WILDLIFE, CHANGING DIAPERS & EMPOWERED YOUTH
A Lifetime of Lessons in Eight Days
Seventeen-year-old Nqobile Mabhena said I inspired him. I assure you, young man, you – and your friends – have inspired me so, so much more.
A true story.
A staredown with a six-ton elephant. A grandmother who lives in a thatched-roof hut. Hyenas in the mist, and lion cubs in golden light. And a group of teenagers on the leading edge of a culture changing for the better. Our eight days in Africa had all of this and more.
In early June, I took a trip to Zimbabwe with my wife Heather, our 22-year-old daughter Madeline, and our travel companions Heidi and Daron. Heidi is an experienced traveler to Africa, on her 12th or 13th visit, and we were lucky to have her. The rest of us were newbies.
We spent a few days getting to know some of the people of Victoria Falls. More on that in a moment. And then a few days on a conservation-conscious safari in the remote Hwange National Park.
More on that in a moment, too.
First, there are a few things you need to know about this land-locked nation about the size of California, just north of the Republic of South Africa. Great Britain came in and seized most of the fertile land in the late 1800s, and Zimbabwe didn’t gain full independence from the crown until 1980 (it’s complicated, but those are the basics). Around the year 2000, about 100 years after white people had taken the land, Zimbabwe took it back. A good idea, perhaps, but done poorly, and tens of thousands of black people who had worked on the white-owned farms suddenly lost their jobs. Zimbabwe’s agricultural economy has never recovered. Its major resource is currently tourism, which was shut down completely during the height of the pandemic. Only in the past six months have things fully opened up. Suffice to say, the locals seemed really happy to see us.
Another key point: women and girls have long been treated as second-class citizens throughout Africa. Girls are taught to be meek and submissive, and this leads to many teen pregnancies. Women are expected to stay home and do their husband’s bidding, and abuse is both common and accepted. These long-held beliefs are a huge part of the poverty cycle in Africa. Uneducated single and widowed mothers aren’t able to provide for their family.
But this is beginning to change, in part with support from an organization known as the Global Sojourns Giving Circle, or GSGC. This organization was started a decade and a half ago by a dynamic woman named Priscilla Plummer, with support from Heidi Johnson-Bixby (our traveling companion), and others who saw the value of the vision. They have clubs for girls – mostly age 15-18, but some younger – led by local mentors. At the clubs, the girls learn to dream big, to get educated, to be strong, to say no to boys, and to be accountable.
And here, in my opinion, is the coup de grace: there are also clubs for boys. The boys also learn to dream big and to get educated, but the main focus of these clubs is to teach the boys the importance of gender equity.
And that is where Nqobile and his friends, both boys and girls, come in.
Our group of five visited several clubs, including the Sisonke club, located a few miles outside of Victoria Falls. There, we were greeted by about 40 teens, both boys and girls. We sat under a pavilion roof next to the home of two veteran mentors, Nyika and his wife Talent. Their property doubles as the home of both the girls’ and boys’ clubs.
Nqobile – pronounced “No-Bee-Lay,” with a little roof-of-your-mouth tongue click during the “N” – was the first to stand and speak. The words in the following video, which he wrote, were remarkable. (Everyone we met in Zimbabwe spoke English. I understand the further you get from the larger cities, the less this is true.)
Then, it was Loveangel Sibanda’s turn. (As you can see, many Zimbabweans have unique names.) This intelligent, powerful young woman is a great example of the changing gender norms in Africa. She’s reciting a poem that placed her first in the speaking category of GSGC’s annual creative contest last year. (For what it’s worth, the room was set up for a Boys Club meeting, which is the reason she has the “I Am That Man” sign behind her.):
After those two and several others gave presentations, the mentors asked us Americans to tell our stories. The club members were impressed by Heidi and Daron as successful businesswomen. They were enthralled with Madeline, who is barely older than the oldest club members, and – biased dad alert – her well-spoken, genuine, confident presence. They were staggered when Heather and I told them we had been married for 32 years.
But what I remember the most is the looks on their faces when we dropped two more facts on them: first, when I told them that, for the bulk of our marriage, Heather – who has worked at Intel for three decades – was the primary breadwinner in our family. They stared at us, and then at each other, in utter wonderment. And second – seemingly even more impactful – when Heather then told them that, for the first six months of Madeline’s life, I changed every diaper. (It’s true; I did.) They were shocked that such a father-daughter relationship could be real.
Soon thereafter, they broke off into their separate clubs, the girls and the boys. Heather and Madeline and I joined the boys for their meeting. The topic: their dreams for their lives. One young man, Elijah, was at just his fourth meeting, and the club had already had a noticeable impact. He spoke about his dreams to be a clothing designer. Then, Nqobile spoke. “One of my dreams,” he said, looking at the group of his peers, and then at me, “is to change my daughter’s diapers, like you did. That’s the kind of man I want to be.”
