5 gifts from Africa

Goodbye Africa.

You are old but beautiful. Savage but graceful. Undisciplined but free.

  Africa personified. Note how her hat/hair takes the shape of an elephant, complete with tusks. From the "African House" preserved at El-Djem, Tunisia. While I photographed this Roman mosaic back in 2002, this particular image comes from Blanchard-Lemee, Michele, et. al.  Mosaics of Roman Africa . George Braziller, 1996.

Africa personified. Note how her hat/hair takes the shape of an elephant, complete with tusks. From the "African House" preserved at El-Djem, Tunisia. While I photographed this Roman mosaic back in 2002, this particular image comes from Blanchard-Lemee, Michele, et. al. Mosaics of Roman Africa. George Braziller, 1996.

One part of me hesitates to embrace you. Your wildness is frightening.

Another part of me hesitates to let you go. I am infatuated by your simplicity and lack of pretension.

One thing I know. Even though my backpack does not show it, I carry home many gifts from you. I will treasure them as memories for the rest of my life. Because of them I can close my eyes, anywhere, anytime, and immediately hear you again. Smell you. Return to you.

What are those gifts?

  Herds of zebra and wildebeest in Ngorongoro Crater.

Herds of zebra and wildebeest in Ngorongoro Crater.

1. The odd majesty of your wildlife.

Africa, from the top of a knobby-tyred vehicle I saw your herds. They were majestic.

To observe them in their own space and on their own terms stirs a variety of emotions. Some of these emotions--joy and awe--are expected. Even your lumbering creatures exhibit an awkward elegance (watch a feeding elephant break a tree; it is wondrous dance!).

Other emotions tumble in unexpectedly. I am humbled by the stamina needed for migration, the vigilance exhibited against predation, the cooperation required for a successful hunt, and the sacrifice offered in death.

This gift of odd majesty is not just the fingerprints of a creator, but the legacy of human protectors who struggle with poachers, industrialists, legislators, and public opinion. Establishing and maintaining wild spaces comes at a cost. That cost is not cheap. But if there will be herds for future generations to witness, help is required.

Your wildlife is majestic, yet odd.

  The Great Rift Escarpment above Lake Manyara, Tanzania.

The Great Rift Escarpment above Lake Manyara, Tanzania.

2. The powerful serenity of your landscape.

Africa, I know mountains are pushed up in many places.

But where else does one find peaks like Kilimanjaro (19,341') and Meru (14,977') adjacent to calderas like Shira and Ngorongoro? The former are stratovolcanoes that scrape the sky. The later are volcanoes that exploded (or collapsed) in antiquity, leaving deep pock-marks in earth's crust. Watching the sun set on your dimpled horizon calms me for a moment . . . until I contemplate the power required to raise and destroy it. 

And while valleys abound, where else does one discover something as magnificent as the Great Rift System? This seam between tectonic plates is a is crack in the earth's windshield that spiderwebs across East Africa, runs up the Red Sea, through the Heartland, and all the way to Turkey (See here for National Geographic's recent report of movement in Kenya). Consider the power needed to move mountains. Now consider the power needed to move whole continents! The earth churns beneath our feet.

Africa, I promise you: the next time I stand in the trench that holds the Jordan River, I will look south and exclaim, "I know where this is going."

Your landscape is serene, yet powerful. 

  Jason, Mark, and Tommy on the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro.

Jason, Mark, and Tommy on the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro.

3. The rare camaraderie of your challenges.

Africa, your mountain is like a magnet.

25,000 people attempt it each year. Of these, more than a third are turned away. Why do they keep coming back? Is it the thought of a glaciated peak just 3 degrees off the equator? The opportunity to explore layers of life-zones that mark the journey from rainforest to alpine snow? The quest to tamp down fear and achieve one of the "seven summits"? Certainly these reasons play a part. But beyond them all is the experience of a camaraderie that is formed in adverse conditions.

Their voices are still in my head: "You can do this." "Pole pole." "Expect the best, be prepared for the worst," "Drink water," "Age is only a number."

I flew from Tel Aviv to Tanzania with one purpose: to climb Kilimanjaro. But as a wise man would have predicted, standing on that frosted peak turned out to be only a piece of a more comprehensive and rewarding experience. The mountain is merely the challenging space where relationships--raw and rich--are cut.

Your challenges build a camaraderie that is rare. 

  Napping in style and comfort on Kilimanjaro.

Napping in style and comfort on Kilimanjaro.

4. The sudden spontaneity of your song.

Africa, your song is a gift. 

It rests immediately under the surface of life and can burst out at any time.

One might think it is initiated by the hoofbeats of herds, the creaking of continental plates, the whistle of wind over glacial ice or the rush of a stream from your iconic mountain. There is a rhythm to all this activity. I sense it in the same way that I sense the hum of cars on a distant highway if I am quiet enough. 

But this only a part of the gift that I'm thinking about. 

The song that bursts spontaneously comes from one place. It is  . . .

  Herder and herd outside of Arusha, Tanzania.

Herder and herd outside of Arusha, Tanzania.

5. The simple joy of your people. 

The cynic might argue that "good customer service" is only offered to receive a benefit. This is partially true.

But the quest for a tip cannot explain the sweep of our encounters with local folk in Tanzania. From drivers to supervisors, grocery-store clerks to park rangers, I was repeatedly impressed by an inner ebullience. There is a joyful spirit embedded in the people we encountered. It transcended material possessions or station of life.   

Quick smiles and extra miles were unnecessarily distributed at every turn. It was a surprising gift offered to those of us who hail from a culture dominated by a hermeneutic of suspicion, "fake news," a "one-world" numbness, and fear of foreigners.

Africa, the joy of your people is enviable. 

  A few members of our superb porter team from Kandoo Adventures. 

A few members of our superb porter team from Kandoo Adventures. 

I bid you goodbye for now. One day I hope to return. But even if I don't I will carry your gifts with me always. Thank you for sharing them with me.

  Paul and Tommy.

Paul and Tommy.


Dr. Mark Ziese, Dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, manages the website Bible Land Explorer and teaches regularly in the Biblical heartland. You are invited to join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection in October, 2018. Onboard lectures will focus on Paul's fourth missionary journey. See the link here for details.