Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Settling in

It’s now been a month and a week since I arrived in country. I spent a week in Gaborone with the other Fulbright scholars, and I’ve been bouncing around ever since. I am pleased to say that I’ve identified my assistant, a 28 year old woman with two kids who grew up in one of the cattleposts I’ll be working in, and who moved recently to the village I’m living in. Together with the Village Development Committee I was shown a two-room cement house, painted in bright blue and with tall, open ceilings. I accepted immediately, knowing that finding a rentable house is a challenge in a small village. My rent is a whopping 250 pula a month (25 USD) and as I agreed to rent, I noticed that an entire window pane was missing, covered instead with a flapping canvas sheet that a large human could easily fit through. I asked about fixing the window and was told that “there is no theft in Mokgacha”, and nodded my head in amazement that they were able to keep a gas bottle in a house where the front door doesn’t close. I insisted that I’d feel better with a window, and my landlady agreed that I should bring a pane from Shakawe, the nearest town across the river where you can buy things like windows, and that she would deduct the cost from my rent. Little did I know that the cost of the pane would be more than my monthly rent.

I have since spent a half a day making my house “liveable”, which included fitting a pane (which was a struggle because the pane isn’t straight) and making the front door closeable and lockable. I realized that the bright blue paint distracted me from shoddy village construction. Half of the windows are glued shut with putty and the bedroom door is rotting through. I inquired about a bathroom, and was told that I should just bathe in my house. When I further elaborated how I would go to the bathroom, my assistant just told me that there aren’t any in the village. I’ve since identified three latrines in the village, all on private compounds, but I decided that I would build a sand pit on the corner of my compound. After consulting with Wilamien, an incredible woman who works in development in Shakawe, I decided that the sand pit would be a good option, such that I would use the latrine and cover things up with sand, and by the time I leave, I could plant a tree in it’s place.

So, I hired some young men in the village to dig a hole about a meter deep. They brought over poles, cut from the trees nearby, and helped construct the frame of what I would later enclose with reeds. They discussed how to build me a seat, and I had to convince them that I would only take a squat position, so they laid some more logs across the ground, giving me a place to put my feet. The next day, my assistant, IP, and I bought reeds from my neighbor and tire threads from the local tuck shop and she taught me how to stitch the reeds together. First, you have to dig a narrow trench that helps hold the reeds in place on the bottom. Then, you grab a handful of tall reeds and attach them using a string of tire thread. I couldn’t start the stitch, but once IP got the stitch going, I took over and we worked side by side. The stitch involves wrapping the string around the reeds, under and up and over the cross branch, through the previous stitch, and secured with a fresh stitch on the new bundle of reeds. It took a few hours to finish the walls, but I was very happy to baptize my new latrine once it was completed.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Patching holes

I’ve only ever had a single flat tire on my Subaru years ago when driving from visiting Lisa in upstate New York back to New Jersey. I had managed to jack up my car, remove the flat, and was in the process of putting the spare on when a valiant man stopped at the busy gas station to “help” me tighten the bolts. I have, however, had my fair number of flats on my bike. Although I had mastered tire repair on my bike when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, it was the seeming inevitability of punctures (and long walks home) in dusty College Station, Texas, that led me to purchase puncture-proof tires and I haven’t needed to fix a flat since.

Needless to say, I got my first flat in years. This isn't a story about that flat, which, by the way was not due to my reckless driving but to random chance and a revengeful tree stump. This is, however, a story about the local trade of tire repair. The repairman lives about 30 minutes from camp in the nearest big town. I got his name, number, and general location, drove the 30 minutes with a spare tire on the back axel and a totally dead tire tightened to the spare tire arm that keeps the back of my car closed. I called him, picked him up where he was working a second job, and drove him to his workshop- a graveyard of tires- where he immediately took over. He didn’t ask any questions, just took my flat off the back, rolled it over to a hut where he keeps an electric pump, pumped it full of air, and rolled it back to where we were sitting. 

Photo 1. Tire removal contraption.
I had noticed a strange metal pole when I was checking out his operation, and when he rolled it over there I learned that it was to give tire owners heart attacks. The hardest job is getting the tire off from the hub, and the tire repairman makes it easy on himself with this contraption (photo 1). After sufficiently beating my tire with the contraption, the tire repairman walked away, leaving the hardest part of the job to his assistant who had the job of removing the tire from the hub- a stubborn, monstrous version of fixing a bike flat (photo 2). After he removed the tire, he scrapped the heck out of the inside of my puncture for about 20 minutes, and was dripping with sweat from the heat of the day and the extremely physical work. He applied glue and by the time the glue was mostly dry, the tire repairman casually strolled back into the workshop with a large, round patch in one hand, and a lit cigarette in the other hand. He cooly leaned down to inspect the glue, bent the patch in half, removed the clear plastic wrapping from one side, and nonchalantly applied the patch.

