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Botswana Calling #14
Etsha, N. Okavango Botswana 1983
Next stop was the clinic.We were in search of profilactics and medicine for Smiler's father.The nurse, we were told was in the store, so we sought her out. Such a sweet little lady, she wore a gentle, concerned expression, spoke excellent English, and came up to my waste. An extremely pregnant lady accompanied her. Chris explained the dilema of Smiler's father and then touched upon our little problem. 'Ah, profilactics for malaria' she boomed. 'Er, no, said Chris quietly, 'For the lady' (I was scarlet at this point). 'Oh, don't you take the pill?... No? You want to get pregnant?" 'No, I ...." "Oh, you want some 'F.L's'? "Y...yes" I stammered shyly. "OK, this lady (pointing to pregnant woman) deals with that. Come to the clinic at 2".
After a lunch of Fat cakes and jam, we proceeded yet again to the clinic and were greeted by a man there who helped us seek out the nurse. In the surgery, the nurse gave us the necessary pills for Smiler's father, issuing express instructions for him to be brought to the clinic as soon as possible. She asked us to take a seat, which we did. The nurse began to tell us that she had worked most of her life in Malawi but had travelled a good deal, she had even been to UK. Half way through her life-story, she began harrassing the pregnant lady with instructions re. the condoms. My cheeks flushed becomingly. The conversation continued, but was interrupted a second time with a loud 'thud' as a large box of contraceptives hit the table amidst all three of us. My blush deepened and I struggled to maintain a normal dialogue. I limply enquired about the escalating rates of T.B amongst Botswanan's when I was completely drowned out by the meticulous counting of said 'FL's by the pregnant one....."sixty five, seventy, seventy five...." "How many do you want"? she enquired looking directly at me. I just about burst a blood vessel as Chris let out a loud, raucous laugh. The little nurse told me I could sell some if I liked, whereupon the counting continued...."eighty five, ninety...... Paradise". She uttered the brand name with a look of nostalgic longing, her distended belly hardly proving an advertisement for the product. My embarrassment had now been converted to nervous/hysterical laughter, altho' a rosy glow continued to adorn my face. The nurse offered a knowing smile as the rubber-ware was unaesthetically stuffed into a clinical looking plastic bag.
Our exit was swift, leaving in our wake a baffled looking young man, who had introduced Chris as my father to the nurse.
There were plenty of subjects in Etsha. I delighted in some of the lined old Bayei's faces who proved willing models and who often invited me to their humble abodes. There was tremendous activity throughout this little town... people selling fatcakes (deep fried flour balls), meat, bread, or favours and party's in full swing at all hours of the day, the rinky tinking African music belying their location.
A large sled, pulled by four strong looking oxen provided the attraction in the town centre, where they awaited a full load before moving ponderously through the deep sand.
Mungabe offered us his hut for the night which was the height of hospitality. There was no evading such an offer, despite vain attempts to trot off down to the river and pitch our tent. A gang of Mugabe's friends, had by thist time arrived on the scene, so to refuse his kind offere would prove extremely humiliating for the sweet man. What a night it turned out to be! Upon returning from the river, having had a good wash, quite a throng had gathered around the fire outside Mungabe's hut, the majority of whom were rather bibulous. They had consumed it seemed a vast quantity of 'cardy' the local beer. Chairs had been arranged for us inside the hut which afforded a certain amount of privacy for the eating of our goose. A continuous flow of visitors ensued with a rather wobbly Mungabe holding court in the corner.
I found it quite amazing how these folk lived so informally - wandering in and out of eachothers huts continuosly, doors never used and privacy never indulged in. Such gregarious people. A key visitor was that of the 'barmaid' who hauled into the hut a large barrel of evil looking beer. She sat down in the corner and began pouring the contents into large tin mugs. The smell was vomit-inducing and I declined to taste the brew altho' I noticed Chris knocked it back with avengence. The barmaid maintained a demure, sober look throughout, whilst Mungabe slobbered all over her in a very unbecoming fashion.
