We’re up a little earlier this morning, having been scheduled for a long lion walk with the L’s – a six hour trek through the bush that allows the cubs to spend some proper time exploring their surroundings and honing their hunting instincts. Backpack filled with a breakfast consisting of an apple, a packet of potato chips, water, and a tomato and cheese sandwich, we head out to greet Lewa and Laili and begin our morning trek across the wilds of Antelope Park as the rest of camp comes to life.
If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.
It’s also an extra special morning as Kim has in hand her honeymoon gift. Finally. All the secret meetings resulting in quizzical stares and hard questions from the wife have finally paid off and Kim is clutching a custom lion walking stick made by Jabulani. About a meter in length, the top is carved with JB’s initials, a stick figure representing him, and “2011.” Down one side of the stick’s length is carved the names of the four cubs, separated by lion paws, and on the other JB has spelled out, “Kim + Graig – famba ne shumba.” Kim + Graig? That’s right: “Graig.”
It makes me smile. I knew there would probably be something lost in translation with what I wanted done versus what JB heard, but his heart was in the right place and I can’t complain. I don’t even bother pointing it out. It makes me smile. My stick is still not completed, and when JB finishes it he’ll again misspell my name; and, again, I’ll smile. It’s perfect, really. As payback for his taking so long to do both sticks I make Jabu record a custom ringtone for my cellphone. It, too, will make me smile every time someone calls me and I hear JB’s voice. “Hi, Graig. Pick up the phone. Hi, Graig. Pick up the phone.”
We’re joined the first hour on our walk by a client, an older gentlemen from Oregon state who has returned to Zim after 25 years. He’s here as part of a Christian mission; volunteering in local cities and villages to help build schools and churches, bring in food and supplies, and, where possible, convert the unwashed masses, of course. A number of clients I’ve seen here have been part of similar religious groups. Once one of Africa’s leading exporters in food, with a well-educated and upwardly mobile citizenry, Zimbabwe is now a very poor country desperately in need of whatever charity it can get. It’s also a very Christian country. All of which makes a nice combination for foreign Christian organizations looking to help, physically and spiritually.
I can’t complain about it. I want to, but I can’t. Lil’ JB’s space invaders t-shirt that he was wearing during our visit to his orphanage over the weekend? Probably came from a religious group. How he is further clothed, fed, stays healthy, and is educated in the coming years? Probably the direct result of missionary work from various Christian organizations. It’s something that is pointless to argue about. It’s a matter of life and death in this country, and if the checker at the grocery store wants to toss in some Jesus-flavored lollipops of salvation as change because that’s what she’s got for you: so be it.
I’ve also been trying to make a point of talking with the clients, whether they’re out on a lion walk with us, or I happen to bump into them in the food line. I’m curious about people, in general, and I also want to put on a positive face for Antelope Park and ALERT and not have people thinking the volunteers here are rude because of our standoffishness – which we’ve been told to be, more or less, in order to let clients eat first, get photos first, enjoy the lion walks first, etc. – even if we are, literally, the unwashed masses.
Most of the clients are friendly and engaging, especially the religious groups. Last week a missionary group was in from Tennessee and I found myself talking to a plump but very loveable black lady. “How’s your stay been?” I asked. “And what was the funnest thing you’ve done here so far?” Expecting to hear her say it was walking with lions, she instead grabs my arm and shrieks with delight, “Riding the elephants! Whoo, yeah! The was f-u-n, fun! Ha, ha, ha!” She was an absolute riot to talk to. After dinner that night during one of Ingonyama’s performances I looked over to see her standing in the middle of the dining hall, clapping her hands and stomping her feet with the music. I half expected her to start shouting “testify!”
She was great fun, and probably the best client I met while at AP. Most of the rest are generally easy-going and interesting to talk to. A few, though, are horrible. Peggy mentioned yesterday that on one of her horse rides a tall and very surly client – from South Africa, we think – repeatedly threatened to shoot the horse he was on if it threw him off of it. The horse wasn’t acting up at all; the guy just wanted it to be let known that, on general principle, he would put a bullet in the horse’s head if he didn’t like his ride with it. The handlers just looked the other way; whether because they didn’t want to get involved, or because they felt they couldn’t get involved because the client was paying more for that horse ride than they make in a month, and if it came down to it is was their word and job versus the client’s, and with unemployment so high in Zim finding a replacement horse handler is much easier than a paying client, remains unknown. But you can do the math.
