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A Poet's Progress, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: Okavengo Delta, Zambia

Okavengo Delta, Zambia

November 28, 2010: Wilderness Camp, Okavengo Delta, Zambia

Tonight, Julius—a guide so experienced that he is mentioned in one of the books I read to prepare for this trip—was walking me back to my cabin with a flashlight after dinner. I was making small talk, embarrassed to have to be walked to my room—certainly it was a necessary precaution but how often does something actually happen, I asked him. What do you mean, “happen”? Well, you know, something dangerous. Pretty regularly he said, waving the beam of the flashlight back and forth on either side of the path. Then he told me a couple of stories that made my heart beat faster and we walked more briskly, more purposefully, being sure to stay on the trail. But how safe was I, I thought, walking behind him—a lion could pick me off before he even knew I was gone.

The cicadas were screaming and the baboons were making a lot of defensive noise in the trees and it took me a moment to realize that it was we who were the cause of all of this noise, and not a predator.

As we approached the final turn before the steps that led to my cabin, there was a crashing sound up the hill in front of us, behind my cabin. Julius stopped and crouched, shooting the beam up the hill from ground level. “See them?” he asked. I couldn’t see anything. “Two elephants feeding–right there, where I’m shining the light. Can you see them?” “Sort of,” I lied. I only saw a wide expanse of darkness. And then a part of it moved.

“Oh my God, it’s huge.” It was making an angry roaring sound and moving down the hill toward us. And then there was another larger dark shape behind it that was moving too, and roaring. The one closest to us took an acacia tree and snapped it in half with its trunk, and stuck one end in its mouth, as if to say, this is what I’ll do to you if you come any closer.

“Am I going to be okay?” “Yes, they won’t bother you once you get inside the cabin.” “Are you going to be okay?” “Oh, sure, I’ll be backing out of here as soon as you’re inside and turn on the light. They’ll avoid a fight with humans because they know we’re dangerous. They just don’t want us to come any closer.” He pointed the flashlight at the steps that led to my porch and I walked in a way that was obviously not in the elephant’s direction and then up the stairs quickly, and opened the door, found the light switch, and flashed it.

The Bridge Between the Bantu and the San

This river is the bridge between the Bantu who grow crops and make pottery, and the San, nomads who live in huts or in caves they’ve used since the time before memory in their yearly migrations.

Non-indigenous human predators came from over the mountains and multiplied swiftly through the delta, carrying stone hammers and mortars to trade with the San. They returned over the mountains with kiln-fired necklaces, twisted gold, enameled seashells, and eventually began to build markets in the plains through which the San passed twice a year. Later the ones who arrived by river tracked the San into the foothills, trading Persian pottery, Chinese porcelain, and Italian glass for diamonds. The San camped during their migrations in the caves where their tribe’s entire history is painted onto limestone in a language no one remembers.

The leaves of the obeissa tree contain a poison known as albessia. Local fishermen create a powder from its leaves and scatter it on the water. A small amount of this poison paralyzes the fish and makes them easy to catch.

Today was the day that all the wildebeests calved. We saw the process through different mothers at different stages of birthing. Through it all the mothers went on walking and eating as if nothing was happening, with the water rushing out and the amniotic sack hanging out of their behind. But they usually did shuffle off for the actual delivery, surrounded by all of the available females, who were there to protect her from anything in the area that might prey on the baby or be attracted by the blood. After we left, Tinashe’s group found a mongoose and a jackal stalking the afterbirths.

One birthing wildebeest we had the luck to stumble upon continued to eat as first the hind legs and then the rib cage and front shoulders of a young boy slipped out of her in a rush. Several moments later there was another convulsion and the head and front legs were pushed out and the calf fell almost three feet to the ground with a splash. The mother never slowed down. The calf had just a moment to teach itself how to stand and walk or it would never find its mother again and be left behind. This is how the wildebeests eliminate the weak.

First the calf lifted its head and neck from the ground, and then it planted its front hooves in the ground in front of it and then extended its front legs so that its trunk lifted off the ground. Then he turned his head around to look at its hindquarters, and it looked as if he was willing them to rise, which they eventually did. And then he stood for a moment and moved his front legs forward, followed by its hind legs, and it shakily moved forward in fits until he caught up with his mother and buried his head under his mother’s right hip and began to suck. “Now how does that happen?” I ask Rhoda.

James points to the fields away from the herd. The alpha wildebeest is chasing off a dozen smaller wildebeests. When he returns to the herd, they follow him, tentatively. When they get too close, he turns and the process is repeated, each time pushing them a little farther off.

