Thursday, January 20, 2011

Myths of Wild Africa

In January 2004 I went on a 3-week safari in Tanzania during winter session. I just recently found the journal that I kept while I was there. As part of my coursework we read a book called, “The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation without Illusion”. The myth was that among Western conservationists “Africa and wildlife conservation do not belong together” despite the fact that “Africans have more than demonstrated their genuine interest in and understanding of the importance of conservation--aesthetically, practically, culturally.'' The authors note that, since independence, African governments have set aside over 48 million hectares of land for animals, they spend over $115 million a year managing this land and that--in contrast to the US, which has set aside only 8% of its land--Tanzania has given up 13% of its territory for game parks. The take home message for me was that instead of telling Africans what to conserve, or trying to do it for them, we need to teach them how to do it themselves—and they would be happy to do so.

Other myths were also refuted for me on this trip. Before I went to Tanzania I don’t think I had any specific idea of what the people would be like—but everyone I talked to prior to my trip would caution me against savages, head hunters, and cannibals. It’s interesting how people form opinions about things they know nothing or very little about. I spent time with both the Maasai and Hadza—native peoples who lived off the land—but they were not so different from you and I. We had a bonfire with the Hadza –-we shared stories, songs, and dances with them. It was a lot of fun. I also remember our group trying to explain what a bear looked like to them—they have many animals they we think are amazing and unique, but no bear-like animals. And they really wanted to see one. They also thought we were magical because we could take their pictures and show it to them on our digital cameras.

One of the “problems” westerners think Africa has is population growth--because they don’t have the same technologies available to them that we do. But one of the memories from this trip that has stayed with me was a when we got the chance to speak with a Maasai man, who told us that in general the men wanted to use contraception methods but the women did not. It was because in their society it was a woman’s almost sole purpose in life—to raise many children. And it was a status symbol to have many children. So if that was taken away from them, they would not feel important in their communities anymore. As Americans we can’t possibly understand their culture – especially if we are ignorant or close-minded about who they are. And we can’t expect them to just change.

I had an amazing time in Tanzania and would love to go back to see more of Africa. One of the first places we visited was Tarangire National Park, which is famous for its large numbers of elephants and baobab trees--the photos above are from our time there.

To be continued...


Mr. Steve said...

I think I'll pull lessons from that trip forever. So great. I love the Hadza.

Lisa said...

I know, I had trouble choosing what to talk about.