STORY : FROM THE INNER CITY TO THE AMAZON
A case for the transformational power of nature and adventure
An extraordinary journey to the Peruvian Amazon, now creating a positive impact for inner city communities in the UK.
Growing up close to the Pepys Estate in Deptford, an inner-city area of South East London, Kwesia was familiar with the challenges of a tough environment. Deptford is an area where the deterioration of the welfare state, alongside increased gentrification, has seen communities left unsupported to deal with social issues such as gangs and knife crime. During her teens she experienced a series of deeply traumatic events, and unable to make sense of the violence within her community, struggled to find a sense of place or purpose. Until one day she was thrown an unexpected lifeline. The opportunity to take part in an expedition to the Peruvian Amazon.
Attending a local presentation by the British Exploring Society, who take young people on challenging and transformational expeditions to remote locations around the world, Kwesia recognised immediately that this was a life changing opportunity, and didn’t hesitate to sign up at the end of the presentation. There then followed a training weekend in the UK, where candidates from all over the country met, to practice the skills they would need to employ on expedition.
“That’s when the nerves kicked in. All these people, who didn’t look like me, and mostly they seemed to have experience of the outdoors. Putting up their own tents, map reading skills; I initially felt like I didn’t fit in here either. It was out of my comfort zone.”
Determined to stick with it, before long she was en-route to Peru, to spend three weeks in a remote jungle area of the Amazon Rainforest. The team were not allowed phones, there would be no contact with the outside world, and she was travelling with a group of people she barely knew. The Peruvian Amazon was a challenging environment; all comforts were stripped away, and the team had to learn to work together in unfamiliar and sometimes extreme conditions. This also meant learning to accept and work with the differences in character, confidence and skills within the group. “Because of my past experiences, I did have a sense of resilience that enabled me to put myself through that discomfort. Together we were building this trust, and even a sense of love with these people, who were strangers at first. Class, status, background didn’t matter. We had to work together.”
A key turning point for Kwesia came after getting seriously lost one day, whilst on a mission to navigate to a particular location they knew nothing about, through deep jungle. The wider group had been split into smaller teams, called a ‘Fire’. Each Fire would set out on a tour with a purpose, away from basecamp for a few days.
“My Fire got lost in the forest, and the group motivation started to diminish. It was hot and the packs were heavy. Everyone started to talk about stopping for a rest, complaining about being tired and hot, including me. That’s when the adult leader pulled me to the side and told me; ‘You know you’re kind of a leader in this group, you need to encourage them.’ I hadn’t thought about it like that, so I changed my attitude and energy into an encouraging and positive vibe. I saw how it changed the dynamic; the energy lifted and we got going again. Eventually we found our way to the destination for the day, and it was amazing. We got to see these beautiful pink dolphins, and interact with locals who were fishing. It was a beautiful way to end the day. That helped me to change my outlook of myself. To get to the destination was hard, but the reward was special. We wouldn’t have got there if we hadn’t gone through that journey together. And I came to understand that I had this gift of leadership.”
We got to see these beautiful pink dolphins, and interact with locals who were fishing. It was a beautiful way to end the day.
After returning from the Amazon, Kwesia was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive an award for the best performance on the expedition, having been chosen out of 60 or so participants. She went on to become involved as an ambassador for the British Exploring Society, helping to secure funds and get more young people from inner-city backgrounds involved. That led to speaking events, including the Adventure Mind Conference, a pioneer conference that targets discussion around adventure as a means of ensuring good mental health, run by Belinda Kirk of Explorers Connect. “At the conference I had that same feeling, that I was different from these people. But after I spoke so many people came and talked to me, and I realised, this is a space for me. I need to do something with this gift I’ve been given.” This was where the seed of the idea for ‘City Girl in Nature’, a YouTube series designed to encourage inner city youngsters to connect with nature, was planted and and began to take shape.
“By being an example in my series, people can see there is someone like them, who is in the outdoors. I provide the skills and tools, I can show them what’s possible. I do a variety of things, so there’s something for everyone. Lots of different ways to connect with nature. I try to look at it from the perspective of young people who are in the same place I was in, and give them the opportunity to connect with what connects with them. It’s about making things relatable and fun. And there’s lots more to come.”
The City Girl in Nature series is available to watch here. New episodes are released weekly.
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Kwesia grew up in Deptford, an inner city area of South-East London. Along with many of her friends, neighbours and peers, who all experienced the challenges that come with living in an area, and with people, who have often been neglected, excluded and marginalised. She struggled with making sense of senseless violence and trauma, and found herself homeless and struggling with her mental health and well-being. Her life was chaotic, often harsh, without meaning or any sense of direction or purpose.
At her lowest, she received a gift. An opportunity to be part of a British Exploring Society’s expedition to the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. She spent 3 weeks in a remote part of the jungle, and experienced the beauty of nature, where there was no judgement, just life teaming with energy and opportunity. And bonds of friendship and loyalty with strangers who had to discover ways to live and work together in order to be successful. On her return she started to think about connecting with other people, particularly with young people like herself, some of whom have never had the opportunity to experience anything other than poverty and hardship. She wanted to explore if a connection with nature, could touch them in a similar way that it had with herself.
This led to the start of City Girl in Nature, as a way to give back to her community. To share her love and passion for the outdoors, and belief that everybody should have the chance to be healed, to be nourished, and to life with abundance.