 2008

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