This morning I’m up before the alarm can catch me; coffee brewing, camera shutter hungrily clicking away at the morning light outside. Last night we heard splashing in the water, and poked our heads out to discover that the horses had wandered over from the pasture to take a midnight dip. We’ve seen them do this during daylight hours, but never at night.
The good life was so elusive / Handouts, they got me down / I had to regain my self-respect / So I got into camouflage / The girls they love to see you shoot.
-Gang of Four, “I Love a Man in Uniform.”
Armed against the morning chill with warm clothes and caffeine we head out, crossing the lawn and giving our morning salutations to the kitchen staff as we hoof our way over to the volunteer lounge. Tom’s waiting for us, and it’s back from whence we came, repeating our “good mornings” again to the kitchen staff as we pass them for a second time on our way to take the P’s out for a morning walk.
Yawns stifle Penya and Paza’s usual eeowws, but they’re happy to be taken out and oblige us with some ridiculously cute moments, even if some of them involve rolling around in elephant poo. The morning light: sublime. The cubs: amazing, as always. The company: perfect. It’s becoming harder and harder to find new ways to describe these walks, but it never feels old or worn to us. Regardless whether we’re walking up the path with them (one eye behind me, watching for Penya’s ankle taps), standing under a tree as we encourage them to climb, or lazily dozing on some boulders – it is beautiful. Chakanaka. Famba ne shumba, chakanaka.
After the obligatory “thanks for the walk, ladies!” it’s a quick stop off at the river tent before heading back to the vol lounge and into Gweru to visit a couple of orphanages. Every Saturday, interested volunteers pay a visit to two orphanages in Gweru to deliver supplies, candy, stickers, and a little entertainment, distraction, and joy – all much in demand there, as I’m sure you can imagine. I’ve volunteered to collect money for this week’s visit, and am happy to report that we’ve raised over $200 to buy supplies; much better than last week’s $55, and all much appreciated by those it’ll be going to.
Volunteers are asked to pitch in $5 per person. Most give, a few don’t. Of the former, some go well above and beyond what’s asked for, and it is really great to see the heart they bring. Of the latter, it is what it is. There will always be a few, but it’s disappointing that comparatively rich westerners can’t come up with $5 to help put food on the table for some needy orphans.
On the way to the lounge I pass JB, and wave Kim on. “What? Again with him? What’s the deal?” she harumphs. “Dude talk, that’s all.” JB smiles and waves from across the distance. “Hi, Kim!” We talk for a minute or two about “that thing of which we spoke the other day,” and he promises me “tomorrow.”
There’s about a dozen of us heading into Gweru, so we split up into two minivans and start the drive. A few kilometers outside of town, along a rutted and potholed side road, we get waved over by a roadblock. Nothing out of the ordinary – for Zim, that is – until I see the side door of our minivan being opened, and a very young soldier with an AK47 slung over his shoulder poking his head in to look at us. My first thought is, “I think we’re really fucked here.”
After I take a breath and slow my heart rate down a little, it occurs to me that we’re probably going to get shaken down for bribe money, or anything else we have in the van that the soldier might find he likes. I start wondering which pocket my wallet is in, and all the orphanage cash I have on me; angry with myself that I’d stopped carrying a decoy wallet a few days ago, about the same time I gave up looking for snakes curled around the toilet in the river tent at night, chalking both up to being overly paranoid.
There are four benches in our minibus, not including the driver and passenger seats. Kim and I are seated on the third row; David and Julie behind us. Liz is seated in the first row, next to the open door where the soldier and his very large, fully automatic gun are stationed. The soldier peers up and down inside the minibus and, without saying a word, climbs onto the first bench next to Liz. He then closes the van door and props his machine gun against the seat in front of him, which is where Nicky is seated, unaware that the gun is resting against the backside of her headrest, barrel pointed directly between her ears.
The driver starts the minivan and begins driving down the road, not saying a word. Liz bolts upright, doing her best to try to keep her composure, but it’s obvious she’s shaking like a leaf. The young soldier turns towards her and says “Hi” in a short, clipped voice, but doesn’t say a word after. I return to my original thought, “I think we’re really fucked here,” and squeeze Kim’s hand in an attempt to give her some kind of comfort.
The tension is wound so tightly that I’m worried that someone – either one of us or the soldier – is going to make a stupid mistake and something very bad is going to happen. Worse, I fear that as we’re bouncing down the dilapidated road we’re going to hit a bump and the AK47 is going to accidentally fire off a round into the back of Nicky’s head. I find myself imagining blood and brains splattered on the inside of the windshield; the driver reflexively, if mistakenly, turning on the wipers in an attempt to clean the mess so he can see. Fucking grim.
Did I mention it was a little tense inside the van?
