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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.
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Today I went out with Kioroletswe again to watch him work on his mokoro. He works on it every day, and it will take a month to complete. Maturu and the old lady came too. They called out words in Tsetswana while pointing at grass, tree, lowrie bird etc. and I tried to repeat them. Kioroletswe is a very happy fellow and a hard worker. He has about 2 weeks to go before his dug out canoe is finished. His hands are covered in blisters from all the chipping. I sat for a few hours drawing him while his mother sat watching proudly over the whole scene. The sun gathered momentum, so I went to the river for a swim and to try some fishing. The old lady came to the channel with me before tottering back to the village. I proceeded to catch a series of large and aggressive looking pike, under the rapacious eye of a wonderfully symphonic fish eagle. Frustrated at not being able to get any bream, I left my feathered friend a pike before setting off back to camp. The remaining pike I attatched to a good strong reed. 'Haliaetus Vocifer' was ubiquitos that day as were the pelicans occupying their usual haunt where the river widened. As I was putting on my shoes after crossing the channel, I heard the most amazing sound. At first I thought it was an aeroplane, but on looking up, realised it was a huge bird...( still to be indentified) The noise was produced as it swooped and dived through the air, a loud 'swoosh', as if it were falling. I stood in amazement as it flew off into the trees. Must ask Chris what that was.
Every day I seem to be getting closer to Maturu and the village people. Horelwa watched incredulously the other day as I trod the morula fruit in a large bucket attempting to make some 'okavango wine'. Chris had collected a lot of the fruit and we couldnt eat them all, so thought this might be a good idea. I have left it fermenting in the bucket... I do hope its a success. Bread, the traditional way was next on the menu, and after leaving it overnight in the large three legged pot over a few coals, found that it tasted.... hmmm, not too bad. Maturu likes it anyway! I've kept a loaf for Mike and Chris' return, no reason they shouldn't suffer with the rest of us!
How I am enjoying my art here. It occupies most of my time. I especially enjoy sketching the people, as they are always engaged in some creative activity. Even nose blowing is a physical activity, they do it with such gusto I wonder a blood vessel isnt burst (they use the finger over one nostril method, which I hadnt actually witnessed before).
Today I painted the village again, from the far side of the island and am pleased with the result. Think it worked well because I stood in the shelter of what will soon become a tiny island when the flood comes, and thus avoided the blistering sun. Time does not seem to exist, neither does technology, mechanisation or greed. I'm sure living in an environment like this it would be impossible for anyone to think evil thoughts. I love being ensconced in nature like this.This is the real life.
This evening was wonderful, Maturu, who is such a happy, homely lady, came to visit me. After clearing her nose thoroughly, she squatted down by the fire. I left my writing in an effort to communicate with her, for she was now my guest. She seemed to delight in answering all my questions regarding Tswana words. Kioroletswe soon appeared with his own chair and sporting the white sun cap. I dont think he ever takes it off! There followed another Tswana lesson, which involved me pointing randomly about at vairous objects and them telling me the Tswana words, which I had to then write down quickly or I would forget all.
The pesky cat still scrounges around the camp looking for any tasty morsels left hanging about. At one point, 85% of her disappeared into the 3 legged pot in an effort to devour the remnants of food left in the bottom. This was more than Maturu could stand, she leapt to her tiny feet, marched towards the unsuspecting feline, picked it up by the scruff of its neck and flung it straight over the fire into the trunk of a tree which interrupted it's maiden (altho' I'm not sure this hasnt happened before) flight, causing a loud 'thud' to ring out in the night. That cat has guts, as it came right back for more. Even the chickens gang up on it, a wonder it's still in one peice. It must be on life #8 at least. I named the cat 'Biggles' after the old WW11 pilot and allowed her to sleep on my bed after that.
The week I spent alone with Maturu was very interesting and productive. I learned a great deal about all kinds of things, perhaps most about myself. It seems I do my best work when I am free from distraction, which is difficult in the first world, but here there is a different peace and I love to watch Maturu and Kioroletswe live in such harmony with their environment.
Mike left today,back to Alaska. We went with him to Baboon camp to see him off. He was getting a lift into town with Tom. 'If I don't see you in the future, I'll see you in the pasture' were his parting words. This made me cry, I know we will miss him. Chris told me to 'put a stone in your stomach' which apparantly is what the Zulus say for 'be brave'.
