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A Poet's Progress, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: Into the Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta from the Air

Our Landing Strip in Botswana

December 1, 2010: Lufupa Camp, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

John Dee Explains the Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta is the largest interior wetland in the world—a natural basin into which three rivers empty. At some point in prehistory the tectonic plates shifted and there was an uprooting of the land so that the three rivers no longer flowed into the Indian Ocean. There is evidence of a second seismic shift and since then the three rivers no longer flow into a central lake but spill along the faultlines into the delta, and every spring Angola’s and Namibia’s rains flood the plains of Botswana.

A Termite Mound

In spring, the only things visible in this part of the delta are the peaks of termite mounds. Fish eagles sit on the mounds and feast on termites and river perches caught in the mud, along with their usual diet of seeds and fruits. When these eagles defecate, they drop seeds onto the rich soil of the termite mounds, which in summer sprout. The roots of these bushes and trees that grow from these seeds anchor the mounds so they grow even taller. Eventually the will roots choke out the termite colony, and the colony will move elsewhere and begin again.

An Abandoned Termite Mound Topped by a Bush (Fish Eagle in the Background

But these days the main rivers in delta are clogged with carriba weeds that were originally brought to Africa along with the bananas on Portuguese ships from Brazil in the 1700s. The carriba weed has no natural predator in Africa and it has now overgrown even the rivers and is infiltrating the wetlands, where the birds and other small animals feed. These weeds are sucking all of the oxygen out of the rivers, and their vines are choking everything that lives underwater—both the fish and indigenous plants—until the smallest flora and the groundlings of the wetlands have nothing to eat at all. When I ask John Dee what they can do about the carriba, he answers without any sense of irony that they are thinking of bringing some insects from Australia to eat the weed.

Ready to Depart Botswana for Zimbabwe

The largest river that feeds the delta in Botswana is the Okavango River. Upriver, Namibia wants to dam the river for power and irrigation.  Another river arrives from Angola and Angola also has plans to dam their river to supply electricity to their rural areas. These plans are good news for Namibians and Angolans, but they would be a double blow to Botswana and the delta.

Global warming is proving advantageous to the delta. Each spring the rains are harder and last longer, and they usually bring the three swollen rivers into the delta at the same time. The overflow brings water into channels that had all but dried up by 1972. In 2008, most of the channels that can be seen in the geologic record were active for the first time in human memory. But there are occasionally still dry years, like 1982, when the area nearly dried out.\

Our Pilots and the Big Plane

On the Lufupa

Glimpses of the riverbottom
—topaz and lapis—
ghostly halos of light.

The campfire dance we’re taught tonight by the locals is called “Everything you do involves God inside.”

Our Bags at the Okavango Delta Terminal

December 2, 2010: Lufupa Camp, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

John Dee, a Native Zambian, Tells Us the Story of His Country

There are 12 million people in Zambia.The national anthem is “One Zambia, One Nation.” On a continent where so much depends upon your tribe, to sing at the start of every official meeting that everyone is one and the same is a revolutionary statement for an African nation.

The country is shaped like a butterfly, and its people are a bit like butterflies too. If there was a national saying it would be “Ungway”—“It’s all good.”

Zambia needs friends because it’s landlocked by eight countries, and contains 73 different tribes.

Zoot!Our 4-Seater

Zambia gained its independence from the Federation of Southern Rhodesia—the colonial ruling body that was installed by the Brits in order to protect their copper mining interests—on the 24th of October 1964. Like much of Africa, Zambia is a country carved out by political fiat, not by logic.

John Dee is fluent in thirteen languages, which is not unusual for a Zambian. When emancipated from British rule, the 73 tribes of Zambia could understand each other but could not speak each other’s languages. So the first thing the new native government did was to create a national language out of bits and pieces of all 73 languages, which is known as Nanja. But English remains the official language of Zambia because they believe it to be the language of the future, and it is taught alongside Nanja in the schools.

Our Small Planes at the Airport, Okavango Delta

Kafue National Park contains 52,000 square miles of unfenced wilderness, the second largest national park in Africa, equivalent to the size of Wales. The country’s largest industry is copper mining, followed by tourism and agriculture. But agriculture is growing. When the white farmers fled Zimbabwe, they often settled in Zambia.

Education for grades one-through-seven is free (with some payment for books and supplies—less than $20.00 a year, still a significant amount for rural Zambians). Continuing to grades eight and nine—middle school—the family would have to pay 30-70 USD, which is a lot of money, maybe a year’s wages for a Zambian. You have to pay full tuition for high school, so it is out of reach of all but the richest Zambians.

For grades one through seven, if parents don’t send their kids to school, they are liable and can be jailed. But the police will only pursue a case when a child reports to them that they are being prevented from going to school. If parents choose not to send their children to school or the children choose not to go and no one complains, nobody will care.

Taking Off in a 4-Seater with My Window Open

While we’re waiting for our prop planes to land on a strip plowed into the jungle, I ask James what I’ve asked everyone I’ve met on this trip: Who are your favorite musicians? “Do you mean traditional Zimbabwean music or modern?,” he asks. I shrug. “Whatever’s good. Whatever you listen to.”

