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Tourism COVID-19 voices: “Bulelang makgoa a tsene!”

Ketshapamang Keadimilwe
SERONGA: Many people in the Ngamiland district, Botswana’s tourism hub, are desperately pleading for the full opening of the country’s borders to allow foreign tourists in.

The hope that coronavirus will one day just vanish and leave humans alone is all, but gone here.

It has been nine months since makgoa (name used by tourism workers to mean guests or tourists) checked out from the many luxurious camps around the Okavango Delta fleeing back home due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

In March, some of the workers thought the crisis was just a temporary hiatus with the belief that makgoa would surely be back before the end of the 2020 peak season.

Nine months later, lives have been disrupted and many workers have been forced to retreat to their home villages to wait and hope for the best. As the country gets deep into the low summer season, hope for the future amongst the people of Ngamiland is slowly waning.

Filters Mwezi, 29, a professional safari guide at Kadizora Camp on NG12 and father of two who has been out of work for nine months, is expecting a bleak 2021.

“The year 2021 will be slow like a typical summer. I think it will take two to three years for tourism to recover,” predicts the young guide.

Mwezi said since April, he has received a half salary for only four months out of the total seven.

He said they have not been updated about the tourism wage subsidy that was extended to tourism operators and the half salaries are inconsistent as some months just passed with no money or work from the employers.

According to Mwezi, the meagre half salaries they received are too small compared to what they could have earned just from tips from makgoa during peak season.

“Most safari guides make big parts of their income through tips, not salaries. So missing the whole peak season like in 2020 is very bad for us,” Mwezi said.

He said before March he spent his savings knowing that he was about to get into the fruitful peak season. Coronavirus hit his family even worse, because they had no savings to cushion their loss of income.

Many like Mwezi are now living from hand to mouth as they battle to survive with no income.

Mwezi said he now tries to make a few coins by being a village transporter. He has a vehicle that he assists the people of the

remote Gonutsoga community by transporting their goods. When there is no one to transport he goes into the river to fish and if he is lucky enough for a good catch, he sells some of it.

Ketshephang Keadimilwe, 36, a chef at Little Vumbura camp on NG22 and mother of three, is also rolling with the COVID-19 punches at her home village in Gonutsoga.

To try and make ends meet, she has stocked up her tuckshop with the meagre half wages she got from her work.

“Even the tuckshop is not doing well because many people in the village do not have the buying power.

Some days I can make only P11 a day, but other days are better I can cash P200,” Keadimilwe said.

Johny Mowanji, 43, a professional safari guide at Ngamiland Adventure Safari has moved to his cattle post at Chukuchu near Etsha 6 to look after his cattle. Mowanji who is struggling to feed his family of six children said things are pretty bad.

“Life is hard. Some days I try to sell some cattle and get something to feed my family,” Mowanji said.

Onthusitse Malebogo, 39, a chef at World Escapades Lodge has also moved to her home village with the husband at Etsha 6 to look after their livestock.

They sell fresh milk to try and support their five girls.

Most of these tourism workers have one specific request from the leaders: “Open up the borders for tourists to get in”.

Mowanji recommends that an evaluation of ways to open for lucrative foreign tourists must be done immediately to save the people and the economy.

Keadimilwe says, “Open up for foreign tourists. We will wear masks just like other people.”

Mwezi also support for the immediate opening of the borders.

“This is now survival. We survive mainly from foreign tourists and our entire tourism industry relies heavily on foreign tourists so it is very important that we should open our borders,” Mwezi said.

The effects of tourism closure also extend beyond the workers, to entire communities since many people in Ngamiland directly or indirectly depend on the sector. For instance Keadimilwe’s sister, Oganeditswe Keadimilwe, could no longer supply camps with her crafts.

And the struggle goes far deep and wide where everyone in the community is affected.


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