"I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I

was not happy."

-Ernest Hemmingway

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Kourtney, Jaclynn, Sarahi and myself, four brave souls off to explore western Botswana...
We weren't the only ones with travel plans for the Easter weekend. The streets of Gaborone were surprisingly busy at 5:00am on Friday morning, and the bus rank was absolutely teeming with people. And ruthless vendors. A last minute, unexplained cancellation meant that only one bus was destined for Ghanzi that day. It was already packed to capacity when we arrived and only aisle space remained. I ended up getting very cosy with someone's arm pitt and almost fell asleep on the lady next to me. Her hair style was decidedly pillow like. By mid afternoon we pulled into Ghanzi. The town was small, quiet, and delightfully suited to a weary traveler. The bus station, ATM , grocery store, craft/souvenir shop, and hotel were all within a stone throw of one another. We pitched our tents on the grassy lawn of the Kalahari Arms Hotel for a very reasonable 35 Pula. The other foreign tourists rolling through the streets in fancy safari vehicles opted for upscale, air conditioned huts. Their loss. After gobbling down waffles and milkshakes we called it a night. Saturday found us climbing into the back of a pick-up truck for a ride out to D'kar, a small cultural village. Definitely small and definitely cultural. We walked down a dirt road and came upon an old church, giant cooking pots, and bushpeople. Not to mention a lovely little one room hostel. With four beds! How convenient. A local soccer match kept us entertained for several hours. Or perhaps it was the horde of children racing around, posing for pictures and pulling off wonderful feet-stomping moves. I swear Africans must learn to dance before they walk. In the afternoon we took a stroll down the main road (and only road). A devoted train of little boys followed and seemed to find us endlessly entertaining. Soft hair! Haha short shorts. Ooh watchy-watch! A CAMERA!! "Photo me" was one of the few English expressions we heard. The bushmen language was enchanting though- plenty of clicks and tongue noises spattered throughout the speech. We returned to the hostel with our devoted followers hanging off arms and legs. I really wanted to take one home in my suitcase. Later, we were drawn to the church by the sound of singing. Much of the village had gathered inside to applaud the performance of various choir groups. We attempted a stealth entrance but had every head turning in a matter of seconds. A heart warming time nonetheless. I stood out under the stars afterwards and marveled at the vast expanse of sky. We revisited the church in the morning for the Easter service. An Afrikaan reverend preached in Setswana and a tribal leader followed in the bushmen tongue. Luckily we had our very own Babelfish in the form of a Dutch couple. They had been living in the village for twenty years working on a project to translate the Bible into the local language. It made me happy to see them conversing naturally with the locals, all cultural barriers seemingly torn down. It was with rueful smiles that we said goodbye to D'kar and climbed into the back of another truck. The Kalahari Arms awaited, wide and welcoming. A dip in the pool, afternoon sunshine, a delightful dinner and our adventures had reached their end. Even though the Easter bunny didn't make it out to Botswana I'd trade Cadbury eggs for this trip any day.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


After weeks of planning and failed attempts I found myself on an Intercape travel bus bound for Johannesburg. Fellow explorer Kourtney shared the seat beside me. The drive into Johannesburg took on a very characteristic American feel: paved sidewalks, multi-laned highways, overpasses, sprawling shopping centers, and developed suburbs. I quite missed the dirt roads and huts of Botswana. Downtown Joburg, however, was another matter altogether. Not under any circumstance would I want to find myself stranded in the inner city area after dark. In the handful of minutes it took us to navigate through the bus rank we were bombarded with shouts, pushy and persistent vendors, whistles, and a hip gyrating man. Lovely. Garbage littered the ground and the city smell was overpowering. A stark contrast to the rich, shiny suburbs. I now understand where Johannesburg earns its reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It was a relief to leave the chaos behind and return to the golden fields and rolling hills of rural South Africa. About an hour outside the Swaziland border we hit a truly unusual landscape. Tree farms. Row upon row of coniferous and deciduous stretching as far as the eye could see along eighty kilometers of road. Mind boggling. On one side of the highway the plateau dropped away into a picturesque valley with smoky blue mountains in the distance. We passed smoothly through the border crossing (apart from a bleeding woman in the line ahead of us) and into Swaziland under cover of darkness. Total trip time from Gaborone to Mbabane: 13 hours and one very sore bottom. We stayed overnight at the Sunset Backpackers. Very friendly staff but grossly overpriced. At first light the following morning we were at the bus rank and managed to squeeze onto a combi headed up the mountain. Our first steps into Malolotja National Park were euphoric. Rolling green hills shouldered into the horizon and a herd of white masked blesbok gamboled through the fields. We sigend in at the lodge (greeted by a very friendly, helpful staff), picked up a map, and set off. The trail cut across windy highveld, down a tree strewn slope, and into a lush rivervalley. At which point things got a bit interesting. The trail petered out, unmaintained, and we found ourselves crashing through dense underbrush and wading through long grass. We were forced to make several river crossings, and just when all seemed lost spotted a faint trail weaving up a neighboring hillside. Only a swamp, thicket, cliff, and belt of trees stood in the way. No match for our determination. We slogged through knee deep mud and nasty brambles, dragged ourselves up a crumbling incline, and literally fought tooth and nail through spiney grass, bamboo, and thorny trees. A jungle machete would have been very useful. Or bulldozer. From the state of our legs it looked as if we'd just fought off a pack of feral cats. With the sun sinking behind the hills we made it to solid ground, trekked up the path and set up camp under a friednly looking tree. Just in the nick of time. The mother of all storms was building in the distance. And our $25 tent was not in the least bit waterproof. We erected a small tarp overhead by securing it to clumps of hardy savannah grass. Barely into our first bites of dinner the storm hit. Raging winds and torrential rain. We had to hold onto the sides of the tent for dear life and squish onto a foam pad as water seeped in. On the upside, we were able to replenish our sad looking water supply by sticking bowls outside. Excellent. When the storm finally quieted we were not to be left in peace, but rather tormented by snuffling animals and a little rodent that seemed determined to make a meal of our tent. A night for the record books. We made it back to the park gates by noon the next day, taking an easy route along the highveld. Wet clothes and sleeping bags joined us on the grass for a lovely nap in the beaming sun. The main campsite was a little paradise with well maintained facilities. Hot showers available. Highly recommended. Thus, it was with great regret that we said goodbye to the friendly Swazis and their beautiful country the following morning. GREAT REGRET. A mere five minutes at the Johannesburg bus rank and I'd already been felt up and groped by a tasteless individual. Not a pleasant experience. The place was absolutely crawling with people. Thankfully we found seats on a late combi out of the city. The seats were so small I was practically sitting on top of Kourtney, but at least we were headed home. Fabulous weekend, fabulous friend, and lasting memories.
“When we reach the mountian summits we leave behind all the things that weigh heavily on our body and our spirit. We leave behind all sense of depression; we feel a new freedom, a great exhilaration of the body no less than the spirit.”    - Jan Christiaan Smuts

