Bursting the CWRU bubble

From CLE to Cape Town

Heather O'Keeffe, Staff Reporter

I’ve always known rhinos were endangered, that poachers annihilate the docile animals for their valuable horns. It wasn’t until I was tracking rhinos in the Zimbabwean bush, that I realized the reality of the situation. Our guide, essentially the Steven Irwin of rhinos, passionately informed us of the direness of the rhinos’ future.

One rhino horn can sell for more than a quarter million dollars. In Zimbabwe, the minimum wage is $80 a month; for just five dollars a poacher can buy an AK-47 and try his luck at killing a rhino and winning big financially. Poaching is such an issue in Zimbabwe that park rangers and soldiers can shoot to kill poachers on site.

In the past few years, the rhino population in Rhodes Matobo National Park dwindled from 86 to just 18 and there are no signs of poachers laying off. Every month the park captures or kills between 20 and 25 poachers. Captured poachers are sentenced to 25 years in prison, which is basically a life sentence since HIV/AIDS is so prevalent in the Zimbabwean prison system.

Crouched in tall grasses, mere meters from four rhinos, I realized I wasn’t in a national park but rather a battlefield. Human and animal blood is shed in this park every month. I couldn’t believe it. The situation was a million times worse than I ever imagined.

I was struck not only by the dismal situation but that I knew so little. What else am I completely in the dark about? The world is so vast and diverse, never stagnant, always changing. Even in Cape Town, I am experiencing the bubble effect so common to university students. Between studying, extracurriculars and hanging out with friends I am completely ignorant to the millions of pairs of shoes waiting to be walked in.

The world literally has billions of stories. There is so much to learn and discover. We should always question what we think we know: Wikipedia search a distant country, borrow a random book from a library, scour the newspaper, Netflix a film based on true events. The more ways we can break our bubbles and learn something about the world we live in the, the better.

The best way to burst the all too familiar Case Western Reserve University or University of Cape Town bubble, is to discover the world first hand: to walk down a random street, buy a plane ticket or ask locals what they think of current events.

Did you know Zimbabwe uses American dollars because their currency crashed after inflating to more than 11 million percent? I read up on the Zimbabwean economy on Wikipedia before my trip, but buying over 50 billion Zimbabwean dollars for just two American dollars makes the facts real.

Did you know in Chinotimba, Zimbabwe, you can buy a live chicken for between six and 10 dollars to take home and kill for dinner? My mind was blown when I found out. The closest many Americans get to live chicken is a petting zoo or chicken nuggets. But in a village on the other side of the world, locals looked at me funny when I said my family buys frozen chicken.

The diversity and vastness of the world continuously takes me aback. Shoot, even the stars here are different: I can look at Orion’s Belt from here, the Southern Hemisphere. How does that happen? How does inflation breach 11 million percent? How are rhinos being wiped off the face of the Earth and I barely even know?

No matter how hard I study or how many A’s I receive, there is so much more to know. There is no grading curve that allows worldly ignorance to pass. Even succeeding in worldly knowledge is relative, as there is always more to question and learn. The only plausible solution is to travel, whether by book or plane, and overwhelm yourself with curiosity.

The only way we can emerge from the university bubble is to break it ourselves. The world and its stories wait to be discovered; all you need is the motivation and curiosity to seek out the world. I hope my motivation and curiosity never die.

Heather O’Keeffe is a sophomore studying biomedical engineering and sports medicine. She is currently studying at the University of Cape Town. Heather recently crossed the Botswana Zimbabwe border barefoot and nearly cried when Barcelona was kicked out of the Champions League.