conservation

White Man’s Game

by Stephanie Hanes

September 25, 2017

Introduction

One afternoon some years ago, a red helicopter hovered above the great green folds of Mount Gorongosa. Its propellers whirred against the humid air like the wings of a metallic hummingbird; the rumble of its engine rippled through the massif, which at its tallest point measures some 5,900 feet above the surrounding Mozambican lowland. The pilot, an amicable South African, peered down at the landscape. It was all green: deep green, bluish green, purple green. He was looking for brown, for the clearing he was convinced would be there, somewhere.

The mountain itself was an inselberg, an isolated, steep hill shooting up abruptly from the horizon, island-like. It was some eighteen miles wide, and its topography and foliage made it difficult to see what was happening at ground level. The earth hid from the air, ducking underneath trees and scrub. Even walking on the mountain could be confusing. Trails through the forests and fields twisted back on one another; deep caves had given generations of locals a way to escape or trap their enemies.

The section of the mountain under the whirring helicopter was an area heavily influenced by a man whom the locals considered a rainmaker, a traditional leader who went by the clan name of Samatenje. The helicopter’s passengers—particularly the multimillionaire who had chartered the flight, an American who went by the given name of Greg—were well aware of this fact. Indeed, it was the reason they had flown here and were now looking for a landing spot through the trees. This rainmaker, they believed, could help them with a development project they had started nearby, in the national park that sprawled in the mountain’s shadow.

This park shared the name of the mountain, Gorongosa. At one time—before being ravaged by two decades of war and another decade of neglect—the Gorongosa National Park was widely considered one of the best safari locations in southern Africa, on the bucket list of destinations for the rich and famous of Europe and America. By the time the helicopter was hovering over the mountain, though, it held a different attraction. Now the Gorongosa National Park was home to what some were calling one of the most ambitious conservation efforts on the continent, a groundbreaking initiative to restore both environmental and human dignity.

Greg Carr—“just Greg,” he would say to everyone, with a smile—had listened with keen interest when his advisers told him about Samatenje, and he quickly decided that they should pay the rainmaker a visit. Perhaps, he suggested, this Samatenje might bless their work. Perhaps the rainmaker might even perform a traditional ceremony calling on the ancestors to support it. The others had nodded. Yes, that would be worth the journey.

This was not, mind you, because those on the helicopter believed in rainmaking or ancestor spirits. The scientists and conservationists and development experts, educated in the best Western academies, decidedly did not think that ancient spirits were present all around them, or that any of the other supernatural beings whom rural Mozambicans routinely credited with the fortunes and misfortunes of daily life actually existed. They were, however, familiar with and committed to the best practices of development and human rights. They believed in local buy-in, local involvement, and, at least ostensibly, local input—all those categories newly tracked by the alphabet soup of donor organizations concerned with Africa. So identifying the regional “thought leader,” and gaining his culturally appropriate endorsement, was an important part of their work.

The request for a meeting had been made through a chain of African staff members and local contacts. On the appointed day, Greg’s team loaded the appropriate supplies into the rented helicopter: gifts of soda and tobacco, beer and cloth. Greg and his top staffers were familiar with the routine. For almost a year now they had crisscrossed this lush district, meeting with local chiefs under mango trees and pitching their case for a new way of living with the earth. Again and again, they handed out beer and asked to have the ancestors bless the park’s revival.

The pilot maneuvered the helicopter into another sweeping dip, the arc of a bird from its feeder, looking again for that clearing. There it was: brown, as all the clearings here were, soft brown, reddish brown, tinted like the dust that stuck to bare black legs. It was a meeting place of sorts, large enough for the community to gather, with benches at one side made out of logs smoothed on top for men to sit. There were a few rough-hewn stalls. One displayed a sparse collection of secondhand T-shirts, gathered for resale from the larger market in Gorongosa Town, at the base of the mountain.

