Early the year 2002 I was on a journey through Malawi, a tourist destination for less than a million international visitors annually compared to almost a million a month of the same in South Africa. I visited and camped on Mt Mulanji, a lush green mountain that reaches for the sky at a height of almost 10,000 feet in an important tea growing district of the country. Mt Mulanji is also home to peoples who, by our standards, barely get by from day to day.
My camp that night was mountain side near a cement block U shaped house. A woman came to the outdoor faucet of the plain grey walled structure to clean her family’s clothes. She wet and scrubbed the article of clothing together with her hands then repeatedly slung the well-worn cloth onto a slab of cement, finally wringing, rinsing it and hanging it out to dry. During the whole process an infant – pressed firmly against the woman’s back by a strategically tied blanket – slept, oblivious to moms’ chores. I reviewed the process I followed to get my clothes clean: separate them, throw them in the washer, put them from there into the dryer, and fold them when dry. This didn’t now seem like such a chore after watching this woman. She, on this mountain, in the beautiful country of Malawi taught me to be humble and appreciative of everything I had back home.
On that same mountain I also learned the lesson of trust. A local man came slowly and hesitantly up to me at camp. Almost apologetically he asked if I had any laundry he could do for me to earn some money. I did indeed have some road worn dirty clothes since I had spent the previous two weeks traveling the dusty African bush. As the scruffy man walked away with the majority of my clothes I wondered if I would ever see them again. The next day he appeared, gently carrying my clothes neatly folded in a stack. I hated myself for doubting him. In guilt I gave him as much money as I could spare.
Africa has also taught me to laugh at myself hard and often. I strolled along the fence-line of my Kruger camp deep in thought during one of my earlier trips to this great nature preserve. The bushes just on the other side of the heavy elephant-gauge chain-link fence crackled as an animal scurried. I would hurriedly shine my light towards the disturbance, but saw nothing except a shaking branch or the occasional glowing flash of vanishing eyes. I walked upon a large African-sized praying mantis perched on the fence that dividing me from harm’s way. I wanted to get a closer look at this giant bug so I moved in tight, shining my flash light towards his long, green, stick-like body. My face was only six inches away when, without warning, the insect flew directly at me, grazing my cheek. I didn’t know I could run so fast. In my mind on that dark, eerie African night it was a two-ton bull elephant chasing me. I finally stopped running when my mind and body realized and agreed that it was, in fact, just a bug. I collapsed to the grass in laughter. That was the first time I can ever remember laughing at myself. It felt good.
In Botswana I learned to rely on others. Staying at a camp in the Okavango Delta my local guide, an old man who knew that land like the back of his hand, took me – without a gun or radio – out in his hand-carved canoe where we floated on hippo and crocodile infested waters to places where we docked the canoe and hiked around the pristine land that was filled with predators. While slowly making our way through tall reeds and floating on the shallow clear water he taught me valuable lessons about the dangerous animals of Africa; information I still use today to stay safe while there. On this land and in that water one could easily make a wrong move and end up dead. I had to rely on him to keep me safe and keep me safe he did while seeing amazing wildlife and learning many lessons this great man shared.
I have also learned fear in Africa. You may ask if that was a lesson I needed to go all the way to Africa to learn. But now, what I thought was fear here in the US doesn’t even equate and seems ridiculous to be fearful of. Fear is when a nine thousand pound hippo attempts to capsize your boat with the full intent of biting you in half with his huge sharp tusks. That is true fear; fear like I had never felt before and although lessons of life are welcome – I only needed to learn this one once!
Why do I continue to go back to Africa you may ask? I go back to Africa to grow; to learn the lessons seemingly only Africa can teach me. I go to stretch my limits; to feel free of the normal stresses of everyday life. I go to see the zillions of stars and the gasses of the Milky Way while listening to lions roar in the background. I go to smell the bush of Africa that on occasion I can smell in my mind while looking back on photographs. I go for the both the thrill and the chill that this amazing place offers.