– “Drive! Drive! Drive!” The Shingwedzi game guard yelled. Thomas was a taciturn fellow, and this was the most animated I had ever heard him. Of course being mock charged by a bull elephant will have that effect on just about anyone. Luckily the car was already in gear, and I have a lead foot at the best of times. Time to go.
– I have concluded that the cape buffalo is my anti-spirit animal. To be perfectly blunt, they are trying to kill me. In 2008, the closest I ever came to death was when I walked around a bush and startled a solitary buffalo (solitary individuals being far more dangerous than the ones in herds). I walked away from that experience with just a small scare but it certainly left an impression. This go around, it seems nothing much has changed except this time I’m not so young and stupid as I used to be, and so I’m even more aware of how stupid I am each and every time this happens.
– It was our last day in Skukuza. I had accompanied Hloniphani into the park to help him with his work, but had taken this final day for myself in order to analyze samples at the park lab. Hloniphani had a final site to do and had left early that morning. This left me without a car, but it was only a short walk from the research camp to Scientific Services, and a quarter of that along the main paved road. I knew there were animals about; in fact I was counting on it. Just the other day I had seen a family of Kudu in the nearby creek, and some hyena cubs along the road, and since I was now on my own time I hoped to finally get some wildlife photos. I wasn’t disappointed: the kudu were right where I left them, and, wonder of wonders, I was stampeded by a tiny hoard of mongooses (mongeese?), and all this after a mere fifty meters of walking. Already feeling pretty good about the day, I began the short climb up to the main road. And ran right into the buffalo.
– The first thing I did, and I’m not proud of this, was stop and take a photo. I hadn’t gotten a photo of a buffalo yet, you see, and this one was all of ten feet away, and I was still in picture-taking mode. Then I realized how horribly fucking stupid I was being. So the next thing I did was look for a nearby tree to climb. There wasn’t one, but by that point I had been standing there like an idiot for a good seven seconds and if the buffalo hadn’t charged yet that probably meant it wasn’t going to. Slowly, I began backing away… straight into another buffalo.
– I did, in fact, make it to Scientific Services alive (spoilers), and to be honest my close call hadn’t really sunken in yet. That happened as I passed one of the section rangers in the driveway (a big, burly Afrikaner who specializes in lion tracking), who, after hearing what had happened, stared at me stoically (they’re very stoic people) and asked, “So, did you make it then?” I was rather at a loss, since, well, here I was, but I finally managed, “They didn’t seem that interested in me.” To this, the ranger shrugged and said, “Everyone has their off days,” referring (I ultimately realized) to the buffalos. Bemused I continued on and ran into my old OTS course mate and now colleague, Rheinard, and one of the grizzly, veteran ecologists you always see walking around. Again I related my story, and was met with two new versions of horror (the ranger had also been horrified, you see, it was just harder to tell with him). Rheiny’s horror was more along the lines of “Oh god, we just had a narrow miss with bureaucratic hell,” since a young, foreign girl getting gored on the very doorstep of the largest rest camp in Kruger would have been a problem for everyone, to put it mildly. The ecologist just straight out gasped, “My god, how frightening.” I hadn’t actually thought it was all that frightening at the time, but after these three concurrent reactions I certainly did.
– Skip forward a few weeks. I was working in the Northern part of the park, an area called Letaba, with Rejoice, who had come along as my field assistant (Hloniphani: “No, don’t worry, she has nothing to do but sleep all day. The exercise is good for her.”). It was a miserable, drizzly morning (Me: “Rain? In the fucking dry season.” Rejoice: “You said that last week.” Me: “I know. What the fuck?!”) and I was in a foul mood because the weather was ruining all of my measurements. As a wonderful metaphor for the situation, I was crouched down in a muddy hole, up to my shoulders, trying to collect soil samples without contaminating them with rainwater. The game guard and Rejoice were chatting several meters away as Rejoice took porometer measurements (which were also getting contaminated, I was thinking with irritation), and beneath the rhythmic patter of the shangan I realized I had been hearing noises. Not noises (rainfall, cracking trees, wind), but noises (I.am.alive), a distinction one quickly learns in the bush. So I peaked over the lip of my muddy hole and stared into the mist (If the game guard hadn’t been giggling over something it would have been a very tense moment). I heard it again, noises, and a moment later an entire bushy shrub 7 meters away from me began to shake. The mind is an amazing thing. In an instant, my brain did the following mental calculations: Size of shrub + force needed to shake said shrub + nature of noises + dark patches filling in gaps through shrub = cape buffalo = oh holy fuck. I turned slightly in my hole and (eloquent as always) said “Hey! Hey!” and pointed. The game guard looked over, obviously hearing the alarm in my voice, and unslung his rifle. “What is it?” I stared at him, caught up in the memory of the stoic-faced Afrikans ranger (‘Everybody has their off days’). “A buffalo?” the game guard intuited, somehow. I nodded. His expression took on the same, rigid quality, “Come. Here.”
