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Why We Mate: Wisdom from an African Bush Camp
by A. C. Jerroll

At the Umlani Bush camp in South Africa, George, an Aussie kid who looked to be about fourteen years old, asked me, "Why do we mate?"

I was startled that he should ask the question even while I thought of ways to reply, though I didn't know the answer. Still, fumbling through some speculations might get something that would be acceptable to the kid. Maybe I could start by talking about the male impala we had seen that day who stayed busy rounding up his harem, the thirty or so females with whom he mated. He seemed to spend most of his time chasing down those who would wander away and forcing them back with threatening horn gestures and stamping of hoofs. Joe, our game guide, said the male also gave much time to running off young bucks and fighting those older ones who had the temerity to challenge him for the right to mate with the herd.

But would such observations be helpful? I would be telling the processes of mating, not the why of it, and George might well demand to know why any male would choose to behave in such a silly way. When does the male impala eat? he might ask. When does he sleep? When would he have any down time for himself? I also had wondered about those questions.

We had seen a big male elephant, one with scent glands weeping behind his eyes, musking the brush with chemical statements of his desire to mate. What conclusions helpful in answering George might be drawn from the behavior of the elephant?

Posing the question forced me to recognize that I focused upon male mating. What of the females? Is my vision so limited to testosterone-driven paradigms that I assumed females not to be part of the vital question George asked? I lashed myself, affirming females must be part of the we in pondering why we mate. But, alas, I knew even less about females than males.

It might seem as if I spent an inordinate amount of time at Umlani Bush Camp thinking about mating. I didn't. Such thoughts mostly took place in the few moments of hesitation while grappling with George's question.

The Aussie family was gracious (George's question excepted) and fun, for they expressed great enthusiasm upon seeing the most common sights in the bush: doves (there are thousands there), termite nests (one every few yards), the shape of thorns, which grew in abundance on every plant but grass. Also, there was the charming way they spoke, which wasn't so unusual since everyone at the camp spoke in their own charming accents. Joe the game guide sang his English so that a simple pointing out of a creature came out as a small verse of a song: "Hoooorn bills," he said in an African cadence, one I imagined his repeating several times and groups of us breaking into a dance, clapping hands and boogying about in the jeep. A pretty Italian girl named Maggie who was part of the hospitality crew spoke her English with an Italian lilt. She had a good command of English, though sometimes the accents of the guests threw her, as when George's sister, Flossie, asked for butter. "Do you want an empty bottle?" Maggie asked, and Flossie stared, dumbfounded, until I offered a translation and Maggie produced the butter dish.

Justin asked his son George if he wanted to "ply Jess," and of course I looked around for Jess, but he wasn't in the common room, and I wondered what kind of odd Australian thing called plying they might do to him. The two promptly settled beside a chess set, a weird one with two sets of dark pieces. "Which ones are the white pieces?" I asked. Justin shrugged and claimed George could see the difference. I watched as George took his father's bishop with a knight Justin thought was his. George was pleased to win, and his father spent much of the game laughing over the fact that he couldn't tell which piece was whose.

On the second day at the bush camp I heard about a small group of singing tourists going for a walk. Their bush guide showed them around the area close to the campground, carrying a rifle with bullets large enough to stop an elephant. Our guide, Joe, had told the Texas-Aussie group about the dangers of the giraffe should any of us approach on foot. A giraffe protected itself by either running or kicking. It could kick a lion half to death, and in fact one giraffe had, he assured us, killed a careless tourist with a kick to the head. "Not in our camp," Joe said. "Far away. In Keeeenya," his voice going into the African cadence that almost set me dancing.

The singing tourists came from Israel, and they sang songs from their country, "Kum Bayah" and other songs of group bonding. Their guide had told them, as Joe told us, not to talk lest they frighten the animals. Apparently the guide forgot to tell them not to sing—an understandable omission, for who would even think about a group of people breaking into song while touring among wild animals? One of the ladies, the one who led the group in song, had orange hair. Bright orange, unnatural and bizarre. She was a huggy woman, one who spent much time bestowing hugs upon people she barely knew, so that the hospitality crew, dreading the hugs, took to darting off in odd directions when they saw her coming.

