As we were packing up camp in Xakanaxa, making ourselves ready for the drive to our next planned stop at the Kwaii River Community Conservancy, a large truckload of workers poured into camp armed with shovels. Their task of the day was to dig a large hole in anticipation of a new septic tank for the ablutions building. This was not a back-country type facility with a dig-it-yourself or even a developed long drop (pit) toilet. The ablution block had flushing toilets and hot and cold running water, compliments of a solar heater and a currently failing septic system.
At home, we would never see excavation on this scale done by hand; it would require a medium sized backhoe and operator. For hand digging, it takes far more people than might fit in the hole to dig at a time, the workers rotate through the hard work, taking turns. This means that the work never has to stop and at any given time about ¾ of the workers are on break.
Given nothing better to do during rest periods, the white people in camp were the only entertainment around besides the currently digging co-workers, drawing the attention of half of the group. It felt a little like we were apes in a zoo, being watched by the curious humans. As we were about to drive off, however, Grover, the Land Rover, died and would not start again.
After a few minutes of trying to restart the motor, several of the workers came over to try to help us out. They stood in a group looking at the engine, a few repeating “Let’s push it.” We assured them it was not the battery or the starter, and pushing it would only move us out of the campsite and into the road. Not a good place if we ended up needing to stay another night awaiting help.
None of the workers were mechanics, but several stood and talked with us while others checked fuel filters and the water trap on the diesel line. One handsome young man whose English was better than the others asked the girls about school and talked about his frustration that his public education from Botswana did not give him the ability to find a better job than digging holes, and his family could not afford to send him to college or trade school.
As a truck rumbled toward camp, he ran and flagged it down, asking the driver to take John to the Safari Lodge not far away to use the satellite phone. Along with two other workers: a tall young man with dark, deeply set eyes and another slightly built one, John and the handsome one jumped in the truck and rumbled off. We never learned their names, sadly. The three stayed with John the whole time as he went for help, and brought him back safely, as well. Although the lions we had heard in the night sounded like they were at least a couple of kilometers away and the road made decent visibility for crocs and other hazards, it was good to have someone with him.
They arrived back in camp about the time the truck returned to pick up the workers. As they left, John pressed some pula on them, the Botswana currency. They also promised to talk with the camp host at the gate to make sure he was aware of our predicament and to find out if there was anything he might be able to do to help us. As it turned out, this did not seem to be such a good idea for these kind-hearted young men.
Our camp host was a friendly enough man, advising us which road to take from the gate as the shorter route was flooded. We were most grateful for the advice, especially after the fact when a German couple arrived whose English was not good enough to have understood the warning and they began pulling their soaked belongings from their recently swamped vehicle. He had also come by as we were setting up and made sure we found our assigned site without difficulty. We didn’t love that he began calling John “Mr. Big Boss,” however.
We’ve run into the “Mr. Boss” or “Mr. John” before here in Northern Botswana along with a touch of obsequiousness. We’ve not been able to figure out where this comes from, we assume they do not understand that it makes us Americans very discomforted. You are not Kunta Kinta. This is not Roots. Please do not call me “Mr. Big Boss.” We do not value submission in the way that our camp host seemed to. We’ve taken to calling him “Mr. Big Boss” when we talk about what happened in Xakanaxa.
We can only speculate at what was said to our charming young helper and his two companions. They arrived back at camp some time after the truck carrying the workers out rumbled toward the gate, along with Mr. Big Boss, the camp host. Their eyes were downcast; they made way for the big man. He came over and looked at the engine a bit, jiggling some lines and asking John some questions.
He then walked over to one of the other two men who usually rode around with him in the Kwalate Safari Company vehicle, and made his subordinate strip down to his underwear. Mr. Big Boss then changed into the worker’s clothing and returned to our dead Land Rover, laying in the dirt on the far side, away from the diesel fill and fuel filters, sort of banging on things and pushing on others. It reminded me a bit of the Zoolander parody of the apes in 2010, A Space Odyssey.
The next day, when the return of the crew broke the silence and seclusion of our camp, the young workers avoided us. When John approached and tried to talk with the friendly, handsome one, he demurred and walked away, only answering the direct question and dodging conversation. Of course, our guesses are just that: speculation. We could not help but think, however, that Mr. Big Boss learned that John gave them some cash after they tried so hard to help us, and felt they were cutting into his turf and profits.
His attempt to “help” felt very much like a ploy for tips, where the three young men seemed to be genuinely concerned, accepting the money only when John insisted. We only hope that Mr. Big Boss did not also strip them of the pula bill along with their dignity and the clothes of his staff member.
Mr. Big Boss haunted us the following day, hounding us for payment for the extra night spent broken down in camp. He was far more worried about collecting the fee than about helping us to get back to town safely. Not a small sum, as camp rates in Xakanaxa are as much as a hotel room in a good part of the world. Besides which, we had already paid for two upcoming nights in another Kwalate Safari Company operated camp at Ihaha, in Chobe Game Reserve, which were to go unused due to the inoperable Landy.
Although we have a lingering bad taste in our mouths, we did leave with the satisfaction of not having greased the palm of the self serving camp host, Mr. Big Boss.