Digesting South Africa

The recent tour of South Africa lasted 27 days. Processing, ingesting and digesting the experience will last for a lifetime and hopefully include at least one return visit. The purpose of the tour was based heavily on
photo safaris through the major reserves in Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Many of you have been on similar tours and I felt quite well prepared for the trip through conversations with travelers, my own study, the tour group (OAT) literature and an adult lifetime delving into the history, news and study about the region. 

Our group was so fortunate to meet and greet almost all species of the promised wildlife while nestled in the safety of the safari vans armed with cameras and binoculars. We encountered many unexpected creatures as well to our delight and enlightenment. I did not realize how many different “cousins” there were in the Antelope family, the bird or the reptile families. Statistics specify over 1,100 different species of mammals in Africa and over 2,600 species of birds.  

On several occasions, we observed the variety of behavior among the big cats, watching a mother lion adamantly defending her young from the abusive wiles of the daddy lion, the Black Rhino who kills his young to maintain his predominant male status. I relished the discovery of a small mammal, the Rock Hyrax, who is slated to be linked by genes and ancestry to the elephant. 

Sadly we observed the effects of the current drought in many of the regions we visited, depleting the food supplies for the wildlife and impacting the well being of the people in the villages and general population when their silos are empty after the harvest, food and fuel prices are sky high, unemployment is epidemic, and their currency worth little.  The impact of the most recent international economic downturn and political strife makes the news every day. With all of the hardships of life, I was astounded and struck by two attributes of the people of South Africa; their heritage being taught respect for others ingrained in their psyche from a young age and their innate sense of humor in the face of hardships they have endured. 

I observed this sense of humor almost daily interacting with staff in our tent camps, vendors in the markets teasing us as we tried on the phrases we had been taught in their native languages, children in school after their long walks from home to village schools

or the stern and official looking expressions, turned into a glimmer of a smile and welcome as the border guards loudly stamped our passports.  

I offer a poignant example and living proof of this sense of humor and courage felt during a home hosted dinner in a colored township near Capetown, S. Africa. Our hostess, Maureen, a widow, still working and avidly volunteering in her town along with her long time friend Wendy entertained us with a wonderful meal almost overshadowed by their steady comedic glee and almost show-stopping display of optimism and hope. They both acknowledged that moping and looking for pity was not part of their being and would only downgrade them to depression and hopelessness. Afterall, they now both enjoy having decent housing, food on the table and a comfortable life.

There are overwhelming hardships in their pasts and in their community, but they are proud to be able to give back to the community helping others. I will never forget the image of these 2 women vigorously waving goodbye to us as our van pulled away from their home until we were out of sight of each other, their faces bright with smiles, their eyes shining. For me, these faces are the faces of hope continuing to convey to the world that they are made of the same strength as the wild animals that are such a part of their world.