Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Quintessential African Experience--George's Post

For most Americans, Africa is synonymous with wild animals—lions, wildebeests, elephants, giraffes, monkeys, warthogs, zebras—and with majestic natural wonders—the Serengeti, the Rift Valley, Victoria Falls, the great Zambesi.  To name a few, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania boast world-famous parks, overflowing with gigantic herds of hooved beasts, teeming with great flocks of migratory birds, and having under foot every creeping thing.   Most African countries, including Zambia and Malawi, advertise game parks and safaris, frequently featuring Africa’s great five--lions, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, elephants, and leopards—in an effort to capture some of the Western tourist monies flowing into the continent. 
Yet Malawi, unlike some of its neighbors, is not known for offering great safari experiences.   In the recent past, it has tried to remedy this problem by reserving large tracts of wilderness for game parks, in an effort to create reserves teeming with those large game animals for which much of the sub-Saharan Africa is famous.     Counterbalancing this effort, however, has been an ongoing, and largely unresolved, tension between the villages and the poachers, on one hand, and the environmentalists and tourist industry, on the other hand, as relates to the growth of national parks and the stocking of them with large predators and animals of prey.  Little over 30 years ago, few large animals, including the great cats, were still found in significant numbers in Malawi.  The villagers had hunted these large beasts into extinction—in part to preserve their herds of domesticated animals--cattle, goats and sheep--from attack by the big cats and in part to provide meat for their families.  Poachers had virtually decimated the elephant herds in their lust for the exceptionally valuable tusks.    The parks, together with their animal herds, have made a slow but steady, comeback over the last several decades, both in Malawi and elsewhere in Africa, as the conservationist movement has gained momentum and as government support for the fledgling tourist industry has taken root. 
Carole and I thought we would get a chance to see some local parks before our mission’s end.  We were, however, surprised to have an opportunity to visit one of the local parks, Majete Wildlife Reserve, within the first two weeks of our arriving in Blantyre.  The sister missionaries (i.e., the three pairs in Blantyre) planned the outing and asked us, and the Reynolds, one of the other senior missionary couples, to provide the transportation.   There are some advantages in having access to one of the few trucks the Church owns in Blantyre.
Majete is found in the lower Shire Valley, a section of Africa’s Great Rift Valley.  Its vegetation ranges from moist woodlands to dry savannahs to the dense thickets along the riverbanks of the Shire River.   It is located in the Chikwawa District, one of the 28 districts in Malawi, roughly an hour and a half by car from Blantyre.  Majete does not have the huge herds of other parks, but it does feature a number of different species.  Resident animals include the kudu, reedbuck, duiker and bushbuck, and in the last decade, park management has reintroduced at least 12 new species, including elephants, black rhinos, buffalo, elands, sable, waterbucks, zebras, nyalas, hartebeests, and warthogs. 
We toured the park without using a local guide, nice to control the pace of our own visit, but at the expense of learning much about the local species.  Neither Carole nor I can distinguish a kudu from an eland, nor a reedbuck from a bushbuck.  Our knowledge of African game is pretty much limited to what we learned from reading children’s books in our youth.  Most of our grandchildren will be better informed about the different animal species than either of us.
In any event, the following are photos taken during our one-day tour of Majete, proof for our grandchildren, at least, that we are actually in Africa:







No big animals are left in Blantyre.  Years ago they were hunted to extinction.  Occasionally, we will see monkeys in the trees outside of our compound--skittish, elusive creatures, quickly disappearing into the bush and up into the upper tree limbs at the slightest disturbance. Earlier this week we understood better their hyperactive nerves, when we came across three young boys, spears and loops in hand, stalking quietly several monkeys still on the ground.