I cannot tell you how horrible this volunteer experience has been for me here at Noah’s Ark aka Harnas! It has been probably one of the most personally challenging and humiliating experiences of my life and I’m still in shock over the horrors that have happened to me within a few days. The biggest lesson that I’ve learned from this is experience is: BEWARE OF HUMANS.
When I first found this volunteer experience, I was gitty with excitement to experience a program where love of animals is the main focus since I’m such an animal lover! Actually, it was this program that motivated me to pursue other volunteer programs throughout Africa. I fell in love with the mission of rescuing abandoned, mistreated and orphaned animals and rehabilitating them to be re-released into the wild when possible. What a great purpose and I was so excited to start!
What I soon learned is that this experience for me was not about the animals, but standing up for what is right, no matter the persecution or the resistance. I was shocked to find that from the beginning, before I even stepped on the property, I was treated with great disrespect and humiliated. Read on if you dare…
On my first day, I was picked up from Windhoek, Namibia and started on the 3-hour drive to the Harnas property. There were about 10 other newbie volunteers on board as well, all swollen with hope and excitement. The driver was carrying a sick falcon that hadn’t eaten in 2 days and the staff wasn’t sure it would make it.
We stopped in Gobais (a small town about an hour outside of the property) to refuel and we realized the bird had died. It wouldn’t take any water and wasn’t moving. How sad. We all felt terrible, but before mourning could set in, a man in a violent rage came up to the van and started wailing his hands in the air and screaming. He was saying ‘How the fuck could you do this?’, ‘ I raised this bird from very small’, ‘You can’t leave a bird in the car’- just going completely crazy.
I actually thought that he was joking at first because it was so erratic, but then I soon realized he was very angry and aggressive. I told him that it wasn’t our fault that the bird died and that it was sick to calm him down. He redirected his anger at me, screamed that I was a liar and said the bird was not sick. Then he slammed the van’s sliding door very hard and stormed off! I was humiliated and very confused that a stranger would be so crazy. The driver then told me that he is the new Volunteer coordinator for the program. WHAT?! I couldn’t believe that he was part of Noah’s Ark (or now called Harnas as I found out later), would be managing me and that I was paying to be treated like this! It was unbelievable and I was very upset.
But we continued on, and entered onto a dirt road for the remaining way to Harnas. We were on the dirt road for no more than 10 minutes when a rock kicked up and shattered the back window. No one was hurt thank god. But the driver insisted we drive in the dust for another hour and a half. Large amounts of dust filled the van cabin, to the point that our lungs were aching and we couldn’t stop coughing. It was really bad. I asked if they would call another car to pick us up since there were people with asthma were on board. A car did come, but it was to pick up the dead falcon and then left. No one came to help us volunteers. Ok.
When we arrived at the property, we were greeting by a few volunteer coordinators. I immediately told them about the angry man at the petrol station hoping for some retribution or consolation. They said that he was the boss and he can do whatever wants. Basically ‘tough shit’.
To top it off, they continued to be very rude as they began the introduction of the program. A phrase like, “If I catch you doing this, I will personally pack your bags and kick you out” was often used rather a simple, “It is against the rules to do this… it is very dangerous so please don’t do this.” etc. It was as though we were stupid children that needed to be threatened to keep in line. This sort of disrespect is not what I signed up for. We were given rules about how to behave which seemed like any normal adult would understand. For example, one rule was to not discriminate against how other people used a fork and knife and to not engage in sexual relations with other volunteers. I couldn’t believe that we were being told to act like adults.
I was very confused and insulted. The staff was bossy and it felt very much like they were dominating school teachers, to rule over uncontrollable children. Actually, it was the first time in my life I’ve ever felt like a 2nd class citizen.I tried to put it behind me, focusing on the reason I was there. I tried not to let my ego get upset, knowing that the greater good was for the animals. However, I soon realized why the staff was so rude…
The ‘Noah’s Ark’ program at Harnas is meant for kids 18-22 who are in their gap year (the year after high school where kids are expected to go wild, travel and sew their wild oats). We joined up with about 50 crazy kids for dinner, hooping and hollering, playing tag, flirting, creating a ruckus. I felt like I was in a bad high-school movie. Jeez… when does this program get good? Why am here? Ok… the animals, the animals. Keep positive I kept telling myself.
I endured three days of juvenile behavior before I could finally work with the animals. And it was glorious! I was so excited, fed a few of them, but I still was not allowed to interact with them. I was told that I have to earn that with a few more days of work. Ok no problem. I was there for two weeks so I had time. That night the kids were having a BBQ and that is where they were serving dinner, so I attended reluctantly but hungrily.
What happened next was the straw that broke the camel’s back if there were any camels there
At about 8/8:30 it was quite dark even though there was a full moon and we are sitting around the camp fire. I finally was relaxed and felt ‘ok’ being the only adult in the group. All of a sudden, we hear a woman scream bloody murder in the distance.
We all get quite and scared and one person shouts to a staff member to alert him to the screaming. A voice comes over one of the staff member’s radio, screaming that a big hyena got into the ‘village’ (the exact place we were at and where our sleeping quarters were). The woman screams for help for about 5 minutes, her yells echoing through the quite bush. The staff quickly yells for about 6 men to run with flashlights to find her in the bushes and see what’s happening.
Two men find her as she is screaming and they carry her to the car that was about 100 ft from the bonfire. We find out that she is a fellow volunteer who was walking to her cabin and got attacked by the hyena that was loose in the village. Hyenas have the strongest jaws in nature and can tear off a leg in one swift movement. We were horrified as we didn’t know the extent of her injury.
The staff leader tells us all to gather around the fire because we won’t get hurt there, so we all huddle, quite scared around the fire. His radio goes off again and something is said in Afrikaans and then he screams to us, “Run! Run for your life! Get up and run and don’t stop!!!!”
