Friday, October 2, 2020

An expedition with Boundless Southern Africa

You think of a wild animal as one that is ferocious and that if it can’t muster such misconduct, then it would scoot away at the sight of a human being.

Not all game inside Chobe National Park fit that description.

Some do not even seem bothered by the roar of vehicles. One, a kudu, nonchalantly grazes on the side of the road as the Botswana Tourism Board vehicle carrying us drives past.
In an age when it is possible for people like Michael Jackson to be born black and die white, it should be possible for Kasane farmers to use some of the game in their area as draught power during the ploughing season when government tractors take too long to arrive.

Soon, we arrive at Chobe Lodge to buffet lunch with no portions of beef in sight. We are lectured every day about red meat not being good for our health but practising Orthodox Africans retain the centuries-old belief about what a proper afternoon meal should consist of. From here we will join the Boundless Southern Africa expedition, go on a short boat cruise and disembark at Chobe Marina Lodge.

At a time when we as a country are resisting the idea of a United States of Africa and deeply worried about goat thieves from Zimbabwe intensifying their activity in Bobirwa, the term ‘boundless’ seems misconceived but that is how this expedition wants to be known.

The Boundless Southern Africa expedition is traversing 10 000 kilometres route through 30 protected areas in nine SADC countries over a four-month period. The expedition will document the nature, culture and selected communities in all the nine countries. Tourism minister, Kitso Mokaila, says that Botswana, as all other countries participating in the project, has sufficient final-cut rights on the final product.

The 2010 World Cup tournament in South Africa is expected to draw some 10 million tourists and Botswana hopes to benefit from what everyone expects to be bountiful windfall. The Boundless documentary will be screened on international channels like National Geographic and BBC which command a huge global audience.

Of the dozen or so people in the Boundless Southern Africa team, the expedition leader, Kingsley Holgate, stands out on account of his extraordinary visage.

This man does not just preach conservation; he lives it everyday and practices it in a very profound way. The evidence hangs from his face in the form of a luxuriant forest of gray Old-Testament beard which the criminally enterprising would use to smuggle contraband across national borders and past check-points. If you are Radovan Karadzic, you could also use that beard in even more creative international-law-evading ways.
With some people, it is possible to read lips to assist message comprehension but in Holgate’s case, that is virtually impossible. A South African, he speaks fluent Zulu.

Chobe Lodge is on the banks of the Chobe River – or Zambezi River as it is called on the Namibian side. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where Botswana and Namibia meet but there is a maritime border somewhere along this river. Service standards at Chobe Lodge are not your average and that explains why it has been given a five-star rating by the Botswana Tourism Board.

Hollywood stars and royalty have visited and Elizabeth Taylor and one of her husbands honeymooned here some decades ago. Lodge staff is highly professional and omni-competent. For one who lives in Gaborone where so-called future leaders have managed to turn waitressing into an extortion scam, this lot is welcome respite and a breath of fresh air.

The journey back to Kasane is by a double-decked boat and begins in an unsettlingly ominously way. In terms of the rules, everyone has to strap on a lifejacket as well as write their name down on a passenger manifest ‘in case …’ The tour guide is only half-joking when she quips that only those who can swim faster than crocodiles need not wear the jackets.

As the boat turns around to begin its journey toward Chobe Marina, the tour guide seizes on the opportunity of a herd of elephant watering on the river bank to explain the water cooler habits of these animals. There is something endlessly fascinating about people who see virtue in filling their heads with useful information. This guide made the most of her time at a government school in Maun that trains professional guides.

A fully grown elephant, she says, can drink up to 160 litres of water a day. Elephants die near water sources because when about to die, they make fresh grass growing in water bodies part of their staple diet.

‘This is the life!’ is a thought that keeps recurring as the boat chugs along at a stately speed. In future generations, say 400 years from now, it would be a requirement by law for everyone to go on a boat cruise on the Chobe River at least six times a year. The experience is good for mental health and almost makes you forget the snowballing bank loans you should never have allowed yourself to be tricked into taking.

As the boat neared a herd of buffalo grazing on the Namibian side, the engine cut out ÔÇô or so it seemed ÔÇô until it became clear that it was turned off on purpose not to scare away the animals. That is done each time we come upon animals close to our path. Propelled by waves, the boat keeps moving. Passengers tend to troop to the side where the animals to get a good view. During one such viewing, the guide cautions: “Balance the boat! Balance the boat!” Imbalance risks the danger of the boat capsizing and having to either drown if you are not wearing a life jacket or swimming faster than crocs.

We pass Sedudu Island, which Botswana and Namibia fought over a decade ago and all the way to The Hague. Botswana prevailed and its national flag snaps triumphantly in the cool afternoon breeze from a pole. The guide says that in October the island turns into a ‘paradise.’ In turn, someone who understands what that means volunteers the information that around that time, there is a rich variety of game roaming Sedudu Island.

When we arrive at Chobe Marina Lodge some two hours later, having consumed far less than 160 litres of the free beverages on offer, it late afternoon.

In the evening, we converge on the grounds of Mowana Lodge for a nocturnal cultural event. The atmosphere is festive. The main assembly area is a courtyard rigged with lighting and PA system for the event. What passes for the ‘high table’ comprises of wooden benches covered with what are called ‘Pep Stores’ blankets that are mostly found in poor households.

