Culture in Catalonia

My gli theme and challenge was to address poverty in spain and how it has affected the education system. While in spain i was given the opportunity to ask fellow Spanish classmates about their experiences with the education system and how it affected the impoverished. Many answered that because of the rising tuition costs for university some students would often have to take time off to raise money before pursuing a university career. This would often result, in my time in spain, with public protests at the university. These protests would be significant enough to shut down the university for several days, however the government would continue to ignore these protests.

I learned from this experience to explore and understand a different countries culture. Specifically, in Barcelona, catalans are very proud of their history. Catalans have years of often being put down by the Spanish government and my professors and fellow peers helped me understand their hardships. Being able to truly understand this changed my experience to be more open minded of the locals when visiting a new country. It is important to understand their hardships and traditions which they find pride in. This in the end changed my view of how i will continue to experience any culture.

Also, a fond memory i have of my time there was of spending one of my first days in Barcelona. Once there i decided to take advantage of the free art museum days and went out to explore by myself. This helped me step out of my boundaries and start to feel comfortable in this new foreign country i was alone in. From that point onward i was able to comfortably go on my own path, experiencing and meeting new people. This has made me even more confident to go on may adventures to come.

 

Stories from Skid Row

Margaret Finlay

Ending up on Skid Row is something most of us are told to avoid; however, I ventured to Hollywood, California, with that exact purpose in mind. Along with other students through the Office for Civic Engagement, I traveled to Los Angeles, California, for a week during Wintersession 2018 to serve those experiencing poverty and homelessness. Though it may sound cliché, the week forever changed my perspective on poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

26730612_1860758063999187_4906058402582290440_n

School is beyond difficult, challenging, and stressful for all of us, but I entered L.A. as an English Education major focusing on the Global Theme of Social Inequality and Human Rights, and the education and schooling present in the lives of the children and adults we encountered in our service showed both the efficacy and deficiencies of the American education system.

26991582_1860758027332524_4867881837256693703_n

Throughout our time in California, we saw many efforts toward bettering the lives of oneself and others present in the many people and places we visited. We saw children returning “home” to a homeless shelter after school, with a backpack and fistful of papers in tow. We participated in after-school activities with students from the projects, attempting to fill the “risky” hours associated with the time after school and before parents return from work. We learned about classes that teach former gang members and ex-convicts about parenting, anger management, and getting a high school diploma. For those members of society who don’t mold into “standardized” education, these programs offer new opportunities and hope.

26239498_1860752187333108_4864849888323049906_n

Poverty versus Privilege

Hope: the one word that continues coming to mind even after the time has passed. Those experiencing homelessness and poverty never lost it. Children in the projects talked about it when they imagined leaving their harrowing conditions. Former gang members referred to it when they told stories of drive-bys and death. As many have said before: “Where there is life, there is hope.” No one exemplifies this idea more than those experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles.

26239359_1860759130665747_6943172753329780550_n

Painting fingernails at Union Rescue Mission

Kyrgyz for Conservation

Here I find myself in Kyrgyzstan. You may be asking yourself, “Is that a country?” or “Is it part of Russia?” or “What did you say? Kyrokistani?”…. yes I have received all of the comments before. So let’s clarify. Kyrgyzstan is a country located in Central Asia. It  borders western China, southern Kazakhstan, eastern Uzbekistan, and northern Tajikistan. The people here are called Kyrgyz and they speak Kyrgyz language. Many also speak fluently in Russian because they were apart of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. Hence, they have many Russian influences in their culture, education, and politics. But Kyrgyzstan is the first country in Central Asia to fight for a truly democratic society. In the past 20 years, they underwent two revolutions for the sake of democracy. And their efforts have succeeded. In October of 2017, the Kyrgyz Republic had their first presidential elections in which they weren’t sure who would be the winner. Following the elections, they had their first peaceful transfer of power between presidents.

