Marcia Bains-Grebner - 2015 Program Participant

Rhino sleeping in a pen in Zimbabwe

Tatenda, star of "There's a Rhino in my House," tucked in for the night in his "boma."

What inspired you to apply for an international volunteer program?

My friend had participated in international programs in the past involving orphaned or endangered animals. After listening to her, I became interested in participating in such a program. I have been concerned for years about the numbers of species that are being wiped out each year due to destruction of habitat, over-hunting, poaching, etc.

What led you to Conservation Travel Africa?

My friend located the “Imire” program, and then I stumbled upon the video, “There’s a rhino in my house.” Once we saw the video, we were both hooked. Both of us, as well as our parents, had provided homes in the past for injured or orphaned animals. I had cared for a blind whitetail deer for 9 years. In the program founders, we saw people who respected and loved animals as much as we did. After all, how often do you meet people who would raise an orphaned rhino, hyena, and warthog all at once?

What was your favorite part about Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwe is a beautiful lush, green country during the rainy season. We stayed in the Imire volunteer house, which was located on a river which had been dammed into a small lake and in which a hippo lived. Across the lake, we were able to see the four elephants walking and often the giraffes. These are stately, graceful animals, and watching them from a distance was like a Rudyard Kipling book come to life. Tatenda, the black rhino who was orphaned in the video, “There’s a rhino in my house,” had a “boma” right next to the volunteer house. I was able to sit with him at night, since he seemed to enjoy human company. The elephants were also kept within walking distance.

Elephant riding through a river in Zimbabwe

Swimming with Mac, the elephant, and one of his handlers, Petros.

On a larger scale, Imire consists of 14,000 acres of streams, ponds, lush green brush, plane trees, and enormous termite hills. I never tired of exploring the surroundings.

What made the Imire program in unique?

Imire’s program is unique because of all the hands-on work with the animals. Each morning we spent an hour cleaning up the elephant and/or rhino nests. We also participated in training the elephants. The oldest male, Mac, had been trained to take off people’s hats and return the hat. Mac was smart enough to learn how to tease, and any hat he removed went right into his mouth. We fed all the animals, learned how to treat sables for tics, and followed most of the animals as they browsed, studying their behaviors and learning to track them, and making population counts.

How involved were local staff in your day to day volunteer activities? 

The local staff was always with us during any activities. We were also given the opportunity to spend an evening learning about the Shona culture and sampling a Shona meal. The staff also provided three wonderful cooked meals a day, cleaned the house, and washed our laundry! What luxury for me!

What do you wish you would have known about Zimbabwe before you came? What do you wish you could have done that you didn’t do?

My trusty traveling companion and I did not know that Zimbabwe was a cash-only country. We were unable to use bank cards or credit cards and were always short of cash, since we did not want to travel with too much. I subsequently learned that the average yearly salary for Zimbabwe is $400.00. Obviously, I wished that I had brought more cash to leave behind. I also would have liked to spend more time with the children at school, and with the women who ran the school. Those women were unbelievable, teaching during the day, sewing in the afternoon to raise money for the school, and going home to raise many grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, etc.

Describe what a typical day was like for you in Zimbabwe.

Our days began at 6:30 a.m. with our task master calling, “Maasha, we are go-o-ing.” We began our days by cleaning up rhino or elephant nests for one hour. We then got the opportunity to participate in training the elephants, observing the rhinos, etc., and usually returned for breakfast around 9:00 a.m. After breakfast, we engaged in another task, such as pulling down a look-out tower, removing old fencing, etc.

Profile of an Elephant

Mac, the magnificent.

We returned to lunch in the middle of the day, and were given a two hour break, which was a good time to head to the outside solar showers. In the afternoon, we usually had a planned task, such as going to the school and helping with the preschoolers or working in the organic vegetable garden at the secondary school. We once visited the tobacco farm and its drying facilities on Imire. We also went to the site of cave paintings and learned the history of the paintings from the son of a local “king.” A real treat was to be able to ride the elephants as they submerged themselves in the lake.

What was your favorite activity outside the normal day-to-day schedule of your program?

My favorite activity outside the normal schedule was planting the flower garden behind the volunteer house. The garden had been allowed to become a desert, so I attempted to restore the soil with at least 50 wheelbarrows full of buffalo manure. I then went to various locations around Imire and begged for flowers to transplant into the flower garden. Meanwhile, my trusty traveling companion worked in the vegetable garden.

One afternoon when I was home alone working in the garden the baboons came through. They jumped into the vegetable garden and began biting into unripe fruit on the lime trees and hurling the limes at each other and me. The whole episode reminded me of my childhood, because I tried to chase them out of the garden by swinging a rake at them and as well as throwing their limes. They were unconcerned and perched on the fence posts, crossed their legs, and looked at me. I would swear they were taunting me.

What was your accommodation like?

As I said, we stayed in the volunteer house, which was a large, thatched-roof house built by the brother of the program founders in the late 1940’s. It was a beautiful house, roomy and comfortable. My traveling companion and I shared a room on the ground floor. My favorite part of the house was the downstairs bathroom. The house manager left the bathroom light on as a night light, and so with no screens, there were often numerous bugs in the bathroom in the morning. Tiny tree frogs perched on the walls or in the sink each morning and cleaned up as many bugs as it took to fill them up.

Baby black rhino with mother in Zimbabwe

Tafika, the baby black rhino, born November 27, 2014, and her mother, Shanu.

How has your time volunteering in Zimbabwe impacted your life?

I would love to return to Imire. I admire the work the founders are doing to re-populate the black rhinos. I am also committed to sending money to the Imire school and attempting some fund-raising for the school as well. It was amazing to me that in the midst of such dire poverty, the people of Imire are so generous spirited and happy.