• Kimberley Pittman-Schulz

Letter to Ngande

“When I was a little boy, I was afraid of white people. I would run away and hide. Now, in this job, I meet so many people. It’s different.” — Ngande, Savute Safari Guide, Chobe Park, Botswana


Hello, Ngande. I’m travelling again, though no place as exotic as your Botswana. I’m in Santa Rosa in Northern California, a business trip, no lion cubs or giraffes.


What’s it like here? There are many, many people; friendly stray cats; dogs on leashes; miles of paved black road; cement curbs; cubed, glass office buildings; and the only tracks to be found, parallel steel rails cutting through town. You track elephants, we track trains.


The palm tree would seem familiar, but the oaks would be new to you, and in their gnarled branches, the squeaking, un-oiled sound of acorn woodpeckers working bark. Clean rows of vineyards braid the hillsides and the smell of exhaust drifts from our migration of cars. Okay, for you a visit to Santa Rosa might seem exotic.


In a way, you were here this morning. I was walking amid tall spring grasses lining both sides of a footpath, following a ridge that swept down into a shallow ravine, a wild remnant edging town. As I walked, just ahead of my steps, creatures pushed away from me through the grasses, birds and small mammals scuttling swiftly, the grasses vibrating with their retreat. It felt like waves breaking away from me, a parting of some sea.


I forgot to ask you—have you ever seen the ocean? The birds were probably juncos, spotted towhees, song sparrows—all new birds for you—common here. The mammals, I’d wager they were shrews, voles, some field mice soggy with dew.


I kept pausing, scanning, staring into the grasses to see what life was threading through the new green blades. Then I thought of your savannah, the taller grasses there, more than 3 times taller, though drier in your early autumn.

Savute savannah, Chobe Park, Botswana, photo: KPS


Those grasses formed a vast golden sky spread down at our feet, rolling up under the wheels of our safari truck as we drove. I remembered your eyes, how they were so attuned to your landscape. As we bumped along, you could look through those grasses even as you navigated deep ruts, explained the habitat, listened for our questions or to Setswana voices on the two-way radio telling of sightings elsewhere. Suddenly you would slow or stop, and direct our eyes to a quivering stalk or a patterning of otherwise neutral colors, and surprise, a kori bustard or jackal would become visible.


How did you do that?


Black-backed jackal, photo Terry Schulz


This morning I kept looking and looking, following rustling sounds, phantom spoor. I saw . . . only grass.


So here is my belated ‘thank you’ for guiding us through a new parcel of earth, revealing wildlife that we could never have spotted without you.


Ngande, do you remember our first meeting? It was late afternoon, tea time at our lodge in the bush. I stood in front of you, and felt my neck crane upward to talk into your face. You greeted us in your deeply resonant, almost wooden voice, “Hellooo, Keemberleee and Ter-ree.” You were so confident when you extended your hand, your brown eyes greeting our blue, then glancing away as our hands clasped, shook, and released—a little shy under that confidence it seemed.


Elephants at the bore hole, photo: KPS


As we began to know each other, the gurgle of elephants siphoning water filled the air. We felt peaceful watching the impala silently but alertly stepping past us and a Lilac-Breasted Roller—oh that stunning bird—fluttering back and forth between mud flat and acacia limb.


Lilac-breasted roller, photo: Terry Schulz


We talked wildlife. You wanted to know what we’d already seen. We told you about the black-maned lions, the kudu, the poisonous but sweet-faced boomslang snake, the baby warthogs trotting with tails erect along the sandy airstrip at Deception Valley, and how the locals there refer to the warthogs as ‘Radio Botswana.’ You laughed.


Boomslang, photo: Terry Schulz


We mimicked the haunting nocturnal cries of the spotted hyena and the high-pitched, almost giggling voices of the bushbabies in the trees above our meru-style tent as we tried to sleep at Camp Moremi. You smiled telling us how Frank, our guide in the Moremi Reserve, was a classmate during your time in guide school. We described at length the 3-hour voyage through the papyrus and reed-lined maze of waterways comprising the Okavango Delta en route to our island lodge at Xugana. You knocked your tongue against the roof of your mouth several times, trying to teach us how to pronounce Xugana in the native dialect, but our mouths could only produce Goo-gana.


As we rattled on an on, I realized two things—first, how being the fourth guide in our journey, you had a harder job to show us new animals. As we spoke, I could sense you keeping track of what we hadn’t encountered, perhaps planning the route to a certain spot where we might find that elusive leopard or scrappy African wild dog.


Second, I found myself admiring your ability to listen intently. How many animal stories you’ve had to hear from so many tourists, yet there we were, recounting another safari adventure, your body leaning into our breath, and your eyes, your cheeks, your lightly furrowed forehead responding to our words. You made us feel special, in a way that we probably weren’t as another pair of wide-eyed American travelers, and I thank you for that. There is a saying, perhaps you’ve heard it, that people remember you most for how you make them feel—so, we will never forget you, Ngande.

“Bee-eaters,” I finally said as if ordering at a restaurant, “more bee-eaters and giraffes. Actually, we like everything, even beetles and snakes.” Remember how Terry followed quickly with, “Do you have any black mambas? I was nearly struck in the face by a mamba working with vet students at a zoo years ago. I have a lot of respect for them, and to see one in the wild. . . .” Your answer was simply, “I can’t guarantee—it’s up to the animals—but we have a good chance.”


