Sprays of water around us, a cool fanning breeze, oh! Boat cruising in the Okavango River is idyllic.
As the morning sun radiates on our faces, its rays painting a rainbow on the splattering irrigate, we are reminded of the biblical oath by God to Noah that never again shall He perish the earth with floods.
On this day, along the Samochima Village, as we sail the flooded Okavango panhandle, the heart beat is swelling with the soft waves that are oscillating our boats.
The ebb and flow that is drifting the floating papyrus, hippo grass and the reeds is no blissful experience for Botswana television camera-woman Anastasia Tlhabologang as her slim figure heaves under the heavy instrument. To her, a hippo can pop up at anytime, capsize the boats and perish us.
According to Researcher Barbara Ngwenya from the University of Botswana’s Harry Oppenheimer Research Centre (HOORC), in Maun, we are celebrating a monumental historical event. It is the launch of the Code of Conduct for responsible fishing in the Okavango panhandle.
Through the sail, hosts of the event, the Okavango Fisheries Management Committee (OFMC), BIOKAVANGO project and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Fisheries Division, are showing us the set aside lagoons (fishing free zones).
Fisherman Kakuru Disho tells us that the formulation of the regulations is an intervention strategy by the project and the Fisheries Division to the water use conflicts that used to erupt between the white tour operators and the black commercial fishermen.
As he speaks, his face creases and unveils the underlying bitterness, residue of the past experience. Here at these waters, he says, fingers once pointed at each other to the near eruption of fights.
White tour operators condemned the fishermen for noisily beating water in front of their lodges at night while driving fish to their nets. They accused them of disturbing their guests’ sleep and over-reaping the fish to extinction.
As a result, Disho continues, whenever the angry operators found the fisherman in the water, they raced their boats over the fishnets and cut them apart. At times, they splashed the fisherman with water, chased them away resulting in swearing and exchange of bitter words. Some, according to Disho, “even spat at us, insulted in racial discriminating terms, at times calling us Kaffirs”.
But we bravely continued to fish, in the sole belief that they had no water rights certificates from the Land Board that hindered us from fishing.” That, Disho further explained, fuelled more conflicts.
But does it mean that as we launch today, the BIOKAVANGO and the DWNP successfully resolved the conflicts?
No! Disho says.
He likens the situation to a dormant HIV when someone is taking the anti-retroviral therapy.
But research, according to HOORC fisheries coordinator, Belda Mosepele, points out that fish are not going to be exhausted in the river as they come in with the replenishing inundation.
Coordinator of the BIOKAVANGO project, Dr Nkobi Moleele, confirms that there is still more that needs to be done to tighten the relationship between the two parties.
At least now the situation is better. In 2006, he says, when the project took its first mediation steps towards the conflict resolution, the hatred between the two groups had heightened to the extent of not even sitting on the same table.
“We addressed the matter with sensitivity and impartiality and, as a result, the OFMC, which consist of members from both groups, was born,” he says.
According to Kgosi Koloi of Samochima, if the conflicts hadn’t been resolved they might have ended in the spilling of blood. The community had even appealed for the president’s intervention.
11:20hrs, we have halted in front of the Lediba La Metsi Matala lagoon and Disho’s face saddens. This is one of the four set aside fishing free zones but, at present, the fishermen do not have access to it. The papyrus has blocked it all together with the channel that leads to it. It even poses threat to the whole panhandle. Disho says that before the blockage, the lagoon used to be one of the major tourists attractions in the river. Anglers came for recreational fishing and photographers were attracted by the vast numbers of hippos, local and migratory birds that used to lay eggs on a thicket of reed by its banks.
DWNP fisheries division director, Charles Nengu, tells us that the blocking papyrus is not only a threat to the river but the aquatic life at large. The weed shields oxygen from penetrating into the water, resulting in deoxygenated fluid killing thousands of fish and other water species. That has been happening annually at Guma lagoon and now a similar fashion is taking place in the Ngarange and other lagoons along the panhandle belt. Areas in front of lodges have been reserved as research and fish breeding zones.
11:30hrs, we are at the Samochima Kgotla were poetry, cultural music and dance adorn the commemoration. We sum up the event with Department of Environmental Affairs director, Steve Monna, cutting the ribbon and officially launching the code.
Member of Parliament for Nata/Gweta Ryane Makosha, together with his parliamentary counterpart, Bagalatia Arone of the Okavango District, is amongst a large number of civil leaders witnessing the event.