Photo 2. The second part of tire removal that resembles my experience changing bicycle tires.
I changed my 4th tire in 24 hours, paid the tire repairman 50 pula (5USD), which he left with his assistant, and I took the tire repairman and another guy who was with us at the tire changing operation back to their second job, which turned out to be the wedding I attended a few days later. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Taking flight

The flight from Gaborone to Maun took just under an hour and a half in a small prop-engine plane with 14 rows of 4 seats. I sat down in my window seat, 2 rows back from the front, and I watched the propellers spin faster and faster until we were high in the sky. The propellers slowed down as we turned back in the opposite direction, leading me to question whether there was a problem with the plane. Once we picked up speed again going the opposite direction, I knew we were headed for the gateway to the Okavango Delta.

Much of Botswana between the populated south and the frontier town of Maun is a vast wilderness. When I started my PhD work, I had imagined a place where busy villages dot the roadside, selling you nothing you need but everything you want, where people are difficult, but welcoming and immediately make you a part of the story, whether you want it or not. But my first two months in Botswana in the winter of 2016 looked and felt much more like the vast scrub and harsh desert that spread out for hundreds of miles before me on this plane ride, and my travel to my field site this time around feels more lonely than overwhelming.

From above in the plane, all you can see are vast stretches of sand held together with scrub, undulating sand dunes spotted with brown, low lying shrubs- a brown sea as far as the eye can see. Occasionally, the seemingly endless Kalahari was split by a sand road- a perfectly straight line that somehow made either side of the line seem different enough in color and texture. When I focused hard, I could occasionally make out a tree with dark green leaves, and I wondered how it was that anything green could survive in the summertime heat without water.  

Before I knew it, the pilot announced that we were approaching Maun. The sparse green turned more frequent and lined the mostly dry waterways. But it was the plots of cleared land signaling fertility that gave away the approaching city. All plots fenced in with wooden posts take a variety of haphazard shapes, including hexagons and rectangles, but never the typical circle associated with the mechanized farming of the industrialized West.

The increasing concentration of houses was the last telltale sign of our arrival, and only a few minutes later we were gliding down onto the runway. It was a little shaky on touchdown, and I learned later from a pilot friend that there’s an increased turbulence due to the extreme heat of the summer that makes flying between 10am and the late afternoon tricky. I was glad to take an early flight.

Monday, October 16, 2017

First post in 2017

I’m back online and this is my first blog in over a year! So much has happened since last August when I was last in Botswana, but the biggest news is that I’m here in Botswana as a Fulbright Student Researcher for the next 9 months! It means that I’m loosely affiliated with the Department of State and I’m essentially an ambassador between the US and Botswana. It most importantly means I get to do my research without any strings attached- every researcher’s dream.

I’ve been in Botswana for a week as of tomorrow, though I have been staying with a Fulbright Scholar couple. Julie, a librarian from the University of Montana, and her husband Steve have been in Botswana since July, and they’ve been generous enough to let me stay in their very comfortable two-bedroom apartment for the week that I programmed in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. While my main objective spending time in Gaborone was to receive my security clearance from the US Embassy as a Fulbright Student, I also needed to speak with the various ministries that are relevant to my research and try to pick up policy documents that I’ve struggled to find online. It’s also been a great excuse to get to know the whole Fulbright team, which includes Julie and Steve, and Sarah, a post-bac student researching system updates on HIV/AIDS improvements. Even though I’ll be on the opposite end of the country, it’s been great to get to know everyone and learn more about what they are doing here.

Gaborone is a different world from where I’ll be staying. The city is organized around different shopping malls, and these are, by far, the habitat I feel most out of place in. I am forced to spend time at the malls because they’re natural meeting places and they’re where the best grocery stores are found. The good news is that they have also the best Wi-Fi in town, so I’ve been making the most of my talent of sitting in coffee shops, spending as little as possible, and using all of the connection I can.