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Botswana Stew

A delightful dish that tickles the palate. Set aside several days for preparation as the flavors take time to develop...
-2 letters, mailed from a foreign address
-1 scrumptious muffin
-1 combi door
-2 broken umbrellas
-1 tapestry, woven by lovely old ladies
-1 independent film
-100 student-athletes, or substitue 100 students posing as athletes
-1 Chinese dinner, enjoyed by candlelight
-8 cold showers
-1 pitch party, hosted by a private school
1. Ask family or friends to send letters to the Office of International Education and Partnerships Office, University of Botswana. Wait one month. Wait another month. Inquire at the local post office. Inquire at the University of Botswana post office. Inquire at the International Education Office. Write your name at the bottom of a long list of students with missing mail. Wait...
2. Take a stroll down to Riverwalk Mall. Locate Equatorial Cafe and sit down at a table or voluminous couch. Order a blackforest muffin (other menu choices available, ask the waiter for details). Take full advantage of the free internet. Indulge.
3. Hop on a combi with too many people. Ride down a pot hole ridden track at break neck speeds. With any luck the door will automatically fall off. If not, have drunken passengers bash at it. Continue driving and pretend not to notice.
4. Go for a walk when nasty looking clouds are building in the distance. Bring umbrellas and a friend. Open umbrellas when torrential downpour begins. Wade to the nearest shelter. Battle hurricane force winds. Abandon sodden, bent, and sad looking umbrellas.
5. Find a combi labeled “Oodi” and step on board. Travel out to a remote village and greet friendly old ladies. Observe sheep shearing, wool spinning, wool dying, and wool weaving. When english fails, use flambuoyant hand gestures to communicate. Ogle handiwork and beautiful designs. Purchase a tapestry for 300 Pula.
6. Walk to Maru-a-Pula secondary school. Avoid cows en route. Squish into tiny theatre hall with other students, nuns, businessmen, professors, media people, and tourists. Take advantage of free refreshments. Watch a well directed and shocking film about sex trafficking. Spend an evening contemplating the messages.
7. Wake up early and go for a jog. Investigate frenzied cheering at the UB Stadium. Run stairs. Watch a pseudo student track meet. Wonder whether bare feet and jean shorts are appropriate sprinting attire. Wonder whether dresses are appropriate hurdling attire!
8. Grab a taxi to African Mall. Navigate around shifty looking bars and link arms with friends. Locate Chinese restaurant (preferably before 7:00pm or the establishment will be closed). Order wonton soup. Do not panic when power failure hits. Hope squishy lumps in bowl really are wontons. Finish meal by candlelight.
9. Live at the Las Vegas dorms. Go to the bathroom on the second floor of Block A3. Turn on the hot water tap and take a cold shower every morning. When the water stops working, walk to the pool for a shower. Stockpile drinking water!
10. Drive out to a private school in Gaborone. Gape at gigantic gated houses and one enormous mansion. Count 15 air conditioner units in the mansion windows. Pass security and enter school. Gape at immaculate grounds and facilities. Watch badly behaved children run rampant. Join better behaved children on the soccer pitch. Pretend to lack dribbling abilities and get kicked in the shins. Nurse injuries over a lovely slice of cake.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Midterm Report

Name: University of Botswana

Course Content   B
-I used to get hand cramps after lectures back in the States or would go home (particularly after Organic Chemistry) and bang my head on the desk. Here at UB there is a relative lack of material. But is quantity better than quality? At the very least I have a better understanding of the concepts covered thanks to repitition. And outside reading certainly won't hurt the cause.
Course Choice/Availability   B
-on the plus side, there are a number of courses that aren't available in North America (eg. Wildlife Biology of Southern Africa)
-on the other hand, many courses are only offerred during a specific semester, and there's a high degree of course conflict within each faculty (this might not be an issue though, as apparently teachers have the freedom to change their course time and location even after student registration has taken place. Hmm)
Campus Facilities   B-
-classrooms are reasonably modern and most are equipped with teaching aids (eg. Projectors)
-though a regular library patron back home, I rarely frequent the UB library. Why? You can't bring your backpack inside. Instead it's necessary to stand in a mile long line to check your bag and then carry your belongings/laptop/books in you arms. Or balanced on your head. Though that might attract undue attention.
-there are limited printing and computing facilities on campus. The library is equipped with only two printers that respond to only two computers. One of them usually isn't working. And the line is always long.
-laundry room? Perhaps by next semester the TEN washing machines (out of a total of 15) with permanent "out of order" signs will have been repaired.
Professor:Student ratio   A (at least for the upper level courses)
-my average class size this semester is approximately eight. Finally, I can remember all my classmates names!
Professors   C
-again, you win some you lose some. While most of my professors certainly know what they're talking about, there is a slightly different student-teacher realtionship. The States tends to allow for debate and encourages students to have an active voice. A degree of respect for the professor certainly needs to be maintained, but at the same time there is an aooprtunity for student feedback. I do believe my Wildlife Biology professor (sorry, “nature detective” as he prefers to be addressed) would eat my head off if I questioned his behaviour. Showing up twenty minutes late to class (not a one time thing either)? Actually, we the students are at fault for not breaking down the locked classroom door and starting discussions about....well, not sure. That's around the time I stopped listening to him lecture us. I don't think it's right for a professor to condescend to, or verbally berate his students like it's a game.
Grading Scheme   D
-never mind relaxed, easy lectures or irresponsible professors. Come exam day you'd better be in your desk early with a head full of notes and textbooks. The discrepancy is ridiculous! I am not a 60% student, even on my worst days, but that number has appeared all too frequently on my assigments. And forget scoring above 90%...that's unheard of. Above 80%, you're a genius. 70% and above, solid pat on the back. Now, I might be getting a nice back massage these days but I'm certainly not satisfied with the grades. Institutions in Africa might understand the system and not expect straight As across the board on a transcript, but the same can't be said for North America. Whether from thousands of miles away or just across town, a C grade kills your GPA just as effectively. So students be warned! The experience is wonderful and the African perspective interesting...but perhaps look into the pass/fail grade option before choosing the University of Botswana. If you get that approved, you're golden. 
Administrative Staff   B
-this category is a bit of a coin toss. I've dealt with a few helpful and positive individuals, but the majority seem to either hate their job, or hate students. Particularly the cafeteria staff, though perhaps that's because I always cause problems by requesting TWO teaspoons of vegetables instead of the allowed one. Heaven forbid.
Security   D
-I managed (quite daftly) to get myself locked out of my dorm room after a run one afternoon. The RA in every block has a master key, but is only available during a few hour long periods on select days of the week (nicely outlined on bright pink paper posted on the RA's door). I guess tough luck if you require assistance outside those times. I thus went to explain my predicament to the two security guards lounging in the pavillion. After much waffling and sending me off on pointless searches one of them begrudgingly agreed to take me to see the warden (who also has a master key). Or so I thought. There was indeed someone inside the warden's house and music was blaring. I managed to attract the attention of the lady and the guard explained the situation to her in Setswana. Or so I thought! The guard left, the lady slouched back inside, and I stood dumbly expecting her to return with the magical key. Nothing happened for a long five minutes. I knocked on the door and asked about the master key. The very confused lady explained that the guard had said nothing of my predicament and just ordered her to turn the music down. Also, the warden had been off campus for the past week and wasn't expected back for several days (which all security personnel were informed of). Really now!?! Needless to say I've stopped smiling at the guards when I walk past in the morning. Spiteful? Perhaps. Immature? Probably. But that was one heck of a hungry, sweaty, tired evening.
And it's rarely comforting to see security personnel sleeping on the job...
Campus Activities   A
-UB has numerous clubs and organizations to join. Dance aerobics? There's a place for you. Kung Fu master? Come on down. Movie lover? Grab your popcorn. In fact, the most frustrating element is the sheer number of possibilities yet a limited schedule in which to accomodate them all. And I've tried!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Semester Break: Okavango Delta

