A Mzungu in Malawi.
After months of planning and preparation, we finally stepped off the plane. Despite being at an airport, we were surrounded by lush greenery and felt the heat of the sun burning into our skin. We were here. We were in Lilongwe, Malawi.
I had always had a strong curiosity in to the world of animal welfare and conservation. As I grew older and began working with dogs, my passion for animal welfare became part of my every-day approach and my ultimate priority. Yet, my passion for conservation was a little more difficult to satisfy. Although I promoted the approach as much as I could in my life and work, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was supporting it more so than actually doing it. This feeling was only amplified further when I began completing my degree in Psychology. So when finally, an opportunity arose in which I was able to combine my two passions and contribute my skills whilst also gaining experience to match all I had learned through my degree and years of training, I snatched it with both hands.
I had first heard of the work of Lilongwe Wildlife Centre through my connections with the Born Free Foundation. Initially I was intrigued. Many game farms are known for hiding the true intent of their purpose – organised hunts – by marketing their business as wildlife reserves. But the policies of these reserves usually reveal the real call of business, through their hands-on policy.
A hands on policy means that a visitor is allowed to engage with the young animals on the reserve by feeding and petting them. Except these animals aren’t your typical pets. They are animals that will soon grow into large, breath-taking creatures, ones whose heads become a hunters ultimate wall trophy and pay thousands to make that happen. The petting, which seems amazing, is actually for the purpose of habituating these grandiose beasts to human contact, making them easier and therefore ideal targets, when they are fully grown and the price on their heads is eventually paid.
Yet LWC had a hands-off policy and the backing of my beloved Born Free Foundation. And so, my intrigue won and I began to ask questions. Questions which later turned in to emails. Emails which later turned in to opportunity. And finally, opportunity turned in to plans.
Id imagined that arriving at the centre would be an intensely thrilling moment. One where I’d fall to my knees speechless and with tears of happiness spilling down my face like little waterfalls forming beneath my eyes at finally realising my dream. But in reality it wasn’t. That moment wouldn’t actually come until a few days after my arrival. After days of packing and hours of travelling, plane hopping, mediocre microwave meals and the inevitable delays and the violating body searches that come with it all, I was dirty, dehydrated, physically and emotionally exhausted. By the time I arrived at the centre all I wanted to do was shower and sleep. Luckily, the centre staff were more expectant of what condition I would arrive in than I was and it wasn’t long before I was sat at the staff dining area munching away on my first real meal of that week and it was here where I began to meet the people for which I was about to share my first true experience of what it meant to ‘live your dream’ with.
Cazz, the volunteer manager, was the first person I encountered. Before my arrival, I’d imagined the initial meetings to be somewhat similar to my previous meetings with those I’d met through work. A few little awkward exchanges, where the usual questions are asked and pleasantries are swapped. However, this wasn’t the case. Meting Cazz was much like meeting an old childhood friend whom I’d not seen for a while. One where you spend more catching up on what the other had been doing in the time since you’d last met rather than interrogating each other on the who’s, what’s and why’s of the others life. It wasn’t long before I found myself relating to Cazz as the ‘old friend’ in my mind. Next was Kat, who some of my first conversations with LWC had been with and who also brought about a nostalgic feeling of meeting an old friend, but one in which I’d have gone to college or uni with and therefore time with Kat equalled fun and fresh conversations that were always full of life and laughter. Kat became the person I came to understand as being the ‘loyal friend’. There were a few others sat at the table, including Jen and Jasper, a couple who worked in the offices at the centre. But conversation was difficult as my ears still hadn’t recovered from the high altitude jet-setting and the long wooden table had the three of us sat at opposite ends. It ended with being a casual greeting, but warm and welcoming nonetheless. Eventually, I was reunited with my luggage and shown to the chalet for which would be my home for the next two weeks. I celebrated my materialistic reunion with the longest, hottest shower of my life, oblivious to the fact that it would be the first and last time my feet would be so clean in Africa.
A Mzungu mucks out.
Arrival day had ended with me falling asleep in the early evening and sleeping solidly for almost 14 hours, so I woke on my first full day feeling renewed, vibrant and eager to get on with the tasks at hand. I had completed the introductions the day before and knowing today would be the day I set to work for real left me feeling high with anticipation. I had a buzz about me that I later realised was the same buzz I felt when I first began working with dogs and later beginning my own business venture in training. It was the same buzz I felt when I received my first official behavioural referral and when I first began studying for my degree. It was an incredible feeling and was constantly there, in the background, reminding me when I least expected it that I was actually living my dream. It is a feeling that goes beyond mere excitement and one that until you’ve felt it, can only imagine what it may be like.
