Sometimes when you travel, you have to let go of your plans and just step onto the dance floor with wild abandon.
I had embarked on the second half of my Botswana journey — a land safari! I was sad to leave the Delta, but looked forward to seeing more animals on drier land. A twinge of disappointment lingered only because I was not able to take advantage of the fact that it was Independence Day in Botswana. Surely, there must be a festival, gathering, anything where I could really meet the people of Botswana and experience their culture. Sadly, land safaris are tightly scheduled, which left little room for searching for a celebration of a national holiday.
After few hours of dusty driving, we passed a village where it was apparent that a party was happening. Now, I’m all for reaching the campsite on time, but a party in some remote village in the middle of the Botswana bush is worth more than an investigation. It didn’t take much pleading with our guide to convince him to stop. Turns out, he grew up in that village, so he was happy to spend some time visiting relatives.
It wasn’t just a free-for-all, there was some order to the celebration. A pair of elderly men sat in chairs. The leopard skins draped around their shoulders gave away their status of village mayor and tribal chief. Our guide, after receiving a warm welcome, asked them permission for me to participate and take photos. Surrounding the elders were the audience, most sitting on the ground. Many dancers and three drummers made a loose arc in front of them.
And what would and Independence celebration be without a meal? Before the chef chased me out, I was able to sneak quick peek into the “kitchen” or campfires with large black boiling cauldrons of beef, mealy-meal, and some potato-like vegetable.
Soon the music began. Drums beating, cans of soda filled with sand or rocks added timbre. Slowly the group settled on a beat which grew louder as more people began to catch the rhythm. This was not the first time I’ve felt these sounds, I remember them from the Botswana Delta. The clinking of the painted reed frogs sounds like a windy day at a marina, but you add three, five, ten, even more species of frogs each with their own call. On top of it all is the grunting of the hippos and an occasional roar of a lion. The drum circle was a cacophony of rhythms that in one instance sound like chaos, and the next, the pulsating heart of the Delta.
One woman stepped out into the open ring and began to sway in a complex pattern and she was soon joined by a man who appeared to be wooing her. Individually, other women took their turns: some together, some pursued by a man. The beat would continue until it seemed like all of the dancers and musicians were too tired to keep going, but after a short rest, another rhythm would begin with another complex dance.
I was lucky. Sometimes when traveling, you just stumble across something amazing and you have to take the initiative to take advantage of it. Botswana is especially hard to experience local culture because you can easily find yourself spending all of your time watching animals. After all, who doesn’t want to see a lion walk past your truck or an elephant stroll into your camp.
Furthermore, although everyone is friendly, native Botswana people, sometimes take a while to open up. I’m sure culture, race, and language all has something to do with this invisible barrier. However, if you have the time, try to step away from the safari tourism machine, it’s worth the time and patience (and perhaps a few beers) to talk with the locals and perhaps they will embrace you warmly.