28 February 2009

Oh what a tangled web we weave . . .

. . . when first we practice to deceive, or so saith Sir Walter Scott. Perhaps it is precisely because the women weavers of the small village of Oodi do not "practice to deceive," that their quilts belie the mythologized, and mesmerizing, simplicity of Botswana village life. Started in 1973 by two entrepreneurial Swedes, Ulla and Peder Gowenius, "Lentswe-la-Odi" is a cooperative run mostly by women which is renowned for its quilts portraying scenes of village life, complete with herds of goats and hard-working women preparing the evening meal.

Oodi is the first village outside the city limits of Gaborone on the road to Francistown or in other words, about 20 kilometers northeast of town. Four of us (Max, Jeremy, Rebecca and I) took a taxi out there; an expensive option, but the only one which would get us back sometime this weekend. After our cab driver, who was very nice and I don't mean to make him sound "sketch" in the East Coast vernacular, met an associate in a parking lot to drop off some money, we drove for the next thirty minutes down a flat and straight highway. Familiar to those who traverse the rural Midwest.

A very "village-y" village, we were greeted not by roadside rest areas, but by herds of goats (!!) and wandering bell-toting cattle. As if its "authenticity" didn't make the trip worth it, Oodi is nestled next to hills. Anybody who has been following my blog knows that the two most impressive things for me are goats and hills.

But back to the weavers. Between two dozen and thirty women work daily in the workshop, making both their signature depictions of African village life, but also more utilitarian items like placemats and coasters. The cooperative has had a very interesting past, with some major obstacles and subsequent breakthroughs, as documented in books like Equal Shares: Oodi Weavers and the Cooperative Experience.For those who won't be traveling to Botswana anytime soon, it is extremely difficult to find these Oodi treasures outside of the country. Instead, you might want to try the beautiful quilts out of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Almost the definition of backwater, the tiny town of Gee's Bend had been separated by geography and the color barrier from the rest of the state for generations. Check out its website to see if any museum exhibitions of its work will be in your area. Sorry, that was the cheesy promotion habit I picked up from working in Membership at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

In the next blog, I'll talk more about the books I've been reading and music I've been jamming to here in Botswana. Until then, tally ho, sally forth, and ta-ta.

23 February 2009

Sunday in the Jazz Garden

There really wasn't much jazz (mostly good South African music, like Brenda Fassie) and the garden needed some tending, but around the fact it was Sunday remains no doubt. Our program director and quasi-Messiah, Batsi (pictured), took our CIEE group out to the Jazz Club Mountain Rest for a good old-fashioned braai, Afrikaans for "roasted meat". While I enjoyed the atmosphere and the company, the drive out to the village was amazing.

Coming from the Midwest, hills amaze me. And not just hills like Hwy 41 coming up from downtown Chaska, but HILLS. Botswana is nearly perfectly flat as well, except soaring high are these clumps of hills that carry a bluish hue that is almost magical in daylight.

Finally, my blogs have caught up with real time and we're back to this past Sunday. Just to fill you in on last week, I had class as normal all week long. And then Friday came along, with promises of renewed striking.

This time, the striking was over the suspension of the SRC (Student Representatives Council) by the Vice-Chancellor of the university. It would be like Student Council getting disbanded. While I normally would consider that little reason for a strike, it is important to remember that this university is the only major center of tertiary education in the country. Only in the past couple of years have a couple small private, and a couple public universities been founded. Thus, student grievances are not just in the context of a single university, but represent nearly the whole of full-time university students in the whole of the country. This is not to say, however, that I'm fully in accord with the striker's tactics but by the same token, I cannot fully discount them.

The movement in the talks between the ministry and the students has not been moving in a peaceful direction. Last night a score of students were arrested for demonstrating near the Faculty of Engineering building and reportedly, a few more were arrested this morning before the gathering could become more organized. We shall see tomorrow where this is all leading and as always, I will keep you all updated on the revolutionary activity going on here at UB.

If this talk of student struggles and police action causes you concern, relax and let me assure you my mind is on other things: namely, donkey-driven carts going many kilometers an hour through the village:

Spring Break: All Aboard for Gaborone

The only train in Botswana runs between Francistown and Gaborone daily, continuing on to Lobatse. In addition to only running once daily, it is an overnight train. By car, the stretch between the two "cities" of Botswana should take about four hours; the train, operated by Botswana Railways, rambles along at a slow enough pace as to make the trip a comfortable eight and a half hours. Since the train departs (or is at least supposed to) around 9 pm, we got there ninety minutes early to pay for reservations and experience possibly my most self-consciously "white" moment so far in Botswana.