A crowd had collected below, the way crowds always seemed to form when Greg’s helicopter approached. From the ground, it was impossible to miss the noise. The vibrations shook the mountain itself, which spat them back up through the panga panga trees, through the rattling iron cooking pots with their soot-darkened legs, over the walls of the houses protected by banana and palm fronds. Skinny dogs pawed the ground, nonplussed. Children, attracted as children are by something different in the day, ran to get a better view. The pilot swore under his breath as he saw the space where he could land shrinking. Every time he worried about the onlookers—especially those barefoot kids, all snotty-nosed, running every which way—getting too close to the blades. Their parents, summoned by either concern for the scampering children or their own curiosity, crowded in. The African fabrics and Western T-shirts (“50 Cent: The Anger Management 3 Tour,” “New Rochelle High Softball,” “My Kid Went to Florida and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt”) formed a rainbow circle.

From inside the helicopter the passengers looked down, energized. If there was any nervousness, it was overwhelmed by their usual confidence. From the air, all looked in order. Slowly, the pilot guided the helicopter to the ground.

What happened next depends on which stories you believe. I can tell you what I saw: how the helicopter lowered, its blades spinning a white circle against the trees and sky; how the dirt and dust and twigs of the landing zone formed their vortex; how the waiting people turned away; how a man with jagged shoulders tried to lift his torn sports coat—linen perhaps, a summer jacket in another life—over the back of his neck as he tensed up. One of his hands pulled the frayed collar as far as it would go. The other pressed a young boy against his legs.

I can say how the faces looked to me, as the blades stopped spinning and the crowd turned back toward us. Instead of cheering and grinning, as people often did when Greg and his entourage emerged from a helicopter, instead of rushing toward the passengers with outstretched hands and backslaps, they stood stonily silent. They scowled. For a split second, the crescendo of the grasshoppers drowned out our breathing.

I can go on with my own version of the story, one shaped by my nationality (American), my profession (journalism), my sex (female), my age (thirty-something), and my aching desire, then as now, to figure out why Western efforts to help the environment and Africa—about which, in more disclosure, I care deeply—so often fail. But there are many other stories that would emerge from that clearing on the mountain. There is Greg Carr’s version, and those of the other staff members of the Gorongosa National Park, dedicated and well-meaning environmentalists and aid workers. There are the tales that grew in the remote area where the helicopter landed, where people speak their own dialect and hew close to the rules of spiritual leaders. There are still other stories that have grown on the mountain’s lower slopes and in the wider region beyond it, stories that have evolved as the years passed. They are all different.

I first started reporting about Greg Carr’s efforts to restore the Gorongosa National Park in 2006. I was a foreign correspondent based in southern Africa at the time, and a source told me that, in central Mozambique, a human rights philanthropist connected to Harvard University was creating a groundbreaking model for helping people through conservation. I visited the park, and ended up spending the next decade reporting and writing about it. From the beginning, I liked Greg, and I fell in love with the breathtaking Gorongosa region. Yet the longer I stayed, the more the stories I found diverged from one another, and I increasingly wondered what was actually happening there. The more I watched the glowing news reports and reverent documentaries about the project—and there have been quite a few of those over the past ten years—the more they bothered me.

For quite a long time, I tried to resolve the competing narratives, to figure out who was right and who was wrong. Many locals insisted that dire events had unfolded after the helicopter landed in Samatenje’s territory: violence and destruction, the suffering of people and animals alike. They saw disasters freighted with meaning, ordained by spirits and ancestors. Meanwhile, the Westerners, along with a number of Mozambican park administrators, dismissed not only the supernatural explanations, but the very premise that anything was going seriously wrong. If there were problems, they were just minor mishaps, unfortunate but surmountable difficulties in a clear-sighted plan that would significantly improve the region and perhaps the world. Sometimes it felt as if I were reporting on two different planets.

It was only when I abandoned the quest for the one “true” story that I started to understand what was really happening there, in the lush heart of Southeast Africa. I also started to realize that the contradictory Gorongosa stories are not exclusive to the region, but are representative of what is happening all over the globe in other environmental “hot spots,” as the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs, in development lingo) dealing with conservation call them. So many of these ecologically essential swaths of the developing world are at the center of a clash of narratives, a collision of truths that has a profound impact both on the people cast as characters in these dramas and on our environment.

