The people of the Okavango Delta
For a thriving future, look to the past
Animals are depicted on a rock face in the Tsodilo Hills. In the Kalahari Desert, this rise of ancient rock formations holds a record of cultural heritage through the ages, including communities’ symbiotic relationships with nature. Today Tsodilo shares protected status with its neighbor, the Okavango Delta, where communities continue to live in harmony with biodiversity. But with the Delta’s source waters unprotected, under threat, and leagues away, a way of life for over one million people and wildlife who rely on the Okavango River Basin is at risk.
A future under threat
Having descended from pastoral cultures, many communities around the Okavango Delta and the wider Okavango River Basin rely on livelihoods afforded by fertile land―like smallholder farming and livestock herding—with more and more also deriving a living from tourists attracted by the Delta. However, if the source waters from Angola dry up, so will people’s livelihoods. Since 2015, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) has been working with governments, conservation organizations, and local communities to study the Delta and Basin, and develop ways to support livelihoods and protect the water that enables them against threats, including climate change and deforestation. Now the NGOWP is joined by De Beers through the Okavango Eternal partnership to extend this work.
Like father, like son
In the Okavango Delta, a man and his son float along a river in the early morning light. Before even learning how to walk properly, most children who grow up around the Delta learn to pole a mokoro—a slender, nimble boat, vital for life around the water and used for transport, fishing and other means of living. Introduced to the area by the BaYei people centuries ago, mekoro epitomize a unique cultural identity characterizing the communities around the Delta and Basin.
The race of the river people
A poler from one of the villages of the Okavango Delta competes in the Nkashi Classic—a mokoro racing event created to bring together far-reaching communities around the Okavango River Basin through a competitive sport tied to a traditional skill. The Nkashi Classic is now supported by Okavango Eternal, and there are hopes that the event will help raise awareness of meroko and poling, and the value they can bring to the ecotourism market. A film of the event, released globally, should also garner international interest and bring sustainable income into these communities—plenty of tourists would thoroughly enjoy a mokoro tour of the Delta from a local guide.
A classic nkashi
Gobonamang “GB” Kgetho from Seronga village in the Okavango Delta uses his knowledge of the river systems to guide the NGOWP team in surveying the water system that feeds the Delta. Like many, he carries his own nkashi, a pole traditionally carved from the mogonono tree (Terminalia sericea) and used to propel a mokoro through water. Mekoro were traditionally carved whole from the trunks of sausage trees (Kigelia africana), but as demand for them grew, other ways to build mekoro were introduced to keep this way of life alive in a more sustainable way. The mekoro here are fiberglass, and the Okavango Eternal partnership aims to create mokoro workshops around the area to help maintain and spread the craft of building them, as well as exploring the use of eco-friendly materials like recycled plastic.
In harmony with humans
The Okavango Delta is a safe haven for elephants, which migrate here following the seasons along routes through mixed land uses. This can bring elephants into contact with local communities in their search for food, destroying fences and eating or trampling a whole season’s worth of crops in the process. The ecological and economic value of elephants and other wildlife is well understood, but tensions clearly exist when lives and livelihoods are at stake—both humans and wildlife need to be considered in a successful conservation project. Protecting land along the source rivers of the Okavango Basin so that wildlife can move freely across borders and have the space to exist away from human settlements is one of the key aims of the Okavango Eternal partnership.
For the benefit of all Botswana
Koketso “Koki” Mookodi meets with teachers in the Okavango Panhandle area. After years of working in many of the Delta’s premier ecotourism lodges, she wanted to do more to ensure that local communities gain maximum benefit from the income tourism brings into Botswana annually. As NGOWP Country Director for Botswana, through Okavango Eternal, Koki holds “education trail” workshops that take local teachers into nature to help them reconnect with the environment and bring scientific and cultural knowledge back into the classroom. There are also plans to construct a cultural knowledge center that will offer a place for people around the Okavango Delta and greater Botswana to learn about the importance of wildlife, reconnect with their cultural heritage through crafts and languages, gain new skills for better livelihoods, teach traditional skills, and enhance their businesses.
A group of female entrepreneurs in Botswana work on a business exercise to practice skills learned through the Accelerating Women-Owned Micro-Enterprises (AWOME) program. The program, launched by De Beers in partnership with UN Women and local government, aims to empower women to build businesses, create jobs, and generate more income. After working in partnership with the people of Botswana for 50 years, De Beers is now bringing experience gained from its entrepreneur initiatives like AWOME, to support Okavango Eternal’s goal of creating more than 10,000 livelihood opportunities across the Okavango River Basin.
A Pretty powerful poler
Tjaja “Pretty” Tapologo is from Toromoja in the Makgadikgadi Pans region of Botswana, where the waters of the Okavango Delta disappear into the Kalahari Desert. Wanting to become a nature guide, Pretty moved from her very dry home to live along the Boro River on the fringes of the Delta, and taught herself to pole a mokoro. In June 2021, she was one of three female polers to join the NGOWP’s 11th annual transect to survey the biological health of the Delta. Pretty’s involvement marks one of many efforts within the Okavango Eternal partnership to promote gender equality.
For the benefit of all in the Okavango River Basin
Equally as important as work happening in Botswana, the Okavango Delta’s source waters in Angola—and local communities around them—also need to benefit from conservation. In 2019, NGOWP leaders met with elders from around 30 communities across the area in Tempué, a village in Angola near the Delta’s source waters. In a landmark occasion, the project team and the elders signed a groundbreaking agreement to work together to protect the forests and source lakes that feed the Delta, by creating sustainable livelihoods for and owned by their communities in a way that retains their cultural identity. A key goal of Okavango Eternal is to help support and grow opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, not just in Angola, but in all the communities of the Okavango River Basin.
Explore Okavango Eternal here.