29 pages 58 minutes read

Nadine Gordimer

The Ultimate Safari

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1991

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Ultimate Safari”

Nadine Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari” is a short story about a family’s journey from their demolished home in war-torn Mozambique to a refugee camp in South Africa. The story is set in 1988 amid the backdrop of a civil war, which neighboring South Africa supported by the funding of rebel forces. Gordimer, a white South African, was deeply critical of her nation’s involvement, and she tells the story of a young, unnamed refugee girl as she flees a war funded by Gordimer’s government. The story explores hope, the cruel nature of the human animal, and the refugee experience.

First published in Jump and Other Stories (1991), “The Ultimate Safari” is told from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl in first-person, past-tense narration. The girl and her family take a perilous journey across a game reserve towards an unstable future in South Africa. Originally published in 1989, Gordimer claims to have been inspired to write this story by a visit to a refugee camp. Known for her activism and writings on race, Gordimer earned the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991.

The story opens in medias res (in the action) with a young girl describing the sudden disappearance of her mother amid violent turmoil in Mozambique. Her father was killed by bandits, and their home has been destroyed. They are alone: the girl, her baby brother, and her first-born brother. She does not understand the war, the violence, or the reason there is no food. She only knows that she is afraid. The child notes the destruction of their entire village, the deaths of their neighbors, the lack of food, and the end of routines like school and church.

The children are thrust into adult roles: the girl holds her baby brother while the first-born son holds a weapon to protect them from the bandits. Soon, their able-bodied and strong-willed grandmother arrives with her diminutive husband in tow. They return to the grandmother’s home, where there is no food, the violent attacks continue, and hope is as thin as the villagers themselves. Though they search for their mother, she is never found and the women in the village mourn her.

With nothing to eat, the family will starve. Grandmother sells her belongings to buy maize and a container for water, and they leave their home behind. With these essentials and little else, they join a group of refugees fleeing their demolished villages. They do not know where they are going but forge ahead knowing that any place will be better.

The refugees find themselves with an unnamed leader who will guide them through the Kruger Park, a wildlife preserve encompassing over 7,000 square miles. The park is full of dangers, the most prominent being starvation for the refugees who also suffer from heat exposure, stomach ailments, and fatigue. Though animals surround them, they are not attacked. They see all sorts of animals up close, the most memorable to the little girl being a family of elephants moving peacefully through the grass. Though they trek through a predator-filled park, they fear the white tourists on safari who will draw the attention of the police. They know that the tourists and the South African authorities will not help them and will return them to the war back home.

While in the park, the grandfather shuffles away to relieve himself and does not return. The family searches for two days, finding nothing. They know that if they continue searching, the group will move on without them, and they will die of starvation or thirst or exposure. With steely resolve the grandmother ties the baby to her back and follows the refugee group away, leaving her husband behind. Like the missing mother, he is never found.

The rest of the journey is not documented by the young girl. Instead, the story jumps to their arrival at a large white and blue tent. They are given medical care and food, and the grandmother builds a life for the family in the corner of the large tent. Grandmother works hard, carrying bricks in a nearby village to buy the children shoes and shoe polish. She has a punch card for food, water, and medicine. A nearby village allows the refugee children to attend their schools. Though things are difficult, they have a life.

The story ends when a white reporter questions the grandmother, asking what she will do back in Mozambique after the war, to which she replies, “There is nothing. No home” (13). This leaves the little girl confused as she confesses to believing that her mother, her grandfather, and her home will be waiting for her after the war.