It's hard to explain to a clingy four-year-old that mom's job will take her on a nine-day, 9,000-mile journey to visit development projects in southern Africa, so I told him I was going on a lion hunt instead.
The truth, that I was heading to Malawi to visit dairy cattle and meat goat projects, would be a hard sell for a little boy who doesn't quite understand that not everyone has a pantry full of granola bars. But flying in an airplane across the ocean to track a ferocious man-eater was a plan my red-headed, projectile-loving preschooler could get behind. His only complaint was that he didn't get to tag along.
The day before the trip my family set off to the zoo, where we found the lion pen empty. Amos made due with a stuffed lion toy from the gift shop and a promise that I would bring back photos of a wild lion roaming free. He had lots of advice on what I should do when I spotted this lion: pelt him with a marshmallow shooter, squirt him with water guns, feed him chocolate chips until his belly got so full he had to take a nap. The more we strategized, the more we imagined what the lion would look like and how fast I would run when I saw him, the more hooked I got on the idea that Amos was right. I must see a lion in Malawi.
Success wasn't likely. Found in virtually every part of the country in the 1960s, a 2010 survey put the country's lion count at just 34. A booming human population and environmental degradation were quickly edging them out. Heifer country staff told me they'd lived their entire lives in Malawi and the only lions they'd ever seen were in the Lilongwe zoo. But nevermind the naysayers. I started scanning the brush for big cats as soon as my plane landed.
As the days ticked by with no lions in sight I lowered my standards a bit, deciding I would settle for a glimpse of the Malawi Terror Beast, a marauding demon of an animal that some said was a monster from a different realm and others discounted as simply a rabid hyena.
Luckily there are plenty of things to see besides life-threatening predators in this friendly, easily navigable country aptly known as "Africa for beginners." Cars are sparse even on the paved roads, but the shoulders teem with bicyclists and walkers. Women in the traditional jitenge wrap skirts haul babies on their backs and loads of firewood on their heads. Men on bicycles tote chickens, milk, children and even furniture on their rear fenders. Africa is the land of flowering trees, and I made a game of counting the different colors of blooms I found in the branches. We saw countless birds and flowers, but no lions, no hyenas. Not even a paw print.
On our last day in Malawi a friend offered to take me to the zoo, a plan I would have scoffed at earlier in the week but that I welcomed as I got closer to the trip home. But as often happens on the road, plans changed. A broken cell phone, shopping-day traffic and a family emergency soaked up the hours allotted to the zoo outing. As my plane left the ground I stared out the window, ever hopeful my lion would appear at last. No luck.
The journey from Lilongwe, Malawi, to Little Rock, Arkansas, is roughly a 40-hour trek, giving me plenty of time to think of what I should tell Amos. Would he care that my lion hunt failed when I told him about the goat farmer who used to feed his family by hunting antelope with a homemade spear? What about stories of barefoot boys playing soccer with a ball made from plastic grocery sacks melted together and tied with string?
I've been home for a while now, long enough to unload dozens of travel stories on Amos during our nightly bedtime routine. He's seen photos of sunflowers growing 12 feet high, and of the canopy of netting I slept under to keep hungry mosquitoes away. My sweet-toothed boy is easily distracted with descriptions of frothy pink guava juice and thick stalks of sugarcane. He laughs about the chambo fish I ordered for lunch one day that turned out to be a fried heap of fins and bones, and he seems genuinely concerned about Malawian children who fashion shoes out of banana leaves when hot dust burns the soles of their feet.
It turns out a weeklong visit to the warm heart of Africa can keep an adventurous kid's imagination occupied for months. Amos wants to meet the boys I played soccer with. He also wants to taste fresh sugarcane, balance firewood on his head and hold a baby goat. The stories about the people I met in Malawi are shaping up to be more than enough. Amos has never even asked about the lion.