30 January 2011

Sunday Series: Superstitions, Part Two

Part Two: Ancestry

The concept of ancestry didn’t enter my frame of reference until December, eight months into my service.  I was helping out at the Ministry of Education’s Youth Forum in a village called Tsetsebjwe (Tsee-tsee-jway) and strange stories were floating around from the minute I arrived.

Apparently, December is the time when the ancestors call to their living relatives.  I’m still unclear on what they want or need from the person.  At the Youth Forum, a young girl had tried to get out of her bed in the middle of the night and leave the school.  The dorm supervisor wouldn’t let her leave, which was extremely distressing to the girl.

“My ancestors are calling,” she said.  “I need to go to them.”

Another boy at the Forum hadn’t had a bowel movement in a week.  He was waiting to get the “okay” from his ancestors.

The many questions that entered my mind then are still present as I write this, trying to explain the concept.  Why would any family let their child leave in the middle of the night?  Why, once the child is gone for days or weeks at a time, do they not worry and call the police?  Where do the called people go?  How do they survive?  What if the ancestors are instructing them to do clearly unhealthy things?

I have yet to get an answer to any of these questions.  As it is, if you are called by an ancestor (and it is not only children, but people of all ages) you must follow where they ask you to go and obey any task they require you to complete.  If that means you leave your village and go out into the bush for a week or so, then that is what you must do.

A colleague of mine told me that they asked one child, after he returned, what he ate while he was gone.  He replied that he ate phaleche (puh-lay-chay), a traditional Setswana dish that looks like mashed potatoes but is stiff and made from maize.  When they asked him where the bowl came from, where the food was cooked, or how it got to him, he had no answer.  His ancestor would just lead him to a tree and it would be there.

In the Bobirwa district of Botswana (in the eastern region, also referred to as the “nose” of the country) the ancestors are very active.  In certain villages, a stranger must get approved by the ancestors before he or she can enter.  The job of getting the permission is left to elders who specialize in speaking to ancestors at any time of the year, not just in December.  Interestingly, I asked my colleague if I could visit that village, but it’s unclear whether ancestors can appear or belong to white people.  I guess my ancestors are hanging around Germany somewhere.

The same colleague told me about his trip to that village.  At one point he was led into the bush and left alone to see his ancestors.  Ancestors appear as animals – and scary ones at that.  He saw lions, leopards and snakes approach him, but they never attacked.  Then, he told me, they would just disappear.  He said he was absolutely terrified, and was 100% positive that they were not actually animals, but his ancestors showing themselves to him. 

This is only the most basic of explanations of ancestry, and I sincerely hope to learn more about this tradition.  My rational, cynical, American mind wants to write this off as folklore and mind tricks.  …But there’s also a part of me that wants to head east and see my ancestors for myself.  

23 January 2011

Sunday Series: Superstitions, Part One

Part One: Thokolosi

By day, an innocent log lying by the side of the road.  By night, a thokolosi.

A thokolosi, pronounced toh-koh-loh-see, is a type of spirit that witch doctors in Botswana can create.  A person will generally want to create a thokolosi in order to obtain riches, although dithokolosi (plural form) can also be set upon someone that is disliked.

I’m unaware of the actual process of creating a thokolosi, and I assume that most practices of witch doctors aren’t known to the public anyway.  Once it is created however, it becomes a “spouse” to the person who asked for it – women receive a male thokolosi, and men receive a female.

As I said, during the day a thokolosi is a piece of wood.  But at night, it turns into a kind of human – the closest thing to a description I’ve received is “a hairy, sort-of human.”  It could be tall or short and usually is not seen by anyone other than its spouse unless it has direct interaction with another human during the twilight hour.  An interesting note is that they abhor salt.  At night, the thokolosi will go around the village and acquire wealth for its spouse.  It will also tend to the crops, the animals, and keep the house tidy and clean – whatever the spouse demands.  It does such an excellent job that neighbors will start to notice how well everything is improving and will often comment upon the sudden change.  The person who owns the thokolosi will become much more affluent.

