The lion and the zebra may both live cheek by jowl in the vast savannahs of the Maasai Mara, no two animals are so unlike when it comes to fatherhood. But both the carnivore and the herbivore have important lessons they can teach me on the subject.
On any given day, Father Lion is aloof to his cubs, keeping his distance high up in the rocky knolls as Mother Lioness plays with her young ones most day, rolling in the grass, cleaning each others coats and, when hunger pangs bite, going for the kill as one.
But the lioness and her cubs know that when they have zeroed in on a prey that is too big or too strong for them, they can always count on the lion – the pride of the pride so to speak – to deliver the killer blow. Unfortunately for the lioness and her little ones, once lunch has been served, they have to step back a respectable distance and wait until the king of the jungle has had his fill. That is why what Father Lion eats is called “the lion’s share”. But to his credit, and unlike many a man in the animal kingdom, he is present at most meal times.
Once in a while, the lioness and her cubs will bring down an eland, or a wildebeest, and gobble it down without the knowledge of the lion. That is what we witnessed when we visited the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, one of the 17 conservancies in the Maasai Mara.
“How come the lion is not here to share in the meal?” we asked, marvelling at the satiated lioness lying in the grass as her cubs tore away juicy pieces off the body of a wildebeest.
“He did not get the memo,” said our guide Philip Mushaba, who works for the Olare Mara Kempinski camp, a five-star establishment that offers its guests a touch of European luxury mixed with an authentic African experience of the wilds.
Indeed, the lion was away surveying his territory. As the dominant male in his pride, one of his key responsibilities is to secure his family and keep away the competition. The day he is not strong enough to fight them off is the day he loses his all and is cast away to die in ignominy. And because he has to fight many other males to secure his territory, this reduces his life expectancy to 12 years compared to 16 for the lioness.
Unlike the lioness, for whom bonding with the young ones is the biggest responsibility, the lion spends most of his time alone.
“He does not like to be bothered by the cubs. He takes offence when they step on his claws,” Philip told us as we watched a pride of cubs welcoming their two mothers who were returning from a stroll. They hugged and purred and ran out to meet the two females in a happy re-union. The lionesses led them to the river to quench their thirst.
Whereas the lion is the alpha and macho man of the wilds, the zebra is the sentimental and caring male. The moment his female companion or companions become pregnant, he makes it his duty to stand by her. He will be there, doing sentry duty, when the calf is born and stands by his family until the calf is old enough to fend for itself.
The zebra is no different from the humble warthog, the most forgetful creature in the African wilds. This weakness, embedded in the warthog’s DNA, can make it so easy for the parents to lose their young ones especially in the long grass. To get around their own forgetfulness, and that of their little ones, the father and mother always raise their tails. That way, their young ones can always follow them, especially when they are running away from predators.
According to Philip, the animals use their tails as a GPS, which helps their offspring find their way around the world. For humans, a moral compass is more important, for without it, their children will be lost and arrive in adulthood bewildered, lacking a moral orientation, and experience difficulties finding something they can stand for. And, as we say, those who cannot stand for anything will fall for anything.
The most sobering lesson for fathers will probably be taught by the male buffalo. When he becomes too old to compete with young studs in the herd, he will be banished from his family. He will be lucky to find others like him who have suffered a similar fate, and together, spend their sunset days staring into the distance with nothing to do to give their lives meaning.
This is a conversation that came up at a dinner table last week when one man, an architect, narrated how he struggled to take care of his mother when she was ailing. After she passed on, his children came to him and said: “Dad, we admire your patience and commitment to your mother but we do not have it in us. Please make arrangements for your old age.”
Which left me thinking. That people do not just do safaris in the wild for the heck of it. When we are shorn of all pretensions, we are at base, animals. We live in our world in which how far you can see (into the future, into your life and into your environment) is as important as what you know. If a man is a lion, his next meal will be guaranteed by his sight. And if he is a zebra, his very survival depends on it.
Last, but not least, fathers can learn from the wildebeest for whom the power of community is the biggest life insurance. When they spot danger, the herbivores will make noises that are enough to irritate the enemy, and guarantee their safety as a group. However, the moment one steps away from the norm and the herd, he is exposed to every imaginable danger. Nothing can save him when the enemy strikes and he has to stare death in the eye, surrounded by hyenas.
Some events can instantly change your life, forever. And mostly they’re bad things. Like car accidents, losing a loved one, or hearing bad news from your doctor. Because there’s a bias in the way the world works. Things are far more likely to go wrong than they are to go right.
Good things rarely happen so suddenly. Apart from perhaps meeting someone and sensing an immediate connection. So you do need to be open to moments like that, because they can change your whole world.
But mostly, the good things in life – the things that really make us happy – all take a long time and a lot of work. Like learning a new skill, building a relationship, or rearing children. Which is why perseverance is so important. Think how long it can take to find a job or a spouse. And how easily you can lose them!
It’s hard to hang on to this idea. Because modern life’s all about instant gratification! So we’re never satisfied. Endlessly dazzled by the lives of the rich and famous, and forgetting our own achievements. Desperately trying to look younger, while ignoring the benefits of age. Like experience and wisdom. Worst of all, if you only measure success by your possessions and your appearance, life’s inevitably just one long disappointment.
Because real satisfaction never comes from quick fixes. It comes from building something really worthwhile. And that takes years. Like studying for a degree. Or creating a business. Or improving a relationship. Or getting rid of bad behaviours. It’s here that we always want things to happen the fastest. But they sure don’t!
Like trying to drink less. If you’ve ever tried to cut down, you’ll know just how hard it is.
Because things like that are habits. Driven partly by chemicals in your brain’s reward system, but also by cues that lead on to the next step in the behaviour. Like how settling down after dinner makes you think about a drink. You could just as easily develop good habits, like cleaning your teeth. But it’s amazing how it’s the bad ones that dominate our lives, or even destroy them.
The same’s true in relationships. They can be ruined by habits that might have originated in childhood. And are hard to change, however much you want to. Even though it feels like it should be simple.
But it isn’t, so be prepared to work hard. As hard as if you’re learning to play the piano! You’re going to have to figure out why you started behaving the way you do, find new routines and try them out. And that all takes time and perseverance. So don’t give up too soon. Because it’s the people who stick in there who succeed in life. While if you only believe in the big chance, you won’t work at becoming the person you want to be. And so your dreams will forever stay just out of reach.