We were about to embark on a 3 and a 1/2 hour journey from Maun to Ghanzi District in Botswana. It was a bright Wednesday morning and I was feeling good. Nice and energetic.
Shabuu, the taxi driver, asked me rather obviously: “Aren’t you going to use the toilet before we go?”
“I’m good now. Maybe on the way somewhere we can stop if I need to go?” I said.
He hesitated only for a second before saying; “OK.” A bright yellow Honda Fit was our mode of transport, adding to the obvious sense of adventure.
It became clear to me an hour into the road trip, that there would be no random loos that popped up along the way for me to attend to any impending need. Save for the occasional car that passed us, all I saw were cattle, goats, beautiful horses and some rather hairy donkeys. No bathrooms, restaurants or petrol stations for roughly 230 kilometres.
Where are all the people in this country?
That’s one of the first things you think when you get to Botswana. The paved streets in the capital Gabarone were spacious. The buildings did not crowd each other. The parking lots seemed full, but there were hardly any people walking around. The country has a population of around 2 million people and the size is almost as big as Kenya in East Africa, which is home to a cool 47 million.
The people we did encounter though to ask for directions, looked quite stern, but they easily broke into wide genuine smiles and proved to be extremely helpful.
We saw cows grazing at night in the capital, adding to a list of novelties and differences from what we were used to. But for some reason, Botswana felt like home. She felt familiar and unassuming. Like I could be myself around her and she would be ok with it. She would laugh at the things about me that she thought odd and would listen to my stories with genuine interest. Strange.
Her people were the same. Xgaiga Qomatco is an old man from the San Tribe that we spent quite a few days with. Restricted by the government from continuing with his tribe’s former nomadic lifestyle, Xgaiga is among 20 artists that paint and exhibit their work at the Kuru Art Centre in D’kar, Ghanzi. To show their heritage and eke out a living.
Whenever anyone asked to take a picture with him, he cooed and ahhed and said words in his language that just made you smile. Needless to say, all the pictures came out looking great. Over several days, we saw him welcome visitors to the art centre, we saw him speak to his grandson about keeping the tribe’s culture and traditions, and we saw him lead a troupe of other tribesmen and women in performing the healing dance.
The healing dance. This was special. It is a traditional passed down several hundred decades – considering the San are the closest relatives on earth that we have to the Homo Sapiens, according to scientists.
Xgaiga was among two healers who led the dance as the women and children sang and chanted along with them.
“You might hear something that sounds like uuwee uhwee uuwee, but they are actually words and we know what it means. So don’t worry,” a rosy looking middle aged lady told us. She was acting as a translator for Xgaiga, as they introduced the dance.
They sang; keeping the tempo with the hollow clap which you do with your fingers spaced out. The men taking part in the dance wore beads wrapped from mid-shin to their ankles. They danced by stomping their feet to a clever rhythm and kicking up dust as they formed a path in the sand. Dancing in a circle. They kept going round and round. The same songs were sung over and over, it started getting hypnotizing. Soon the men began shouting and exclaiming as they got into a trance.
Xgaiga and the other healer would pick a burning coal from the fire, rub it between their hands and on their hair, then touch anyone requiring healing, performing a few stretches on the sick person’s bodies before throwing the offending illness or pain into the air.
It was fixating to watch. I wanted to be healed, I felt like such a part of the whole process and oddly privileged to have witnessed time stand still. This was a ceremony from hundreds of years ago that had been carried on and the magic of the moment was not lost on me.
I was healed as well. What from, I don’t know. Xgaiga’s companion placed his hands on my head and then shoulders, and then arms. It had been close to an hour of dancing and chanting and I could feel drops of sweat fall from his forehead onto my lap. But I was eager and ready to be part of the ceremony. I felt so open.
I was not open enough to follow them back to their village though!
Away from the San, I tasted some eland meat while there. We stayed at the Tautona Lodge in Ghanzi and despite the obvious drought around us, the food was exceptional.
Game meat is widely enjoyed in Botswana. I was advised to taste donkey meat too and caterpillar, but I ran out of time and opportunity. I did however have some Seswaa, which is basically pounded beef. It sort of looks like pulled pork and is extremely tender. Seswaa is best enjoyed with pap (maize meal or ugali) and some spicy tomato puree. If you ever go to Tautona (Big Lion) Lodge, please have a Kalahari Oyster. You will thank me for this. NB: it’s a liquid.
I miss her already. Botswana. I can’t wait to go back. I feel like there’s so much more to see.
Notes: Botswana’s currency is known as the Pula. One US dollar is equivalent to about 10 Pulas. So that’s a nice and strong currency.