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Wednesday, 26 October 2016 21:50

DAKTARI in the Swiss News - Thanks Meret!

Meret in a group photo

DAKTARI volunteer, Meret Hartmann, was with us for 5 weeks in August of this year. When she got home, she got to work! Meret wrote a wonderful article in the Swiss magazine, Willisauer Bote. She shared the article and the English translation with us...

Another World at the End of the World

by Meret Hartmann

Pfaffnau / South Africa

Meret Hartmann volunteered in the South African Bush for five weeks. She talks about her work as a teacher, zookeeper, intermediator and playmate for a monkey at Daktari Bush School & Wildlife Orphanage.

It is an indescribable feeling of nervous eagerness I get when boarding a plane to a new travel adventure. This summer, my wanderlust brought me to South Africa, a country of two different faces. They are easily distinguished on the way from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit; from the vibrant city with six-lane highways to the rocky provincial streets bordering the famous Kruger National Park.

Final Destination: Bush

A small shuttle bus brought me from sleepless Johannesburg, where neither woman nor man dare to walk alone at night, into a world that belongs to wild animals. Surrounded by a vast expanse of dry trees lies Daktari Bush School & Wildlife Orphanage; my destination.

A project that wants to “rouse”

Daktari is a non-profit organisation. Over ten years ago, co-founders Ian and Michele Merrifield committed themselves to their mission: to turn a small place hidden from the rest of the world into a better one. All of this in a country that finds itself in the middle of corruption, extreme social differences and with only a dim light at the end of the tunnel. “The biggest problem in this country is apathy. The people just don’t care”, says Ian Merrifield frequently. “Our goal is to wake the kids. Here, they learn motivation.” The couple has been providing their educational program to children from local communities for a whole decade now. The children are often from very poor backgrounds, living in bleak settlements that have grown on the side of the streets.

First Class Culture Shock

Each week, eight children from three local schools come to Daktari for five days. Their previous educational experiences involve overcrowded classrooms of up to 60 students. When I visited the school my first group of children attend, I got a real shock. The eighth grade students, pent-up into three dim, unadorned classrooms, should have been sitting in a lesson. What I saw instead was the teachers lounging outside eating oranges while the students waited in the classrooms, dancing and listening to music. The question that has bothered me since then: “How can a country ever get out of its misery if nobody cares about the future of their own children?” At Daktari, the children interact with volunteers who are genuinely interested in them and who give them attention for the first time in their life. They get to know their country from a completely different side as they are completely immersed in the bushlife experience. What may sound like a fun summer camp is in fact a program of intensive yet exciting work for both the volunteers and children alike.

Lesson learned

The day starts at seven o’clock by taking Mirabelle and Nikita, Daktari’s friendly, lovable dogs, on a walk through the African bush. After breakfast, the children help with stabling; cleaning and feeding the animals. For us, that sounds like everyday life; for those children it’s a completely new world. Without that knowledge, I was cleaning the rabbits’ enclosure with a boy as he told me he never petted a rabbit before. Happy to show him something new, I gently handed him one of the cute bunnies. As it started to fidget in his arms, the boy promptly got a real scare and let the poor bunny fall down to the ground. The lesson I learned that morning: it’s not always clear to the children which animals they should be scared of.

How to take care of the environment

At Daktari, the children don’t just learn how to take care of animals. The volunteers teach them a variety of life skills such as politeness and social etiquette, how to use tracks to identify animals in the bush and how to take care of nature and their environment. A major problem in South Africa is the extreme environmental pollution caused by all the waste lying around. There are no rubbish collection points in the villages; garbage often has to be burnt in the back garden. During the lessons, the children learn how dangerous discarded rubbish can be for hungry animals and how toxic burning plastic is for humans. A highlight of the week is the visit to the Big Five Game Reserve: Makalali. The children have the opportunity to talk to the employees and discuss job opportunities at Game Reserves. Often, they are able to see giraffes, elephants and zebras for the first time in their life. “The kids have often no idea how much their own country has to offer”, says Ian Merrifield.

Giving Perspectives

In my second week, there was a boy in the group who was very scared of dogs. As a psychologist, I saw my opportunity and wanted to help him overcome that fear. The courage that boy gained over the week is just remarkable. By Thursday, he was playing football with Rottweiler Nikita. “Being at Daktari made me realize how large of an impact just one person can have”, concludes my roommate Brittney Foard. But does a stay at Daktari really change something for the children that attended? Willington “Will” Mafogo stayed at Daktari when he was just 13 years old. Today, almost ten years later, he works as the Animal Manager at the camp. Two years ago even Patience Moripa was just a guest in the bush. The 21-year-old now works as volunteer coordinator at Daktari and often has to mediate not only between international volunteers and Sepedi-speaking children but also between two very different cultures.

Heavy Farewell

It’s the multicultural atmosphere that makes the Daktari experience so unforgettable. You live with each other seven days a week; backgrounds and cultures couldn’t be more different and yet it could hardly feel more like a big family. What’s more, the feeling you get walking through the bush, seeing giraffes, zebras and antelope is barely describable. It’s unbelievable how much I learned from the people who live there and go to work daily with the common goal to turn their country into a better place. And who can say that they have cuddled a Marmoset and fed two Squirrel babies every three hours a night. I have already travelled to many places thousands of kilometres away and have had to leave them again, but no farewell was ever as heavy as this one, from this completely different world back into my own.

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