The Tale of the African Cowboy

There was once an African cowboy. His name was Cliff.

I met Cliff back in 2009. It was my first week volunteering with The Book Bus in Zambia. Known as Cowboy Cliff due to the distinctive cowboy hat he always wore, Cliff Sitwala was a hero within his community and one of the most inpirational people I’ve ever met. Sadly, Cliff passed away in November 2011, but his legacy lives on.

Cowboy Cliff

Cliff was a social entrepreneur.

When I met him, I’d never heard the term social entrepreneur, but these days my job means that I now work with social entrepreneurs every day! Forbes describes a social entrepreneur rather concisely as “a person who uses business to solve social issues.’ 

Social enterprises can be for profit, but rather than focussed on personal gain, the profits are either re-invested into the business or used in the community. Famous examples you may have heard of include; The Big Issue, Toms Shoes, Divine Chocolate… you catch my drift. Social entrepreneurs tend to be passionate, brave and innovative.

Cowboy Cliff's

Cliff was all of these things but he was most passionate about education. He lived in the Dambwa area of Livingstone and his dream was for the children in his area to get the best possible start in life. So in 2001, he founded the company, Local Cowboy Cycle Tours & Bike Hire. His idea was simple. Buy some bikes, take tourists on cycle tours and use the profits to build a pre-school in his local community.

Cowboy Cliff's

He called his school the ‘Local Cowboy Village School’ (known affectionately as ‘Cowboy Cliff’s’). The Book Bus visits the school every Friday morning, so I have been fortunate to go on numerous occasions and many of my fondest memories were made there. What he created was a beautiful place for learning, with dedicated teachers.

Me and Kelly

Cliff didn’t stop there. He started other projects in Livingstone too, helping to bring piped water to his village and starting up a cooking project. He worked tirelessly to create a better life for the people around him.

Cowboy Cliff's

Last July, whilst working in Zambia, I finally had the opportunity to go on one of the cycle tours, now run by Oliver and Patrick, friends of Cliff. The guys, with the help of a few local boys, brought the bikes over to our camp. Children waved as we navigated the dusty, dirt roads and despite having spent a couple of months in Livingstone, they took me to places I’d never been.

Dambwa Village

We cycled through the village of Linda and along the banks of the Zambezi, spotting hippos along the way.

The Zambezi

Hippo in the Zambezi

Carrying on through Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park, we kept our eyes peeled for elephants. There was evidence they’d been there not so long before. Oliver explained to us the many uses of elephant dung, which has medicinal properties and which can also be burnt to ward off mosquitoes.

Cowboy Cliff's Cycle Tour

We visited the market at Dambwa, a place rarely visited by tourists. Stalls of tomatoes, cabbage, cooking oil, orange cordial, dried fish, beans and mealie meal create pathways through the small market.

Dambwa Market

I spent time chatting with the women and bartered for vegetables to take back to cook for our evening meal, enjoying the real Livingstone, which is often overlooked by many tourists staying at the safari lodges and camps that line the river.

Dambwa Market

The highlight of the trip, was a visit to the school. The children had finished for the day, but there were still a few around, eager to play with new friends. A local women’s group were meeting at the school. Oliver gave a tour to the group, explaining the history of the school. Since I’d first visited the school some years before, they’d expanded and there were new classrooms, benefitting more children.

Cowboy Cliff's

It was a great tour and even better that it was for such a great cause that genuinely benefits the local community. All down to the vision of one man.

There’s a famous Africa proverb which says:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, then you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito.”

I think it’s important that we celebrate and learn from people like Cliff. Those who are selflessly and quietly, making a difference. Perhaps not changing the whole world, but changing the world for those around them. Sometimes all that is needed is a solution, a kind heart, a little determination and then anything is possible. I often wonder what the world would be like if everyone was a bit more like him…

Cowboy Cliff

Cliff will always be an inspiration to me, and I’m sure he is to all those who knew him or benefitted from his work. He gave so many things to so many people. Most importantly, the hope of a better future. Through his work and his friends, his legacy will live on.

About Author

I'm a travel blogger and tour operator with a passion for Africa travel. I love the great outdoors, going on epic trips around the world and helping others travel!


