We have, most likely, been fascinated with Africa at some point in our lives. Multiple documentaries showcasing the beauty of the African landscape and their wildlife remain etched in our brains forever.
When I went to Africa, in mid-2016, I was looking forward to experiencing those moments for the first time in my life. I clearly remember feeling like a child in a candy shop when we entered Etosha National Park, Namibia. Within the first five minutes, we encountered an entire herd of elephants at a mud hole. It was my first introduction to African wildlife. The experiences got better as the days passed. One of my favourite moments was experiencing the sunset on the Chobe River, Botswana. There was wildlife everywhere. Elephants crossed the rivers. Crocodiles basked in the sun and Baboons, Antelopes, Giraffes ran free on the plains. Some hippos were at a distance. I call it my very own Jurassic Park moment – the moment when you see the wildlife ecosystem in all its glory for the very first time. It reminded me of the scene when Sam Neill witnesses the dinosaurs, on the plains, for the first time. I couldn’t have been happier.
As we continue to travel across Africa, I went on numerous safaris across the continent. The safaris were breathtaking. Experiencing the animals was indeed a life-changing experience. The animals were wild and free. I had never had that experience before. I have been to zoos where animals are caged or to parks where animals had a bit more room to roam. The safaris were different. Here, I saw animals in their element. It was enthralling.
Thanks to our guides, I also learnt about the issues within the African system. I learnt about legalised hunting of animals, allowed in parts of Africa. I did not know, till that point, that companies and individuals have private safaris where they ring-fenced animals. I was not aware that one could legally kill elephants in Botswana to support conservation efforts. I had no idea that lions were bred and kept in cages so that people could take close-ups with them. I did not know most businesses in South Africa and Namibia were owned by the white community, which, over time, resulted in an economic and social disparity between the whites and blacks.
I quickly realised that I was at the risk of becoming a ‘photo’ tourist – one that goes to Africa takes photos of the wildlife while being disconnected to African society’s serious issues. After learning about these crucial issues, I needed to make my time here a lot more meaningful. Quickly, an internal dialogue started. I frequently asked myself:
Why am I here?
Am I here for the safaris?
Am I here for more?
What do I want to take away from my time in Africa?
There was a need to find intent in my travels – to add more depth to my experience. I am glad I did.
In Nairobi, Kenya, I jumped into a taxi to head to the Elephant Orphanage and the Giraffe Park. On the way, I chatted with the driver on the influence of foreigners in his country. There is a large Indian community in Kenya. During the 70s, there was a massive backlash against the Indians and Asians in neighbouring Uganda, brought up by the dictator Idi Amin. Many Indians fled to the UK. I wanted a sense of Kenya’s situation, whether there were any similar undercurrents in the Kenyan society. My driver spoke about the general cultural issues between Blacks and Indians – many Indians owned businesses, and many Blacks worked for them, which led to cultural misunderstanding. However, there was no anger or frustration towards Indians, across the broad spectrum of Kenyan society. When the discussion covered the influence of the Chinese, the driver got quite upset. He was not happy with the influx of Chinese money in the Kenyan market. He told me how the Chinese got their workers to build the infrastructure required by the Kenyan government. Most Kenyans and Africans did not get the work, and there were many Africans who could not compete with the low-cost labour from China. He was grateful for the Chinese development initiatives, but he felt the Chinese exploited him and his countrymen. The government officials, the wealthy Kenyans and the Chinese were the only ones who benefited from the development. The poor Kenyans were left behind.
It was the same sentiment expressed in Cambodia, where the Chinese are locally known as zero-dollar tourists. The Chinese own the end to end tourist value chain, from the tour operators to the hotels to the restaurants. The Chinese tourists, possibly unaware of these issues, don’t contribute to the local businesses and the local economy. The owners of the tourism businesses repatriated the money spent back to the mainland.
In Laos, I noticed many infrastructure projects, and most of the workers looked like they were from China. In some places, it felt like a parallel world, with street signs, restaurants having both Chinese and Laotian signages. There was a sense of lack of integration, which I speculate would lead to political, social and economic problems over time.
These are serious issues which, requires time and effort to engage the locals and understand their perspectives. I am sure the Chinese companies have their views on the matter. That too requires time and effort to understand. It reinforces the need to be intentional as the first step to engage a community deeper and appreciate issues.
