Thursday, August 03, 2006

Africans helped us to see the light

The faces, stories and skills of the Africans who guided me, fed me and strained mightily to teach me a little something are indelible in my memory and already missed.
First among them is guide and tracker Richard Avilino, the all-purpose human Swiss Army knife. Encyclopedic and seasoned but still sharing the excitement of each animal sighting, his mastery of place proved a daily marvel.



JOHN ENGSTROM

Richard Avilino is a tourist guide, animal tracker, species identifier, off-road driver, auto mechanic, multi-tongued speaker and last, but not least, mixologist.
Then there was baobab tree expert, teacher and articulate storyteller Ndabona "Bones" Thabologo, so impressively educated in a cinderblock school in a wide spot called Gweta. Stroking the stony trunk of an ancient tree, he seemed the reincarnation of a sage who had been there when the trekkers first carved the proof of their presence.
And the cooks, OB 1, OB 2, Constance and Kay of the miracle meals. And fish conjurer, eagle caller and dugout canoe master Phuraki. And Evans, the secret sharer. And more.
During weeks spent bouncing across wild stretches of Botswana with stops in South Africa and Zambia, the capabilities of these and others confounded and humbled a city girl who arrived thinking she knew a thing or two.
You go on safari to see and photograph the animals. But it's the people who bring you close to those animals who help you to focus on so much more.
I suppose it was to be expected that Richard, the guide, could deftly wrangle a soft and disparate six-pack of tourists. That he could maneuver a straining Land Cruiser across impossible terrain. And simultaneously decipher that the dot on the dawn horizon that I dismissed as sand on my glasses was actually four elephants, including one calf and an old bull with one broken tusk.
That, eyes darting, he could pluck from the air the precise bird species -- a pale chanting goshawk -- that the camera buff in back seat simply had to see.
That he could repeat, 20 or 30 times without irritation, that it's the cape buffalo we were closing in on. Water buffalo do not exist in Africa.
And that, even driving at a rapid clip, he could spy nearly-invisible paw tracks in the sand that said three lions went thataway in pursuit of greater kudu.
That's his job. So is mixing perfect G & T "sundowners" on the hood of the Toyota. And making mechanical repairs. And speaking fluent English, German and several African dialects outside his own. And palming a handful of scat to show us that the poop of the female impala has a wedge while the male's leavings come to a point.
But it was the human observations that he and the others shared around evening fires that warmed me most. Of course it's a romantic "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" notion that, if we all could sit around a fire pit with people from worlds away, we would find more that connects than separates us. But, as the sparks lifted toward an extravagant swath of stars each night (constellations which, of course, Richard identified), the openness of the African people made such connections seem actually within reach.
Richard is a man both proud of his country and diplomatically cautious about ours.
Yes, one in every three Botswanans is HIV/AIDS positive. His government is doing all it can, paying for massive prevention and treatment campaigns, free condoms and health care for anyone with the virus while the money lasts.
We talked about that and the fact that the diamonds are running out but that tourism must leave a light footprint if the wildness that draws people there is to survive.
We talked about inter-racial marriage, widely accepted in Botswana ever since chieftain heir apparent Sertse Khama wed Ruth, a white woman, in London, defying banishment to bring her home over the objections of neighboring South Africa. This while apartheid was just getting under way.
But acceptance of same-sex marriage? No, not that. Gays are still arrested and "relocated" if they are discovered in Botswana, Richard admitted. While, in South Africa, people can be whatever they want. And we stared at the fire about that.
Another fire, another night, at Ketumetsi Camp on Lechwe Island, it was camp leader Evans who bravely opened up. His expressive face creased with laughter when cooks Constance and Kay instructed the American women tourists that, tonight, they must serve the men first the way Botswana women do. Men get the best cuts of meat. And, at home, women sit on mats with the men on chairs. "Its tradition!" Evans bellowed. Besides, he insisted, women really are more comfortable that way, yes?
Still, some of the women came home from a conference in Beijing filled with "poisonous ideas" about equality, Evans grinned, bracing himself for the inevitable backlash.