To say I was moved was an understatement. I could barely speak.
Later, I joined a group of the boys in kicking around a half-flat soccer ball. Play paused when the ball went under a bush, and I found myself chatting with Nqobile. I asked him to tell me more about himself, and his dreams for the future.
“I want to go to college,” he said. “And then, I want to come back here and start a business, right here in my community. I want to provide jobs for people, and make their lives better.”
When I was 17 years old, I had everything, and couldn’t think about much beyond the girl in my social studies class and how my favorite baseball team was playing. Nqobile has next to nothing, and he dreams of providing for his community. Impressive beyond words.
I will remember Nqobile forever.
From there, we left to visit another club in an even more rural setting. Our group had been misinformed of the meeting’s start time, and upon arrival, we had about 45 minutes to kill. This was a happy accident, as we got to visit parts of the nearby village. One of the mentors-in-training, Blessing, grabbed our daughter Madeline’s hand and led the way.
We walked down a sandy path, past their impressive community garden, and ended up at the thatched-hut home of one of the girls in the club, Jada. Her grandmother Eustina and Jada’s little sister were in their outdoor kitchen as Eustina prepared that evening’s meal.
Jada led the way, and we approached her grandmother. Here we were, a group of eight or nine people – four or five teenage girls that she knew, and four total strangers. She greeted us warmly, dropping everything, as if we were old friends. She provided seating for us – short, wide portions of tree trunks standing on end – and motioned for us to sit under a tree. (It wasn’t hot – maybe 70 degrees Fahrenheit – as it was just entering winter in the southern hemisphere.)
For the next 15 minutes, we chatted and discussed life. We noticed that they and the neighboring families had no electricity and no running water – they had to go to the center of the village, several hundred yards away, to pump water into a bucket. And yet, this woman appeared to be content. Not exactly a newsflash, but it did hit home: happiness doesn’t come from things.
Then it was time for the club meeting. On our way back to the meeting location, I noticed the village’s soccer “field” – a large sandy pitch, not a blade of grass in sight, with an un-netted goal at each end. “How often,” I wondered to myself, “does that field get used?”
As we approached the meeting location, a large group was standing in a circle. Heidi, who hadn’t taken the stroll with us and who was already in the circle, motioned for us to hurry. We Americans dutifully did. The Zimbabwean girls with us did not. And this is common: almost no one in Africa hurries to do anything. At any time. Ever. It’s so refreshing.
This particular club meeting included mostly girls. When we broke off into groups, Madeline and I were with some of the older teenage girls, while Heather helped some of the younger ones work on a sewing project – with an old-fashioned, hand-operated sewing machine.
Madeline really hit it off with the girls. She still keeps in contact with some of them.
It was an incredibly pleasant afternoon, meeting under the shade of a huge tree. It was funny when the mentors somewhat abruptly ended the meeting – they said they had to get the kids home, as they were concerned about it being “too cold” for them. We from the Pacific Northwest of the United States had to laugh. It was in the low 60s.
As we drove off from the village, my question about the soccer pitch was answered – turns out, it gets used all the time. The village had its own team, and the players were in uniform, warming up for their game against a team from a neighboring village.
This connectedness from village to village from Zimbabwe and Zambia to Angola and Argentina is the biggest of the many reasons the worldwide game is such a great sport. (By the way, there are places even in Zimbabwe where the words “soccer” and “football” are interchangeable. British snobbiness aside, “soccer” is an accepted term in many places.)
But back to the GSGC clubs. The results are amazing. One of the best ways to combat poverty is through education, and in Africa this means gender-equitable education. The Global Sojourns Giving Circle addresses this directly, and with far-reaching impact. Many former members of the clubs are now mentors, having branched out and started their own clubs. (There is even a GSGC club in Madagascar, where a former member leads a program there.)
Want to be part of the solution? Please donate by going to gsgivingcircle.org
Along with visits to the clubs, the first few days of our trip in the city of Victoria Falls also included sight-seeing, and a mini five-hour safari to the Zambezi National Park, which borders the town – indeed, blends into the town, as there are no fences. Wildlife such as baboons and warthogs are seen frequently in town, you don’t take walks after dark, as that’s when elephants and cape buffalo – both extremely dangerous – wander into town.
(Another aside: we were surprised to learn that elephants are usually more dangerous to humans than, say, lions.)
This was our jeep for our brief early morning safari just outside Victoria Falls.
Our guide, Charles, is a bit of a hero in Victoria Falls, having started the local anti-poaching unit. Early in our jeep ride, we saw both baboons and impala:
Later, we had a stare-down with a large bull elephant. Besides Charles, Heather, Madeline and me, our jeep included two of the local club mentors, a man named Prosper and a woman named Mercy. You’ll see both of them in this video. Charles, who has led hundreds of tours, said that this type of encounter is quite rare, and that it got even his juices flowing:
Charles backed up when he thought it might be getting too dangerous. I shot the video, and was strangely calm. The thought of getting ear-holed by that elephant didn’t really hit me until later.