At the same time, we find ourselves being overtaken on the road by the second minivan of vols, and as they pass us on our right Gillian and Reece (New Zealand) are sticking their tongues out, flipping us off, and smiling – unaware (we hope) of the jack booted and fully armed guest we have on board. “Oh fuck,” I think. “Please Mr. Kid Soldier, for the love of all that is good and wholesome: please, please, please do not look to your right!”
The second minibus passes us, with Gillian and Reece still saluting. The soldier doesn’t look, thankfully. I exhale, wondering how I ended up here, envisioning the headlines. “Western volunteers shot on way to orphanage – stickers and candy found strewn amongst the bodies. Eyewitnesses report occupants in second van were seen flipping them off before the shooting began.”
Realizing that poor Liz is probably going to faint from all the undue attention, I start remarking on all the different soccer kits I see people wearing on the roadside. “Arsenal. Spain. Manchester United. Liverpool third kit? Wow! Those kit bootleggers sure enjoy the details.” David picks up on the game and we spend the rest of the drive into Gweru playing “spot the kit” – both of us surprised at the two dozen or so different team kits we pick out. Everton? Really? The soldier looks at us early on, trying to figure out what we’re doing, then settles back into his seat, seemingly a little more relaxed (in my mind at least).
We pull into the town center and the soldier opens the van and lets us all out before climbing into the passenger seat and staying behind – the vehicle’s sole occupant. Nobody says a word. As we cross the street to rendezvous with the other vols in the other minibus, I ask the driver just “what the h-e-double-fucking-hockey-sticks” happened. His English isn’t that good, but from what I can gather the van (or the driver) didn’t have the right permits to be driving on the road we were on, so the soldier decided to ride into town with us to make sure the right permits are purchased, and is staying with the van while the driver goes and gets them. Awesome! We might see him again, soon!
On the other side of the street I catch up with Gillian and Reece. “Did you guys know that there was a soldier armed with an AK47 in our van as you drove by flipping us off?” “Uh… no.” “He’s still in it, in case you’re wondering.” I then check in with Liz, who still seems a little shaken and very much in need of a drink. That night, I’ll put money down on her bar tab so she can numb herself up and properly recover from the experience, and later on we’ll all joke about what a cute, sweet, loveable little soldier the kid was and that maybe Liz should’ve asked him out on a date, brought him home to meet the parents, eloped to Botswana to get married while pregnant with his love child, etc.
Having survived our ride into town with our money and lives intact, if not our soiled underwear, we head into the local grocery to purchase foodstuffs for the orphanages. Along with staples like rice, flour, cornmeal, baby formula, etc., we pick up some candy which, even though not as healthy as other things, brings a lot of joy and smiles to the kids. Many of the vols have brought along animal stickers, which we’re told the kids love; I’ve got my frisbees in hand, and Reece has run off to buy a couple of soccer balls – one for each orphanage.
Two bulging shopping carts later, we’re back out the door to the vans, and happily find that the soldier is gone. “Thank you bearded old white guy I don’t believe in!” I mumble quietly. Along with the groceries, I also have three lollipops that I’ve received as “change.” Huh? Since Zimbabwe uses the US dollar as its national currency, the number of bills in circulation is extremely limited, which means that it’s really easy to spot any newly arrived visitors by the nice, crisp notes they carry; and the money you receive looks and feels as if it’s been eaten and shat out by several generations of elephants, even though it was probably printed in the last decade. US coinage is pretty much unheard of here, so when you get change from a store it’s possible you’ll get South African Rand coins. However, the US-Rand exchange rate hovers somewhere around 6-8 rand to the dollar, and you get back coins as if they were of US value, so it’s not that great of a deal. Another compromise stores will make if they have no coins is to give you credit for your next visit. Lastly, they’ll pay you back in sweets. It seems that one sucker is worth about 25 cents, and by the looks of things I’m a sucker thrice over.
We pull up to the first orphanage and a young girl comes running out to open the gate and let us in. Before we’re even out of the minivans we’re mobbed by a dozen kids, all aged six and under, it would appear. Reece immediately heads off with one of the soccer balls and starts a pick-up game with a few of the kids, while several of the rest of us haul in the groceries we’ve bought. Walking out into the back courtyard of the orphanage the kids surround us, clamoring for candy and stickers, which can’t come out of our pockets fast enough. Kim has six or so kids around her, eagerly sticking out their arms to be filled up with animal stickers. A young boy comes up to me and puts his hand in mine. He tells me his name, but I forget it almost immediately (I’m loathe to admit). So instead, I start calling him Lil’ JB, because his smile and the way his eyes light up remind me of Jabu, Sr.
In the corner are a few older children, perhaps 10 and older. Mostly girls. They remain aloof from the rest of us, and it’s understandable why. The younger kids are easily distracted by strangers bringing food, candy, and stickers; offering a brief respite from the grim day-to-day reality of their lives. But the older kids, they’re at an age where they are beginning to understand where they’re at and what lies ahead, and no matter how many stickers you put on their cheeks and arms, it doesn’t change a thing. In an hour we’ll be gone and they’ll still be here. Fucking grim.