Upon our arrival at Francistown's train station, we were met by an anaconda-length queue. Mothers with two children around her neck, one in front, one in back, and elderly men with worn faces. Endless masses of people of all sorts. Here we were, six lost white twenty-somethings asking for clarification about which line was for what. Without answering, the security stopped the line into the train station and pushed us through. Prompt, preferential treatment. Wholly undeserved.

There they were waiting to get their seat on a bench in a train car packed with people, carrying heavy loads, waiting. Then there were the six of us, with light luggage, sleeping car reservations, on our way to the first-class waiting room.

After a normal, i.e. long, wait we boarded the train. The room consisted of two sets of bunk beds with quite comfortable mattresses, a small overhead, and a table covering a sink. Alex was my roommate, as he almost always is, and two Batswana joined us to fill the car. The first one, Mati, was about as yuppie as one could get. Blackberry in hand, he was headed for a business meeting in Gaborone before returning the next night. The other, whose name I didn’t catch, was mid-fifties and told us of his days training Peace Corps teachers out in the villages. Before the conversation finished, I had drifted off to sleep. Awakened by the room door closing and the flick of the light switch, I sat and waited for my slumber to begin again.

But I noticed the air vents weren’t working. The heat became stifling and since I was on the top bunk, my face was about a foot or so from the ceiling. For the first time in memory, I became acutely claustrophobic. I wasn’t going to survive; I was going to die of suffocation. Every breath I took, every move I made, I was one step closer to my death.

Luckily, however, I was not alone in this feeling. From across the upper bunks, I heard the older man open the door, panting, “It’s too hot in here.” Alas, it’s not just me. Even Africans can’t handle the heat!

Once things cooled down in the car, I fell fast asleep and awoke as the train rolled into Gaborone at quarter to six in the morning. Surprisingly well rested, we hopped in a couple of taxis and headed back to campus to enjoy a couple days of solitude before the reopening, as well as celebrate Valentine’s Day with a mocha frappe.

Spring Break: Kasane to Francistown

While waiting for the sun to wake up in northern Botswana, we stood outside a small bakery in Kasane huddled in a crowd of people. All of us had lined up our luggage in a line, attempting to secure a position on the bus. Unusual for Botswana, the bus arrived punctually at 5:55 am, and we left shortly after six. The bus, or better yet, shuttle, was of the retirement home variety: seating for 22, small, and a short cab.

The three hour journey back to Nata was quite uneventful, if not a bit cramped. But that's what we came to Africa for, right? If I wanted comfort, I would have stayed home and cruised in Lola, my beloved white Malibu.

After a short lunch break, we continued on to our next destination: Francistown. This second largest city of Botswana is significantly different from Gaborone in one major respect: street layout. Whereas the capital is spread out and can feel like a gigantic suburb instead of Botswana's metropole, there is no mistaking the certain Western influence in Francistown: street grids are the rule. The central shopping district centered around Blue Jacket Street is a well-defined, bargain hunter's paradise.

Francistown came into being because of gold discoveries in the mid-19th century, and the consequent influx of European prospectors turned the area into a boom town. This was among many things we learned at our visit to Supa-Ngwao Museum. Also, we gained insight into the relationship between Botswana and Zimbabwe, as the Kalanga people are a minority-majority group. That is, they are a small percentage of the nation's population, but are the majority in town.

Many Zimbabweans have come for decades to get food and supplies in this border town, a human flow which has only increased under Mugabe's onerous treatment of the Kalanga's counterparts in western Zimbabwe. Not all are welcomed with open arms, however. It is a bit of a strained relationship, as many of the newcomers are stereotyped as criminals and thieves.

To be perfectly honest, there is not much to do for visitors in Francistown. As much as I like to disbelieve the dismal description in Lonely Planet's guidebook, they nailed the lack of entertainment on the head. Even the lone movie theater (Cine 2000) was closed and converted into an evangelical church. In a city of over 100,000, imagine! Due to its perfect walkability, Francistown can be covered on foot within a day and thus our second day was spent retracing our steps and cooling off at O'Hagan's Irish Pub. Around 7 pm we picked up our luggage from the hotel and made our way to the train station for our first ever African train ride, the subject of my next blog.