– The sound of my mad dash to safety effectively scared the buffalo away, but I’m really starting to worry over the number of extra lives I’m losing. And this isn’t even counting the most dangerous animal of all…
– South Africa is a fascinating place. It has all the bells and whistles of a first world country and, in some areas, such crippling poverty as to rival the best of them. This was a fact I learned on my first visit here. My second has taught me another lesson entirely, and I must credit Rejoice for the phrasing: “Money is evil. Life is cheap.”
– Against my better judgment, I’m going to state explicitly that the following stories are all true. I realize this just sets them up to be entirely unbelievable, but since they’re entirely unbelievable to begin with I figure it’s a small loss and it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge the fact. Even worse, I have a glancing connection with each one of the unbelievable events, which in my experience just makes these sorts of stories even more untrustworthy, but it can’t be helped and I suppose you’ll just have to come along for the ride, or not, and draw your own conclusions.
– You can hear lions at night from Caraville. The first few times I heard them (and this is embarrassing), I thought the people in the hut next to me were having wonderful, unbelievably loud sex. But no, it was lions, and they were several kilometers away, which just goes to show you. These aren’t “wild” lions, but special, albino lions kept at a game reserve that borders Wits Rural, a very special attraction to bring in tourists. These rare, valuable lions have an extremely morbid history. The previous owner of the reserve (he’s in jail now) used to drive into Acornhoek, looking for day laborers. The men he picked up never returned (and I can see you rolling your eyes already). Eventually people learned to not go with him, but somehow he always found someone desperate enough to chance it. “Oh come on,” I hear you saying, “Why didn’t they tell someone? Why didn’t they call the police?” Money is evil. Life is cheap. The game reserve was too small to provide adequate hunting grounds for the lions, and they weren’t wild in any case. The owner would have put himself out by thousands and thousands of rand buying beef for them every week. Far cheaper to pay off a few police officers; then you just have to cover the price of petrol and a box of bullets every few months or so. Eventually the bribed police officers were turned over and the man was arrested, and the game reserve is under new management now. The lions are still there, though, and one wonders how they can afford to feed them.
– Kruger is in the middle of a poaching crisis; its white rhinos are being slaughtered for their horns in order to supply the market in Asia. As a result, a turf war is unfolding even as I write this; not between the law and the poachers, but between the park rangers and the South African army. “You see,” Desmond, our Phalaborwa game guard explained, “they called the army in to help the rangers, but they don’t work together, and this has led to many problems.” What kind of problems? “Just last month, the army shot a section ranger, an Afrikaner, in the stomach. He’s still in hospital, they don’t know if he’s going to survive.” This horrified me. The first thing I did when I got to South Africa was email one of the park liaison officers, who replied with an elaborate, scattered, emotional message, that ended with explaining her good friend, one of the section rangers had just been shot and she wasn’t going to be reachable for the next few days. At the time of her message, they had still thought poachers had shot him. By all accounts this had been an accident; he left in the middle of the night during an ambush and then approached from an unexpected direction. But given what’s happened before, nobody really knows. “What happened before?” A ranger was on patrol when saw a man walking through the bush. He fired, and then ran to the spot to confirm his kill. What he didn’t realize was there were two of them, and they were soldiers, not poachers. The surviving soldier hid in the bush, and when the ranger ran up to check the body, the soldier shot him several times from close range (“Bam! Bam! Bam!” Desmond added, to get the point across); killed him dead. They had two funerals, one after the other, for both of them. “How could he not realize he was a ranger?” Of course he realized, but the ranger had killed his friend, so he got revenge. “Horrible,” Hloniphani said, and I murmured agreement. Desmond looked at us in confusion. “No, it makes sense. If one of those army guys shot you, I would wait and when he came up, Bam! Bam! Bam! Because he killed you, you see?” Wouldn’t you lose your job? “Of course not. I was just defending myself, how could I know he was an army guy?” Murder in cold blood to revenge the death of some ecologist he’d barely known for less than a week? Life is cheap.
