Thank you, Daktari, for giving me a truly amazing experience, a full three weeks in the bush surrounded by four- and two-legged friends in pretty countryside.
Thanks to you, I slow the hectic pace of my preceding travel schedule and find myself emerged in a pleasant rhythm, a routine that allows me to take all the love I’ve received and collected elsewhere and bestow it on animals and children alike and fellow volunteers.
Thank you, too, for giving the opportunity to try so desperately hard and fail so miserably at establishing my own routine of morning meditation and daily walks and jogs. Because you tucker me out with day-long activities and convince me that running is for preys, not predators, I become expertly well-versed in feces face and in marveling at the furry creatures entrusted in my care.
Thanks to you, Daktari, I am able to stop long enough to pause and reflect on who waits for me “back home” and to remember that getting to know people takes time and repeated exposure, especially when you turn the frenetic nozzle of experiences down a bazillion notches and remove the craziness of rapid-fire travel that bonds people in the span of minutes. And, thanks to insanely expensive Internet costs–really, it’s a problem how expensive the per-minute usage of wifi is on this African continent; it’s a total rip off–and shaky phone connections–which, I definitely use and abuse as the designated phone whore–I find that my home is in the people I love more than in the place, and here, I find that I miss them terribly so.
And, I also find that I actually, kinda, maybe, really do enjoy this whole teaching thing more than I like raking up animal droppings. You may laugh, but I started here more drawn by the critters than the kids, and come the end of my stay, I am surprised at how fulfilling it really is to bond and influence and bestow knowledge and direction.
Last, but not least, I thank you for grounding me long enough in one place to discover that it’s alright if nothing buttons up into a nice and neat package, because, truthfully, it doesn’t have to. There will never be a moment when all is ready and ripe to go, the perfect moment of blissful equilibrium.
No, Daktari, you remind that there is stillness in the process, in the flurry of emotions, and that resolution is anachronistic, a non-existent terminus to the human experience. Maybe, just maybe, it’s quite alright that a little something for there lingers here and that a little anger here trickles over into this. Because, I find, all of that circulates around me, in my identity, in the external projection I’ve created as “self,” but it doesn’t contain or define me.
Instead, center glows energetically awakened and bright, a guiding light for this lifetime.
So, Daktari, to say it on your lingo–thank you, it’s been my pleasure and well worth the investment.*
Daktari in a nutshell, per an excerpt I write for Katrien–
Faces pressed against the glass, a van load of children and I try to catch a glimpse at the elusive black rhino, shaded by trees and shrubs, horn barely visible against the dark bark. We’ve already seen four of the “Big Five,” and it’s not even 10:00 am yet. This is going down to be a good day.
This weekend marks two weeks at Daktari Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage for me, and already, I feel I’ve helped the organization make a dent in their mission to care for animals and raise awareness about the environment through education. Every week, a group of eight students from one of the Limpopo Province’s grade eight classes spends five days onsite to learn about animals, the environment, and conservation. They are taught by volunteers from all over the world who come to stay anywhere from one week to multiple months. All in all, it’s a win-win situation for students and volunteers as they come together to glean insights from each others’ life experiences.
Today, Daktari’s van transforms into a magical school bus, shuttling 10 lucky youths through The Kruger National Park’s tar and dirt roads in search of Africa’s finest flora and fauna. Each student was hand selected for outstanding behavior and interest in animals during his week’s stay at Daktari. Then, every 10 weeks, Daktari assembles the winners for a sponsored day trip into the park, lead by Ian Merrifield, one of Daktari’s founders and an ex-guide. I just happen to be one of the lucky volunteers along for the ride and paparazzi session with lions, elephants, giraffes, jackals, buffalos, and more.
Daktari combines the two reasons I was heading to southern Africa anyways—children and animals. Here, I spend my morning and afternoons caring for Daktari’s orphaned, injured, and otherwise, unreleasable, animals, and during the day, I teach 13-year-olds about the why animals are important for the their futures. Together, we explore life and environmental cycles, touching upon the importance of safeguarding the environment and animals for South African livelihood.
It’s a heavy lesson, but the kids are actively involved. Just last week, we were brainstorming ways of making South Africa a better place, tackling tough topics like crime, prostitution, alcoholism, kidnapping, and rape. These are just a few of the grievances the kids bring up in class, and with fellow volunteers, we empower our students to be active problem-solvers and solution-drivers by listing ways of countering the negative with positive. Daktari teaches them that they have the potential and capacity for making a difference, too.
The learning isn’t just a one-way street: For volunteers, it’s also a big educational opportunity, whether that means getting a lesson in the animal kitchen about when to feed the meerkats mealworms or checking in with the staff about how to engage the caracal. Here, we are surrounded by people who live and breathe animals, the environment, and kids: Some are teachers back home, others come here to apply what they learned at Bushwise, and a few have spent their entire lives in the bush. Combined, it makes for a wealth of information and know-how; it’s an impressive network of knowledge to tap into, however brief the visit.
For instance, the other day, we welcomed Herbie, Daktari’s newest four-legged critter. A bush pig, this orphaned babe craves attention and company—like any young mammal, he’s rambunctious and playful. Risette, a longterm volunteer here, drew from her experience raising two warthogs to bond with and care for Herbie, and after just a few days of mud baths and romps around camp, Herbie feels at home here. Herbie even accompanies us on our dog walks, rough housing with one of the pups, so that he gains familiarity with the scrub, which will one day be his home.
Herbie and the other animals also kids give the kids the gift of confidence. Although interested in animals, some of our students are nonetheless frightened by and unsure of so many of the species here. By the end of the week, we see them overcome the powerful drive to flee the unknown critter and replace it with curiosity, even going so far as to wrap Morpheus the Python around their shoulders.
So, when Spikey, a hand-reared porcupine, pays us a visit during Thusday night’s grand finale—a blow-out bonfire night where we have a dance off with the kids and learn sepaidi songs—no one runs away or screams. Instead, I scratch Spikey behind her ears and pet her long quills while one of the kids receives a licking from her catlike tongue.
And, as if to really hammer home how sweet it is here, Ian calls us with news of a cheetah spotting on his way back from picking up this week’s batch of students. We pause our chores, hop into the buckey, and make a mad dash for the fence to see two brother cheetahs striding through brush.
Not a bad way to start a Monday.
*It costs roughly $1100 for my three week stay, an average of $330 a week. Compared to the cost of traveling and lodging and eating, this is a great rate and an extraordinary experience.