Now, I am a storyteller by profession, so I admit to a bit of bias when it comes to the importance of narratives and tales. Yet I am far from alone in recognizing that the stories we tell—the motivations we ascribe to ourselves and to others, the ideas we assume people share, the way we think of our relationship with the earth—dramatically affect our actions. Our stories are both the foundation and the scaffolding upon which we construct our worlds.

So my goal is not simply to tell my version of Gorongosa, but to reveal the hidden conflict that is playing out among the various tales. Indeed, simply recognizing the existence of narratives beyond our own is an essential first step for reversing what is, frankly, an appalling track record of well-meaning Americans and Europeans creating unintended consequences around the world. For it turns out that the reason so many Western projects in Africa fail is not because of bad planning or poor investment strategies or any of the other mea culpas presented in the evaluation reports of the World Bank and other donor agencies. We fail—although we almost never admit it—because we are stuck in our own mental framework. We cannot see the other narratives, even when they actively clash with our own. We certainly do not accept that our tales are no truer than any others. We simply can’t imagine that stories involving evil spirits and perturbed ancestors are, in many ways, no more outrageous than our own explanations of the world, with their all-knowing outsiders and logical solutions.

This book, then, is a safari of sorts through our African stories, a voyage into how we got here and what we do now. After all, the tales from Gorongosa mean little out of context. (Imagine trying to analyze Western literature while knowing nothing of Homer.) To have the Gorongosa National Park experience add to any greater understanding of why the Western conservation movement—and Western development in general, for that matter—has struggled around the world, we must start by understanding how we came up with our ideas of wilderness, conservation, and development; how we built up our notions of Africa, nature, and utopia.

In Swahili, safari simply means “journey.” In English, however, the word has taken on far more specialized connotations. It is an exploration, an adventure, a quest. And it is central to our relationship with African nature, whether in the realm of tourism or conservation.

The complete safari experience encompasses not just the travel itself, but also the preparation beforehand and the memories that travelers carry with them when they return home. This book has the same three-part structure. Think of part 1 as gathering supplies for our journey into the tangle of stories, getting a sense of how we formed our traditional narratives of Africa, why we are still stuck in them, and how they appear today. In part 2 we will go to Gorongosa, to see both the promise and the tragedy of those stories up close. Finally, in part 3, we will look at what happens when we bring such tales back to our own lands, and consider what they tell us about our role in the wider world.

Imagine the scenes described in this book as sightings in the bush. I do not intend them to be comprehensive, just as there is no way to see an entire ecosystem when you drive through it. Instead, what you get are glimpses, at once connected and disconnected: an elephant here, a lion there, the chirping song of the African warbler somewhere in between. Inevitably, there will be truths that remain invisible, stories missed: an impala hidden by the blond grasses, a rhino blending into the horizon. Someone on a different drive might come back with an entirely different perspective about what’s lurking there, off in the palm tree jungles or just behind the knoll on the sweeping savannah. Yet the moments you experience on your own safari are no less real for all that. Putting them together makes your own story—one that, in this case, urges a new way of thinking about nature, conservation, and the pitfalls of best intentions.

Before I left Mozambique, I went to visit one of the local chiefs—known in this part of Africa as a régulo—in a community on the lower slopes of Mount Gorongosa. This was a strange outing for me, because I knew I was shedding some of the rules of Western logic and journalistic objectivity that had long guided my life. After an exchange of pleasantries, I took a deep breath, leaned in, and shared a request with one of the régulo’s sons. He turned to consult, in a low voice, with a group of elders. I kicked the dust and waited.