  • Matt
    December 22, 2013 at 5:02 am

    One of my favorite things about traveling is having the benefit of meeting cool characters who inspire me to be a great and more interesting human being.

    Cowboy Cliff definitely sounds like one of those people.
    Thanks for sharing his story!

    • Helen
      December 22, 2013 at 11:41 am

      He was an extraordinary man. That’s the reason I travel too. It’s not about marking items off my bucket list (but that is a bonus), it’s to meet people like Cliff. To meet those who inspire me to be a better person.

      Thanks for reading Matt!

  • Arianwen
    December 22, 2013 at 6:25 am

    What an inspirational character. I love hearing about people like Cliff and I’m very sorry that he passed away. That proverb is so true – and very relevant in Africa too. Thanks for warming my heart with this story 🙂

    • Helen
      December 22, 2013 at 11:43 am

      You know what they say… African problems need African solutions… he embodied that. I was really sad when I heard he’d passed away, but I’ve never forgotten what he taught me. It’s because of people like him that I don’t lose faith in the world! 🙂

  • Jo
    December 22, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    What an amazing experience. Although he has gone, what he did while he was here will keep on giving. How many of us can say that about our lives? Not many. Thanks for sharing.

    • Helen
      December 22, 2013 at 12:28 pm

      Yes for sure!! Kids for generations to come have a better chance in life because of him. If I can be half the person he was I will be a happy soul. What a man.

  • oliver
    December 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    What an inspirational story,i for one i had a chance to mingle and work with Cliff,and i’m so proud of what he has done!His legacy will live on.Well done Hellen!

    • Helen
      December 22, 2013 at 12:47 pm

      Hey Oliver, Thank you for reading! I just hope I did him justice. Thank you so much for being a great guide on our tour! I hope to see you again when I return – hopefully next year! I’m sure I will as I will be booking on again for sure. I was hoping to put some pics of you and Patrick in too, but they’re trapped on my broken computer! I will get them back though!

      You guys are doing such a great job of continuing his work! Keep being amazing! 🙂

  • Megan
    December 27, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    What an amazing man. His efforts made a huge difference for so many, even if he didn’t see it while he was here. Ripples in the pond…Is his project still running? Did anyone keep his efforts going?

    • Helen
      December 28, 2013 at 1:21 am

      He was an amazing man. Yes it’s still running! Oliver, who has posted above runs it now! 🙂 The cycle tours and the school are still going strong!!! If you get to Livingstone (when are we planning your trip?) then I highly recommend going on this!! I’ll be going again!

  • David
    November 23, 2021 at 9:09 pm

    Hi there Helen
    I honestly shed a tear when I read this article on cowboy cliff or I used to call him dad
    His was a true pioneer in the tourism sector and stories like the one you authored in 2013 are proof of it,
    Allow me to re-introduce myself My Name David Sitwala one of the two children cliff left
    I was probably still young when you visited but old enough to remember about the book bus
    Your yellow shirts remind me of only one Name kelly Wherever you guys are I’m saying thank you not only you guys but the entire book bus team too,
    I can gladly say am a living example of what you guys where doing and trying to achieve
    Supporting education through games and reading it’s not all I saw
    I pursed my education with a foundation from the book bus Trust me I can go on and on about it,But ultimately what am saying to you guys is gracias ❤️

    • Helen
      November 30, 2021 at 5:56 pm

      Thinking of you at this time David. 10 years since we lost your dad. Kelly and I are still friends. I know she was very fond of Cliff!

      I am so glad for all the Book Bus did to help. There are so many volunteering projects and I sometimes wonder which ones help, and which don’t but I am so glad to have been part of one that made a difference.

      I will hopefully meet you again when I am back in Zambia.

      Helen x

  • David
    November 23, 2021 at 9:11 pm

    On the article, you’d be suprised I just bumped In to it unexpectedly I was actually looking for some online pictures I can find to post because on the 25th of November it’s actually the date he left us
    Shocked, suprised,emotional,happy, sad, you name it’ those are some things I went through after reading your article
    I made It my life’s mission to see to it that his legacy and vision still soldiers on
    Am currently running the tours with a team he left
    And truly his legacy lives on

    On behalf on the entire family I say thank you!


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