The singing tourists, on their walk in the area around the camp, came across a giraffe, and the lady with orange hair broke into song and started running toward the giraffe. Apparently her guide had not warned the group about the deadly kicks of the long-necked beast. Those who witnessed the event and told me about it called the woman crazy since they had no explanation for her odd behavior.

But I think I knew. She wanted to bestow a hug upon the giraffe. Grab his leg, maybe. The giraffe, seeing a critter with an unnatural orange pelt who made weird and perhaps predatory screechings, decided the safest recourse was to run. I was glad, somewhat, that the woman didn't get kicked, though a part of me wanted her to get just a little nick from a hoof—not enough to hurt her, but enough to warn her not to try for a hug and to shush the singing.

Kelly, mother of the Aussie kids George and Flossie, told me that the woman with orange hair was a "whenwe," a term I figured had to be Australian for airhead, but just in case I had extrapolated incorrectly, I asked her about the word. "You know them," she said. "They speak thus: 'When we were in Tanzania, or was it when we were in Ghana, but oh dear no, it was when we were in Liberia.' Such braggarts begin most phrases with whenwe."

Kelly's assessment was perfect, for it completed a phrase I had been formulating: the airhead had to be a rare variety of the orange-capped singing hugger, also known as the giraffe chasing whenwe, and not to be confused with the orange tickbird, which we saw in abundance hopping about on cape buffalo.

The buffalo seemed to have few rules about mating, something I thought about when trying to formulate an answer for George. We had watched a bull couple bovine-fashion with a cow, then wander off and another bull did the same with the same cow. She endured the process repeatedly, once even courted a reluctant bull, and none of buffalo seemed to care that a jeep full of Aussies and Texans looked on.

Was there any buffalo lesson of use to George? I thought not and dismissed the cape buffalo, going back to the elephant whose musk glands set the bush to stinking, as did the sperm he dribbled. There was no female in sight, so he lumbered on, no doubt tortured by his hormones, pausing to strip the bark from a marula tree. The bark came off in loud shrieks, and the weeping, dribbling elephant made a sad meal of the white part of the bark, all the while, Joe the bush camp guide told us, hoping for an invite from a receptive female. "But," Joe added, "if a larger male comes along, this one will yield, and his musk glands will stop leaking and he will stop thinking of the ladies."

Amazing. A larger fellow can stop the urge to mate in a smaller one. Amazing but of no help in answering George, who eyed me with impatience and repeated his question in an impatient, almost querulous voice: "Why do we mate?"

"Perhaps," I said in a moment of inspired thinking, "you should ask your father that question."

"He doesn't know. But you do."

So George endowed me with wisdom. It's my gray hair, I thought, so the Aussies must be like the Chinese in knowing older people have much wisdom. At that point I had to answer; vanity demanded it, and the answer had to be good. But I lacked a good answer, lacked any answer at all. Then I remembered that Justin, George's father, also had gray hair, and he didn't know the answer. I also remembered how Justin wanted to ply Jess, and how Flossie asked for butter in a way that caused Maggie to think she heard 'bottle,' so it seemed wise to replay George's question in my mind.

The question became clear, and the answer simple, for George spoke Australian English and I listened in Texas English. The question, properly translated, was "Where do we meet?" though it sounded exactly like "Why do we mate?" when filtered though my Texas ears. The realization wilted me a tad, for I wanted to have an answer, wanted to have brilliant biological and psychological wisdom poured into me by virtue of graying years, wanted to wow the boy with wisdom his own father did not have. But of course I had no useful information, so the translation of George's question also relieved me with the certainty that I had escaped being unmasked for having no wisdom at all.

"We meet in the parking lot close to the jeeps," I said.

George cocked his head to eye me in a measuring way, one that said I was a strange fellow for taking long minutes to come up with such a simple statement. Shortly after that our group climbed into the jeep with Joe the game guide, and I looked back to the other jeep at the orange head of a woman who could have been kicked to death by a giraffe but somehow escaped.

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