There is, as with all spirit-related things, a dark downside.  As a spouse, a thokolosi has all spousal privileges, and at night the thokolosi wants to be … satisfied, if you catch my drift.  I suppose some people feel grateful to the thokolosi and agree to fulfill its more carnal desires, but there are those who are creeped out by making love to a hairy sort-of human, especially if said person is married to an actual human.  When asking for a thokolosi, the person can request that the being will sleep with someone else at night.  This “someone else” has no choice in the matter, and is not notified that there will soon be a hairy thing forcing itself upon him or her.  It’s obviously a twisted, creepy spirit.

In a fictional (but based on reality and her own personal experiences as a lawyer) book by Unity Dow (The Heavens May Fall), a woman’s husband wants to divorce her because the woman has consistently been raped by a thokolosi at night.  The woman believes that her mother-in-law sent it in order to break up the marriage, while the husband fervently denies this.  However, he can no longer sleep with or be married to his wife due to what happened.

Once a person is finished with a thokolosi, he or she doesn’t exactly want the creature hanging around, so it releases the thokolosi from its service.  However, it cannot just disappear, nor can witch doctors or religious leaders destroy it, so the thokolosi roams the village, doing whatever (and whomever) it wishes.  When a village realizes a thokolosi is on the loose, it immediately looks to those families that have recently acquired wealth or good fortune.

My best friend and fellow volunteer Paco is located in a small, remote village 30km away from me, named Medie (Meh-dee-eh).  One night he repeatedly heard footsteps outside his window.  He assumed it was dogs, chickens, or some other animal.  In the morning he went outside and amid his smoothly swept dirt was only one set of footprints – human.  He mentioned to his teachers that someone had been in his yard, and they assuredly informed him that it was no trespasser, but a wayward wraith roaming the village.

Do I believe?  I’m not sure, but I’m in no hurry to find out for myself, face-to-face with my own thokolosi

Three articles (Note: not well-written) about thokolosi occurrences in Botswana:

An animated short about a thokolosi (Note: my internet is not fast enough to watch it, so I’m not sure about the accuracy or even the entertainment value, so if you watch it, let me know how it is).

Let me know any questions you have, and I’ll find out an answer for you.

20 January 2011

Sunday Series

I’d like to introduce a new feature to my blog: Sunday Series.  Every Sunday, I’ll have a topic-specific post about the culture of Botswana.  The longer I live here, the more I uncover about the traditions and beliefs of the Batswana, and the more I appreciate and love my new home.  Through these posts, I hope to translate what I’m experiencing as best I can to you.

My first four-part Sunday Series will be about the superstitions of Botswana.  I became interested in this cultural aspect when a fellow volunteer introduced the thokolosi to me, and I’ve been trying to engage my colleagues and students in dialogues about mystical traditions ever since.

Part One: Thokolosi
Part Two: Ancestry
Part Three: Witchcraft
Part Four: Lizards and Other Animal Signs

What exactly is a thokolosi and how the heck do you pronounce that?  Check back this Sunday to find out!

15 January 2011

Jungle Junction

After the thrills of Livingstone, everyone in my group was looking forward to relaxing for the rest of the trip at Jungle Junction.


Jungle Junction is an eco-friendly fishing resort on privately-owned Bovu Island, on the Zambezi River.  Featuring a self-service bar, library, and no electricity, it’s the perfect place to get away from your worries, reflect on life, and recharge your batteries (not literally).  I took off my flip flops immediately upon arriving, and went barefoot for the four days we were there.  When we were packing up to go, I was happy to find my shoes in the exact same spot I had left them.

The bar, overlooking the Zambezi

The library, built around a tree

You can camp or stay in fisherman’s huts or chalets.  We stayed in a fisherman’s hut, so every morning I woke up, stretched, and watched the sun rise over the Zambezi while still snuggled up in covers.

