Field Notes from Southern Africa: A Lesson in Rewilding the Land and the Mind

Deanne Fernandes
MFA ILL 2024

Four lion cubs in Namibia

In early summer 2023, I found myself enchanted by snapshots of a friend’s recent Serengeti safari escapade. Together, we went through her photo gallery, which captured the wild majesty of Africa’s creatures—elegant giraffes, zebras, a herd of elephants. We playfully envisioned an African safari as a top priority on my bucket list when fortune favored me someday. On a rainy day in July, I recall scrolling through the RISD Global courses, only to be surprised by the inclusion of a Southern Africa course called Art & Science of Conservation. The course outline focused on biodiversity studies, safeguarding endangered species, and examining the interconnected health dynamics among humans, animals, and the environment. Entering the second year of my Illustration masters program, I realized that the upcoming Wintersession would be my final opportunity to participate in a travel course. This wasn’t just a safari experience; it was an opportunity to interact with the entire ecosystem and explore the dynamics of human-animal interaction with environmental experts. It was a calling that I had to respond to.

A herd of around 60 elephants surrounding the game viewer

Being both a sociologist and a visual storyteller, I was keen to observe how conservation efforts unfolded amidst the myriad challenges of the third world. With nearly a decade of experience in ecosystem restoration and advocating for indigenous land rights in India, I was eager to witness Southern Africa’s systems firsthand. Moreover, it presented an opportunity to tick off another continent from my bucket list, aligning perfectly with my interests in travel and travel journalism. The acceptance letter to the course brought me immense joy. But joy quickly gave way to the reality of financial obligations and visa applications if I were to make this dream a reality. As an international student hailing from a country where visas are required for entry into many nations, I have become well acquainted with the intricate process of navigating visa requirements time and time again. Merit, hard work, and talent seldom feature among the criteria. As I opened the acceptance email and read its contents slowly once more, relief flooded over me as I realized I had been awarded a full travel scholarship. Still, within the next six weeks, I would have to secure visas for two countries to ensure that I would be a part of the trip. It meant making a trip to New York during a hectic semester. On my birthday in October, I found myself darting between embassies in New York, meticulously scanning documents and undergoing interviews, all with the hope that in a few months time, I’d be rewarded with the sight of a giraffe. The FedEx envelope bearing the stamp of the South African embassy with my approved visa was the most precious mail I have ever received. I embraced and kissed it, a testament to surviving yet another daunting visa application process in my dream to travel.

My final project, An illustrated story quilt

I have consistently kept an illustrated travel diary, capturing and preserving stories from my travel adventures. Hand-drawn journals serve as time capsules, capturing the rawest thoughts and most beautiful marks of the moment. Field journals, unlike studio sketches, transform into moving studios in which one must slow down, observe the colors, and trust every mark made. As the plane soared over Africa, the vast rolling lands had me in a trance. Our first destination was South Africa, where we lived at a hunter lodge bordering a private game reserve. The Makalali Game Reserve accommodates many animal species, including lions, elephants, leopards, black and white rhinos, spotted and brown hyenas, cheetahs, and wild dogs. Spanning 212 square kilometers, the entire reserve is fenced. In 1994, a program was initiated to reintroduce endangered and previously extinct species in the area. We quickly realized that the conventional definition of wildlife would be put to the test. Private game reserves, often rewilded former farms, typically reintroduce indigenous animal and plant species. Rewilding refers to the process of restoring and conserving natural ecosystems and habitats by reintroducing native species, allowing natural processes to occur with minimal human intervention, creating connections between fragmented habitats. The goal of rewilding is to promote biodiversity, restore ecological balance, and enhance the resilience of ecosystems in the face of environmental challenges. Questions soon surfaced about fences, land rights, poaching, and the fact that these wild animals are reintroduced rather than truly wild. During our initial encounter with fascinating creatures, it dawned on me just how remarkably close we were. One of our first animal encounters was with a lioness within arm’s reach of our game viewer. During our first week in South Africa, we encountered more than 30 lions, as well as giraffes, zebras, impalas, and rhinos. The highlight of our experience was being enveloped by a herd of nearly 60 African elephants as they weaved their way between the game viewer, rolling around in puddles of mud. Each moment was a treasure trove of information; we learned about everything from the vital role of dung beetles in maintaining the wild ecosystem to the traditional knowledge of the Bushmen, lost due to settler colonization.

