‘Men with Tales’…the stories of the Okavango tour guides

18 Jan 2016

Declared a world heritage site and one of the natural wonders of the world; and often described as ‘Africa’s last Eden,’ the wondrous beauty of the Okavango Delta is unquestionable. It continues to be a grand destination and a hot spot for tourists who travel from all corners of the world to marvel at its splendor and enjoy the diverse wildlife to which the delta provides a sanctuary. While it is famous for its beauty and wildlife, there is another beautiful aspect of the delta that is often forgotten—its people.

This omission was noted by Ann Gollifer—an internationally acclaimed contemporary visual artist and writer who is now a permanent resident of Botswana. Through her newly published book ‘Men with Tales,’ Gollifer journeys into the intriguing lives of delta’s tour guides through a collection of stories, detailing their experiences on Palm Island tourist camps.

“The book is basically a celebration of these ordinary men who live and work under extraordinary circumstances and also risk their lives to protect visitors from danger with their understanding and experience of the bush,” she says.

Ann recalls how a simple conversation with a friend about the need to document the tour guides’ stories evolved into a project that took almost a year to complete.

“The idea of the book probably simmered in my head for about two years. I initially wanted to call it ‘Ntshwarele Ngwana,’ which pays homage to how the island got unintentionally named through the haunting story of a hyena that stole a child; but I ended up calling it ‘Men with Tales.’ This book documents these amazing men and their stories. I loved the simplicity of the title,” she says.

The tour guides’ stories center around their encounters with clients, near death experiences and the folklores they narrate around camp fires. They are humanized away from their call of service, as Ann becomes the voice through which their tales come to life. Having toured the camps herself over the years, Ann’s experience of the delta influenced her decision to write this book.

“I fell in love with the delta on my first visit in the 70s. The tour guides, whose portraits are shown on every story, are more than just workers. They know the delta like the backs of their hands and that is quite a remarkable skill,” says Gollifer.  “I collected the stories in the course of ten days, getting acquainted with various guides. We would start our days at 8am and finish around noon, just talking.”

Notably, themes of history and identity which are common in Ann’s work resonate in this book.  ‘Men with Tales’ glances into the history of their tribes; Bukakhwe, Bayei and Hambukushe and how the camps have influenced their lives over the years.  Not only is the book unique and its stories captivating, it is also fully illustrated with water colours by Ann and drawings by the guides' children all under the age of six. The images recreate the landscape of the Okavango, from the lush green grass emerging in flood plains, wildlife, to the tall palm trees.

“Having the children draw the animals, of which they know better than anyone, was a definite highlight of the entire process,” says a delighted Ann.

Highlighting her challenges, she says it was quite difficult to compile the book because she wanted to capture the stories in their true essence.

“Kitsontle Saoago, who is also one of the tour guides, facilitated as a translator for me where the stories were relayed in Setswana. It took a while to make sure the stories were fluid and the translation didn’t distort their meaning,” she says.

As noted by one of the tour guides, Semakaleng Mosweu: “In terms of danger, life in the bush is not so different from living in the city. There you can get run over by a car or murdered by a thug. In the bush, a mamba or a leopard can kill you. But if you know the rules, it is an extremely rare occurrence.” ‘Men with Tales’ was launched in December and is now available for purchase at Botswana Craft and Exclusive Books.