Kyrgyzstan is truly a gem in this part of the world. More than 80% of the landscape is occupied by mountains. They consider themselves nomadic because they traditionally roamed the mountains of Central Asia to find feeding grounds for their livestock. They lived in yurts and relied heavily on horses. They hunted and fished. They used animal parts and furs to make clothing, tools, and handicrafts. They even had time to play enthralling games such as Kok-Boru and Oodarysh. During the 70 year reign of the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz people were heavily suppressed culturally, but they clung tightly to their roots. Now, they are seeking to reestablish their heritage in a modern world and vibrantly express their traditions for all the world to see. They have hosted the World Nomad Games since its beginning in 2014. Through this international sports event, countries come to compete in traditional nomadic games and celebrate nomadic lifestyles. You can see a bit of the brilliant chaos in this promotional video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwpdPRzBJ44.

So I hope you are thinking, “Wow this sounds like a really cool place!” but you may also be asking, “Why Kyrgyzstan?”

I guess I should talk a little bit of what drew me to this place at this time in my life. At the University of Montana, I am studying Resource Conservation with a focus in Wildlife Biology. Since the beginning of my studies, I have been fascinated by Asiatic wildlife. In particular cats. Whether it was Amur tigers in eastern Russian or snow leopards in Central Asia, I knew I wanted to go to a place where I could work on cat conservation. When I saw pictures of the landscape and wildlife of Kyrgyzstan, I decided there was no better place for me to go. My global theme for GLI is Natural Resources and Sustainability and my challenge is the preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity. In Central Asia, populations of snow leopards and their prey species (ibex, argali, markhor) are negatively affected by illegal hunting, aka poaching. In recent years, governments and organizations such as Panthera have been working against poaching by developing and supporting community-based conservancies. When managed correctly, these conservancies can provide many opportunities for members in the community through land and wildlife management, eco-tourism, and legal hunting. In the Murghab Conservancy of Tajikistan, up to 20 rangers and guides are hired during high hunting and tourist season. A new project in the region is even teaching women how to be hunting and hiking guides.

In these communities, the locals take immense pride in their land and wildlife. I was surprised to learn that most of the rangers in these conservancies were once poachers. When they realized the immense damage they were having on wildlife populations, they decided to team up with organizations and help restore populations. Since then, they have overcome tremendous obstacles to turn around the fates of certain populations.

I can confidently say positive conservation movements are occurring throughout Central Asia. Yet, many problems continue to exist as well, especially in poorly managed conservancies. So much work still needs to be done. I am very lucky to have the opportunity to volunteer with the organization Panthera. While working alongside their incredible team, I am learning how they help develop community-based conservation in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The most valuable information I have learned thus far is that the locals are the smartest conservationists for their areas. They may not have degrees in wildlife biology or resource management, but they have strong connections to the land and the way it works. They have lived off it for the past several thousand years. If we want to succeed in properly managing land and wildlife, we must work tightly with the people who live off it and affect it.

I am excited to see where these experiences take me. I would love to come back to Central Asia after I finish my degree and gain more experience in land and wildlife management in the states. My most taunting questions at the moment are the following:

  1. How are ecotourism and legal hunting positively affecting conservation here? How are they negatively affecting conservation?
  2. Why do some community-based conservancies work really well? Why are some struggling?
  3. How do we get the general public more involved in this field so they understand why balanced ecosystems is vitally important for our future world?

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments so don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. And don’t forget to look through the pictures below!

IMG_E4112

Early autumn in a mountain valley near Lake Issyk-Kul. Typically rangers let their livestock free-range during the day and bring them into corrals at night.

IMG_4267

A large yurt near the historic sight Tash Rabat. A cat perches on the top, overlooking his large kingdom.

IMG_5183

A Marco Polo sheep skull. Marco Polo are the largest subspecies of argali and the largest mountain sheep in the world.

IMG_5179

Piled in a Toyota Landrover on our search for argali and ibex. The women in the back are training to be rangers and guides for the Murghab Conservancy.

IMG_5166

Alichur village in Tajikistan which helps runs the Murghab conservancy.

IMG_5125

Here you can see the Tien Shan mountain range. It stretches the 533 mile border between Kyrgyzstan and China. You can also see the border fence.

