Mohembo Bridge is beautiful. This structural masterpiece will bring more than just a river crossing but a complete transformation that will have a huge effect on the livelihoods of the people at ‘Overseas’, writes THALEFANG CHARLES
The dust coming from the police vehicle that had just gotten off the ferry blinds an old man seated by the roadside at Mohembo East. The white Toyota Land Cruiser seems to be in an emergency of some sort as the driver leaves a cloud of white dust behind. When the dust settles, it clears the view of the structural masterpiece under construction in front of the old man – the Mohembo Bridge, a beautiful landmark upon which all his hope for a better life rests.
The 1.2km long bridge over the Okavango River will soon completely change the lives of the people of Okavango Eastern Panhandle. The villages of Gudigwa, Beetsha, Eretsha, Gonutsoga, Seronga, Mokgatcha, Mogotho, Ngarange, Sekondomboro, Xakao, Kauxwi and Mohembo East will this year be finally connected to the rest of the country when the Bridge opens. All these villages are connected by a 160km heavily corrugated gravel road that causes great damage to vehicles.
For years the Okavango Eastern Panhandle has been known by the moniker ‘Overseas’ because reaching the area was like travelling overseas. Although the villages are located along the Okavango Delta, one of Earth’s many greatest wonders – the 1,000th UNESCO World Heritage Site, the people of the Delta have been living in dire poverty in the land of the plenty because they were cut off from the rest of Botswana.
The old man eating dust from the police vehicle identifies himself as James Samashika from Ngarange. He says he cannot wait to stop queuing at the ferry. Ngarange is 28km from Mohembo.
“We are tired of the long queues at the ferry,” he bemoans.
“You can arrive here at 2pm and leave three hours later at 5pm because of the long queues. And during the week it can get really worse as government vehicles do not queue and keep jumping the line while we spend the whole day waiting.”
Samashia says after the painstaking wait, they then have to travel through some of Botswana’s worst and most dangerous roads.
“We have to travel during the day because at night you could easily plough into herds of elephants.”
This is because the entire Okavango Eastern Panhandle has some of the highest concentrations of elephants in Botswana. The people of this area have been living with a naturally-imposed curfew for as far back as they can remember. Every night, especially during the dry season, elephants drink at the river and they pass through the villages. The people are then forced to hide inside their homes to avoid being trampled upon by the jumbos.
Despite the wait, Samashika is content and proud of the bridge.
“This is the most beautiful bridge in Botswana, in the entire Southern Africa. I have never seen such a beautiful bridge,” he says.
Diyeve Kapera from Mohembo believes the bridge is going to change lives. Kapera owns a small truck and has been hustling by providing transportation services for the people in the area.
“Right now you cannot travel between Seronga and Shakawe return,” he says.
The owner of the newly opened guesthouse in Seronga, Noah Kebathokile of the New View Luxury Inn, says running a business in the Okavango Eastern Panhandle is challenging.
“Customers can book and fail to arrive because of the ferry,” he says.
The young entrepreneur previously had a costly ferry accident when his truck fell into the river. Kebathokile says the ferry makes it very hard for large trucks to cross the river to the east because the pontoon is not big enough.
One of the people whose business faces a threat from the bridge is Ofentse Banyatsang. The young woman runs a tuckshop that provides mobile money services to the people in the area. The entire Okavango Eastern Panhandle does not have a bank and mobile banking services like Orange Money are the only solutions for the people. Banyatsang also sells cold drinks and cigarettes. She spends most of the day watching the busy construction men in orange overalls working hard to complete the bridge. She wishes the authorities could build a bus rank after the completion of the bridge to where she could move her business.
Matumbo Segano, who has been trading by ferry since 2006, is expecting both good and bad outcomes from the bridge development. On one hand she welcomes the bridge. She says it will bring positive developments that will improve the lives of the people while she also predicts that there will be new challenges.
“The people will finally freely travel between the east and west of the Okavango River and there will be enterprises, like shops, that will be set up on the other side of the river. But, I think the bridge will also bring crime as people will just travel freely.”
Segano argues that because currently, the police have a checkpoint at the ferry, the bridge will open up the Overseas route for poachers amongst other criminals.
The bridge will not only provide easier river crossing and access to the east, but it will also provide a crucial power connection to the people of the Okavango.
Currently, all villages in the east are not connected to the main Botswana Power Corporation grid rather they get electricity from diesel-powered plants, which are unreliable.
Although the road construction will not be done any time soon, the people of Okavango Delta are expecting a major transformation in their lives when the bridge is completed.