Mankwe Rite of Passage Text

With the exception of the last post, my posts are being written rather after the fact. The extremely grueling schedule of the job plus my health issues have largely sidelined me from writing in the moment. There is so very much to share about the bulk of our time in Maun with the students. We spent two long stints in the bush, had a whirlwind of cultural experiences in and around town, and in the middle of it all I fell ill a few times. It’s difficult to separate work from life at this school, perhaps impossible, so I won’t really attempt to.

Our strict quarantining measures meant that we spent the first week with the students mostly interacting online or at long distances, even though all of our “classroom” space was indoors. It was during this time that I began to identify a dominant culture, especially among the students, of a strangely intolerant “liberalism”. Something that’s taken hold of this generation – a disturbing Orwellian doublespeak dystopia with exclusion by inclusion, accepting only the accepting, open-minded only towards the open-minded, toxic positivity.

After a silly sorting hat ceremony, we were ready to emerge from quarantine and head to the bush for a five day stint free of tech. The students lamented the lack of cellphones and cameras at first, but quickly saw the value. My advisory in particular pointed out “We don’t need a camera, we have Terrence”, as I frenetically drew everything and everyone. Our location was quite remote (though near an affiliated luxury lodge), with extremely slimy/salty water from a massive tank, enormous tents, and excellent food. Within the first hour of arriving, the leader of the African Convervation Experience, Martin, took the staff aside to watch a deadly puff adder right by the entrance, where the cars were parked, mere meters from us. This was quite terrifying – we were hours away from any medical assistance. Not long afterwards, we saw a Mozambique spitting cobra. The real dangers of the bush were certainly not lost on us. In the evening we heard elephants trumpeting, hyenas cackling nearby, the rustle of game fleeing a leopard, and once even the snarl of a big cat. No hippo barking here, as we were far from water in the dry delta.

In this Rite of Passage, the students led multiple workshops about conflict resolution, leadership, identity, etc., with nights by the fire with storytelling and song. I sang one song each night with my guitar – Cucurrucucú Paloma, Stand By Me, 上を向いて歩こう, ลมหนางและดาวเดือน, Big & Grey. These team building type activities were interspersed with field training by our fabulous team of guides – Martin, Johan, KT, SK, the Professor, and OT. They taught us to read tracks, lead a fascinating lecture about hyenas (who give birth through hemi-penises!) and prepped us for survival in the bush.

Naturally, this all culminated in a twenty four hour survival experience for the students. Each advisory was dropped off in a location to build a shelter in which to spend the night. Each student received a ration of one potato, one onion, one egg, and 1.5 liters of water. Educators observed from a distance throughout the day as they built the shelters. My advisees made quite a cozy, well camouflaged hut among a group of trees to face a fire pit. They also had some rather hilarious altercations involving the squat toilet they built, with the memorable phrase “Can you see my shit?” born of a heated argument.

Each advisory was assigned a guide. KT stayed with us – quiet, gentle, and wonderfully hands-off for most of the activity. As night fell, the students baked their potatoes and onions in the coals by the fire. One student’s ill-advised alternative method resulted in a rather crunchy (sandy) meal. They arranged shifts throughout the night to keep watch for animal threats. KT and I stayed up most of the night in the vehicle. We heard hyenas and elephants, but nothing came close enough to threaten during the tense night. I fell asleep shortly before dawn and woke to the students’ attempts to cook their eggs.

We had a lovely final dinner as a community, as our principal finally arrived on site, and one final fireside circle before heading back to the lodge the next day.

One final note – here at the camp my colleagues finally saw a more energized version of me. Quite cowed by the cold, I spent most of the time in the sun in the previous weeks, but remained mostly quiet and observant. At the camp the sun was out in full force in the afternoon and I reveled in it, prancing back and forth on the slackline we’d purchased, doing exercise on the rock rings I’d brought, and generally running around happily while the rest of the staff wilted.

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