IMG_4762

On the top of the hill stands a markhor, This animal is unique to certain regions of Tajikistan.

Botswana: The Adventure of a Lifetime

by Ben McAuliffe

mcauliffe_Table mountain

Climbing Table Mountain in South Africa, Caving in Lesotho, getting our truck stuck in sand in Namibia and being charged by a hippo in Botswana are just a few of my favorite memories from my time abroad. I was lucky enough to spend the past semester in Botswana, attending the University of Botswana. It is an experience that I am still processing that changed the way I see the world. I was thrown into a new place, a new culture and due to a problem with flights I had absolutely no orientation. It was the biggest culture shock I have ever felt, but it was the biggest confidence builder when I started to find my way around and figure everything out. Everything from personal space to the food was different from what I am used to and it made me grateful for the little convinces I have in the United States.

mcauliffe

The differences were what made my study abroad so amazing. It allowed for little victories along the way. From being able to order my food in Setswana or finding what Kombi (A type of buss that drives throughout the city) would take me to the mall I wanted to go to. Every day was filled with little challenges, little victories and plenty of failures that shaped my study abroad experience into the rewarding experience that it was. Even after all the frustration and all the challenges I would never change my time abroad. I met amazing people and I saw some of the most beautiful landscapes this world has to offer and I am thankful for every second of it.

In school I was lucky enough to be able to work with different groups of local students. This was a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I was able to meet new people and make friends with local students. It was a curse because sometimes my group members could not understand me or I could not understand them and the local students and I have very different ideas of time management which led to conflict among the group. This was a great opportunity for me to enhance my leadership skills, I had to learn how to work with people from different cultures and at times with people who did not speak the same language as me. It was a challenge but in the end, it was a great experience that allowed me to build my skills as a team member and a team leader.

I am still thinking through my time in Botswana and returning to everyday life after such an exciting few months has been difficult at times. But it was completely worth it. If I could give someone who is thinking about studying abroad one piece of advice it would be to go for it. It’s not going to be easy and you will have challenges along the way. But you will miss it when you get back and you will be telling people stories about that time you studied abroad for months after you time abroad.

Oaxaca, México: My Second Home

IMG_4652.JPG
Name: Audrey Brosnan
Major: BFA Media Arts – Digital Filmmaking, BA Spanish
Year: Senior

A year ago today I was starting to pack my bags, getting everything in order for my study abroad experience. It would be my first trip out of the country and something I had been dreaming about since I was very young. The journey started out rocky – at about 10 pm the evening before my flight, I received a text message from Delta Airlines informing me that my flight out of the Missoula Airport had been cancelled, no further explanation given, and I had automatically been re-booked on the same flight for the following day. I was embarking on a faculty-led semester abroad, so, knowing I was booked on the same flight as my professor, I sent him a harried email asking if he too had received the same text. I remember sitting on my couch getting his quick reply: “Welcome to the world of international travel!”

A day later, I was checking in at the airport; it was about 5 in the morning (my flight was at 6) and I was getting ready to weigh my bag. I am a notorious over-packer and, having foregone a carry-on bag, I was prepared to pay for the extra weight when the worker informed me that my flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca had a strict weight limit that he could not override. I needed to drop about 30 pounds from my suitcase and fast, if I wanted to make my flight. I was panicking to say the least. I immediately called my roommate who had given me a ride to the airport, who was of course already halfway home, and begged her to come help me. I was ditching everything I deemed nonessential (looking back, I made some well intentioned but overall poor choices). I left behind all my pants, sweatshirts, and jacket thinking: Hey it’s Mexico! It’s always hot there! (WRONG). After leaving my stuff for my roommate to load into her car alone (I was told it took multiple trips), I made it through security and to my gate with two minutes to spare. My professor said, “I was a little worried you weren’t coming.”

IMG_3484.JPG
The first picture I took in Mexico City!