The courtyard d├®cor concept seems consistent with a deeply disturbing tendency among some to romanticise poverty and ascribe virtue and cultural meaning to hardship.

On one side of the courtyard is a huge cooking area on which stand countless medium-sized cast iron pots and the promise of a proper African feast. An open area outside the courtyard is speckled with properly-tended bonfires and arrayed within the glow are groups of people showcasing this or that cultural activity. A hop and a skip away, just on the edges of the glow, is small enclosure made of dry reed stalks. Inside is a lone elderly woman sitting on the ground, her legs stretched out in front of her.

As part of the cultural treat, a dash of traditional beer (which tastes like three-day old winter Chibuku) is served in enamel cups alongside western beverages from the hotel. There are obligatory speeches by village elders, Mokaila and Holgate. There is good-natured ribbing between the pair, with Mokaila’s themed around Holgate massive beard.

There is also recitation of a rather long poem by a young man who obviously idolises Mzwakhe Mbuli. Truth be told, the poem is actually rambling prose spiced with 1960s black-liberation politics and loosely cobbled together into verse. A fair bit of the poem is dedicated to Mokaila and when he is finally lost for words, the poet walks offstage and over to where the minister is seated to shake his hand.

The other performances are of traditional dance troupes and during one, Holgate acts on his urge to join in. His dance skills can use a lot of work but his one-kilometre-long beard is definitely a useful traditional dance prop.

During a tour of the cultural displays, it turns out that the old woman in the reed enclosure is a sangoma and won’t do so much as exchange greetings without a consultation fee being deposited on a receptacle in front of her. While they may be from different places, be of different races, have different styles of doing business and have different areas of specialisation, medical professionals the world over have one thing in common – they all operate like vending machines.

The food is traditional and comprises of luxuriant meat pieces with texture and character that would definitely have found favour with orthodox Africans in attendance.

Kasane’s weather is generally agreeable which, unfortunately for its residents, means that there are fewer opportunities to show off winter wear. Tonight presents such opportunity.

The Boundless shindig ends quite late but there is no option of sleeping in the following day because there is one more assignment. Fittingly for a 2010 project, the expedition will tomorrow film a football match between two local football teams.

I find the ‘sport’ of football ÔÇô like that of rugby – quite vexing. There is deliberate player-on-player violence from the first to the last whistle. One wonders why the players cannot just fight (like happens in boxers and martial artists) rather than make possession of a ball an excuse to do so.

Much like the torture of watching food being prepared, taking in the sight of a football match is also another one of those things that are eternally disgusting.

It must be a FIFA rule because almost every second someone on the pitch is sending off a jet of slimy spit. If this spit was collected in a bucket, the first half alone would yield more than 160 litres. (Watching the Wimbledon final a few days, it occurs to me that tennis players who do a lot more work than footballers and not once do they ever spit on the court. As football evolves, footballers will hopefully be taught etiquette training on the tennis court.)

Suffering through this ordeal is what the next assignment calls for and there is nothing I can do as this sort of abuse goes with the territory. On a rather unusual assignment in Francistown last year, I had to inhale countless lungfuls of rancid faecal vapour during lunch break as an officer of the city council calmly gave a lengthy explanation on how waste from the city is treated.

The most noticeable thing about the football pitch where two local teams, Botshabelo and New Town are to play is that New Zealand would never play here. The New Zealanders reportedly complained about the grass-covered University of Botswana stadium not being level when they were in Botswana last month.

Here the ground is hard, uneven and has a pronounced stream-like depression that runs through it. Interestingly, that does not bother the players who are obviously quite accustomed to fighting on this ground.

The traditional dance troupes from last night are providing entertainment on the sidelines to liven up what is a less than thrilling encounter.

Also lined up on the sidelines are expedition vehicles and from one of these blares out the match commentary by a local young man. The commentating is not quite the standard you get on radio or TV but the idea of giving the job to a local resident is a brilliant one. He has village intel down pat and if a female spectator cheers the loudest when a certain centre forward takes possession of the ball, the commentator would know exactly why that is so.
A secret smile suffusing his face, he can tactfully communicate that information in a socially palatable manner.

At one point the commentator plugs for the sponsors ‘even though I don’t know who they are.’ If there is one thing that the organisers made sure they did was stint on some vital information.
Before the match started, the leader of one of the dance troupes was heard to ask the man who compered last night’s cultural event about the identity of the these visitors. Upon learning who the Boundless Southern Africa people were and what the purpose of their visit was, the now clued-up man said that had his group known, it would have brought traditional drums and more props to showcase the full breadth of its artistic repertoire.

The two teams are evenly matched, proceed to penalty shoot-out (the only part of a football match that is bearable because it takes much shorter short time) and it is only then that the winner emerges. The game ends with absolutely no injuries. This is confirmation that the New Zealanders were just being crybabish.

Then follows a prize-giving ceremony, which the expedition cameramen filmed from all angles.

A few minutes later the expedition drives away in a long convoy in the direction of Ngoma border. Its next assignments are in Namibia.

As for us (Mokaila, his ministry’s spokesman, four journalists and army baby-plane crew of three) we can finally return to Gaborone and its clean-shaven conservationists.

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