I have a strange combination of fearlessness and massive insecurity.
It was barely 8am, and I could feel the sun roasting the back of my neck as I joined the others from Bush Camp on the dusty road that led to the main camp. I was excited to finally get started, and I tried to settle my mind as it raced around with anticipation.
As we entered the main camp, I noticed the school to my left. It was a short, concrete building with colorful flowers painted on the exterior. A few kids stood watch in the doorway and came running outside once they saw us. I was excited to get a glimpse of my prospective students and gave them a vigorous wave hello as we passed.
The first thing I realized when we arrived at the meeting point was that everyone wore a green T-shirt with the Na’ankuse logo. I felt uncomfortable – as if having one of those T-shirts would somehow legitimize my existence. I was also annoyed that the pages of material I read through prior to the trip made no mention of a uniform. “Bring disposable clothing” was all it said. If I knew there was a uniform, I would have saved a lot of money on the “disposable” shirts I bought the week before I left.
We gathered outside a large, metal building. (Think extra-large shipping container.) I later learned this building was called “Food Prep” and was like the command center where pretty much everything began and ended.
Beside the building was a large washtub situated on a concrete platform. Corné stood on the platform, clipboard in hand.
“OH-la!!” he sung out.
The group gave a half-hearted “hola” back.
Unimpressed, Corné hugged the clipboard to his chest.
“I said, OHHHHHH-LAAAAAA!”
The group stood at attention, like children at assembly, and gave a more enthusiastic greeting as Corné held a hand to his ear.
“That’s better. Now, let’s get to it, yes?”
As the meeting progressed, we were joined by Milo the goat. He wasn't shy and skulked around the group of volunteers, nudging various backpacks on the hunt for food.
Meetings were held daily at 8:30am and again at 2:30pm. I was hungry for information, so the voices in my head rambling on about Corne’s stupid greeting would have to wait. I was longing to click into the basics of how things were run, so I wouldn’t feel so out of step with everyone else.
Corné and a few other Volunteer Coordinators ran the meeting. Everyone had their part. Corné was the greeter; Sara took requests for room and/or bathroom cleaning and any maintenance issues; and Camilla read out the team assignments.
The pace of the meeting was fast, and when we wrapped, I still felt hungry for information. I had so many questions! What did they mean by “team assignments?” What was “enrichment?” And why didn’t I have a T-shirt? When would we be tested on that dumb pamphlet I’d studied like I was taking the SATs?
Once again, I felt like an outsider, and it was beginning to color my perspective. As my self-confidence wavered, I clicked into what was slowly becoming my default thinking of how I was simply too old for this experience.
After the meeting broke, all the newbies, myself included, moved onto the “Induction” – a fancy word for an intro session. I perked up, thinking, I bet this is where I get some answers. The session went on for almost four hours, and while I learned a lot about Na’ankuse, it wasn’t what I was looking for. Plus, jet lag had kicked in which made it really hard to sit through an hours-long lecture. It took everything I had to keep my head from rolling around as my eyes grew heavy and longed for a nap.
Phillip, aka ”Philly” made us introduce ourselves. I was pleased to find there were a few others close to my age. I was especially intrigued by the woman who sat in the front row from the U.K. I could've sworn she said she was a shepherd. Eeva and Hedda were there as well; and handsome Sam.
After introductions, Philly gave us some background.
Na’ankuse is a huge organization that was started by a husband (Rudie) and wife (Marlice) who felt the call to wildlife conservation. The place is HUGE (almost 25K acres). In addition to the animal sanctuary, there is a wildlife reserve where two lodges sit. The sanctuary is split into two sections: “The Farm” and "Bush Camp." The Farm is where all the action happens. There are so many different enclosures filled with animals taken from the wild for various reasons. Some are rehabilitated and released back into the wild, while others – those who have no chance of surviving the challenges of the wild – remain in the Sanctuary. From baboons to meerkats to cheetahs to warthogs, our job was to keep them fed, healthy and safe.
We also learned about the main dangers at Na’ankuse. Snakes were a thing; and we were encouraged to always check under the seat before using the toilet. Our shoes and beds had to be examined to make sure no snakes were hiding out inside or underneath. We were also told to walk in three’s – always. If a snake bit you, one person could run for help and the other could stay behind and look after you. There were also scorpions and spiders – both poisonous. We studied pictures of them to familiarize ourselves with what to look for in and under our beds.
