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.
Happy Father’s Day!