 The Old Bridge Backpackers welcomed us to Botswana's Delta city. We paid the 50Pula camping fee and were generously provided with a heavy duty (African monsoon proof) tent and sleeping pads. The establishment featured an outdoor bar with Christmas lights and plenty enough beer drinkers to fill it. An amiable and interesting crowd nonetheless. We ordered hot chocolates and passed a relaxing evening in hammocks overlooking the riverfront. There was fresh news circulating about a tragic accident: A guide and one tourist drowned after a hippo overturned their mokoro (dug-out canoe). A harsh reminder of the inherent dangers of the wilderness. The following morning brought cloudy skies and the long awaited mokoro safari. We met our seasoned guide, the seemingly immortal Kosi. Gear securely wrapped in plastic bags, we pushed away from shore. The reeds parted before the prow of the mokoro and flowers sat like delicate teacups on their lily pad plates. Truly surreal. We pitched our tents on a small island in the shade of a giant fig tree. The evening adventure? Hippopotamus tracking. Too bad it started to rain. We got thoroughly soaked despite the hardy ponchos and didn't find a single hippo. Dinner consisted of canned beans, canned corn, and canned tuna. Enjoyed by flashlight straight out of the tin. It's strange how good food can taste when you're cold, wet, and squashed inside an unventilated tent. That was one very long night. Our guide knocked on the tent flap at five o'clock the next morning. “We go for a walk now, yes?” Well heck, alrighty! We poled by mokoro to a neighbouring island and disembarked. Apparently for a five hour hike through the African bush. Which came as a bit of a surprise, particularly as we hadn't thought to bring anything except a camera. Not my proudest moment. I'll have to claim that something was lost in translation, or that a lack of sleep impaired my judgement. Either way we were all without water under a blazing hot sun. The intrepid Kosi had downed 5 litres (FIVE LITRES!?!) of water that morning and was set for the day. As a result he took countless breaks to go “hide himself,” an expression that I found highly entertaining. The hike itself was exceptional: we crossed several lion tracks, surprised a herd of zebra, battled through marshy grasses, and caught sight of a family of wildebeest. A scorched red face and patched throat were the only downside. A lesson learnt the hard way I suppose. After lunch we set off once again in search of the ever elusive hippo. This time, success. Though only observed from afar, I enjoyed the chorus of grunts, snorts, laughs, and snuffles that issued from the gargantuan logs. An impending storm forced a speedy return to camp and we packed up in record time. With shelter and hot tea as future prospects I was able to enjoy the rainy journey back to Old Bridge. We must have looked quite frightening as we emerged from the boats: angry red faces, wild tangles of hair, and sodden ponchos. The lodge staff were all too quick to help. We enjoyed a phenomenal dinner of warm brownies and sat for hours under a blanket watching burly men play rugby. No finer way to spend an evening. I was quite sad to be packing my bags the next morning. We squashed onto a bus for the twelve hour ride back to Gaborone. Back to routines, school, and obligations. Sigh.
“Snap back to reality, oh there goes gravity...” in the words of Eminem. The only white rapper that locals claim can feel the music like a true African.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Semester Break: Victoria Falls

After another day of data collection I said goodbye to my classmates, with a great deal of regret. I might have been the only female in a group of ten, but felt welcome, comfortable, and appreciated at every moment. But adventure was calling. I met up in Kasane with my travel companions (internaitonal students from the States and Mexico) and we headed for Zambia. My biology professor drove us to the border crossing (fully redeeming himself for countless absences and late appearances) and negotiated with a local to boat us across the Zambezi river. We paid 50USD for a single entry visa into Zambia,and after beating off drones of vendors and hawkers, landed a ride with a group of tourists. The drive to Livingstone was quick and easy. We unloaded out baggage at the JollyBoys backpackers, a lodge true to its name in every sense. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, the staff helpful, and the toilet paper pink. I summoned my inner Bohemian and felt right at home. One night's stay in the dorms cost 8USD. We woke up bright and early Tuesday morning for a visit to Victoria Falls via minibus (Zambian combi). The World Heritage Site was unbelievable- the falls span a width of almost two kilometres and drop over six hundred metres at the highest point. Even equipped with rain jackets we were thoroughly soaked in the heavy mists. After a short trek to the bottom of the falls we headed back into town. A walk through the local market earned us a few bolts of chitenge fabric (used to make beautifully patterned skirts) and a slightly deranged stalker lady. She kept insisting that she was our dear friend (clearly not the case), but we managed to shake her at the gates to JollyBoys. Our Victoria Falls curiosity satisfied we made our way back into Botswana. Maun was the destination in mind. Sadly though, all long distance public transport had departed for the day. So we hitchhiked. In the front of a semi with four brandy drinking (yes, the driver too) local guys. The music was so loud I had to put my earplugs in for protection. Six o'clock put us in Nata, where we worked and mingled to find a ride to Maun, but no such luck. A night at the 24/7 gas station was looking a bit shifty so we forked out a handful of pula for a room at the Nata Guest Inn. Where a blissfully cold shower awaited. Woken by the sunrise, and surprisingly refreshed, we trekked back to the gas station. A tour bus- luxuury transport after our last experience- took us aboard for 60Pula apiece and we set off for Maun. The only obstacle was a disease control checkpoint where our bags were thoroughly searched. We tearfully parted with bags of newly purchased fruits and vegetables. I was then ordered to stomp around in a trough of water. Supposedly laced with foot and mouth disease powder, though I question the effectiveness of such control measures. I felt a bit like a kid in a rain puddle.

Semester Break: Chobe National Park

As I set my fingers upon the keyboard, the long awaited semester break has already become a memory. An unforgettable one. For the sake of organization, and with so much to say, I have split the epic adventure into three parts: Chobe National Park, Victoria Falls, and the Okavango Delta.
Early Saturday morning (so early in fact that I had to walk hurriedly past raucous, drunk party goers) I set off with my Wildlife Biology class for a weekend of research. After a full day of driving, while blazing along a pothole ridden road, I as rewarded with my very first elephant sighting. A huge bull cheerfully breezing its colossal ears. Night set in quickly and, almost inevitably, we hit a mammoth pothole. The tire burst, the rim bent out of shape, and the engine broke down. Then it started pouring rain. Jolly good. We ended up driving the last leg of our journey to Kasane sandwiched into the back of a pick-up truck (8 students, luggage, tents, and dripping mattresses). While others found comfort in the midst of a drunken stupor, I was too cold to feel anything. Needless to say I slept very well that night. The Toro Safari Lodge hosted us for the duration of our stay. A tidy establishment with a lawn boasting “Beware of Hippo” signs. Only in Africa. The gates to Chobe National Park were just a short drive away. The class departed on a reconnaissance drive to familiarize ourselves with the terrain. As the sun set, our jeep parted through a sea of impala and baboons revelled in the trees overhead. Magical. I started off the following day with a python wrapped around my arm. We took a short tour of a local NGO responsible for rescuing abused pets and injured wildlife. After that it was all business. With GPS locator, data sheet, and binoculars in hand I took up the front seat in the survey jeep. The Wildlife Biology class covered 100km of dirt track and made over three hundred animal sightings: water buck, giraffe, elephant, implala, water buffalo, mongoose, kudu, baboon, puku, and zebra. It was one thing to see an elephant at a distance, but an agitated bull male a mere ten feet away is absolutely terrifying. They are not in the least bit hesitant to face down a vehicle, tusks swinging dangerously. Respect the animals.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Equus caballus

