I am so excited to share about my experience in Africa! I’ve had a handful of people reach out and ask about the organizations I worked with and what I was doing there, so feast your eyes!
Let me start by expressing my mistakes. I am HUGE on doing research on animal organizations before volunteering or donating money. I am an animal activist, and come from the moral side, and educated side, and know what’s right from wrong VS just wanting to be present around exotic animals to take “Instagram worthy” photos. Yes, the photos are an awesome plus to capture memories and share to inspire others, but when I volunteer, I strive for education and to leave feeling I made a difference and impact. I made the mistake of taking someone else’s suggestion of these organizations and didn’t do ANY research. This is not like me, and I ended up spending a ton of money to correct the mistake.
My plan was to first volunteer at a rhino and wildlife conservation called Imire. It’s located in Zimbabwe an hour and a half outside of Harare, (between Harare and Marondera), and it’s absolute magic. My second week I was flying to South Africa to work with big cats.
After my first week at Imire, I was in heaven. From the living quarters, (which is MUCH nicer than any place I’ve ever volunteered at), (I don’t prefer one over the other because I do enjoy living in rougher conditions as well), but this was top notch. A beautiful thatched roof house with 5 bedrooms, 3 indoor bathrooms and several outdoor washrooms as well. My room, I bunked with 5 girls, but the other rooms only have 1 or two beds. I loved sharing space, and having the opportunity to get to know these gals better and teach them what sleeping with white noise machine is all about. They probably all hated white noise but it all added to the experience, and hopefully will be laughable later.
My group had 12 people in it. I believe they have a max of 15 at a time, which I love because it leaves less opportunity for formation of “cliques” and more time to get to know everyone individually.
The mornings consisted of cleaning rhino or elephant enclosures, (they are spacious, outdoor, not behind bars and have bedding and food, and the animals are only there at night until 6 am for protection against poachers). While we cleaned, the elephants and black rhino are released into 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) for free roaming for the day to browse/ eat. Imire has free roaming zebra, giraffe, buffalo, white rhino, elephant, warthogs, and over 10 different types of antelope. You can also find hundreds of types of bird species there.
Imire was founded in 1948 by Norman Travers and wife, Gilly. They both were originally farmers,(tobacco, maize, and cattle), but their passion for wildlife took them in a different direction. Imire Wildlife Conservatory was later established in 1972. The conservatory is now taken over by daughter, Judy Travers and her amazing family.
I often saw her son, (Riley) driving around the conservatory with his son and 2 dogs overseeing everything. Judy was also a big presence around the volunteers. She shared her story with me, and educated us all on the animals and history of Imire.
My first week at Imire consisted of learning about the elephants (Makavhuzi and Mondavo), the white and black rhino, being educated on the anti poaching team and the extensive training these guys go through to protect the animals, building bridges, creating frost preventative enclosures for plants, rhino tracking, cleaning enclosures, working with the community kids at the library, game drives and learning about all of the wildlife Imire has, collecting poo samples for research, elephant walks, doing the anti poaching team agility course, harvesting honey, hiking up to Castle Kopje for a spectacular sunset, cleaning animal enclosures, and working with the community.
Imire employs over 400 local Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe is at a record high of 95% unemployment rate, so knowing this conservation has brought on so many locals, just makes my love for this place grow that much more.
This was my second experience around extreme poverty, but my FIRST experience around people living in rough conditions while remaining the happiest people I’ve ever encountered in my life. I learned that some of these children have never seen what they looked like before because they don’t have mirrors. They loved taking pictures and analyzing what they were looking at. What special moments to share with them. The children would wave and smile at us every time we passed by and run after the truck to either give a high five or just hold your hand. They loved elastic hair ties and anything else they could get their hands on that was interesting to them. (Everything was). I was so impressed by how almost everyone I met knew how to speak, read, and write in English. I was always beside myself seeing how intellectual every person I met was. Made me want to go back to school!
A good note to have is that there is no WiFi here without buying a SIM card and adding bundles everyday. If you need to be connected, I advise purchasing a SIM card.
The power goes out several times, for several hours of the day. Bringing an extra battery pack isn’t the worst idea, and a headlamp for night time. That’s the best advice I could give, that I didn’t have when preparing for travel. But holy hell does no electricity make for seeing the most miraculous stars I’ve ever seen!
On my last day at Imire, I was having major reservations about heading to South Africa to the next program. Something in my gut was telling me to stay in Zimbabwe. I will never go against my intuition again in a situation like this.
