Into the Delta words and photos Kyle montgomery, poems by Man power

The Okavango Delta, Botswana. Swampland.

The Okavango Delta is the cleanest swamp I’ve ever seen. By American standards, it doesn’t even qualify. I think of a “swamp” and imagine an ever-present layer of storm clouds gathered overhead. The delta is bathed in golden winter sunlight, warm but not uncomfortable. A cool breeze makes its rounds through the camp and brushes the back of my neck.

All of the water in the delta is naturally filtered through tall reeds. The water’s surface reflects the sky and the trees on an adjacent island. I can look past the reflections, into the clear shallow waters and see the fine silt along the resting along the bottom.

Giraffes and zebras are plentiful. At night the grunt of hippos and the whooping of hyenas sound outside our camp.

The people of the Delta burn patches of the floodplains. This helps contain the bush fires during the dry season. My feet kick up ash when walking along the islands. Burnt stems of plants leave black scars along my khaki pant legs.

Man Power is a head shorter than I am and wears a small, black leather vest over a red shirt. He chose the name “Man Power” so the tourists have something they can pronounce. We are the same age, 23, and we both write.

Man Power writes poetry about love and life. The poems happen to be about love and life in Botswana, but he would’ve written them no matter the place of his birth. He has written poems since the age of five.

We sit in camp chairs around ashes of the previous night’s fire. Man Power’s eyes flick back and forth. He shares one of his poems, one about love.

Once the poem begins, once he finds the rhythm, Man Power’s eyes stop fleeting into corners of the camp. No faltering or self-consciousness as he recites the poem from memory.

Man Power’s poems are to be spoken with certain rules. The transcriptions are rough and cannot carry the energy within the words. “It is different for the reader,” Man Power admits.

Love, Love is a sickness, flow forth

The more you enjoy it, the more it dies

If not enjoyed, it lightly cries

You may lose it like the threat of lightning

Flash into your eyes.

His ancestry comes from the Bushmen, those who lived and died in the Delta. They carried their stories in memories and shared them over campfires. The fires kept predators at bay and dramatic shadows across the storyteller’s countenance.

“The Bushmen live long lives,” Man Power says. He speaks in quiet tones and takes long pauses to gather his words.

The Bushmen gathered their medicines from the Delta and stayed secluded from the diseases of the city. He claims to have met a man born in 1898 who is still alive and can walk at times without the assistance of a cane.

His life and the land surrounding us are forever entwined. From the land stems his ancestry and an oral tradition that fuels his art. The Delta brings food, medicine, clean water, tourism and their livelihood.

Man Power says that he once saw a hippopotamus eat meat. Every tour guide will tell you of the danger hippopotami pose, how they’ll break you in half with teeth the size of small swords...but they won’t eat you. They’re herbivores.

He points to a tree line near our camp. “There. We strung the impala on the line. We strip the meat and dry it. The sun dries it.” The hunters strung the small antelope and went about other business. They returned to find a full-grown bull hippo eating the strips of cooked meat right off the line. “Hanging like clothes,” he says and gestures once more.

Man Power reads the signals of painted wolves, the wild dogs of Africa.

The painted wolves chase their prey to death. The tactic is to space themselves apart and run in formation. When one is tired, it drops an ear back. One ear back, the other forward, and the dog behind knows to pass. The dog that signaled can slow its pace and fall back. The pack will leap frog like this until the prey is overtaken or collapses from exhaustion.

AIDS is the killa, it kills everbody

Your elder, your smaller

It does not choose

The Children of Botswana, If you be slow, AIDS will finish us

If I was a soldier, I would take in ammunition

And hunt for AIDS.

I don’t know if AIDS is a human being or a disease

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know .

Botswana, as I write this, has the second highest infection rate of HIV in the world. Almost 1-in-4 people have contracted HIV and the life expectancy has fallen at a steady rate since the 1980’s.

A monkey skull on the edge of camp

Billboards appear as one drives through Botswana. They are scattered along the highways, few and far between. “Play it safe! No condom, No Sex.” “Be Faithful.” Man Power’s poem “AIDS is the Killer” stood in stark contrast to his other work about love and life. Death is a close part of his community. Life in the delta is dangerous to begin with. They have lost loved ones to the crocodiles and hippos that lie in wait.

"I don’t know if AIDS is a human being or a disease"

The real danger could be within those you love, your neighbors, and your friends. His poem embodies the confusion that arises when attempting to make sense of indiscriminate death.

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” he repeats, growing quiet until the line has drifted away.

For the first time, Man Power begins to ask me questions.

“What do you do?” I tell him that I am a writer but I also want to make movies. He begins listing off some of the titles that he’s seen. It becomes evident to me that only action movies are finding their way to Botswana.

Man Power loves Jean Claude Van Damme and Schwarzenegger. “No, don’t worry. Jackie Chan is very much alive,” I assure him.

The plots of action films are not dependant on dialogue. A good fight transcends language barriers. The story of an action film resides in the motion, a movement between people and places, the intricate choreography of a good fight. Good vs. Evil.

“Where are you from?” Africa and Texas are similar in that the entire world has preconceived notions about the inhabitants and their lifestyles. We, the Africans and Texans, are no exception.

I answer “Texas” and Man Power brings up horses and cowboy hats.

When I was first told of the pollers who were to take us into the delta, I imagined people like the Masai Mara warriors of Kenya. I imagined blood red tribal clothing and spears in hand to push us along the shallow waterway. The men and women who took us into the Delta wear modern clothing, jeans and t-shirts carrying logos, jerseys representing Botswana and other football teams.

Our last night in the Delta and the entire camp has gathered around the fire. We share music. The Pollers dance and sing a song called Beautiful Botswana. A young woman from Ireland sings a Celtic anthem. My brother and I sing the Star Spangled Banner.

Man Power, once the songs are finished, stands and recites his poetry while circling the flames. He follows his own rules. The poem changes, he mixes up lines on the fly and flows one poem into the other. His words take on a staccato rhythm and his voice deepens. With many eyes watching, he is more nervous than our one on one discussion but he continues circling the fire all the same.

He concludes most of his poems with the phrase: I am not your poeter, I’m just a messenger

And he finishes the night’s poem with those words.

Created By
Kyle Montgomery

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