Disembarkation, Chobe River, Botswanafrom “A Poet’s Progress,” Newtopia Magazine #10

November 24, 2010: Baobob Camp, Chobe, Botswana

Camouflaged Bird’s Eggs, Chobe River, Botswana


Today out on the river we came across a lily pad with four camouflaged bird’s eggs in it. Mat explained that the eggs in this species are nurtured by the male and that the one who built this nest has probably fled to a nearby tree and is watching us right now. But since the eggs have been discovered, when we leave he will build a new nest and transfer the eggs, one by one, in an attempt to hide them. Sometimes the eggs get dropped, and sometimes while he is away a predator finds the eggs and has lunch. “Oh no,” Rhona scolds. But this river is slow moving, Mat says, and there are snakes and raptors and hippos who know this is a good place to find these eggs, so the mortality rate is high, with or without our visit today. Plus, he says, if they lose their eggs, someone else benefits. That is the law of Nature.

On Hippopotamus Watch, Chobe River, Botswana

I am at the bow of the canoe, on hippo watch. Hippos are responsible for most of the human kills each year, mostly local fishermen. Hippos will submerge in their territory when a canoe approaches and if you’re not paying attention you’ll miss the bubbles until you’re too close and the hippo will rise up and turn the canoe over and kill everyone in it. Hippos are vegetarians so they don’t eat you—they’ll just break you in half, or drag you underwater until you drown. And you also don’t want to come between a hippo and its children. When a hippo wants to warn you, he opens his jaws as large as he can and roars. “See the size of my mouth and teeth? I’ll rip you in half and toss you in the river if you come any closer.” Although large and swollen, a hippo is remarkably agile and can easily outrun a human over short flat distances. If you want to escape from a charging hippo, the best thing to do is to jump over a fallen branch or tree. With their very short legs, hippos can’t climb over even a fallen acacia branch, so sometimes you can escape while the hippo runs around the branch or just gives up.

Cape Buffalo, Botswana

Today we came upon a group of four cape buffaloes. One had a large cyst on its left foreleg, another had only one horn. These are the old ones, thrown out of the herd. The outcast cape buffaloes are more dangerous when they’re in groups of one or two. In a large herd they feel safe and will come within ten feet of you and just stare—curious but not really interested—and eventually walk away. But one or two alone and outcast feel more vulnerable and will chase you. These lone bulls are responsible for more deaths each year than any animal in Africa other than hippopotami.

A blacksmith lapwing is so named because their call sounds like a blacksmith striking his anvil with a hammer.

Ground birds—known as non-pessaries—have three toes. Birds that nest in trees—like a branch plover—have a fourth toe that like a thumb is opposable. Pessaries can lock their toes in such a way that they will not release until they’re intentionally unlocked. This is why a bird that nests in trees can sleep on a branch without falling out of the tree.

A coppery coucal. A red-billed till. Egyptian geese, an ibis stork, lilac-breasted teal.

Wild Dogs, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

At dinner, Jean said that she wanted to see a kill. Earlier she said that she wanted to step on a dung beetle to see if it would pop or splatter. I tell her that her inner child must be an eleven-year-old boy. But James frowns. He says that in the last group another woman had wanted to see a kill. One morning three wild dogs chased a gazelle into camp. The gazelle ran around the tents and one of the dogs split off from the group, going the other way around the tent and catching the gazelle by the throat right in front of the startled campers, and with its momentum pulled the much larger animal over onto its side. The other two dogs each grabbed a hind leg and tore the animal into three pieces and disemboweled it, feeding on its organs while it was still alive and bleating. None of the campers, James said, ever mentioned wanting to see a kill after that.

This afternoon I went looking for the baboons, but they were gone. Tinashe says that they can travel as far as 35-40 kilometers in a single day, foraging. He tells me that he once saw the one-armed baboon in the camp in the morning and found it 20 kilometers into the park in the afternoon, and it was back in the camp by evening.