Despite the rocky start, my experience in Oaxaca was very much a dream come true. There were nine of us from the University of Montana along with our instructor. We were split up between four different households where we stayed with host families. My host mom, Cristina, was one of the most genuinely kind, caring, and funny people I’ve ever known (not to mention one of the best cooks). I had two “sisters” I knew from Montana as well as two from Chicago and two from New Zealand. I also got to know Cristina’s daughter, Fabiola, and her six year old son, Gabo (aka Gabito), who joined us for lunch almost every day. Impromptu soccer matches with Gabo were also common after lunch when we didn’t have class.

IMG_4191.JPG
Me and my host mom, Cristina, celebrating my 21st birthday!

Everyone living with host families attended the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, about a fifteen minute walk from our neighborhood where we took classes (in Spanish) from local Oaxacans about Spanish grammar, Mexican film and literature, poetry, theatre, cooking, dancing, and weaving. We also had “intercambios” after class where we would meet up with a partner assigned to us by the Instituto. All of the partners were volunteers from withing the Oaxaca community who were native Spanish speakers learning English as their second language. We would spend an hour a day chatting, half an hour in English and half in Spanish so we would both get practice as well as gaining a friend! My intercambio, Lourdes, was a very intelligent, kind, and funny woman. She had recently gotten her PhD in anthropology in Manchester, England. We both had an interest in film and literature – I actually helped her find a volunteer opportunity for the international film festival that is held in Oaxaca each year. And, through her volunteering, I was able to meet on of the creative directors of the Sundance Film Festival completely by chance while at dinner with some friends!

While abroad we took many trips, both organized by our program through the Instituto, through our professor, and by ourselves. Here are a few of my favorites! You can find more pictures of my time in Mexico on my instagram: @audreybrosnan.

IMG_3499.JPG
Our group after our first day of classes!

IMG_3704.JPG
Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman

IMG_3796.JPG
Our group at the ruins of Monte Albán

IMG_3824.JPG
Chapulines (grasshoppers) in el Mercado 20 de Noviembre- a traditional Oaxacan protein used in a variety of foods

6DFECA13-F061-466E-AFFB-8BE3C13ACA73.JPG
Walking on the edge of Hierve el Agua, a petrified waterfall

IMG_4537.JPG
Playa Manzanilla in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca where we spent spring break living in an actual treehouse!

IMG_4694.JPG
El Procession de Silencio (The Procession of Silence) during Semana Santa (Holy Week), downtown Oaxaca

IMG_4818.JPG
The Blue House aka Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s residence in Mexico City
(Translation: Frida and Diego lived in this house 1929 – 1954)

My Global Theme while abroad was Social Inequality and I chose to focus on education. Mexico, specifically the region of Oaxaca, has experienced political unrest with regards to the education system in recent years. With the highest indigenous population in the country combined with one of the highest rates of poverty, Oaxaca faces a lack of funding, facilities, transportation, supplies, and teachers, along with language barriers between teacher and student as there are 57+ indigenous languages spoken among the people. Being a filmmaking student, I was interested in filming a short documentary exploring the different sides of the issue of education access in Oaxaca. I interviewed teachers and students studying to become teachers about their own opinions as well as the basic structure of the education system, as it differs from that of the US. It was eye-opening, even having done my own research, there was nuance to the issue that I was unable to see or experience without firsthand accounts from people who live the issue each day.

I really cannot stress enough how absolutely incredible this experience was. I began the trip hoping to complete my Spanish minor; now I am two classes away from a major in Spanish, something I never thought I would be able to accomplish in my four years at the University of Montana. I am also conversationally fluent in Spanish, a dream I have had since I began Spanish classes at the age of 14, and, while abroad, in addition to class assigned work, I read my first complete work of Mexican literature and wrote a ten page analysis completely in Spanish. These may sound like small accomplishments, but they are things I hoped to accomplish but was worried I never would. While abroad I formed bonds with fellow students from Montana, but also from all over the world. I have an understanding of the Oaxacan culture I did not have before. I have a family in Oaxaca, just as I have a family here in Montana, and I can’t wait to visit again.

