Ranching, Village Life, and Zebras

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By Mira

         Today and yesterday we got the chance to visit two places very different than what we had been experiencing for the first week in Gabs. First we visited Mahalapye, which is home to MK, the student who was at Catlin for the 2009-10 school year. We got our first taste of living in traditional Botswana architecture when we went to meet MK’s ninety-year-old grandmother. We had seen these thatch-roofed, mud-walled homes in Mochudi, and on our drive out, but it was cool to see them in the context of someone’s home. Next, we drove out to MK’s family’s cattle post, and camped out there for the night. The stars, which we first noticed in Gaborone as being brighter and more plentiful than back home, were out of control. The sky looks bigger here because it’s flatter, so you can lean all the way back and still see sky and stars forever. We ate a super yummy dinner of pap (a chewy, maize meal starch served all the time), greens from the garden, goat meat (from one of their goats), corn and beans, and, for the brave, tripe. We went to bed very full, and very cold, but sleeping in the tents we warmed up quickly.
         A cattle post is essentially a ranch. Cattle are immensely important to the culture of Botswana, Kush (another Catlin alum) and MK discussed what the highest number of cows they had heard of some giving in exchange for a bride (30, based on the fact that the girl was pretty, could cook, and had her Ph.D.) We walked out to the cattle pen, and got to walk through it as the cows were being herded in. Cows are huge, and very mob-minded, and luckily, very afraid of us. Their family has some 400 cows, divided between two sides of the cattle post. It was interesting to think that just the day before we had been in the middle of the city, and now we were learning about raising animals. One thing I’ve noticed is that lots of people travel between what they call their home village, and the city. Even if they’ve lived most of their lives in Gaborone, we were told, people will tell others the village they were born in when someone asks where they’re from. For me it would be hard to go back and forth from these two very different environments, but it would be nice to have a slower pace. We had some home made fat-cakes (fried dough), and then headed out for Serowe, where the Khama rhino sanctuary is. We settled into the student dormitories there, and woke up early (6!) the next morning to go on our game drive.
         This game drive gave us our first taste of African wildlife: wildebeest, which don’t look like their spindly legs could support their bulky oversized bodies, springbok and steenbok, funny little warthogs, hornbill (which reminded all of us of the Lion King), and the highlight for many of us, a herd of zebras and baby zebras. Seeing pictures of these animals don’t really do them justice, being just feet away shows what makes African animals so compelling. They seem like the purest distillation of an animal, where even the herbivores we saw seemed fierce and awesome, in the original sense of the word. It got all of us pumped up for the safari we’ll be going on in several days, even though we didn’t get to see an actual rhino. The weather is too cold for them, and so they retreat into the bush, but I think the other sightings more than made up for it. For the first time I felt truly removed from civilization.
         The next day we went to Thabala, where Mmasarame Gaefele is from. This would turn out to be a favorite day for many of us. Thabala is almost entirely still a traditional village. It is very beautiful, the sand fading into the monochromatic huts, the bright blue sky still stretching forever. It was sunny, and after a couple of relatively chilly days it put us all in a good mood. We started about by meeting Mmasarame’s extended family, of which there are many members, all of whom are super friendly. We then got to see grain grinding, followed by a tour of the village, including the school, the clinic, the cemetery, the area where the Bushwara (Bushmen) live. We ended up being followed by a pack of school children. Every one felt very, very happy. We were surrounded by welcoming people, experiencing a slower pace, fully immersed in something that we all realized we were very lucky to be able to do. Several people remarked that this was one of the parts of the trips that had attracted them: in what other circumstances would we be able to visit a village in the middle of Botswana, given a tour, and served a meal? We got to learn about the culture of Botswana without being told about it, rather in a very Catlin-y experiential learning way. The uniqueness of this was on the back of most of our minds for the day.
         All in all, the past few days have been a study in contrasts, but also in similarities. While Gaborone, a cattle post, and Thabala are very different, they also helped us learn more about Botswana as a whole: how the people are friendly, what the culture values, how children are raised. We all look forward to continuing to experience and deepen our understanding of these ideas, and more.