From the Field: Meaningful Travel in South Africa

by Crooked Trails co-founder, Christine Torrison Mackay

As the African Safari live auction item came up, Tracy (my board president) and I were leaning into each other, egging each other on, after too many glasses of wine. We walked away from that Rotary auction with a 6 day safari for two to Zulu Nyala in South Africa. Fast forward to December 2010 and we are on a flight to Capetown.

This trip started in Capetown, and then visited the wineries of Stellenbosch, followed by a 1 day tour of the Cape Peninsula. We would finish the trip with 6 days on safari. We had nice hotels booked and planned on really enjoying ourselves and seeing the sights. So, how does one transform a typical comfortable vacation like this one into one with meaning? I think the best way is as simple as talking to the locals. That is what I always do; start asking questions.

For Tracy and me, it started in the restaurant of the hotel we were staying at. Tracy and I had grown very fond of a lovely waitress that helped us each morning named Jackie. Jackie, we discovered, was from the nearby townships where the blacks had been pushed into during a very oppressive period of segregation during apartheid. Tracy had taken a tour of the townships and seen firsthand the poverty there. After 5 mornings with Jackie giving us such wonderful attention we decided to give back. Tracy brought out her laptop and got Jackie set up with a Gmail account so that she could keep in touch with her and see if there was anyway we could assist her in reaching some of her goals, such as an education. We will see how this new relationship evolves, but we are excited to open the doors of communication with this charming young woman struggling to make it in a complex world.

From Capetown we flew to Durban, rented a car and drove north to the area known as Kwazulu Natal. As we drove into the game reserve we started seeing animals and were so thrilled when a giraffe was looking at us over the bushes. Being an animal freak I couldn’t wait to get out on safari. All my life I have wanted to go to Africa and see the wildlife. This was a major bucket list item for me.

Most people at our game reserve were grouped based on when they arrived. Our “group” consisted of Tracy and me, two women from Atlanta- both dentists- and a family from Texas.  The first day out on safari we saw Cheetahs, Giraffes, Nyalas, Impalas, Wart Hogs (pumba) and the resident Ostrich. It was amazing. We spent the next two days roaming around the park and venturing out to other nearby reserves and parks.

Our guide was the only Zulu guide at the reserve. The other guides were all Afrikaners. His name was Philoman, and he was from Tembe, a village about 3 hours from the lodge. Each day Philoman was in charge of taking us around looking for animals or assisting us in going to other nearby parks. One day as we were on our game drive around the park looking for elephants, I struck up a conversation with him about his home and the work of Crooked Trails. He had told me that his village was poor, and lacked electricity and running water. Of course that set off a light bulb in my head. I had a million questions for him at that point. Where did people get their water right now? How did they get it? Was it the women’s job? How many hours a day did women and children spend carrying water on their heads? Philoman told me that the water was collected at a nearby faucet and that it took about 45 minutes to get to. Yes, it was the job of women and girls and they needed to make 3-4 trips a day. His major concern was that the kids had to cross a road and many had been killed making the crossing. To get water! That broke my heart. We talked about electricity as well and I thought of the man who recently was nominated for a CNN Hero of the Year award for his work in designing a solar powered LED lantern for villages in Kenya. I wanted to get them to his village.

The more I talked to Philoman the more I felt I just I had to get to his village, “Can I go to your village?” I asked directly. I was hoping to meet with any village leaders who could help me understand what it would take to tap the water pipeline and bring it to the center of the village. My mind was racing with fundraising ideas. Surely, since Zulu Nyala offers trips for American auctions, they might consider donating  safari trips to Crooked Trails with no minimum and have all profits pay for the tap and pipe. It would be a great PR move for them. I asked again, “Philoman, can I go to your village?”

“I have to work and take you all around,” he said. What if we all wanted to go to your village? At this point I explained to the others in the open jeep about my desire to visit Philoman’s community. The idea emerged that perhaps rather than have our guide takes us looking for animals that he takes us to his village and we pay for that instead. Philoman checked with the management and it was agreed that the day would be a community tour day. And so off we went to a Zulu village nestled in the “bush” next to a giant game park with lots of elephants.

We stopped in at Philoman’s home first, since he only sees his wife and two young boys once a month. He showed us around and introduced us to the circular Ancestor/Spirit hut found in all Zulu villages which play an important role in their religious lives. During the drive out, Philoman described a widowed woman in much need in his village. Her name was Busingwe Mahamba, and she was caring for 9 children in her small home which couldn’t possibly stand another rainy season. His real wish was to help her. We all agreed to visit Busingwe first.

The day we visited was the hottest of our stay and it hit 106 degrees. Busingwe’s home was made of upright sticks with rocks between and mud holding it all together. There were gaping holes in the sides of the building that measured about 15 feet across by 8 feet wide. The roof was thatch and there was plastic on the walls to keep the rain out. The whole family slept in this one room.  We immediately began to discuss how we could build a house for this woman and started hammering out numbers. How many bricks would it take to build a cinder block home? The woman had collected a fairly sizable pile but then ran out of funds and could go no further and so the blocks sat in a sad pile. With some negotiating and estimating we realized that if everyone pitched in $150 we could build this woman a new home. It was agreed upon, and Philoman let the stoic woman know what we had agreed to do. Philoman agreed to oversee the project and send photos of the building progress.

At this point we were all drenched in sweat and the idea of sitting in a meeting to discuss water and electricity seemed daunting. I also had to recognize that my fast soaring dreams of what can happen are often stymied by what I realize will happen. If Crooked Trails were running trips to South Africa and working in this village it would be different and we could eventually make the dream come true. But with so little time and no date of a return, I realized we had better leave it at that and keep to something simple like a small home project.

Making a difference in one family’s life may not seem like much, but I always think of Mother Theresa’s saying: “If I look at the whole, I will not act. If I look at the one, I will.”

I think that reaching out, discovering the need and giving, is what life is all about. It can happen each and every day no matter whom or where you are. Whether you never leave your home town or travel all the time for work and pleasure; the possibilities are endless.  Travel with a Purpose.

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