The calving day is also the day when the yearling males are driven off. Over the next couple of days we’ll come across these lone wildebeests, young and healthy, without a herd. The girls will stay until they reach fertility and are drawn off to become mothers, perhaps by one of these lone male wildebeests, or by the alpha in another herd.

James points out the small birds that follow the larger land animals, like the wildebeest. We’ve seen birds perch on the shoulders of hippos when they’re feeding on land, looking for the bugs the hippo exposes when it pulls grass out of the soil. Giraffes eat in the bush where there are ticks. These ticks feed on the underside of their long legs and soft bellies. Sometimes these tick sites become infected. But one particular bird attaches itself to the giraffe and feeds on the ticks and cleans the site of all infected and necrotic tissue.

The real danger to the African wildlife is from the plants and animals that aren’t indigenous to the area—like humans, and the carriba weed that came to Zimbabwe via boats from Brazil in the 1700s. The carriba weed is a water plant that can’t be eaten by any African species and is now choking even the Chobe and Zambezi, the two largest rivers in southern Africa.

Walking back from lunch, I ask Robert why the birds in Africa are so brightly colored. Most of the other animals are trying to hide. Why do the birds want to stand out? It’s because the birds eat bugs that feed on flowers, he tells me. They imitate a flower’s bright colors to attract the bugs.

I ask him if he’s ever seen a greater honey guide lead a honey badger to a bee’s nest. A honey badger is a nasty looking rodent about the size of a raccoon, an animal dangerous and ferocious enough that it is one of the few that will attack a wildebeest or cape buffalo—animals many times its size—without provocation. They’re crazy enough that they’re one of the few animals that lions and leopards avoid altogether.

The story is that the greater honey guide—a small bird—likes the beeswax in bee’s nests, but can’t get to it. So it calls to humans or chimpanzees or honey badgers with a sound like a shaken matchbox, and once it’s got their attention, it flies off a few yards, flashing its white tailfeathers as it flies, landing on a low branch, making the shaken matchbox sound again until they catch up. This goes on until the greater honey guide leads the honey badger or chimpanzee or human—all of whom love honey—to the beehive. The hunter will knock the bee’s nest to the ground and when the bees take off, it will crack the nest open and eat the honey. When it’s finished, it walks off and the greater honey guide flies down to eat the exposed honeycomb.

Robert says he has not only seen a honey badger that was led by a greater honey guide to a beehive, but after the honey badger knocked it down he watched it lift its hind legs and fumigate the entrance of the beehive through a scent it excreted from its anus. Then it swirled its tail to direct the fumes into the nest, the way modern beekeepers smoke a hive in order to dull the bees. By the time the honey badger was through fumigating the nest, Robert tells me, there were a lot of dead bees on the ground.

James says that if a chimp or human or badger eats the whole hive or carries it off without leaving the comb for the honey guide, the birds will find the animal or human again and repeat the same routine—only this time it will lead them to a hungry leopard or a lion. Robert’s neighbor’s cousin brought home a beehive one day and the next day he saw the same bird and followed it again. This time it took him to a mamba, a snake whose venom incapacitates a human’s vocal cords before there’s time to scream, shutting down an adult respiratory system in less than five seconds, stopping a human heart in under ten. It is also one of the fastest snakes in the world and can easily bite a victim and be gone before the prey even knows it’s been bitten.

Home Stay at an Hwange Homestead

Today we had a homestay in a Hwange homestead. The dirt walls are reinforced with stones, and then the surface is sealed with powdered dung. Their furnaces are hollowed out of the center of their dining hut.

The men sit on one side of the room on benches and chairs, and the women, including the western women who want to honor local customs, sit on the floor on the other side of the tent.

We are served by Shaka, the youngest woman in the family, whose baby wanders in and out of the hut at will. Shaka mixes orange aid with water she’s gathered from the well a mile or so outside of town that we passed on the way in. She takes a basket of freshly roasted peanuts out of the furnace. Then she kneels in front Joseph, the family’s patriarch, her grandfather, and, not looking up, lifts him a glass of orange aid and the bowl of peanuts.

After he has finished, she makes her way around the guests, serving the males first, and then the western women, and then the women in her family, starting with the eldest. If there is anything left to eat or drink, she will eat and drink today.

Once the youngest woman has finished eating, it is time to collect everyone’s glasses. I am one of the few guests who has eaten their peanut dinner and finished their orange aid (it was sweet and lukewarm and I would get sick from it later).

