Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Sketchy At Best

Photo: Isabelle Jones

Mom please don’t read this one.

One of the things I am still trying to get used to is how nice people here are. For example even if we are just walking along the main road to get to work or the grocery store multiple people will pull over and ask if we need a ride. This makes for great hitch hiking experiences but also something that if happened back home would leave one super suspicious as it is instilled in us at a young age “don’t take candy from a stranger”. My experiences up to date could only be described as sketchy at best.

A random guy Loreinti…or something meaning, “just do it”. Met Lyndsay the other day and had been calling and texting her. We agreed to meet up with him, as he wanted to show us around town and meet some of his friends. As the actual town is rather small I assumed we would just be walking, but he showed up with his truck which was a sort of make shift safari car with a bench strapped down in the truck bed. Lyndsay was like okay lets go, so I followed her, hopping into the front seat. By now I am used to the bouncing and sounds of the cars here but as we drove out onto the highway then turning on to a dirt path by an abandoned cement construction site my stomach started to turn and head spin. It looked like the perfect place for a filming of CSI or a horror film. I started going though the whole OMG evaluation process. Asking myself why as a foreigner, as a white person, as a girl, why would I put myself in this situation? Hopping into a sketch truck with a guy I don’t know anything about. Along the ride learning he was unemployed in addition to noticing that the door handles were broken off and could therefore only be opened from the outside. It was just such a terrible feeling of what the fuck are you doing? For the rest of the time I was super tense, clutching my bag, fully guarded. Thinking of emergency plans and looking out the window for the fastest route to run back to the main road. Everything turned out fine. We got out of the truck and trudged through the bush in my flip-flops, sinking into mud, walking through various pokies and ankle deep sand. As he held branches covered in thorns out of the way for us. When asking if this was safe, Just Do It informed us that “the jungle is unpredictable and so you must always listen to it.” Eventually we came to a bunch of flat rocks by the river with a beautiful view. I was so relieved that the other people there were not his friends but a group of Christian monks. Dressed head to toe in green satin robes crosses on the back. They were performing some kind of ritual, gathered around one man who was being cleansed. He was covered with sand and herbs and then rinsed in the river as they sang and chanted.

The next place Just Do It took us was a more open plane and popular hangout for bonfires and fishing. The wetland had started to dry up (as it is the dry season right now). It was so cool because in the mud that had partly hardened you could see all of the animal tracks. There wasn’t any ground that was not patterned with bird feet and then the crater like prints of elephants, hoof marks from herd of passing buffalo. We even saw some hippo tracks and learned the difference between lion, jackal and cheetah prints. What little water remains as the surrounding land turns to dusty white sand is a natural hot spring! We are slightly to early in the season, but in a few weeks will be able to go swimming there! Lyndsay and I sat in the sand taking a few pictures and trying to identify the surrounding birds. Myself trying to relax a little bit while Just Do It went back to the truck to smoke up.

To our dismay he needed to pick something up from a friend in Kazengulo (the opposite direction) before taking us back. When we pulled up to his friends house (that was completely remote) we had to first pass under a hanging black sheet into the yard. The terrible feeling quickly returned. A bunch of guys were sitting around outside on a broken couch and different scattered objects. We sat with them and chatted, hesitantly giving them our numbers as they all smoked up as well. At this point it was very clear that we were here to check on the “business” with what Just Do It called his “clan of younger brothers”. Making plans to meet at a bonfire later, I was so relieved as we got back on the highway heading towards home as Just Do It lit up again.

Oh so my group of friends here consists of guys (who if judged on appearance I would be scared shitless of back home) and they all basically smoke up 24/7 or “become elevated” as they call it… everything I do here I can only describe as sketchy at best.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Man Is Never Satisfied

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” - James Michener

Religion is such an integrated part of the people. It’s Sunday today and so far different sermons have been going on since 6am well into the evening. I think they have outdoor speakers in the field behind our house, people gathered in congregation there. The mellower gospel songs are really nice, sending so much spirit and soul through the air. The sound of many voices singing Hallelujah as I sit outside on a concrete block against the house in the sun, writing this. Watching the laundry sway with the occasional breeze, the neighbors white alter serving clothes and sheets with red crosses on them flowing with as much emotion as the voices gaining in momentum.