The fisherman's hut I stayed in

The view from my hut

The only way to access the island is by makoro, or dug-out canoe.  While on the island, you can go out on the makoros to fish or to a safe swimming spot (sans crocodiles).

The tigerfish that Mike caught.  It was really yummy!

The first evening we were taken out to watch the sunset.  The sunsets on the island were… well, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

The lack of electricity didn’t pose any problems and really added to the ambience.  There were steaming hot outdoor showers (the water is heated by coal, I think) and all the food was cooked over charcoal fires.  At night, the bar area was lit by candles.

So romantic

Our first night, I was walking along the sandy path from our hut and I stopped to look up at the night sky.  The stars literally took my breath away.  I only wish my camera could have captured it.

We spent New Year’s Eve on the island and it was great fun.  Luckily some of us had watches so we knew when it was midnight.  On New Year’s Day, the owner organized a pig roast.  I tried to acquire a hula skirt to make it a luau, but that didn’t work out.

The last sunset of 2010

My group on NYE, with the flag of Botswana!

I absolutely recommend Jungle Junction to anyone from any walk of life.  The owner was beyond accommodating and there is a resident botanist who is willing to walk with you around the island and teach you about the wildlife.

This mediocre description doesn't do the island justice.  I suppose you all will have to experience it for yourself.

Be this sunset one for keeping
this june bug street sings low and lovely...
and what's worth keeping
sun still sinking
down and down, gone again
-Iron and Wine

12 January 2011

Rafting on the Zambezi

Our rafting group - I'm in the pink shorts, obvs.

I had always wanted to go white water rafting.  Not that I had ever sat and really thought about what that would entail… it just seemed like a badass thing to do.  Being a particularly non-badass kind of person, at times bordering on “scaredy cat” or “stick in the mud,” I figured rafting could help in social situations.  You know, “Oh, well, when I went white water rafting…” (while pretentiously holding an obscure craft beer, probably an IPA).

So, the obvious choice for my first rafting experience was to be on the Zambezi River, one of the top 5 rivers to raft on in the entire world.

Sign number one that this was maybe a little too intense for a first-timer.

The bridge over the Zambezi, connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe.
People can also bungee jump off this bridge.
 For over a month I anticipated the rafting trip, trying to lull myself into a sense of false security with the fact that two of my guy friends were going too and they would never let anything bad happen to me.

A fellow volunteer (and avid rafter herself) told me about her one friend that went rafting, fell out of the raft, and got stuck underneath a rapid.  Even though everyone could see her, she was stuck a few inches under the water and no one could get her out.  Her life jacket eventually did its job and she was fine… but still.

Sign number two.

Then, in talking to one of my best friends from home, I mentioned that some of the rapids were class 5 – the most difficult rapids that non-professionals are allowed to go on.  His response?  “And it’ll be your first time?  Oh Tess … (silence) … please be careful.”

Sign number three.

I went through with the plans anyway, and early that morning found myself sitting through a nauseating safety session.  Of course it was information I wanted to know, and the six emergency rescue kayakers that would be with us comforted me, but hearing all of the things that could go wrong did nothing to calm my nerves.  After strapping up in life jackets and helmets and being equipped with oars, we began the 100 meter descent down a rocky staircase into the gorge of Victoria Falls.

My legs were trembling so much I thought I might trip and fall down the stairs.  I didn’t work out yesterday, so why are my legs so tired? I thought.  Is it some weird hangover side effect?  I feel fine otherwise…

That’s when I realized that I didn’t feel fine otherwise.  I was terrified out of my mind.  As the others in my group boarded the raft I stood quivering, looking out over the river.  The first rapid was directly in front of us: the “Boiling Pot.”  A grade 4 (out of 5) rapid, it was angry and hungry and I was a pig-in-a-blanket.

“Look at all these older people,” one of my friends said.  “If they can do it, so can you.”  I didn’t quite believe him.  I mean, I’m 22 years old and I still need a princess band-aid for my boo-boos.