One of the elder women has gathered some blossoms and leaves for the men to smoke. How do you know where to find them, I ask her. I found some in the forest last year and left some behind. That is why women gather and the men hunt, she tells me.

There are several different languages threading through the conversation. The family speaks a local dialect, which Robert translates into Shona, which Tinashe then translates into English.

The youngest daughter wants to know what gift I’ve brought her family. I’ve brought Colorado lavender honey, I tell her. I know you are proud of your honey, I tell her, I know we cannot compete, but here is the finest honey from Colorado, clover honey. She takes it from my hand and points it toward the sun and squints. The light pours through it, its gold lighting up her face. Is it real? she asks, weighing it in her hand as if upon a scale.

The women ask us, “Don’t women in America have dresses?” All of the women with us are dressed as they were told to dress—in khaki shorts and a neutral-colored t-shirt without jewelry or perfume. This is so as not to scare away the wild animals. They laugh at us. Hwange women wear brightly colored dresses at all times because they want to scare wild animals away.

“How do you travel alone?” a grandmother asks one of the women in our group. “I own my own house. I have a job and a car and my own money. I can do what I want to do when I want to do it. I live quite happily without a man.” The old woman laughs. “I want your life,” she says.

They are fascinated that none of our women have gray hair and they talk about different dyes and means for coloring their hair. “Is it true that you burn your dead?” they ask. Cremation is the worst insult one could do to a person, they tell us, because burning a body would destroy their ability to enjoy the afterlife, and might even end their afterlife.

The women also want to know how each of us found our husbands and wives. They are shocked to learn that two of the couples traveling with us are not married, and have no intention of marrying. They are also aghast that one of the single women is traveling with strangers while her boyfriend stays behind. They ask me to describe our marriage customs and I tell them I think the process I went through is most common presently in the United States. My wife-to-be and I lived together for several years before I proposed and she accepted. I gave her an engagement ring, and we informed our family and friends. We arranged and paid for our own wedding with the help of family and friends. We wrote our own ceremony and the wedding was conducted in a secular spot that we chose because of its natural beauty, and it was officiated by someone we chose. Because we were not married in a church, he was not aligned with our religious faith.

They asked me where my wife was now and I told them I was no longer married, and then I described the divorce process. Either spouse—husband or wife—can initiate a divorce—in my case it was my wife. If there are no children or shared property—as there was neither in mine—it’s a very simple process that ends in divorce court.

The women laugh at every surprising detail in my story as if I am making up the most implausible nonsense just to amuse them.

Music from East Africa, Part I: Ethiopia, Comoros, and Kenya

Ethiopia: Gigi

Gigi (born Ejigayehu Shibabaw) is a singer who was born and raised in northwest Ethiopia. Although traditionally Ethiopian women were prohibited from singing or playing music, she was taught songs from the ancient tradition of Ethiopian church music by a priest in her family. She moved to San Francisco in 1998. Chris Blackwell—who started Island Records and introduced reggae to the mainstream—discovered her in 2001and connected her to Bill Laswell (later her husband) and she began recording with American jazz musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Pharoah Sanders. In 2003 she recored Zion Roots, under the band name Abyssinia Infinite, featuring Laswell on guitar and keyboards, and several of Gigi’s family members on vocals. One of the songs—“Gole”—is sung in Agaw, the language of her father’s village. She has also appeared with Buckethead and Material.

Kabu: Aster Aweke

Aster Aweke is an Ethiopian singer who is referred to as Ethiopia’s Aretha Franklin. She was born in an Ethiopian village in1959 and raised in the capital city of Addis Ababa. She decided at the age of thirteen to become a musician, although it was prohibited for women to sing or play music in Ethiopia at the time. By her late teens she was singing in clubs and hotels with the Continental Band, the Hotel D’Afrique Band, and the Ibex Band, which later became famous under the name of the Roha Band. In 1981, she left Ethiopia during the political repression following the death of Haile Selassie and settled in Washington D.C.