Going inside for super we sit on chairs embroidered with “God loves us all” and then bow our heads as Ma Josephine blesses the food on our table and the protection of the day. For the lord to look out over her daughters.

Religious undertones find their way into every aspect of life here it seems. When asking questions at work our boss responds “don’t worry, even the Disciples of Christ were confused at one point so why not us?” Or after a meeting “I have closed the meeting with a prayer in my heart. And its okay if you don’t hear it because god can and he knows we are done.”

In a conversation with an elder today we had a long talk (him mostly doing the talking) about the nature of man. One thing that stuck with me he said was “the reason God hides is that man is never satisfied”.

We sat in on a meeting with the executive of the Chobe Land Board and a few of their stakeholders to get a better idea of the organizations inner workings. Even though most of the meeting was in Setswana I found it interesting how much I could understand through watching the expressions, body language and tone of the interactions. After six hours of deliberations, debates, daydreams and doodling I was shaken out of my thoughts to the chairman asking for “our Canadian guest to now say the closing prayer.” I was greeted with an adrenaline rush being completely caught off guard and with no idea what a closing prayer is even to entail, stood up and rambled something along the lines of “Thank you lord for guiding us in the decisions we were able to come upon and for the meeting of our new friends here. May you guide our future deliberations and help us implement the solutions that were brought forth. For this we thank you our Lord. Amen”

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Safari Barbie

Because of our clothing, Isabelle and I were reluctantly given the nicknames Safari Jane and Safari Barbie (which I hope I don’t portray). Our plan is to buy a truck or an old school jeep and adventure around. I think it would be so cool to put a mattress on the roof like we saw a couple do and sleep under the stars. Even though its all jokes how sick would that be if it happened?!

The stars here are also so much different then back home. Its weird looking up and not knowing any of the constellations. Solution: I will set out to learn them.

Before Isabelle, Thomas and Faisal were to head back to Francistown we had the opportunity to do a game drive together. This turned my mood 100 percent around after meeting my home stay (which I’m not prepared to write about just yet). Sitting in the truck the wind blowing though my hair surrounded by a TON of animals, beautiful landscape and laughing with the group was exactly what I needed. We were so much closer to the animals then on the boat it was crazy! A huge herd of Elephants came right up to the truck, so close that I could feel the wind as they flapped their ears and if reached out could touch them. Our guide Anthony advised not to move, and so we sat there mesmerized, adrenaline rushing. We pulled up to a spot overlooking the wetlands where we watched the sun set, which was so fast I was able to take a video of it literally sinking below the horizon. Nearing the end of the tour, Faisal spotted two Lions! I can’t even describe his excitement (as it was all he had been talking about) it was too great.

Anthony was a wicked sweet guy. We got talking about wild adventures and after telling a few stories from camping in Canada he told me that he was going with some friends to the bush this weekend. We exchanged numbers and he has stopped by a few times (yay my first friend!) However to my extreme and utter disappointment they wont be getting back till Monday after I have to report for work and so I will have to wait till next time. Still I am so excited and terrified at the same time. Seeing the massive amount of wildlife in the area so close to the community, I can’t imagine what it will be like out in the bush only separated by a canvas tent! I’m full of nervous anticipation and think it will be very interesting and hard-core to camp and learn the survival skills of the terrain. Safari Barbie enters the savannah.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Concrete Jungles Where Dreams Are Made Of

At night Lyndsay and I go to sleep listening to the strangest sounds. It is as if an exorcism is being preformed right outside our window. A mix of church songs praising the lord with a man yelling in a very loud angry voice in Setswana, mixing in the odd English word or phrase and repeating everything multiple times “Power … Power… POWER” more Setswana “Burning in Hell…Burning …Burning in hell… FIRE.” Needless to say this makes for some nice lullabies supplemented by the occasional Jay Z and Justin Bieber beats drifting in from our neighbors open windows.