The Best Days

Well here I am sitting in the Brussels airport, the only major airport in Belgium, waiting for my last fun weekend trip to Barcelona. The next time I am sitting here I will be waiting for my flight home to the states. The time has gone by faster than I could have ever imagined, and while I am ready to venture home to the snow and negative degree weather, I am going to miss the city life.

Being from Montana and never staying in the city longer than a couple weeks has led to many self-discoveries. This country is so unique in many quirky ways, and while it may not be my favourite place in this huge world, it will always have a place in my heart.

I learned that there is no way I am able go longer than 6 months without some mountains in my life. I never considered myself much of a nature lover, but you never know what you have until it is gone. I discovered that I am not as independent as I thought. Being away from friends, family, and community showed me how much I value those things in my life. I have also learned a lot about the culture, history, and government of Belgium, but there two days during my exchange that I would consider the some of the best days of my life.

x

If you have never been to Europe in the winter, then you will be soon to discover that it rains almost every day and if it is not rainy it will be cloudy. So, this day was glorious because not only did it not rain all day, but it was shining bright enough to sit and have a picnic. My friend Madi and I went to the store and bought Brie, bread, salami, and fruit. Before we ventured to find the perfect picnic spot, we headed to a favourite bakery and got cupcakes. We sat and stared at the Belfry on the greenest patch of grass. There were children running and playing and we forgot all about our studies. There have been so many times where I have marvelled at the fact that I am studying in Europe but this was one of those day where I couldn’t thinkof anything better.

aa

As you know by now I am a Montana girl; which means I have hardly ever dealt with any public transportation systems, except for riding the school bus. On this day, I seamlessly planned to go all the way to the south east of Belgium, I am currently staying in the North West (Gent) and back. There is a hike in Rochehaut called the ‘Promenade des Echelles’, or ‘walk of the ladders,’ officially it is known as walk 84. By this time, I was dying for some nature in my life, but to get there meant that I had to take a train to Brussels, another train from Brussels to Paliseul, and then from Paliseul we had to get on two different busses to reach our hiking destination. Now you might be thinking that it sounds like a piece of cake, but you must consider the size of the town I was going to. It’s like going through my blimp of a high school town Simms, and the bus only goes through the little blimp at certain times of the day and not very often. So, after extensive research and deciding that we were not going twice, I had finally figured out our way there. 5 hours to get there and 5 hours home, in the same day. Once we reached Rochehaut we ate some crepes, and I was overjoyed because we were in the French speaking part of Belgium. I could finally communicate with the world; I am staying in the Dutch part and while I have learned a lot of Dutch, I am not confident enough to speak inpublic. Anyways, off on the hike we went. It was peaceful and beautifully filled with fall colours. I kept stopping and again was just amazed that I, Megan Sipes, was on a hike in Belgium. In Europe.

 

After our hike, we ate some deliciousfood in a restaurant filled with old retired people, in nice clothes, and all their dogs. We trudged in with hungry bellies and muddy jeans, but that is not what mattered in those moments. What mattered was the memories we were creating and would carry with us for the rest of our lives.

We got to the bus stop and made our way home seamlessly. I was so happy that not only did the whole transportation go in my favour but I sure that isnot the only reason why I love this day so much. I think it must do with the fact that dreams of mine have come true. I have so many hopes and aspirations, and sometimes I am not certain they will come true, but these goals I have had for years have been realized and accomplish, while creating memories to last a lifetime.

A Day in Iganga Hospital

Victoria Gifford

This past summer, I travelled to Africa for five weeks with a group of ten pre-med students. We spent our entire school year fundraising, planning, and preparing for the experience. We educated ourselves on Ugandan culture as much as possible, from researching common social practices to trying to learn Swahili. Even with all our preparation, we knew we should expect a big learning curve and some culture shock upon arriving, and we got what we expected.

Screen Shot 2017-06-20 at 7.16.21 AM.jpg

As pre-medical students still completing our undergraduate degrees, we knew that our volunteer work would all be unskilled, and that we could provide little help to the hospital staff. Therefore we did our best to be self-aware of our limitations and tried to learn about the culture, the medical system, and understand the best ways that we could help Uganda and other nations like it in our future careers.