Marie, Basketweaver, Baobob Camp, Botswana

Today we were visited by some traditional basket weavers. They used aloe vera to make their bright yellows, soaked the fibers with rusty cans to get their greys. The orange comes from the toothbrush tree, pink from sorghum, blue from carbon paper, black from rusty cans and charcoal, brown from bird root. They each learned how to weave baskets from their grandmothers, as their mothers had never learned how. Now that the tourists have arrived it is seen as a way to make money. For many families, weaving for the tourists is now their family’s main source of income. The woman are proud to be employed, to have money, to have people admire and buy their work, and to work with other women.

Day View, Baobob Camp, Botswana

Julius Tells Us the Story of His Country (Botswana)

Botswana is the size of France or Texas. There are only 1.8 million people in Botswana, one of the lowest per capita population densities in the world; 40-50,000 people live in the capital city. It is the only country of southern Africa that was liberated from foreign rule without a civil war or a race war. For that reason, the people of Botswana are peaceful, and the country is seen as a safe haven for those fleeing the troubles in Zimbabwe and the Congo.

Their flag has three colors—blue at the top representing the sky and rain for the farmers. The bottom two colors are black and white, representing equality and unity among the races. Julius thinks that it is significant that there is no red in Botswana’s flag, a color that features prominently on almost all of the other flags in Africa. Red stands for the importance of blood, not only celebrating the blood of the warrior but also representing the importance of your blood, your tribe.

The first king of Botswana solved the problem of too many tribes before it became a problem. There are eleven tribes in Botswana, but the king oversaw the creation of a new language that would bond all of Botswana, called Satswana, incorporating words from each of the languages of all eleven tribes. And then, knowing that English was going to be the language of the future, he made English the second official language of the country. [In comparison South Africa has eleven official languages]. Having English and Satswana be the official languages doesn’t mean that you can’t speak your local dialect in your home and community, but it does mean that you won’t hear it on the radio and it won’t be taught in schools. And the King was certain to point this out, the ban included his own language as well.

The San bushmen are the only natives in southern Africa (including Botswana). All the other ten tribes represented in Botswana are immigrants, most prominently the Bantu, his people. What defines the members of a tribe is not where they live or who they live with but the language they speak. Everyone in the twelve countries of southern Africa can understand each other’s dialects but they can’t speak each other’s languages. Sometimes Africans from different areas will have to try several different dialects until they find one they can both understand. They usually greet each other in the one they’re most comfortable speaking, and they can tell by the reply what language the other person is most comfortable speaking, if not that one.

Before the arrival of the British, there were three chiefs who ruled Botswana. The three chiefs didn’t want to become involved in the battles between the Europeans who were fighting over mining and passage rights in southern Africa, so they went to Britain to request to be accepted as a British protectorate. Britain sent a team of scientists to explore Botswana for precious metals and the like. They found some copper and nickel, but not enough for Britain to take interest. And Botswana was incredibly poor—its economy is still in the bottom ten for the entire world. Most of it is desert. The British found a population that still defended itself in the middle of the 20th century with axes, rocks, and bows and arrows. Later, when the independence struggles in Rhodesia and South Africa began to heat up, the chiefs went back to England to ask for protection again. In 1967, the British scientists returned and found some diamonds, but what was more important to them was the possibility of connecting their manufacturing units in Rhodesia with their shipping ports of South Africa. And this would also guarantee that the land wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Boers—notorious for the brutal repression of native Africans in the areas they occupied—who were interested in using Botswana for transportation of their exports to the ports as well. The English accepted Botswana in 1967 when a rich diamond field was discovered in South Africa and the English-owned mining companies needed men to work the mines so the trains were built, mostly to bring men from Botswana to work as more or less modern-day slaves in the South African mines. Each worker was assigned a bed in a barracks, and worked 12-hour shifts six days a week for $12 a day … but that’s before the company deducted fees for housing and food and “additional services.” If you are too sick or feeble or injured to work, there is no money. Since there is no real economy in most of Botswana, this is still the only way for most men in Botswana to earn a living to feed their families.

Like most countries in Africa, Botswana’s relationship with Britain and the other Europeans has been troubled for generations. There is a saying in Botswana that “Two-legged animals are the only ones who break the rules.”

