Posts Tagged With: teaching

Jane Goodall-ism and South African lesson for today: enter Santiago

mantid photo shoot

mantid photo shoot

In keeping with 15 Life Lessons of Jane Goodall, here’s another nugget of wisdom Dr Goodall drops on us, and one that is very relevant in my current situation – there are many teachers in life. My latest teacher has six legs and thousands of eyes. And his name is Santiago.

I love animals, but I can’t really have any pets in the bush. And to be honest, the longer I work with animals, the less I feel okay about having pets in general. However, I inadvertently became the ‘mom’ of a praying mantis several months ago when a stowaway nymph (baby mantid) came into my home tucked away on a flower. He was so small and well camouflaged, I didn’t even discover him for a whole week.

Not knowing where the flower came from, I had no idea where the mantid came from either, so I decided to keep the little guy. This was a very big step for me, as I have never been a fan of insects. Nor had I a clue how to raise one. Things did not look promising for the teeny invertebrate.

As a little girl, I spent a lot of time outside. But I was always told to NOT dig in the dirt, to NOT play with bugs. Bugs were dirty and gross.

And then I saw nature documentaries with really awful bugs that did really awful things to people. These bugs (which I later understood were actually parasites) were pretty much my worst nightmare.

So I stayed away from the insect world.

Then I spent a few months in Costa Rica as a university student. And I saw some REALLY big bugs. ‘Size of my hand’ big. Every morning I had to shake out my shoes, lest I put my foot into a dark, cosy space that had become home to a scorpion or tarantula overnight. Every evening I battled it out with my biggest nemesis, the mosquito. But having people around me who appreciated bugs (okay, not the mosquitoes – I’ve YET to meet anyone who appreciates mozzies) made me more tolerant. Also, being in such a wild place sort of weened me off of bug-free living. It was my initiation into what was to come many years later on the other side of the world.

Enter Africa. The insects here are not just plentiful in number. They are also plentiful EVERYWHERE. My initial reaction was to gently usher them out of my clothes, bags, shoes, house, wherever they might be congregating, and back into open spaces where we’d be less likely to conflict. I was happy to let them live, but I drew the line at having them share my space like miniature roommates.

However, when you live in the bush, you simply cannot avoid them getting into your stuff. So you can either learn to live with them, you can learn to live with them AND appreciate them, or you can be miserable. I chose the middle option, mostly because when I finally stopped and watched insects, I was hooked. They are fascinating, so completely alien to us (green blood, funky eyes, lots of legs, and all that), they could hold my attention for hours at a time. That in itself is impressive.

You know when people talk about watching grass grow? Watching insects is not like that (except in the case of watching a cocoon, since nothing happens there for a long time). Insects are alert. They are a whirring world of activity: little bulldozer spiders clearing out dens, little ant armies marching in formation, little artistic dung beetles rolling the most perfect ball of poo imaginable.

(I guess I should note that technically a spider is not an insect. While it IS an invertebrate, just like other insects, it falls into a different group called the arachnids. Scorpions are also part of that group. But for the purposes of this blog, all the creepy crawly invertebrates get lumped together as bugs.)

mantid and his grape

Santiago and dessert

And then there are the mantids.

Praying mantises get their names from their habit of sitting with their front arms folded, almost like they are in prayer. These ambush predators can sit still for hours, and the extreme patience with which they stalk their prey makes a person who DOES watch grass grow seem impatient.

When my little mantid arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Mantids eat live prey. Where was I going to get food? Believe it or not, my home does not teem with bugs, even though there are plenty outside of it. I would have to learn to wrangle crickets, flies and grasshoppers and lure them to their unpleasant death at the hands of my tiny ninja. So I was not only living with a bug, I also had to catch MORE bugs to feed him.

Praying mantises are also in the same family as cockroaches. So you KNOW I would have to have a serious change of heart about insects to be happily sharing my home with a roach’s cousin. It did not sound like a good plan. But I was up for the challenge; I was ready to start a new chapter of growth in my life – learning to love a bug.

Plus, I have to admit I felt an immense amount of guilt over displacing him. How could I not take care of him?

I shouldn’t have worried. He grew on me very quickly.

It was hard NOT to like him, honestly. He was so entertaining. When he was a baby, he hopped around on my hand, his little legs tickling like weightless feathers dancing over my skin. His little head would swivel around and watch the world, snapping to lock eyes on me whenever he heard my voice.

When I took him outside, he would get as low as possible on my hand and nuzzle his little face in my palm. And when I put him in the grass, he would freeze and look up at me, waiting for me to put my hand back to within bolting distance, and as soon as it was close enough, he’d come scurrying back into my palm. It was adorable.

It’s amazing, seven months later, how attached I have become to the mantid we eventually named Santiago (for no other reason than we liked the name). He sits on my computer when I work. At night he sleeps on the curtain in my room.