 

During one of our first days in the hospital we visited the emergency room where a man had been brought in after being attacked. The doctors cleaned his ear with iodine and sewed it back on with no anesthetic, and he did little more than grimace during the procedure. After watching this, we commented in admiration to a doctor how much stronger Africans seemed than Americans. They muscled through many procedures like the one we’d seen with little to no pain-relievers, and handled the tragedies in the hospital very gracefully and calmly. He laughed and agreed that Africans were raised to be strong, but then became somber and told us, “Many people believe that just because we are poor, things do not hurt as much; or they think that when people in our family die we do not feel as sad. But that is not true.” Living and working with the local Ugandans gave me a new respect and admiration for those living in poverty. It added fuel to my desire to work for Doctors Without Borders and practice medicine in places where it’s needed most. That passion is not easy to come by, and I would not have found it if I had not been volunteering in Uganda.

Seeing the conditions many Ugandans live through: children in tattered clothing, mothers crying because they can’t afford malaria medication that costs about ten US Dollars, children playing with toys they made from garbage, was heartbreaking. It was even more powerful to see how happy most Ugandans were, despite the conditions they lived in. I consider myself an empathetic person, but I quickly realized that I had become desensitized to the term “poverty.” Knowing what an impoverished family looks like, a child dying from starvation, or a woman dying from malaria puts the facts and statistics about poverty in perspective. It reminded me that even if in the last ten years less people are in poverty, millions are still too many. In fact, thousands are too many, as are hundreds, tens, or even one. The Ugandans we met that lived in derelict conditions made the most out of their lives and found ways to be happy, and it took so much more for them to be happy

127 iganga home.JPG

After a month of volunteering, touring, and socializing in Uganda, I realized that I should not return to Uganda until I was skilled and able to make an actual difference. But I needed that month to understand the people I wanted to help in the future, how I wanted to help in the future, and to put my personal life into perspective.

The Medinas of Morocco

By Nat Smith

                The experience most emblematic of my time in Morocco is walking down a crowded alley: weaving through a bustling throng, vendors vying for my attention, the drifting scent of olives and roasting meat, the call to prayer echoing out from mosque minarets towering above everything else. From Fez to Marrakech, most large cities in Morocco have an extensive history and a section of town built long before cars were a concern. These old areas at the heart of every major urban area are called medinas (from the Arabic word for city). Each medina has its own character, but they all share the quality of being a narrow, winding maze both daunting and exciting for a tourist. There are always overly friendly guides who can help you find your way (for a fee of course), reaching out in French, Arabic, and English. The streets of the medinas were built with one primary rule in mind: to be wide enough for two donkey carts to pass in opposite directions. The result is a pedestrian’s paradise and a respite from the roar of traffic that dominates US metropolitan areas.

                Fez has the largest and most overwhelming medina, over 180 miles of alleys snaking around in patterns only recognizable to a local. Bring a map or someone who knows where they’re going. A must-see landmark is the Chouara Tannery that has been in operation since the 11th century. You can climb up to the rooftops and look down at the process of dying leather, which has changed little in the last thousand years. If a leather jacket doesn’t quite fit your style, the city’s numerous shops filled to the brim with beautiful rugs may be better places to shop. The cuisine is another reason to visit. You could try a traditional tajine—meat and vegetables smothered in spices and slow cooked in one of Morocco’s iconic conical ceramic dishes—or couscous, traditionally eaten on Fridays to celebrate Islam’s holy day, but always delicious. The more adventurous could try a camel burger (a bit greasy for my tastes) or a bowl of snails. Food carts offering delectable baked goods or fresh prickly-pear cactus fruit are never far away. Fez’s cramped alleys can hardly contain the variety of shops and vibrant energy you feel walking around the ancient city.