Science in action! To my delight, the Wildlife Biology class took to the field (Gaborone Game Reserve) on Tuesday. The assignment: “Doing your own ecological research.” Ha HA! Finally, after years spent following experimental procedures and answering other people's questions, I had the chance to pose my own. Naturally the focus of my interest was a collection of termite mounds. Really they are the most bizarre, architectural curiosities. The ant hills back in Canada don't even hold a flame to some of these 10 foot giants. Pending approval from my professor, I plan to investigate the following questions: When and why are termite mounds abandoned? What other organisms utilize termite mounds, both when they are active and also abandoned? Sadly, due to time and resource constraints, the designed experiments will only be hypothetical...but at the very least it's a lesson in hypotheses formulation. Driving around the reserve I also laid eyes upon a Nile Monitor Lizard. Surprisingly large creatures with an uncanny resemblance to Komodo dragons. I have yet to see a snake in Botswana, but given that the vast majority of them are poisonous, I'm not too broken up about it.
Science in theory! To my dismay, the Conservation Biology class hosted its first exam. I needn't have worried...it was just like sitting down to an exam at the University of Memphis...but even better. A fat portion of lovely short answer and long response questions. None of that dastardly multiple choice, second guessing, erasing, changing at the last minute folly associated with scantron sheets. We'll see if my positive assessment matches up with the results though (unfortunately, it rarely does).
Science...in the process! I toiled away another Friday working in the National Botanical Gardens. Though I was armed with heavy duty gardening gloves, the scythe was not on the menu. Instead I met with the head Botanist and was introduced to project “plant inventory”. Despite being in operation for several years, the National Botanical Gardens have not identified or quantified all the plant species represented in the park. Nor do they have a map (the concept of such a thing seems quite foreign to Batswana when “walk that way and turn at the big Marula tree” has always sufficed). I simply opened up Google Earth, located the gardens by satellite photography, copied various images, and compiled. Voila! A map of the gardens, overlaid with a grid. Perhaps not ready for public consumption, still perfectly suitable for noting the location of different plant species and creating a sketch of the layout of different plant communities within the garden. My reward for the day was a special viewing of Lithops, a genus of succulent plants native to southern Africa. Locals refer to them as the “living stones”. To the organisms credit, at first I thought I was looking at a pot full of rocks. Thus, Lithops has ascended to the title of my favourite plant species (alongside the perpetually happy three-toed sloth, my favourite animal species).
Now, enough with science! I passed a tranquil weekend out in the “Botswana boonies”. WAY out. The cab driver was wrestling his charge down a dirt road, umbrella thorns battering the car on all sides, by the time we finally arrived. Our destination: Arne's Horse Safari. Though the website looked promising (and a review from another group of international students was mostly positive), I was shocked by a number of things. Maybe my experience as a devoted horse rider and jumper has left me with unrealistic expectations? Still, there was blatant maltreatment of the animals...I'm hoping out of ignorance rather than wilful disregard, but that isn't an acceptable excuse. I counted eight horses in total, but according to the owner, only two were actually fit to be ridden. All the animals were angular and their ribs showed through plainly. One of the horses had a swollen ankle, bloody in parts and covered with flies. There wasn't a full water bucket in any of the six occupied stalls. I opted out of taking a trail ride after two from our group returned on unhappy looking mounts who were quickly unsaddled and returned to their stalls. Without grooming, or any other care such as a quick hoof-pick. Again, no food and water was provided. It is quite possible that they received due attention later in the day when I wasn't observing...but I can only hope. I had a strong urge to hand over the 40 Pula fee, intended for the trail ride, just to buy the horses some oats. Or maybe a curry comb. Vet fee perhaps? I understand that there is not a lot of wealth in the rural areas of Botswana, but I cannot condone owning eight miserable horses when there hardly seems sufficient resources to properly care for two. I'm still unsure whether my participation as a paying tourist in this venture is keeping the horses from imminent death, or in fact sending them directly there by funding the owners who treat them so poorly. However, I am landing this judgement based on years of experience at modern, well funded riding centres. Maybe these conditions are just the hard reality for animals out in the dusty remote areas of the country. With little hope of effecting any change, I tried to enjoy my time out in the wilderness. There is something wonderful to be said about fire cooked vegetable curry, an African sunset, and two excellent travel companions. We slept out under the stars and watched lighting storms etch the sky on the distant horizon. Superb. The following morning I reluctantly opened up my study notes for the drive home. A reality check and a week full of exams was waiting.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I recently returned from a swim meet up in Francistown with the UB Aquatic Squad. A trip for the memory books, and my first real immersion experience as the only international student along for the ride. The bus transportation was actually a “combi for hire”, complete with an absolutely fearless driver. I can't say the same for myself: there wasn't a single seatbelt in the combi (but a fire extinguisher mounted on the wall, oddly enough). While every other aspect of life in Botswana seems to operate in the slow lane, driving does not. Vehicles went hurtling past us to overtake on the small two lane highway. I watched, with increasingly sweaty palms, as numerous cars in front of us manoeuvred to allow three abreast on the road after a driver misjudged the overtaking distance. No one else seemed remotely concerned. The journey lasted about six hours, and we arrived well after dark at the University of Botswana campus in Francistown. The accommodation for the night...an empty classroom. With air conditioning! Thus I was happy as a clam. The swim meet ran from sun-up to sun-down on Saturday, hosted by a local school with an outdoor facility. The organization was commendable even if the pool did look dangerously murky by the end of the day. Competitors ranged from tiny seven-year-old beginner swimmers to thirty-five-year old experts. My event was scheduled for Sunday morning and thus I was able to simply relax and take in the surroundings. It was my first swim meet experience- one I hope to repeat sometime in the near future. I enjoyed the company of the other students and appreciated the philosophy/attitude of the UB squad coaches. Namely, we shopped for meals at the local grocery store, which was a welcome change after years of tedious and expensive restaurant dinners with soccer teams. I can certainly understand keeping things simple on a tight budget. The evening spent in Francistown was nothing more than a relaxing hang-out at the campus, yet I loved every minute of it. There is something truly enjoyable and comfortable about the Batswana personality. I was laughing along and having a merry old time even though the general conversation was 95% Setswana and 5% English. With African music playing in the background we held arm wrestle competitions (a matter of great pride for the men) and turned over a few dance steps. The ease with which locals move to music will never cease to amaze me. I can only dream of that natural rhythm. I awoke Sunday morning with my usual pre-competition jitters. Had I known I was swimming in a lane beside a nine and eleven year old, perhaps my fears would have been allayed. Or doubled! After fifty hectic meters of freestyle, I was just happy to have pulled off the dive from the starting blocks and the tumble turn. The young swimmers were right on my heels. What are they feeding kids these days? I ended up placing fourth in my age group (17 and over). Out of five competitors. Perhaps I'll switch to butterfly or breast stroke. Either way, it was wonderful to compete again in a sport that didn't involve a ball at my feet. And I received a very interesting education from the squad on the drive home. African Culture 101. We had some weighty discussions that dipped into everything from racism, to Obama, to cattle farming. I arrived back at my dorm room feeling significantly enriched, inspired, and content. I just might be falling in love with Africa.
Food for thought: Thanks to the local students on the trip I had the chance to tease my palate with new delicacies. Firstly, marula fruit. Approximately the size of a plum and green in color, these little tidbits are for “dejuicing” rather than eating. As words really won't suffice, when in Botswana, ask a local for handling instructions. Apparently there are several trees on the Gaborone university campus (which I will be raiding on a frequent basis in the future). Secondly, sweet reed. Easily mistaken for Panda food, aka Bamboo. Street vendors usually sell a pole for 3 Pula which will take a while to work through. After breaking the stalk into it's natural segments, the hard outside layer is removed to expose a whitish core. Which can be merrily chomped upon. I felt rather like a cow when working the stuff around in my mouth- the juices get swallowed and the fibres spit out.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Weekly Report

Time is simply flying by. The last few days worth of shenanigans are as follows...
Plant Pathology: notes, notes, “Look at me!”, notes
Conservation Biology: notes, diversity index calculations, notes, and an awe-inspiring wildlife documentary filmed in the Okavango Delta (thoroughly dated by the men in rather tight short shorts)
Wildlife Biology: well...not much to report as the lecturer STILL doesn't show up to class on a regular basis. He must have excellent job security. At least (thanks to the latest take-home assignment) I have learned a great deal about the human-elephant conflict in northern Botswana. In brief, Loxodonta africana is the largest terrestrial land mammal, and as such eats a LOT of vegetation. Including tasty crops. The government compensation scheme for such loses is corrupt and inefficient. Many rural villagers, whose livelihood has been destroyed by elephants, would like to see the population reduced by hunting/culling. Not a decision that will win international votes. Loxodonta africana might be found in relative abundance in northern Botswana, yet its absence in most other parts of the world is quite conspicuous. The African Bush elephant has been labelled by the IUCN Red List as a threatened species and merits special conservation attention. The problem of elephant management has been shadowing Botswana for many years...
UB Aquatic Squad: have been training rigorously for the upcoming swimming gala. What I really mean is I've been enjoying the refreshing pool while attempting to improve my front crawl amidst a crowd of far more talented swimmers. Who send gigantic waves in my direction! Might as well be out at sea.
Volunteering: the Botswana Society for the Arts kept me busy and occupied on Wednesday. After a few awkward phone calls (I really need to learn more Setswana!), several arm wrestles with the temperamental printer, and a staple through the thumb, a glorious stack of press packets took form. Along with the two other international volunteers, I received a society t-shirt and was officially inundated. After setting up benches, advertising banners, tables with delicious and tempting refreshments, and the speaker system, I sat through my first press conference. The purpose was to gain exposure for the GoalMouth project and win over potential sponsors. Brilliant, short, engaging event. I also managed to shake hands, Botswana style of course, with Zeus. Sadly not the god, but rather Botswana's number one rap artist.
Hands-on experience: after a month of fruitless struggles, I finally secured a volunteering position in the field of biology. The National Botanical Gardens opened their doors in welcome! Recommendation letter firmly in hand, I walked to the gardens and introduced myself to the staff. Apparently Friday morning is “beautification duty”, and thus I spent a solid four hours with a spade and scythe in hand. The Batswana workers were friendly and encouraging. It was a particularly unusual experience, bent over beside a woman in African dress, holding a traditional tool in hand, yet listening to the Black Eyed Peas “I Gotta Feeling” humming out of a portable radio one of the workers carried. Not two months ago I was running onto the soccer pitch for perhaps the last time while that very same song played over the loudspeakers. I often find myself wishing that North America didn't have such an overwhelming influence on small countries like Botswana. The four hours of work at the Botanical Gardens was accompanied by a constant flow of Setswana. Exquisite. Every sentence or so an English word was thrown in and I was able to make some sense of the conversation. I'm already looking forward to next Friday. Hopefully by then my blistered hands will have recovered!

