This week I saw an elephant for the first time. Driving through Kruger National Park in South Africa, I looked up to find what first appeared to be moving boulders atop the nearest hill. Upon further inspection, I saw a few wiggling ears and a trunk curling around a branch to pull down the elephant’s next snack. Frustrated that their distance from the car kept me from capturing any photos, I tried to shift in every possible position to get a usable picture, completely unaware that the herd was gradually making its way to be within inches of our rental car. Before I knew it, the herd began to cross the road just a few feet behind us, and as full grown elephants and baby elephants alike made their way to the other side, all my brain could even put together was, “Is this real life?”
In South Africa a second time, I remember asking myself that very question the last time I was here as well: “Is this real life?”
The question comes from seeing in person the animals you’ve only seen on TV your whole life, from the breathtaking scenery that surrounds you, but also from the hospitality of the people that never fails to make you feel welcome. What the infamous Desmond Tutu calls Ubuntu, “I am because you are,” has hit me with full force a second time in the way strangers have opened their homes when our car breaks down, in the way we can make friends in an hour. Sometimes, I suppose, it takes a herd of elephants and a broken rental car to remind you of the importance of community.
This week I saw a giraffe for the second time. These interesting creatures are (a) one of the most intriguingly awkward creatures the Lord created and (b) do not rush anywhere (even when we yelled at them from the car in weird accents, which no you are not supposed to do… but anything for a good photo, right?). Sometimes, I suppose, it takes a giraffe and being 10,000 miles from home to remind you to slow down and not run through life.
This week I saw a leopard for the first time. Rather, I saw the shape of a leopard sitting in a tree a ways in the distance… Had I possessed binoculars like all the South Africans driving through, I could more accurately say I saw a leopard. But regardless, I saw the dark outline of a leopard. One of the more mysterious creatures, leopards almost appear lazy as they sit perched on their tree branch. But upon further attention, one will find they are intently watching, ready to spring after their prey at any moment. Sometimes, I suppose, it takes a leopard (or the shape thereof) and a four hour drive through rural South Africa to remind you of the value of wisdom gained through attentiveness, the value of fighting when carefully discerning it necessary.
This week I saw a rhino for the first time. They are really quite massive, travel usually in twos or threes, and have two horns, one small and the other threatening. They are nonviolent, unless provoked, in which case they can be rather dangerous and begin to charge at you with the intent to kill. Sometimes, I suppose, it takes a rhino and an apartheid museum to remind you that there is beauty in being peaceful, but only if you are also willing to fight for your convictions when the occasion should require it.
This week I saw a lion for the second time. Three, actually. As we were driving to our camp site, a 6 car pile up seemed to to have blocked the road. But as we drove closer, we discovered the vehicles had stopped to make way for three male lions to cross the road. Pulling up and parking beside the other cars, we chuckled as the three lions, rather than crossing to the other side, plopped down in the middle of the road. One lay on its side, the other lay with head up and eyes closed, and the last lay head up and eyes wide open, a pink scar under his left eye. Sometimes, I suppose, it takes a trio of lions and a woman in Johannesburg keeping warm beside a burning pile of trash to remind you to live with a quiet, but fierce strength.
This week I saw zebra for the second time. Behaving much like horses, their big distinction is their white and black stripes and the fact that when they sense a predator, they cluster close together to create one unit. Their stripes blend to confuse predators on where their heads are and to create one big mass, rather than one small and vulnerable creature. Sometimes, I suppose, it takes a herd of zebra and a diverse church in South Africa to remind you that there is much beauty in blending our differences together to create a unified whole.
This week I saw a baboon for the first time. And yes, just like Rafiki in the Lion King, baboons do have bright pink butts. They also cluster in family units, have hands that look like a human’s, and look at you as though they already know everything about you but don’t want to give humans the time of day. Back in the States, I have a dear friend who calls me Rafiki, which means “friend” in Swahili. Last time I was in South Africa, she was with me, and unfortunately that month in this country had us both hurting one another worse than either of us had been hurt before. However, since that time, her and I have reconciled and now celebrate that we can call each other sis without second thought. Sometimes, I suppose, it takes a baboon with a bright pink butt and a friend willing to fight to the finish to remind you of the beauty and hope in reconciliation.