ON AFRICA – IS IT REALLY JUST A ‘ONCE IN A LIFETIME’ DESTINATION?
What is it about Africa? Why do millions of people, including my wife, place it squarely on the “bucket list?” Maybe it’s sewn into our DNA, a salmon-like drive to see the headwaters before we die. The urge to plant our feet in the dusty footprints of our hominid ancestors. Or, in my case, maybe it was when my wife Colleen said, “You’re coming with me. End of discussion.”
As we packed for the trip, Colleen held up her new travel shirt. “Safari clothes!”
“Don’t I need safari clothes?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Your color palette ranges from beige to burnt umber. You’re good.”
I wasn’t sure what the word “safari” meant to a New York Jew who’d grown up stalking his dinners in the meat aisle of the local Shoprite.
“Not that kind of safari!” Colleen said, suppressing an eye roll. “You don’t kill animals, you just shoot them—with that.” She smirked and pointed to my dusty camera.
She knew my weak spot. The high school dream of becoming a National Geographic photographer had never fully faded. One medical career and ten cameras later, a tiny spark still flickered. This could be fun.
“What’s this “girl-child” stuff?” I asked Colleen above the hum of the engines as we flew to Cape Town.
“You should have paid attention to Priscilla’s talk at the GSGC meeting.”
Priscilla Plummer is a Vancouver, Washington ex-pat who founded Global Sojourns, a conservation-minded African travel company, and the Global Sojourns Giving Circle, a non-profit whose focus is to “empower” traditionally disenfranchised African girls.
In Africa, we’d be joining our fellow travelers, twelve women I’d never met, an eclectic group of mostly teachers and counselors. Priscilla had invited a couple of her former high school teachers to come and learn more about Global Sojourns and the GSGC. Like the genealogy of Genesis, invitations begot invitations and the group grew. A fourth generation invitee, I was, somehow, the only man.
“I get that career women can be great role models for the girls, but what’s my role?” I asked.
Colleen barely looked up from her book. “You’re a surgeon. Who better to teach them about toxic masculinity?” She winked as she said it. At least, I think she did.
Pam Buttner, the wizard behind Global Sojourns’ curtain, had carefully curated our guides. With skill and infinite patience, Craig and Clive gave us an unvarnished glimpse into the wonders of Cape Town. From art to apartheid, no subject was off-limits. Their message was clear: Cape Town and South Africa have a complicated history, and history unheeded is the fool’s peace.
My African education continued at the Muchenje Lodge in Chobe National Park, Botswana. The staff at Muchenje, knowledgeable and open, looked genuinely happy to see us. Their corner of the world survives on tourism, and we represented the first trickle of post-COVID guests. They had the hopeful look of drought-stricken people sighting the first promising clouds.
While other outfitters had let their staff go, the owners of Muchenje, at personal expense, had kept their team on salary through the pandemic. I could see why Pam and Priscilla had placed us here. They weren’t just about wildlife conservation. They were about people, too.
Camera in hand and African dust on my lips, we set out on our first game drive, bouncing down overgrown park roads that hadn’t seen safari vehicles in two years. Stopping to watch the impala, waterbuck, and elephants, I seemed unable to take a bad shot. My camera caught every expression, wrinkle, and tick. I was eighteen again.
Some of the younger animals, born after the pandemic, had never seen the twelve-eyed, wheeled beasts that used to roam the park roads at will. The braver souls sidled up for a closer look at us.
Walking within meters of my lens, an elephant cow came too close to capture more than her right eye and a bit of ear. Satisfied we weren’t a threat, she huffed out a deep rumble, and three young elephants, one just a few months old, passed safely behind. As they disappeared into the bush, she lifted her trunk for one last sniff, and with barely a rustle of the grass, she was gone. Six thousand pounds of near-silent motion.
A hike across the border brought us to Zimbabwe, where we would finally meet the GSGC mentors and kids. The Global Sojourns Giving Circle blueprint grew from a few girl-focused seminars in 2007. Safe spaces where African girls could do what we all yearn to do, tell their stories without judgment. Priscilla and her young mentors swiftly realized occasional meetings wouldn’t be enough. Consistency would be the key. Weekly clubs, where young girls could be seen, heard, and believed, were born.
Why girls? Data shows that 80-90% of international youth programs focus on African boys. But data also shows that empowering girls to take control of their bodies and futures is the best way to break the cycle of poverty.
The girl-child has traditionally been the last to receive family funds and the encouragement to finish high school. And she’s suffered the most. All too often, the girls turn to boys for comfort and affirmation. They misinterpret sex for love. Or worse, they turn to prostitution to fund the groceries. It’s a struggle to finish high school without getting pregnant, ill, or both. And if they have another mouth to feed and no employable skills, the cycle of poverty repeats.
Well-meaning NGOs have long struggled to mitigate African hardship. Intentions are good, but results are mixed. If the community isn’t involved in the planning and evolution of a program, it frequently fails. An example was a bicycle program for school kids. The thousand bikes, delivered to help kids cover the dozen or more kilometers to school, were a life-changer. But the dirt roads took their toll, and without spare parts, the well-meaning bikes soon took up a rusted residence in overflowing landfills.
GSGC’s secret sauce was to listen to the voices of the village and then invest where those who had spoken saw the greatest need. The girl-child looked to be the best bet. GSGC enlisted young women in the communities to work directly with the girls. Trust flows easier when it flows from within. These young mentors offer the girls a “safe space” to acknowledge their stories and encourage them to claim ownership of their bodies and lives.
This approach, resisted, at first, by the male elders and chiefs, is now being embraced. Why? Because nothing breeds acceptance like success. Teachers, school headmasters, and parents have all seen the benefits of the sovereign and self-assured girl-child.
What started as one is now fifty-plus clubs in three different countries. Along the way, a couple of enlightened young men saw promise in Priscilla’s approach. After doing their research, they asked to join and started boys’ clubs specifically designed to teach boys that a win for the girls is a win for all.
These clubs are GSGC’s growing contribution to the people of Southern Africa, but what of the Global Sojourns wildlife conservation mission? There lies the fractious intersection between man and animals. As one of the male mentors said, “How can we be expected to protect the animals if our lives don’t matter?” Respect for wildlife begins with respect for people. Ecology 101 meets Poly Sci.
My career in medicine taught me to meet people where they are. In Africa, I met the people and the animals where they live. We had the incredible opportunity to bring the local kids on a game drive. So they, too, could meet the animals where they live. For the first time, they saw the elephants, buffalo, and lions not as a threat but as magnificent neighbors. I saw the appreciation in the kids’ eyes, and I wondered if they saw the same in mine.
From bacteria to elephants, the planet depends on an incomprehensible web. We, hominids, have been building an ever-wobbly Jenga tower since we left the trees. Our “dominion over all” approach has brought us to the shaky brink, and Africa, our cradle, reminded me of what’s at stake. If we were to live closer to the land, and closer to our landfills, perhaps we’d see all that we toss aside.
Africa offered a warning, and it offered hope. As we, in the U.S., actively roll back the clock on women’s sovereignty and the environment, small clubs in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Madagascar look to restore it by empowering the African girl-child.
Colleen was right, and she was wrong. Africa is a must-see but not a bucket-list destination. We will return.