Festive Season

In Botswana, many people refer to the time around Christmas as the “festive season.”  It’s when many Batswana return to their home villages to spend time with family.  I passed the season with my new family in my village, and with some of my new Peace Corps Volunteer family on safari in northeast Botswana and Zambia.  My apologies to those who have read or will read my column in the Montrose Daily Press, because this post relies heavily on it.  (It’s hard to find time to create original content for multiple platforms.)  Hopefully you will enjoy the photos that I’ve added to complement the column.  It has taken me about three hours of very slow internet to upload them, and some failed to load at all.

December began with a week-long “resource mobilisation” training (aka fundraising) at the Masa Square Hotel (aka good food and free wi-fi), sponsored by the Empowerment of Non-State Actors (a joint project of the European Union and Government of Botswana).  It was led by a consultant from Holland, and participants came from all corners of the country, including an organization for HIV patients in southeastern Botswana, a group working to raise awareness about autism, and an NGO that protects vultures in northern Botswana.

Participants in the ENSA training.

I was struck by the similarities between US and Botswana nonprofits.  Our desires are the same:  sustainable funding; engaged boards of directors; staff retention; more volunteers; greater visibility. But the participants stood out the most, and they turned what could have been a long, dry week into an absolute delight.  Each of them was passionate, informed, resourceful, dedicated, and wickedly funny.  I never have laughed more at a fundraising training.  We pledged to stay in touch, and to reconvene in March, when I will lead a session on developing funding plans for domestic sources.  This is a new thing in Botswana, as many NGOs rely on international support and grants.  But it’s becoming critical to diversify funding, especially for HIV-related organizations, as foreign aid to Botswana is declining.

On the last day of my training, as I was returning to my village, I got a call from our Assistant District Commissioner, requesting my help on a grant to the US Embassy for the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.  Probably

The crew that gathered to repair the village dam in 1921.

against my better judgment, I said yes, and then found out it was due the following Friday.  Our proposal was to protect a historic “dam” in my village.  I quickly learned that a dam isn’t just the structure that holds back water, but the reservoir and surrounding environment.  Our dam was built in the early 1920s, but the presence of water was one of the factors that led the Bakgatla people to settle the area in the 1870s after fleeing persecution by the Boers to the south.

I spent most of my free time in the next week learning about the history of the dam.  I met with local chiefs (dikgosi), the curator of our excellent local museum, and other knowledgeable folks, and we submitted the proposal with 17 minutes to spare (for those who know me, this is nothing new).  It was a great opportunity to form relationships with local and tribal government leaders and learn more about my District’s culture and history.

The next day, I unwound at my birthday braai (short for braaivleis, the

At the braai with my boss (Ausi Stella, left) and my Botswana parents (Baba and Gary)

Afrikaans word for grilling meat over a fire), which my landlord and landlady threw for me.  We ate hamburgers, sausage, and sweet corn, and several Volunteers from neighboring villages came for the weekend.  Also in attendance were my boss, various neighbors and family members, and the Assistant District Commissioner who roped me into the grant proposal.

And then it was time for vacation!  After five months of training and “integration,” the Peace Corps cleared us to leave our sites.  Two fellow Volunteers and I headed to Kasane on December 23rd, in the northeast corner of Botswana (it’s sometimes called the Four Corners of Africa, because four countries almost meet there (Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Zambia)).

The only ones we saw were along the highway at 100 km/hr…

Kasane has 10,000 people, and is surrounded by Chobe National Park and numerous Forest Reserves.  The Park is home to the largest elephant population in Africa (estimated at 50,000), and I saw several dozen along the highway on my twelve-hour bus ride.

Street warthogs of Kasane

As we got off the bus, we spied mongoose and  warthogs which roam the streets of Kasane.  We checked into our lodge on the banks of the Chobe River, and the next day we went on a Christmas Eve boat tour, where we saw many hippos (including one that came after our boat, not unlike a torpedo, and then burst out of the water with a bellowing open mouth), crocodiles, cape buffalo, impala, /baboons, and more birds than I could count, including marabou stork, African spoonbill, kori bustard (the largest flying bird native to Africa), carmine bee-eaters, and my favorite, hamerkops.