In Botswana, a family’s wealth is numbered in cattle. Families live in homesteads, surrounded by their extended families living as one family, along with whomever has been accepted by the patriarch into the homestead, usually neighborhood orphans and distant cousins who are without closer family.

Currently the number one economy in Botswana’s is tourism. Beef used to be its largest industry, but several years ago Botswana experienced a few cases of foot and mouth disease and their exports have never really recovered from that. There are plenty places in the world to buy beef—why risk a third-world country in south Africa that has a history of hoof and mouth disease? Diamond mining is currently its third largest industry, although its value fluctuates wildly with the market. With the currently expanding market, Julius feels certain that diamonds will soon take over beef and maybe even tourism to become its number one industry.

Botswana has a parliamentary government, based on the British model, with 47 seats in its parliament. It has country-wide free elections every five years.

The George Washington of Botswana—Sir Seretse Khama—the man who would become the first elected king of Botswana and remain in power from independence in1966 to 1980—traveled to England in the years before World War II to study law at Oxford. While he was there he became a jazz dancer who performed with a modern dance group in various concert halls. While he was dancing one night, Ruth—a white student at the nearby women-only university who was also a jazz dancer—saw him performing, and fell in love with him immediately. They became dance partners, then lovers, and then decided to ask their families for permission to marry. In Botswana, one does not ask one’s parents for permission to get married, but rather the father’s eldest brother, who in this case turned down the future king’s request. So he asked again, and was turned down again. Normally, this would be the end of the story, but the future king of Botswana would not let it go, and he called a committee, which is a clan meeting of the elders. He demanded that the community not only acknowledge his wishes to marry Ruth, but athat they should also apologize to him. This time he was not only refused permission but was banished from the country and exiled to Britain. There he secretly married Ruth. When the marriage was discovered by his family, he was brought back to Botswana, where he was given a job as an ambassador to Japan, which was another form of exile. Because they refused to have their children leave Botswana, Ruth stayed to raise them alone and became president of the Botswanan Red Cross. They had four mixed-raced boys—the first-born died. The royal line is traditionally patriarchal, going to the eldest son, and the first elected king’s second-born became the country’s second elected president, and was never defeated, but eventually retired. Then the third-born son became the country’s third president, and eventually retired. So for the first three administrations it was pretty much an elected kingship, with the typical patriarchal succession. Right now they have their fourth president, the first one not related to the first king, and there will be an election next year, which Julius believes will bring about a change. “Sometimes you just vote for change. You think, well, I don’t know which plan is better but I feel we’ve had people with the same ideas in power long enough. It looks like we’ve got all the good we can from them, I think it’s time for a change, to see what other ideas can accomplish.”

Sunset View, Baobob Camp, Botswana

Leaving the San

“Long ago when the world was different
and things happened that no longer happen now,

we were overtaken by witchcraft and our future
was mirrored forward from our past

and turned to painted stone. Now we try
to recreate what is beyond our memory,

for what we were then is what we are now,
but everything else has changed.”

Student, Village School, Hwange, Zimbabwe

The women here do not walk in the rain because lightning is attracted to their scent. Women do not travel without an escort—the lusty baboon awaits to waylay any woman he finds wandering on her own. Girls killed before giving birth become stars and mothers who disappear in the forest become flowers that grow in pools. Clouds are the hairs of those who have died of old age. A warrior’s body becomes the waters of the river and his hair becomes black thunderclouds. The rain is a giant leopard with lightning for eyes and thunder in his belly. Seasonal rituals are designed to flatter this leopard so that he will allow rain to fall and the desert to bloom. The leopard must always be shown respect—it is only the tallest trees that are blackened by lightning. Blackbirds are the children of the thunderheads that gather every afternoon. The eyes of the giant leopard flash and he roars, and the winds swirl and the clouds empty.

