She fed eggs to meerkats, groomed a cheetah daily and once, barricaded herself in a bathroom to avoid an overly-curious warthog.
For one month, Foster lived in a two-room platform tent at the Wildlife Sanctuary of Naankuse in Namibia, Africa, where she volunteered to work with several species of endangered animals.
Last year, the English and history teacher at Warsaw Community High School applied for a Lilly Teacher Creativity Grant. These grants, provided annually by the Lilly Endowment, support creative projects that are personally renewing and intellectually revitalizing to Indiana schoolteachers.
The trip to Africa was Foster’s second project funded by a Lilly grant. The 23-year teacher received a grant several years ago to study carousel animal carving under one of the country’s only carousel folk artists, Bud Ellis, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“Both of these projects stemmed from my passion for endangered animals,” said Foster, who explained Namibia is one of the few African countries that take land stewardship and endangered animal conservation very seriously. The country, which is only 14 years old, is the one place in the world where black rhino herds are still intact and the sanctuary itself contains one-third of the total African wild dog population.
The Naankuse Foundation was started in 2006 to protect and conserve vulnerable African wildlife and to improve the lives of the local San (African bushman) community. The wildlife sanctuary provides a safe refuge for orphaned and injured wildlife, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, caracals, baboons and meerkats, while a school and medical center aid the local community.
“People from all over the world come to Naankuse for eco-tourism, to provide volunteer service in exchange for having a once in a lifetime experience in Africa,” said Foster. “I was nicknamed ‘the old cheetah.’ Most of the volunteers were younger and trying to reassess their lives. We worked from sun-up to sun-down, but always had fun. They made sure each of the volunteers did everything they wanted to do.”
While there, volunteers like Foster helped care for and feed the animals on a daily basis, as well as helped to maintain and develop the sanctuary. From poaching patrol and relocating nuisance wild animals to food prep and cleaning pens, Foster had adventures every day.
“It was fascinating and exciting each day. There’s a hustle at the sanctuary,” said Foster. While in Africa, side trips took her to a national park for a safari and into a traditional San village. She also spent time touring the local clinic and schools.
“There was one couple who had walked 50 miles to get their child to the clinic,” said Foster. “I went to Naankuse to help animals, but realized how important it is to save the people there, too. The local people are the ones who need to live in harmony with nature. You can’t compartmentalize. You need to let the local people lead the way.
“I wasn’t in love with the climate, but I would go back. If I were younger, I’d spend a couple years there. I did things I didn’t know I wanted to do, but wound up loving every moment. I felt such a passion for what I did and I learned a lot about myself.”
For more information about the Naankuse Foundation in Namibia, go to www.naankuse.com.