19 February 2009

Spring Break: Kasane for now

As you might have gathered from the last few posts, traveling in this Texas-sized country requires a bit of time, especially if by land. After our long journey, we finally arrived at Thebe River Camping and got ourselves a few permanent tents. They included such modern luxuries as floors, a rug, and a futuristic lamp which got brighter the more you tapped its base.

The Chobe River, which runs next to the campsite, makes up the border between Namibia and Botswana and runs into the eponymous Chobe National Park. We spent the day walking around Kasane, which is a fairly spread out town, nothing more than a block or so from the main road. Our guidebooks pointed us to an ancient baobab tree from days of yore (below left), whose gargantuan interior was used as a prison by the local chief. One of the local men started talking to us, re-explaining the history of the tree and then pointing us to an even larger, living specimen located around back.

Made famous by Saint-Exupery's children's book, "Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)", and perhaps Regina Spektor's "Baobabs", the baobab, native to Madagascar, Australia and southern Africa, can reach diameters of 36 feet and heights of nearly a nine-story building. Their enormous trunks can store 32,000 gallons of water in times of drought. African mythology tells of every animal being given a plant; the hyena characteristically took his, planted upside, leaving the roots (or so the baobab's branches appear) in the air.

In the late afternoon we boarded a boat (or embarked, if you will) and trolled into Chobe National Park, home of the largest elephant herds in Africa. Despite the almost painstakingly slow pace, the ultimate close-ups of elephants and bloats of hippos were worth the wait. As words are insufficient to describe the grace of these animals, I will just end the blog here and give you a sample of Botswana's unique flora and fauna. Until next time, "Be well, do good work and keep in touch."

16 February 2009

Spring Break: Maun to Kasane

While Lonely Planet contends there are buses from Maun to Nata and then Nata to Kasane, our safari guide told us not to hold our breath on getting a seat. As we were six and my travel protocol is never to leave a stranded American tourist behind, we had to come up with a way of ensuring all six of us arrived in Kasane safely.

Enter good cop (Alex), bad cop (Max).

Near the vending stalls, in the unofficial bus station, we started chit-chatting with some combi drivers; asking them the best way for us to get to Kasane.

Stage left, Alex, perhaps one of the most affable people I've ever met. He butters up the combi drivers with the bait. Six "clueless" Americans looking for the easiest way to another tourist trap. They're thinking gold mine. After some of the craziest calculations on a cell phone, I've seen, they offered us a one-way to Nata for 1700 pula ($25o).

Spot light suddenly turns to Max, stage right. An unassuming stand-up comedian in the making, from Harvard. Unexpectedly, Max clears his throat and says with the straightest of smiles, "1200 pula."

Long story short, the ploy worked, but we wound up getting a combi all the way to Kasane from another driver for about $65 per person. A bit steep by Botswana standards, but as my friend Tlotlo says, "You Americans will do anything to get anywhere."

The three hour journey was fairly uneventful. I underwent my first foot-and-mouth clearance: a simple check of my bags for meat products and then a gentle cleaning of the shoes. Almost more symbolic than practical. Crossing nearly the whole of Botswana from east to west, our combi ride took us through the Kalahari, a mixture of scrub and tall grasses. A bit off in the distance we could see the beginning of some of the largest salt pans in the world, the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans.

*Before we get to the pans, I simply have to say that no road trip is complete without a gigantic fibreglass statue of an animal. See my previous writings.

As for the pans (right), when we drove past them, the terrain turned incredibly arid with occasional white expanses and several seasonal ponds.

Our mid-way point was the tiny but vital transportation hub of Nata. After a quick lunch, we jumped back in the combi for the equidistant stretch to Kasane. Our ultimate aim was to go to Chobe National Park to see its earth-shattering (literally) elephant herds which can reach upwards of 100,000 in the dry season.

But as many of travel guides and websites warned, we may see that many simply on the way to Kasane. And moreover, see that many simply crossing the road in front of our vehicles.

Which is precisely what happened.

Aside from potholes as wide as the road and nearly a foot and a half deep, the most dangerous part of the only road crossing the northeastern part of Botswana was the foot traffic. Namely, elephants and giraffes. One particular elephant came a bit too close as it stepped out from the bushes twenty meters in front of our combi and I nearly got whiplash as we went from 120 km/h to a dead stop, then reverse.

Some of the on-lookers looked unfazed, though (left). Despite lumbering elephants we made it safely to Kasane just in time for the electricity to go out and go to bed.

