“Water Ceremonies,” Part II, Africa—a poem by Janet Grace Riehl (Tales from Maun, Botswana; Okavango Delta in Northern Botswana; Kalahari Desert in Western Botswna)
Afternoons, I teach schoolchildren to swim
in the flooded waters of the Tamalakane.
Two fingers support wiry bodies that sink
every chance they get.
“Arch your back! Spread out your limbs! Float! Kick! Paddle!”
Until one student travels under her own speed.
We collapse on the bank, gasping with sputtered water and glee.
Evenings, I swim downriver towards sunset.
A flamboyant lilac-breasted roller covers the sky.
The current muscles me onward, multiplies my strength.
No matter I cannot reach the sun. It reaches me.
My arms cut through the smooth-rolling water flaming before my stroke.
At river’s edge reeds grow with tender white shoots at their base.
Good to eat.
Water lilies perch on princess pads.
Waterskaters skim along the surface between legs of Jesus birds.
It's slow work swimming back against the current.
Fin and smooth slippery skin slide past my calf and knee.
The water parts before my hands. Sun sets.
My wet cheeks reflect the moon, rising.
Okavango Delta, Northern Botswana
We leave from a white hunter safari camp with a Motswana guide in a
Mokoro, that buoyant log burned and dug from tribal memory.
Tent, food, two passengers.
My hand leaves its own wake.
In knee shallow water, we wade.
If waist high, it's still okay.
The kindly hippo breathes bubbles in warning.
Our guide poles to one side.
You don't want the hippo carrying your boat on its back
before dropping down to swagger off with your arm in its mouth.
We're beyond settlements now.
A fellow poler hails us to show an abscess on his leg.
But we lance the pus and bind his wound.
Fancy-pants language not much use here. Damn!
I wish I were a nurse.
Our guide burns down a palm tree
to find and eat its heart.
We strip to bathe among reeds and mud.
I've never felt so clean as with
sand and ash for soap.
This place owns itself.
38 varieties of fish
47 varieties of animals
96 varieties of birds
143 varieties of plants.
None knows their names.
They just are.
Halfway to somewhere we turn.
We must return to nowhere, where we began.
Uncharted channels call.
We duck out of reach of that siren, Adventure.
Sky meets water.
all conversational combinations
of Setswana, English, and body language.
We're together, in silence.
Clouds dive deep.
It's a straight shot to camp.
Another straight shot to the hot sun showers.
We empty boat.
The boat is empty.
Goodbye, water legs.
Hello, sand ruts.
Kalahari Desert, Springtime
Rainclouds gather and drop their load.
Delirious sands soak it up, roll it off.
Herbs, wildflowers and tufts of grass spring up...
Yesterday, a road.
Today, a river runs...
We cook sausages over a quick, small fire;
Sip strong tea;
Warm ourselves over stories;
Touch stars on the piercing bright night;
And wait for The Arc to arrive.
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