Dinner in the Delta

On international birding tours, we are after birds. Any cultural experiences must fit into our packed birding schedule. In my travels, these exposures to local customs have been fascinating, educational and sometimes frustrating. One dinner in the Okavango Delta was not one of the best.

Lilac Breasted Roller

Our first dinner at !Xigera Lodge in Botswana was an orchestrated buffet. The long table in the open common area of the lodge itself accommodated the fifteen to twenty guests and guides staff, who with thei new clients the first night. Dinner began with choice of red or white wine followed by a delicious soup. When the bowls were cleared, the lodge manager said, “Please, would the ladies like to begin?” After a hot, grubby day in the bush, I liked that invitation. Old school and gracious. It made the little sprucing up I did worth the effort. The meat was kudu, one of the ungulates we often saw. It was carefully prepared, tasty but tough, which only served to remind us that it was indeed wild game. There was little local produce since we were in the middle of one of the largest wetlands in the world, and a designated natural area with no people living nearby. Most of the food was trucked in from South Africa, which has the temperate climate of my home in Oregon. I missed the fruits available in tropical countries.

We seven birders sat at one end of the long table. We were a quiet bunch except for our guide, Terry. His stories of living most of his life in Kenya and birding in Africa and India continued to entertain us into our third week together. The other lodge guests were couples, most from Germany. Germans have been in southern Africa since the early 1800’s, first as colonizers and now tourists. We exchanged a few polite words and turned back to our birding companions for the rest of the meal.

At breakfast the following day, the host announced that our evening meal would be in the kraal, a fenced area we passed on the way to and from our tents. He said there would be singing and dancing by the staff. Details to follow.

Most of us had experiences with ethnic entertainment in other countries, some good, some not. In Madagascar, the dress did not seem to be authentic, not what I would expect they wore when singing among themselves. We were coerced to join in the dancing, and I did, but it was not my kind of fun. In Fiji, the dancers were sullen, as if this work at the upscale hotel was not what they would like to be doing. In Hawaii, the audience was asked to join the Tahitian dancers with their vibrating midsections, which embarrassed participants and onlookers alike. My visits to the dzongs in Bhutan and the Huli singsing in New Guinea were more satisfying.

We had been told never to leave our tents in the dark at the risk of encountering one of the four-footed residents, the ones with sharp teeth, tusks or claws. That night we waited until six-thirty for our safety guide to gather us from our tents. He escorted us along the raised walkway to the kraal.

Goliath Heron

The kraal was the only area of the lodge actually situated on the ground. The surrounding stick fence protected us from the curiosity of the resident herbivores. If that animal was an elephant, we might have moved anyway.

Tables to the side, chairs set up around the roaring fire left room to mingle and enjoy the canapés and drinks. Socializing with strangers is not a favorite activity of mine as I spent plenty of time with my companions during the day.

Time dragged. I noticed with irritation that the dinner hour had passed. There seemed to be no food-related activity. I use that term on purpose because I was hungry beyond the canapé stage. When I asked one of the staff, I was told, “You will eat very soon.” She knew that was what I wanted to hear but I knew better than to believe her.

About twenty minutes later we were told to take a seat. Progress, I thought, though the seats were not at the table. We were seated in the semi-circle of chairs. I heard whispers and soft laughing from the shadows outside the kraal. Drumbeats began. One high voice called out an opening. Others joined in and about fifteen African staff sang their way into the kraal. The men and women wore their normal work clothing with small adornments that suggested costumes, a head wrap, a scarf, a colorful length of fabric around the waist. After the first song, three men broke out of the chorus and danced in a line around the fire pit. The dancers enjoyed themselves, gathering enthusiasm from their energetic companions who sang the accompaniment. Clapping and a drum enriched the singing. I felt ungracious after a while when I hoped the song we were hearing would be the last. But then they struck the drums for another dance and song.

Thankfully, there was no invitation to join in the dancing.

At eight, an hour past the time we ate the previous night, the singers filed out to our applause. The food now sat in large piles on a sturdy table at the far edge of the firelight. We were asked to move our chairs to the long dining table behind us. I felt a flicker of hope… but no, there was more.  Speeches. The event host, also the bartender, informed us that most of the staff was from the surrounding area and the songs and dances we witnessed were how they celebrated in their villages. The food we would be eating was also their traditional food. Fine, I thought. Bring it on. Our nights were short enough. I needed my sleep. At 6 a.m. someone would be bringing a pot of hot water for early coffee to my tent. After breakfast, we would be on our way for the day’s activities, groggier than usual if this kept on. He ended his oration saying, “In our culture, it is the tradition for the women to serve the men.”

Little Bee Eater

That was icing on the cake, I thought. An hour late and now we won’t be fed unless we get some man a plate first. I liked the guys in our group, but that just wasn’t the kind of relationship we had. I could have been considerate and gracious but my social patience had worn thin. The little voices were arguing in my head. It’s their country. You are here to learn. When in Rome…No, I didn’t sign up for this part. Dinner generally was later than I liked anyway, so after eating we went right to bed, not the best timing for either sleep or digestion. That was one of the sacrifices we made for good birding experiences, but this situation was getting ridiculous. Anyway, what on earth were our battles over years ago if I am now told to get some man his food?

The tone at the table changed dramatically. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one surprised at the suggestion that the women serve the men. I held my breath. The chattering stopped. The sweet young thing on her honeymoon glanced at the other women there with their male companions. A murmur of consultation ran around the table, couples conferred. Everyone smiled awkwardly. To my right, Terry glared at the speaker. Will, another of our group, was squirming. No one leapt to comply.

The lodge manager, who was new to his post and white, noted the hesitation and said cheerily, “Oh, that isn’t necessary. Let’s have the ladies go first as always.”

Whew. That was close. I got up and marched for the food, followed by a couple of other women of the same mind. The buffet was deep in shadow. I understood the food would be of a different cuisine than we had been enjoying but by that point I didn’t care. It was food.

We were almost past the fire ring when the host called to us to wait. There was more, he said. I told him I would just listen from where I stood, but no, nothing would proceed until we were seated again. We sat. The one woman in our group who actually had come with her husband took advantage of the commotion and defiantly left the kraal without an escort never to return. I almost joined her, but she was gone before I could react.

The cook, a round woman wearing a traditional wrap around her waist, was the next speaker. She stood at the head of the table for her oration. She was a bit shyer than the host, but carried on as rehearsed in spite of the obvious discomfort of her audience. She droned her way through the pedigree of every morsel awaiting us at the side table, which was getting cold. I eyed the dark buffet and missed most of what she said.

She also concluded with, “…and in our culture, it is our tradition for the women to serve the men.” She smiled.

Were they testing us?

Okavango Lily

The new bride glanced around. She hesitated and then scraped her chair back and walked past the fire. After more tense seconds, Terry mumbled in my direction, “Just get your own food.”

So I did. The servers didn’t question my intentions as I heaped on the grub. How did they know who would eat it? I was home free. I returned to my place with my plate of grilled meat, hot greens and the thick, dry corn staple that looked like heavy mashed potatoes. I felt sorry for Terry and Will but I knew they would cope. In the end, one of the female staff offered Terry a plate of food which he refused, saying he liked to get his own. I don’t know if this was the whole of it, or he said that to make a subtle statement about being coerced into a role he found objectionable.

After all that, the food was as I had expected: tasty but tough game meat, flavorful greens but corn mash that was tasteless and dry.

In other situations, I have enjoyed exposure to the customs of another community. Attitude is everything. This encounter had stretched my patience. I was left feeling manipulated, not something that draws my best behavior. Fortunately I had a better experience of the local singing two years later during another trip to the delta.