Community-led Tourism in the Okavango Delta

“The most dangerous animal in the delta, is the hipp…” 

Buruaaaapppppauupauupauu! M’tanta, our poler, was cut-off mid sentence. The deep, guttural sound reverberated from the opening ahead. A few seconds of silence, and suddenly… “Buruaaaapppppauupauupauu.” Just as our mokoro slipped gracefully through the last of the papyrus lined canal into a broad pool. Four massive pinkish brown heads, upon which balanced eight eyes and eight rounded ears, calmly watched us glide by just 10 meters away. “This is where we camp,” says M’tanta, smiling.

Four hippos at home in their pool. Photo: Will Maize

Such was the welcome to our home for two nights, a basic campsite located about two hours by mokoro, upstream of Ditshuping village, in Botswana. Ditshuping is one of six villages of the local tribe Bayei, that make up the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust (OKMCT), which manages a 1,225 km2 tract of land to the north and east of Maun. On recommendation from our helpful app iOverlander, we had visited the OKMCT offices in Maun the day before, booking the mokoro trip and, by chance, selected Ditshuping as our destination. 

A mokoro is a flat-bottomed boat piloted by a poler, who stands in the back and uses a long pole to propel along the shallow canals. It is a perfect craft for navigating the ephemeral waters of the Okavango Delta, sliding over the shallow water, reeds, and mud islands, with ease. The mokoro is the traditional method of transportation for the people that have lived on the delta for ages past, and while now much mokoro traffic is due to tourism, they are still commonly used for harvesting materials, transporting people, and hunting and fishing. The position of poler is one of honour within the community, and each poler maintains and uses their own unique pole, often passed down from one’s parents, with pride. 

M’tanta was the best kind of guide; an open, knowledgeable, and patient teacher. He gave us an introductory course on life in the bush, and like two babies, we soaked it up. Spoor (tracks or footprints), droppings, sounds and calls, behaviour, and inter-species relationships; we quickly learned that life among the diverse species of the delta can be considerably more complex, socially speaking, than life among humans.

M’tanta leads the early morning walk. Photo: Will Maize

M’tanta was also open to discussing his life in Ditshuping and the Okavango Delta, and provided some insights into the village and mission of the OKMCT. A community led organization that was incorporated in 1997, the OKMCT operates with a board of governors elected from within the six Bayei villages, to unite the communities and provide them with the organizational structure necessary to create programs and services that can attract tourism to the region. One of its founding principles was to only employ and partner with people of colour, preferring not to engage with any of the white businesses or concession owners in the region. In the early days, it also allowed hunting on some portions of Trust land. However, over time, it recognized the opportunity to reduce hunting and switched over to photography-only tourism. During this time, it began creating joint ventures with white operators, who had scale and marketing power, in order to generate more visitors and therefore opportunities to the Trust employees and villagers. 

One of the six villages that lies within OKMCT land, Ditshuping village grows to about 500 to 600 people during holidays, when the children of the village return from school in Maun. The village is situated about 10 km into the Trust’s boundaries, meaning that the door is open for elephants, giraffes, impala, you name it, to wander through at will.

M’Tanta collecting water from the channel: http://15000km.org/posts/93
Selfie: Gabriela Masfarre

The village water source is a borehole about 2 km to the south, which is powered by a diesel pump that brings the water to the surface and over to an elevated water tank. The water source is reliable but salty, and the villagers often prefer to drink water from the delta’s myriad channels. M’tanta used our leftover 5L water jugs to bring some pure delta water — collected from the center of the channel  — back to the village for his consumption. 

There is no electricity in the Ditshuping. M’tanta explained how most people have individual solar panels that can charge devices such as phones, and power lights for reading in the evenings. The majority of people cook with an open fire, and don’t have access to a cooler box or fridge. 

Assorted solar panels in front of a home in Ditshuping. Photo: Gabriela Masfarre

The Trust reinvests profits from tourism back into the communities that lie within its boundaries in a few different ways. The first priority is to provide elderly members of the community with a living wage and a roof to live under, while helping to secure access to clinics and doctors in Maun when necessary. Secondly, the Trust reinvests in its educational infrastructure to improve the opportunities its children have for a proper education. To date, the children of Ditshuping will leave the village when they reach the school age, and head into Maun to live with family or relatives there. However, a brand new elementary school will soon open its doors, bringing primary education to the village and keeping young families closer together for longer. 

Data point from the 15000km.org platform

The people of Ditshuping maintain strong connections to the surrounding delta ecosystem, depending on the Delta for fish and water, and using materials collected from the channels and surrounding islands to build homes, fight illness and disease. Mokoros are used actively to collect papyrus (for mattresses), reeds (for roofing, walls), to gather water lily roots (a delicacy), and water pistons (pure water to flush out your eye) and other flora for medical purposes. One of the most fascinating examples is that the grey material of village homes is a mixture of the greyish dirt from termite mounds mixed with the scat of water buffalo. Buffalo poo improves strength and durability!

Visiting the OKMCT, and specifically the village of Ditshuping, was a great opportunity to learn about the delta’s flora and fauna, and it provided us ample time to reflect on our species’s position in the world. Taking long walks in the bush with M’Tanta, tracking the footprints of lion, genet, hyena, rhino, and elephant, and more than anything, sleeping with the sound and intimacy of the Delta all around, is a deep and life-changing experience. It is clear that the OKMCT is providing a great, affordable service for those looking to access the delta without all the bells and whistles of a luxury trip. Above all, you can rest assured that your investment is supporting a worthy community organization working to improve the lives of those living within its boundaries. 

We recently finished a route of (well over) 15,000 km around Southern and Eastern Africa, experiencing the diverse cultures and customs, and beautiful flora and fauna in the region. Through our project, 15000km.org, we seek to develop an understanding into how different social structures and institutions influence the adoption of innovative technical and human solutions in the development and use of basic infrastructure: Water, Sanitation, Energy, and Waste management. This article will belong to a series of stories from our trip, which will tie into our final publication. Find out more at http://www.15000km.org. 

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