Botswana / Namibia:
Cultural Sojourn

Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Dispatch 2 - Ngoma


Nkonga Guest House is a bed and breakfast, so breakfast was included with the room price.  We arranged with the staff to have breakfast at 7 AM.  We were optimistic when they started cooking at 6 AM, but the meal was actually served at 8 AM.  Long preparation times for meals seem to be the rule in Africa.  It is still a mystery why it takes so long to boil some water and mix-up some porridge. But it was a meal suitable for a bicyclist when it came!

We had one primary task in town before we started immersing ourselves in the rural culture; getting a local cell phone SIM card.  It was quick and simple for most of the group, but neither Orange or MTN cards seemed to work in my AT&T Motorola phone.  Back to the status quo of the last thirty years for me -- bicycling in Africa without a cell phone.  It always worked before, it should work again.  The phone went to the bottom of the pack.

We were less than ten kilometers out of town when the bicycles were stopped on the highway at the entrance of Chobe National Park. Bicycles are forbidden from riding the 58 km through the park, even at midday on a nice clear day.  The explanation we were given is it is an anti-pouching measure and even motor cycles are forbidden.   There wasn't much wildlife along this stretch at midday so it can't be much of a safety measure.

Because all the vehicles had to stop and be registered, the checkpoint/gate was an easy place to hitchhike.  After a couple of asks, four of us got a lift from Ibik Enosi, the CEO of the Botswana National Teachers Union, and the other two grabbed the back of a pick-up truck.  Those of us with Enosi had an informative conversation about the state of education in Botswana.  Literacy rates are suppose to be 90%. The pick-up saw an a couple antelope-type animals.

The Botswana border post is on the south side of the Chobe River.  The Namibia border post in on the north side of the Chobe River.  Immigrations and customs on both sides of the river were friendly and routine.

Chobe River in flood at Ngoma, BotswanaThe Chobe River in flood, Ngoma NamibiaThe river is now so swollen from heavy rains in Angola, coming through the Kwando/Linyanti/Chobe River system.  The Chobe River looks more like a lake than a river.  There are villages in what is now the flood plain, so along the road there were some refuge camps for internally displaced people.  We were told that the camps would stay up until the waters recede in about August (three months away.)

For the first time since Kasane (70 km) we came to a store in Ngoma on the Namibia side of the river.

Women walking to a house, Ngoma NamibiaTypical clay and thatched house, Ngoma NamibiaThe general land use pattern is scattered homesteads, with agricultural fields nearby and some livestock.  There aren't any tight villages, as are common in many parts of Africa.  Many of the clay wall, thatched roof homes are provided privacy by high reed fences.  For more on the architecture see the side bar of this page.typical house, Ngoma Namibia

Typical house, Ngoma NamibiaIt is past the growing season, but the residual of the crops is corn, millet and sorghum.  Where there are no homesteads, the land is probably best described as Mopane Savannah, but in places the acacia seems to be the dominant plant, in which case it would be Acacia Savannah, or thorn veld.

Bicyclist near Ngoma NamibiaIbike Bicycle Africa tour on the road, Ngoma NamibiaDuring our short stay, we saw almost no bicycles in Botswana (Kasane).  Bicycles became a bit more common in Namibia. The highway is paved, flat and in excellent condition, which covers the basic needs of a bicycle travelers passing through. But a limiting factor for local bicyclists has got to be the sandy soil and soft roads almost every place else.

Road to Salambala Community Camp, Ngoma NamibiaSalambala Community Camp, Ngoma NamibiaWe spent the night at Salambala Community Campsite, 15 km up the road from the border and 6km down a dirt and sand road. Mostly the road was hard and rideable, but there were a couple of short stretches that required a hefty push through sand.

The afternoon and evening were filled with the sounds of the forest.  The decibel level rose significantly just before sunset when the birds head to their roosts.  Who knows what they are talking, or squawking, about, but they certainly have a lot to say.  It is quite a cacophony.  Just as the sun set the pandemonium subsides -- all the issues are settled -- and gentler night noises prevail. Crickets and other chirping insects, with the occasional click of a bat, create the background noise that lulled us to sleep.  A couple people reported hearing "a large cat screech" nearby at about 1 AM, but I'd like to ignore that.

On day two we have our second language: The dominate ethnic group around Ngoma is Chikwahane / Kuhane / Subia or Subiya speaking (multiple names and spellings for the same language): Good morning is "maboka."  Good afternoon is "malisala."

According to Masubiya oral history, at one time, the Masubiya, along with the Mayeyi (see Sangwali dispatch) and the Mbukushu (see Kongola dispatch) lived together north of the Gcoho Hills.  The Masubiya then moved eastwards and settled near the confluence of the Chobe River and the Zambezi River, on the eastern Chobe. The Mayeyi had moved further west.  After Lozi expansion of Chief Ngombala (1750), the Masubiya were pushed a short distance south and westwards, by the Mubukushu, onto land that had been vacated by the Mayeyi.  Thus Lozi expansionism in the mid to late 18th century created a domino-effect which caused all these people to move further west and south.

[The prefix "ma" is very consistent with languages from the Niger-Congo group in southern Africa. It means "the people." For example, Mayeyi is the Yeyi people.  The prifix "si" can means language so Siyeyi mean Yeyi language. It gets a little confusing because the prefix can change from language to language, but often the root will remain the same so it is possible to tell what people is being referred to. For example, it seems that the Yeyi people are also referred to Biyeyi and they speak Maiyeyi -- it depends upon the language of the speaker.]

The Makololo conquered the whole of this region in about 1838 and controlled it until 1864.


Bayei, Subiya and Mbukushiu Architecture:
(Adapted from Sangwali Museum)
   Possessing a simplicity of design, their (Bayei, Subiya & Hambukushu) homes employ palisade reed walls which enclose extended households. Most dwellings and storage huts are rectangular with walls of reed mat or wattle, and gabled grass roofs. A variety of grasses accumulated in the dry season after the seed stalks have matured and have been sun-cured are employed for thatching.  The toughness of the culm cell walls rather than thatch length or thickness is the main requirement, a characteristic determined by the type of grass and the extent to which it has been cured before cutting.
   The configuration of the dwelling and the village traditionally retains some consistency among the Bayei, Subiya and Hambukushu.  A utara, or open shelter, is located to the front of most living units.  A large cattle kraal is typically located in the center of the homes, as is the headman’s compound, while the gardens for the whole community are within easy walking distance.  Increasingly, however, the traditional style of construction has given way to tin-roofed homes of clay brick, which are painted or white-washed, and growing numbers of people are engaged in brick making, an enterprise whose profitability is burgeoning.  This development has led to alterations in the appearance of individual dwellings as well as to changes in the arrangement of the villages themselves.
(Levinsohn, Rhoda, 1984. Treasures in transition: Art and craft of Southern Africa, p 30)


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