The régulo’s son looked me over. I must have been a pathetic sight: a sunburned white woman wearing pants, away from home, without children, mumbling something about writing a book and wanting to know the best way to go about it vis-à-vis the ancestors. As a general rule, Western journalists tend to side with the Western scientists. We do not believe in ancestors or spirits or other sorts of the occult. We like facts, our facts. Still, I had spent enough time around Gorongosa to know that, at the very least, it wasn’t a bad idea to hedge your bets.

A ceremony was the only way forward, the régulo’s son finally responded. He suggested I return the following week, supplies in hand. I knew the drill: cloth, tobacco, beer.

On the appointed morning, the villagers gathered in a clearing. I perched on a reed mat in the dust with the other women, their knees to the side, their skirts lying in kaleidoscopic contrast with the brown-red earth. Imitating them, I tried not to fidget, but it’s not a particularly comfortable pose, with your hip falling asleep and your skin baking in the sun.

Eventually the régulo himself emerged. Eugenio Canda, a tall man with a glint in his yellowed eyes, on this occasion looked somber in a long skirt of black and white cloth. He nodded at me and ducked into a small square hut that served as a sort of village shrine. The villagers began clapping in unison with cupped hands, the traditional way of summoning the ancestors. I joined in, making sure my palms were perpendicular to each other. That’s the way women clap here. Men hold their hands parallel.

Inside the hut, the chief began preparing offerings for the spirits who the people here say live on Mount Gorongosa. He poured some wine into the dirt and glanced up at the sacred massif looming behind us, its blue-green folds hiding secrets that religious figures like Eugenio do not share with outsiders. He started calling out the ancestors’ names, and summoned his senior wife to join him as he walked over to a slender mopane tree at the edge of the clearing. The two knelt together and poured more wine onto the ground. That was the female ancestors’ spot, someone explained to me. Men and women move in separate spheres even when they’re spirits. I nodded. Female ancestors are said to do a better job of looking out for their living sisters, so I appreciated the gesture.

We passed a tin cup full of wine around our circle, and everyone took a sip. When we finally stood up from that dusty communion, the women began to sing. Suddenly I was in a sort of Mozambican conga line—this was a feature I didn’t recall from any of the earlier ceremonies I had attended—while the villagers sang in Sena, the local language. The song had Christian-style lyrics about admitting sin and requesting forgiveness. We danced around and around, with a stutter step that I kept messing up and a syncopated clap that I eventually managed to get. The white-hot sun was baking us in the clearing; I wondered if the others were also sweating. Eventually, Eugenio slowed the pace, and everyone clapped, one more time, in unison, with the cupped hands.

Before I knew it, the ceremony had ended. People began to mill around, the men filtering to some chairs in the shade of a mango tree, the women back to the reed mats on the ground. Eugenio grinned at me, gave me a thumbs-up, and asked me to take a picture of him and his family.

“Was that ceremony good?” I asked him as I clicked.

“Yup,” he said. “You can do your book.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. This was not exactly the revelatory experience I had half-allowed myself to imagine.

After a few minutes of photos, Eugenio was satisfied. Shooing off the children and wives, he ushered me toward the shade, where, as a visitor, I was given a stool.

“It’s good that you are writing about Canda,” he told me, referring to his own last name and also the name of this district on the mountain. “In school, everyone learns about Vasco da Gama.” He harrumphed derisively at the name of the Portuguese explorer who, centuries earlier, docked just a few dozen miles to the east of here. “The people of Canda—we were here way before Vasco da Gama. Are you writing this down? We were here on the mountain before the white people. And there have been many who have wanted to conquer this place. It does not work. Not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow.”

He checked again to make sure I was taking notes. “Are you going to put this in your book?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Yeah.”

Now it was his turn to laugh, although I didn’t quite know at what.

“A book,” he repeated. “So what story are you going to write?”

Copyright © 2017 by Stephanie Hanes

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STEPHANIE HANES is a regular correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and an award-winning journalist whose stories have appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Baltimore Sun, Smithsonian, and PBS NewsHour. Her work has been supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. White Man’s Game is Hanes’s first book. She lives in Andover, Massachusetts.