Top of the poles

Francinah Baaitse Mmana

Traditionally at this time of year, tour guides and operators in Maun closely monitor the movement of water in the Okavango Delta.

Many will take photos as they market their businesses to the rest of the world in an attempt to attract potential clients and visitors.

Things are slightly different this year, however.

Whilst water is within a few kilometres of the Thamalakane River and flowing steadily, excitement is at an all time low.

Indeed the filling of the river after last year’s drought is adding to the industry’s pain and frustration.

In this interview, Kenson Kgaga, the first Motswana to be granted a Tour Guide licence – an honour he achieved 35 years ago – and then own a safari company, highlights these concerns.

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Now 72, the grizzled Chairperson of Botswana Guides Association (BOGA) has retired from poling and tour guiding but remains actively involved in the running of safari camps.

Q. You are recognised as the first Motswana to get a professional Safari Tour Guide licence. How does that make you feel?

Proud. I got the licence in 1985.

I was fortunate to get a job at Audi camp, then Kubu camp in 1984.

That is where I developed interest in the tourism business.

It became quite clear that it was not such a complicated industry as we initially thought and it need not be a preserve of foreign nationals.

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We were born and bred in the delta so we understand the terrains and have indigenous knowledge about its inhabitants.

In 1985 I wanted to leave Kubu camp to start my own.

But the German who owned it liked my work ethic and determination so he decided to retain me by way of offering me shares and it worked, I stayed.

Q. Is that how you got your licence?

Yes, being one of the Directors in the company my focus was in the Tour department.

I used to take visitors for day trips, either by road or into the delta by mokoro.

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As a result I had to apply for a Professional Guide licence.

Q. And what was your job before you became a shareholder?

They started me off as a labourer.

I was just a camp assistant.

My work included litter picking and basically keeping the camp tidy.

This meant that I occasionally interacted with visitors and clientele of the camp and they liked my communication skills.

Besides before joining this particular company I had worked in other camps as a cook and waiter.

Because of my friendly nature and professionalism in whatever I do, the company did not want to lose me.

I ended up being sent on tour activities more often and the rest is history.

Q. Impressive! I wasn’t aware that you hold shares at Audi camp?

I don’t. With the change of ownership and management over the years I ended up selling my shares.

It is a long story, probably for another day.

After selling my shares, I registered my own safari camp, Bush Safaris, which I sold in 1999.

Competing with bigger and more established companies presented new challenges.

Back then it was difficult for mobile safaris to secure campsites inside prime areas like Moremi Game Reserve.

Q. So how did you bounce back?

I was very much known in Maun and Ngamiland as ‘Kgaga wa disafari’ (Kgaga of safaris) and I became a point of reference for many aspiring safari owners.

I didn’t like being the only black Motswana who is in this business.

I wanted others to get in because most Ngamilanders understand the delta and the bush very well.

I wanted more of them to benefit from these rich resources hence I was always encouraging them to venture into the business.

I utilised the media a lot, especially Okavango Observer, now The Ngami Times.

I raised awareness and many Batswana showed interest in the business.

Q. So you became more of an agent?

Sort of, though not completely – and I was not doing it for money! Even when I was running the camp people still came to me every day for advice.

Back then for one to get a guides licence, they had to be recommended so I had to recommend many of them.

I used to receive 15 to 20 people at my office every day until one day I asked them to find a place where I can address them all at the same time.

A meeting was organised and held in 1998 at Sedie Secondary School.

The meeting led to the formation of Botswana Guides Association (BOGA), officially launched on the 5th April 2000 at Sedie hotel.

I was appointed its Chairman.

Q. 20 years later and you remain the association’s Chairman! Doesn’t your post have a term limit?

It does. We go for elective congress every two years but I have been voted back every time.

I now wish to retire.

In fact I once wrote to the Executive Committee requesting to be excused from the position.

They agreed, but when the congress dates were close, nobody showed interest to stand for the task and I was therefore asked to rally for the post again.

I have even asked to be selected for Deputy Chairman but the membership has refused.

However, since the current term ends this year, I really do not wish to retain the seat.

I have done my part – others now have to take the fort.

Q. When is the congress?

We were supposed to hold elections this coming November.

But because we had a special conference last year, same month, a lot of money was used and now we are facing financial problems emanating from the Covid-19 outbreak and closure of the tourism business.

To answer your question, we are not even sure if the congress will take place this year because our membership is generally struggling financially due to movement restrictions.

Again you have to understand that our membership gets business from international travellers and with this Covid issue, businesses are on their deathbed.

Q. How big is BOGA, in terms of members?

BOGA has a membership of over 400, including professional mobile safaris and individual guides.

The impact of Covid-19 on our membership is huge.

In the safari industry, there is a booking system that requires clients to pay deposits before hand.

Some book a year in advance and two months before the trip, the clients deposit the balance.

So when Corona and lockdown came in, they were hit with cancellations and clients wanted refunds.

We are not talking small monies!

Bare in mind, when the booking is made, safari operators have to book hotels, parks and all other necessities to prepare for visitors.

The lockdown came in so fast, leaving our operators mostly bankrupt and in debt.

It is a stressful situation.

Our cancellation policy says it has to be for a reasonable cause, and Corona is reasonable enough.

Q. With the flooding of Thamalakane River, won’t your members a least get local business?

Aah, Batswana fear mokoro eh!

The flooding of the river is only opening our wounds because we know this is supposed to be the beginning of peak season.

Our business is supposed to pick up but we can only watch from a distance and feel happy for farmers.

We are indeed grateful because water is precious; at the same time we pray for Corona to disappear so that everything will go back to normal.

Of course we know it will take years for us to recover from this, but such is nature.

Q. In your many years as a guide, did you ever have a close encounter with a vicious animal?

I have never had an encounter in my years as a guide.

I believe God has always protected me and I was always vigilant because even when you are in the water, you have to be alert and know when and where to go.

Q. Personally, how has the lockdown affected you?

I run safari camps, Naga Mobile Safari and Mako Rest Camp.

My plan was to open another camp in Sankoyo; everything is ready, but the lockdown has delayed the opening.

Q. So is there now fair competition in the tourism sector?

Not really, but things are better now. After forming BOGA in 2000, things opened up because we were able to negotiate with government and policies were eased to favour local and small businesses.

That is when I opened Naga Safaris and never looked back.

Q. You are a true go-getter and an inspiration to any! So how do you balance the demands of being a politician, a businessman and union chairperson?

There is no hustle at all.

This is what I have been called to do on earth: to serve people!

For me being a politician is more like being a church leader.

It is all about trying to fight injustices.

I just can’t stand seeing a person being oppressed by another.

I am an active advocate for human rights.

That is one thing very close to my heart – it makes me what I am.

I just want to speak and represent the voiceless.

Q. And on the home front, are you a family man?

Yes I have a wife and seven children, two sons and five daughters.

Q. What is your favourite leisure activity?

I have a cattlepost.

That is where I go to in my spare time.

That is what all old men do!

Q. Really! And finally Thank God It’s Friday, what are you up to this weekend?

Yes. We are all on lockdown.

I will probably be home or out helping other people in my ward.

As you can see, my phone rings none stop, I have to provide answers to even things I am clueless about.

So I am always busy solving problems for others!

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