Today’s client on the walk? The older religious gentlemen from Oregon? Stand offish, but nice enough. Actually, we are the stand offish ones, as he gets to have first dibs on interacting with Lewa and Laili. With sticks in hand and the L’s at our feet, we head out of the enclosure and off in to the bush ahead of us. Both Lewa and Laili are excited to be able to stretch their legs in the cool morning air, and when we reach the polo field a few hundred meters north of their enclosure (where AP staff exercise the park’s horses by playing pick-up games of polo cross) they’re in a very playful mood, running towards each other at full speed in mock charges, jumping, pawing, twisting and turning, and generally being a playful menace to each other and everything around them.
An hour into the walk near the main house at BPG we bid adieu to the client, and he is escorted up to the breeding program to be given a lift back to camp while the rest of us continue on further into the bush. It feels nice to be on a long hike out in the middle of nowhere with the lions. No fences to scan for holes, no snares to keep an eye out for (which is not to say we ignore obvious signs of poachers or other trouble should we happen across any); just my thoughts, the morning light over my right shoulder warming me, and two precocious cubs bouncing up the path in front. Africa has invited me into her cathedral, and with each step I marvel at its beauty while a silent prayer of thanks escapes my lips.
Another hour on and we decide to stop at an old park site to rest and eat. There are two picnic tables spaced about ten meters apart, and while we seat ourselves at one the L’s clamber atop the other and flop down for a nap. On the other side of our picnic table there is an old platform about four meters high that appears to be an elephant loading dock, so to speak. In front of us is a tall marula tree with another platform nestled about five meters up in its branches. While we breakfast, Alynn braves the old, wooden planks leading up to its perch to take in the view. Lewa and Laili rest their heads on their paws, lift one eye, then the other, close both, nap, yawn, and finally stand up and stretch as they come off the picnic table. Breakfast finished and the group rested, we pack up and continue our walk.
The sun’s out in full now with the heat of the day upon us. Word comes in over the two-way that a brush fire has been spotted near the Bush enclosure, home of the MK’s. Volunteers and staff are being rounded up to go battle the blaze, but since we’re so far out we’re once again unable to help. Tinofa and Markson, our guides, decide it’s best that we change direction in order to keep ourselves and the L’s at a safe distance from any trouble. After another hour of walking through the hot African sun we find some shade and take a second break. It sounds as if those battling the bush fire might have to release the MK’s from their enclosure in order to keep them safe, and we can only imagine how hard everyone else is working to put the fire out and keep the lions safe. All this over what was probably a careless cigarette tossed out into the bush.
As I’m thinking this I watch one of the volunteers out on the walk with us, a frequent smoker, toss a cigarette onto the ground and snub it out with their shoe, leaving the butt behind in the bush and not even bothering to see if it’s been fully extinguished. It’s something I’d see repeated again and again by others. The fact that they’ve come all the way to Zimbabwe to leave their litter behind in the bush is the least of the reasons I’m slapping my forehead in disbelief.
Unsettled by both the fire and the heat we do our best to enjoy the down time in the shade, but the cubs are antsy, as are we, so we cut short our break and start the hours-long walk back towards camp. Along the way we start passing the game that we seemed to have somehow missed all morning. In the space of an hour we spot impala, zebra, and giraffe. Laili gives chase to each – yes, even the giraffe – but her stalking and hunting skills consist of impulsive head-on rushes towards whatever animal she has in her sights. “Stalking” is a little too generous of a word to award her with at this age. However, she gets massive props for going after anything she sees, including the giraffe. Much better than Lewa, who wasn’t even aware of what was going on around her half the time.
It’s interesting to watch the differences in the two, especially when it comes to spotting and chasing game in the wild. Laili: ever alert, always ready. Lewa: ever not. At one point we happen upon a herd of zebra, and while Laili goes slinking off into the tall grass to get closer, Lewa slowly comes up the path towards them. Yay! Our girl has finally noticed some food! As she gets closer, one of the Zebra turns her rump towards Lewa, taunting her with it. We all start quietly shouting encouragement. “C’mon, Lewa! Go for it! Doesn’t get any easier than that, girl!” And right at the point it looks like Lewa is going to pounce… she scurries away in the opposite direction. Oh, poor, poor, Lewa! I’m sure Moyo will welcome you into his arms. The L’s personalities, however, are flipped whenever food arrives at their enclosure. Lewa is always the first one to pounce on the meat, and will aggressively defend it; while Laili, interested and hungry and lion-like as she is, always seems to defer to her younger companion. Go figure.