I was glad to get situated in the raft before my legs gave out.  We pushed off into the water.  Our guide, Tembo, had us practice paddling together a few times and then we were off.  He was screaming at us to paddle and, dear Lord, I was trying, but we were swept up in the ire of the Boiling Pot and it carried our raft mercilessly toward a rock wall.  Our raft tilted until it was on one side, and I held onto the side rope with both hands, praying we wouldn’t flip.  Somehow we made it through, but my friend had fallen out of the raft.  Luckily we quickly got him back in (I am not involved in that “we”).  My contacts had been pushed back into my eye sockets somewhere, leaving me extremely disoriented.

I'm the one in the top middle, holding on with both hands
while fellow crew members are cast into the river.
Everyone was smiling and laughing, exhilarated – even my friend who had fallen in.  One of the women said to me, “We all look happy… but you still look scared.”

I couldn’t respond.  I was about to cry.  This was not fun.  This was scary.  This could possibly kill, or at least seriously maim me.  My friends kept looking at me, asking if I was alright.  I nodded, but in my head I was wondering how soon one of those kayakers could just paddle me to safety.  I picked out a few big rocks that I thought I could hide behind unnoticed to lick my wounds while the others finished.

The next two rapids were a class 3 and 4 respectively, and we went smoothly over them.  After successfully making it through those two, I realized my chest kind of hurt – I hadn’t been breathing.  A few deep breaths calmed my nerves and I acknowledged that not every rapid wanted to chew me up, steal my contacts, and spit me back out, half the woman I was before – despite their, ahem, comforting names such as “Gnashing Jaws of Death,” “Oblivion,” and “The Terminator.”

It was amazing being on the Zambezi.  100 meters of sheer rock rose up on either side, contrasting sharply with the clear, azure blue sky.  It was truly awe-inspiring, breathtaking, natural beauty.

Eventually we came to rapid 8, dubbed the “Midnight Diner.”  There was an option to go on the easy route, class 3, or the difficult route, class 5.  Everyone started to get really excited, and then someone looked at me and asked, “Well, it’s up to you – which do you want to do?”

The boys’ faces in the raft were like puppy dogs staring at a ball, breathlessly waiting to see which way you’ll throw it.

“I’m in,” I said.  “Let’s go big.” 

That’s when our guide started telling us what to do when we flip.  Someone asked, “When we flip, not if we flip?!” 

No time to debate – we were headed into the rapid.  We paddled our little hearts out, but hit a wall of water and the nose of our raft flipped up and over.  

I was, again, holding onto the rope on the side of the raft for dear life (literally) and had a mini-panic attack as I rose to the water (death by asphyxiation is one of my greatest fears).  My arms were all twisted with another woman’s, but I was too scared to let go of the rope until we were in calmer water.  People from all sides were yelling directions at me, and Tembo was on top of the upside-down raft yelling, “What are you doing?! You didn’t pay attention at the safety session!”

Thank you, Tembo, for the positive reinforcement when I’m freaking the fuck out and have no clue what’s going on.  Also, my shorts are falling off and the last thing I need is to bare my pale ass to a bunch of strangers.

Anyway.  The raft was righted and we were all trying to help one another climb back in.  “Hurry, hurry!  Faster!” Tembo screamed.  “Rapid 9 is coming up, hurry!”

The ninth rapid is a class 6, and therefore too dangerous for any company to guide people through.  We had to get out of the raft and walk around.  Hearing Tembo mention rapid nine kicked my butt into gear and I hustled to get back on the raft.

The guides, who are professional rafters, took the rafts over rapid nine.  It was insane.  No normal human being should ever want to put themselves in that kind of danger.  I could barely walk over the rocks on the side without falling over.  (I wish I was joking.)

Surprisingly, thankfully, the rest of the day was extremely pleasant.  We took a break and had sandwiches for lunch, then headed back out.  The sky quickly grew dark and a thunderstorm broke out.  Being so small in the water on a tiny raft, surrounded by enormous cliffs and a dark ominous sky, and being pelted with cold rain made me feel like I was in an adventure movie.  Maybe Lord of the Rings.  Well, in my case, more like The Hobbit.

