When I was a kid, the winters in upstate New York seemed to never end. Gray, dreary, frigid and snowy, the long black nights meant a lot of time spent indoors. Passing those long hours required a lively imagination, and that I had in abundance. My mind would often venture to far off exotic places I’d heard of. And, one place just about every kid had heard of, was Africa.
Even though much in Africa has changed since I was a boy, it still exerts a powerful grip on the imagination. To be sure, the massive continent has equally massive problems — corruption, war, famine, poverty, pollution, poaching, and now, radical Islamists spreading terror across a broad swath of the continent. But, even with all this, there are places in Africa that can still bring out the kid in you.
The names are musical in themselves: the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Zanzibar, Masai Mara, the Congo; and there are the iconic spots of legend: Victoria Falls, the Great Rift Valley, the Okavango Delta, Lake Kivu, the White Nile and Murchison Falls.
Of course, there’s the wildlife, from mountain gorillas in the cloud forests of central Africa, to the alpha predators like the lions, cheetahs and leopards in the Serengeti. To see any of these animals in the wild, in their native habitat, is a thrill that never gets old. For me, seeing these creatures is also a reminder that they face a multitude of threats. Habitat loss, poaching, climate change — these things are squeezing these magnificent creatures from every direction.
As humans, we can set aside habitat but we can’t re-write the fundamentals of nature. Nor can we stop poaching without ending the demand for the things that drive it in the first place. And the long-term effects of climate change will undoubtedly impact the continent in ways yet unknown.
Finally, no discussion of Africa is complete without including its people. From the Masai of the Serengeti, to the Zulus of southern Africa and everyone in between, the people of Africa are astounding in their diversity. Try to think of all the ways that African culture has influenced the world and you begin to get a sense of the magnitude of the African soul that is writ large in its people.
In Rwanda, I met a man whose family was killed during the genocidal madness of 1994. Eight-years-old at the time, he was the only member of his family to survive. Despite losing a leg and part of an eye, he was still one of the most cheerful and caring souls I’d ever come across.
Time and time again, most Africans I met showed an abundance of humor, common-sense wisdom, kindness and pride in their particular corner of the continent.