Monday, August 8, 2016

The powerful myth of women’s power

One of my favorite readings from graduate school has been Donna Haraway’s 1991 essay Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Modern advancements in technology, she argues, further the justification for a blurring of boundary between woman and man, nature and technology, science fiction and social reality. We live in a postmodern world where identity, in its singular form, no longer productively serves society. The traditional feminist position, in particular as it relates to nature, envisions women as life givers and therefore denies multiplicities of identity. We require a deconstruction of feminism, in particular of the myth of binaries, in order to move towards a cyborg theory where boundaries no longer exist. Haraway, like myself, “would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (p. 181).

In my time in the most rural parts of Cameroon and Botswana, I’ve seen how gender myth is recreated through wildlife interactions. Western lowland gorillas of central Africa thrive in areas where biodiversity has been bolstered by the traditional itinerant agricultural practices of the Bantu, Baka, and Bagyeli tribes. Gorilla thrive on secondary forest and make nests in returning forest where they can still bend growing branches and eat new growth. People native to the area believe that women are able to protect themselves from the threat of an attacking gorilla by disrobing in order to show their breasts. Here in the Eastern Panhandle of the Okavango where elephant density is increasing at unprecedented rates, people believe that women who are menstruating, nursing, or pregnant are more likely to be attacked when confronted by elephants.

Underlying both of these myths is the power inherent to women’s bodies, and this power may bleed into other aspects of society. In Cameroon, for example, women are often considered provocateurs even when they vehemently oppose sexual advances and men are especially at risk to falling for the sexual “seduction” of women with chest or chin hair. The mystical processes that lead to women’s menstruation, the development of breasts, the life-giving power of pregnancy and nursing, are at once animalistic and other worldly. It is only natural that untamed and untamable wildlife react to women in unique ways that reinforce the myths of gender and of nature.

We may be quick to assume that these myths are unique to far-away, rural places where traditional gender myths are re-created everyday. I argue that it is precisely here, in these rural landscapes of Africa where the myth of binary and singular identity is pushed to its limits everyday. Rural Africa, itself a myth with important consequences, no longer exists. Families are flexible entities, and marriage or partnership is not a prerequisite of child rearing. Women are increasingly in charge of households and economies in ways that often leave men asking to be brought back in to the development conversation. Agriculture is one of many household strategies that is necessarily supplemented by natural resource collection. Nature is not apart from, but a part of people’s lives. I argue that these myths exist at home in deeply entrenched and telling ways. The US is currently at a crossroads, and because I’m abroad I am at once seriously detached from and increasingly connected to the competition, the rhetoric, and language evoked to discuss both Mr. Trump (highly egomaniacal, or a strong leader) and Ms. Clinton (seriously overqualified, or likely to rule erratically during menopausal fits). The gender myth, one that reduces women to wild goddesses worthy of fear, serves only to reinforce patriarchal dynasties and unsustainable resource exploitation. Haraway’s cyborg theory erases the manifest destiny of unidirectional land and resource allocation, of cities contrasted with game reserves and national parks, and of predetermined gender roles. The cyborg theory allows us the freedom to choose whether we want to be a goddess, a cyborg, or both at the same time.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Giants in the night

The elephants always announce their arrival first. They enter the water in a distant lagoon when the stars are already brilliant in the sky. I will never forget the first time I heard the sudden interruption of quiet with the sudden rush of waterfall. On some nights waterfalls are accompanied by terrible cries echoing off the nearby pools of water: Amanda, Anna, and Graham like to say that elephants are shouting from the shock of hitting cold the water in the dead of winter. Last night was warm.

The dry season is the high conflict season for farming and for other daily livelihood activities. Water holes are seasonal and by the time the irregular rain dries up around the bush, the Okavango fills with life-giving waters for months at a time. People need this water, as do the wildlife, and they do their best to avoid running into elephants and hippos when they fetch water or wash their clothes at the waterside.

Shortly after the waterfall rush began last night, some elephants entered the bush from behind my tent. They must have passed right through the neighboring cattlepost as silent as thieves. Their low rumbles can be mistaken for a soothing lullaby, but the breaking of branches all around me serves as a jarring reminder of their true strength. I like listening to them at night as I go to sleep. I’m comforted by the electric fence that divides us, and sometimes when they get really close I sneak out from my tent as quietly as I can to try to see them. Pewter skin reflects no light, and their eyes are too high up to shine back. Only a full moon can do the trick though I have yet to experience the magical combination of both a full moon and proximate elephants. I peacefully try to imagine what they look like and how they move, but the sudden snapping branches not 20 feet from my head always sends electricity through me.

