All posts for the month August, 2015

Races: #11. Sizwe Irene Half Marathon

Published August 30, 2015 by kokoinsouthafrica

Today I ran a half marathon, or a 21.1 kilometer race. It was hosted by the Irene Sports Club in the Irene farming land of Gauteng. One questionable thing about this race is that it started at 12pm, so the African sun was high in the sky with not a cloud in sight. This time of day provided an interesting challenge…running in the heat -_- But that’s neither here nor there, and I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. WORTH IT.


Deviating from my typical race re-cap, I have decided to present to you 21 thoughts I entertained during the 21 kilometers I ran. Here is an inside look at what goes on in the mind of a runner throughout a 2 hour race.

  1. Half marathon, here we goooo!
  2. Jesus it’s hot out
  3. Why am I doing this again?
  4. Only 2k in?! I feel like I’ve been running for 2 hours already!
  5. 5k in, time for a salt stick
  6. Let’s have some fun this beat is sick, I wanna take a ride on your disco stick HEY!
  7. It’s beautiful out here, there’s nothing around, except a bunch of dairy cows
  9. What do I wanna eat when this is done? EVERYTHING.
  10. Maybe something health conscious like a smoothie or salad.
  11. Or pizza. MMMMMM pizza.
  12. And beer. Cold, crisp beer.
  13. And ice cream.
  14.  What a beautiful day to be out running, the sun is shining, life is gloriously perfect.
  15. Time for another salt stick.
  16. I should’ve brought more. ITS SO HOT.
  17. I think I have to pee. No, think about something else.
  18. I have to pee. No. Ignore it. Ignore it. IGNORE IT.
  19. 2k left! F**KING FINALLY.
  20. Almost there. Just tap it in.
  21. Happy Gilmore. Happy Koko.





Condoms & Bananas. 

Published August 25, 2015 by kokoinsouthafrica

What started off as a 5 day event ending up being dragged out into a 3 week campaign at a nearby secondary school. The school’s principle invited my organization to come provide HIV counseling & testing services to all of his students, grades 8-12. 

Although most schools have health education components embedded into their curriculums, it’s common for teachers to skim the surface, or completely skip over, topics that make them feel uncomfortable- like sexual health. I took it upon myself to meet with the school’s Life Orientation teachers ahead of time to find out what is already being taught, and what educational gaps might exist. I was surprised to hear that no condom usage is being taught at all, and decided this was a necessary component of the education I’ll provide.

Each day I showed up at the school with a ton of male and female condoms, bananas and lube. I’m pretty sure I have the coolest job ever. 

In addition to HIV counseling & testing, I provided other basic health services like blood sugar and blood pressure testing, TB screening and wound care. Schools here don’t have a school nurse or clinic, so basically students have zero access to any health service while on campus. That’s why it’s imperative to bring in all the supplies and educational materials that we can, so that, at least for those few days, students can get the things that they need. 


We go where there is no clinic & we create one

Although most of these kids have not yet reached their sexual debut, the reality is that they probably will soon. Which is why it’s absolutely necessary that they understand how condoms work and why it’s important to get tested for HIV and other STIs, as well as there being a need for counseling on sexual health and healthy relationships. This counseling is not as effective in a classroom or group setting; it’s best when with someone they can trust and when done in private. 

The plan was to provide personal,  one-on-one counseling for each student, so they have the comfort of implied confidentiality and a safe space to talk about things. While this plan worked most of the time, what I found was that some students were too embarrassed to come to me on their own and were more comfortable coming to me in small groups and asking “Ma’am Koko, can you teach us how the condoms work?” This led to many moments of 15+ students cramming themselves into my small 6×6 tent and doing group condom demonstrations. 

My work has it’s highs and it’s lows. There are very fun moments like when I have a group of 15 high school boys in front of me and one small voice from the back pipes up to say “Ma’am Koko, what is oral sex?” 

There are very challenging moments like when I’m counseling a young girl and she confides in me that ‘her cousin’ is pregnant and planning to get a back alley abortion and she hasn’t told anyone else.

And there are moments that quite obviously confirm the need for my presence when I get questions like “Is it true you get HIV from kissing, or from sharing earrings?” 

But it’s always the small victories make me smile. By the third week I had groups of students coming in only to ask for condoms and bananas so they can practice teaching each other. I call this- The Trickle Down Effect!!

I really enjoy working with high school kids. It’s funny to think (like 10 years ago) I was in their shoes, the awkward existence of being a teenager and wanting so badly to be an adult. I also feel it’s incredibly important to target this age group because they are just so damn vulnerable. All those raging hormones, and getting ready to be tossed into the blazing fire that is dating and college and freedom and the open world. All I can do is try my best to give them all the information and education that I can, and they’ll run off into the world prepared for everything that’ll be thrown their way. 


We’re All The Same.

