When we were growing up, we did not see such a massive population of wild animals, elephants in particular, especially in our villages. We used to see their footprints and sometimes they would pass by our fields during the night.
We used to scare them by beating the drums (ne re idaya dithini le di-diramu) and sometimes making a fire with grass and reeds (mmweni) so that the huge flame would scare them away. This was done during the night and it gave us peace of mind.
We could tell when elephants were coming by the feel of the wind and in those days they were harmless and they were scared of coming nearer to people because they would sense our smell and they would go away. Even though we lived in the same area, Okavango, naturally we were places apart.
We had little disturbances from wild animals. We were held up in our daily livelihoods of fishing, ploughing, collecting wild berries and rearing our cattle. We had a life. We were self-reliant.
We ploughed our fields during the first rains around December of every year and people would move temporarily to the fields around March, the time we start eating melons (namutjoko), maraca and others. The only animals that gave us problems were porcupines for the melons and duikers for the beans. These animals would come at night and we had means to deter them. We used plastics tied to a wooden stick and placed them nearer, a scarecrow. It was believed that when the wind blows, the plastic makes noise that scares away the animals and birds and the magic worked. Sometimes cattle, but they were easily managed by keeping them in kraals at night. Baboons would come during the day but we used dogs to chase them away. I did all this during my days as a boy in the village.
We would go on till April when we start harvesting and we kept the harvest on serala to dry. We stayed in dixhawu (a kraal-like compound), finished harvesting and then opened the fields to animals. First we would drive in our cattle to eat the remains and other wild animals would find their way in. Still it was rare to see elephants.
Children would walk from the fields to school without worrying about elephants on the way.
We would finish everything at the fields and transport our harvest to our villages where we stored them in our traditional silos (disheke). It would be around the end of the winter season and we would be welcoming spring where we would start fishing with hooks using worms (nnjo) and collecting tswii as the water level now would have subsided in most ponds and lagoons.
We would go to islands (khutyi/nnda) where we would camp for some days to catch fish and life was that simple. Nowadays things have changed, elephants have taken over the territory and if you are seen moving around, you will be asked, “Wa go bata eng? Ke lona ba le utswang diphologolo”. You would be labelled a poacher and sometimes you might get shot at. Even if your cattle cross over to that side of the lagoon, you leave them to be eaten by crocodiles and lions. Nowadays things have changed.
Since 1996, when cattle were destroyed in Ngamiland due to the CBPP cattle lung disease, we have seen an upsurge of wild animals, especially elephants and lions. They have taken away our fields and some people have permanently relocated from their cattle post to major villages and this has affected our agricultural output.
People now rely on government for food hampers for survival. They no longer tilt their fields. Elephants have destroyed the fences and we are seeing these animals all year round; January to December. They are many; they are all over. We hardly fish like we used to traditionally. For some of us to eat fish, we have to buy it from Choppies store, those that are bought from fishermen in the Zambezi area in Zambia.
In our days as boys, there used to be hunting safaris, the likes of Vira Safaris, Michelleti Bates, Gametrackers Botswana and MacFarllane. They used to hunt and we would eat braai meat. Some of our relatives who were working on those hunting safaris used to bring such and the skins most of them buffalo, were used to make dikgole that we used to tend to cattle at the kraals.
We lost most of our cattle to drought from the mid-1990s onwards. The cattle have nowhere to graze because elephants have destroyed their pastures. We would drive our cattle in the bush to graze so that they come in the evening to drink water by the river, but now that is a thing of the past.
The vegetation has been destroyed both in the bush and in the floodplains.
Elephants have taken over. They eat rhizomes from papyrus grass (digo), eat tswii that we used to collect for our livelihoods and I want to believe that this is due to them being overpopulated and they are fighting for survival.
The arrival of elephants has brought in lions in our area and most of the lions are those with belts on their necks. We have been attacked from both sides and no one is willing to help. This is what has contributed to the high levels of poverty we are witnessing in the Okavango villages. There is hunger in our region and it is not that we are lazy to fend for ourselves, but that we are limited to fight and claim our land from the elephants; the land that fed us.
Elephants have outgrown their population and something needs to be done. They have destroyed our homes and people have been forced to relocate. Look at Mawana, Thinxqoro, Hongwa, Mbiroba, Xhoro, Ldiyondo, Xhau cattleposts and others. People used to live there and now the places are ruins. They have ran away and some to Maun where now life is difficult. They have abandoned their fields in the villages. We no longer have or plough dipumi (a kraal-sized traditional garden).
