Melanie Harkness: Africa in Her Heart
Recovering from a ‘desperate' time in her life, a woman takes a leap of faith and visits Africa-only to find she has finally come home.
As an only child, Melanie Harkness (née Gray) spent a lot of time alone, but was rarely lonely. She remembers exploring nature for hours, interacting with the frogs and other creatures she encountered on her long outings. Through this unstructured time, she developed an intimate relationship with nature that molded her for the rest of her life.
Her love of animals was not encouraged as a child, so after college, Melanie began her career as a public school speech therapist, and immediately acquired her own horse, Seuss, and a dog. She married an equine veterinarian and was immersed in a world of polo ponies and fox hunters, where everyone she knew rode. Unfortunately, the marriage ended in a long and painful divorce.
During that "desperate" period in her life, Melanie found solace and inspiration in Gorillas in the Mist, a book loaned to her by a friend. Never before thinking she would actually visit Africa, Melanie decided it was time to take a leap of faith and pursue her passion.
Armed with brochures and a carefully planned itinerary, Melanie took a seven-week summer vacation to see the wildlife-the paradise she had always imagined as a child. She started in Kenya, moved on to the Serengeti in Tanzania, and finished in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to see the mountain gorillas that had inspired this trip.
Prior to her departure, Melanie had done a lot of reading to prepare for the wildlife she would see. What she was not prepared for was Africa's magic and mystery. Something was working inside her that she couldn't identify. As the days and weeks passed, Melanie slowed and quieted. The power of the land, a rhythm of life intimate with death, and the immediacy of survival moment to moment all found a deep resonance for her. Africa was gifting her with a glimpse into ancient time, when early man roamed the savannah. It felt like the truest and deepest of homecomings.
Back in the United States, Melanie felt depressed. Everything seemed too fast and too noisy. She explains, "We are so disassociated and over-culturalized. Unless we make an effort, we miss out on what is intrinsic and elemental to us as living things. The African experience really can get you in touch with that."
It was shortly after that first trip in 1988 that Melanie decided to support charities that work to conserve nature and protect animals. She continues to support about 30 organizations today, including AWF.
In the years that followed, Melanie went on volunteer expeditions to Africa with Earthwatch. On one of these, she was introduced to a German professor living in the area of the research project. A short camping trip in the Namib suggested they were compatible travelers in harsh conditions. So Melanie returned to Namibia for 3 summers and the two drove a small pickup and camped throughout southern Africa visiting key wildlife destinations.
They tempted fate a number of times, once canoeing in the Zambezi amongst submerged hippos and elephants on the shore. -"We really shouldn't have done that!" Melanie muses-and bringing a bag of oranges into their camp area (a sign warned them not to) caused an elephant to come within 5 feet of their campfire and tent.
When it came to her estate plan, knowing that she had no dependants, Melanie knew she wanted to leave a lasting legacy for the causes that mattered most to her. Cerebrally, there were many organizations doing important work that were worthy of support. But Africa was her heart. AWF became a beneficiary of her living trust because she appreciates the organization's work and the personalized treatment she received from the staff.
Another leap of faith
In 2010, Melanie took another leap of faith and joined an online dating site. There she met John Harkness, a widower with two grown sons. It was love at first sight, and the two were married 11 months to the day of their first meeting. Over the years, John had traveled to South America, Europe, Asia, and 49 states in the United States-but Africa had never been on his list of top destinations. To Melanie's delight, John agreed to join her on an AWF safari to Kenya in 2015.
Melanie's anxiety about how John would react was needless. John now "blames" her for a transformative experience. "The trip was such a powerful experience," he says. "I was fully expecting excellent wildlife viewing, and it certainly exceeded my expectations. But when we got to the Chyulu Hills and the Samburu area, I really began to absorb the incredible beauty of the land itself."
And then there was the personal aspect. "I was amazed at how friendly the people were," John relays. "It didn't hit me until later how multidimensional this experience would be, meeting the local people and being exposed to the work taking place on the ground. It gave us a sense of the depth of the problems and how organizations like AWF are addressing them."
After realizing the "thoughtful and extensive role AWF plays with its partners and local communities", John began the process of including AWF in his estate plans almost immediately upon returning home. "I'm a big believer in education; my mother was an English teacher, and I have degrees from Yale and MIT. AWF's African Conservation Schools program became a major factor in my decision."
Melanie adds: "We were overwhelmed by AWF's approach to conservation. The idea of sitting down with the communities that live there and starting a dialog... that's what the world needs, respect for the local people. They do not want to be told what to do. AWF is all about partnerships. I came back so inspired!"