Published August 16, 2015 by kokoinsouthafrica

  If this concept were applied to all human interaction, I feel the world would be a much more peaceful place. 

What do we all have in common? Well for starters, we each have a brain, a heart and a soul.   

One of the most profound things I took away from dissecting cadavers in anatomy lab is that by peeling back a small layer of skin- I could actually see how we’re all the same underneath. It’s great that we all have aspects of ourselves that make us diverse and interesting people. But don’t get so wrapped up in emphasizing your diversity that you categorize and oppress others for not being like you. 

And when taking this concept a step further to include other life forms like animals- I’m pretty sure we’d all be vegetarian if we truly understood how much we’re all alike. Animals have just as great a capacity to see, feel and love. They don’t give their lives willingly to feed human desires- no, they struggle and scream and fight to their last breath, giving every drop of energy grasping for their dignity before they’re slaughtered. 


I made the choice many moons ago to no longer contribute to animal cruelty. People are going to make their own decisions about what they want to put into their bodies. All I can hope is that people begin to apply more consciousness to their decisions through educating themselves about the horrors of the meat production industry.


Lions and Tigers and Bears – Oh my! 

Published August 6, 2015 by kokoinsouthafrica

 Sometimes I can’t believe the types of opportunities life throws at me. 
 When I was younger I was like most kids- overly excited about the zoo and the idea of getting to see animals that I normally would never get to see. I was also different from most kids in that I didn’t get to experience the zoo all that often – my Dad was really against it. I think I got to sneak to the zoo once or twice on school field trips, but I don’t have any vivid memories of this. I didn’t understand why he never wanted to go? I wanted to go to the zoo like everybody else. It wasn’t until I grew up that I started to really understand all these things about my dad that I used to think were odd. Animals are not meant to be kept in captivity for human entertainment purposes. The more I grew up the more I understood the weight of this, and struggled with it as well. Where do we find a balance between satisfying our desire to observe and learn about animals and not hold them as captive prisoners?  

 Fast forward several years and now I live and work in Africa. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Southern Africa is Kruger National Park- several thousand acres of land that has been fenced off to protect the wild life contained therein and patrolled by park rangers to scare off poachers. Although parks like Kruger exist, poachers still find their way in and several species of animals have either been killed off or are facing extinction. In Kruger, visitors can only drive through the park (staying inside their cars the entire time of course), but through your windows you’re lucky if you can spot the Big 5- lions, leopard, elephants, rhinos and buffalo. This is an exhilarating experience, creeping at a slow 5MPH speed hoping to see some animal activity. I didn’t spot all of the Big 5 when I drove through, but we did manage to see rhinos, hippos, impala, spring bock, monkeys, baboons, giraffes, buffalo, wildebeests, zebras and a ton of elephants. The elephants, being enormous and dominating, didn’t seem scared of us and they would roam within a couple feet of the cars, but the rest of the animals would scurry away the moment they noticed humans nearby. While it was amazing to see these animals going about their daily business and living in their natural habitats, it still felt very distant- quite literally it was distant, we’re trapped in a car peering through our windows trying to get a good look. While this is a much less manipulative way of seeing animals than the zoo, I still hadn’t quite fulfilled my need for animal interaction (I’m a kinetic learner, I need direct contact, what can I say). But all this was about to change…
Relatively near my village I found an animal sanctuary. This space of land is reserved for rescue animals brought in for sanctuary, rehabilitation, and most of them stay permanently due to the realities of poaching and extinction. Rescues brought in range from snakes and birds to lions and tigers. One cool thing about this place is that it functions predominantly through the help of volunteers, so naturally I find myself frequenting this place and they’ve trained me on how to properly feed and interact with the animals. As I’m writing this I’m realizing I don’t have many photos, which is probably a good thing that I’m not snapping pictures when I should be worrying about asserting dominance with the lions, so I’ll try my best to describe the animals I spend time with. ..

I don’t spend a lot of time with the snakes because they freak me out. The monkeys are adorable but pretty bipolar. Half the time they leap towards me with excited intrigue- rather, they’re more excited about my jewelry than anything else. They love shiny things and constantly try to snatch off any jewelry I’m wearing. One of them actually broke a ring off of my finger one time- he was THAT serious about shiny things. And when they’re not interested in being jewel thieves, they don’t seem interested in interacting with me very much. 

Timon is the resident meerkat and she is a snuggle bunny! She leans into my chest where it’s warm and loves being scratched on the head. She also makes adorable little gerbil noises. ❤ swoon! 

Pumba is also a girl and honestly warthogs are probably the ugliest animal I’ve ever seen. (But I always tell her she’s pretty because who doesn’t need a good compliment once in a while?!) Have you ever watched a pig or hog take a mud bath? She loves when I carve out a hole in the dirt a few inches deep and fill it with water, then she trots over to it and rolls around until she’s absolutely caked in mud. It’s the grossest thing! Warthogs are funny little creatures. And quite skittish too. 