Friday, February 4, 2011


Another week older, with several more Aquatic Squad practices, pick-up soccer games, Gymnastics pretzel stretches, and UB Conservation Society meetings under my belt. Also, I have finally acclimatized to the different learning environment. Professors occasionally don't show up for class. Multiple lectures are often scheduled in the same room at the same time. Instead of eight pages of hastily scribbled notes per class period, I have been closing up my books with a mere four pages. Through the underlying anxiety I am telling myself relax, adapt, and “quality, not quantity.” At the very least, a number of healthy discussions/debates have sprung up during lecture, particularly Wildlife Biology. The professor is a tyrant! Of the rather humorous sort. I eagerly await the verbal sparring (on my part) and the deer in the headlights behaviour of the other students. Perhaps I'm speaking a bit too loud for a society where the vestiges of patriarchy are apparent...? The lecturer remains encouraging though, and I gamely answer his growled demands of “Where is the evidence!!” I can't help but relate to Mad-Eye Moody and “Constant vigilance!!” I do really need to apply that thinking to my studies. The growing list of tongue twisting scientific names to memorize for Plant Pathology is quite intimidating. Phytophthora infestans, late blight of potato. Ustilago tritici, loose smut of wheat. Plasmodiophora brassicae, club-root disease of crucifers. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. The lecturer for this course also has some strange tendencies. Every few sentences he pauses to say “Look at me” in his heavy Indian accent. Today he mixed things up: “Are you looking at me?” Always a rhetorical question. He also admitted to encouraging the growth of strange fungal and bacterial diseases on his garden plants. Quite the dedicated Phytopathologist. I met some other devoted individuals today, this time hailing from the Botswana Society for the Arts. At long last a genuine volunteering activity. Hoorah for progress (though I'm still waiting on a reply from numerous other agencies). Why is it so difficult to offer free services? They're FREE!! Regardless, I'll have plenty of work to do with the Society for the Arts in preparation for Independence Day. With a calendar date of September 30th, this event commemorates the separation of Botswana from the British Commonwealth in 1966. A massive undertaking has begun. The audience: Batswana youth/young adults. The final product: a performing arts production, including plays, cinema, traditional dance, choir selections, workshops, concerts, and...best of all...GoalMouth. This innovative idea unites a widespread devotion to football/soccer with the seemingly innate artistic abilities (seriously, when girls from my dorm floor sing in the shower it may as well be The Sound of Music) of the Batswana. A soccer match will not be “played”, but rather “performed”, with participants dressed in various different costumes and competing through dance movements and song. I understand this may sound a bit ridiculous, but have faith. One of the managers of the project, a lovely British lady by the name of Jane, showed me a video clip of a GoalMouth production put on a year ago in the UK. Stunning. My only reservation is that I won't be around to enjoy the Botswana Independence Day celebrations later this year :(
Food: I would like to pay a quick homage to the Diphaphatas. Resembling giant English muffins, these wonderfully doughy offerings are by far my favourite cafeteria fare. And although wheat is not grown in Botswana, imported bread flour has made its way into the traditional diet...thus the Diphaphatas, or “flat cakes”, are considered a national food. Yum!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Back to Nature

There's nothing quite like trekking up a trail in the African wilderness. Or rather, reaching the summit of Kgale Hill in the outskirts of Gaborone. The view from the top was lovely, as the city was laid out below and neighbouring hills poked at the horizon in the distance. The hike up was a short 30 minute affair, at which point I enjoyed a picnic lunch on giant boulders with my fellow excursionists. We ran across a family of Baboons and several charming lizards on the way down. The journey back to campus required a combi transfer, and I was once again thrilled with the experience. The drivers are friendly, the passengers happy to squeeze, and the rickety buses never fail to make me smile. I also made a trip out to the National Botanical Gardens. Finally some success, after THREE previous failed attempts to locate the site. The map has it plotted incorrectly, and NO ONE in the vicinity even knew of its existence. I would say “very strange”, but I am slowly starting to come to terms with the different sense of direction awareness that is typical here. At the very least, volunteer prospects at the Botanical Gardens look hopeful-I only have to wait on a response to my letter for the Director. Let's see how long that takes...
Bookworm: I recently finished the novel “Three Cups of Tea.” A fabulous read that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend, particularly for world travellers and anyone willing to discard wrong assumptions and embrace other cultures.
Casualties: The list of unfortunate incidents is growing. In addition to the start of semester mugging, one room was broken into over the weekend (chains and padlock cut) and the electronics stolen, one girl was drugged at a house party (minor, no medical attention required), and one camera was lifted smoothly from a backpack while a student was walking. While I can't help feeling an impending sense of loss for my valuables, it is easy to stay optimistic as there are so many positive aspects of Botswana that far outweigh the negative.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Average Joe

I woke up this morning to find a cow ambling past my dorm room window. Delightful. An early run was in store, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of other 'stay-fit' enthusiasts out at the campus track. A few seemed to regard my Yoga workout with curiosity, and I ended up making a couple new friends. My schedule is finally starting to mold itself into something regular and I've started to recognize classmates as I walk around campus. The school week came to an end with a tedious four hour Plant Pathology lab on Friday evening. However, it was my first class held in an air conditioned environment, so I would have gladly spent the whole night plating petri dishes and cutting up spinach leaves. I did manage to slice my finger open with a scalpel in pursuit of leaf blight. After which a classmate informed me that the blades were sharp. Yes, thank you. Hopefully I won't sprout fungal growth in a few days time. A visit to the campus pool cleared me of all worries. The fifty meters of cool, sun kissed water were amazing. Completely refreshing. I spent a solid two hours floundering around in bliss. Unfortunately the student swimming hours are limited from 2:00-6:00pm, so planning around the class schedule is required. And I've decided to take on another student group. The newly discovered UB Ballroom Dancing Club. I headed out Saturday night to enjoy a live competition and get a feel for what was in store. The event was inspiring to the point where I was ready to buy a ballroom gown and put on a pair of dancing heels. Ages ranged from six (cheeky little boys and girls with sequined dresses) to adult. There was a delightful mix of Waltz, Jive, Salsa, Rumba, Cha Cha, and Quickstep. The Jive seemed to be the dance of choice for the competitors, as attitudes sparked and some local moves spiced up the performances. It may be well past midnight but I'm definitely in the mood for a Dirty Dancing movie marathon.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