Everything is messed up and it is not us. Somebody decided for us to suffer just willy-nilly. Elephants are everywhere. You can even find them in schools; just go to Seronga village. Even the officers at the wildlife department are afraid of them though they have the means to chase them away from us.
They would say, “le rona re a di tshaba”;(we too a afraid of them).
Seronga is a sanctuary park for elephants and lions. Back in the olden days, we used to hear the sounds, cries and laughs of hyenas and we enjoyed that because it was sort of entertaining. Today elephants and lions have replaced them. Elephants and lions kill us. But some of us are not willing to abandon such a naturally rich place to wild animals. We are naturally connected to that environment.
There is no other place we can call home. We are enclosed, but we ask the government to revoke such laws/policies if there are any that hinder us to help control the population of elephants and lions.
The government should solicit opinions on how to deal with this problem. Many lives have been destroyed. Cultures have been misplaced. Helping to manage such would help us to revive our culture and some species of plants that we depended on to be brought back to life. There are certain endangered species of trees that are now nearing extinction because of elephants. They dig out these trees and uproot them, mostly mutjupe.
Elephants use it as we used lethajwa and motlhakola to whiten our teeth. They eat the bark (makwatyi) of mekoba that we use as lodi.
The destruction of the vegetation has also affected the rainfall cycle in our area and this is according to our own observation. The place has been turned into a semi-desert and we hardly experience moderate rainfall like we used to when we were young and this has affected the flow of water in the floodplains during the flooding season. When the rains were high, we would experience a higher volume of floods that year.
As we write this article now, the water has not even reached Ngarange in the panhandle. It is still in the main channel of the delta. This suggests that there is drought in the Okavango this year.
Traditionally we expect the floods to reach Seronga in the first weeks of January every year, just some days after the New Year celebrations. Without water we cannot catch fish and cannot collect reeds for thatching grass; we cannot do anything.
We suggest the government culls the elephants on a yearly basis, or do like they used to do (ka rafole) so people who are interested can win and hunt them and dig boreholes closer to the border with the Caprivi Strip on NG11 to provide watering holes so elephants can find a closer source of water far from us and our fields.
Reducing the number would minimise the destruction that is being caused by these animals and the people would get back to their traditional way of life.
Too much movement of elephants is opening routes for lions who come and kill us and our livelistock.
This never happened in the olden days. We used to learn about these animals at school, but now we see them everyday.
They have enchroached into our homesteads. We no longer only fear thieves or rapists but instead we fear elephants and lions as well.
Elephants have opened up channels in the delta, which our cattle get through and get lost or are trapped in the mud looking for greener pastures. A case in point, is Lidazi and Etsatsa. People have lost their cattle through such means because they cannot go in fearing lions, crocodiles and elephants. These are islands that we used to collect thatching grass from now the aeas are turned into a park for dangerous animals.
The once sanctuary of birds, monitor lizards, spring hares, tortoise, Rhodoshia 1 and 2, Lituma floodplains have been brought to zero. It used be a holiday inn for boys. Now the places are historic sites. The places now are Nagasaki and Hiroshima of Okavango similar to after the World War II bombing. The place will never recover.
The overpopulation of elephants in our area has also displaced people permanently from their traditional villages to towns and this has caused the rural-urban migration of able-bodied youths who would otherwise help to uplift the standard of living in their villages.
They have lost touch with their traditions due to elephants envading their territories and destroying their properties. If something could be done, our people who go would back could help revive and help develop Okavango. People would be able to move back to Xhoro, Xhau, Ldiyondo and re-settle in our ancestral land where we can plough back our fields.
Places that we used to wind round and round have now turned into hunting grounds for lions. We fear getting into the bush alone even to walk from Mbiroba to Teekae on foot.
There used to be cattleposts between Mbiroba and Teekae, today these are abandoned and bushy; people have ran away from elephants to settle in Maun. People from Danga and Letsau have moved to Mokgacha and Mogotho because their places have come to be known as Elephant Corridors.
Thousands of elephants cross over through the settlements to the river.
It is only we humans who can contain the issue of elephants encroaching into our territories.
The communities need to be involved and come up with solutions to the problem affecting us. We should be involved in the formulation of policies that are addressing the issue of human-wildlife conflict in our area and this responsibility should not be left to the government alone.
The dignity of the people of the Okavango must be restored and quell the myth that Okavango is solely a tourist area. People should learn to live with wild animals, but elephants’ lives should not take precedence over our lives.
*The authors were born and raised in Seronga, Okavango Delta.