In October, I spent two weeks in South Africa. After I returned, I woke each morning disoriented, thinking I was still there—bird calls and animal sounds filling the air. My own bedroom seemed unfamiliar, and as I lay in a half-awake/half-asleep state, I dreamed of elephants walking slowly with majestic, graceful intent, just as they did when I saw them in the hot, dry African savanna. Gradually, when I awoke fully, I realized I was back home in Massachusetts, where it was cold and rainy, and autumn leaves covered the ground. Yet the elephants are still with me. Africa inhabits my consciousness now, never far way in memory or awareness. I close my eyes, and I see again the enduring, yet somehow fragile beauty of the land and the people and animals who live there.
It was one of my life’s greatest blessings to travel to South Africa, where the animals are like nowhere else on Earth. Elephants, giraffes, zebras, impala, kudu, sable, lions, wildebeests, wart hogs, buffalo, nyala, waterbuck, crocodile, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, baboons, monkeys, bush babies, honey badgers, and many more. The birds too are unique: bee-eaters, hornbills, storks, spoonbills, ostriches. The grey go-away bird and the Egyptian goose with bright pink legs and feet. All miraculous beings living in a world that has drastically changed because of human activities and population growth.
The wild animals of Africa can no longer survive outside of reserves, where they are protected, in theory, from game hunters, poachers, and those who see them as a threat to farms and villages. Still, poachers find ways to enter the reserves (by helicopter) to kill elephants for their tusks and rhinoceroses for their horns. There is a high price paid in various countries for them. The animals face food and water shortages because of drought and the fact that fences block them from following their age-old migration routes across Africa. The heartbreaking worldwide dilemma of humans and animals inhabiting the same areas and using the same scarce resources is nowhere as dramatically visible as in Africa. Foreign investors buy up land to raise rhinos for their horns; private game reserves offer hunting for those who can pay for the “pleasure” of killing exotic animals. Colonialism has not disappeared; it has just taken new forms. You can see it in the everywhere-visible electrified wire fences “protecting” houses, land, and supposedly animals.
I came to South Africa to volunteer at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Daktari Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage and then to see the magnificent animals in the wild. This was not a usual tourist trip, but one where we learned about the enormous challenges faced by the people as well as the animals. Daktari offers an intensive teaching curriculum for 10-11 underprivileged students a week (grade 8) from neighboring schools. They receive class instruction from volunteers (with special focus on the environment and wildlife) and learn firsthand about animals by helping to care for them (they are often afraid of them at first). They also learn about possible future jobs in Africa’s animal reserves.
The students arrive shy and reluctant to speak and usually leave with more self-confidence and a greater ability to express themselves. Still, when we visited the daycare centers and schools that they came from, we saw the uphill battles they face. Schools with hundreds of students and only a handful of teachers; many classrooms with no teachers at all. When they finish school, many encounter either unemployment or jobs that are mostly low income. Racism and poverty have not disappeared with the end of apartheid.* In spite of the odds stacked against them, however, the students we met wanted to make a difference in their communities.
We heard various stories about the animals in the reserves. Some of the staff at Moholoholo and Daktari told us that the two-year drought is drying up both food and water, and animals are dying. That there are far too many of some animals in the reserves (because they are prevented from migrating), and culling operations often kill off the “excess.” Still, many are starving, and some are driven to break through fences to get to food and water, where they are killed by farmers protecting their crops.** A tragic situation. Meanwhile, the rangers at Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest animal reserves (7,523 sq. mi.), told us that drought is normal, part of Africa’s savanna climate cycle, and that culling is infrequently necessary. Of course, this is the softer picture presented to tourists, so that they will continue to come to Africa.
So we as visitors who wanted to help, but also tourists in spite of ourselves, did what we could while we were there–offered our love and support to the children and animals and the people we met. A small gesture within a huge continent facing huge conflicts and challenges, within an even bigger world that often sees this unique land only in terms of the money that can be made by exploiting it and the people who live there. We who visit can only know a part of the larger picture, but even so, we can speak about what we have experienced—about the extraordinary beauty of the land, the animals, and the people, and about how precious they are in the greater landscape we all inhabit. Until we can see every part of this world as part of us, we cannot live in oneness. It begins with seeing other people as like ourselves, by seeing every living creature as a sentient being, and by honoring the Earth as sacred ground. To live with good heart upon this planet, wherever we are and whomever we meet. From the African word ubuntu: compassion, humanity, kindness for all. In so many ways, visible and invisible, we are all connected.
*Just as racism and poverty have not disappeared in the United States in spite of the civil rights laws passed in the 1960s
**Just as wolves are killed by ranchers in the western United States when they leave the protection of national parks