I now have some appreciation for what a Monsoon must be like. This morning the 5 foot deep trenches/gutters around campus ran swift with raging rivers as the sky emptied. We've had these downpours before, but they have been brief ten minute affairs. This time the onslaught lasted for almost four hours. My umbrella was rendered useless; my plastic crocs a beautiful thing. Trekking across campus from one club meeting to another, I had to start prioritizing. Sadly, I said goodbye to the UB Choir as conflicts with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the UB Aquatic squad arose. Instead I became a proud member of SAHA: the Society Against HIV/AIDS. Given the prevalence of the disease in Botswana, and the ongoing efforts to decrease the number of infected individuals (condoms can be found anywhere on campus, and are freely distributed), I wanted to join a group that highlights such a key issue. Volunteer work starts immediately, as free testing/screening for HIV is available for students at the campus health clinic this week. My other enquiries to volunteer with NGO's are still unanswered. In the meantime I'll be focusing on class work. Conservation Biology met for its first lab session, and golly was it a good time. Ninety plant pots, barrels of soil, radish seeds galore, and smoothie drinks made from water and syringa leaves. Not for human consumption. The experiment will test the effects of toxic chemicals in the leaves of the syringa tree (an invasive species) on the growth of the common radish plant. Wonderful. Finally some hands-on science, even if I did sweat off a storm working in the greenhouse with a wool inspired lab coat.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Raise Your Glass to Conservation

This weekend got off to an exciting start as I joined the UB Wildlife Conservation Society for an outdoor retreat. Or rather, a typical start as the bus didn't get moving until two hours after the intended departure time. The weekend fee was an astonishingly cheap 35 Pula, covering transport, meals, and accommodation. The destination was the Gaborone Game Reserve, a short 10 minute drive from the university campus. After unloading supplies at the camp site, I set off on an evening walk with a few other students. Generally, the reserve is a driving only attraction (despite the lack of predators), but we barely had to stray far before encountering a huge herd of Impala and the comical profile of Guinea Fowl charging across the road. A dinner of rice and stew welcomed us back to camp where the enormous communal cooking pot was straight out of Hansel and Gretel. The atmosphere around the fire was comical and boisterous. A number of the society members were well on their way through a cooler of drinks, yet surprisingly still amiable to be around. At least for the first few hours. Along with the other seven international students, I turned it in around midnight. A dusty old relic of a circus tent was to be our temple of rest. Featuring a complete lack of ventilation and no floor to insure that all thirty occupants, once covered in a sufficient layer of rusty dirt, would spend the whole night sweating. Not that I was going to get much sleep anyway. Painfully loud conversations (more akin to friendly shouting matches) carried on well past four in the morning. Along with some strange singing. And then the breakfast crew awoke at 5:30am to start preparing the morning meal. Result: no sleep. However, an early walk uncovered a herd of Zebra, several Kudu, Warthogs, a group of Ostriches, Monkeys, and...best of all...a whole handful of Dung Beetles rolling their precious cargo down the road. Stopping for a moment on a huge rock slab it was easy to soak in the surroundings and the exotic sounds echoing from the forest. We started the day off right (or wrong, depending on your food preferences) with Fat Cakes, a traditional breakfast food of yeasty dough rolled into circles and fried. Next on the agenda was a Society meeting. Perhaps the most ridiculous, pointless, polite, repetitive, structured meeting I've ever had to sit through on no sleep. Bewildered? So was I. Though I hate to use such a cop out, it really was something you had to experience for yourself. Suffice to say, a stuffed antelope specimen was sitting on the front table, rear pointed towards the audience; the meeting coordinator had a stopwatch and whistle; several society members still had beers in hand; the room smelled of formaldehyde; yet individuals stood up and used formal addresses before passing comment or stating an argument, and guest speakers had been invited. Bizarre. Lunch afterwards featured Pap, a maize meal quite like porridge. And of course, more drinks. For the first time, I tried my hand at Jungle Speed. If you've ever played the card game Spoons, you will understand why several of use walked away with welts and scratches on our hands. All in the pursuit of victory. The afternoon was filled with more socializing and finally a bry that served up enormous hunks of meat. People here sure like their beef. Several new arrivals brought the total group number to almost fifty. With the prospect of another sleepless night in store (amid even more sweaty bodies), I caught a ride back to campus with the international students. A cool welcome awaited, thanks to my room fan.
Conclusion: Yes, I would definitely do it again. Apart from a lack of sleep, the excursion was a great experience, the beginning of new friendships and also a sense of belonging within the UB Wildlife and Conservation Society.As well, I came away from the weekend having mastered the three part Botswana handshake, and being christened with a Setswana name. Kitso, meaning knowledge.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Thank goodness for Liqui Fruit. On a campus where fresh fruit is a rare species and vegetables are served with teaspoons at the cafeteria, I find myself wanting for a major food group. Enter...the greatest beverage ever! Conveniently canned, no sugar added, no preservatives, pure fruit juice deliciousness. Available in several mouth watering flavors. On another health note, yesterday I experienced my first “gym class” in Botswana. Volleyball began with 4 laps around the court and stretches out of an 80's workout video. Several girls were wearing sandals and skirts. Hmm. Perhaps first day ill-preparedness? Gymnastics was much of the same, except the lap count was extended and half the class hid in the corner after tiring on the 6th lap. However, there is something about “common misery” and group activities that helps to break the ice: I met at least 30 friendly and exuberant students. On a similar quest to establish more contacts, I joined up with the UB aquatic squad and the UB choir. I'm an inefficient sinker and I can't hold much of a tune, but thought the experience would be worthwhile. The Aquatic squad has yet to hold a practice, but I attended a choir session just this evening. Prudent advice: If not musically gifted, don't stand in between the alto and soprano sections. You will end up not being able to sing either part. The pieces are all in Setswana, which will prove frustrating at first but hopefully I'll adapt faster to the language by learning through music. Do re mi fa so la ti...
Student tip: Before forking out hundreds of Pula for textbooks, check the university library for earlier editions of the recommended reading. Books can be checked out for a month, and then renewed twice. If you reach the stacks before your fellow students you can basically secure a textbook for the entire term and keep some bills in your pocket.
Cultural note: By far my favourite expression used in Botswana remains “Isn't it?”. Used extensively by everyone, particularly lecturers after stating any significant point. I counted during Plant Pathology this morning and noted eight uses of the expression during a short hour long class. “The major concern of Plant Pathologists is the health and productivity of economic plants...isn't it?...yeeesss.”

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Village life

The weekend excursion was set to begin at 8:00 Saturday morning, so naturally we pulled out of the parking lot around 8:35. The bus driver, however, was no longer on African time once the wheels started rolling- we overtook a host of sporty looking vehicles on the drive out to a local village. The chief greeted us all respectfully in turn and welcomed us officially to the kgotla (a public meeting place and community court) . In his presence, and in order to pay respect to the traditional Botswana ways, women are required to cover their shoulders with modest tops and wear ankle length skirts. Men are expected to present themselves in jackets and trousers. The elders of the village spoke only in Setswana, and with our rather befuddled involvement, carried out a mock wedding, funeral, and two court cases. I was the mother of the bride. A proud moment. We were shown around the village, took in the tranquillity of a local dam, and retired for lunch at the Motse Lodge. Delicious food and wonderful service, but the prevalence of Western culture was overwhelming. The lodge featured a swimming pool, flush toilets, air conditioning, and a dj station. I was happy to board the bus and head off again into the farther reaches of the country. We stopped for a moment at the Livingstone Tree. This massive wild fig once overlooked the famous missionary doctor as he administered both medicine and sermons to the local tribes. Its interlocking boughs create a cool, almost magical haven from the beating sun. We touched another piece of history on a walk up into the hills. Hundreds of years ago, the Toutswe people carved delicate figures into the rock faces. A Baobab tree, a herd of giraffes, a hunting party (three-legged figures=men), a majestic Gemsbok, a medicinal plant, and a family of Impala...yet every image would have gone unnoticed were it not for the knowing eyes of our guide. I reached towards the pictures and traced my finger along the same outline that a Toutswe tribesman had followed many centuries ago. Evening found our group at the Metsimotlhabe village where the Baboon totem is worshipped. Thankfully the reception in no way resembled the behaviour of the sacred animal. Under the tutelage of the tribe grandmothers (who were unbelievably agile and cheeky), we attempted a few African dance numbers. The chief sat back with a toothless grin as over fifty international students shuffled awkwardly around and tried to flail at the right moments. Good fun. The cooking introduced us to a few more traditional dishes, including stewed spinach, yeasty bread, and sorghum beer. I declined a second swig of the interesting brew after swallowing several unidentifiable chunks. An evening of ghost stories around a bonfire completed the delightful day, and I retired into my mud hut. Alas, the night was not spent sharing a bed of grass with ants, but rather on a comfortable mattress. Clearly we were not the first tourists to stop by the village. The following day took us out to the Mokolodi Game Reserve. In small groups we drove out along the trails in pursuit of wildlife. While I disdain the use of motorized vehicles to transport lazy tourists to prime destinations, the trails were closed to the hiking public. Something about leopards, hippos, and cheetahs...? However, I was thrilled to lay my eyes upon Zebras, Warthogs (Pumba for all the Disney enthusiasts), Impala, Ostrich, Waterbuck, and the spotted form of a cheetah hiding in the grass. I suppose money isn't abundant at the reserve, but for more successful animal sightings I would recommend vehicles that don't sound like demolition units. Not terribly stealthy. The reserve does have a campsite though that would certainly be worth the visit. We were served with another traditional feast and left Mokolodi, our cameras and bellies full. The drive back to Gabs (as locals affectionately call the city) was under half and hour, encouraging me to look into weekend volunteer opportunities at the reserve. The regularity of the university campus already had me pining for the African wilderness. And I miss my mud hut. Leaky roof and all.
Setswana lesson:
Dumela rra/mma = Hello sir/madam
O tsogile jang? = How are you? (formal)
Le kae? = How are you? (informal)
Leina lame ke Kelsey = My name is Kelsey
Ke a le boga = Thank you
I could listen to some Setswana words a hundred times over and still delight- the emphasized rolling of the rrr's is pure linguistic bliss! However, for a student of French, German, and Spanish (at various points in my life), the pronunciation has an element of alterity that leaves me struggling to communicate.

