Notes from the Field: Reflections from Zimbabwe


This trip to Zimbabwe has been an emotional and humbling experience. I lost my best friend to cancer this year and we always wanted to go to Africa together. She talked about going on a safari, so it’s very fitting that I’m here now.

Resources just aren’t readily available here. Butter, bread, water, concrete… they get what they can when it’s available. They don’t even have an option to have items mailed. Customs gave us a hard time because we brought in supplies for the local schools. Concrete is a big issue right now. Dr. Rasmussen sells the concrete to the local community to help them build homes.  It is service for the community and is better choice for houses than using other natural resources and the native trees. There is an ongoing monetary crisis in Zimbabwe. Most businesses only accept US dollars… it’s hard to get ahead if you don’t have the money to support your family.

One of the most impactful takeaways for me is centered around education. It doesn’t matter if you’re in kindergarten or high school, if you want an education you are walking long distances on a dirt gravel road that is often filled with speeding safari trucks from a local safari attraction. Dr. Rasmussen and the Painted Dog Research Trust (PDRT) are trying to build a primary school so that children don’t have to walk far to learn about conservation-related issues and how to be stewards of the land. The other “a-ha moment” is that children don’t have the access to the country's national parks. Their families can’t afford the park entrance fees. We visited the Chisuma Primary School and the Sizinda Secondary School. Mr. Zulu, PDRT educator, asked the students how many students have visited a national park only one student had raised their hand. It was heartbreaking to hear that even though Zimbabwe has amazing species of wildlife, the majority of residents don’t get to see them unless they are coming into conflict with these animals for important resources like their livestock or crops.

The school had a closet full of broken bicycles that needed repaired. Originially these bikes were used by students with the farthest walks to class but the school lacked the resources to maintain them. There was also a closet of old computers someone donated. The school doesn’t have electricity so they just sat in the closet collecting dust. I tried to work out a long-distance program with the students of Chisuma and Sizinda with students in Oklahoma City but the time difference and PRDT having solar power has proven to be a challenge.

The one word that describes this trip or sums it up is ‘resources’. Everything revolves around resources. Lack of resources and how to get the resources you need to survive. Animals need resources to survive and thrive and so do humans. In the rural area of Zimbabwe where we stayed, obtaining food, water and shelter is a challenge for many. In April, the city water was just turned off. No one knows why.  They have run out of their water storage that they have had since the last major rain. Dr. Rasmussen and his team had to go to town every day to get barrels of water filled. Other locals have to walk miles to get water daily.

To be successful, Dr. Rasmussen has to manage a lot of challenges. He strives to support the local community by providing employment opportunities, providing concrete and at the same time continuously tries to follow up on painted dog sightings.

This trip was a great reminder how important is to get out in nature. It’s been a while since I have slept out under the stars and it’s a practice I need to continue. I can’t tell you how excited I was to use experience life outside under the night sky. There’s such a connection to the environment when you’re fully immersed.

We logged all the animal species we saw each day. Dr. Rasmussen’s right-hand man, MK, is a very knowledgeable tracker. He possessed an almost unbelievable ability to identify every animal by sound or footprint. He also has close connections to the community and can tell amazing stories. It’s hard to describe the feeling of adding each new species sighted to our list... it was like opening a birthday present but much so more.

African painted dogs are wonderful but occasionally frustrating. We did not see any painted dogs during our stay, but not for a lack of trying. Painted dogs are active before dawn and at night after sunset. They are elusive and people who report sightings often mistake them for hyenas. We had several leads from the locals, but it’s always a detective game. One lead that panned out involved three goats that had been eaten by the painted dogs.

Overall, this was the trip of a lifetime. Since seventh grade when my science teacher talked about the Amazon Rainforest and female pioneers like Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, conservation work has been a driving force in my life.  A friend from middle school said it brought tears to her eyes seeing that I followed my dreams. This trip is a reflection of a determined young girl to achieve her goals to go to Africa to making a difference in the world!

-Rachael Robinson, Director of Education

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