In the morning we are greeted at 5am by the voices of roosters fighting to be herd over one another. As I pull my sleeping bag over my head trying to hold on to sleep, the sounds of the house start. Shelia in the kitchen banging pots around and Ma Josephine going about slamming doors. Awake now I wait for the knock and sure enough there is. Lyndsay and I look at each other across the room through mosquito nets to see who wins the nose game that morning. The looser gets up to answer the door and try to explain that our work doesn’t start till 8 and then engage in the never-ending game of denying the hot water. Some where the rules were lost in translation as she persists daily multiple times each day after we politely explain that we take enjoy cold water for our baths as it is very hot here for us. We are already dampened by sweat. I have yet had to wake to my 6:20 alarm.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

1 Pumba, 2 Pumba, 3 Pumba, More

The importance of sunset. Heading home along the highway we hitched a ride, then right where we were walking the previous night came across three elephants and a few kilometers later a massive herd of buffalo (both of which is on the list of the Big Five dangerous animals in Africa). Because I am now walking home from the gym alone and the sun sets in like five minutes here. I try and make every effort to leave before dusk. Also someone in the neighboring village was attacked by a leopard yesterday. It is just UNREAL the amount of animals here and how the people just live among them. There are so many warthogs roaming the streets. Mostly eating garbage (as trash cans are not common practice). When we first got here we started naming them pumba, pumba 2, pumba 3, pumba 4, 5, 6, 7, 8… and then I eventually lost count/ don’t even bother anymore because they are EVERYWHERE. A similar situation to Kingston squirrels, perhaps even less dangerous.

The implications of the wildlife on the people’s lives is so significant and actually quite relevant to the work we are doing. The tribal lands and plots allocated to the people are sandwiched. One side is the river, the other forest reserve and another Chobe National Park. There are no fences or boundaries for the animals, they are allowed to roam free. And while African elephants are on the endangered species list, there are approximately 150 thousand in the country.

When you plow the animals will come and destroy the crops further elevating poverty levels to which the government does not subsidize these losses. And yet is extremely illegal to kill an elephant. Even if one person can afford a fence, if their neighbor cannot the fields remain open. There is no defense. Being here now I feel crazy forever considering bears a threat back home.

And then there is Africa’s most deadly animal, the mosquito. As a protection method I am taking doxycycline with the lovely added side effect of increased sun sensitivity (which is just wonderful being as I have not seen a single cloud since being here). On the plus side it is also supposed to help with acne.. which given the access to normal hygiene measures would be nice if that side effect could kick in sometime soon.

Lets Pump It … Louder!

Photo: Faisal B.

We had pasta and the saltiest meat thing (maybe?) ever tonight. SO many carbs and salt! All I want is a massive bowl of raw vegetables. But today the most INCREDIBLE news! I found a gym! It’s on the second floor of the grocery store. After going up some sketchy stairs and down a dark hallway there it is, my oasis. A tiny room, no electricity, steaming with heat… and there they are, three stationary bikes, two jump ropes, an exercise ball, scattered free weights a few weight machines, multiple buff guys, equally intimidating AND … an erg! Yes in the middle of this village an erg! A small one definitely not like the ones back home, my feet are spread far to wide and the setting of least resistance is comparable to lifting weights but its an erg none the less. I am so pumped to start working out regularly! All that is left to do now is to find a running partner coupled with my motivation. And so concludes a miraculous find.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The River is Flowing, Flowing and Growing