These days he only eats from my hand and is quite the discerning gourmand. He no longer hunts, refuses bugs, and instead insists on fish, chicken or some type of fruit. I worry if he hasn’t eaten in a while. And I make sure he doesn’t get too far out of my reach (because if I can’t get to him to feed him now, he will likely starve). And I have to make sure none of the other predators (birds, spiders, lizards) get to him, especially the female mantid that lives in the bush just outside my door. I’ve caught her checking him out now and again, and she has been informed that my ‘child’ is off limits; no eating him. She keeps her distance, but on occasion she does pop up on the window to say hello. He freaks out, rears up on his back legs, opens up his wings (the ONLY time I’ve even seen his wings since they sprouted, fyi) and puts on his best threat display. She is not phased in the slightest. He looks ridiculous, but he thinks he is protecting his family, so he gets points for trying.

mantises eyeing each other up

I hope that one day Santiago becomes a household name, an ambassador for the smaller, less attractive members of the animal kingdom that often get overlooked or demonised because they are so foreign to humans. A beacon for the creatures that aren’t traditionally cute and cuddly. (Santiago does NOT like to cuddle, fyi. You wouldn’t either if cuddling reminded you of being caught and eaten…)

So in going back to Jane’s life lesson, Santiago has shown me that teachers come in all shapes and sizes. And they don’t always teach you the lessons you think they will teach you. With Santiago, I have learned not just about bugs (particularly how to care for a mantid), but about my ability to see everything as valuable in the world. I have been reminded that we all must be more tolerant of what is so vastly different from ourselves. I have also been reminded that beauty is a feeling, not a face. And even the smallest, most unlikely bits in this world can steal your heart and make a lasting and profound impact in your life. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.

#vivasantiago #onlyinafrica

Here are some choice shots of the little guy doing what he does, which is mostly preening, eating, and pretending to be a mantid model.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014-2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, Education, praying mantis, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #1 – Bush Education

This post is numero uno in terms of my adventures here because to me, education is the beginning of everything.  With the exception of the bloody hand, which is simply an example of the types of wounds I’ve seen out here, these photos above are some of the animals that remind me of school and education, Africa-style – a mongoose, an owl (owlet, in this case), and a tortoise.

There is something fascinating about teaching people, especially people who come from vastly different backgrounds than yours.  We have students come and go, traveling from all over the world to train to become field rangers.  Some have no interest in actually pursuing it as a career, but instead just want to enjoy living in an entirely new environment, challenged by new and foreign surroundings.  Even many South Africans who pass through our training camp feel themselves in a completely alien world when they come to the bush.  If you come from the suburbs or the city, or even the countryside, you aren’t prepared for the bush.  You might have knowledge of it, you might have visited it, but you have no idea what you’re doing out there.  I get that.

I have now been in the bush for about two years, and I’m still a newbie.  I still look over my shoulder whenever I’m walking.  Hell, I am constantly looking the full 360 degrees, to the point where I get dizzy sometimes.  I doubt I’ll ever stop doing that.  I may gain years of information and experiences that are valuable for surviving in these wilds, but I will never feel too comfortable.  And that’s a good thing.  Comfort can get you killed.  This also means I’m always trying to educate myself.  If I can educate others as well? Two birds, one stone.

However, the type of educating that I’ve found the most rewarding is the haphazard, completely unexpected kind, like the kind I found myself doing with the staff at our camp.  One of the women (I’ll call her Linda) has been with the company for almost fifteen years, in the same role.  Fifteen years of doing the same thing over and over, year after year, with no change but the endless carousel of employees and students passing through.  While there is quite a bit of employee turnover here (and I certainly understand why, but no need to get into that), nothing else really changes but the seasons, and even those come round again every year.  As such, I asked my bosses if I could help with getting this woman some credentials behind her name.  Options, I thought, are at least something to get excited about, and would give her something to change up the monotony.    Plus they might enable her to get out of this kilometer-deep rut she was in.

Linda got pregnant in tenth grade and dropped out of matric (high school).  She never graduated.  She can read, but not particularly well.  She knows her way around a kitchen and a laundry, but not much else.  She doesn’t know how to drive and she certainly doesn’t possess a driver’s license.  I know this for sure, as I tried to teach her to drive one day.  We took a quick run up to the main gate to pick up deliveries, and I let her get behind the wheel on a straight patch of road on the way back to camp.

Driving a manual Land Rover in the bush as your first driving foray is probably not ideal.  We managed to not hit anything, though we did stop within a hair’s breath of a rather large Knob Thorn tree. Shaking, she turned to me and said, “Ok, enough,” and quickly got out of the car and ran back to the passenger seat. End of driving lesson.