– (As a small aside, every day before heading out to work, I have to call the section ranger who’s area I will be working in, to let him/her know my site location and to give my vehicle information. If I can’t reach them by cell, which is pretty much all the time, I have to physically drive to their headquarters, sometimes fifty kilometers out of my way, and pray they’re there so I can tell them in person. I have to do this so I don’t get shot. By someone. It need not be said that I don’t complain too much about the drive. On our way to Letaba last week I made the call and actually got someone, only to be messaged a few minutes later, telling me to come to section headquarters anyway. When I arrived the yard was filled with men in uniforms, milling about and carrying rifles. The section ranger strode out of the crowd and asked me, where exactly was I going to be? I showed him on the map. He stared long and hard, “All right. Just don’t go south of there.” Ok, I said agreeably. “Stay North of this road. Don’t cross it. At all.” I continued to agree. “Because there will be men there. So don’t go South.” Seriously, dude, I am going no-fucking-where near that place. There will be no road crossings. I will not even look in that direction. No worries.)
– (A final small aside: one time Hloniphani forgot to check in and our vehicle was reported to the section ranger by some tourists. Two rangers showed up, and after yelling for a bit and telling us we should have hidden our car in the bush (oh right, because nothing says we have the legitimate right to be here like camouflaging our vehicle and hiding it off the road), they threatened to arrest us. Our game guard was alarmed and Hloniphani was incensed, but I could not muster up any sort of appropriate response, mostly because I was thinking how awesome it would be to tell everyone the first time I was arrested was in South Africa for rhino poaching.)
– On the way to Skukuza, Rejoice broke the long-standing silence by turning to Hloniphani and suddenly erupting into a flurry of Shangan. It was a short exchange, and they quickly fell silent. I was curious, there was something in Rejoice’s tone that had caught my attention, so I asked them what was up. “Those men in the truck we just passed are from Acornhoek,” Hloniphani said. I had seen the men he was referring to, and I had noticed a half wave as they went by, but Hloniphani’s tone certainly didn’t suggest we had just experienced a strange and happy coincidence, running across friends far from home. “You know them?” I asked, hesitant to pry but still curious. “They just got out of jail.” Rejoice interrupted. This put me back a bit, but nobody offered anything else, so finally I asked the obvious question: “What did they do?” At this Hloniphani turned all the way around and stared out the window, and mimed plugging his ears. Rejoice nodded without surprise, “Hloniphani doesn’t want to hear about it.” Oh? Now I was really curious. “Those guys. They scare the shit out of me.” Hloniphani explained. And that was the last he had to say on the subject. Rejoice told me the rest of the story.
– There is a gruesome, flourishing business in Acornhoek: organ harvesting. Sex organ harvesting. …WTF, no, really, What.The.Fuck? “But… but… why?!” I interrupted, “who would even want that?” Sangoma, the traditional healers in South Africa, practitioners of a fascinating mixture of homeopathic medicine, medical herb lore, ancestor worship, and white and black magic. This went a long way in explaining things for me; I was no longer surprised, at least about that aspect of it. “So, they just, take people?” I asked. Yes, women, men, all members of the community, especially after dark, especially when their victims are drunk, wandering home, alone. Why didn’t they take drifters? I wanted to know, it would seem to make more sense to kill people with no local ties. To put it bluntly, they didn’t care, and they could get away with it. They had murdered a man just two months ago, killed him in his home. In fact it was this murder that finally roused the community into demanding the police do something and arrest them, the evidence was that overwhelming. “If they murdered him two months ago, how can they be out of jail already?” They bribed the police officers, like usual, everyone who can afford it does it. If the police are caught, they lose their jobs, but that’s it. No trial, no jail sentence, it isn’t illegal for the police to take bribes, and there are no legal consequences for it. I thought on all this, then finally asked, “What are they doing in the park?” They run a thatching service, replacing old thatch on roundavel huts. This sent a chill up my spine, just the other week I had worked near people replacing the thatch on one of the Wits Rural huts. The incident had stuck in my memory because the men had been watching me, and it had made me feel uneasy. “The same company that was at Wits Rural last week?” No, their relatives. Officially they run a rival business, but at night, after hours, who knows. That was the end of the conversation, but there was a follow-up several weeks later, after I relayed this story to Hannah and she pressed for details I couldn’t supply. So I went to Rejoice to get the answers: “How can the police accept the bribes, if they know they might be killed themselves later?” The guys would never kill the police officers that accept bribes. That wouldn’t be good for business. “But what about their friends and family? Don’t they realize that someone they care about could be killed next?” Rejoice looked at me sadly. “They don’t even think about it. Money is evil.” Life is cheap.
