Lessons from the Bush

By Kaitlyn Ammerlaan

Coming into college, I had no idea that I would have had the opportunity to study and travel abroad. I didn’t think that it was something that I needed or would even want to do. But as I began to get more involved with my major, Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, and my Conservation Biology minor, the desire to experience more of the world that I was studying began to silently weigh on me. As I continued to learn more about some of the greatest problems that we face, it became difficult to be hopeful about the future and my own ability to make a positive change. With this lost feeling weighing on me, I heard about a program that was happening this summer in South Africa and I perked up a bit. While it was a difficult decision to leave for three weeks of the summer, I knew that in order to best care for the world and people that I felt compelled to protect I needed to take this opportunity while I could. After traveling around this beautiful country for the last three weeks, I can say that I learned so much more than I was expecting to, both about the world and myself. I feel much more confident with who I am as a person and what I have the potential to do as a conservationist.

Before I left, I had the impression that I was coming to South Africa to find something new. But, through all of our experiences, I discovered that I did not have to go searching for something and instead all I had to do was look around and within myself. Throughout all of our travels, one of the most common occurrences was finding similarities between South Africa and home. We tend to view distant places as a unique opportunity to learn about people from cultures different from our own; and, while this was a very important part of my experience here, I found myself surprised about how much I had learned about myself and my culture as well. These revelations also demonstrated how interconnected the world is; how seemingly separate cultures can influence each other. I learned the most about this during our homestay experience. Coming into Dotha, the village that I had the joy of living in for two days, there were obvious barriers between us students and the people of the village. These were easily overcome, however, through simple conversations about music and Facebook, during which we found a lot of common ground. This trend of finding similarities and differences between our different cultures followed throughout the homestay and I believe that it facilitated the great appreciation and love that I have for the people of Ha-Makuya. In terms of conservation, these observations have helped better my understanding of the importance of fair negotiations and consideration of multiple perspectives when creating and implementing conservation strategies. I have become so much more aware of where I fit into this world and how I can use that position to contribute to conservation going forward.

My time here in South Africa has also significantly humanized issues surrounding conservation. One of the most impactful lessons that I have taken away from my experience in South Africa is the need for care and consideration of every aspect of the living world. The concepts of community and companionship and care followed me throughout my journey. From observing the wonders of Kruger National Park to being overwhelmed by the sense of community in Dotha to experiencing the joy of members of a community-run nature reserve, the adventure here in South Africa has shown how important and influential communities can be. When people take time to look beyond the needs of themselves and focus on the needs of others, positive change can be made. Again shifting to an environmental perspective, this compassion can then be extended to include elements of the natural world in order to create a sustainable system. I witnessed this most clearly during our stay at Lekgalametse Community Nature Reserve. At Lekgalametse, communities live surrounding the nature reserve and maintain it as a thriving natural area. It was incredible to learn about all of the plans and steps that were being taken by the local community to protect and preserve their land. This is the same level of care that I hope to help contribute to in my own community and also help facilitate in others.Beyond conservation, I have discovered more about my own ability and drive to care for those around me.

I have had the amazing opportunity here in South Africa to discover a renewed sense of compassion for the world around me. This is such a big world that we all live in and it is so important to take time to experience all that is in it. From your backyard to the bush of South Africa, there is so much to love and appreciate in this world. Take some time to breathe and take some time to care for those around you. I am excited to use all that I have learned here to help me grow as an individual and to contribute to a more sustainable future for the incredible communities here in South Africa.

Natalie Miller