If you want opportunities in this world, you need to be able to access them.  People say you make your own opportunities. Yes, but you have to have access to knowledge, and Linda did not have that.  She was stuck.  She was bored.  The most excitement she got was the weekly food order we did together, as it gave her a small bit of creative input to put together a menu plan. Yet because of how limited I was with budget, even that had ridiculous limitations. And with only one small fridge and one small freezer, and a large rodent population constantly finding its way into the cupboards, it’s hard to get creative.  You tend to stick to the same things over and over. Any time you try and go out of the norm, you get shot down by the powers that be who tell you that you are spending too much money on food for the people who are paying the salary of these same people. This is why I don’t do well working for other people, by the way. I point stuff like this out, which often doesn’t get received particularly well, especially when you work with people who want the pay without the responsibility. I’ve run into more than a few of those in my lifetime.

Anyway, I decided that, since we offer a First Aid course as part of our training, there was no reason why we couldn’t add Linda to the list. Makes perfect sense, right? I mean, if something happens to me or any of the trainers, there is no one else here who can administer basic life support. Most of the students aren’t trained. And what if it’s just Linda and her counterpart at camp? I proposed this to one of my bosses, and he thought it was a great idea. Problem is, there isn’t another First Aid course for another few months.  Linda asked if I could show her some foundational First Aid in the meantime.

I’m certified as a level two responder with First Aid, so at the very least, I could show her basic life support stuff like CPR, and how to administer first aid and bandaging for specific wounds. I bit off more than I bargained for when I said yes.

I’d like to think I have good communication skills. I’d like to think I’m great at explaining things, and at teaching and inspiring people. Of course, however much I’d ‘like’ to do those things, I may not actually be capable. I haven’t had to ever teach something like CPR to someone who didn’t even have a basic understanding of human anatomy. When I mentioned digestion, I got blank stares. What was digestion? What do the lungs do?  Wow. Back up.

Linda, the other woman who worked with her (we’ll call her Thandi), and I set up a table in the middle of the kitchen. I gave them two drawing pads and a copy of the First Aid manual we had at the camp. Then I set about going through the entire human body, drawing diagrams and explaining what each and every part of the body did, and how they all linked together. Imagine how this was received by two women who believe in beings like Pinky Pinky, who lives in toilets and sucks bad children down the drain, and the Tokoloshe, who is an evil spirit sent to haunt people and give them indigestion. I had to extricate theology, spiritualism, and tribalism from the concept of heartburn.

These women aren’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination. But they are ignorant of modern biology, a fact they willingly admitted to me. They plainly explained that I would have to change perceptions set in stone for hundreds of years by tribalism and lack of formal education. They voiced concern at the initially overwhelming amount of material presented to them, material so fundamentally different from what they had been raised to believe; they had every reason to think this might be a futile attempt. So did I. Among other issues, I’m no bio teacher, nor a philosopher, nor a socio-economics professor.   What I knew of these women and their culture came from them telling me about it. I could sit and watch all day and make incorrect assumptions, which wouldn’t help anyone, so I found it best to simply ask. And they did the same with me. Most of our lessons were about what I was taught, followed by what they were taught, and then concluding with any cross-over, and explanations of both sides of the same educational coin as we tried to find common ground where my information made sense to them, and theirs made sense to me.

Expecting anyone to ingest this much fresh information that directly opposed much of what they had been raised to believe was challenging in so many capacities. I was asking them to delete what they knew and start over. They were asking me to learn their history and inject it into what I was teaching them. But they didn’t blink an eyelid, just kept on absorbing whatever info I could possibly remember about how a gall bladder works, and I kept at it, determined to give them a fighting chance at learning and understanding basic life support, if only so they could explain to an EMT over the phone what was going on in the event of an emergency. Slowly, slowly, progress came about, one heartbeat at a time.

In addition to our health lessons, we tackled computers from the bottom up – complete with diagrams of what the different computer components, like screen, desktop, mouse, and keyboard, are. It was slow and meticulous, and we often had to go over the same material several days in a row, but like everything else you learn, you need repetition and practice for it to sink in. These women didn’t have access to a computer.  They didn’t have access to the first aid equipment. They had to rely on me to provide everything for them, and to then show them even the most fundamental elements, such as turning a computer on, or how to properly bandage a protrusion (and what a protrusion was and how you pronounce it, for that matter). In the back of my mind, I thought of all the times I spent teaching my mom how to use the internet, or email, or the answering machine, or the television remote. That was infinitely easier than this. And it reminded me of how lucky I am to have been born into a time when technology is de rigeur. I can’t remember NOT having a computer.

We laughed. A lot. We giggled over my terrible drawings.  But they loved it, and so did I.  Seeing their faces when something sunk in, when a light went on in their heads and eyes – it was tremendous.  I’m not sure if anything I’ve done has really made a difference for them. I do know it meant a lot to have someone take time for them and try to help them in a positive way. I know they felt a bit marginalized and were excited for even the slightest bit of exposure to new things. I’d like to think that if nothing else, I’ve expanded their worlds. They’ve certainly expanded mine.

Song of the day: ‘Learning to Fly’ – Tom Petty

….and for cheese factor and inspirational ability – ‘I Hope You Dance’ – Leann Womack

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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