After an hour of these debauched proceedings, the party, along with the travelling barmaid, moved on... much to my relief. Just as I was about to crawl contentedly into my sleeping bag, I noticed that the hut had no door! Chris was not happy with this arrangement and went out to find one. Within minutes, a moth-eaten old mat appeared at the vaccuos spot, which proved more than useless, despite a roar of approval from the party outside! A succession of equally useless doors appeared before my eyes and I began to lose any inclination to sleep. Chris called out that he was still negotiating and everyone was convinced a door could be found. Eventually a large reed mat was slapped with great dexterity into the doorway, obscuring all signs of the ongoing cardy party. The night proved far from calm - we were visited at regular intervals by various locals, all come to 'meet Mungabe's friends', domestic animals, including one particular goat that had a fetish for Chris' tobacco pouch, and howling children looking for their mother. An excellent recipe for insomnia! The method has been tried and tested.
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Near Etsha, N. Okavango,
After a tranquil start, we arrived on Mungabe's Mother's island - Guda.
The terrain now incorporated cattle and goats, so appeared rather tame in comparison to our previous venues. Again, a swarm of children descended upon us, and a fat, jolly woman who spent the entire time smiling.
As in Opai, the village was situated in the centre of the island, a woodless, shadeless area, which I'm told is designed to view any predators or unwelcome visitors. Some shade was afforded by a reed canopy where we sat on a perfectly situated log. Mungabe invited us to have some milk with our mealie - the prospect of which sounded too good to be true. It was. A large cup of curdled milk, resembling yoghurt, was produced. It tasted vile, and every mouthful came complete with 600 hangers on in the form of flies. Chris explained that Africans cannot digest milk as we can, and so part of the process must be carried out first, to aid digestion. We suffered in silence.
From Guda on up, the water was less plentiful as we were on the very edge of the swamps so we could only take one mokoro. Our worldly possessions became rather more condensed, as did we. The water became so shallow in some areas that we disembarked and walked, while Mungabe or Nelson poled the mokoro around islands to meet us. They had grown up in this terrain and knew so well how to negotiate these water- ways in any situation. Occassionally, we would be confronted by a wall of papyrus, which to my inexperienced eye was simply a wall of papyrus, yet the African eagle eye would decipher an entry point which would lead on to a labyrinth of hippo paths and mokoro lanes, again to be deciphered, so the correct way could be taken. As the day went on, the papyrus seemed to become more dense and the water more shallow, thus making poling almost impossible. The men worked extremely hard, often pushing or puling the craft from both ends. Progress was slow, and the mighty papyrus towered above us for hours on end. Sometimes it seemed as tho' the end was in sight, a flowing channel interrupted the 'forest'. Moments later we were knee deep in water again. Only an illusion. the channel was there only to be crossed. Another endless battle with the accused papyrus ensued. Seeing the polers working so hard, I felt extremely useless sitting so helplessly still. I began clutching reeds, helping pull the mokoro along, for which Mungabe muttered that I was 'Number One'. I poled in places where Nelson pulled, Mungabe poled from the rear and Chris sat amidst 6 inches of water which was now seeping in. Trying desperately to keep our sense of humour, Chris continuosly enquired 'How far is Etsha'? whereupon the reply would either be 'still ahead', 'far but not too far' or 'I don't want to lie to you, so I tell you I do not know'. Good reasoning.
Darkness began to fall, causing every push on the pole to be that more urgent. Luckily there was a full moon which offered perfect light when we finally emerged from the papyrus. The temperature began to drop and I was now very cold. My bum was soaked and I longed to be by a fiercely hot fire. Chris could still not get a positive answer from Mungabe regarding how much farther it was which decided us. We would stop on the next island, Nelson and Mungabe could pole on to Etsha if they liked and return in the morning to pick us up.
What a relief to stand by the fire we made so swiftly, ensconed in a blanket and plucking a spur winged goose that Chris had shot. I slept so soundly, awakening in the morning to Mungabe saying 'Aryai' (let's go!). He was a man of his word. It was eight o'clock and Etsha was only an hour away!