Shocked, frightened and panicked I start to run for my life and so do the rest of the 35-40 people present. I throw on my backpack that is half zipped and hold my camera in one hand while I fight not to get trampled on. We all start to run down the runway which is out in an open field and about 1.5 miles to an enclosed building. I am in complete panic. People are pushing me and at one point I trip and get pushed around by by a few people.
But I’m running for my life, so I just continue to run at the urgency of the staff members screaming RUN! I’ve never been so scared in my life, so frightened. The staff is screaming and terrified and so are all the volunteers. One staff member screams that she has never seen so much blood from a wound and the other keeps yelling ‘run for your life’ so we run.
The woman in the car who was injured is driven up next to the runners, screaming and crying. We can’t really see her, but we are panicked. The staff keeps telling us to keep in groups, keep up, don’t stop running. We get to the building area and the staff, instead of letting us in, say the hyena has moved close now and we have to run back to the fire because that is where we will be the safest. At this point my lungs are in overdrive and I can barely breath but I don’t want to die. Half of the people are not in shape to do this, including myself, but who wants to get eaten alive?!? I don’t even dare to stop running- no one does.
So we run back, I run for my life literally. We get back to the bonfire and I feel a little relief. I have to vomit, but I don’t even dare because I’m still too scared to let down my guard so I swallow it down. I whip out my flashlights and in doing so realize that my bag was open the entire time I was running; I no longer have my inhaler, my small waterproof camera nor the hood to my $5000 camera. But I can’t think about that right now cause I want to make sure I don’t die. I frantically search the woods for the hyena, trying to calm my breath so I don’t hyperventilate. We are yelled at to keep all flashlights on the trees, its a group effort. Make sure you look for eyes and I see eyes everywhere.
My adrenaline is through the roof, my heart is pounding out of chest and my asthma is over taking me. I think to myself, “If I get out of this alive, I’m so outta of Harnas. All the disrespect and now my life is threatened?!? F THIS!”
After about 10 minutes of frantic searching of the surrounding bushes, the staff starts laughing. It was all a joke- a prank for the newbies. WHAT?!?
I couldn’t believe it. One girl who was in my cabin also had asthma and was puking all over the place, while the staff laughed. I couldn’t believe this could be something to joke about- safety! I was horrified.
They asked me if I was ok, and I said “Absolutely not”. Who jokes about life or death? You dont go scuba diving and start yelling shark! You don’t go on a plane and even whisper the word, ‘Bomb’. But this was oka??!? And what kind of prank makes people with heart conditions and asthma run like hell for their lives?
I was LIVID. My health was at risk, I lost about $400 of items in my bag and I was deceived by the very same people who were supposed to ensure my safety and comfort as a volunteer.
And to top it off, the staff just laughed at me when I told them that I have never felt more unsafe and disrespected in my life. Then the other 40 plus people joined in laughing at me! I was mortified. Now I know I’m in a bad high school movie!I can’t even recall a time that I was mocked in public by a large crowd! WOW!
I took one of the laughing staff members aside and asked her how she could think this was a joke. She told me that I shouldn’t be upset because it was only a Hyena and it was funny because Hyenas don’t attack people so I shouldn’t have believed her! WHAT?!? So now I’m being ridiculed because I listened to the emergency directions of a trained staff member? What is going on? I said I wanted to speak to the owner immediately and they told me to wait until the morning. I told them I demand a refund and I wanted to leave. I did not want to be in a place where safety was a joke, especially around dangerous animals. Isn’t the point of a non-profit to improve lives not jeopardize them?????
All night I couldn’t sleep, I was up wheezing and coughing trying to slow my breath. Trying not to panic. I had to go to the bathroom, but because I was in so much fear, I refused to leave the quarters and walk to the outside bathroom. I was forced to hold it in all night I don’t care if the situation wasn’t real- It felt really real for me and for the other newbies in my cabin.
I met with the same staff the next morning and basically re-told them the exact same concerns above again. They insisted that it was a prank and that its okay to prank about safety. They do it with lions and leopards. They do it all the time for the newbies. Its a tradition at Harnas.
After making my points again and again they finally gave me a small apology for the way I reacted to it and one of the staff members said they won’t do that kind of prank anymore. I felt a little better but still felt deceived and unsafe- I wanted to leave immediately. They said I had to wait a couple hours until Marietta, the owner, was available to discuss refund and my transport back to Windhoek.
When I met with Marietta, she said that I was the only person who ‘freaked out’ at the prank and therefore I must be an anomaly and it was my own problem, my own reaction. I told her that the three girls in my cabin were traumatized and another male volunteer told me he also had never been so afraid for his life. I knew the young girls wouldn’t speak up because their parents paid for them to be there and who wants to be laughed at when you are 18? The other gentleman was leaving the next day and didn’t care to speak up.
I was the only one who was saying anything! She sort of dismissed me. I was quite shocked that she thought joking about safety was okay. I guess that is the motto of Harnas????
There is something fundamentally WRONG with an organization that feels its okay to terrify people and make them feel completely threatened for their life and then just laugh. There is also something fundamentally WRONG with an organization who is honored by volunteers and entrusted to keep them safe, yet tricks them into feeling unsafe. There is something fundamentally WRONG with an organization who feels that they can joke about safety in the evening and the scold about safety in the day. There is something fundamentally WRONG with an organization who expects volunteers to know when they are joking about safety and when there is a real threat. I am utterly appalled at everything about this experience.
My life has been put at risk, I have been disrespected, I have lost equipment, have been yelled at, I have been laughed at and I have been ridiculed. This has been the most traumatic and horrific experiences of my adult life. This is not the experience I paid for nor wanted to experience in Africa.