By : Lawrence Lamb, DVM
We live in troubled times. As we experience the hardships of a pandemic, we are also dealing with social outrage about a condition, an illness that needs to be addressed: racism. Now, probably more than I can remember, we need to adjust to new realities. This is a period in which faith is not a minimal requirement, and how we personally deal with change will make a huge difference to our health and sense of well-being going into the future. Indeed, it is a time for a long-needed transformation.
In the late 60s and early 70s, our nation was going through upheaval. We were living in a very similar political climate. During this troubled period, I was working as a veterinarian in New York City, where public services were incapacitated, and crime was rampant. The city felt like it was on a downward spiral of deterioration, and I had to reimagine my life based on the circumstances that surrounded me. I didn’t want to leave the profession I loved, but I knew I had to incorporate a major transformation into my everyday life to survive as a healthy and spiritually-oriented human being. I wanted to seek a better understanding of both our world and myself.
So I decided to leave the practice of small animal medicine in NYC and seek a different outlet for the pleasure of learning about different animal species. This need led me to embark on a journey that was not only transformational but would also be the adventure of a lifetime. I decided to research living among the wild animals of West, Central, East, and South Africa.
One of the greatest gifts of my adventure was a very profound appreciation of the human bond. I set out alone on my journey, armed with youthful ignorance and a general lack of fear (also a byproduct of my young age!). I arrived in Algeria, reasonably prepared with my visas, equipment, supplies and a trusty orange VW van picked up in Paris. But I lacked a “caravan,” which was critical to safely cross the Sahara (and critical for companionship). In a campground in Algeria, I met Don, a dentist from San Francisco, and Michael, a children’s film producer. We were the “Three Amigos,” with a common goal. Don was the most prepared: he had maps and a Land Rover with spare parts, purchased in London. Michael was the opposite, having purchased an old VW van on a whim in Amsterdam. I was somewhere between.
Today we might see bonds in our society as the unification that takes place during a shared legal protest for a cause that would bring our own citizens more in harmony. I had countless experiences that showed me those bonds on my trip. One particular night I shared with a sub-Saharan nomad and his family showed me there is a bond we all share, without the complications of political divisions. And it changed me.
On the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert there is a geographic area called the Savanna. This is a place where the first signs of vegetation exist and is where nomadic peoples move to and fro with their cattle. In an area that appears to be barren, there exists the largest density of various tribes in all of Africa.
At the end of an exhausting day of driving over corrugated sand trails, the group of two other vehicles in our caravan set up camp in what appeared to be a barren area of sparse vegetation. Within 45 minutes, three young girls appeared, each representing a different sect of tribal people, each dressed in various attire. Some wore magnificent jewelry handcrafted for them. We began to sense how little we understood about the mysterious cultures in this part of the world. These young girls stood shyly on the camp perimeter, observing us from a distance.
Don brought hospital scrub tops and gave them to the girls as gifts. Overjoyed, they departed, and shortly returned with tribal elders who appeared from the brush, surrounding us. One man was dressed in a loincloth covered by a woven tunic and had a hairstyle that included bangs and hair to his shoulders. The other man wore blue robes and white headwear that covered his face. He was a Tuareg, one the fierce fighters of the Sahara known as “Blue Arabs” because of the indigo color of their dress.
In return for our gift to his daughter, the man in the tunic brought a vessel made from cattle skin filled with milk and offered us a drink. As a military public health officer in the Air Force, the idea of drinking unpasteurized milk was somewhat repulsive, but rejecting this offer of goodwill was unimaginable.
The purpose of my journey was to experience life to the fullest, and I must admit that after having children of my own, I probably would not have accepted his sign language invitation to follow him into the bush. However, for me this was a risk worth taking. I trailed behind him as he swiftly blazed a trail over dunes and into brush and I soon lost sight of my encampment. It was as if I were in a dream, following an ancestor rather than a complete stranger. Eventually, we reached his homestead. In a clearing stood several large tents made from the hides of his treasury of animals. He apparently had several wives and was wealthy based on the number of cattle he maintained.
This man invited me, again through sign language, to eat with his family of wives and children and to spend the night. I could only imagine what a night with this nomadic family would bring. One of my greatest regrets was not accepting that invitation. As my mind returned to the companions, who in these days before the immediacy of cell phones, who would have been overtaken with anxiety by an overnight absence, forced me to accept the fact that staying would be unfair my party of adventurers back at camp.
Dusk had arrived and the stars were beginning to appear. Looking into the eyes of my nomadic friend, I pointed to the night sky and to my eyes, signaling my inability to find my way back to my camp.
He understood and communicated his desire to guide me back to his wives. They became agitated that he would go back into the bush at night. Perhaps there was a danger that I did not know about. He did, however, guide me back. A perfect stranger was risking his well-being for me. Later, I learned this period was the beginning of one of the worst droughts in the recorded history of sub-Saharan Africa. Over several years’ time, most nomadic peoples lost their animals and perished. Those who survived had to seek shelter and aid in more populated urban areas south of the Sahara.
Over my journey, I came to learn about the relationship between man and animal, and to my great benefit I had learned about the potential for relationships between all men. This was the nomad’s gift. The gift of guiding me through one of several transformations acquired during my travels on a distant continent.
There is so much to experience and learn in the brief moments of one lifetime. Beset with immediate responsibilities, we often overlook the obvious and forestall our desire to expand our horizons. Today we are faced with a challenge as a society and our response to it will determine whether we can continue to flourish as a democracy or become so divided that our systems buckle under the pressures of greed and racism. If we can transform ourselves as a people living in freedom, undivided and working for common good, if we can all understand the lessons of the nomad and see ourselves in one another’s eyes regardless of language, ethnicity, or religion, we will have everything to look forward to.