 

NSmith_fes-tannery

Tannery – Leather dying

 

                Since I’m one to usually avoid big crowds, my favorite medina was Chefchaouen. The tourist attraction of a city is tucked high up in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco. What makes the city so unforgettable and eye-catching is the blue paint that covers nearly every wall in the medina. Come for the scenery and stay for the lifestyle. Given its proximity to where Morocco’s marijuana is grown, Chefchaouen has gotten the reputation as the country’s hub for illicit activity (and thus attracted plenty of western tourists). Everyone in the city was friendly, whether because they were smoking hash or trying to sell me some I could never tell. Regardless, the blue city is something everyone visiting Morocco should try to experience. I can say without exaggeration that a labyrinth of blue alleys nested among a panorama of grey-green peaks is a city unlike any other.

NSmith_blue-city-in-the-rain1

                The diversity of scenery in Morocco is incredible. You can go from snow-capped mountains to rolling hills of olive trees spotted with grazing goats inside of an hour’s drive. From the sand seas of the Sahara to the waves of the Atlantic, Morocco always provides a captivating vista. Still, of all the beautiful places I visited there, when I think of Morocco I miss the medinas.

Monate Tata

 

Monate Tata

Initially published on March 9, 2017, during a Beyond the Classroom experience with Round River Conservation Studies in the Okavango Delta of Botswana.

We left Maun a little later than expected and arrived at our first campsite in NG41, a couple of kilometers outside the village of Mababe, around 6 pm. We quickly set up camp: pitching the kitchen tent and loading the equipment in it, pitching our own tents, and throwing a tarp up between the kitchen tent and the table we cook over. Sixteen, our instructor who was born and raised in Sankuyo, left to pick up Zencks and Foe (pronounced Foye) – our escort guides for our time in Mababe. We cooked as the sun set. Chicken, seasoned simply with adequate salt, pepper, and a little cumin, grilled over a mopane wood fire, sautéed peppers and onions, pap (the ubiquitous fine white corn meal cooked to the consistency of very thick mashed potatoes), and a kind of thick instant brown onion soup. “Monate tata,” as we say in Setswana (meaning: very good).

After spending the last few weeks conducting our spoor surveys with our new Bushmen tracker friends in the Xai Xai area, NG3 and NG4, here in NG41 we’ve begun our routine of herbivore transects, which we will continue throughout the rest of the program as we move to Khwai and return to Sankuyo. Everyday, two cars, each with an instructor driving, a community escort guide, and two students, leaves camp around 6:15 am with the aim of beginning a transect at 6:30am. All of these transects are along roads, some more than others, that have been driven in previous years by Round River. The car goes along at 10 kilometers per hour and everybody keeps their eyes peeled for movement in the bush. Once something is spotted, the car stops, we count, age, and sex the animals to the best of our ability, record distance with a rangefinder, take a GPS point of the car, and use a compass to record the angle of the animal from north. This method is called DADS (Density And Demography Sampling). During the first transect I went on, we saw three bull elephants, several small herds of impala and one with thirty individuals, mostly females, a waterbuck, and a wildebeest.

 

 

It still rains almost every day, as we work through this near record-breaking wet season, ranging from a prolonged drizzle to a torrential downpour. Yesterday we managed to have a fire, despite a little rain. A campfire is one of those things that never fails to remind me of so many good and peaceful times, and is my favorite part of how we operate out here.

As we sat around the fire after dinner, Ben and Kaggie took the chance to remind us that this area is very different than the one we just left. Namely, the difference in the concentration of lions, elephants, and everything else that goes bump in the night. It has only been three nights here and we’ve heard elephants pass not more than ten or fifteen meters behind our tents, and we’ve found hyena and lion tracks about fifty yards from camp.

According to Ben and Foe, lions are more present in Mababe than they ever have been. Nobody walks in town after 9:00 pm, and there are only ten dogs left in the village. Ben told us the story of an old man who, a few years ago, was on the toilet at night, outside of his house in Mababe, and was surprised by a male lion. According to Ben, as the lion attacked and lunged at the man, he shoved his arm down the throat of the lion and ripped out it’s tongue, and the lion ran off. Undoubtedly this is a story that will stick with me every time I head to the latrine.