The L’s safely dropped off back at their enclosure – “Thanks for the walk, ladies!” – Kim and I head up to the vol lounge to discover that we’ve been given the rest of the day off. An afternoon off! An afternoon off? We’re equally delighted and dismayed. We’re supposed to get a half-day off every four-to-five days, but haven’t had one until now, our tenth day. So while we’re happy to finally have some down time we’re also conflicted, because we want to be spending as much time as possible engaged with the work here. But the past week and a half has caught up to us and a nice, long shower, some laundry, and a relaxing afternoon not picking up cow heads before or after they’ve been gnawed on, are probably for the best. Never look a gift cow head in the mouth, and all that.
We have some lunch, shower up, and I head out to drop some dirty clothes off at the laundry, stumbling over my Shona while trying to say hello to Virginia. She just smiles. I then walk over to the lawns next to the dining hall on the west side of the grounds, pull out my journal, and start catching up with the past few days. Dan joins me, and as we’re chatting Mr. Conolly walks past, stops, then double backs to our table. “Would you like to talk now, Craig?” “Yes, absolutely!” I say. For the past week now when we’ve passed each other I’ve been hoping he’d have some time to sit down and have a proper talk. Finally, it’s arrived.
I begin by asking him about his family history in Africa. His grandfather came up with Cecil Rhodes from South Africa, one of the pioneers, and attended Rhodes’ funeral when he died in 1902. His uncle was a Rhodes Scholar – named and funded after, you guessed it, Cecil Rhodes. Conolly himself was a Bulawayo farmer, purchasing Antelope Park in the mid-80s with his wife, Wendy. It was at that time, while interacting with the captive lions that came with the purchase, that he discovered they exhibited similar behavior as those in the wild (something Kim has previously written about), and the seeds for ALERT were planted. He lost most of his left arm to one of his lions in a situation that Conolly describes as foolish and completely avoidable. His first words after he woke up in the hospital were rumored to be, “I guess I have to start wearing my watch on my other hand now!” That dry humor is something that enamors him to me. Speaking to the assembled delegates at the release of the Ngamo Pride back in September of 2010, he closed his remarks by saying something along the lines of, “This is where you all clap. I can’t.”
Articulate and intelligent, you can tell that, while he doesn’t mind talking about himself, he’d much prefer to talk about the work ALERT is doing in regards to the lion release program. Every topic and every answer comes back to the dwindling lion population in Africa and what must – “must!” – be done to reverse it. The answer “is so simple,” he says, reiterating his words from the volunteer meeting the other night. The politics of making it work in Zimbabwe, however? Not so simple.
Our talk drifts to that political situation and the stranglehold Mugabe has had on Zimbabwe for the past 30 years. I mention my fascination with Peter Godwin‘s personal dissection of their shared homeland; someone who, like Conolly, fought in the Bush War. Conolly remarks, “Very good man, that Godwin,” impressed with the fact that I know about the author and, more importantly, Zimbabwe’s recent history and turmoils. “I can’t help it,” I say. “It is so surreal what’s happened, and so engrossing. And it’s not ancient history; it’s still happening as we speak!”
I ask Conolly how, as a white land owner, he avoided having Antelope Park jambanja’d by Mugabe’s henchmen under the thinly veiled guise of land reformation for former ZANU-PF soldiers, or anyone claiming to be a “war veteran.” “Have you read Lion Country,” he says, referring to the recently published book that has come out, an accompaniment to the ITV television series of the same name. “You must turn to page 126 and read about the ‘Saving of Antelope Park!'”
