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Things that go bump in the night Learning more about myself in an African jungle
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Things that go bump in the night
by Molly Griffin '06

Something is hovering above my bed. I can’t see it, but I can hear it: Whirrrr. Bzzzzz. Flapflapflap! I bury myself beneath the blankets and pray for sunrise, plagued by visions of blood-sucking vampire bats.

After my first night in Namibia, as a volunteer at an African wildlife orphanage, it’s amazing that I survived the next twenty-eight nights. It’s not that I’m accustomed to sleeping in silence: I live in Jersey City, where every night is like dozing off in the middle of an arcade with music blaring, horns and sirens dueling, people shouting with passion and agony over fifty cents. Nor do I have an irrational fear of animals:

I treasured my days at the sanctuary feeding bloody lamb shanks to hungry lions. But when night fell over a strange horizon, it robbed me of more than just my eyesight. Each evening, as soon as the sun’s last defiant embers faded to ashy darkness, Jurassic cries haunted the suddenly frigid air. With the light fled all courage; volunteers who only hours before had been chasing cheetahs now lay in bed quaking, as earthy basso clashed with primal vibrato, everything from baboons to branches joining in a discordant symphony. The conductor? None other than the king of the jungle.

Close up, a lion’s roar is felt as much as heard: an ancient, sternum-shaking force that nearly knocks you off balance as the reverberations pass through your body. I bedded down that first night, and each night thereafter, within walking distance of the lion enclosures. Their guttural roars seeped between the slats of my wooden hut, where I lay frozen with fear and 30-degree weather.

Deeper into the night, the lions’ low, throaty bellows succumbed to violent shrieks that could deprive even Tarzan of a deep sleep. The dream-shattering cries closely resembled human screams, convincing me that I was next on the menu for some unseen foe. This “foe” turned out to be howling baboons. They were contained behind electric fencing, but their primitive cackles swung from tree to tree near enough to trouble the imaginations of fitful sleepers. Plenty of lesser auditory specters haunted our dreams as well—housecats scratching at the walls, branches rattling on the roof. Previous volunteers once reported being kept awake for nights on end, terrorized by the unfamiliar sound of a flatulent zebra.

In the end, most of Namibia’s nocturnal noises turned out to be just as benign as that gaseous zebra. Some of them even came to be comforting. One night I slept out on the ground with two tame cheetahs and wound up in a predicament familiar to cat owners everywhere: I was awakened by a loud, rumbling purr to find myself wedged into a corner of my sleeping bag, contorted around an obliviously dozing feline. In my case, however, the cat weighed 100 pounds and purred like an idling Harley. Uncomfortable as it was physically, there was something deeply soothing about the robust engine of a cheetah vibrating contentedly as it squashed my shins—it lent a familiar song to the exotic soundtrack of Namibian life.

I learned many things in Africa, foremost that I am twenty-three years old and still afraid of the dark. The vampire bat from my first night was nothing more than a moth stuck in a window shade, but on a strange continent a flutter in your ear is just as frightening as a roar in the distance. Nevertheless, I also learned that if you venture out from under the covers you’ll find that every place has its own music, its own natural rhythm, and that you must tune into it before you can tune it out.