T.I.A. (this is Africa)

So stop complaining and suck it up! By this they mean the heat, the glare, the dust, the bad roads and the breakdowns; the power cuts, water shortages, biting insects, negligible internet and all manner of other inconveniences. It’s been tough at times because the rains are late and, even in the Okavango Delta, game sightings have to be worked for but today as we crossed yet more arid bushland on our way to the Chobe district we stopped to watch a newborn baby elephant struggle to stand upright and nurse for the first time.

The Okovango, one of the largest inland river deltas in the world, is fed by meltwater from the mountains of Angola and, after nourishing a vast area which is famous for the diversity of its wildlife, apparently drains away into the sands of the Kalahari. We did all the standard touristy stuff: riverboat stay, dugout canoe rides, birdwatching, hippo watching, crocodile watching (with extra care), sunset G&Ts: you might as well read the brochure. What was in short supply here though was information about the way people lived and the contrast between traditional and modern ways. Grahame got a chance to try out some homemade bellows at a very primitive outdoor forge in one of the villages but I was disappointed when no translation could be given for the old man collecting medicinal plants. I suppose we had a good lesson in distinguishing elephant from hippo droppings but I’m not sure that I didn’t already know that one. Oh yes, and we did the light aircraft flight as well!

Our next destination, however, was much more informative. This lodge on the edge of the Makgadikgadi salt pans had better remain nameless because the British proprietor was a loveable old soak straight out of a story by Somerset Maugham. It seemed as if most of the work was done by his eager local assistant but as the evening progressed and he slipped lower and lower on his bar stool impressions of this enigmatic country began to come into focus. In Botswana education and healthcare are free, the country (by far the least corrupt in Africa) supplies grants for start-up businesses to any Botswanan who can make a good case and there are welfare grants for the very poorest.

Of course many mistakes have been made along the way: the government tried to combat foot and mouth disease by taking cattle away from the farmers before discovering that wild buffalo were at least as responsible for the spread and in order to counteract an over-reliance on diamond revenue other mining projects have been tried and proved controversial but there is also some very good news. Botswana has turned back the tide of Aids. The able young assistant exhibited enormous pride as he explained how free retroviral drugs had been combined with widespread educational programmes and good quality medical care. The word “abstinence” came up rather often in his description of the teaching programme but our host interjected that it was the removal of stigma and the treating of Aids as “just another disease” that had brought people out of the shadow of ignorance and into the treatment centres.

At the end of the evening, all the native hotel staff got together in their ordinary working clothes to dance and sing with great enthusiasm. It wasn’t exactly a performance, more an expression of friendship and release at the end of the working day. “I never telsh them to do it” slurred out host “but they always doesh. They lovesh thish country”.

And the salt pans? Well, we had zero flamingo sightings but on the way there the solitary baobab trees were majestic and the tiny meerkats adorable but, best of all, our guide gave us a hint about where all the water had gone. When the riverine outlet of the neighbouring Okavango Delta disappeared sixty years ago following a great earthquake, some speculated that that this left the loss of water disappearing into the desert simply too much to be attributed to evaporation alone. Locals have reported finding live fish in water brought up from deep wells hereabout so the existence of a vast underground aquifer becomes more and more credible. What better reward for the lovely people who have made this desert their home.

Categories: Africa

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