The river people that became Okavango Delta ambassadors

Water, Gobonamang, Thopo and Leilamang in a jubilant mood at the end of their epic transect of the Okavango River basin PIC THALEFANG CHARLES
Water, Gobonamang, Thopo and Leilamang in a jubilant mood at the end of their epic transect of the Okavango River basin PIC THALEFANG CHARLES

Mmegi Staffer THALEFANG CHARLES caught up with four Bayei men who have since christened 'Okavango Delta Ambassadors' by the National Geographic Explorers after traveling the entire Kuvango- Okavango River Basin by mekoro

These are proud Bayei - the river people - from Seronga and Jao Flats inside the Okavango Delta. They are the only four known Batswana men that have ever travelled the entire Okavango River basin from source to mouth, using dugout canoes (mekoro).

It took them 120 days and more than three countries, travelling in mekoro over 2,476km from the source of Cuito River in the Angolan highlands, to the Boteti River mouth in the blinding dusty plains of Makgadikgadi at Lake Xau.

It is the Kgetho brothers, Gobonamang ‘GB’ Kgetho and Leilamang ‘Snaps’ Kgetho, Thopo ‘Tom’ Reito - the music man from Seronga together with Water Setlabosha (yes, his name is Water) from Jao Flats. The four men are the humble but very strong polers from Mbiroba Polers Trust based in Seronga and they achieved the feat on an epic expedition of the Okavango Wilderness Project together with National Geographic led by Steve Boyes dubbed, “Into The Okavango”.

These are men that grew up from the river. All of them started driving mokoro at the tender age of seven. When their mates elsewhere were in classrooms, they were gliding on their mekoro in the hippo and crocodile infested waters, learning to live from the river. As a Seyei tradition, a river has always been their source of life. They have mastered how to make a living, get food and have leisure time on this river.

“I was taught to pole a mokoro by my father at the age of seven,” says GB who was the lead poler in the expedition. The calm dreadlocked poler knows all the tricks of the river.

When Boyes began his Okavango crossings in 2009 doing the Okavango Wetlands Bird Survey, he roped in GB to lead them through the delta wilderness. Then he was with his father, Kgetho Kgetho. The father still poles the mokoro at the age of 75 years and he actually joined the trip in the delta from Seronga to Maun. This year the expedition was bigger than ever. Boyes envisioned a pioneering comprehensive biodiversity survey covering the entire Okavango River basin from source to where the water ends. Together with National Geographic, they assembled experts in various fields from ichthyologists to ornithologists.

In that team were the four Bayei Okavango Delta ambassadors, who travelled to witness where the water that makes their life comes from. Boyes explained, “The Bayei would always be connected to this river. We travelled with a group of polers for them to meet other river people in Angola and Namibia. They will be the ambassadors of the people of the Okavango Delta and met many people that live along the Okavango River, people that hold their fate in their hands.”

Speaking at the end of their intrepid journey at Lake Xau just after pushing their mekoro onto dry sand, the men were filled with emotion after staying 18 weeks away from their families and experiencing something that no other Motswana had ever achieved.

“It has still not sunken. I’m in disbelief. It has been a long journey and it is unbelievable that I just finished it all,” said Leilamang.

Even Setlabosha, who spent his entire life making a living out of the Okavango wetlands as a tourist guide working in different camps, was emotional at the finish point.

Setlabosha, who prefers to be called Water, told how the beginning at Cuito River source was tough for the team.

“There was less water at Cuito and we spent eight days pulling mekoro because they could not fit in the tiny channel, “ he said.

Setlabosha profusely thanked Boyes for giving them the opportunity to experience their river. “I am very proud to have finished the journey and I must thank Steve for putting me in the trip. Initially it was too tough because there was no water and impossible to travel by mokoro. We had to pull our mekoro for eight days to where there was enough water. There were also many makeshift small bridges that we had to put down for us to pass through, “ recalled Setlabosha.

Reito on the other hand spoke about the tricky Namibian rapids that they met along the river. It was a first for him to drive a mokoro in the rapids. “We are used to small silent channels in here and going through rapids presented a tough challenge for me, “ he said.

Gobonamang told how they had to pass treacherous places in Angola with landmines to access the source of the river.

“It was tough in the beginning getting to the source because of landmines and the shallow river but it widened when we approached Namibia.

We learnt that the people in Angola still use the old traditional way of fishing that has long died in our area,” said Gobonamang.

He is a traditionalist who prefers to use homemade traditional paddle called “serapo” instead of the modern one supplied by Nat Geo.

GB was shocked at the way Angolans contaminate the river. “Those people just throw rubbish into the river. I was nauseated when I imagined that the waters that I have been living on from all these years go through polluted areas like that,” said Gobonamang.

He told how he all along thought the fresh clear water that forms an incredible delta from their village at Seronga comes from a very clean source. Gobonamang told how he stopped drinking the river water until he reached the Delta, where he only started to freely drink the water because he felt it was clean.

The polers spoke of how they missed their families whom they have not seen in months. They also missed eating proper home meals not the rice and beans that the expedition team survived on.

At Lake Xau at the end of the water, the polers were in good spirits. They have learnt the aims of the expedition and feel proud to be part of it. They now understand Boyes’ dream and share his conservation efforts.

They have seen what is happening in Angola and Namibia where the river is not properly protected and they have a renewed vigour to protect and conserve the Delta. They are the ambassadors.

Boyes revealed that the polers together with the young scientists that were part of the team would be starring as Delta Ambassadors and Conservation Ambassadors respectively, in the National Geographic film about the expedition that is expected in early 2017.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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