I tossed and turned on my first and only night in South Africa, not feeling this was a good fit for me. I wasn’t even there a full 24 hours before I purchased a ticket back to Zimbabwe. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Imire set the bar high for what conservation is all about.
I didn’t tell anyone but the amazing volunteer coordinators, (Vera and Sam- two of the most fun, passionate, intelligent, hard working people you’ll ever meet!) that I was coming back. It was fun arriving back by surprise!
My second week at Imire was something truly special. We started the morning cleaning rhino enclosures, followed by rhino observations in the wild.
After breakfast, our planned activity got canceled. It was brought to our attention that one of the families in the community, kitchen burnt down. This resulted in the father of the family being in the hospital. Dominic, the oldest son of the family, got a loan from Imire Conservation to start his own garden, to sell veg to help pay for his fathers medical bills. When their kitchen caught fire, Dominics father ran in to save their only cooking pot and the flaming roof collapsed on him, resulting in 6th degree burns. We got to go out and plant seedlings in his garden. Two of Dominic’s younger brothers were pulled from school to help with the garden to hopefully bring in veg funds sooner. My heart just breaks knowing he went in to save a pot because they wouldn’t have been able to afford another, and are now further in debt. This community is so beautiful, how they all come together to help each other out. Where Dominic could have wallowed in frustration and sadness, he used his resources to help his family however he could. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is. I’ve set up a GoFundMe for Dominic’s family if you feel inclined to help out a wonderful family in need. https://www.gofundme.com/help-dominics-family-hospital-bill?utm_medium=copy_link&utm_source=customer&utm_campaign=p_na+share-sheet&rcid=7b2e04fe82cd4b61ae61fcb64b92312
The difference between this animal volunteer organization and others I’ve been to, is they are highly involved in the community. I was continuously in awe over this. I’ve never met a more connected, happy, loyal, helpful community before. We dropped what we were doing to go help where we were needed more. What an awesome perspective to take away. What a beautiful community.
Later that afternoon we visited Makwe Caves to learn about the 700 year old rock paintings and the history of the animals in Africa. The chiefs son gave us a history lesson and talked to us about the ceremonial burials that have taken place in that cave for hundreds of years.
That night we did Shona culture night. The most amazing woman named Matsika came to the volunteer house and she prepared us a traditional Shona meal. Matsika is an earth angel. She runs the women’s support group in Zimbabwe. She, along with a group of amazing women, make and prepare sanitary pads for girls. During mensuration, girls would not come to school because they didn’t have the means or supplies needed during their periods. These sanitary pads have been provided for more than 200 girls in school today! The packs include 3 washable/ reusable cloth pads, a bar of soap, a wash rag, and a pair of underwear. Each pack is $7 USD, and has not only been helpful to young girls in school, but to the community as well.
Some of the community children came over that night and we got to watch them dance and sing traditional songs. We were all up and dancing together by nights end. This day as a whole was one of my favorites, while in Zimbabwe.
The next morning we spent on “the wild side” with Gomo, a beautiful male black rhino. The wild side has no nighttime enclosures and every animal roams free 24/7. They have one female elephant on the wild side named Nzou. She has lived at Imire since the 70’s when her parents were killed. She was placed with a bull elephant and many buffalo. After the other elephant died, she acclimated to the buffalo, and now in turn believes she too, is a buffalo.
Also on the wild side, is a research camp, opening in January 2020! It’s a 6 week course, taught by Vera and Sam (mentioned above), to dive deeper into conservation! Won’t want to miss this one!
The following day was another favorite of mine. We got to go visit the elementary school and teach the second grade reading classes. There are too many students, and not enough classrooms, so class took place outside, where there were chickens running amuck. After class, we played soccer with the children, gave lots of hugs and said our goodbyes. The amount of love that radiates through those kids was captivating and inspiring. I enjoyed every moment with those guys.
My last morning at Imire, before heading off to Victoria Falls, was spent having breakfast with the elephants. A very yummy breakfast was prepared and we ate out on the reserve where the elephants were gazing.
I don’t think there was ever a single moment at Imire that wasn’t special. So much thought and detail was put into our every day tasks and activities.
I will always be grateful for Imire and the lessons and perspective I gained there, but Zimbabwe as a whole, has captivated my heart. I could not recommend experiencing this conservatory more!
Nicely done Erika!
I can hardly wait until the next adventure, and your post!