Botswana Calling #11
The gentlemen that were going to take us up to the Northern swamps were named Smiler and Mungabe. I named Smiler 'Mr. Universe' as his muscles were well hewn and he was very statuesque. All came from poling his mokorro through the swamps, not from going to a gym! They were indeed organic. Mungabe was not so striking but a good poler and a good friend of Smiler's. Smiler's sister accompanied us and was like a little housewife. Whenever we arrived at an island that looked hospitable enough to camp on, she made their beds, the mealie meal and the fire before finally relaxing on her own bed. This after a day of poling!
Chris and I existed on the rest of a goose he had shot previously. We had been too far from home to get back before nightfall and without food. I felt cold and hungry and was not looking forward to the bleak night ahead. Chris spied some spur winged geese on the horizon and within minutes he had got us some supper.Close by was a mokorro island which contained the remnants of a fire sufficient enough to both keep us warm and cook the goose. How quickly ones circumstances can change in this paradise!
Meanwhile, back in the swamps.... Mungabe and Smiler proved interesting company, conversing with Chris more and more each evening. Smiler came complete with radio, which was rather a strange sight and sound after so long without one.
To glide gracefully over the new waters to the sound of fish eagles, low murmering African voices and the gentle splash of water as the n'cashe (pole) hit the water was magnificent.
Our three polers, always happy, instilled amazing confidence in one and should not have been afraid had a hippo raised its vicious head right next to our boat. The most frightening part of our journey came at a huge lagoon called 'Da-o' where a legendary snake of enormous proportions made its home. As we approached, an ominous silence crept over our party. It was incredibly eerie. The poles did not touch the bottom and we were manouvered entirely by a rowing action afforded by the poles. That hole was deep and the lagoon vast, I felt so vulnerable. It was such a relief to be past it.
Camped on a beautiful island with plenty of palms, and two bushmen-type huts which unfortunately could not be used due to the invasion of mosquitos. The evening proved humorous with both men greatly amused by Chris' imitation of an innocent young man who had fallen into the hands of the legendary Namwerei. She was a witch who lured young men to an island and removed their testicles. So the saying goes, glad I'm a woman!
Mungabe and Smiler woke us early. Within a few minutes we were on the water again. The Northern swamps contained a different type of beauty to the annual. Palm trees were ubiquitous, yet there was an air of wild, unkempt timelessness about the area that both excited and enthralled me. I felt that I wanted to transform all I saw into words or pictures, yet verbal description or photographs would be so inadequate. One's feelings and impressions could only be converted through one who had seen, absorbed and expressed these into a vision from the heart. Nothing an electrical, technical gadget or any form of crude apparatus could ever capture.
A great deal of what I saw I converted into sketches, Smiler's stupendous body proving an admirable life study!
That afternoon we arrived at Smiler's village, Opai. From the river it was an idyllic sight, completely dwarfed by palms and surrounded by mokorro's. A throng of laughing children ran out to meet their brother/friend/cheif, who was more than happy to be home. Lifting a tiny boy up over his muscular shoulders, he invited us 'in'. Opai proved a hive of activity, women sitting under the shade of a large acacia weaving baskets, chopping melons and avidly pummelling mealies into a fine powder. Smiler's wife sat with the women, yet showed no recognition or joy at her husbands return. Then I noticed the abundance of women in proportion to the absence of young men. The children were all exceptionally good looking.... in fact. all resembling Smiler! Obviously, as he was the chiefs son, favours of every description were bestowed upon him. His house was situated in what was by far the best spot in the village with adoining 'dining room' and yard. We were hustled into this yard after the time-honoured procedure of greeting all the occupants. We were invited to sit and have some tea. A wooden chair materialized for Chris and Mungabe. (in Yei custom, men are treated with much more respect than womenfolk).
While I was perched on my heels, women of varying ages began rallying around making the fire up and preparing food for the men. These people of the Okavango existed almost entirely on fish which were prepared in such a way so as to make the most vile stench. I declined the offer of food, making gestures that implied I had stomach ache.
While all this activity was going on, a large collection of children and teenagers had gathered to view these strange visitors. I took advantage and did some sketches of them. Such excellent models!
After tea, Smiler asked Chris to look at his father, who had been extremely ill for a week. On examination, Chris diagnosed TB which is a common disease amongst the Africans in large parts of the continent now. We urged him to come with us to Etsha, where there is a clinic, but the old man would not. THe anti-biotics we left him with were more for phsychological purposes than for anything else. It must be rather a frightening prospect being ill so far away from any medical help. Yet maybe more frightening to leave the swamps and all you have known to see a Dr. in a crowded town. Chris would see what he could do in Etsha.