So what do Africa and physical therapy have in common? Not much, except for a lot of different types of movement.
Earlier this summer, I spent one month traveling around Southern Africa — Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. We spent most of our time out in the bush with trackers and naturalists who had grown up with the animals. When you’re the guest in a different country or continent and have the background of an anthropologist, you end up mostly observing. Everyday, I spent hours watching lions playing with their cubs out where only animal tracks marked the earth. I saw ‘unlikely friendships’ of Rhinos and warthogs wrestling for the same food and hippos with colorful birds nestling on their backs.
We started in Johannesburg, visiting the heart of Apartheid with the Nelson Mandela museum and townships in Soweto. I saw beautifully clad, South Africans women wrapped in bright colors, coming out of dilapidated houses with smiles on their faces. I’ve never seen women walk so gracefully through dirt and garbage in their heels.
Then we headed to Zimbabwe and Victoria falls with rainbowed mist framing the sky. We stayed in an elephant camp that rehabilitated lost and/or injured elephants and Cheetahs that could not survive in the wild. I would get up at five in the morning to drink coffee and walk along the falls with a large Cheetah and visit the hippos in their watering hole. At the camp, I also observed the local bushman become physical therapists as they used their intuition and observation to diagnose an animal’s strained hip or neck.
Our next stop was Botswana where we visited two different safari camps. Each morning we got up at 6 AM and have our coffee and warm muffin as the Southern Cross faded into morning light. Most of my group had some kind of back and hip issue, so the four-hour jeep rides would leave our joints stiff and stubborn. There were numerous times we would break for tea and cookies alongside the smaller vermin and I would demonstrate standing hip rolls or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) patterns.
While on safari, we saw a pack of lions engaging in their own version of quad strengthening exercise by squatting for hours before attacking a giraffe. Survival of the fittest requires strong thighs and arm muscles. In fact, we were often abandoned by our tracker as he followed the scent and texture of an animal trail. Because of their lifestyle and because their specific movement was critical to their survival, I observed that there was very little leg length discrepancy and postural dysfunctions among the natives.
So during my trip to Africa, I did engage in a bit of physical therapy through postural awareness and body mechanics observation. I learned that the natives reported very few physical issues such as; diabetes, heart disease, neurological and musculoskeletal issues. If these issues arose, they were treated with dancing, music, laughter, and selflessness.
Now, the African drums and nightly gospel choir have been replaced by my three kids singing American Top 40 tunes. There is, however, a big lion print that has become the centerpiece for our dining room table. The ‘circle of life’ has many forms – I look forward to my next visit where I can continue my observations.
Arran has clinical experience and post-graduate training in musculoskeletal dysfunctions relating to sports injury, post-surgical rehabilitation, spinal injury, women’s health and chronic overuse syndromes. She first became interested in physical therapy after walking one thousand miles across Northern Spain and learning how different cultures approach healing. As you can tell from this piece, she continues to learn about other cultures through her travels. Arran is a Seattle native and has a history of playing competitive soccer, basketball and ski racing.