No One is a Waste – and Other Life Lessons from Africa

As I sit here on a 15+ hour plane ride from Johannesburg (or Joburg as the locals call it) back to the United States, I’m trying my best to get my thoughts around this beautiful continent – out of my head – and onto this screen. I’ve determined that regardless of what I say, no words will adequately describe the most glorious of sunsets, wildest of animals, or sweetest of people.

Africa. What comes to mind when you hear this word? Often, we spoiled Americans think of poverty, dirt roads, starving children, and an abundance of dangerous wildlife. And while yes, some of these things are unfortunately true, Africa is still, by far, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. Its people and its lands are simply stunning. Keep reading.

Last year, my family and I visited Kenya and Tanzania. Most recently, we explored South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. I have my grandfather’s love for National Geographic and African safaris to thank for sparking these adventurous endeavors. With each destination, I was certain Africa couldn’t steal my heart any more than it previously had, but oh, how I was wrong!

“Sometimes one day in a different place gives you more than ten years of life at home.”

– Anatole France

From ATV rides in the Namib Desert, to game drives in the Okavango Delta, to visiting with the Maasai in the Mara – Africa left us speechless and gave us experiences we will always cherish. But, for as much as this land gave us, it also taught us.

EVERYONE IS IMPORTANT.

We hear that a lot, right? However, in Africa, no truer words can be spoken. After a lion kills its prey and feeds the pride, the vultures come in for “clean-up” and the hyenas take care of the bones. Nothing goes to waste and no one is a waste. While vultures and hyenas probably aren’t considered the most desirable of creatures, they are vital to the decomposing process and preventing the spread of disease.

Even widespread fire is both welcome and necessary from time to time, as it brings about new life and vegetation. Vacant termite mounds, with their extensive network of tunnels, make the perfect home for numerous animals and snakes. Dead trees serve a purpose – providing shelter for birds and smaller animals and a fabulous mud-removal tool for the elephants.

And speaking of these giant intellectuals, elephant poop also plays a vital role. Monkeys and baboons eat it (for the love of seeds and dung beetles) and birds spread vegetation from it. The dung beetle, however, spends its day rolling dung into small balls which are then buried and used later for food or serve as a place for the female to lay her eggs in. Bottom line – poop is important.

When certain plants “think” they’ve been nibbled on a little too much, they release a chemical making them taste bitter to their predators. As a result, you won’t find any giraffes munching downwind since this chemical is picked up by the wind and carried to surrounding plants. Suddenly it makes sense why the vegetation can survive. Mufasa was correct – it’s truly the Circle of Life.

LESS IS STILL MORE.

One of the biggest takeaways from my time in Africa: money and materialism don’t buy happiness. While we’ve been taught this truth from an early age, we all fall into the trap from time to time of “if I just had ____ or ____, then I’d be happy”. The local people I met in Africa may have far less by Western standards, but THEY. ARE. HAPPY. They place value in the invaluable things we often overlook, and their love for the land and each other runs deep.

“UN-BUSY” YOURSELF.

How refreshing it is to go somewhere and be forced to unplug! I operate my email accounts like to-do lists, can you imagine how liberating it was to get away from this?! While we did have Wi-Fi in our lodges and camps, the freedom of no connection out on the game drives and elsewhere, was such a breath of fresh air. So often we busy ourselves to numb out life, pain, reality, you name it – but somewhere out in the African bush, you are forced to be present and to feel.

If I could bottle up the feeling of flying through the curvy dirt roads of Botswana in a Land Cruiser, inhaling as much of the surrounding sage plants as possible, with the wind blowing and the sun beaming – I’d take a dose of it every day.

In Africa, it’s difficult not to notice the relaxed pace and leisurely flow often referred to as “African Time.” For us clock-bound Westerners, this is truly a foreign concept. Often in Africa, our dinners lasted at least an hour and a half. At first, we were a bit impatient with this seemingly forced time of slower eating and socializing. Western culture teaches us to always hurry up to the next thing, and the next, and the next. But by the end of our trip, I actually looked forward to these long dinners, the talks, the friendships made, and the fabulous food.

IT’S TRUE, YOUR DIET MATTERS.

My grandfather finally learned that no matter what food he ordered that sounded familiar to him, it was certain to take on a different flavor in Africa. And thankfully so. The food is so fresh, and many of the lodges grow their own gardens. Heartburn was a thing of the past while in Africa – Surprise, no preservatives! There’s so much to be said for fresh food, especially in our over-processed, Americanized world.

LOOK UP.

We spend much of our lives with our heads down, constantly reading, studying, typing, sleeping, you name it.

Do we ever pause and look up?

You may or may not remember, but the night sky in Africa looks completely different than our sky in the Northern Hemisphere. It is beautiful and unlike anything I’ve ever seen with many of the planets in plain view. One night in Botswana, on our way back from a game drive, our guide stopped the vehicle and we just sat in complete still darkness with the moon as our only light. It was surreal, and one of the most glorious landscapes I have ever witnessed.

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

– Mary Anne Radmacher

I couldn’t agree more.

CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES WISELY.

I never thought I’d say we followed a pack of wild dogs in the Okavango Delta for over an hour to witness their hunt, but we did, and thankfully they weren’t hungry on that particular evening. Wild dogs are very skilled hunters and can go for days without eating. They traveled for miles, while we followed their journey from a distance.

The pack consisted of 9 dogs and when they came upon a small herd of zebras, we were nervous. In the exact way our guide described it would happen, the male zebra challenged one of the dogs while the females huddled close. The dogs continued on, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Our guide explained the dogs wouldn’t be up for the battle given the zebras’ defenses of kicking and biting. Obviously, these dogs were smart and knew their limits. Humans take note.

Next, the dogs came across a mother giraffe with her baby. At this point, we were beyond nervous. It was fascinating to watch the mother giraffe tower over her baby, almost silently drawing her young beneath her. The dogs approached and I still remember my heart nearly jumping out of my chest. While the baby alone was a viable option, it wasn’t an option when paired with its mother. A single kick from a giraffe can kill a wild dog and even a lion. Thankfully, the dogs proved their intelligence yet again – knowing a battle with a giraffe was not one they could win.

How many battles do we attempt, only to realize they aren’t a) necessary or b) worth what we may lose?

Lessons learned.

Africa is a sight to behold, with its gracious people and jaw-dropping landscapes. If you ever have the opportunity to go, do not think twice, GO.

 Kuishi vizuri, kwa muundo.

 – Lauren