Risking our reaction, he revealed that, if his son or daughter were gay, his heart and head might explode. He is struggling with this issue. Two male tourists in a previous safari group were on their "honeymoon" and they seemed nice, he said. But still ...
Yes he would love his child no matter what. But so much has already changed in just one generation for Evans. His daughter is in her late 20s, has finished college and shows no interest in marriage, preferring a dog and a condo, he said, shaking his head.
Only years ago, his own father had three wives, Evans' mother being the youngest of the three. But, today, if he had another woman, his own wife would "skin him alive." Still, if he did have a wish list of second wives, his would start with Oprah.
Young OB 2, a cook and server at our camp along the Linyanti River, giggled beside another fire when asked if she is married. At 21 she is much too young, she said. Like all the others I met, she is a woman of skill who is well acquainted with long, hard work.
And, like the older culinary wizard, OB 1, she is also a singer and dancer, a cooker of Jamaican chicken, savory stews and bread baked in the ground without benefit of oven. She has a 2-year-old daughter she doesn't see for three months at a stretch while paying her mother and sister for childcare. But life is good because, unlike 30 per cent of her country folk, she is employed.
None of her friends or sisters marry before they're 28 or 30, OB 2 said, although most of their own mothers married at 16 or 17.
At Nxamaseri Island Lodge in the lush depths of the Okavango Delta, there was the unerring navigational skill of a towering boatman guide named Phuraki who seemed to pluck tiger fish from the merging rivers with a spinning rod the way a rainmaker does with a stick.
Once the fish was landed, he tied a chunk of its flesh to a raft fashioned of papyrus from the bank. Then, with a whoop, he called a fish eagle -- wide black wings, snowy white head -- from the trees to swoop down for the treat (and a perfect photo op).
Even back in the supposed civilization of Johannesburg, it was the depth and warmth and welcome of the African guides that made even briefer tours so rich and memorable.
The woman who took us through Nelson Mandela's humble long-time home was palpably proud of this man and his pivotal place in history. But she was equally comfortable discussing the current status of women, the challenges of unemployment facing a third of her fellow citizens, and the contrasts of adjoining African nations.
Well educated if not well paid, she speaks eight languages. Still, even today, if she were to try to visit relatives in nearby Swaziland, she would be kidnapped and married off to a local man whether she is already married to another or not.
Then there was Thomas, our guide in greater Joahannesburg, including Soweto, the Apartheid Museum and the four-year-old Hector Pieterson Museum named for the 13-year-old boy martyred in the infamous 1976 protests against the imposition of Afrikaans as the primary language in schools.
Born and raised in Soweto, Thomas is proof that, despite the breathtaking poverty we saw there in row upon row of tin shacks without lights or running water, it is still somehow possible to grow up educated and erudite and resilient of soul.
On the way to Soweto we swapped laughs about our kids and schools and parenting, Thomas shared his dismay over the concussive music his teenaged son plays and laughed over the fact that his little ones are already so conditioned by the presence of McDonalds in Africa that they cry when he attempts to fool them by driving detours.
Along one dusty pathway between shanties,Thomas turned us over to another local guide who took us into the "home" of a thin, wan but welcoming woman -- one of a few who benefits financially from such arranged visits.
Six family members share the dark metal box that boasts a single makeshift bed, bedrolls for the floor, a paraffin stove and little else. To serve the entire row of 20 "homes" there is a single cold-water spigot and one porta-potty, emptied once a week.
Inside a lightless and toy-less "day care center," we were glad we had brought along packs of colored pens, paper tablets and other little gifts for the children, plus a donation for the so-called school. It was hard to imagine that living, much less learning, goes on in there. When they are older, Thomas explained, children mostly leave the township to attend public schools. But only if their parents can scrape up scant money for a minimal tuition plus the cost of books and uniforms.
In the bush it's comforting to at least believe that change has barely touched the lush green deltas and arid deserts and the animals that fill them with life. But, for many of Africa's people, change is achingly overdue.