There’s a leopard in our camp.
Vundi, our guard dog, growls into the thick vegetation just a few metres from where I’m standing. Her growl is answered by a deeper one that sounds like the staccato hum of a struggling engine—unmistakably a big cat.
After that night, bathing gets more challenging. It’s always challenging. We wash using a small plastic bucket that holds about a litre of water, which has been heated over the fire in a kettle. Now, I keep looking over my shoulders into the darkness. When I wash my face, I’m afraid to close my eyes.
I’m 22 years old. I moved to Namibia, in sub-Saharan Africa, three weeks after my college graduation ceremony. I’m here working for a non-profit conservation organization called Cheetah Conservation Fund.
When I was 13, I read a book called Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched. It’s about people who work with wild animals for a living, and it set my compass to where I am today. The book’s title reflects the realities of working in wildlife conservation—glamorous only to outsiders looking in.
My career choice has indeed been painful. When I left the States, fresh out of college, I knew I couldn’t afford to fly home anytime soon. When friends and family asked me when I’d be returning to visit, my answer was an honest shrug and a halting, “Maybe in a year or two…or more.”
The work itself is tiring and all-consuming. I’ve spent long stretches of time out in the field, living in a tent and without cell reception. Our days start before the sun rises and end long after it sets.
The area where we work is home to a population of African wild dogs, one of the most endangered species on the entire continent. The population we are protecting is small. Its size makes it precious and vulnerable. African wild dogs are notoriously relentless hunters, their ferocity unmatched in the animal kingdom. But today, they are the ones being hunted.
To the local Herero tribespeople, the African wild dogs represent a threat to be exterminated. Farmers have been eking out a living in the dry and barren environment for generations, watching helplessly as African wild dogs kill their livestock. The natural prey for African wild dogs, like antelope species, have been poached by the poverty-stricken people down to almost nothing. It’s a desperate situation exacerbated by global climate change and a lack of education about the importance of species conservation.
Nobody wants to see my biology diploma. They want to know if they can trust me.
My biology degree prepared me for collecting scat samples and setting camera traps. What it didn’t prepare me for was the human aspects of the job. For changing peoples’ perspectives of the African wild dog, my formal qualifications are useless. Nobody wants to see my diploma. They want to know if they can trust me.
At first, I feel completely helpless, immersed in a culture I don’t understand, listening to a language I don’t speak, trying to make a difference while feeling inadequate to do so.
I start filling a blank notebook with a few basic phrases in Otjiherero, the local language: Hello. How are you? Thank you. Goodbye.
I learn to try out my new phrases on children first. They are less judgmental. I learn to lose my pride and embrace my reality as an outsider with much to learn. One woman invites me to help her cook traditional porridge over the fire. Stirring the thick oats makes my arms ache. Some men at another village show me how to milk a cow. My fingers quickly tire. Always, I stop to play with the children and whatever makeshift ball they’ve constructed. Soccer is Namibia’s heartbeat.
It’s never easy. At one farm where we set up camp for a few weeks, the farmer insists that for me to learn Otjiherero, no one should speak to me in English, even if they are able to. I get angry with myself as I constantly have to shake my head and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. I’m sorry.” A few times, I have to turn away as tears of frustration fill my eyes.
But I have moments of victory too. I learn the names of all the wildlife in the region and it helps me explain the importance of every species—including the African wild dog—in the ecosystem. I use my phone to share pictures of the farm I worked on in the States. We discuss how different farming is here in Africa, how challenging it is. Some farmers I meet ask for my phone number. I promise them that if they ever visit the States, I will help them find a place to stay. After all, they are welcoming me into their country and into their world.
One man presented me with a gift he’d made for me—an ungunya, or walking stick. The ungunya has a knob on one end intended to be used as a club against wild animals if needed. It is typically carried only by men. When he gave me the walking stick, he also gave me this message (via translation to English): “I know you are a woman, but you walk in the bush too much.”
For me, the ungunya represents not defending myself against wild animals, but defending Africa’s wild animals from extinction. When I walk through the African bush, ungunya in my hand, I feel certain that despite the challenges, I’m where I’m supposed to be.Add this article to your reading list