The cheetahs are the most loving animals in the whole place. They’re a couple named Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is a little more friendly, but Romeo stays close by and demands a solid chin scratching every now and then. And my god, the purring! They purr so loudly it’s like someone’s beating a drum. My cat allergies go insane around them so I’m always sure I properly wash up after visiting the love cats. 


Speaking of big cats, the sanctuary cares for over a dozen rescue lions and tigers, but there are 2 that I totally adore. White tigers are endangered, they no longer exist in the wild sadly due to poaching so they can only live and breed now in captivity. White lions also face this same endangerment. Here we have a few of these rare white lions and tigers and we’re trying to help continue the species but it’s difficult. Saber is a white tiger and loves to be loved, he’s the first tiger I’ve ever interacted with and bottle fed. Yes, I literally take a baby bottle full of milk and bottle feed a grown ass tiger. He’s a big baby. He also loves to swim! Well, this is normal actually. Tigers in the wild naturally climb into any body of water they see fit to cool themselves off in from the African heat. There’s a pool nearby that he frequents, and one day I’ll get trained on how to handle a tiger in water then I’ll drum up the courage to swim with him. Until then, I’ll stick to the bottle feedings.

One of my other faves is a lion named Solo. He’s about a year old so he’s massive in size but still acts like a cub. He asserts his strength and demands that I play with him all the time. He’s also still bottle feeding and this is probably the only time he’s not interested in pawing at me. When he stands on his hind legs he’s tall enough to use my head as an arm rest. WHAT. Most of the animal trainers get some battle scars from play time with Solo. I have yet to experience the wrath of those claws and I hope I never do. 

There’s a lot of lion cubs that pass through. Sometimes it’ll just be 1 single rescue, other times a litter of 4 or 5 cubs. We’ll care for and rehabilitate them for as long as we can support them, but the reality is that is it bloody expensive and difficult to house and feed several grown lions at once so the cubs will most likely they’ll be given to another sanctuary or facility that can afford to give them the care they need. But the fun part is- there’s always lion cubs around to play with! They’re pretty lazy and sleep a lot of the time (like most baby animals), and eat constantly, but play time is always fun. They’re just like puppies or kittens, small, furry, they fit in your lap and nibble anything and everything. Cubs haven’t learned how to control and retract their claws yet, so they’re little lion claws are constantly snagging on things. Don’t have any dangly clothing or jewelry around the cubs- they’ll rip it right off! There’s no greater feeling of contentment then having a lion cub purring in your lap as you’re rubbing its belly and it’s falling asleep. Pure bliss. 

Oh, and I have to mention Baloo, our black bear! He’s basically with us permanently because where are we supposed to put a black bear?! He takes play time to a whole new level. He’s half my size but twice my strength. And he’s not even full grown yet. Bears naturally spend like 2/3 of their lives standing on their hind legs as they use their front legs like ‘arms’ to scavenge trees for food. But if you’re name is Baloo then you use your ‘arms’ to wrestle Koko everytime she’s around. He runs on his hind legs, and climbs trees and would probably climb my legs if I didn’t stop him. He seriously refuses to do anything but play or eat. It’s the cutest thing. And he’s the messiest eater I’ve ever seen. Probably half of his milk bottle ends up spraying out the sides of his mouth and onto me or dribbling down his face and all over his chest. He tries to hold the bottle with his arms, he’s basically a bear baby. 

 When I stay there I sleep in a tent in the camp- which is thankfully fenced and separated from where the animals are. But as I lay in my tent at night I can hear the roars of the lions. This is an insane experience- sleeping through the sounds of lions. 
There’s some lions and tigers only certain experienced trainers interact with, mostly because ones that are rescued when they’re older aren’t used to humans and they can be aggressive. While baby rescues end up being raised by humans so as long as I exude an energy of love and calmness they’ll be comfortable with me and want to play. 

By volunteering here and I finally feel like I’m getting the animal experience I’ve always desired. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) may seem scary and intimidating but the truth is, they’re gentle giants and they just want love like the rest of us. Through animal sanctuaries that strive to save these beautiful creatures from poaching, I get to have direct interaction with them. These animals are loving and playful. Only in animal sanctuaries would I get this kind of wholesome experience that places like Kruger and the zoo lack.
  All around the world animal conservationists are struggling to rescue endangered species and stomp out poaching. If you’re looking to support this conservation work, trying looking up animal rescue and sanctuary facilities in your area that you can volunteer at. Go play with some animals! It seriously is life-changing. 

Pheonix, Arizona recently became added to the list of about 60 U.S. cities that have a desire to put an end to puppy an kitten mills by passing a law that requires all pet stores to only offer rescue animals for adoption!
Here’s a list of a few of the larger global reputable animal sanctuaries!