Lightning struck all around us and the thunder reverberated throughout the gorge.  It was the loudest, longest thunder I have ever heard in my life.  It was so cool.  (In the Book of Tess: Drowning?  No good.  Getting struck by lightning?  Cool!)

The rest of the rapids were easy to handle and good, old-fashioned, wholesome fun.  I was very thankful to be able to relax for the second half of the day and enjoy my surroundings, even daring to climb out of the raft and swim for awhile.

I can’t say enough positive things about the rafting guides.  Until I looked at the pictures, I didn’t realize how much they do, but they honestly work their behinds off to keep us safe and on the right track.  Tembo did a fantastic job, and kept us all laughing (I joined in once I was sure I wasn’t going to cry).

Not counting our guide, I'm second from the left.

Now that I survived rafting on the Zambezi, I’m ready for anything.  Apparently there’s great rafting at the Grand Canyon – who’s in?

You can read a description of the rapids here.

11 January 2011

Care Packages

In case you were wondering, the answer is yes.  It is possible to get sick from eating too many Oreos twice in the same day.  And the answer to your second question is yes.  It is totally worth it.

Thanks to the Artz, Flood, and O'Neill families for the care packages!

06 January 2011

Devil's Pool

Many people have tried, and consequently died, trying to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.  I’m not sure about the barrel history of Victoria Falls, but I’m fairly positive you wouldn’t survive a trip over the edge.

Our first glimpse of the Falls

Victoria Falls, or Mosi oa-Tunya (“The Smoke That Thunders”) is located in southern Zambia and is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.  It’s smack dab in the middle of the Zambezi river, and is a 100 meter drop.  They are 1.7 km long, with 1 km being located in Zambia and the rest in Zimbabwe.  This makes it one and a half times wider than and twice as tall as Niagara.  In 1855, an English explorer named David Livingstone set eyes on the falls, renamed it in honor of his queen, and quoted, “Scenes so wonderful must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

A breathtaking sight?  Yes.  But of course I couldn’t stop there.  Eight of my fellow volunteers and I decided to walk across the top of the falls and go for a swim.  No, Peace Corps has not instilled a death wish in all of us ( ... yet ... ).  It’s a guided activity for tourists, and there’s a pool at the top of the falls called Devil’s Pool.

It began with all nine of us (plus two guides) linking hands and walking across the slippery rocks.  The water was usually only ankle-high, but you could still feel how strong the current was.  At times we had to wade through water high enough to get our shorts and skirts wet.  We would occasionally stop for pictures, and no matter where we were, the view was beautiful.

On the edge!


I didn't zoom. This is literally how close we were to the edge.

Standing at the precipice of the falls was amazing.  But the really cool part was yet to come.  We stripped down to our swimsuits and jumped into the Zambezi at the top of the falls.  We then swam toward a cluster of rocks, from which we would jump into Devil’s Pool.

I was terrified of going over the edge.  The guides assured us that there was a rock ledge which would prevent that, but we all still had doubts. 

Look closely at the terror on our faces

A deep breath, bend your knees, 1 – 2 – 3 aaaandd…. Jump!

Miss Sue would be so proud of my straight arms and jazz hands

We survived.  The current was strong and little fishies kept getting swept up against the rock ledge and biting our toes.  A guide stood behind us and I asked him, “Aren’t you scared?”

“This is my office,” he replied, and picked me up from under my arms so I was sitting on top of the ledge instead of inside it.  

Our group in nature's version of the "infinity pool."

The mist in the background is from the Falls' largest waterfall,
which was right nearby

So yes, I swam at the edge of Victoria Falls.  It’s so cool I still don’t really believe it happened.

Note: Thinking what a cool "office" the Devil's Pool is, I joked with our guide and asked how I could become a guide at Vic Falls.  Not even two minutes later, I slipped and wiped out on my butt, leaving me with a nasty bruise.  Guess I'll stick to the traditional 9 to 5...