Itembi - the Brave African Cat

by Onika Amell tropical plant expert

About the Author
Onika Amell was born in farmer's family in Cape Town, South Africa, and always had a keen interest in gardening. She has been a globe-trotter for many years, traveling along with her husband, an engineer, and her life is worth a novel. In Cape Town she worked in groups "Soil for Life and Work for Love", teaching people how to grow their own food, improve their health, and protect the environment. Onika lived in Galilee, Israel, skydiving over 500 jumps and working on the fields planting, harvesting and caring for various crops (Lychee, Avocado, Bananas, etc), helping out in community gardens... In SE Asia, she taught English at business centers... Upon finally settling in SW Florida, she joined the ECHO Global Farms project on teaching farmers/families around the world about effective crop production... Now as a part of Top Tropicals Team, Onika is our plant expert and a columnist. Onika's biggest passions are plants and... of course – cats, who are her children! She has six of them: Itembi, Freddie Mercury, Donald Trump (he is the difficult one), Tigerlilly, Sweetie, and Jaxson.

"You will always be lucky if you know how to make friends with strange cats".
Colonial American Proverb

I found Itembi, a tiny Calico kitten, in 2015 while I was hiking in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve while visiting Cape Town in my mother country South Africa. The little kitty appeared out of nowhere, sitting in the middle of the dusty path I was walking. It took me by surprise to see a kitty there, as I was in the middle of the boonies, with no sign of life for many miles around. She was skin and bones. My heart broke for the kitty. She was sad-eyed and so incredibly frail. I went down on my hands and knees and extended my hand. To my surprise she came over to me immediately and nestled her head into my palm, purring and purring. It was love at first sight. There was nothing else to do but to scoop her up and carry her back to my jeep to take her home with me.


But what was I going to do with this little feline? I was soon to return to the USA. I decided to call her Itembi, which is the Xhosa word for "I hope". For I hoped and promised her I would find her a good home. Knowing I would soon be leaving to return to the USA, I hastily posted her story on Facebook hoping someone would fall in love with her and I could find her a good home. It worked. Phone calls started to pour in. Yet, every time I distinctly heard inside of me, She’s Yours. I protested right back inside. “I can’t have her.” Again I would hear, She’s yours. It was a voice that had never failed me before and I easily found an excuse not to surrender her to a stranger every single time the phone rang...

My husband joined me a couple of weeks later. By now Itembi and I were inseparable. To my delight I watched as Glenn (a non-cat person) fell as hard for her as I did. I watched quietly as he cranked up our wood burning stove when the cold Cape Town winter approached, nestling her on a pillow in front of it. When he walked with her into our bedroom early one morning and whispered: “Here’s your mommy”, my toes curled up as I was lying half asleep in bed. He loved her as much as I did. I brought up the difficult question over breakfast. What were we going to do with her? “Are you kidding me”, he told me. “She ours now. She is not going anywhere. We are taking her back to the US with us.” I fell in love with my husband all over again.

In South Africa, the international pet carrier companies wanted an arm and a leg for assisting us bringing her over. Glenn simply shrugged them off and figured out all the rules and regulations himself. It took weeks of strategy. He investigated high and low. Itembi’s vet, the State vet, South African Airlines’ cargo department and many others were consulted and when we finally took the long flight back stateside, a tiny little African cat was in the belly of the plane with us.

Upon arriving at JFK-NYC, we booked into a nearby airport hotel and Glenn rode the airport bus to the cargo area to go and fetch Itembi. The shipper would not release our little kitty until the Customs papers were cleared. So, my husband got back on the bus to get to the other side of where Customs are located. After he stood in line at the Customs office for almost an hour the papers where finally stamped. Then, back on the bus again to return to the cargo area. He delivered the papers and they took him into a very large cargo warehouse. Cargo officials brought a fork truck and lowered a large pallet, covered with a dirty old cargo net, off of the top of a steel rack and brought it to him. Under the cargo net was a small cat carrier with our little African kitty hiding under the blanket in the carrier, not making a sound. Now back on the bus to the airport and then the airport hotel bus back to the hotel. I was waiting impatiently at the hotel. A million thoughts went through my mind. It seemed to take a long time for my husband to retrieve Ithembi. Is she OK? Did she even make the endless flight?
I will never forget the feeling of sheer relieve and happiness when he walked into our hotel room in NYC with our little Cape Town kitty. She was tired, but OK. “You are in New York, little kitty cat”, I whispered to her, squeezing her tiny little frame to me. If you can make it here, you make it anywhere...” Itembi did not say much. She just stretched a little and purred and purred.

The rest is history. She is our pride and joy and a VERY brave African cat.


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