The first musician mentioned by everyone on this trip—including James—is Salif Keita, the royal albino Malian who broke caste to pursue a career as a singer. Keita has also had considerable international success, mostly in France and England. The next two names are consistently Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. These two South African musicians both experienced chart success in the U.S. in the mid-60s. Masekela performed at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 and Miriam had a hit in the fifties called “Rata Rata” about a popular South African dance of the time where you shake your body all around. At the time it was probably received as being in good humor, but the song and its message have not aged well. (Makeba also was a frequent participant at the time in Timothy Leary’s LSD experiments at Millbrook.) Even though their time as U.S. hitmakers was shortlived and ended almost 50 years ago, they both remain famous in their home country.

The next musical group everyone mentions is Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African acapella band that has recorded with Paul Simon, been on Sesame Street, played for the Queen of England, and was invited by Nelson Mandela to perform at the ceremony where he received his Noble Peace prize.

Is that who you listen to, I ask. “Me?” James says, smiling. “I listen to American R&B and soul, some hip hop and rap, and Jamaican reggae.” “Oh,” I blush, embarrassed. “You listen to good music. Of course. Me too.”

An African Stork

Today on a game drive Rhona asked Timba if he really had more than one wife. “Yes,” he said. “I have three. A man with one wife is like a stork standing on one leg. He has no balance.”

The Edge of the South African Desert from the Air

On the Road in Zimbabwe

The Transportation Police jackets in Zimbabwe are yellow with white stripes. Those who have earned a yellow and white striped jacket are heroes to most Zimbabweans because they are some of the few people who have figured out how to earn a regular income in Zimbabwe. Their yellow and white jackets are much coveted and are referred to as ATMs—because once you put one on, people starting handing you money.

Every time we go out, we run into at least one of their roadblocks. Being an official vehicle, we are waved through, but if you are a foreigner or if it looks like you have money, the yellow-and-white striped jackets will pull you over and check your car for violations. Inevitably, they will find several, and they will threaten to impound your car. We see as many as three cars on either side of the road at one time, with a crowd of unfortunate people lined up, especially on heavily traveled areas like those leading to and from the airport.

Those who have been pulled over are asked to hand over their wallets and empty their pockets, and then the search begins. Infractions are inevitably discovered. The search continues to uncover violations until the driver understands that the only thing that will bring an end to the examination is to drop some cash on the ground. If this is the first time they’ve been pulled over and don’t get it right away, someone in the vicinity will demonstrate it for them. The inspector will pick up a $20.00 bill and ask, “Is this yours?” When you assure them that it is not, he will pocket it and tell you that he will deliver it to the lost and found. And then the inspection is suddenly over. You are warned to correct your violations as soon as possible and waved off and another car is pulled over to take your place.

I ask James what happens if you don’t have any money or refuse to bribe the official or never figure out what you’re supposed to do. It rarely gets to that point, he says. After the first stop you realize that it’s easier to just pay the money and go. And the officers don’t make any money impounding your car or writing you a ticket. Any time spent impounding your car will just mean more paperwork and less money.

The View Under the Wing

Collection #17: Music from Southern Africa: Part 3

1. Nikhomeleni: Yvonne Chaka Chaka

Yvonne Chaka Chakra (born Yvonne Machaka) is a South African mbaqanga singer born during apartheid in Dobsonville, Soweto in 1965. She is known as “the Princess of Africa.” Her song “Umqombothi” (“African Beer”) was used for the opening scene of “Hotel Rwanda.” She was the first black child to appear on South African television, as part of a talent show known as “Sugar Shack. Her father died when she was 11 she was raised with her two sisters by a single working mother, who cleaned houses for 40 Rand a month. Yvonne has a diploma in adult education; and another in local government, management, and administration from the University of South Africa. She also studied speech and drama at Trinity College in London in 1997. She and her husband own a limousine company and she has her own record label and production company. She teaches literacy part-time at the University of South Africa and sits on the board of several charitable organizations and NGOs, as well as the board of the Johannesburg Tourism Company. She was invited to sing at Nelson Mandela’s 85th birthday party, and has met the Queen and Oprah Winfrey.

2. Refitile: Mamelang

Mamelang is a Zulu musician and singer.