It was a long walk from where we left the mokoro to the actual town of Etsha, a walk where the spoor was that of donkeys and goats, the sounds were of bells and cattle bellowing. Civilization. A regiment of huts stood on the horizon. A horizon devoid of all trees, shimmering in a heat haze and alive with activity.
Mungabe seemed proud to be with us and went to great pains to introduce us to his friends and show us around this small 'laid back' town. Etsha evolved due to the influx of immigrants from Angola in 1967 who settled there and brought with them basket craft which is so well practiced throughout Botswana today. It was refreshing to be amidst people again and everyone seemed friendly. The main store (which we made a b line for) was run by a welshman who started it in 1967 and took great delight in showing us all his warehouses, ex warehouses and stock. I was, quite frankly, a lot more interested in the actual store where we bought milk powder, mealie meal, tobacco, jam and..... chewing gum! Next stop the 'clinic'.
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May 1983. Opai village Okavango swamps.
The afternoon saw the purchasing of a mokorro by Chris but unfortunately it was submerged in the water when the deal was made and has since proven to be the bain of our lives due to its low slung attitude, giving half an inch leeway either side!
We spent the night in Opai village. The evening was very enjoyable due to the fact that two hunters had returned bearing a lechwe (small buck). This was food for all. Chris and I enjoyed the liver whilst sitting with Smiler et al, who were waiting for the mealie meal to arrive. The radio was on constantly and Chris managed to tune into an Afrikaans station for a spot of Beethoven. So strange to hear such music in that wilderness. An old African, who had once worked for Chris, appeared at that stage and greeted Chris like a long lost friend. Chris told me he was a bit of a useless old boy, but had a kind heart. We found a use for the old and rather prosaic pair of sunglasses I had been carting around for weeks. What a swell he looked! Sunglasses are a real status symbol in the delta, he was still sporting them the next morning!
After the feast, the whole Yei village began preparing for a party at a village farther down in the swamps. Best clothes were adorned and an aura of anticipation descended upon them all. I would loved to have joined them but Smiler explained that it was purely a 'Yei occasion". Couldnt argue with that altho' it did pique my curiosity.
As I walked to my little tent, which was pitched amidst the palms outside the village, threads of music and laughter came dancing through the night as the happy throng poled down the river.
The sunrise the following morning was perhaps the most breathtaking I had ever seen. A line of dreamy palms silhouetted against a deep vermillion sky. Magnificent.
After promising to purchase batteries, sugar and tobacco for various villagers, we left Opai quite early, leaving instructions for the collecting of the mokoro the following week. Smiler remained in his village. A substitute was found by the name of Nelson. Not quite the same body power, but efficient non the less. Again the landscape changed, Qu-a trees becoming more prolific and vast open plains awash with the new tea-coloured water on its way from Angola. Water birds appeared around every corner. Chris shot two white-backed ducks (thalasorniss leuconotus) which proved delicious eating. Occassionally we crossed the Boro, where the water became deep and was avenued by papyrus, which Mungabe cut, stripped and ate. He offered some to me, which I accepted despite its unappetising appearance. With the texture of polystyrene, the taste could hardly be described as any more stimulating, yet if the locals ate it, who was I to pass judgement?
These days of lying torpid in a mokoro enabled my mind to wander over the past and what my life contains now. I feel so free. It is quite natural I would think to feel inhibited by this 'freedom' for a conscience exits which takes one back (too often) to the organised, planned and predictable 9-5 routine which 99.9% of the population are engaged in. I detest that existence, yet the lifestyle I strive for will never be recognised or accepted by the majority of the population. It is both inspiring and comforting to meet Chris, who is himself fighting societies opinions and values.
We camped on yet another beautiful island that night and ate the duck with relish. Mungabe had found a turtle, which he was going to eat, but it disappeared somehow before he got the chance. I was rather relieved.
The following day proved most hazardous and perhaps the most exciting of all...