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Lords Of The Earth: A Family’s Journey To Preserve African Wisdom

Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's new book highlights the need to honor tribal traditions and conserve wildlife in Africa.

The Christos’ journey has been a singular one, 18 years with their son, Lysander, who learned to walk and talk in Africa, the cradle of humanity, the place where so many of the realities of nature and their with other species are lessons, they would hear and honor more than ever. 

In their latest book, Lords Of The Earth, Cyril Christo and his wife, Marie Wilkinson, along with their son started listening to elders and their views on the evolution of the earth on five continents a few years before their son was born and then soon realized that the tribes in Africa embodied a wisdom and honoring they would do well to heed if they are to survive. 

A picture of a leopard in the wild. Christo and his wife, Marie Wilkinson, explored with their son Lysander, where they have taken him to over 5 continents. (COURTESY/LYSANDER CHRISTO)

Namibia, where the Namibian desert, the oldest on earth unfolds as a near lunar landscape, is where the Himba reside, struggling to hold onto a millennia old way of life, a life challenged by increasing droughts that are increasing allure the world. One of the most isolated tribes in Africa, live a semi nomadic lifestyle surrounded by the chromatic rapture of the Namib desert that goes back 55 million years. 

The bewitching boulders and sands haunt the imagination like few places on earth. They witnessed fast running ungulates like oryx, zebra and giraffe, and awakened at two in the morning by roaring and very rare desert lions. 

They were privileged to even be charged by some of the wildest elephants on earth, who considered humans intruders, a far cry from the more accommodating herds one usually encounters in East Africa.

The Himba have also been fighting a proposed dam 535 feet (163.07 m) tall on the Kunene River that forms the boundary with neighboring Angola. One elder exclaimed” the Kunene “is a living organism and needs to be protected. All will die under the water. It’s their grazing area, farming is their livelihood. Different species, wildlife, most graves will be underwater.” 

The desire to retain the ways of the “holy fire” to “remain in their culture like their ancestors “were paramount in many of the elders they interviewed. The Christos were told of the days when rhinos would graze peacefully alongside their goats. Their Himba guide Boas, head of the Rhino Trust emphasized the necessity of community-based conservation efforts that engaged the local peoples as stewards of the land, working with rangers to monitor lion movements and to safeguard local people’s herds.

Specially designed elephant water cisterns were some of the most effective ways to lessen tensions between humans and wildlife. To see a procession of twenty desert elephants walking peacefully among cows towards a common cistern is to see a model of cooperation that we will need in the coming years. 

As one woman they met in the village of Derriet told them, the elephants understand their language. After the elephants had had their fill, and it was time to give water to their cattle, the elder told the elephants it was time to go “and they go”. 

In Tanzania the Hadza the oldest hunter gathered group in East Africa hold onto to a tenuous existence. They still honor the ancestors to this day and one cave full of spirit walkers or wahini represented the stars. The simple radiating lines of force was an altar to supervening forces that reside over the ways of those still living in freedom and in consonance with the elements-the trees, the birds, wildlife, and even the sky. 

They underscored that in contradistinction to the ancestors of yesteryear, a great demon or shetani mkubwa had overtaken the land of late. Just as tamaa, man’s greed had destroyed the great elephant herds, herds that numbered over a million when I was first in Kenya at the age of 15 in Kenya and that now numbered maybe 350,000. 

Kaonda, one of the younger hunters took us on a walk in the acacia forest one afternoon. With bow and arrows in hand, all was still in the afternoon wind, full of potential, and the marvel of her outback that makes Africa the place where humanity was born.

Suddenly, he saw the tip of a giraffe’s head peering over the tree canopy. He tore off in the direction of his prey, with consummate persistence and vision. They never found out if he caught his giraffe. A vision of Something ineffable disappeared into the void of the bush that afternoon, like a signature memory from the beginnings of the first hunter’s steps eons ago.

A rhino running across the habitat. Christo and his family had spoken to natives of the African tribe regarding their view of the world. (COURTESY/LYSANDER CHRISTO) 

The Maasai have a distant relationship with the elephant because it sometimes comes into conflict with their cattle and livestock but their cousins, the Samburu have a connection that is at the core of their identity. 

Far back in the past the Samburu adopted orphan elephants who would stay with them and who were cared for until adult elephants adopted the calf back into the herd. Elephants were like brothers to the Samburu.  

”When children go look after their livestock, they know how they can easily go to the side of the elephant and mingle with them. They are friends. Elephants don’t kill if no one tends to threaten them if you don’t trouble them. That makes us love elephants,” said one woman elder, Nonguta Leparashu.

During droughts, elephants can sometimes kill acacias, the branches fall, the grass under those branches and those can benefit us because the animals can feed on those grasses.” 

Elephant populations have plummeted in the last fifteen years due to poaching and the 2008 financial downturn that encouraged the poaching of elephants for their ivory. 

A global outcry and campaign to stop buying of ivory and a worldwide conservation effort led to the closing of the ivory market in China. But today some of the worst droughts in recorded history continue to pose a threat not only to the livelihood of the first peoples of Africa, but also its vaunted wildlife. 

A few years ago, 300 elephants died in Botswana due to the drought and the cyanobacteria poisoning of a waterhole. Increasing environmental challenges, the likes of which humanity and nature has never experienced before are the lessons of their time. The Maasai there no word for nature they say instead “the beauty of God.” There will be conflicts between wildlife and humanity especially where much of the world’s megafauna still exist in Africa.

Edited by Joseph Hammond and Saba Fatima

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