Friday, January 14, 2011

To infinity and beyond

As a veteran Canadian who has lived through many a long and frigid winter, I reserve the right to complain about the weather. Take today for example: What began as a windy, rainy morning soon gave way to cotton clouds, then blistering sun, sweltering temperatures, overcast skies, more sunshine, storm clouds, torrential rain, and finally a light, breezy evening. How on Earth is one supposed to dress?!?! I spent the temperamental day in a flurry of activities. First on the list, the Gaborone Museum (just off Main Mall). Quite a charming little establishment with a bevy of exhibits. It was refreshing to learn more about the history and culture of the country I was studying in. Not to mention the two locals, aka 'tour guide extraordinaires', who accompanied me and a fellow Canadian. The most interesting feature at the museum was a collection of artwork portraying the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. I have never seen so many, er...bananas, in paintings before. Both comical and serious works. Including a sculpture made entirely out of, well, 'rubbers'. ANYWAY. A bit of an eye opener. I also experienced my first combi ride on the journey out to “The Station”. For a reasonable price of 3 Pula you can board a mini bus (think VW van and Little Miss Sunshine), squash shoulder to shoulder with another sweaty passenger, and cross your fingers for luck as there are no seatbelts and the traffic is bumpy, busy, and fast. Quite exhilarating really. The Station is another outdoor shopping area with row upon row of local vendors (all selling suspiciously similar fare), a small strip mall complex, and a buzzing atmosphere. Hold onto your purses ladies! The evening drew to a close with a short cab drive out to the African Mall where a collection of tasty restaurants reside. Our group opted for Thai (when in Africa, why not?) and savoured the break from cafeteria clone food. A cab ride in the city amounts to about 30 Pula-shared among the four passengers-so not a bad option, particularly when safety is a concern. Night has closed in and the mosquitoes are buzzing so I think I'll call it a day.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bumps in the Road

As the week rolls to an end, I conquer an important milestone: the ID card. Instant access to every facility on campus (library, pool, etc.) and my golden ticket at meal times. The left side of my head is strangely absent from the photo, but when are ID pictures ever photogenic? I am officially a student at the University of Botswana, registered for a cornucopia of classes: Wildlife Biology of Southern Africa (which includes a lecture and field/lab component), Conservation Biology (lecture + field/lab), Plant Pathology (lecture + field/lab), and...drumroll...Gymnastics. I also have my eyes on the UB Wildlife Conservation Society, which is active enough to feature its own website. Volunteer opportunities at the nearby game reserves look hopeful, but definitely merit further investigation. Talking to locals about the various parks/museums/reserves in and around Gaborone, I have come to some interesting conclusions. 1) Travelling, even within Botswana, is very expensive for students. The tourists and international students visit the Okavango Delta...Chobe National Park...the Kalahari Desert...most people born and raised in the country seldom travel outside their village or the closest city. 2) There is not a great deal of interest for natural attractions such as the National Botanical Gardens. Less than a 30 minute walk from campus and several acres in size, I have yet to talk to a local who knows of its existence. And there I am with a gargantuan star marking my map. My roommate probably thinks I'm strange. Reasonable assumption. Her name is Tumi, and though a bit shy and quiet, we've already bonded. Or rather, I've plagued her with questions. Maybe she'll join me on a romp through the Botanical Gardens...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A little side note...

In true African style, I joined in with some locals for a pick-up soccer game last night. Fantastic. After a difficult collegiate career I was thoroughly fed up with the sport, only to rediscover the thrill of scoring a goal and pulling off a commendable move. Naturally there are low expectations for my abilities (being a girl), but what a confidence boost! I hope this will become a weekly tradition for our group of soccer enthusiasts. Classes, on the other hand, were not such an adrenaline pumping endeavour. Here in Botswana, the first week is apparently “optional”. For professors and students alike. Very strange. Hopefully the end of the week will bring more certainty in terms of my course schedule and class expectations. I am definitely struggling with the flexible concept of time that is customary here. Meeting at 3:00 really means 3:15ish. A 7:00am opening time for the cafeteria is only to suggest that the doors are unlocked at seven...breakfast food will make an appearance after 8:00 if you're lucky. But who am I to be cynical. Bob Marley's “Don't worry, be happy” is the perfect soundtrack for the pace of life in Botswana. Time to stop and smell the flowers.
Living tip: There are laundry facilities a short jaunt from the Las Vegas dorms (appropriate name for an international student residence eh?), equipped with both washers and dryers. However, you will need to visit the souvenir shop on campus and exchange Pula for “tokettes” in order to activate the machines. Line drying is also available, and the fastest option if the weather agrees. Probably not wise to leave your clothes unattended though, as they're likely to go for a walk if you turn your back.