Having filled up his arms with tweeza (“giraffe”), shumba (“lion”), and dolphin stickers (we couldn’t figure out what Shona for “dolphin” is), Lil’ JB leads me out to the gardens behind the main house and all the way to the back where they keep a shed with rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters. He takes great joy in giving me a tour of all the animals they have, each time looking at me for some emotional confirmation of his actions. I give him a thumbs up every time, which he starts mimicking. At one point he has a sucker in his mouth and a piece of candy in each hand. With no pockets to keep them in, I offer to hold onto them until he’s ready to stuff his mouth with a new piece, but Lil’ JB refuses and starts screaming in protest. It takes me a second to realize what I’ve done, and the whys of its stupidity. I let him keep his candy, and his smile returns as he takes me by the hand again to lead me back inside.
Back in the courtyard, Bruce has a dozen kids enthralled with his every move. He starts off playing a version of patty-cake, then switches to teaching them tic-tac-toe – which the children pick up immediately. As his audience grows, he moves on to a game of “guess who’s holding the camera lens cap.” It’s a thrill to see how comfortably and confidently he handles so many children, keeping them all happy and involved. Even the older girls, who were earlier standing off by themselves, come join in. Bruce deserves top honors today for the amount of heart he shows the kids.
Soon enough, it’s time to go. On our way back out to the vans I get stopped by several boys who take an interest in the tattoo I have of Kim in her wedding dress. It’s a take on the tarot card for Strength. On our wedding day, I gave Kim that card to keep hidden somewhere on her as a shared secret only we knew about. The lady in the card (who looks somewhat like Kim) is firmly but gently restraining a lion while showing it affection. The lion’s tail is between its legs in submission, completely at her command. The card’s name comes not from “strength” in aggression or power, but “strength” in discipline and restraint. So I had the lion tattooed on the inside of my right forearm, with Kim in her wedding dress, and the Young clan motto underneath. Robore Prundentia Praestat – “Prudence Excels Strength.” All very fitting, don’t you think?
The boys surround me, pulling on my arm and pointing at the lion. “Is she killing the shumba?” they ask. “No, no!” I say. “The shumba is protecting her. She is an angel.” I look and see Kim standing a few yards off to my left. I point at the tattoo and then at Kim, saying “angel.” “She is my angel. The shumba is protecting her.” Lil’ JB looks at Kim. “Angel,” I tell him. Then he looks at the tattoo on my arm of the lion and Kim, then at the sticker of a lion on his own arm and says, “shumba!” And we repeat our sticker game – “Shumba! Tweeza! Dolphin!” – while laughing. The boys are still laughing as we drive away, and I’m wondering how long it will take them to come down from the day’s high and back to the reality of their lives.
That grim reality is on full display when we arrive at the second orphanage. It’s a much smaller house that about a dozen older boys call home. Dark, crowded, and run down inside, there’s barely enough room to make a line in through the door to bring in the groceries, much less see where they should be put. Outside in the tiny scrabble of yard they have, Reece is busy playing soccer again – the one thing that seems to brighten them up. I try, and fail, to show them how to use a frisbee; something the younger boys at the first orphanage seemed to pick up much easier. They laugh as I try to show them how to throw it, and I’m pretty sure they’re all muttering “wakapusa mukiwa” under their breath. There’s a look in their eyes that says, “I know where I’m at. I know what lies ahead. Don’t fuck with me. You might feel chuffed with yourself for having done a good thing today, but you don’t have to sleep here tonight when the sun goes down, or tomorrow night, or the next night. I do.”
We’re running late, and a few of the vols pose for pictures with the boys before we leave. Michael is one of them. I’m surprised he’s come along, as I don’t recall him donating any money. But he seems to be enjoying the experience and has been busy taking pictures – mostly of himself with the orphans as background. Later, he’ll post one of the group shots on the UN’s International Year of Youth’s Facebook page with the caption: “Promoting healthy living through Sports in the orphanages of Gweru, Zimbabwe – Sept. 2011 – Using sports to battle social illnesses among young African kids, while motivating them to work hard and harness their skills.”
Again, I’ll wonder, “Who is this kid? Does he know where he’s at? Does he know where he went today and what he did?”