The focal point of our most intense discussion revolved around the wildlife trade and its detrimental effects on endangered species, notably rhino and pangolin poaching. Through this discourse, we delved into the deeper ramifications of poaching and the complex trade networks that fuel broader issues like sponsored conflicts and the arms trade. Our exploration revealed numerous hidden implications associated with poaching, including disturbing conversations about animals as mere economic objects between nations and within global organizations. The core objective of this course was to spotlight these challenges and engage in discussions about potential solutions. One that emerged was conservation hunting. Conservation hunting, also known as sustainable or ethical hunting, refers to a practice where hunting activities are carefully managed and regulated to ensure the long-term conservation of wildlife populations and their habitats. Unlike traditional hunting solely for sport or trophy, conservation hunting is guided by principles aimed at maintaining ecological balance, preserving biodiversity, and supporting local communities. Revenue generated from conservation hunting, through permits, licenses, and fees, is typically reinvested into conservation efforts, habitat restoration, anti-poaching measures, and local community development projects. Our perspectives on conservation hunting evolved as we realized that the ethical standards for conservation hunting were far more sustainable than those in the food production industry in the U.S., both in terms of ethical treatment and animal health.

Throughout my academic journey in sociology, I’ve been deeply involved in discussions around decolonizing perspectives, exploring research methodologies, and advocating for conservation efforts. The overarching goal has always been to foster societal healing and promote harmony with all living beings. One of the key insights gained from these discussions is the enduring influence of colonial history on the entire ecosystem, individual species, cultural practices, religious traditions, and class and racial disparities, particularly in the Global South. This course has served as a powerful reminder of the critical importance of understanding the history of communities that may be different from our own. It has emphasized the need to approach communities with humility and mindfulness, recognizing our own privileges, especially when we are guests in their spaces. By doing so, we can better engage in meaningful dialogue and contribute positively to efforts aimed at addressing societal challenges and fostering sustainable development. This underscores the potency of visual research and ethical travel journalism: they present stories as they are, fostering dialogues about both the challenges and the potential solutions. Moving forward in this delicate world entails seeking to understand the land, engaging in conversations, and approaching topics with grace and gratitude. My artistic practice serves as a vehicle to navigate these diverse realities.

Upon my return to Providence, my South Africa adventure continued. I had the privilege of participating in a two-week residency with South African artist William Kentridge’s group, The Centre of the Less Good Idea. As artists, we often become absorbed in our individual practices and overlook ideas that could flourish through community collaboration. The residency proved to be a healing experience, addressing issues that had not necessarily surfaced during my trip. We delved into topics like privilege, using dance and song as a means of navigating grief, and confronting generational and colonial trauma by reclaiming indigenous stories and amplifying marginalized voices. During the residency, I engaged with Black artists native to South Africa. Conversations on the history of indigenous communities that eluded us during our study course in Africa found closure during the residency. I had the opportunity to discuss with them the impact of colonization on their history and the lingering generational impacts of occupation. They shared their journey of reclaiming their native dialects and traditional songs, which served as anchors during difficult times. Theater and performance assisted them in embodying their work, embracing their truths, and authentically sharing their stories.

The transformative power of nature is undeniable, capable of healing wounds, igniting change, and fostering personal development. My journey through this travel course has illuminated the profound significance of dialogue and exchange in both creation and research. My thesis, which I am currently completing, delves into the concept of call and response in Talk Story Research. I have come to learn that true understanding of a place and its community emerges through reciprocal storytelling. Through this process, we not only uncover the intricacies of local narratives, but also create a platform for communities to voice their experiences and perspectives. By shedding light on both the strengths and challenges of a community, we pave the way for ethical engagement and collaborative problem-solving.

Deanne is a travel writer dreaming of her next adventure.