In it, the book describes soldiers showing up to AP’s front gates in the early months of 2000, demanding the land be turned over to them. Cephas Msipa – then the province’s governor, good friend to AP and conservation in general, and fully aware of the money ALERT has brought into Zimbabwe – drove out to AP and stood at the front gate, bravely facing down the soldiers. Msipa explained why they wouldn’t be taking over this land and somehow convinced them to leave peacefully; something the soldiers weren’t so easily convinced of doing elsewhere in the country. The Zimbabwean government would later officially endorse the governor’s position, sparing Antelope Park – for now, at least. Msipa, retired from politics and revered throughout the Zim Midlands for his legacy, remains a fervent supporter of Antelope Park; and Andrew Conolly remains a firm friend. “You must read page 126!”
In closing, I ask Conolly what he views his legacy as. Besides leaving the ALERT foundation in capable hands, I’m surprised to hear him say that he prefers not to go into business with his family. “It’s easier to fire people that way,” he says in so many words. Upon reflection, it makes sense. Conolly has a vision, driven by a fierce passion to save the lion population. He surrounds himself with capable and committed people; many not necessarily formally trained, but with a willingness and passion to match his own. If you believe in the vision, can work hard, and can prove yourself, there’s a place for you. There is, however, no place for those “just because.” It’s not about him. It’s never been about him. It’s about the lions. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
It’s with that thought that we shake hands and I thank him for his time, and it’s that thought that I’m ruminating on after dinner as I listen to Michael tell Chris all about “Michael.” Chris is berating Michael for always having his head down in his computer, and for never socializing with the rest of the vols. Michael responds with how busy he is and how “it’s hard being me.” He talks at length about how important he is back home in Malaysia. How the prime minister created a custom job just for him but he gave it up to do this year-long trip when, along with Carielle, he won the Your Big Year award. How “my whole country is following me,” and how he’s been offered book and television deals. How he has X-thousand Twitter followers and Facebook friends. How in every country he’s travels to he always tries to give speeches to local governments about volunteering, but for some strange reason he hasn’t been able to do it here in Zimbabwe. How random rich and connected people he meets in various countries want to fly him around for free so he can give speeches.
I listen to him talking and it reminds me of the scene in Being John Malkovich when John Malkovich crawls into his own head to view the world from out of his own eyes. Everyone around him looks exactly like John Malkovich, and everything that comes out of their mouths, from dinner conversation to sports scores, consists soley of, “John Malkovich! John Malkovich! John Malkovich!” I hear Michael taking but all I hear him say is, “Me! Me! Me!” I hear very little – precious little – details about any of the schemes he’s supposedly involved in, working towards, or revered in regards to. It’s quite possible that everything he’s saying is true, but I have rarely heard someone talk so much about themselves without actually saying anything substantive. I want to shout at him, “Volunteering is more than taking your picture in front of a bunch of orphaned kids!”
Rumor has been going around that he’s going to be giving a speech at the UN after he leaves Antelope Park in a few days time. It’s changed over the past day or two to something along the lines that he’ll be speaking at the UN and also might be meeting or speaking to Ted Turner. Or meeting and speaking to Ted Turner. Or that Ted Turner will be at the UN listening to his speech. Or that Ted Turner wants to fly him around on a private jet so he can give speeches. Or something. Hoping to open doors into new places, the staff at AP have been prepping Michael with information about the program so he can, hopefully, say a few words on their behalf and draw some international interest, and money, ideally.
I find it funny, because I feel that these are all things that he should already know, but after watching him at the orphanage and at the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, I’m not surprised – or shouldn’t be, at least. Last night I overheard him going over, what I believe were, interview questions with Nathan. “And the last question I have is: Who would win in a fight, a tiger or a lion?” Nathan laughed. It’s hard to tell why, exactly, but it seemed the right course of action.
Again, it could be that everything he’s doing and has said about himself is true. He’s young, he’s nice, and he seems to mean well. But my Spidey sense keeps tingling and I desperately want to find a decent internet connection to do some background on him. So many people seem to have him up on a pedestal here, himself included; and it just doesn’t ring right to me.
Mostly, I think it’s the stark contrast between himself and Mr. Conolly. One tries to stay out of the way and keep the focus on the subject of his vision, while the other is the subject of his vision. A couple of people remark that someday he’s going to be someone politically powerful. I can’t argue with that. It makes perfect sense, really. I’m just saddened that the people who appear to have the most to offer ALERT are those who know least about it going in, and further remain the most uninformed about it coming out. John Malkovich! John Malkovich! John Malkovich!