Back at Antelope Park, we’ve arrived just in time to get a late serving of lunch, then it’s off for a “behavioral enrichment” session with the L’s. Hege’s along with us, and she’ll spend much of the session trying to place her hand over the eyes of the cubs, as well as firmly handling their paws, in an effort to showcase her dominance over them, to them. Both are no-no’s, according to what we’ve been told. What is awkward for us in this particular case is that Tom, the handler who is with us for the session, doesn’t say or do anything to prevent it. Maybe he’s unaware. Maybe he’s unconcerned. I quietly voice my disapproval. “I don’t think you’re supposed to do that.” But Hege continues. When Lewa paws back, Hege baps the cub on her paw, saying “no!” – later telling Leigh-Ann that she had to discipline Lewa for misbehaving. It’s something different vols will see repeated in other sessions, and is an attitude and an arrogance that angers many of us.
The final session of the day has us going to the research site and observing the Ngamo Pride. Finally! Kim and I are ridiculously excited. Even if most of the session is spent watching the pride sleep, roll over, then sleep some more, it will be one of the highlights for us. After all, this is why we came! This is the pride that is spearheading the entire program! This is where Milo is! This is where AT1 lives! For a year now since they were released into this Stage 2 site we’ve been following their every move online, and now we finally get to see them in person. We finally get to see them!
Crammed in a cage in the back of a Land Cruiser, me, Kim, Bruce, and Niki head into the site, while up in the cab Kirsty is driving. Bruce is doing his photography bit, and he and I dance around each other, both trying not to step on the other’s toes – or lenses, as the case may be. I’ve been in this position before while shooting bands down in a pit with a bunch of other photographers, and I’m aware of the need for protocol and courtesy. So I defer to Bruce and make sure he is set up with the shots he needs before going in for the seconds. He’s here to work as a photographer, after all; I’m here as an observer. It’s something he’s appreciative of, and I think we both find it nice to have a semi-professional understanding of each other and how to work.
We find the pride near one of the water holes in the site. Everyone’s contentedly napping and thoroughly enjoying a lazy afternoon – except for AT1, that is. Or Alpha, as Mr. Conolly calls her. She’s also been christened with the informal name of “Wakanaka,” which is Shona for “beautiful one,” and is the name we’ll call her from here on out. At eight months, Wakanaka’s absolutely beautiful with her big doll eyes and large ears, and it’s hard not to fall for her lion cub charms. She’s also the only one with any energy in her, and spends the first part of our session trying to roust her mother and aunts to play – to no avail, mostly.
We observe Wakanaka trying to suckle her mother, Athena, which is a little surprising given that, at her age, she’s supposed to be weaned by now for the most part. Then, to the shock and delight of all, we see her trying to suckle with Kenge, who is very pregnant and due to give birth within the next couple of weeks. (Phyre is also pregnant and due to give birth at any time.) During Wakanaka’s suckle session, the rest of the pride’s females start to slowly get up, and after a few minutes of yawning they all start grooming each other in a bonding session that goes on for the better part of an hour. Niki, Kirsty, and Kim are all oohing and aahing, with the former two furiously scribbling down research notes, as Bruce and I are firing off as many photos as we can take. (When we get done with the session, I will have shot over 400 photos of just the Ngamo Pride today.) Kirsty remarks that she’s never seen such a prolonged group grooming session, and that it’s an amazing thing to witness. Kim and I reply that it’s solely because we’re there, and that we’d be happy to hire out our good lion pride juju services full-time for AP. All inquiries welcome!
Finally, Milo raises his head to survey his harem, all in full blush now with the beauty makeovers they’ve been giving each other. He is magnificent. Big, regal, with an enormous mane crowning his head and upper body, running down the length of his chest in a dark line. He is truly a king among lions. Everyone, lion and human alike, straightens up to take notice of his presence.
As he picks his way through his pride, each lioness greets him in turn by rubbing her muzzle up against his and sharing a moment of bonding. Milo walks by the vehicle, pausing behind a nearby tree to look at the truck, letting us bask in his charisma before continuing up the road to the next water hole, about 200 meters away. Shortly after, the rest of the pride slowly gets up and, alone or in twos, heads off into the tall grass, readying themselves for what the night has to offer, their bodies blending into the golden hues of the dwindling sun as it winds its way over the western edge of the sky.
With darkness approaching we decide to make our way back to camp, pausing for a few minutes to enjoy a gorgeous sunset near the waterhole where Milo has relocated himself. As we pass by he turns his head and locks his eyes on us, following our every move. It’s not “the naughty look,” but it is the same intense, soul-piercing gaze. One that watches us with fierce attention as we take leave of his court and kingdom, bowing and curtseying the entire way out, his name on our lips.
All hail Milo! All hail the king!
Dedicated to the unflappable Liz. Everyone who reads this post should buy that woman a drink!
Further dedicated to Nicky, who probably is also in need of a few drinks, not knowing on the drive to Gweru that she had a machine gun pointed at her head most of the time.
Finally, dedicated to Lil’ JB, who makes me smile every time I think of him. May you rise above whatever stands in your path, and may your heartwarming smile forever remain unbowed. Tweeza! Shumba! Dolphin! Angel!