Today we went on a boat ride on the river. The Chobe River is the only river in the world to flow in both directions, depending on the time of year because of flooding. On the other side lays the boarder of Namibia. It was absolutely incredible the amount of wildlife we were able to see in such a short stretch of less then 40 km. Elephants, Garaif, Hippos, Water Buffalo, Crocodiles, eagles, many other types of birds, Impala, and Monitor Lizard. My favorite by far are the Elephants. As Luke (our guide) pointed out, you could just sit and watch them for hours. There is almost something religious about them. These giant creatures moving with such grace and elegance. Looking at them I can’t help but feel that they have some unknown wisdom, that they hold a secret behind the sly smiles and yet peace. The female Elephant is the one that controls the heard. She is boss. Elephants are also handed. You can determine if they are left or right handed depending on what side of their trunk the skin is more rough and calloused on.

This weekend I plan on going canoeing on the river. There was a small canoe on the side of the dock and Luke said he was one of the only crazy people to go out, and that he would take me if I like. Along the banks you can also find local boys fishing, I would love the chance to do that as well. They gut the fish and then hang them in the trees to dry in the sun. The fish are then salted (like everything here) and then sold in the market in these little boxed stalls of sheet metal draped with a blanket or plastic tarp.

Hungry Hungry Hippos

Mama took us down to the Chobe River (the first of many times to come). We were all very hesitant to get close to the edge as on the walk down she had told us stories of the hippopotamus and crocodiles commonly coming up on the shore where we were and pointing out the clearly defined path of a hippo, smoothed grass and knocked down trees five feet across. When asked if she had ever seem a Hippo she laughed and responded “OH yes! One time when we were kids playing in the river a Hippo came right out of the water between my friends and chased us.” I cannot imagine a Hippo running. But apparently they can run quite fast, up to 40km/hr! After her story and being quite concerned about what to do in the case of a charging Hippo. Mama taught us the proper technique of Hippo running. The trick is to run from side to side making as many turns as possible. This is because the Hippos have such short legs that it takes them a long time to turn. Run straight and your dead. Hippos are the most vicious mammals.

Hot and Squishy

Photo: Faisal B.

We traveled from Francistown to Kasane today on a combie. It was super hot and squishy. Twenty-seven people in a van that back in Canada would hold twelve…probably less. My bags were pilled under my feet and I was pushed against Fasial, who was smushed against the window, strangers coming and going for the six and a half hour trip. Because we were traveling within the same country, the number of security checkpoints surprised me. We would pull off the road and hop out into the sand and hot sun, to walk across a mat with disinfectant on it (to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease) and then join the huddled shoves to get back on the combie as the conductor scolded us for not pushing our way on faster. At another stop we were required to show our passports because there are a lot of illegal immigrants that enter Botswana from Zimbabwe (or Zim Zim as it is referred to here.) I listened to my iPod consumed by thoughts, weighted by the heat and drifting in and out of sleep for most of the trip. Staring out at the landscape of a golden sea, scattered African trees, with various spottings of Elephant, Giraffe, Ostrich and Warthogs leaving our group hungry with excitement, faces pressed against the windows and fingers pointing in amazement. The sky is huge and bluer then I have ever seen, not a single cloud in this so-called winter. I was sticky with sweat in my short sleeve top and capris while the local people sat in jackets with wool toques and blankets on their laps.

When we finally arrived in Kasane (which is to be my new home) we got off the bus and waited at the rank.

While waiting all we knew was that our contact to be picking us up was named Mama. As we clearly stood out, various people would pull over and say Dumella (Hello). Unsure we would ask if they were Mama to which after many exchanges and awkward responses we came across the correct Mama. Based on the phone calls we were expecting a very authoritarian older lady and were surprised when the girl who stepped out of the cab was not much older then us. She is slightly intimidating but I appreciate how she tells you orders of what is going to happen and what is expected of you. We waited even longer for her friend with a truck to come pick us and our massive bags up. One lesson to learn when here is that NOTHING happens when or as it is expected to.