Chris and I are going with an African fellow called 'Smiler' and Mungabe, from Baboon camp up into the perennial swamp, stopping at islands along the way. I can hardly wait, I am so excited to see another part of the swamps.
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The folk in the huts on the other side of Tswaralangwana are a very friendly bunch. The eldest of them, Chris has named 'Bilbo', a rum old chap who only 'just' sports a pair of shorts, and a T shirt bearing the motif of a football player. An avid poler by any standards, he even left without his passenger, Jim, the other morning! The McNeil party is reknowned for their procrastination, so I can hardly blame him.
Jim has now left for 'civilization'. I think he was just about ready... the menu was proving too monotonous and he had actually lost quite a bit of weight. We were all sad to see him go as he lent a light hearted angle to the whole trip. He was however, replaced by the arrival of two of Chris' friends, George and Andy, along with Erna from Baboon camp. Andy Green is a geologist from Capetown, but currently living in Gaborone. Chris and he get on really well, both resembling 'wizened gnomes' with their abundant facial foliage, slight build and stork-like legs (at least true for Chris, Andy's are more of the fire hydrant variety). They both have a fantasy that one day they will go into partnership as a safari company, taking informative trips with small groups into the Kalahari and Okavango. I'm sure they would make a great team if they ever got organised enough to do this!
George is an older English genteman who has worked in London for the Bank of England most of his life, having recently arrived in Botswana to work in Gaborone. His contract is now finished and he is to return to the UK next week. I admire him tremendously - entering into all the walks and excursions with the alacrity of a schoolboy. This with a painful looking war wound on his leg. "Got whilst on active service with the Chundits in Japan, under Wingate" he casually mentions. He went on to explain that he was marching 800 miles behind Japanese lines in an effort to destroy bases, H.Q's and supply stores. Should an encounter with the Japanese occur, instant decapitation or torture followed. This made our little soirees seem like a walk in the park, albeit with the vicious attacks of elephant grass.
Later in the day, Chris took us all on a lion hunt, which was abortive but fascinating. We saw the huge morula tree, whose fruit is sweet and juicy and is my main source of vitamin c at present. Chris identified the various spore we came across, along with the trees, and birds. Everything is such a revelation to me, so much to learn, I am fortunate to have such a knowledgeable teacher.
Chris shaved off his beard the other day, which was quite a revelation, one never knows what lurks behind a mans facial fuzz. In this instance, I am pleased to report, Chris has a very nice face.
The past few evenings have been most enjoyable with such good company around the camp fire. Sue and her friend Ross whom I met in Kenya and also studies primates, arrived at this popular venue. It was nice to have another female around especially one so friendly as she. Chris seems to gather momentum when he has an audience, becoming loquacious, yet very funny in his melifluos rhetoric.
During the day, the men folk go and fish, leaving me the opportunity to paint in peace and solitude. I have done a couple of small oil sketches, which I am pleased with and today I completed something a little larger. This was done in great discomfort as I was perched on the top of a termite hill overlooking the low and disappearing swamp. I intend to do another from the same spot when the floods some down, which should be any day . I can hardly wait to see this. Tswaralangwana will become an island again. We will have to rely on Mokoro's to get anywhere.
The last, I anticipate, of the rain fell the other day, causing the European contingent to taste 'hut fever' for the first time. My hut became the centre of all debauched proceedings. Friends taking refuge from leaky tents and soggy sleeping bags. Tea flowed continuosly, as did the cigarettes and whisky. Entertainment came in the form of Chris reciting Shakespeare. Sue made popcorn. By the time the rain stopped, I emerged quite giddy from the tea - or was it the whisky? Popcorn?? Anyway I missed the same pigeon five times before it finally got bored and flew away!
The men went hunting for geese, while Chris and I poled across to see the island where he began his latest book and where he wants to build his house. From the outside, it looked like a tangle of trees and vines, yet once inside it resembled a palace. The aerial roots from the fig lent themselves perfectly as doors and windows, while the large, forbidding trunk spued forth idyllic seats and stairways. I could visualize his dream easily, altho' the quantity of black mamba's he had slayed there was somewhat disconcerting.
I sketched for an hour or more, while Chris lay sleeping by the fire.