You'll just have to wait until the next blog to hear about my stay in Kasane and enjoy this sunset over the only cultivated land I have seen in Botswana. Until next time, ciao chicas!

14 February 2009

Just some Delta pics

Sunset in the Delta . . .
. . . and the concomitant moonrise
The beautiful waters of the Okavango Delta
Some national soccer stars (Botswana Zebras) and impala (the white-tailed deer of Southern Africa)

A cute little monkey

Spring Break: Okavango Delta

Happy Valentine's Day from Gaborone! A few minutes before 6 am local time, my train rolled into Gaborone and before 7 am I was on my bed catching up on emails and the news. Because of the extensive nature of my spring break sojourn, the next few blogs will be chronologically break up and tell the story of the last week and a half. Thus, this first blog will be about the CIEE group trip to the Okavango Delta, to which my last blog post alluded.

Here goes.

At 2:30 pm on February 6th, the CIEE students boarded an AirBotswana flight to the safari mecca of Botswana: Maun. This small town (pop. 30,000) is the starting point for foreign tourists heading for the Okavango Delta and the Moremi Game Reserve, our destination, which occupies the northeastern section of the delta.

Our four-day, three-night trek into the bush consisted mainly of early morning, i.e. waking up on the wrong side of 6 am, and late afternoon game drives. Despite the near arid conditions we experienced all week long, it is still the rainy season. For a reason which escapes me, this translates into sparse sightings of the animals. But considering many of us had never seen many of these creatures in their native environs, we were overwhelmed, to say the least, by our African ungulate encounters.

Crossed off my checklist were: elephant, zebra, giraffe, baboon, monkey, impala, crocodile, hippo, wildebeest (to the left) and even leopard.

While we apparently couldn't see them, there were lions nestled amongst the shoulder-high grasses.

As Joe, our indispensable guide, said, "You people from the towns see with your eyes, but we from the bush see with our ears." An irrefutable statement if I ever heard one.

Another highlight from our trip was the simultaneously touristy and traditional ride on a makoro. While normally made from hollowed out trees, ours were of the modern variety: fibreglass. Essentially a flat bottomed, African gondola propelled by a poler, the makoro acted as the major form of transportation in the delta and one can see why after an hour long ride. The towering swamp ferns create a verdant tunnel, with only the hollow croaks of frogs disrupting the silence.

On Monday, we did a short morning drive and then headed back to Maun, where our group split up. My group stayed in Maun for the night and explored the very cultural town. Stands upon stands selling clothes, candies, bananas, mangos, cell phone airtime, and everything in between. Packed in alleys, crowding the bus rank, the stands were the closest thing to an authentic bazaar I've experienced thus far in Botswana.

Next Post: From Maun to Kasane.

06 February 2009

On Hiatus

At about 9:00 am this morning, Batsi (our CIEE director here in Botswana) informed us that we were booked for a 2:30 pm flight this afternoon for a trip to the Okavango Delta in the north of Botswana. Our trip will take us deep inside Moremi game reserve for four days of camping.

After that, I will be traveling around northern Botswana (Maun, Nata, Kasane, and Francistown) until my return on February 15th. A brave band of warriors is joining me, six of us in all I believe. A fellowship of sorts.

Because we will be without internet for quite a while, I would suggest not checking this blog for a couple weeks. Take care and can't wait to share the pictures!

04 February 2009

Student Demonstration Update

As I only have an hour on campus before I leave to our off-campus lodging, I will keep this brief.

Starting on Friday, students upset about their failure to receive their student allowances from their sponsors began a student demonstration. It remained quite peaceful until their court case was dismissed against the Ministry of Education. After the decision, students marched off campus, which is where they ran into resistance from police.

I must emphasize two things: I am perfectly safe AND the information I have is only second-hand.

What is actually happening is not entirely known to me, except from what I can glean in newspaper accounts and student rumors. While we were still on campus the library closed and evacuated students when protesters neared the building; several classrooms of students were forced out by demonstrating students; and hundreds of students were chanting and marching around campus.

Beyond this, I am not quite sure about all of the details. Thank you all for your concerns, and I just want to reassure that CIEE (my program) has taken every precaution, including housing off-campus, until things are resolved on campus.

The possible outcomes are two: a settlement is reached and classes resume in the next two days OR more likely, the university will close and send all students (except us) home. This is only a temporary closure and will last an indefinite amount of time.

My thoughts on this are mixed, although as you will see, we have used the free time to see more of Gaborone.

Till I can write more, "Go a siame!" (Good-bye)