Sunday, July 3, 2016

When It’s Time to Go

It was Shakespeare or someone like that who said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow”. Places and people affect us emotionally and this is perhaps the thing of greatest beauty in life. Then again, these affective dimensions are not always positive, sometimes even quite the opposite. There are times when you know that, both parting and sorrow aside, it’s just time to go.

Since returning from down under in April, I have run another circuit through a few countries over the past few months (Cuba and South Africa), eventually landing me in the middle of nowhere at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique’s Sofala district. Here, things were supposed to slow down for a month while I soaked up this new landscape and worked my way into the myriad of projects and research going on here at the park. Sooner than later, however, I found myself teamed up with a bunch of Zimbabwean (Zimbos) farmers working on several of the park’s agriculture intervention programs in the buffer zone that surrounds the park. But before I get into all of that, some context:

Gorongosa National Park was once heralded as arguably the greatest nature reserve in all of Southern Africa. With a climate conducive to incredible vegetative production and a uniquely diverse range of habitats, Gorongosa was world-renowned as hosting some of the highest game densities on the planet including all of the iconic “Big 5” (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant) in spades. All of that, however, was before the war--almost 2 decades of civil strife that that killed millions, filled the countryside with land mines, destroyed the economy and infrastructure, and perhaps unsurprisingly, devastated the ecosystem in Gorongosa as well.

With the cease-fire signed between RENAMO and FELIMO in 1992, both Mozambique and Gorongosa could begin the long process of recovery. What was left in the national park after years of conflict was unknown. Many communities of people had moved into the area as a refuge from the fighting during the war and, through the understandable necessities of survival, had impacted animal populations greatly. In the early 2000’s, the Carr Foundation began working in conjunction with the Mozambican government to revive and restore Gorongosa towards its original abundance--no small task, especially when considering that the cease-fire of the 1990’s had not brought peace, but instead, calm periods between periodically re-emergent violence. Still, Gorongosa National Park has made amazing strides and today represents a true gem of natural beauty for Mozambique, Southern Africa and the world.

The toll of the conflict, however, remains raw.

For anyone who runs into a Gorongosa elephant (there are over 500 in the park), this becomes immediately apparent. While elephants are always dangerous animals to encounter, the elephants of Gorongosa have survived a particularly brutal history of persecution. As such, they exude a fear and defensiveness towards humans that reflects their traumatic experience of violence. Elephant charges are common in Gorongosa (though rarely dangerous, if treated appropriately) and even for those unfamiliar with the body language of elephants, the stress and agitation they convey is unmistakable. Their emotions, like the emotions of many other animals, seem tied not only to the physical landscape of the park, but also to the historical crucible in which these modern populations once had to survive.

All of this, of course, is to say nothing of the human toll that the Mozambican civil war has had on the people of Mozambique. To offer a very basic metric that speaks nothing to the complexity and depth of this toll, but does indicate something about its meta-effects, Mozambique today remains one of the world's poorest countries.

In the buffer zone surrounding the park, some 150,000 people currently live. Through a series of interventions funded alternatively by programs from USAID, Irish Aid, and the Carr Foundation, the food security and livelihoods of people in this area have become a focus for development and assistance with the underlying idea being that increasing the sustainability of communities on the periphery of the park will reduce the pressure of the natural resources of the park itself. The work being done, while still in its first few years, has great potential to make significant contributions to both the human and environmental capacity in the buffer zone.

The only hang up, it seems, is persistence of conflict in the area. Even 2+ decades on, things still simmer and escalate between the two stalwart factions of Mozambican politics: RENAMO, holed-up and dug-in deep on Gorongosa mountain and in the Sofala region, and FRELIMO, the guys that run the government and the national army. And as we increasingly enter a phase of the latter, it seems time for me to leave Mozambique for now. The details of it all are steeped in the politics and context that I barely understand and hardly want to wade into in writing or otherwise. With the prospects and potential of doing work/research here in the future well-established, I am happy to change some plans and head to South Africa early to spend some more time in the Transkei with friends before making my way back to the states. It’s good to know when it’s time to go.

Here in Chitengo, that little bubble of a community at the edge of Gorongosa National Park, the geography of this place is pretty clear: the war is in the north, the buffer zone in the east, the Pungue river to the south, and the way out to the west. It’ll be a bush plane in the morning and Durban, South Africa by lunch.


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