In the early years of my childhood, my sense of holidaymaking or tourism was visiting relatives for at least three months a year in Bubi district, about 40 miles northeast of Bulawayo, the second-largest city of Zimbabwe. I participated in social and economic rural activities like cattle herding, firewood collecting and hunting. By age 10, I already knew that our survival in the villages was at odds with the law.
Collecting firewood, occasionally hunting small animals like rabbits and gazelles or birds for food anywhere and grazing livestock on certain farms was illegal, despite the fact that our lives depended on it. One day, I was arrested by the farm security police after being found in possession of firewood and amacimbi (edible mopane worms). My crime was poaching and trespassing on private property. These experiences taught me that being a poor person, living in the rural areas along the margins of commercial farms and wildlife sanctuaries, meant that you enjoyed less protection than animals. In fact, there was more provision for the survival of animals than there was for people.
There was provision for legal, orderly hunting. It was done during hunting seasons and by those with hunting licenses. Only rich, white tourists and hunters could afford this trophy-hunting business. Their legal hunting was for sport, while our illegal hunting was for food. What they killed, they took pictures of and collected horns and went away to brag. Perfectly legal. What we killed, we ate. Very criminal. I also learned that tourism was largely white and that hunting was white and male. We — the poor, black, rural people — did not enjoy the safety of off-road canopy vehicles while taking pictures of beautiful wild animals.
Our encounters with wildlife like gazelles, rabbits, lions and hyenas were usually tragic combats for survival. Gazelles or rabbits got killed because they were food. Lions got killed because they were deadly. Usually, people were allowed to kill a lion or a hyena when it had either killed a person or someone’s livestock. Is it any wonder that this district — where people were restricted to toiling on farms for meager wages and were prevented from hunting — had the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in Zimbabwe in 1998? It is possible that many HIV and AIDS deaths were preventable — that poverty made the situation severe.
It is also possible that many died while serving poaching sentences due to poor prison conditions. Their names are not known. These people are not like people like “Cecil the lion” or “Jericho” (Cecil’s cousin) or his cubs. No. They are not a tourist attraction. Their lives and safety are not tracked by renowned research institutions. Their fights for survival with the likes of Cecil and crew will not be recorded as heroic acts of survival. They are the dirty little secrets that the postcard image of Zimbabwe driving the multimillion-dollar tourism and trophy-hunting industries cannot afford to show. They will not be known, even by their collective name as humans — deserving human dignity.
I am sure they also want the luxury of having cordial encounters with wild animals. They want to be able to take pictures and wish their grandchildren will be able to do the same. But, no — they have no such choice. They cannot afford choices. How do you think about future generations when you are struggling to survive? You live on instinct to survive. Even if it means clutching at a serpent, you just do it.
So we ask the world to pardon our callousness, as you may define it — our lack of concern. Forgive us if we find it not so outrageous that a lion with a name and hero status was murdered by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. We have more pressing matters of life and death — matters of human dignity and survival.
Thabani Nyoni is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. He is an alumnus of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.