3. Umhome: Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba (March 4, 1932-November 10, 2008) was known as Mama Africa, and was a Grammy Award-winning Xhosa singer and civil rights activist born in Johannesburg. She was the first musician to popularize African music in the U.S. and around the world. When she was eighteen days old, her mother was arrested for selling umqombothi (African beer) and Miriam spent her first six months in jail. Her father died when she was six years old. At the age of eighteen, she gave birth to her only child, and was diagnosed with breast cancer, causing her husband to leave her. In 1956, she released the single “Pata Pata” (which became a world-wide hit when it was re-released in 1967). In the same year she sang the lead female role in a South African musical “King Kong,” whose cast included Hugh Masekela. She made her U.S. television debut on the Steve Allen Show in 1959. When she tried to return to South Africa in 1960 for her mother’s funeral, she discovered that her South African passport had been cancelled. She signed with RCA Victor and released “Miriam Makeba,” her first U.S. album, in 1960. She and Harry Belafonte sang at John F. Kennedy’s birthday party in 1962. In 1963, after testifying against apartheid before the United Nations, her South African citizenship and her right to return to the country were revoked, making her a woman without a country. But three different countries issued her international passports and she was granted honorary citizenship in ten others. In 1964, Makeba and Hugh Masekela were married, divorcing two years later. In 1966, she received the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording along with Harry Belafonte for “An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba,” which was one of the first American albums to present traditional Zulu, Sotho, and Swahili songs. Time magazine called her “the most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years.” In 1968, she married Trinidad-born civil rights activist, Black Panther, and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael and her record deals and tours were cancelled. She moved to Guinea and was appointed their official delegate to the United Nations, for which she won the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize in 1986. She separated from Carmichael in 1973, and continued performing but primarily in Africa, as she was still blacklisted in the U.S. In 1974, she was one of the performers at the Rumble in the Jungle concert in Zaire. In 1986, Hugh Masekela introduced her to Paul Simon, who took her with him on his “Graceland Tour.” This led to her first U.S. recording contract since her blacklisting. She released “Sangoma” (“Healer”) in honor of her mother, who was an isangoma, or traditional African healer. She performed at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute in Wembley Stadium in 1988. In 1990, following the end of apartheid, she returned to South Africa. She released “Eyes on Tomorrow”—an album featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, and Maskela, in 1991. That year she toured with Gillespie, and appeared on the Cosby Show and starred in the film Sarafina! In 1999 she was appointed Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and in 2000 her album “Homeland” was nominated for Best World Music Album at the Grammys. She received the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold in 2001. She died of a heart attack onstage on November 9, 2008, in Caserta, Italy.

4. Slave (South Africa): Lucky Dube

Lucky Philip Dube (August 3, 1964-October 18, 2007) was a South African reggae musician born in Ermelo, whose father abandoned his mother before he was born. His mother had to relocate to find work and he moved in with his grandmother, who raised him as a Mormon. His mother named him Lucky because he was her first live birth after a number of failed pregnancies. He discovered the Rastafari movement at school, and joined his cousin’s band the Love Brothers, playing Zulu pop music known as mbaqanga. While still at school, he recorded his first album during school breaks “Lucky Dube and the Supersoul.” By his fifth album he released everything as Lucky Dube. He recorded 22 albums in Zulu, English, and Afrikaans and was South Africa’s biggest selling reggae artist. His first reggae album was released in 1984 as “Rastas Never Die.” The apartheid regime banned the album, which only sold 4000 copies (compared to the 30,000 copies his mbaqanga albums usually sold). In response, his music became even more political and his second reggae album—“Think About the Children” (1985)—went platinum. In 1995, he signed with Motown Records. In 1996, his compilation album “Serious Reggae Business” won International Artist of the Year at the Ghana Music Awards. At the time of his death he was signed to Warner Music and had toured with Sinead O’Connor, Peter Gabriel, and Sting. He also appeared in the feature films “Voice in the Dark,” “Getting Lucky,” and “Lucky Strikes Back.” In 2007, he was murdered during a carjacking in Johannesburg. In 2008, Rykodisk released a compilation album “Retrospective.”

5. Mgaqanga: Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens

This supergroup formed in 1964 included the late singer Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde (1937-1999, known as the Lion of Soweto), the session band Mahotella Queens (composed of five female singers and dancers), and the instrumental band Makgona Tsohle Band (led by the late Marks Mankwane and West Nkosi). The Mahotella Queens were featured on three tracks on the Art of Noise album Below the Waste. Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens disbanded in 1999, following the unrelated deaths of three of their members.

6. A Piece of Ground: Miriam Makeba

See her bio above.

7. Beautiful Feet: Nibs Van Der Spuy

Nibs Van Der Spuy is an acoustic guitarist. “Beautiful Feet” was his first international release (2007). He has appeared with Ben Harper, Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Phillips, and Bela Fleck.

8. Akanamandli’ Usathana: Nothembi

No information available.

9. Mwalimu: Yvonne Chaka Chaka & Tsepo Tshola

See above for Yvonne Chaka Chaka. No information available on Tsepo Tshola.

10. Mfumu: The Very Best

Esau Mwamwaya is a singer from Lilongwe, Malawi. While a teenager, he began playing drums in various bands, including Masaka Band and Evison Matafale. In 1999, he moved to London where he ran a second-hand furniture shop in Clapton, East London. There he sold a bicycle to the producer of the DJ band Radioclit, whose studio was on the same street as Esau’s shop. In 2008, the three formed The Very Best, and their first release included collaborations with M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, Architecture in Helsinki, Santigold, and the Ruby Suns. The Very Best won the 9th Annual Independent Music Awards: World Beat song for “The Warm Heart of Africa,” featuring Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig.

Article 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.


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