Eywat Setenafegagn: Getatchhew Mekurya

Getatchew Mekurya is an Ethiopian jazz musician born in 1935. He began playing traditional Ethiopian instruments such as the krar and masenqo, and later began playing the saxophone and clarinet. He began playing with the Muncipality Band in 1949, and in 1955 joined the house band at the Haile Selassie Theatre, and in 1965 joined the Police Orchestra. He was one of the first musicians to record an instrumental version of shellela, a genre of traditional Ethiopian vocal music sung by warriors before going into battle. He took the shellela tradition seriously, often appearing onstage in a warrior’s animal-skin tunic and lion’s mane headdress. In 2004, he was asked by the Dutch avant-garde/punk band The Ex to perform at their 25th anniversary show in Amsterdam, and in return the septuagenarian sax player asked them to be his backing band for his 2006 album “Moa Anbessa.” They have since gone on to tour Europe and North America in 2006-2009. He still lives in Addis Ababa, and regularly performs at the Sunset Bar at the Sheraton Addis.

Ere mela Mela, Meche Neu: Mahmoud Ahmed

Mahmoud Ahmed is an Ethiopian singer of Gurage ancestry born on May 8, 1941. He dropped out of school and shined shoes and worked as a handyman at the Arizona Club, which was the after hours hangout of Emperor Haile Sellassie’s Imperial Body Guard Band. One night in 1962 the singer band’s singer didn’t show up and Mahmoud asked to sing a few songs. He became their singer until 1974. He became one of the first modern Ethiopian musicians to perform in the United States when he toured in 1980-81 tour with the Wallias Band. In 2007 he won the BBC World Music Award.

Masenqo: Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics

Mulatu Astatke is an Ethiopian musician born in Jimma in 1943. His family sent him to Wales to study engineering in the late 1950s. Instead he got a degree in music from Lindisfarne College and Trinity College in London. In the 1960s, he moved to the United States, where he became the first African student to enroll in the Berklee College of Music.  He introduced the use of vibraphone and conga drums to traditional Ethiopian music, and also played keyboard, organ, and other percussion. In the early 1970s, he is credited with creating Ethio-jazz, and appeared wit Duke Ellington and his band during a tour of Ethiopia in 1973. But by the 1980s, Astatke’s music was largely forgotten outside of Ethiopia, but in 2005 Jim Jarmusch used seven of Astatke’s songs in his film “Broken Flowers,” including one performed by the Cambodian-American punk band Dengue Fever. His music is now used extensively as part of NPR’s “This American Life,” and his music has been sampled by Nas, Damian Marley, Kanye West, and Knaan.

In the Fall of 2008, he collaborated with the London-based psychedelic-jazz collective the Heliocentrics, which included re-workings of his earlier Ethio-jazz classics with new material by the Heliocentrics and himself. In 2008, he also completed a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard University, where he premiered “The Yared Opera.” He also served as an Artist-in-Residence at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Minew Jal: Netsanet Meliesse

Netsanet Meliesse is an Ethiopian singer. I can find no more information about her.

Hasabe: Aylew Mesfin

Aylew Mesfin is an Ethiopian musician. I can find no more information about him.

Narizambe: Nawal

Nawal is known as “the Voice of Comoros,” an island off eastern Africa.

Sweet Mother: Slim Ali & the Hodi Boys

Slim Alli was born in Mombasa, Kenya, in December 1947. He began playing music while in high school. He played in the Kitale Hotel Band and the Tusker Band before joining the Hodi Boys, who performed mostly Otis Redding and Percy Sledge covers.

Kothbiro: Ayub Ogabi

Ayub Ogada was born in Mombaso, Kenya, and is of the Luo people. When he was six years old, his parents—who were musicians—toured the college circuit in the U.S. He returned to Kenya and was educated in a Catholic school and then an English boarding school. After finishing school, he co-founded the African Heritage Band in 1979 and played kit drums, bass and percussion, as well as the nyatiti, a traditional lyre-like East-African instrument, and the djembe.

In 1986, he went to the U.K. and played on the streets for money. In 1993, he recorded his first album, “En Mana Kuoyo” for Gabriel’s Real World Label and toured extensively with WOMAD. His music has been heard on the soundtracks for “I Dreamed of Africa,” “The Blue Room,” “The Constant Gardener,” Ewan McGregor’s BBC series “Long Way Round” and “Lond Way Down.” He has collaborated with Tony Levin on “World Diary,” and two albums by Afro Celt Sound System. He also appeared as Robert Redford’s Masaii guide in “Out of Africa” and starred in “The Kitchen Toto.” He moved back to Kenya in June 2007.

Written by Randy Roark

Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.


One thought on “A Poet’s Progress: Okavengo Delta, Zambia

  1. Don’t mess with honey guides! love, Melissa

    Posted by Layne Redmond | June 3, 2012, 2:22 pm

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