Elephants are not nocturnal creatures. They are awake most hours of the day and need a regular source of water to help with food digestion. Tough times call for tough measures and there’s mounting evidence that elephants are adopting nocturnal movement patterns to help them avoid the risk of running into people- we are their greatest threat. In the Eastern Panhandle of the Okavango where elephant populations match and will quickly surpass human populations, people, too, are adopting new strategies to avoid the risk of running into elephants. I’m learning that people go out in groups and in the middle of the day, but that may be increasingly futile as the dry season drags on and the Okavango provides the only available surface water.


A well-traveled elephant pathway not far from
Ecoexist Camp.
I am often unaware of what time the elephants leave me in the night. It’s the sudden realization of quiet that usually wakes me up, but last night it was the interruption of the still night with cowbells that woke me up. I have been told many times of how cattle benefit from elephants during the dry season when all of the fodder is dried and gone. They have learned to follow elephants to eat the remaining green leaves that would otherwise waste on the broken tree branches. Last night, a 3am herd of cattle moved through where the elephants had just passed. I was annoyed the first time I heard cattle coming through at such an odd hour, cowbells clanging at irregular intervals, but now I appreciate my new understanding of this mutual dependency, knowing that because the cattle can feed in the harshest of times, people are a little more appreciative of these giants in the night.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The death of an elephant

The neighborhood dogs were already fighting by the time we returned a second time to the dead elephant. The young bull, perhaps 30 years old, had been shot the night before and by the time we arrived at 9am flies were beginning to gather. The villagers, having already alerted the authorities who would supposedly return later for the tusks, were hacking away with axes at the thick leathery skin. They made precise incisions, ones they are used to making on their cattle, in order to pull away skin and sinew. Blood began to drip. A 12-year-old boy was learning how to butcher an elephant carcass, hacking away with an axe at the limp trunk as he imitated the older men divvying up the haunch. Children and women stood around, holding empty rice sacks waiting for their choice cut of meat. A bull this size could feed many people for many days, though not everyone likes the flavor of the meat. Some prefer it fresh, those who dislike the odor prefer it sundried like traditional biltong, and others refuse to eat it for their religious beliefs.

The bull was shot by a young man no older than the bull himself. I had met him a few weeks earlier during a trip to the village. He was working on finishing a cement house and in the meantime lived in a traditional rondvaal with his wife and young child. He seemed like a real go-getter, an educated, well-dressed young man who’s remained in the village trying to begin his family life. Last night was the second night in a row that the same bull entered into his compound. The tightly-strung wire fence had done nothing to prevent the bull from ravaging his fruit-bearing trees the night prior. Elephants remember where there is food and often return, and by the time the bull returned, the young man had a borrowed rifle.

The first night, the bull entered his yard pulling large branches off the trees that surround his house until they snapped like toothpicks. His traditional house, made of reeds and grass and covered in a layer of mud, could not withstand an elephant attack let alone the weight of a falling tree branch. It apparently took long hours for the life to drain from the bull after the first shot between his eyes proved to be ineffective. It was a second shot to the temple that apparently did the trick. Saliva frothed from his mouth and he had died in his own feces. His was not a noble death.

By the following day most of the meat had been cut away. The stomach and intestines were pulled to the side, and one man was hacking away at the spinal column in order to free the body from the head. This would allow them to turn the body over to the other side and free the rest of the meat that had been trapped underneath the enormous weight of the elephant. I looked around the neighboring houses and saw strips of red hanging from lines within household concessions: elephant biltong hung out to dry.

I can’t help but think that our understanding of human-elephant relations is limited by our vocabulary. Scientists often use the word ‘conflict’ in describing relations between these two sentient, long-lived mammals with rich social lives (as I have done with my blog until I can find a better word). The science has for a long time focused on livelihood opportunity costs, that is the costs borne to active economic production, the costs that disrupt participation in the greater economy; these are most often agriculture and other livelihood tasks that leave people rerouting their paths, staying at home rather than collecting firewood to cook, fearing for their lives. But ‘conflict’ is a loaded term that doesn’t capture the inherent nuance.

