I’m often struck by the sad truth that most of us think of ourselves as ordinary people. When we wake up in the mornings and go about our lives, we usually do so on the basis that we’re pretty normal. We may even sometimes think of ourselves as unlucky when things aren’t going the way we wish in terms of money, relationships, physical or emotional wellbeing. Most of us would have no problem reciting a list of what we’d like changed to be happier.
One of the great things about Mindful Safari is that it offers a reality check. Sure things aren’t always the way we want them to be at home. But when we come face to face with true poverty, hardship and situations others may consider to be hopeless, it can be humbling. We realise not only how incredibly fortunate we are. We also discover how little it takes to help change the lives of others in a very meaningful way. And when do help, and are connected with loving kindness that abides in us all – the wish to see others happy and free from suffering – we are reminded of what really matters. The true causes of what’s necessary to be happy and fulfilled.
We experience this in relation to two particular groups on Mindful Safari – children and elephants.
Masuwe Primary School is an underfunded government school with around 200 pupils who come from the extremely disadvantaged local community. Led by a dynamic Headmistress, Mrs Moyo, the kids at Masuwe Primary School are disciplined, appreciative and eager to learn. The challenges faced by Mrs Moyo and her staff are, however, immense.
The school has no electricity, textbooks, exercise books or even paper and pens. Drinking water must be drawn using a handpump. The classrooms have been built and maintained, against all odds, with the support of private donations. Inside the classrooms, the desks and chairs have been donated too. Half the staff are volunteer teachers, meaning that they receive no pay.
When the Mindful Safari group visits the school each year, I ask guests to bring at least 10 exercise books and pens each, so that the kids have the chance to practice some writing and basic arithmetic. Many people also bring things like frisbees, footballs, bags of tennis balls and other games.
What’s unforgettable is the response of the children when we bring these out for them to see. As the various items are revealed, the “Ooo’s’” and “Ahhh’s” of excitement and gratitude are more than simply touching. They expose the chasm that divides our daily reality from theirs. Our relative immense good fortune is no longer an intellectual notion – it is self-evident in a way that’s very moving. And the kids are always very happy to interact with us Mindful Safari guests!
One of the highlights for the children is being treated to cake and cordial, courtesy of Masuwe Lodge, where we stay, and which has its own support program for the school – a donation for every guest night booked at the lodge. And then, there is always singing and dancing – and an invitation to join in!
In addition to the exercise books, pens and sports goodies, over the years some members of our groups have volunteered to help on a much more significant basis. Several clubbed together to raise enough funds to feed the entire school one meal a day throughout the school year – drought in the area has rendered subsistence farming especially difficult, and the food aid program to the school was cut off. Kids were arriving without having eaten any breakfast, sometimes having walked for miles. Now at least, they have a meal a day. (Below, some of the 3 tons of cereal delivered at Masuwe School, sponsored by Mindful Safari guests. The food is specially formulated to provide daily requirements of protein, minerals and vitamins.)
Other guests have raised funds for a complete set of textbooks so that the curriculum can be followed at least to some extent.
There is something very poignant about walking through the stark classrooms, looking at the blackboards painted on the walls and the barren playground outside, where upside-down plastic bottles are buried in the ground to demarcate pathways. This is a place where kids have so little and can try so hard and even then, once they turn 12, there is no senior school to go to – it’s too far away, there is no public transport, and their parents can’t possibly afford for them to board. I’ve seen people well up and cry. This is such a different reality from the one we’re used to. It makes you question what ‘normal’ actually means?
The Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery (ZEN) is a place of sanctuary for baby elephants who have been orphaned, frequently as a result of poaching. Elephants are highly social animals, living with their extended families in matriarchal herds. When young, their whole world revolves around their mothers and family group. Losing all this – in some cases, witnessing the killing of their own parents and removal of their tusks – is incomprehensibly traumatic for the calves. More recently, a number of baby elephants have been orphaned when their families have died because of the harsh drought affecting parts of North East Zimbabwe. (Below: an elephant calf, rescued from the bush, is flown to Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery).
Taken into care by Roxy Danckwerts, and her amazing team at ZEN, each elephant orphan is treated as the individual that he or she is. Round the clock carers are required to offer constant physical and emotional reassurance. Feeding is a regular and expensive undertaking as specially formulated milk is needed – ordinary cow milk doesn’t provide adequate nutrition. Each night, the calves are taken to specially lit pens, where they sleep with their human carers, warm and secure.
Feeding is a round-the-clock exercise. Many people are unaware that elephants are awake for much of the night as well as the day. They have to eat 200 – 600 pounds of vegetation to survive each day (that’s 90 kg – 270 kg per day). As youngsters, elephant calves mainly feed on milk.
Finding themselves joined together through circumstance, the orphaned elephants come to form a small herd at ZEN. As at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya, Roxy’s ZEN is about helping the elephants overcome the trauma they have been through, grow to be part of a herd, and ultimately return to the wild.(Below, little Bumi meets Moyo, current matriarch of the ZEN herd).
One of the most bittersweet experiences for Roxy, is the day a herd of her babies, now grown up and able to fend for themselves, is returned to the bush at Panda Masuie. Not far from Masuwe Lodge, where Mindful Safari happens, Panda Masuie is a large reserve visited by native elephant herds. The objective is for the once orphaned elephants to integrate with other herds, live in the wild and have families of their own, as nature intended.
I have already written about our Meditate with Elephants experience at Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery (https://davidmichie.com/the-magic-of-meditating-with-elephants/). Being in the presence of these quite magical animals, knowing the horror that each one of them has experienced and yet witnessing their warm affection, playfulness and resilience is a deeply moving experience for many of us. We have a special connection, elephants and us. As a very down-to-earth Aussie guest once said, ‘When an elephant looks you in the eye, you feel it can see into your soul.’ (Below, David with gentle Kukura).
One of the Mindful Safari donations that makes me most proud is the water pump that our guests have funded, to be installed at Panda Masuie. Stand alone and solar powered, it will be used to pump water into a provide a watering hole, for the benefit not only of the re-wilded elephants, but also countless other animals.
Are we normal? Ordinary? On the contrary, we are beings of transformational power and goodness. Sometimes it takes a change of scene to remind us of this.
MINDFUL SAFARI 2020 IS ALREADY FULLY BOOKED! And I have a few people on a waiting list. If you’re interested in joining me, I am thinking of doing a second safari on the week of 25 – 31 July. Exactly the same itinerary and costs outlined at: https://davidmichie.com/mindful-safari/ Please let me know right away – this is something I’ll need to sort out in the next few weeks. You can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery and to make a donation, go to: https://www.zimbabweelephantnursery.com/
To donate to Masuwe School, go to: https://www.jafutafoundation.org/contact/
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