Living at a research centre on the top of a mountain in South Africa for five years was an incredible experience. But culturally, it wasn’t a very South African one. It is sometimes the case that wildlife research and conservation volunteering in Africa is conducted by foreigners rather than locals. Volunteering in conservation can be very pricey (yes, you often have to pay to volunteer which is a bit of a jutaposition in my opinion). This is challenging for young inexperienced ecologists who need to gain experience to advance their careers. The prices inevitably dissuade potential local volunteers. The research assistants who volunteered with us had to pay a fairly high fee to the managers of the property to cover some of their living expenses. These funds are often essential to keep research centres functioning. As a result, we were primarily surrounded by Europeans, Americans, and Australians who could afford to volunteer, rather than South Africans. Research centres situated in remote locations can be quite bubble-like which amplifies the cultures within. When talking to a few of our volunteers who had been in the country for awhile, I was surprised about their impressions and knowledge of South Africa, as these seemed quite limited due to living in the ‘bubble’. However, they were extremely knowledgeable on primate behaviour and troop interactions which they witnessed day in and day out.
Sam and I spent a lot more time off the mountain than our volunteers collecting data, attending meetings, purchasing supplies, and working with communities. We tried to take our research assistants with us whenever possible. We also had our own car so we could travel more easily in our time off.
In the year since we moved to Hoedspruit we have been living a more South African experience on a daily basis. It is nice for our son to be surrounded by the South African culture to a greater extent. He says ja instead of yes, even though he’s the most English boy in his class. He says eina instead of ouch when he gets hurt sometimes. He has kids who speak lots of different languages around him every day. He eats mealie pap porridge for breakfast at school. Sam eats rusks (hard biscuits) and Noggs shares them. Noggs also sometimes has rooibos (redbush) tea and loves droewors (dried meat sticks).
I think that living here also feels more South African due to the landscape. At Lajuma it was sometimes quite jungly and misty which felt more like Jumanji than South Africa. But here it is sunnier, drier, and we have plains game like zebras, impalas, and giraffes outside so it feels more like Africa, more like the Lion King.
We braaied (barbequed) by the river at our estate last weekend. The braai is a very South African institution. We haven’t actually been braaiing as much here as we used to at Lajuma. Shockingly, our house doesn’t have a braai stand but luckily there is a beautiful and secluded public one nearby.
We celebrated Mandela Day on July 18th for the first time. Every year on Nelson Mandela’s birthday, South Africans are encouraged to give 67 minutes (one for every year of Mr Mandela’s public service) back to the community. The message behind Mandela day is that everyone has the ability and the responsibility to change the world for the better. Noggs and I spent our 67 minutes doing a litter pick on a hike to a local waterfall. We filled a whole bag up for recycling and had a lovely morning out.
Over the past few weeks from within our wildlife estate, we can hear singing every morning and evening. We found out that this is part of a ceremony of boys becoming men (nothing to do with the band, thankfully) during a circumcision ceremony. The teenagers go to the bush to be circumcised and stay there for 21 days in seclusion and away from women. A traditional surgeon preforms the circumcision without anesthetic. The singing celebrates their transition to manhood. Unfortunately, traditional circumcision ceremonies can result in death or serious injury.
The people we meet now are mostly South African or long term expats. Being part of a community means we are getting more involved in national holidays and local events. Also, living off the mountain has made it easier to explore our local area. It has been really nice to feel a bit more South African but I am still very aware that we are mostly experiencing only one version of South Africa. We are involved with a quite privileged, primarily white version of how South Africans live and this certainly does not fully represent the complexity of the country and its many cultural layers and lifestyles. This diversity is something that we want to make our son aware of as he grows and encourage him to explore and embrace.