Living large

For the more authentic shopping experience, I would recommend Main Mall. There is a veritable combination of clothing stores, grocery stores, odds and ends, and outdoor stalls selling craft items and authentic goods. The daring soul can even purchase a cup of traditional Mopani worms. The tourist information center is also located here, and may be a good place to start planning for weekend trips and other excursions. A great way to get out into rural Botswana, however, is through an invite. And these are surprisingly easy to come by. I only talked for a minute or so with my neighbour and she was already asking me if I would like to join her for church in the morning. While not a very religious person, I was humbled by the invite and eager to experience a different aspect of Batswana life. The morning service was quite rewarding: Of course I still hold to my own personal beliefs, but there were several uplifting moments when the entire congregation was singing together in Setswana. Don't be surprised if you are invited to a wedding (huge, weeklong affairs with often as many as 1000 people), or to spend the weekend at a local village. I consider myself a bit socially awkward and incredibly shy. One heck of a blusher as well. However, sitting down in the cafeteria and introducing myself to a complete group of strangers has never been so well received. It is far more likely that the food may cause you some misgivings. Chicken livers for breakfast? Definitely one aspect of the culture that I don't intend to embrace. If you are a picky eater, the grocery store cashiers might just become your best friend. The offerings at the university cafeteria are limited. The most common companions on my plate are chicken, rice, sorghum, pap, cabbage, beets, soup/sauce (can't decide what it most resembles), butternut squash, and 3 ingredient salad. Variety is not always the spice of life, though, and I am quite satisfied with the food available...perhaps I'll reassess in three months time.
Security alert: It is one thing to heed warnings, but how often do you really believe that horrible things will happen to you? Despite the extensive security briefing delivered at orientation, we were still struck by a scary incident. Two of the students from the program were mugged. I suppose all I can say is...muggings happen everywhere. In New York City, Vancouver, Denver, Los Angeles. Since my arrival in Botswana, I have felt just as safe as in any city (Memphis, for example). I can't speak for my computer or camera, but diligence and precaution should prevent any theft. As to the mugging: Don't walk around by yourself, and if you can't find a taxi after dark, travel in large groups. Many people equate foreigners with money and will target you for that reason alone.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Orientation should be renamed adaptation. Problems with the university computer network have ground registration to a halt and forced the international student coordinators into various acts of improvisation. The campus tour was also cancelled: Alas, I shall have to find my way around by a process of trial and error. Maps are not available. However, the local students are more than helpful, though you will have to approach them and not expect the opposite to happen. Every interaction is a learning experience that will bring you closer to appreciating Batswana (as the people of Botswana are called) culture. Today I had the opportunity to see more of Gaborone as the international students embarked on a bus tour of the city. We passed many commanding buildings (government offices, city hall, Debswana Diamond Company) and ended at Game City, the largest shopping center in Gaborone. If you are worried about culture shock, rest assured there are many ways to surround yourself with North American culture. Case study #1: the mall. It's certainly acceptable to purchase necessities and spend a few hours browsing the shops, but if you can do it at home, avoid it when you travel abroad. I'm looking forward to visiting a local market and learning about the more traditional fare of Botswana. That being said, I did make a very atypical sighting at the mall. A Baboon! Originally mistaken for a dog until it started to scale the fence. While I'm always on the lookout for wildlife, I can't complain about the distance on this occasion. According to the locals, Baboons are notorious thieves and can behave quite aggressively towards humans. I wouldn't like to try my luck in a wrestling match.
Zzzzz: Thank goodness for earplugs! My first few nights in the dorm (or hostel as it is called here) have brought back...er...“fond” memories of my initiation into university living. Some individuals like to party. If you're in search of a truly restful sleep, come prepared.

Friday, January 7, 2011

First impressions

The flight to Gaborone was a quick hour jaunt with amazing scenery thanks to the cloudless sky. I stepped off the plane and started sweating. Welcome to Botswana. Every local I have talked to complains about the heat, and then asks if they can come visit me in Canada or America. The following is a list of expressed desires (direct quotes):
-I want to see snow. It is so beautiful and cold. Can you eat it?
-I want to have a snow day. Or two. What about a snow week? Is that possible? Oh, that would be so wonderful.
-I want to make snowmen. Yes, just like in the movies, with a carrot nose. Run in the snow, play in the snow, lie in the snow...and make snowangels!
-I wish I could buy matching scarves and mittens. And all those cute hats. They do not sell these things in Botswana. No one will buy them.
Needless to say, there is never a lack of things to talk about, and everyone at the university LOVES to talk to international students. However, you might need to make the first move. Approach a classmate and introduce yourself. Sit at a table with locals when you eat in the cafeteria (or refectory, as it is called here). Taking those first steps is always hard, particularly in a new country, but I haven't gotten a cold shoulder yet.
Student tip: There were almost 80 students at the first international gathering/orientation, and almost half didn't have their luggage (thankfully I wasn't one of those...this time around). Eventually all the suitcases arrived, but be prepared for the worst. Bring your essentials and two changes of clothes in your carry-on luggage. There is nothing like travelling to a different country, living with strangers, and meeting new people in a three-day-old sweaty outfit.
IMPORTANT: Students from the United States and Commonwealth countries do NOT need a visa to enter Botswana. When you pass through customs/passport clearing at the airport in Gaborone, pay careful attention. The officer should stamp your passport and write V90D in the stamp. This stands for “valid 90 days” and allows you to stay in the country as a legal visitor for this amount of time. After ninety days you are considered an illegal immigrant: if your status is discovered you will be arrested, detained, sent to prison, or deported. I'm nodon't know what the exact consequences are, but they are certainly serious. Ninety days is the current and accepted time frame. If the officer writes a different number, politely question him or her. One student had V10D, another V14D, and several V30D. Erroneous. Applying for a residence permit (free of charge if the duration of your stay is under 6 months) can be a very stressful process in such a short time frame.
Dress code: You will need to take numerous showers in Botswana, or (if a 'save the planet' proponet like myself, use babywipes unless really unfortunate smelling). The weather is hot and humid- dress and pack accordingly. I was absolutely flabbergasted by the number of students on campus wearing pants, lonsleeve t-shirts, and (in the case of a few men) full out suits. It is a cultural expectation in Botswana to dress more conservative and professional, regardless of the egg frying temperatures. That being said, foreigners can get away with a few skimpy slip-ups. Along with my fellow international students, I have been wearing shorts and tank tops nearly every day-it has simply been too hot. Perhaps the cause of so much male attention. If you want to blend in and respect the customs in Botswana (I wish I had the fortitude to do so, but I would end up having to change clothes several times a day), keep this in the back of your mind when packing. Long, light skirts might be a good option for females, and thin, summer pants a safe bet for males.
Cultural note: White is not a common skin color in Botswana. Wherever you walk, people will stare. Particularly men. Perhaps women too, but being of the skirt wearing gender I can't fairly comment. Walking with a group of friends, we even had a car slow down, goggle, then turn around to drive past a second time. I suppose it depends on the individual, but I haven't found the attention in any way frightful or unnerving. It's quite amusing actually. And so far, any advances have only been for the sake of saying hello and exchanging names and smiles. However, without intending disrespect, the one word I would describe many Botswana men by is “smooth”. The local girls are in complete agreement.
Essentials: Bring a fan, or be prepared to pay around 150 pula to buy one. The dorm rooms do not have air conditioning (nor do most buildings on campus) and might be compared to a sauna during some hours of the day. Maybe a slight exaggeration, but it gets HOT, and there's nothing like thrashing around on the bed, sweating, and trying to fall asleep. Also, pack an umbrella. While you might get laughed off the streets in North America if you use it during summer weather, this is certainly not the case in Botswana. Embrace the parasol. Can't guarantee that males can tote one, but definitely fashionable with the ladies. Naturally quite useful when it rains as well. Rain jackets are simply too hot and induce more sweating, thus rendering the 'stay dry' purpose moot. Plug adapters and voltage converters (Botswana deals in 230 Volts, while North America uses 110 Volts) should also be on your list if you plan on using any North American technology in Botswana. While most of the country has plug sockets that fit three large, round prongs in a triangle, the dorm rooms are equipped with outlets that only accept the three pronged, rectangular shaped plugs. Did I mention toilet paper? Yes, bring at least one roll to tide you over when you first arrive at the dorm. A monthly allotment should be supplied, but things were so hectic at check-in time that I barely even secured a room.
More essentials:
-padlock for your dorm room door
-water bottle, cheap plastic or fancy depending on your preference
-a pair of flip flops
-a swim cap (required if you intend to use the olympic sized pool on campus. Given the heat, I would recommend this)
-laundry bag, sunscreen...just about everything you need can be purchased in Botswana, but packing it in your suitcase will save you some of the hassle. There are two reasonably large malls located within walking distance (under 30 minutes) of the campus.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The journey begins...

Hello Johannesburg. After a tiresome 24 hours of travel time I arrived in Africa, though still not my final destination. I had elected to spend the 15 hour layover at the Emerald Guest House. A very wise choice. I made a reservation in advance online- compared to the hotels and other lodging located near the airport, the Emerald Backpackers was the most affordable and offered a delightful shuttle service to and from the airport. Plus there were shamelessly cute resident bunnies that hopped around the grounds. The staff were extremely helpful and the dorm quite comfortable. A quick word of wisdom though: If you frequently spend your nights in five star hotels, this might not be your cup of tea. The rooms are very basic, and house a number of friendly spiders. Nothing that a biologist can't handle.
Student tip: US dollars are accepted at almost every currency exchange counter in the Johannesburg airport. These are located in the arrivals/pick-up area of the airport, which you will pass through once you claim your baggage. Coin phones, which accept the Rand in various denominations, can also be found here. The overwhelmingly friendly porters will assist you with anything you need.