On Christmas Day, we were up at makuku (the crack of dawn) for a game drive through Chobe National Park.  Our excellent driver and guide, T.K., knew every bird and animal, and we saw more of the species we had seen from the boat, along with giraffes and zebras, and lions!  We stopped for tea along the Chobe, and gazed at hippos in Namibia on the other side of the river.

On our third day, we caught a ride to the border, and following a long wait at Immigration, we had our visas and we hopped aboard the ferry to cross the river into Zambia.  The only way across is by ferry, and semi trucks line up for

The Kazungula Ferry across the Zambezi

kilometres to get across.  The two governments are collaborating on a bridge and border crossing to ease the congestion.  We had a harrowing 40-minute taxi ride (complete with a thunderstorm and a passenger window that wouldn’t go up)  to Livingstone, so named for Dr. David Livingstone, the British missionary who was the first European to explore the region.  It was founded in the early 1900s and was the capital of what was known as Northern Rhodesia (until it was moved north to Lusaka in 1935).  It’s a big city (around 150,000 people), with a bustling downtown where we spent our first day touring the Livingstone Museum, shopping at an open-air market (where we bought beautiful African cloth for 6 kwacha/metre ($0.60)), and enjoying a traditional Zambian lunch of nshima (a stiff porridge made of ground maize), grilled chicken, and ifisashi (greens in peanut sauce), for which we paid 85 kwacha (with drinks) and happily ate with our hands (no forks here!).  We returned to our little lodge, just a few blocks from the town center, where we lounged by the pool in the shade of mango trees.

The next day, we headed to Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya in Tonga, or “The Smoke that Thunders”), named in honor of his queen by Dr. Livingstone.  We had scheduled a swim in the famous Devil’s Pool, but when we arrived, it was overbooked and we lost our seats.  Devil’s Pool sits atop the Falls, and one can swim there (with the aid of guides and after paying $140 USD) and peer over the edge.  This is only possible when the Zambezi River is low, as it is now.  The rainy season is beginning, and by May, the Falls will have ten times more water. We were sad to not swim in the Pool, but after visiting the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and experiencing the Falls through the excellent system of paths and bridges that take you over the River and down to its edge, I shed my disappointment (and kept $140 in my pocket). I can’t wait to get back in May when they’ll be in their thunderous glory.

Hiking through the rainforest to the Boiling Pot in the Zambezi

The next day, the Lodge’s driver, a wonderful man named Biggie, drove us an hour down a rough road into the bush to the edge of the Zambezi Gorge.  We

Zambezi Gorge…reminding me of the Gunnison Gorge

hiked several kilometres down a steep path to the Zambezi River where we swam for hours and sunned on the beach, admiring Zimbabwe on the other side.  Biggie assured us there were no dikwena (crocodiles) in this part of the Zambezi.  We had it all to ourselves, and it reminded me a lot of my beloved Gunnison Gorge.  On our way there, we passed a village with homes made of reeds, women carried laundry on their heads to the river to wash, and men rode impossibly-laden bicycles to bring supplies from town.  It’s not a sight that I’ve seen in Botswana, where per capita income is four times that of Zambia.

On our last day in Zambia, Biggie took us on a game drive in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, and we saw more zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, impala, monitor lizards, and birds galore, but the highlight was the white rhinos, which roam throughout the Park but are guarded by armed rangers (due to ruthless poaching).  Several of the rangers led us through the bush to a large tree where two male juvenile rhinos were sleeping just 30 metres from us.

We crossed back into Botswana and spent several more days in Kasane, swimming, sunning, reading books, and ringing in (and then recovering from) the New Year.  On our last night, we sat on the deck of a nearby lodge with several other Volunteers, watching hippos and crocodiles swimming in the Chobe, and marveling that this experience was so accessible to us.

The next day, we again were up at makuku to catch the bus back to our villages.  We passed more elephants (and amazingly, the only ones we saw during our trip were along the highway), and twelve sweaty hours later, I was home.  It’s good to be back, refreshed and amazed by my new country, and eager to plunge into my projects.

Go siame.  Sala sentle.  (Goodbye.  Stay well.)