AFRICAN VILLAGE ENLIGHTENMENT
In 2004, my oldest son Zac graduated from high school, and that summer the two of us took a two-week trip to Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Zac had grown up as the son of a successful New York City executive in the very affluent environment of Fairfield County, Connecticut. He and all his friends enjoyed an excessive level of luxuries, exciting experiences, and material possessions about which most American teens can only dream. He was a very popular student in high school, and in his senior year captained both his football and lacrosse teams. However, like so many other advantaged youth, he suffered for years from depression and never seemed to be happy or to enjoy life. I had hoped and prayed that this trip might be therapeutic for him.
Zac’s two great passions are photography and herpetology, and this trip was a dream come true for both us. For me, an interest in observing African wildlife and my shared passion for photography made this trip very exciting. We literally took thousands of digital photos and, even though it was winter in South Africa, we encountered a number of snakes and other reptiles.
We traveled first to Singita, a luxurious camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa, where we enjoyed twice-a-day jeep safaris. On the very first day, we observed all of the Big Five game animals (lions, leopards, African elephants, Black Rhinos, and Cape Buffalo) at close range. On the first night, we observed a mother cheetah feeding her two cubs, and then watched as a pride of lions fed on a freshly killed wildebeest. We were shocked and somewhat frightened by the proximity of the ferociously aggressive lions, as we were observing the scene from an open jeep only ten or fifteen feet from the feeding frenzy, within clear sight, sound, and smell of the animals.
On the second day, we asked the guides to search for snakes, and though they told us it was highly unlikely to observe any in the winter, within a few minutes of our departure from camp, Zac and our guide were on foot, tracking a fifteen-foot python. The guide had his rifle ready, as Zac was close enough to (and actually did) touch the python’s tail as it slithered through tall grass and up a rocky ledge.
One afternoon, between jeep rides, we visited a fairly primitive local village with two other Singita guests and a guide. Fencing to protect against wild game surrounded the village. The homes were a mixture of cinder-block construction and grass huts with dirt floors. This community was like none we had ever seen in the United States and was, to us, reminiscent of what one might see in a National Geographic television program.
When we first arrived, we went to the villagers’ makeshift preschool, which housed about forty kids, ranging in ages from three to five. We were charmed by how personable and happy these children were as they sang and acted out nursery school songs for us. We were impressed that they sang to us in English. One of the songs was written to the tune of “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” but in the African version, it was all about wild game animals. Each of seven or eight youngsters stepped forward to do a solo, imitating and making the sounds of various animals after each chorus. It was truly delightful.
We then saw the adult women of the village preparing meals with very primitive utensils. This was not an historical demonstration of how they used to prepare food; it was how they currently prepared daily meals for the village. There were none of the modern, sophisticated devices of the typically well-equipped Fairfield County kitchen.
With great pride and joy, the senior men of the village then walked us into a small hut that served as a makeshift museum of local history and ancestry. These gentlemen could not speak English, but with obvious delight they handed many treasured artifacts to us to handle and admire. The museum housed everything from formal headdresses and nose rings to musical instruments and weapons of war. Because many of the artifacts were dusty and damaged, I couldn’t help but think that such valued possessions might be discarded as worthless pieces of rubbish to the typically untrained eye of the residents back home in Connecticut.
To conclude our visit, we were seated outside in the hot midday sun and given a cold refreshing drink as we observed an adult male dancing group in traditional ceremonial dress followed by a young men’s singing group in much more modern, colorful dress. None of these songs were in English, but somehow we could distinguish love songs from ballads from songs of celebration by each song’s rhythm and tone and by the expressions on the faces of the singers.
The one common denominator in every one of these delightful experiences during our visit to the village was the hospitality of the hosts and all of the people we met. They were all visibly pleased to have us visit, and all of them, no matter what age, demonstrated the same joy and friendliness of the preschool kids. After leaving camp at Singita, we headed to Mombo Camp in Botswana, where the game viewing was even more spectacular than at Kruger National Park. We observed four- to five-times as much wildlife and were filling up our four-gigabyte digital cards on every jeep ride.
At Mombo Camp it was a daily practice for the guests from all of the nine cabins to dine together at one large oval table and after dinner to sit around a campfire and share stories of the day’s experiences. It was at dinner on our final night at Mombo Camp that my most wonderful and touching memory of our entire African trip occurred.
After the evening game ride, all of the camp guests gathered around a large table to enjoy dinner by candlelight. The sun had set and the temperature had dropped to a cool but comfortable level, and the dinner was interrupted often by the evening calls of various wild game animals. We often heard the roaring of lions, the snorting of hippos, and the trumpeting of elephants.
Although there were only about twenty guests, it was an interesting and diverse collection of characters from around the globe. In addition to the Mombo Camp hosts, there was a family of five from New Jersey with three children of college age, there were two older couples, one from Australia and another from California, and two middle-aged sisters from Britain, who were getting away together for the first time in decades. Dinner seating was intentionally interspersed, with guests mingling together around the table, so I was seated across the table and a few seats away from Zac.
At a lull in the conversation, I heard one of the older adult guests ask Zac what the highlight of the trip had been for him so far. I expected him to talk about the wild game, the incredible photo opportunities, or his tracking of the big python. But to my surprise, and without hesitation, he said it was the visit to the village outside of Singita. Initially, I thought this odd and wondered; as I’m sure did others at the table, why that was so memorable for him.
The older gentleman asked the obvious follow-up question, “Really?” he said, “And why was that special for you?” As I listened to Zac’s response, watching the candlelight play across his young face, my eyes filled with tears. Zac told us that he had been deeply moved by how happy the people were. That even though they really had absolutely nothing in the way of material possessions, they were happy because they had each other. They had the love of family and they had the support of their community. For a young man who had lived a life of privilege, yet suffered from depression, this most certainly was a cathartic revelation, and one that could only have come at a time when he most needed it through the grace of God. I noticed the quiet that came over the group and the moisture in the eyes of the other guests as they heard Zac’s words.
Mombo Camp, like Singita, was a luxurious and expensive camp, and although we hadn’t discussed much about our respective backgrounds, it was clear that visitors to this camp were typically people of strong financial means. We all appreciated what Zac was saying, and immediately understood the import of his observation. After the meal, several of the guests congratulated me on what a wonderful young man I had raised, and around the after-dinner
campfire, after Zac had returned to our cabin, a couple of the remaining guests expressed their appreciation for the beautiful lesson he had taught all of us on that quiet and dark jungle evening.
As I wiped the tears from my own cheeks, I marveled at how, even here, in a safari camp in deepest Africa, God could speak to me and to the other guests through the observations of an eighteen-year-old boy; an eighteen-year-old boy who was rapidly becoming a man.