At the beginning of 2020, the people of Ngamiland thought they had survived the worst drought in recent history. The future was bright as the huge 2020 flood slowly approached from Angola to the Okavango Delta to rejuvenate the area. The people were hopeful, as there was a promising light at the end of the long drought tunnel. But coronavirus (COVID-19) made this all a mirage as it killed all hope, writes Staffer THALEFANG CHARLES at Boro
It has been about eight months since Botswana closed down its borders in a desperate attempt to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. And after a few lockdowns and travel bans, the people of Ngamiland, who have been making a living mainly through tourism, are still trying to find their feet in the thick of the COVID-19 storm.
The female mokoro polers from Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust (OKMCT), one of the country’s most successful community trusts, thought 2019 was a bad year.
It was the year that the river failed to flood, which meant there was no river to drive tourists into the Okavango Delta with the famed mokoro rides. Things got so desperate that the whole community of Boro village had to be temporarily relocated to Daunara settlement, closer to the water.
Keikantsemang Gorewang, 52, was amongst the happiest when the water eventually arrived back in the Boro River allowing her return home to Boro from Daunara. Even though the flood arrived during lockdown, she was not thinking that seven months later, she would be seeing the river just drying up without ‘makgoa’ (tourists).
Gorewang has been a poler and professional guide for half of her life.
“I grew up doing this. I have raised my children from the proceeds of guiding and poling tourists. This is my life, it is how I survived through all these years.” She explained that her community could not just get into farming because elephants destroy their crops and so they cannot yield anything. The border closures therefore adversely affected her family.
Another poler from Boro village, Keitumetse Kehemetswe, 55, has given up hope. She has surrendered to a higher being, saying: “Nna gake tlhaloganye jaanong, ke dilo tsa Modimo. Ga gona gore reka reng.”
Although these are some of the most resilient humans who have seen dry spells of the river before and tamed the wilderness to make a living out of it, COVID-19 is proving to be too hard on them. There is a sense of hopelessness amongst many of them.
From an eerily empty Matlapana beach in Maun, Oteng Solomon, 36, a carpenter cum freelance poler and boat-rider who hails from Etsha, but lives in Maun, describes how the coronavirus lockdowns and travel bans led to the destruction of his small family.
In February this year, Solomon was working in construction as one of the builders who were refurbishing the Duma Tau camp in Linyanti. Over the years he has been making a decent income building luxury camps in the Okavango Delta.
“For the past seven months, life has been very hard for me. I have been surviving on some piece jobs, which were scarce and not paying enough,” says Solomon.
“My girlfriend, mother of my one year – old kid, left me because I could not provide for them.”
He said he could not qualify for the tourism subsidy even though he made a living out of building tourists camps.
Although Solomon is hopeful about the future, he has a chilling warning for the authorities. “If they do not open in time, crime, especially robberies, are going to increase because people are really hungry.”
Tsholofelo Sehularo, 33, a Jiko Airport restaurant owner, had two restaurants at Maun and Kasane airports. She said they were doing ‘fairly well’. When borders and airports were immediately shut down, all her businesses which were her whole source of income, were instantly killed.
“Ninety percent of our revenue came from tourists while only 10% was from local airport staff,” she says.
“So without tourists it does not make any business sense.” For the past seven months she has been sinking deep into debt because despite closures at Maun and Kasane airports, Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana (CAAB) still sent her a rent bill, while she struggled with wages, creditors and the ‘black tax’.
“I have over P21,000 for electricity and water bills from CAAB for periods when there were lockdowns and the airports were closed. We had to put over 20 employees on unpaid leave,” Sehularo said.
She only got the first Botswana Unified Revenue Service (BURS) wage subsidy given to all companies and could not benefit from the subsequent tourism wage subsidy despite tourists being her main source of revenue.
She said the emotional load of COVID-19 could drive even a strong person straight into depression. But during this toughest phase of her business, Sehularo has stood emotionally strong and fought back hard.
She stands true to her passion for food and recently opened Uhuru Café along the main road next to New Mall in Maun. But she says it is still hard because finance institutions do not offer capital and people are watching their spending and are not eating out much because of COVID-19.
On her lessons from COVID-19, Sehularo says: “COVID-19 has taught me to never have all my eggs in one basket, to diversify and live with minimal finances, and to be resilient. Surviving this COVID-19 storm will surely give us a personal growth.”
Sehularo is, however, still positive about the future as she anticipates a wave of revolution of people seeking good living.
“The future is bright. After COVID-19, people are going to live to their fullest. More people are now realising the importance of travelling, the importance of living. So us as service providers, in the travel industry, we are lucky because more people will soon want to travel.”