Botswana seems to be a sacred gem for elephants, a place where, even though elephants maraud fields and homesteads, a rural homeowner still pulls out wet clay from the Delta to sculpt an elephant statue outside of his home. Elephants in this density wreck limitless havoc on life. They prune their most travelled pathways until the landscape resembles more orchard than woodland. They kill people and harass cattle, and they raid an entire year’s food supply in one night. But elephants are also gardeners, assisting with tree regeneration through seed dispersal. They create and maintain pathways through the bush. They help support cattle feed during the dry season by ripping down hard-to-reach tree branches with green leaves. They shake bush fruits off of tall trees that provide important dietary supplements to people. These are complex relationships that require a new language in order to see, define, and describe the interactions more justly. For now, the dead elephant in village is a source of food for many and what was a tense moment of conflict has turned into a moment of social reproduction for a group of people who have been forbidden to hunt.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Evening walks along the Delta's edge

One of the things I’ve come to enjoy most about my time in rural Africa are my evening walks on days when I’m too lazy to run. Sometimes you spend all day in front of a computer, something you could do from literally anywhere else, and a walk after the heat of the day is the best reminder of place. 

In Cameroon, I’d take Owondo on walks down to the Sanaga River. I’d throw him sticks into the slow-moving waters and let him sprint in the sand like a mad dog, frightening many people with his boldness unseen in most African dogs. Here in Botswana my walks don’t take me very far, but they transport me to my backyard, the Okavango Delta, a beating heart in the otherwise dry Kgalagadi sands. The Delta is comprised of permanent and seasonal floodplains, and having only been here for a few weeks, I don’t know which waters I can expect to disappear over the course of the year. The Delta is also located on top of several fault lines whose tremors are softened by the deep sands, changing the surface water geography all the time. In this environment, water is important, and I’ve come to take the waters directly behind the research camp as the place where my walk starts and ends. It’s with delight that I watch the hippos, monitoring their proximity to the camp and always hoping that they come camp-side so I can get a good look at them when they pop their heads out from underwater.

My favorite termite mound near camp

There’s a road that wraps around behind the research camp and joins to the main Ecoexist office, and on my walks I follow that road for a few minutes before veering off to explore the nearby islands. Islands aren’t necessarily surrounded by water, but they are little oases from the harsh shrub and grassland. These islands vary greatly in size, but are always teeming with diverse trees, including the very weird (and appropriately named) sausage tree and others that drop sweet fruits, prized both by people and wildlife. The island nearest to me has one of the tallest termite mounds I’ve ever seen. It’s around 20 feet tall, and it's shape is a reminder for how the tree used to stretch up to the sky in this mini-forest before it was completely taken over by termites. Now the termites have transformed it into hardened soil, a nutrient-rich and cement-like resource. It’s on this island that I once came up two old women cutting at the root bark of one of the trees. My lack of Setswana leaves me gesturing like a deaf mute, so I’m not entirely sure what the use of the root bark is, but I do know that it is ingested, perhaps as a medicine or as a flavoring to food. After letting me try my hand at chipping away at the bark with their small yet sharp hoe, the women covered back up the roots and went on their way back home to the nearby cattlepost: they are my neighbors.

Bark harvested from the roots of a tree
Cowboys bringing in the cattle for the evening
When I continue to the next island 50 feet from the first, I always see cattle. Cattle are an important part of the culture here, providing emergency sources of money during hard times. Cattle also support draught power for ploughing fields and are a main source of protein for the area. Beef is cheap in this part of the country because cattle owners can’t easily access the international beef markets that the rest of the country has access to: veterinary fences erected to prevent zoonotic disease transmission prevent the transport of beef across lines. This keeps the price of beef low in this area, but even still, there are families who can’t afford the meat and rely on sour milk for protein. Unlike in other parts of Africa, cattle are left to graze on their own. I’ve seen people accompanying their cattle just a handful of times, though it seems the wealthier cattle ranchers (ie. those with many cattle) rely on cowboys to keep their herds together and bring them back in for the night.

From there, I continue out past the island, but not much farther as the Delta is currently inundated with water and I’m terrified of being on the wrong side of a hippo. I meander my way back to camp, sometimes heading for the main road, a road infrequently traveled but dusty just the same, or I circle around the way I came out. This gives me the chance for incredible sunsets over the water, and I’ve taken to carrying my camera with me to capture the beauty of the red sun sinking behind the trees.