While waiting I was stung in the butt by an African bee. Hesitant to pull my pants down in front of the buses coming and going I stood in pain for a few minutes before agreeing to going around the corner and having Lyndsay look for the stinger and precede to pull it out with tweezers (great partner bonding experience). After it felt much better… and we also saw a gecko.

We hopped a ride in a truck while walking along the highway to Mama’s house. Getting there all that was going through my head was that I couldn’t believe that we are actually going to be sleeping here. The house was two small rooms in a tin box. The heat was steaming through the metal and the only air vents were stuffed with clothing. The kitchen was in the same room as a small bed and kitchen table with an Amaretto bottle filled with wax sitting on it, as there was no electricity or running water.

I had to go to the washroom and after Mama told me that it “wasn’t so good” she pointed me across the yard littered with garbage, broken glass and tires to a building on the other side of a barbwire fence. In confusion about how to get around the fence, she informed me that I could just climb over the area that the elephant had knocked down (obviously). Once I found the toilet I relized that yet again I did not have toilet paper and was forced to use the last of my receipts which we are suppose to save to document our expenses for QPID (sorry Kira).

As the sun was setting around 6:00 pm we climbed a heap of dirt outside the house to try and catch a glimpse of the sunset over the tree and roof tops and then enjoyed a typical meal which was cooked in the dark, of palagee (a grain similar to rise with the consistency of dense mash potatoes) chicken and the salty overpowering taste of ‘Munrrow’ a traditional dish of a leaf that is baked in a clay oven with water and salt and served in a plastic bag looking like pieces of dung, tasting of seaweed, and getting stuck in the back of your teeth as you chew what Thomas described as gum.

We Checked to make sure all of the spiders were cleared from the mattress. And then Lyndsay, Isabelle and I pilled into the double bed, Thomas tucking us in with the mosquito net. For a hot and squishy night.

Dumella Kula (Hello White Person)

In addition to the QPID (Queen’s Project on International Development) blog I decided to start one of my own mostly as a way to communicate with family and friends, to share my adventures and more personal thoughts while away. As wifi is non-existent here and the connection in the crowded library is slow to the point of insanity, one of the challenges to overcome so far is the quest for Internet. And so I am going to start by apologizing to all of you for the lack of personal messages and future sporadic updates. You are in my thoughts and I send you my love.

For those of you who don’t know already, I will be in Botswana for the next three months. I am going through QPID which is a student run NGO at Queen’s University. Our partner organization is Ditshwanelo (translating to ‘Human Rights’) which is the local organization we are partnered with and that Lyndsay and myself will be working for. Our specific project focuses on land rights involving illegal transfer of land titles in the Chobe district adversely affecting the marginalized, and as we are quickly learning entangled in a web of complex social, economic, and cultural issues.

I feel so blessed to be on this trip traveling with such an incredible group of people. Thinking about anyone of them just makes me smile. The way Faisal makes sound effects and gestures to narrate his thoughts. The look Thomas gets when something really exciting is happening, a smile that stretches ear to ear and sort of bouncing his upper body up and down. The way I can laugh and plan crazy adventures with Isabelle. And of course Lyndsay who I am lucky enough to spend the next three months with together in Kasane, and comforted by the fact she is such amazing support. The overall extremely positive outlook of the group is so great. Super easy going and enthusiastically willing to jump into the back of a truck (our preferred mode of transportation) and take on a new experience. We are all wanting to embrace as much of the culture as possible and experience the country not perceived as just another tourist or “American who knows nothing” according to one insult while at the bus rank. Eager to eat palagee with our hands and belt out with full confidence the few Setswana phrases we know. Such as Thomas on the plane patting his empty food container and with assurance saying “O tsogile jang” (how are you) rather then “Di jotse di monate” (the food was very good) And Faisal in the grocery store replying “Kabo ki” (How much) to a man holding a baby instead of “Dumella” (Hello). Right now I am just so overwhelmed by the amount that has already happened in such a short time. As a result not compiled in any cohesive manner and not written as eloquently as I would have liked, here are some short highlights of my adventures…