 

 

Sixteen picked some meat in the village yesterday and began cooking it around dinnertime. Sixteen prepared the meat for those who were willing to stay up for another hour or two and chat around the fire. In Botswana, meat of all sorts is usually cooked in the same traditional way. In a round, cast iron pojkie pot, the chunks of meat are just covered with water, a healthy amount of oil, and lots of salt. After a couple hours over the fire, having been stirred occasionally, the water has mostly evaporated and sliced onions are added as the now tender meat browns in the fat. Spices can be added, but traditionally rarely are. We enjoyed a few pieces before going to bed.

Not long after I could hear the low groans of a pair of lions calling to each other a kilometer or two or way. It’s an indescribable sound, like a long, deep, tired moan that you feel in your chest, something I’ve only ever otherwise felt hearing a grizzly bear huff and puff.

Life Inside the Buffalo Fence

Life Inside the Buffalo Fence

Published April 19, 2017

 

Only one more day left in the bush of the Okavango Delta and seven until I’m on a plane back to the states. It’s difficult to believe, the time has passed so quickly. I’ll go on my last transect tomorrow morning, a bird transect. All we have left to work on are our projects, which we’ll present at the Okavango Research Institute on the 24th, and studying for our Setswana exam.

 

 

One of the most interesting parts of living in Botswana has been learning about the hunting ban of 2014 and its effects on the people who live here, in the controlled and protected areas of Botswana. I admit I didn’t even know about the hunting ban when I came to Botswana. When I heard about it during one of our first conservation biology classes, it seemed like a completely correct response to aerial surveys done by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks that showed populations of most herbivores falling precipitously across northern Botswana. Now, having spent several weeks living in the Delta, inside the buffalo fence, the hunting ban seems more like a flawed stopgap than anything else.

Hunting still happens, but now it’s called poaching, and more often than not it’s done for subsistence rather than commercial reasons. Besides turning normal people who are just trying to feed their family, as they have for millennia in the Delta, into criminals, it has taken away an important income source for rural communities. Though I have zero empathy for the usual motive of trophy hunting—I believe people should only hunt to eat—it was a very significant source of income for communities in the Delta, and can be sustainable if properly managed. The money, much more than could be earned through photographic tourism in a similar amount of time, went to schools, scholarships, community centers, house loans, and clinics, to name a few. I agree that something needed to be done about the declining numbers, but there must be a more appropriate middle ground.

 

 

Throughout my time here I’ve found myself continuously making comparisons with my home state, Montana, and in particular the little corner of the state I grew up in, around Livingston, just north of Yellowstone National Park. The wide open spaces and big skies of both places. The people, who are friendly and welcoming. The astounding lack of people, in many cases, small towns and villages separated by vast wilderness. Some aspects of the wildlife: the cape buffalo and the American bison, the impala and the pronghorn, the lion and the grizzly.

 

 

One thing I’ve noticed while living here has been how I see, or define, the wilderness. In Montana, I recognize it mostly based on the absence of human activity and the systems that support it. I realize I’m in wilderness when I down see any power lines, roads, or fences. When I don’t see any empty plastic bottles, cigarette butts, or manicured lawns. Or when there aren’t any mountainsides stripped of their trees or their earth. Here, though, we’ve been camping in places where there is none of the infrastructure that supports human activity—the roads, fences, and power lines—and I realize it more often based on the presence of things, usually wildlife. The group of giraffes loitering around the wet pan, the mating herd of elephants running past the edge of camp, the pair of ostriches dancing in the distance, or the leopard walking through camp at night, as a group of us sit around the fire. We’ve learned the tracks and scat of more than fifteen mammals, the identification of more than sixty bird species, a dozen grasses, and around thirty different trees and shrubs. It’s instilled within me a desire to learn the same thing for the place I call home—to realize and enjoy wilderness for what it is rather than what it is not.

 

 

There’s so much I’ll miss about this country and this program. We’ve has so many great times and seen and done so much. We’ve met so many great people and made so many good friends. I’ve made promises to come back, both to myself and others, and am intent on keeping them.