By Lorato Palesa Modongo
“Come Kitty. We want to empower you. No, your mother cannot do this. Your government cannot do this. Time cannot do this… We will teach you how to commune with nature, grow ecologically friendly crops, trade fairly with eco-tourists and receive visitors from United Nations who will clap when you dance.” — Binyavanga Wainaina
Botswana’s recent decision to uplift the hunting ban on elephants caused an upheaval across the globe. Botswana has about 130 000 elephants, making it the country with the largest world elephant population. Following this development, scores of Tweeps and Facebook Users (including celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres) took to the digital streets to express their vexation towards Botswana exercising her sovereign powers, regarding her own elephants, in her own land.
The debate from Western critics is largely centred around ‘animal lives’ needing ‘protection’. For example, Kitty Block, CEO of Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Internationally remarked: “Co-existence between wild animals and communities is the only way that wildlife populations will survive, What a shame that Botswana, previously hailed as a shining example of wildlife conservation and a safe haven for elephants, has opted to become a promoter of trophy hunting”.
The Botswana Government, however, posits that there are many elephants in certain areas, which consequently causes human-life conflict. Recently, on 21 April, a man in Kasane was trampled to death by an elephant, barely 3 weeks after a similar incident in the same town. After consultation with the relevant stakeholders, including people in and or near villages affected, the decision was taken.
Although I understand the idea from the West that hunting animals is unfortunate, what piqued me is Western critics swiftness to throw in lessons about conservation policies and a desire to emerge as experts in conversation. I laugh. I laugh not because this “hahaha” funny. I laugh a sad, deep laughter because leso legolo ke ditshego, and in my culture we sometimes laugh at painful situations to cope. I laugh, because how ironic and preposterous that anyone from the West can tell Botswana how to manage its natural resources – particularly animals. How ironic that people from countries with fewer animals, or with animals that they continuously fail to preserve, can be so adamant in teaching Botswana about conservation. I laugh, because how is it that in 2019, Botswana still has more than 130 000 elephants?
Conservation runs in our blood and veins
The West should refrain from trying to teach us about conservation. Our ancestors taught us, in our day to day lives, to respect, revere and co-exist with animals. This would be pompously directly spitting on a lifetime of ideologies, practices, spirituality and cultural identity that has always centred conservation, natural resources preservation and sustainability in Africa. My people have always conserved natural resources. They may have not documented this in a way that suits colonial sense-making, and they may have not articulated and named their ways as conservation. Rather, they viewed it as a state of being one with nature. The lack of this knowledge in academic journals and books and curriculum of a colonized education system, should not trick anyone into thinking that my ancestors and people need a lesson in Conservation.
Growing up, I was taught many valuable and basic lessons about respecting animals and other natural resources. These lessons were passed on from generation to generation. Everyone in my community and country understands and follows those basic principles to date. We value animals so much that they are a significant part of our identity and culture. Here are a few lessons for everyone from the West who harbours the idea that they can expertly teach us about conservation:
Everyone belongs to a tribe. Each tribe has what we call a totem. This is specific animal that is revered and respected by that tribe. I am Mokalaka, and my totem is an Elephant, Tlou. We do not eat elephant meat, we do not touch or step on elephant meat, because the belief is, if you eat your totem, you will die. Other tribes’ totems include Phuti, Nare, Kwena, Tholo, Kubu, Tshwene, Kgabo etc. Crocodile, Antelope, Hippopotamus, Monkey. I do not know the English names for the other animals. These animals are very respected by the tribes. When we offer each other the highest form of respect, we say it in their tribe. E.g ‘Dumela Kgabo’, ‘Dumela Phuti’. EVERYDAY. This may have not been documented as conservation, but surely the practice of barring people from eating game meat according to their tribe is very conservative to me.
Some people’s surnames are animal names. Our naming process is very deliberate, and we are not randomly given names and surnames that means nothing. For example, my name is Lorato, meaning love (and maybe that is why I am giving this free lesson with love). Common surnames representing a family’s relationship with animals include Tau (Lion), Mokubung (He whose totem is a hippopotamus), Ndlovu (Elephant) etc. That is people’s identities. They walk with this identity DAILY.
When I was young, there was a creature called Modimo (God). I do not know the English name for it, and people from the West have probably never seen it. I only spotted it after rain. It is red and velvety and very small. We were taught as kids to never EVER step on Modimo. We would make circular markings on the soil, surrounding Modimo and scream to each other ‘Ke bone Modimo’. I saw God. Making that marking was a gesture of respect to Modimo and believed to bring luck. As years went on, I hardly saw Modimo. The last time I saw it was in 2014 and I was elated. This, my elders knew. My elders knew that the animal was becoming extinct and taught us not to step on this creature as a way of conserving it. Some would say the idea that the creature could bring luck is a superstition, however, the intention to preserve and converse supersedes the superstition.
There are animals reserved for specific people. For example, Kgori, the Kori Bastard bird, is a delicacy only eaten by Kings. This is a practice that was kept across generations. How many Kings does a village have? And how many times will he eat this bird? This bird was later made the National Bird, and no one can kill it. We view this as a way of trying to conserve this bird.
Certain animal products are for Royalty and Kings. Cheetah Skin can ONLY be worn by a King. Magosi maapara nkwe. You cannot kill a cheetah to make just anything out of its skin to go and look cute for Instagram. Conservation.
Certain animals cannot be made pets, or even tampered with. Khudu. A tortoise. You do not play with that animal or else your prosperity and life progress will be as slow as a tortoise. NEVER touch it. Spirituality and conservation.
These are just basic elementary conservation lessons we walk with, daily. Our spirituality, politics of identity, language, idioms, proverbs, culture are rooted in the belief that we are one with nature and natural resources, including animals. The purpose of this writing is specifically to declare that no one, particularly from the West, must claim we do not know how to conserve, and therefore need a lesson.
Colonial longing and sentiments coupled with an exaggerated and misplaced confidence should never have anyone from the West thinking they can teach us about Conservation and co-existing with animals.
Lorato is a 2014 Mandela Rhodes Scholar and has an MA in Psychology from Stellenbosch University. She is a Motswana youth activist with interests in Social Psychology, African Intersectional Feminism, and the politics of language& identity in Africa.