By the time Philly addressed fire safety, I was rethinking my decision to come to Africa. Snakes, spiders and scorpions were NOT what I signed up for. I thought of a conversation I’d had with a friend before I left.
“Africa? You don’t even like nature.”
“Yes, I do.”
She laughed. “Uh, no, girl. You really don’t.”
To which I mumbled, “I like parks…”
The truth is I do like nature. I just don’t like all that nature brings to the table. Checking my shoes and bed before each use was more than I’d bargained for. Just how much I loved nature would be tested throughout the trip. But for now, I was determined to prove my friend (and maybe my deeper self) wrong. And yet another determined moment was born. I was going to embrace this nature shit – snakes and all.
With the induction behind us, we were ready to join the rest of the volunteers and finally get our experience started at Na’ankuse. But first, lunch -- and then our afternoon meeting.
Volunteers were broken up into teams that would rotate through different tasks/activities each day. Teams were named, appropriately, after animals. Team assignments and rotations were posted in Food Prep, and I found my name listed under Team Aardwolf. Since volunteer commitments can be as short as a week, or as long as six months, people were added to the teams based on when they arrived. There were four others on my team, including Sara, the small Swedish girl I’d met at the airport. There were no other “newbies” on my team, so I was oddly grateful to have Sara on board, even though she hardly spoke.
Team Aardwolf was assigned to “baboon enclosure cleaning” that afternoon. Things moved quickly at Na’ankuse. Not NYC-quick, but more like we’ve-got-things-to-do-quickly. There weren’t introductions or any kind of direction as to who was who, so while they had announced Camilla was my team-lead for that afternoon, I had no idea who she was. And Sara was no help. She just stood there, waiting for me to figure things out. Once the meeting ended, 50 or so volunteers went off to find their respective groups. Once again, I felt out of step with the rest of them and had to resist the urge to fold into my growing discomfort.
I can’t remember how I found my group, but when I did, we were told that due to an “urgent” situation, we wouldn't be cleaning the baboon enclosures after all. Instead, we piled onto the back of a truck. Apparently, we were on our way to feed a baby rhino. As we pulled away, I gripped the rails on the truck and wondered what was so urgent about feeding a baby rhino.
The three others on my team seemed to know each other well, and I was immediately aware of the comfortable rhythm between them. I waited for someone to draw me into the group with an introduction at the very least, but nothing. Even the volunteer coordinator didn’t introduce herself. It all seemed very strange to me and didn’t help to quell any of my now-consistent discomfort. When I finally took lead and introduced myself, the reception was lukewarm. Lotte, who seemed very young and a little privileged, had the vibe of a limp handshake. Helee, whose eyes I couldn’t see through her mirrored sunglasses, wasn’t very expressive, so it was hard to determine whether she was friendly or not. The only guy on the team, Josh, seemed nice. Straight from South Wales, he had a full beard and was at least six feet tall.
That I was an outsider was clear. And it was difficult for me not to lose myself in insecurity. I hadn’t felt the urge to get someone to like me in a long time. It wasn’t what I’d expected for sure, and this journey was starting to feel less like an adventure and more like a walk through the more vulnerable parts of myself.
We arrived at an enclosure where “Baby Hope” stayed. She was just 45 days old and had been rescued after her mother died from a bacterial infection shortly after she gave birth. Hope was much larger than I’d imagined. Weighing probably around 30 pounds, she was loping around her little pen, while two goats assigned to keep her company (and warm at night), grazed in the corner.
I jumped right in and got to work, fetching water to prepare her bottles and adding some powdered milk to the mix. I’d also raised my hand to feed her. The “be bold” promise I’d made to myself reappeared, and the next thing I knew, Baby Hope was grabbing onto the bottle I was holding! It was so cool standing there as she sucked the bottle dry and squealed with delight. We fed her through the fence, as only the volunteer coordinators could go into her pen. It was fine by me. Nothing was cuter than her big mouth pushing through the fence, wide open, ready for another bottle.
And just like that, I was flying high again.