Mmegi Online :: America through Water’s eyes
Last Updated
Wednesday 21 February 2018, 17:14 pm.
America through Water’s eyes

Brought up from the heart of the wilderness at a small island settlement in the Okavango Delta, and straight to New York City’s bright lights and a starring role in a major National Geographic film, this is the journey of Tumeletso ‘Water’ Setlabosha. Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES reports
By Thalefang Charles Fri 08 Dec 2017, 18:16 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: America through Water’s eyes

“My people never imagined they could travel this far,” says Tumeletso Setlabosha, the man widely known only as ‘Water’. He is referring to the people of Jao - a small village island in the heart of the Okavango Delta where he was born.

In Jao or Jedibe as the locals sometimes refer to the place, there is nothing, the only concrete structure found there is a Health Post they call “Clinic Ya Ga Iyene”. There are no schools, no shops, no cars, the airstrip has grown anthills and transport from Jao to anywhere outside the island is via a small boat or hand poled mokoro.

Born in such lonely island, the people are unable to dream. Their dreams are dwarfed because of their environment. The children of Jao's aspirations are to be a boat captain or “go kapisa makgoa” (to be a tourist guide) in a tourist camp. So a trip across the world to the US is unimaginable for Jao children.

Ever since the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) director, Steve Boyes broke the news to Water, back in August, that he would be travelling to the US, he has been thinking about one thing.

“I have been thinking about the plane,” says Water. This is because although the old man has an adventurous spirit, he has a serious fear of flying. But the time finally arrived for Water to face his fears.

His journey to the US started with a flight from Maun to Gaborone, where the US Ambassador, Earl Miller had a dinner in honour of him. As the saying goes, “you attract what you fear”. Water’s first flight had a very bad turbulence. I made him sit by the window (for the pictures) but he was so scared to take even a sneak peek outside. He held down on the armrest like he was about to fall from the seat. I laughed all the way.

I laughed because Water is my friend. We have been through life threatening journeys before. Along the way when the small plane deep and shook us like it was about to free fall, I reminded him of the time when he was my captain on a mokoro and he ordered me to take pictures of a five-metre crocodile under our little vulnerable vessel in the Delta. 

In the river when I showed him a monster under our mokoro Water was unafraid, so cool and confident, saying to me, “Kapa, akere o rile o bata go kapa” (photograph, you said you want to photograph). His confidence while our mokoro was on top of the big crocodile made me feel safe but when I tried to assure him that the airplane turbulence is just a temporary discomfort like just like a little shake of mokoro, Water would not listen. He sat quietly praying for safe arrival in Gaborone.

Two days later we were back on catching flights – Ethiopian Airlines from Gaborone to Addis Ababa.

When the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport PA System announced the boarding of our flight, Water was once again engulfed by a cloud of fear. When he had to speak to the camera about his feelings while sitting at the International Departure it sounded like a prayer from a man going on a dangerous mission.

He said, “It’s time now. All the prayers are done. I have left everything to God.” The trip to Addis Ababa turned out to be smooth and Water began to appreciate flying but only on big airplanes. From Addis we got the even bigger plane, Boeing 777 and Water’s seat was far away from me but he was not really bothered. “I like the big plane,” he later confessed.

When we reached Washington DC, Water was in another world far from Jao. It was biting cold, amazing road networks, tall buildings and it was mid day while it was night time in Botswana. Water was puzzled by the seven-hour time zone.

“Lehatshe morwa ke mathata. Kana go bosigo jaana ko Botswana” (This earth my son is a mystery, it’s night time in Botswana) he bewilderedly commented while checking his watch.

We were welcomed by the National Geographic (Nat Geo) team and Water was an instant star followed by big cameras – something that he has since gotten used to ever since he was working on the


Into The Okavango film that actually brought him to the US. Water, now in the middle of Washington DC he had to learn ways of city life, which are far different from Jao’s way of life.

The city lessons started with learning to use a lift to access his room on the sixth floor of the Courtyard Mariot hotel. He got lost twice before he mastered the lift. At first he thought when he has pressed the floor number the lift would make the first stop there so when it stopped he shot out and was lost in the hotel. Luckily Water actually likes to seek for help. Even when he is slightly doubtful he would not pretend he knows. He would immediately seek help.

Nat Geo team comprising of Steve Spence and Sam de Leon guided us through Washington DC on foot through the iconic monuments including Washington, Martin Luther King and Lincoln Memorials. We also visited the White House, which Water initially called, “Motse wa ga Obama” (Obama’s home).

He was surprised to find scores of protestors outside the White House saying President Donald Trump “dishonours the presidency and stains the flag”.

“MaAmerika ga ba rate ntona wa bone,” (Americans don’t like their president!) observed Water as we left the White House gardens and took a long walk through Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill where Trump was inaugurated in February this year. It was along that walk that we got the Washington themed bennies that became our signature attire during our stay in the US.

But a whole new culture shock was waiting for the Jao man in New York City (NYC).

We took the three-hour speed train from Washington to NYC and arrived just before 5pm and it was already after sunset. When we got off out of the underground station at Penn Train Station, the Manhattan bright lights had already illuminated the streets and began the NYC bewilderment on Water. He looked up at the skyscrapers and said “Batho ba ba a riska morwa,” (These people are risking my son).

At the Hotel they gave him the 23rd floor room (not his preference at all) and after checking in we hit the Manhattan streets to experience the New York nightlife. We were in Midtown and short walk from Times Square. When we got to Times Square, with all its oversized billboards I said to him, “Welcome to Bright lights baby” – a lyric from Jay Z’s song Empire State.

Watching the Times Square billboards Water told me about his surprise discovery earlier that day, when he found a tv in a toilet.

He asked, “Batho ba morwa, ba irang ka tv mo toielteng?” (these people my son, what are they doing with a tv in a toilet?) and I could not answer and looking at it from his perspective, I found it strange to have a tv in a toilet.

The following day Spence led us through NYC’s major tourist sights. We saw the Empire State building, the Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, Trump Tower and Central Park before we took the Yellow cab to Lower Manhattan.

When Water stood on the biting cold wind next to the East River watching the dramatic Lower Manhattan skyline, he said, “Ke! Size mngato! Yeses! Nnyaa ke mmone Amerika jaanong!” (Hey! It’s so huge. Jesus! Now I’ve really seen America.)

Seeing Lower Manhattan was Water’s American travel epiphany. He believed that now he has really arrived in the United States. But another breathtaking experience was waiting for him at the 102 floor of the One World Trade Center. 

After taking one of the world’s fastest lifts, which takes 47 seconds to cover 102 floors of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, Water looked down in wonder at the expansive views of the Concrete Jungle that is the New York City from the One World Observatory. He shook his head and said, “Makgoa a dira dilo tota!” (White people do amazing things).


Charles and Water were in America courtesy of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) with support of Botswana Tourism. Water is starring in the Into The Okavango film that is about the conservation of the entire Okavango River Basin. They both attended the pre-screening of the film at the National Geographic studios. The film will be released in January.


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