My time here has definitely not been all work and no play. On Saturday, the Fulbright crew went out to Mokolodi, a game park on the outskirts of town. It’s a far cry from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and even further from my field site where elephants, zebra, ostrich, kudu, lions, hippos, and all kinds of wildlife inhabit the same place as people. However, I can imagine that it’s the closest best park for urban residents who need an escape from the hustle and bustle of town. We were able to see three giraffes, some zebra, two hippos, some fish eagles, and loads of kudu, so it was a fun mini-adventure. After our drive, we had a delicious dinner and returned home to find that there was a graduation party across the street, which meant that I slept for maybe 3 hours and I was reminded of all the “fetes de jeunesses” of Cameroon. The next morning, Julie stayed home to catch up on sleep, but Steve and I mustered the energy to climb Kgale Hill, a big hill outside of town. Climbing/hiking up required the most technical rick climbing I will ever do in my life, but I was rewarded with beautiful views of the city and outskirts of town. I was too afraid to climb back down, but we hop the fence to the cell tower maintenance road, so I didn’t need to confront my fears of heights. At the parking lot, we saw loads of city baboons, including one mischievous one sitting on top of a fancy SUV.

I head to Maun tomorrow, where I’ll pick up my car and scramble to gather all of the supplies I need. If all goes well I should be up at the research camp by the end of the week. I’m excited to get up there and start to get my hands in my work. And in case you’re wondering what I’ll be doing, here’s an excerpt from my Fulbright proposal, which generally describes my work and research interests:

The Eastern Panhandle is one of the most remote areas of Botswana where 16,000 people in subsistence-based communities coexist with 18,000 elephants outside of protected areas. Elephants experience HEC when people destroy critical habitat, block important resources, or harass and kill elephants. Yet the size, strength, and national conservation status of elephants ensures their protection during charged conflict situations. Conversely, HEC impacts people when elephants enter fields and eat crops, destroy property, or charge and kill people. Studies that focus on human costs through crop raiding disregard how rural residents and elephants experience coexistence and conflict through overlapping use of limited natural resources. For example, elephants forage on the soft bark of trees. In the process of stripping trees, branches pulled down by elephants are used by rural communities as dry firewood. Collecting firewood in an elephant-dominated landscape, however, is very risky and potentially riskier in areas with lower human population density and more exposure to elephants. As such, trees provide an arena to understand how both conflict and coexistence guide management decisions. 
I intend to use my Fellowship to examine the role of perceived risk in guiding firewood collection and rural migration decisions by rural residents. Risk perception is the way that people judge potential threats to themselves or their livelihoods, and risk perception frameworks evaluate how potential threats and possible rewards guide decision-making. I will examine how perceived risk of rural residents to HEC guides firewood collection, migration decisions, and government support for local communities. My working hypotheses are 1) If women collect firewood more frequently than men, rural residents will perceive women to have higher risk from HEC and women will be more likely to employ collective, group-based HEC risk mitigation strategies; 2) If people living in unincorporated settlements encounter more elephants during firewood collection and perceive this as negative, they will be more likely to permanently migrate from unincorporated settlements to the village; and 3) If government officials and rural residents perceive HEC risk to residents differently then this will have negative consequences to rural livelihoods.
Understanding rural residents’ perceived risk of elephants will show how resource management and migration decisions are made in the wildlife-rich landscape of the Okavango Delta. In using risk perception as my main framework, I will contribute to HEC research with insights from natural hazard theories and methods that recognize people as active participants in finding solutions to HEC. Results from this study will contribute to a better understanding of migration dynamics of rural communities and will support policy development in both rural planning and sustainable natural resource use.
I developed this study during preliminary fieldwork from June through August, 2016. I identified objectives from interviews with Ecoexist team members, government employees, and community leaders and members. I will return to Botswana from August 2017 through August 2018 and use a mixed-methods, ethnographic approach in order to capture a yearly cycle of risk perception, firewood collection decisions, and human rural migration patterns. My work will focus on the village of Mogkacha and its five associated unincorporated settlements. Mogkacha is a small community of 524 ethnically diverse people who experience high levels of HEC because they are located near a historically important elephant migratory route. Mogkacha has recently transitioned from a temporary settlement to a permanent village, gaining government recognition and development support, and it demonstrates dynamic seasonal and long-term human rural migration between areas of low and high population density. I will gather data on firewood collection through mapping, direct observation, and resource measurement. In addition, I will collect risk perception and migration data through participant observation and longitudinal interviews with community members and government employees, as well as analysis of policy documents and white papers.

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.