– So I don’t end on a horrible, morbid, depressing note, I’ll share a story I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time. A few weeks into my stay at Wits Rural, Hloniphani asked if I would like to attend a special, Father’s Day Sunday sermon at the local Protestant church with him and Rejoice. He sold it as a cultural experience, and I was certainly interested, so I got up early on Sunday morning, put on the nicest clothes I had brought (jeans and a black, three-quarter top, how embarrassing), picked them up (all decked out in their Sunday finest, which really is “finest” here, making me feel even more horribly shabby) and drove to Church. The church itself was one of those cinder block constructions you see everywhere, only half completed with some of the walls still missing and no roof. Since the building was still a shell they had erected a large white tent in the open space in the middle, but for all that I felt like I had walked up to a Ritz Carleton. There were stewards dressed in elaborate uniforms flanking the walkway in pairs, and each time we passed a pair we would stop to shake their hands. Luckily by this point I had mastered the three-part handshake that is common here, a deceptively simple exchange that is actually rather intricate and rhythmic in its details, involving a ninety-degree rotation of your wrist, up and then back down. At the door of the tent we again shook hands with two ushers, and again directly inside. Then we were directed to our seats. We were seated in one of the wings, far on the left-hand side of the stage. The stage itself jutted out into the audience so that there were people seated on all three sides. The service was already in progress and consisted mostly of a choir and a classic band ensemble (drums, guitar and keyboard + percussion), rocking out and drumming up the crowd. It was very enjoyable. One of the pastors got up to talk, and she was a fiery lady with a very powerful voice. I was absolutely fascinated because her husband got up with her and provided English translation. She would say a sentence in Shangan and he would jump in with English before she had even finished speaking; if she switched to English he would flawlessly begin speaking in Shangan, and it took on a sort of broken rhythm cadence. Since they were speaking at almost the exact same time I couldn’t make out much of the sermon, but it was something about Noah, and taking the Grace of God with you wherever you went. When she finished the main pastor took the stage and delivered his own half-singing, half-shouting sermon, often times holding hands with the translator and dancing with him. Again because of the simultaneous translation and almost whimsical switch from Shangan to English and back again on both their parts, I couldn’t make out much except for when he sang triumphantly “And the curses become reversed” again and again and again.
– It was around this point that I began to notice something odd. The pastor and the translator almost always faced our side of the audience. Sometimes they would dance over to the other side, or face front, but they would always return to the left-hand side again. I couldn’t make out who was on the other side of the stage because of the band (which played the whole time, even during the sermon), but I thought I could make out a large amount of kids, so I decided that maybe the other side was the kid’s section, (Though there were two little, little boys directly in front of me who kept me thoroughly entertained the entire two hours with their antics). After the main sermon there was more singing, and a fascinating moment when the entire audience began talking at once to God (I assume), which was like being at an incredibly loud cocktail party, and then some dancing in our seats.
– This was an interesting and fun experience all on its own, but what made it really memorable was what I learned afterwards. Apparently, the sermons aren’t usually translated into English. The translation, and the preaching to the left-hand side of the audience, was entirely for my benefit. This was a big place, I hadn’t even realized the pastors knew I came in (actually I had congratulated myself on keeping a fairly low profile as the only ‘white’ person in attendance). Well, I was utterly mortified. Utterly. Mortified. And I was so happy that I had paid attention the entire time, and donated at the end. Thank god I didn’t realize what was going on, or else the thought of those two hundred people watching me be singled out (and me in my hobo clothes) during the extra special Father’s Day Sermon would have frozen me rigid in my seat. I did feel a little better when Hloniphani told me that some of the other people who attended didn’t know Shangan either (like the guy from Nigeria in front of me who was wearing traditional tribal garb and a kickass hat), so they were ‘glad that I came.’
– Me to. But damn, two hundred people? Shiver. It’s a dangerous, frightening world out there.