Kori bustard, photo: Terry Schulz


For the next two days you worked hard to find any animal you could for us, a sort of magic trick, jostling along through the savannah on clumsy dirt roads, telling us about the landscape, all the time your eyes scanning for the slightest stripe, tuft, shift or shuffle, making birds and animals appear out of the dusty air and shadows.


It was enjoying sundowners, gazing out at the orange expanse at dusk, our conversations random, that you told us how you loved guiding—the challenges of the wild and the diversity of the visitors—though as a boy you were afraid of white people. I appreciated your candor.


This morning, as I walked that Santa Rosa trail, I tried to imagine the little boy, Ngande. If I’d visited you then, I’d never have seen your round, happy face, just your little backside running, disappearing behind a Camelthorn tree or the folds of your mother’s skirt. If she had told you then that you would choose white people over diamonds—guiding mostly European, Australian, and US tourists through the Botswana bush rather than continuing in your earlier work as a security guard in a diamond mine—would you have believed her? I’m glad you made that choice.


Giraffe, photo: Terry Schulz


All I know is that on the first afternoon together, when we rounded a scrubby hill, and saw two, then three, then a group, or ‘tower,’ of 7 giraffe, their necks above the foliage, their knobbed and patchy heads looking down at us, you intuited that giraffes are special for me. You didn’t know why (it has to do with my mother, who is gone now), but you just knew it. You made sure that I had plenty of encounters with giraffe the rest of the trip, serene, never rushed. Such gifts you give to strangers.

African wild dogs, photo: Terry Schulz


After explaining that African wild dogs are not likely to be seen, you gave us half a pack of them, five handsome, mottled, long-legged canine bodies snoozing in shrubby shade before their nightly hunt, then again early the next morning trotting right up the road to us, pausing to watch us watch them.


Learning from another guide about a small group of lions with 5-month old cubs, you grinned hugely, told us to “hang on tight” and whipped the Land rover from one margin of the reserve to another, where we sat for over an hour watching two males, two females, and three cubs be a lion family in the cooling glow of a setting sun.


Lion cubs at a water hole, photo: Terry Schulz


The only human sounds were digital cameras clicking . . .


Lion cub attempting play & mother, photo: Terry Schulz


. . . and the subtle rustling of your clothing as you turned to see us shiny eyed and reverent.

Curious lion cubs & father, photo: Terry Schulz


You even found a black mamba for my husband. And when you saw a look of confused disappointment as I followed the shimmering grey body slithering in limbs below a nest, you educated me, saying, “the name comes from the blackness in the mouth, so you need to look inside to see the true color.” We kidded that we would take your word on the inner world of the black mamba.


Hearing your comment again in my head now, I think how true it is not just for snakes, but people, too—”you need to look inside to see the true color.” We can never do enough of that, can we?


1,200+ year-old Baobab tree & me


Ngande, you seem so far away now. Of course you are. Botswana is a long way from Northern California—but I don’t mean spatial distance, I mean in time.


It’s been nearly two months since we were with you. Were we even really there? Time is deeper and farther than space, time washes people apart. Writing you is my way of keeping you, but the clock keeps ticking, threatening memory. We happen to be on the planet in the same fragment of time, our lives brushing briefly together. Why? I don’t know, but I’m grateful.


Your encore on our last morning began with a herd of wildebeest, hundreds, migrating. We stopped in the middle of them, bulky blue-grey bodies thundering inches from us. The French couple in the back seat kept uttering ‘gnu, gnu, gnu’ excitedly. Then all was calm, though the air felt electric. We sat stunned, our ears following the sound into the distance.


Zebra migration, photo: Terry Schulz


Where the grass ended, we let our eyes rest in air, and discovered more than a thousand zebras walking single file for miles, so far and slow, they were flames burning the horizon. By day, their blackness gave them away, their bodies, streaked ink in our binoculars.


You told us, “Zebras know each other’s faces, each other’s bodies—no set of stripes is exactly alike.” We could only see their sameness, except for odd details, the torn ear of one, the bloody flank of another, their wounds defining the individual to our eyes.


I asked, “How far apart can they be and still be together?” You shrugged, watching a group gallop past us, and answered, “Perhaps there is an invisible thread.”


We stood, black and white, on their horizon. What did they see in us? Were we separate, or a single creature in their gaze, one more striped animal grazing in arid light?


Zebra, photo: Terry Schulz


Later that day after leaving you, awake at 1 a.m. in Zambia, listening to the flooded Zambezi, I could still see your savannah beneath my eyelids. In a darkness deep, almost purple, that row of zebras kept stepping forward, but so differently. They had become their whiteness luminous under starlight, the pale stripes splashed bright, beings as vulnerable by night as by day.


Where do they go? Their coloring cannot save them.


One by one, I know, they will drop, almost unnoticed, out of sight—waiting mouths, the delicate net of disease, time swarming until its weight takes one down.


Now, remembering all of this, I think, Ngande, you are nine hours and nearly 5,000 miles ahead of me. It's afternoon and tea time along the Savute Channel.


“Even far things are real,” that’s what one of my favorite poets, William Stafford, wrote.


Dressing for a day of meetings, hoping to coax a little charitable giving, I see you. You are extending your hand, palm open and warm, to greet new guests.


Lion cub & mother, photo: Terry Schulz


 

Special thanks to the staff and managers at Savute Safari Lodge, part of the Delta & Deserts travel group who linked us with Ngande who in turn touched our lives as much as the wildlife and landscape of the Savute area.