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Interview: Minister of the Environment

Every River Has Its People

It had been a madcap day of travel. 24 hours straight from India to Botswana: Delhi to Abu Dhabi, UAE to Johannesburg, South Africa, to Gaborone, capital of Botswana, then to Maun, the village where we stayed for the next two nights.

By the final leg, we had reached a point beyond hunger and exhaustion, our eyes bloodshot and hair matted, but each of us carrying around us a golden haze of excitement. Of our team of seven (Jos, the fourth member of the Australian videography crew, met up with us in Jo-burg), only Pablo had been to Africa before. Our next Expedition destination: the Okavango Delta, the Jewel of the Kalahari, the world’s largest inland delta, a mysterious source of water in the midst of desert. What a thrill!

Well, perhaps we earned some good karma points through all our hard work on the journey up to that point, because we couldn’t believe our good fortune at what happened next.

On the plane from Gaborone to Maun, our Conservation International travel partner Rowena Smuts pointed out Botswana’s Minister of the Environment, Wildlife, and Tourism, Onkokame Kitso Mokaila—a man with whom we had been eager to speak. And so we thronged him at the Maun airport on his way out the door. An imposing man with a bright smile and delightful sense of humor, he laughed at our cheekiness and generously agreed to our request for an impromptu interview… half an hour later. So much for heading back to the hotel first to shower and freshen up, even perhaps grabbing a bite to eat! Oh well, we had no choice but to seize this amazing opportunity, which felt like a gift from the heavens.

Frantically, we gathered up our luggage, picked up the two rental trucks, and headed a short distance to the offices of our tour guides, Wilderness Safaris. We had moments to set up, chug a cup of coffee, discuss interview questions, and find a space with enough light to film. We couldn’t find a single adaptor amongst all our “universal” kits to fit the Botswanan plugs for our technology. Still, we somehow managed to pull it together just as Minister Mokaila bounded in.

The Bostwana government is considered a role model in terms of its careful management of the environment, which it values as a precious resource—and major source of tourism-generated income. The Minister discussed the importance of involving all stakeholders in the conversation, including agriculture, fisheries, tourism, wildlife, cattle ranchers, and the people of Botswana as well as Namibia and Angloa, where the Delta’s water originates. He was clearly proud of his country and its President, Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama, whom he said “is a conservationist through and through.”

“We have a saying,” Minister Mokaila said. “Every river has its people… It’s all about water. It’s all about water. Maybe in some countries water is taken for granted. For us it’s not because it’s not readily available. It’s like gold to us. Water is life!” Amazing: he even said our Expedition slogan unprompted!

Despite our grittiness, peckishness, and tiredness, we made the group decision to stay in Maun another hour after the interview to visit an internet café before retreating to the oasis of our wilderness lodge, where there would be neither cell phone reception nor internet. When we made it to the hotel, we nearly wept with gratitude at its simple elegance, and settled in for a much-deserved celebratory dinner before heading to bed for a proper night’s sleep.