The days always began the same. Get up, early morning to get ready and go to breakfast. Breakfast was a funny experience for me. At home, ive always been a porridge or fruit lover, yet for some reason I craved carbs. I wasn’t sure if the craving came from having deep nightly sleeps or from working in the heat. Either way, I single-handedly kept the local bread factory in business throughout my time there. After breakfast came the morning meeting where the group would all get together and have a quick catch up on what the latest news was. The meetings were always led by Alma, the manager. I remember only two of the conversations that we had out of all the meetings. The rest I spent trying my best to catch the names of the others and remember their faces, a game I played and subsequently considered id lost by the end having only been able to remember one name (Chico) and still got him confused as being somebody else. A stark but realistic reminder of how quickly age can creep up on you and I really do need to play more memory games at home.
The meeting would end and that’s when the day really begins. Although you had your regular routine, the jobs could vary slightly. I predominantly worked in the OC (orphan care) looking after and overseeing the young and juvenile animals. The jobs included feeding and observations with the goal being to build them up to be strong and healthy until the time game for them to be released. The animals are also assessed during this time to see if they are fit for release back to the wilderness of the African plains or integration into the centres vast replication of their natural habitat. This has to, at least for me, been the best part of the experience. Although you are surrounded by people, you often worked independently and it’s much quieter and calmer than you’d possibly assume it to be. The peacefulness follows you everywhere and the effects of being on your own caring for an animal, surrounded by nature has an overwhelmingly therapeutic effect. Your every-day thoughts escape you and you find yourself being wrapped in a veil of contented happiness as you find yourself bonding with the animals. You get to know each of them and their personalities the longer you work with them and this was particularly true of two little vervet monkeys that I cared for during my time. Their names were Frank and Storm.
Their stories are typical of animals in Africa. Storm came to the centre are being orphaned when his mother attempted to cross a road and fatally hit by a car and Frank was confiscated from a street seller by the rescue team at the centre, narrowly escaping the fate of becoming another victim of the illegal pet trade.
Storm was definitely the much more sensitive soul of the two and it was this trait that simply melted your heart. In some ways, early bonding in primates mirrors the bonding process in humans. To have lost his mother, his only source for food and protection, at such a young age, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly protective of him. Thankfully it seems I shared the same need to protect and guide as his foster mother, Target.
Frank however was much more extroverted. Once the initial introduction phase had passed and Frank came to recognise me he was more than happy to show off his cheeky side. And it was utterly adorable! Frank also gifted me with some breathtakingly beautiful moments. Sometimes it was a gaze he gave me, sometimes a verbal cue and sometimes it was a gesture. It wasn’t often but it was enough to let me know he trusted me and to earn the trust of an animal – any animal – is an incredible feeling. And that’s exactly what the work is like….you feel for every single one of them. The same feelings washed over me during lion obs, when Bella came to nuzzle the fence before settling beside me and going to sleep as I watched her in silent awe. The same feeling enveloped me when Spotty, the owl stopped hopping away from me and instead just stood and watched as I entered his territory and it was the same feeling at sunset when the duiker approached their perimeter to greet me at feeding time and didn’t bolt when I moved to give it to them. I even adored Dora, the hedgehog, who I’m convinced didn’t reciprocate and would have rather quilled me to death.
You literally couldn’t help but fall in love with them all, the locals and your surroundings, and to love them was to love the job. I had to some degree expected this. After all, that’s why I went there in the first place. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how intensely the experience would capture you and the realisation of it all and what you’re doing hits you, right when you least expect it. You cannot be a part of such a project and it not change you, most likely in ways you won’t fully appreciate. Least of all was I expecting to meet some incredibly inspirational people and have them become friends. I knew I would meet people and I knew that as we were there together, we would get along pretty well, but the friendships you make go beyond that. After all, they are part of the experience and as such, become a part of you. One friend I made along the way, Nina, will never be forgotten and I came to adore her just as much as I do the friends I have known all of my life.
Although conservation was already a part of me, the experience has still changed me in more ways that just one and I suspect that all of us who are lucky enough to do something similar would agree.
So, what next?
Next to come is a challenge, given to me by IFAW, in order to raise funds for projects involving LWC and similar conservation and animal welfare projects. The challenge, due to take place in October 2016, involves trekking the Sahara over a 4 day time limit. The funds are currently being raised through sponsorship and if you’d like to donate you can visit www.doitforcharity.com/kaleyh to show your support.
Then in April 2017, we are due to do it all again, but this time at Shamwari Game Reserve after recently being offered and accepting a short-term placement.
After that, who knows? Returning to Lilongwe is most certainly on the list and I hope that as time rolls on, so do the placement offers too but ultimately the goal is to keep being the change. To continue to help in any way I can, to hopefully make a small but significant difference to the future of the lives of animals, their habitat and the people they share their world with.
That is the dream and right now, I’m living it.
Kaley, Head Trainer