Charles only allowed this encounter to happen because the elephant was NOT in a state known as “musth.” Musth occurs when males are sexually active, and it can lead to aggression. The telltale signs are secretion from glands on either side of their foreheads, and a near-constant trickle of urine. This big fella was not in musth, so aggression was far less likely.
Later that day, wits and bodies still intact, we did something far less dangerous: we visited the Falls. The Victoria Falls sit halfway down the Zambezi River. Here, I’ll let our guide for the day, Frank, explain it. (Frank has a college degree in tourism, and he also happens to be one of the GSGC club mentors.)
Here are the Falls themselves. Depending on the season and the wind, the spray from the Falls could prevent visitors from seeing anything at all. Thankfully, visibility was good when we were there. Frank provided us with the raincoats:
And still later in the day – yes, the same day as the elephant encounter and the Falls visit – we went on a dinner cruise on the Zambezi River. It was incredible. Note: you don’t want to fall in. It’s a toss-up which would get you – the crocodiles or the hippopotami – but you would get got. You’ll see a hippo in the water:
After four nights in Victoria Falls, we boarded a 12-seat airplane for the ride to Hwange National Park, touching down on a dirt airstrip. Our guide from Davison’s Camp for the next three days, known as King Richard, met us with his jeep. We started our hour-long jeep ride to the camp, and on our way he spotted a herd of Cape Buffalo, with some zebras behind:
Our trip was arranged by Global Sojourns, the boutique travel agency that also started the aforementioned Global Sojourns Giving Circle and its youth clubs. They do these “eco-tourism” trips the right way, with an eye toward both conservation and local connection, at a rate that’s highly affordable relative to the experience. They describe their approach to travel as “deeply personal,” and it is. They have my highest recommendation, and you can find them at globalsojourns.com.
We had heard great things about Davison’s Camp, one of the many such camps that partner with Global Sojourns. Suffice to say, it was off-the-charts amazing. You’ll see the main lodge area, then the main lodge bathroom (which we called “the loo with a view”), and finally our “tent.”
Wildlife conservation is their number-one objective, followed closely by customer satisfaction. Clearly, they nail these goals.
I could go on far longer than I’m going to. But I’ll wrap this up with views of just some of the wildlife we got to see in Hwange National Park, which is part of the Kalahari Desert. Let’s start with the main attraction, the lions. I probably have an hour’s worth of video of our up-close and personal encounters with these incredible creatures. Here is just a few minutes’ worth:
As you saw, our jeep was quite close. Because the lions are used to the jeeps – and probably because they appeared to all have eaten recently – they couldn’t have cared less that we were there.
It was funny to learn that lions are, in fact, not very effective hunters. They usually rely on getting the left-behind and the lame for their kills.
One evening, as we were driving back to the camp after dark, some hyenas were on the road in front of us. We stopped. A jeep coming toward us was just around the curve, following them slowly with a red spotlight. Another jeep had recently kicked up dirt in the road. The result was this surreal scene of a group of hyenas half-slinking, half-strutting toward us. Okay, they weren’t really “in the mist” – it was the dirt from the road – but the hyenas coming through the red misty light created a stunning, dreamlike scene. Madeline’s rushed photo was blurry and couldn’t capture its full glory, but the resulting image has its own art-like qualities:
Back to daytime. The giraffes were incredible:
One afternoon as I sat on the deck at camp, a group of sable antelope approached the watering hole, perhaps 50 yards away:
Now the last bit of wildlife I’ll show you. On our last day, we got to take a walking safari. Along with King Richard, we needed a second guide – one each for the front and back of our single-file line. The other guide, Chamu – whose grandmother was a legit, live-off-the-land African bushwoman – led the way. Richard was at the rear. Both had rifles. We were instructed to walk carefully, so as not to make any noise by breaking twigs, and to stay silent.
We were heading for a herd of elephants, and Chamu had a small bottle of baby powder that he would puff into the air periodically to gauge the wind direction. Fun fact: elephants have terrible eyesight. If you stay quiet and are down-wind, they probably won’t notice you. Here’s a bit of Chamu, and then a look at how we walked:
Finally, the food at the camp was good. Like, really, really good. One of the compelling characters in camp was named “Announcer” – yes, his given name – pronounced with a pause after the second syllable and a heavy emphasis on the last syllable: “Announ… SUH.” Each night, he would… er, announce the introductions to the evening meal. Here’s an example:
If you feel so moved, I hope you can contribute to the Global Sojourns Giving Circle. They’re truly making a difference.
Thanks for reading!
By: Rich Burk