Being intentional about any activity, even unrelated to travel adds a lot more value to one’s development and growth. It is a mantra preached by numerous self-development leaders around the world. The same applies to travel.
Taking photos of the animals in Africa is essential. Understanding poaching issues, private safari lands, the disparity in wealth distribution within the local communities, the impact of traditional medicine needs on animals’ population, and a lot more add a lot more depth and meaning to the travels.
Botswana has one of the largest population of elephants in Africa. There is a road, which is locally known as Elephant Road, as numerous elephants cross it every day. We saw tens of elephants along the road when we drove by. In Okavango Delta, there are hundreds of elephants in the swamp. As I flew high above, these elephants looked like grey dots in the expanse of the Delta. It was heartening to see so many elephants. We had heard of poaching stories and the ivory trade which had decimated elephant population in many countries. It was nice to see the elephants thrive in Botswana. At the same time, it was sad to hear that the Botswana government had lifted the five-year suspension on hunting elephants. In 2019, the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resource Conversation and Tourism, decided to allow sport hunters to kill elephants. The decision to lift the suspension was partly motivated by the need to protect local farmers and their crops from elephant herds. The auctions for the licenses to kill and the subsequent tourism bring in much-needed revenue which helps in conservation efforts and the local economy. Studies have shown the contribution of $132 million to $426million every year with up to 15,000 to 50,000 jobs.
In South Africa, surveys estimated that the number of captive lions is between 6,000 and 10,000. In many of these lion parks, tourists pay to pet, bottle feed and take photographs with the cubs and lions. I have met tourists who have proudly displayed their pictures on Facebook. Either these tourists are ignorant of the trade, or they do not care about these lions’ welfare. These parks sell the older lions to breeding clubs, and the business continues. Some organisations offer sport hunting services, where one pays $50,000 to kill a lion. Others sell the skin, bones, and unwanted body parts to Asia, where local practitioners use the body parts in traditional medicine. South Africa allows businesses to trade 800 lions every year. It is a sad state of affairs, and many tourists are possibly ignorant of these setups.
Traditional Chinese medicine is known to use animal parts to cure diseases and illnesses. The Rhino horn is very much in demand by the Chinese and the Vietnamese. Traditional Chinese medicine states that the Rhino horn can cure ailments such as rheumatism, gout and snakebites, hallucinations, and typhoid. In Western countries, many believe in the aphrodisiac and sexual stimulant properties of the horn. In Vietnam, the Vietnamese believe the horn cures hangovers, and according to local surveys, they also consider the Rhino horn as a symbol of prestige and status. When we were in Tanzania and Kenya on the safaris, the safari guides advised us not to put any of the Rhino photographs on social media with the location tagged. Tagging the location alerts the poachers endangering the Rhino, and making the tourists accessories to potential murder even if they are not involved in any poaching trade.
In Johannesburg, one of my favourite places is the Neighbour Good market, a place to get fantastic food from multiple stalls and artisanal beer, organic wine and artwork. The market reminded me of the numerous food markets in London. I love the Maltby Street Market near London Bridge, where one can taste cuisine from almost every region of the world. You have food from Venezuela, South Africa, India, Japan, Ethiopia and many more. It was the same at the Neighbour good market except for one key difference: Most of the customers, up to 95% I estimated were white, and there were hardly any black customers. I probably saw two or three black groups or individuals in three hours. In a city dominated mainly by the black population, I expected many more black families and individuals, so I was surprised to see the white population dominate the customer base. The disparity seen at the market reflects the socio-economic gap in Johannesburg and the rest of South Africa. Johannesburg is one of the world’s most dangerous city. While I was there, I was strongly advised not to venture out at night alone and be careful during the day. The effects of Apartheid and the subsequent economic disparity has resulted in millions of poor blacks who struggle to survive. The influx of migrants from poorer African countries, including Zimbabwe, has compounded South Africa’s economic problem, increased the crime levels and created gated communities with mostly white families separated from the rest of Johannesburg.
Understanding the multiple issues in the tourism industry across Africa helped me appreciate the region more. By focusing on various aspects of African society, I found a deeper meaning to my travels. By being intentional about my actions and interests, I found I could be close to fulfilling my travel philosophy with which I began my explorations. The ‘E’ in CRAVE is to become educated, and being intentional helped me stay true to my philosophy. The intent to go deeper and to understand more has its rewards. Action with intention makes the entire experience quite enriching. It is the same for all aspects of our lives.