An elephant swimming to reach her friends on the island
As I took my walk yesterday, I was rewarded with a special treat: a small herd of 4 or 5 elephants! They were close enough where I could see them clearly in the late afternoon sun, but safely far away, across a few bodies of water. I watched them jump into water, swim out to an island just across from me, and delicately strip leaves from the trees. I watched them for an hour, though at times they watched me. When it grew dark and I could no longer stand the mosquitos, I headed back to camp. My spirits were at a new high, having been reminded that I’m in Botswana, living in these ancient swamps that are the raison d’ĂȘtre for human-wildlife interaction in this otherwise dry desert.

Food, culture, and rural women

Much of my time in Cameroon was spent exploring the market. I would find some new fried insect to try, some weird bush fruit, or an indistinguishable blackened bushmeat, dried over fire, held open by sticks at the ribs and buzzing with flies. I kept a blog about the kinds of strange food I ate, and included both my favorite (definitely white palm grubs, fat and juicy, spiced with hot pepper and maggi cube and eaten off of a stick) as well as the ones I’d rather not eat again (definitely monkey, every time). There’s no market in Botswana, no street vendors rushing to sell you food at the pit stop (well, there is no “pit” stop… ah, Makanene), and I’ve been missing my experience of Botswana by taste. I am working my way through my grocery store supplies- familiar foods imported from South Africa- and I can’t help but feel that I’m missing a huge part of the culture by not eating local food.


Freshly pounded millet flour being sifted.
I spend these days assisting Ecoexist with a survey of farmers, farming techniques, market access, and food security. This gives me insights into what people eat, which is further developed simply by seeing their homes and what they keep around their concessions. So much of food here is millet. In fact, families measure food security not by nutrition but by starch. As long as there is “pap” you’re stomach is full. Pap is local grain flour (millet, sorghum, or maize) made by women, who’ve for the most part also planted and harvested the grain. The grain is cleaned away from the stalk with the use of a large, flat-headed wooden pestle and pounding the stalks in a multi-day process involving many women. Then the grain itself is pounded using a large mortar and pestle, and the large particles are sifted out and pounded again into the fine pap flour. Making a batch of flour takes several hours of work, and is repeated every few days in order to keep the house fed. Like in other parts of the world, women are largely responsible for growing food (although here it’s in infertile sand), maintaining home structures with reeds harvested at the Delta’s edge, and keeping their families fed. They are truly resilient.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Running in sand

June 22, 2016

Since my first days as a runner, a mere 8 years ago, I’ve never been one to stick to the main road. If I see an interesting path, a trail, a sidewalk that goes off into the unknown, that’s the track I want to take. Taking the main road for an entire run, never discovering where I could have gone, would always nag at me; make me wonder what new exploration I could have done.

Sometimes this works out great. I have seen much of Niece, France, by foot and found old pine parks set high up in the hills. Sometimes this leads me to trouble, running past bars of drunk Cameroonian police officers in uniform. Often, when I’m running in the bush I’m most happy and calm until I get comments from running mates like, “You should be careful of snakes when running through these grasses.” Then I spend the next few months avoiding the grasses, which are, of course, everywhere until my mind feels like it will explode from the stress of one main route traveled twice a day, everyday. I always inevitably concede to what my brain and feet want, which is the exploration of what feels wild and new.

Running in Botswana is a totally new challenge for me. The sand is unbelievably deep and for every step forward I take two steps back. The sand penetrates running shoes almost immediately and after a good run, you inevitably have blisters at the tops of your toes from where the sand was trapped. Perhaps the most interesting running challenge at the cattle post, Xachirachira, where Ecoexist has built camp, is running through a thousand elephant footprints as soon as you step off the main road. It reminds me that earth is not men’s alone. Humans may feel equally at home deep at sea as in outer space, and though I love hearing the elephants when I’m tucked safely in my warm bed, surrounded by the jolting presence of an electric fence, I prefer to avoid stepping foot into a huge, wrinkly footprint left by a thirsty elephant on his way to drink at the Delta’s edge. Sadly all of the trails that look interesting for exploration are in elephant country, and surrounded by their tracks, you can’t help but feel incredibly insignificant. I prefer to admire their tracks like stars in a night sky, and I’ll have to settle for runs that are less than exciting, because any run that is more than exciting might be my last.