San reapers coming home gather in a rain-break under the cliffs. Until the rain is over, they eat bananas, smoke cigarettes, chatter. They carry bags of mangos and monkey oranges, tied together with knotted strips of bark. One trims another’s hair with a knife. They watch the stream overflow into thickets of camel-thorns and purple terminalia. Tonight this rain-break above the rushing river will be their home.

Predators, Kafue National Park, Zambia

November 25, 2010: Chobe National Park

Predators have their eyes aligned on the front of their faces, on either side but in close proximity to their nose, because they need stereo vision and scent in order to hunt. Binaural vision allows them to track an object if it’s moving and predict where it will be in a moment, which is what allows them to be successful hunters. Cats have pupils that go from being slits in sunlight to being wide open circles at night. They have better eyesight than their prey, but cannot run as fast. They rely on surprise to make their kills.

A 3000-Year-Old Baobob Tree, Kafue National Park, Baobob Camp, Botswana

Most baobob trees are over 1000 years old, and the one we looked at today—the one that’s given the camp its name—is thought to be 3000 years old. But it isn’t easy to date a baobob because they don’t have rings like a tree, since they’re actually very large succulents.

There are almost no baobobs alive that are less than a 100 years old. Anything younger than that is eaten by the elephants before it can get large enough to survive their grazing.

Among the Bushwomen

The women gather petals of tea for the men to smoke.

How had she known where to find fresh blossoms?

“They were growing here last year,” she says.

“I always leave a little for the future.

This is why women gather and men hunt.”

Among the Hunters

Even the birds that can fly
fall to arrows given wing
by those who cannot fly.

Not even breathing,
not wanting the mantis to fly
from my knee into the fire.

Vultures circle overhead.
I hold fresh kill over the flames,
my back turned to the wind.

He who made all things by ordering them to appear
made it that we must kill for food, and that is why
blood splatters the earth, for no other reason.

And he who made it made it so we’d gather around a fire,
that in the bush still retains some element of the word magic
—-both heat and light against a wave of darkness.

from Among the Bushmen:

Prayer of the Great God of the !Kung

I am Hishe.
I am unknown, a stranger.
No one can command me.
I follow my own path.
I am a bad thing.

In the Wake of Misfortune, and by Mistake!

Twisting in a whirlwind
as a leaf upon a branch
tossed into a fire—blazing
its transformation from one state
into another—its threads
incandescent, lifted beyond
the fire’s ribboned curtain of light,
drifting down to gather
on the dirt as ash.

Water Buffalo Skull, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

What Was Dead Is Born Again

The bush forms a windbreak as a farmer comes home from the smoking fields. He walks past thickets of camel-thorns, purple terminalia, sickle bush, hookthorns, brandy bush, the rain tree, shepherd’s bush. He snacks on berries and sand raisins, honey, bananas, mangos and monkey oranges wrapped in knotted strips of bark trimmed by a stone knife.

God—who made all things by ordering them to appear—made it so that everything that lives breathes and drinks in some way must also eat. That is why blood splatters altars and snakes crawl through temples and vultures gather for a kill. The ground shakes when an elephant approaches, no matter which direction it’s going. Were we to come any closer, God would crush us.

These days red Kalahari clay is rubbed across the medicine man’s cheeks and forehead to simulate blood without breaking the skin. The Makishi no longer remembers whether his dance is meant to be a caution or a threat, but he knows it has something to do with the seasons. He stands like a tree and waits for the wind to tell him which direction to dance.

Bats are smoked out of their caves, fleeing the flames only to fall to arrows and be slaughtered, never knowing they have been killed for food. The blurred figures painted on the walls were once actual men, painted in the same light our torches cast around us.

We do not know whether any of this is true, but the dead do. We are like meat held over the flame too long. It is both too early and too late for us. Everything weakens in the flames and drifts as ash into the darkness. In the savannahs of the Kalahari, dead acacias have stood for over 120 years, beautiful even in death. But what does not burn eventually is worn into dust.

In flame there is some element of what we try to describe with the word “magic.” So we hold a match against the darkness to see what’s in the shadows. What we get is almost more than we wished for, as water percolates through limestone and evaporates into light.

When things happened that no longer happen now.

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