I went to Botswana and South Africa in December and January (with this fantastic travelmate). Planning and taking a trip to southern Africa taught me innumerable lessons. One of the most salient lessons concerned the concept of “staying outside the velvet ropes,” not exiting through the gift shop, and not being one of those tourists who tries too hard to pretend or force exoticism.
To be clear:
I did not go to Africa to see the animals.
I did not go for safari.
I did not go to “help” the “needy.” (1)
I wanted to meet people. I wanted to get my body and mind in that place and feel what it feels like to be there. So, this is the gist of it. I want you to understand, that my primary objective was to be present with my eyes open. Officially, I was there to participate in life as an observer of technology usage and appropriation; I was on the lookout for research questions and curiosities and reflections and insights. Emotionally, I was there to just be, for as much being as could be had.
Now, I should provide another disclaimer: I completely understand that I’m white—not black, not African, and utterly different than the majority of Africans; I stand out. I am not in denial of my race. I also know that the status of my white-ness is completely loaded in Africa. Depending on the country and region you are in, being a white chick from America can cause a range of stereotypes about me and elicit a range of thoughts and emotions within people who live there. I will explain how that changed as I traveled in later posts.
Now I want to tell you a story that will get you in the moment and help illustrate the general context of my experiences.
In the village of Serowe, through some connections we made in Botswana, we visited another American, Patti, who was living in Serowe and loved to visit the Khama Rhino Sanctuary nearby, which I discerned as something like the Botswana version of the Wild Animal Park in San Diego; it’s not a major tourist attraction for foreign visitors though. It’s a sanctuary that makes some operation costs with visitors and aims to “protect and nurture endangered rhinoceros.” This visit was my only intentional animal encounter, and I went mostly because Patti and some other guests of hers were interested in going. I’m glad I did, but not for the animal viewing (though it was pretty neat).
The most fantastic thing that happened occurred after we left the rhino sanctuary and went outside the front gate to the road. I hadn’t thought of it when we left Patti’s place that morning (I’m not much of a sharp thinker in the morning): we had gotten a ride from a neighbor to get to the sanctuary, but we did not arrange a ride home. Patti, having been in Botswana for a while, understood that wasn’t necessary. Turns out Patti planned to hitchhike home. In the spirit of being there in the moment, I went with the flow and resisted the urge to panic and attempt manage the situation. (Though, obviously, there was absolutely nothing I could have done that would have changed anything. Also, in preparation for the trip, I read that it was normal and relatively safe to do that in Botswana.)
So, five white (2), American females ranging in age from 50-something to 20-something are standing on a roadside at 9 a.m. (that’s right, we were finished by 9 a.m.) waiting for car to come by and take us back to the village. Here is where I would like to tell you where I was waiting (pictured in the image above), but the road, as far as I can tell, has no better label than: “the main road between Serowe and Orapa.” (I could not find a name for it and never heard it referred to as anything else.) So… we were somewhere on the main road between Serowe and Orapa.
We stood there for more than an hour before we figured out that traffic was not only light that day, but no one had space for five people. We saved a giant caterpillar from being potentially squashed (by non-existent traffic); I photographed some weeds and a CocaCola can; and we waited. Despite our best efforts to look in need of a ride and our vibrant signaling (which in Botswana is putting your hand in the air and waving your hand up and down, bending at the wrist with your palm facing the road), no one stopped to pick us up. We split up. Three people stayed in the original spot and two would go across the street and down a bit. I picked the wrong side.
After another thirty minutes or so, the two people on the other side found a covered army truck full of soldiers being dropped off at the sanctuary (apparently soldiers were security there) to take them. Originally, the soldiers said there was not room for the other three, but we apparently looked desperate or pathetic. After they drove past us about 100 feet, they reversed and squeezed everyone together and two soldiers stood up and held on to the canopy frame so we could sit. There were two other hitchhikers, two off-duty soldiers getting a ride, and a few other soldiers (in addition to the five of us) in the back of an army green canopy truck driving down the main road between Serowe and Orapa. Everyone talked and listened as much as possible–everyone: soldiers, strangers, and friends. It is as if we all knew we had just a limited time to learn from one another, and we did. As the truck slowed, I was told we would be dropped off at a kombi (3) stop, and though there would be no kombis today, we could probably have an easier time hitchhiking from that location.
And so it was. We were dropped off at a metal and cement structure with a red dirt pull in next to the road. There were more weeds to look at and a goat across the street. Traffic was a tiny bit busier there, in about twenty minutes, a small red Toyota pickup truck with a couple in cab and a family of three in the bed of the truck came along. They said they would take all of us if we could fit in the back of the truck with the other hitchhikers. We made it happen. I’m not sure either the driver or the family of hitchhikers knew what to make of us, or what possible situation led us to that circumstance. It was impossible to make much conversation, it was windy, hot, and dangerous in that truck. No one flew out of the bed of the truck, though it was a valid concern. When we arrived in the village commerce and market area we each gave the driver a small amount of money and said goodbye. It was now about 12:30 pm.
I have only just described a little over three hours of just one day in Botswana, and they were all kind of like that. We woke up with a rough plan, set out with a general destination in mind and took what the day had for us. Panic and stress were useless emotional states. Alertness and perpetual satisfaction in any circumstance were required. By that I mean, panic and stress were dangerous and generally caused poor decision making and should be avoided at all costs. Being alert means being aware of the richness of the situation around me and all the positive and negative components of a situation at once. Being perpetually satisfied means remaining cognizant and respectful of the goodness of every circumstance, even if you are working to change it or get out of it.
I want to live every day of my life by those rules: do not panic and do not stress, just remain alert and satisfied. I lived my life that way for 33 days in Botswana and South Africa. I still cannot manage it here at home. Returning from my trip, I was sure I could keep it going, but I failed. I have tried to figure out why, and I have not yet decided I know the cause. Perhaps life is just different here. Perhaps my culture doesn’t allow it. Perhaps I am too familiar with my surroundings. Perhaps I feel that I have more control of my circumstances here.
I don’t know why it’s so difficult to live by my new rules here, but it remains a perpetual goal.
Roadside Image: Samantha Merritt
CocaCola Can: Samantha Merritt
Army Truck: Nina Mehta (cropped by Samantha Merritt)
1. I have a particular feeling about the concept of help and of the widely accepted label of needy placed on people in non-Western cultures who have different consumer cultures than we do. I put them in quotes because that’s what some people might say about a trip to Africa to do “volunteer work” that can actually do more harm than good. I’ll save that for another blog post. If you want to hear more about it or get a blog post on the topic faster, contact me. My trip had nothing to do with helping or philanthropy in general, I was there to learn.
2. For those of you who know that I traveled with Nina Mehta, you might not consider her “white.” People in Botswana do. It has very little to do with the color of her skin, and more to do with the appearance of her face and hair. So for the purposes of this story, Nina is white. :)
3. I cannot spare the space here to tell you all that you need to know about the kombi (or combi, depending on where you are), but know that it is loosely a form of public transportation run by independent people/companies running along sort-of standardized routes with a flat rate for rides. The vehicle is typically an unattractive version of the Volkswagen Type 2 vehicle (or alternate make/model with similar features). Riding the kombi taught me so much about myself, humanity, and the world as a whole… but that’s definitely another blog post (or more).