04 Oct Journey to Jika Jika Tavern-Part 1
You don’t find the story; the story finds you.
I can clearly remember when the story of Down at Jika Jika Tavern found me. Although I had started toying with the idea of writing a novel in 2012 (after deregistering from my PhD), I wasn’t doing it very well. I had the main character but was fumbling with the plot. I had a notebook full of possible scenes, but no storyline to convincingly pull it all together. It was only in 2014 that the story transitioned from a set of stand-alone chapters to a book with a working plot. It finally began to take shape, thanks to a series of events, the first of which took place on New Year’s Eve, 2013.
The man who shoots without moonlight
That evening, while sitting on the veranda at the game farm my parents were involved in, my friend Amy and I heard a gunshot out on the reserve. The cacophony of night sounds: the high pitched singing of reed frogs, the incessant buzz of flying insects, the witchy cackle of a nightjar, ceased abruptly. We all stood stock-still until the orchestra resumed its nightly concert. But Amy and I were convinced; poachers were in pursuit of a rhino. This assumption was based on the fact that for the past few New Years’ eves, rhino had been poached on the game farm. So why should New Year’s Eve 2013 be any different? Suddenly a hazy light appeared out in the dark of the reserve, and within the circle of light it cast, was a large motionless grey lump. A fallen rhino! We were beside ourselves, both shocked and enthralled; our imaginations in overdrive as we sat in camping chairs, binoculars in hand, trying to get a better understanding of just exactly what was happening out there. My father finally gave in and humoured us; phoning the lodge to alert them of our ‘sighting’.
The next morning, we were informed that the light we’d seen was from a new quarry on the hill, and the motionless grey lump: a gravel dune. We were both disappointed at our poor investigative capabilities but also thrilled to learn that our vigil had been in vain.
As we did every morning after breakfast, we jumped into the game vehicle, eager to see what we might find out on the reserve. While driving through the veld, the scent of summer in the air, another game vehicle pulled up and indicated that we stop. In it sat a man the quintessential ranger; one bronzed arm hanging over the side of the door frame, hair windblown, yet perfect for the setting. And then, he released the arrow that changed the direction of my stalled book. There had been a poaching attempt the night before, and it was rumoured that it was an ex Renamo soldier, a Mozambican who could fell a rhino with one shot, and, without the aid of moonlight. Thankfully, last night, he had failed.
The image of a man walking through the bush at midnight, without the moon to guide him while he tried to locate and kill a rhino, remained with me throughout the game drive. A few days later, I navigated a 4×4 track that took me right up to the fence line of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve. On the other side of the fence were a tribe of goats, and on our side, a few metres into the bush, was a rhino. The vision of a boy, his entire life lived in poverty and with no hope for a future outside of his village, came to life. And I thought about the ex-soldier and the young boy. I thought about what might lead a person to poach a rhino; especially those that stood to lose the most, if things went awry out there in the veld in the middle of the night.
There is much information to be found on those at the top of the poaching pyramid; we understand that greed, status, and corruption drive the industry, but so to do the desperate, the hungry, the uneducated who, in search of a cure for a dying loved one, will place their hope in a vial of keratin. Just like every user of rhino horn does not do so out of malicious intent, surely not every poacher poaches because they are greedy, soulless, and without conscience. There are many books, articles, blogs, etc. that focus solely on the people without a conscience, who see no wrong in trading animal parts, endangered or otherwise, but not much has been written about those in the trenches, the expendable pawns who risk life and limb for a small cut of the pie. What socio-economic drivers push people towards such a dangerous career path?
The Danger of the Single Story
As Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, warns us, there is danger in telling a single story. I wanted to write a book that, while sharing the terrible realities of poaching in South Africa, might give us insight into why people do the things they do. However, it’s important to say that Down at Jika Jika Tavern is not a book about rhino poaching, per se. The poaching angle was a necessary driver of the plot and allowed me to explore relationships between different classes, different races, and faiths. I don’t believe you can tell a story set in South Africa from one point of view; it would be sorely lacking in depth, colour, and the lived realities of others.
For most of my life, whether at the multi-cultural Catholic school I attended during the apartheid era, as a craft developer, an anthropologist, and an NPO founder in rural Zululand, I have had the privilege of working and living with people of different races, socio-economic classes, and faiths. My approach to life has been profoundly affected by the opportunity to get to know people who don’t have the same story as me. It is in the daily interactions, such as cooking and eating together, whiling away the hours as you wait for workshop participants to arrive, and the long hours spent driving to remote destinations, that provide opportunities for genuine and intentional conversations to take place. It is through these conversations that understanding of the ‘other’ begins, serious contemplation of one’s prejudices take place (both conscious and unconscious), and friendships blossom.
Before there were rhinos
But, before rhinos charged onto the scene, a tiny girl child called Nonhle, arrived in my life in 2012. For five years I co-raised her with her granny at my family home. The faceless main character of my book suddenly had a name and imagined characteristics. I began writing with the intention that Nonhle, when old enough, would read a book in which the main character carried her name. A character who was strong, and clever, and conscious. Growing up I had a terrible relationship with reading. But the day I was given a book, with my very un-South African name in it, that relationship changed. No longer would I have to console myself with the only book in the library bearing my name – a book on trees; I had been upgraded from an Ash tree to an adventurous girl.
The story would take place in Zululand, with a game lodge as the main setting. Nonhle Ngubane, a student anthropologist, has chosen a different path. Due to an upbringing very different from her peers, she stands on the periphery, but still wants to fit in. So when the vision of the boy on the outside of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve came to me, it spoke to me again of this young woman, looking in at the private game reserve where her parents worked. It made me think of all the people who live on the outskirts of places that once belong to them; people who feel that more value is placed on the life of a rhino, than their own. But also of the people who bought and paid for that land, the deep connectedness they feel for it, and their fear at losing it.
Journey to Jika Jika Tavern
On a more recent trip to Zululand, I was sharing with a new friend how I had managed to come up with the content for the book. And in sharing some of the stories of the research conducted, and people met, I realised that sharing the research itself is as important as the book. So over the coming weeks, I’d like to share some of that research, introduce you to people doing phenomenal work in the field of conservation (both academic and field), take you into a South African courtroom, in the hopes of watching a poaching kingpin gets his just deserts, and take you on a journey to Jika Jika Tavern.