Q&A: An African Love Affair
84-year-old Eric Weller from West Sussex is a former metal worker who also served in the RAF for two years. A keen volunteer, he was first inspired when he was en route to see family in Australia and saw an advert in an in-flight magazine about volunteering with lion cubs in South Africa. It turned out the company was based near his home so on his return, he arranged a meeting and booked the trip immediately.
We find out what he loves about volunteering and all about his Africa experiences.
What first made you want to volunteer?
I’ve always been an animal lover. Since losing my wife in my mid-70s, I’ve been to Canada to study polar bears and stayed on a raft in British Columbia studying grizzly bears.
What was your first project?
My first voluntary placement in Africa was with lions at Ukutula Lion Education Centre near Pretoria which involved breeding lions to return to the wild. I also saw rescued tigers, cheetahs and elephants, and illegally smuggled lemurs.
What were your duties?
The main duties with the lions was keeping the animal compounds clean and tidy, repairing fences and even feeding the older ones each day. We looked after the cubs one day a week too, bottle-feeding them, and cleaning and playing with them. I was sad when I left because I missed the friends I made but of course, I was happy with how the animals were looked after.
Any stand-out moments?
I remember when a lioness escaped because someone left the gate open; we had to search all day in the park. We knew she couldn’t escape as the park was enclosed so we put her food into her enclosure and by the following morning, she’d returned.
What was your next placement?
The second voluntary work was at Cheetah Experience near Bloemfontein in South Africa. It was similar to working with the lions, very hands-on. One of things I did personally was donate funds to plant some trees in the enclosures which would provide shade for the cheetahs as they grew.
Any particular memories?
I used to feed a cheetah every night and stay with her while she ate it. On my last day, I adopted her and paid for her upkeep for a year.
What about the people you meet?
I learned that all types of person from anywhere in the world do voluntary work. Most of the volunteers were from European countries, some students but in general, from all walks of life. I’m still in touch with a volunteer I worked with in South Africa who lives in New South Wales in Australia. We email and send each other Christmas cards.
Any advice for people thinking about volunteering?
I’d say that you have to be prepared to live and eat with the locals and appreciate their way of life. Also, be prepared to put in the work needed, and do something you will enjoy as well.
If you could volunteer again, would you?
I’m almost 85 and have suffered some ill health which I am recovering from. If I was able to volunteer again, I’d like to do some work with disabled children and deprived children, perhaps teaching them skills that I have acquired throughout my lifetime. If I could, I’d like to visit countries in South America.
How do you stay busy now?
I still volunteer! I help with Southlanders, a local community group and assist with a local community café on Monday and Friday mornings. We hire a room in a day centre on these days and provide snacks and lunches at affordable prices for anyone who wants to visit us. There’s free internet too. I also work on the community allotment which Southlanders runs. We grow all sorts of vegetables and fruit which people can buy for a small donation, and any money goes back into the allotment. We’re self-funded and raise funds by selling books and bric-a-brac. We run an exercise class for all abilities too. I’m now the oldest one attending at 84!
By Meera Dattani