I’m holding Abeli’s waist as we weave around potholes and pass bright green rice fields. Our task for the day is to interview the eight residents from a nearby village who were randomly selected to participate in tomorrow’s Safari. Finding the villagers quickly becomes an adventure. We show the sheet of paper listing names to a man walking along the road. He looks it over and points in the general direction of “over there.”
Abeli is employed by an NGO that, through a grant from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, will conduct two safaris per week for eight months. Trips will rotate through 16 villages near Ruaha National Park (Tanzania,) some villages chosen because of direct proximity to the park and some because poacher recruitment is high. For each safari, the NGO will provide a guide, lunch, park entrance fee and the most important piece of the puzzle- transportation. Motorbikes and bicycles aren’t allowed into the park as a safety precaution and cars/4wd trucks are too expensive to own or rent. Most people who live their entire lives within 50 km of the park never get to see what’s inside the boundary.
At first that might seem odd- to live near something that people fly 10,000 miles to experience and to not take advantage of it? But I saw my first Broadway show because of a grant that brought public school kids to the theater for a weekday matinee of “The Will Rogers Follies.” I was living only a mile from Broadway but considered it an expensive tourist activity. It still took me until college to visit the Statue of Liberty.
Ruaha is a relatively new National Park. When it was created in the 1970s, families were displaced and relocated into the surroundings areas. Despite that recent inconvenience, general opinion is supportive of the park because animal protection translates to foreign tourists spending money. Some of the questions we’ll ask in the interviews pertain to living near the park- Are there any direct benefits? Are there negative impacts?
We ask a few other people for directions and narrow in on the target person. Coincidentally two of the names chosen live in the same house, married to the same man. We sit down with each of them for about five minutes and write down all their answers (which happen to be very similar to each other.) The comment that stands out to me is, “I believe in protection of animals and I like that the park exists. I just wish the animals would stay inside the park because, living here, I can never relax. I’m always nervous that an animal will come hurt my kids.”
When we get back to the center of town, the village officer tells us to wait a few minutes. He called and texted some of the people we need to interview and they are walking to meet us. One lady arrives on the back of her husband’s bicycle, sitting on a rack that he probably uses to transport their water jugs. She is 70 years old, an age that surpasses Tanzania’s life expectancy by a decade. She is ecstatic about going on safari tomorrow and says, “I thought I would die without ever seeing the park and the animals that live there. I’m so thankful.”
A few hours later we have only one name still not crossed off. A 20-something man who we just met in the village center volunteers to escort us to Mussa’s house because it’s hard to find. Abeli drives us all on the motorbike and I wonder how this kid is able to drop whatever he’s doing to spend this time with us. Then I remember the unemployment rate and the presence of all those young men hanging out in town makes sense.
When we arrive at the house, Mussa’s wife tells us that he’s in the corn field. Farms generally run from 3-40 acres so, to help us locate him, she recruits all the nearby children. These children travel in a pack and don’t need to ask their parents’ permission to disappear into the corn field for a while. I think of the clean white SUVs in the drop-off and pick-up lines at Southern California elementary schools. These African kids have the better deal- they’re in fresh air and bare feet and aren’t being infused with fear.
We walk single file on a narrow trail that leads into the corn. There are six kids in front, then Abeli and the 20something guy, then me, followed by at least six more kids. Our line is like a snowball; we gather more kids as we move forward. After 10 minutes we get introduced to Mussa and we conduct the interview right there with our butts in the dirt. I was surprised to hear that he spent the first few years of his life inside the area that is now the park. His family was relocated to where he lives now. He has no hard feelings toward the government because they pay for all the local schools, including the physical buildings, teacher salaries and lunches for the kids. The only negative comment he makes about the government is that they allow Serengeti National Park to receive all the attention and promotion. Lesser known parks like Ruaha struggle with low visitor counts and, therefore, this region has less economic wealth.
These interviews will be compared with post-safari interviews to determine if an experience in nature can influence someone’s opinion. I had reservations about being a white American in a program to educate African villagers. In my time there, the reservations didn’t go away and I still have mixed feelings. I like how the headmaster of the guide school explained to me, “You Westerners love the animals with your whole heart, equal to your love of a person. We Africans just like the animals. But maybe new generations will see Western enthusiasm and feel more of the love.”