By Amanda Castleman
Grand Prize Silver Winner in the Fourteenth Annual Solas Awards
Navigating grief with the Okavango Delta’s last generation of Bushmen hunter-gatherers.
When he was 15, Ditshebo “Dicks” Tsima took his spear into the bush. Hunting was still legal in Botswana’s Okavango Delta then, so he could follow an ancient coming-of-age tradition, practiced for around 200,000 years by his people: the Bushmen.
Most young men ran down giraffes, their lean muscles churning to pace the world’s tallest animals, which can cruise comfortably at 10 mph. Hour after hour, they pursued the lolloping giants through the mosaic landscape where Africa’s last wetland wilderness drains into the Kalahari Desert. Islands, scrub, and grasslands all flashed by: a fractal terrain of riverine lushness and heat-seared dust. “You chase them until they get exhausted and stand their ground,” Dicks explains. “Then you spear them. That’s the best way for a family to judge your worth. If you can chase down a giraffe, then your in-laws know you will take good care of your bride.”
Dicks wanted nothing more than to impress Lehutsana Mosweu and her parents. So he chose a riskier path: taking down a mother leopard guarding her cubs. “I could have considered less dangerous animals like steenboks and impalas,” he says. “But a brave warrior takes the spotted cat.”
Leopards often sit in the sausage trees, hiding among the fragrant flowers, so they can drop down on antelopes. But Dicks found one in the open, stalking a hare across the semi-arid savanna. He hid behind a termite mound and threw his spear. It missed … soaring right over her head. His second spear didn’t deter her either.
“Then the spotted cat was on me!” he says. “She jumped on my chest, with all of her claws hooked in. She was about to go for the throat and suffocate me.”
The leopard paused to adjust her grip and Dicks’ hunting dogs bit her. “I grabbed a spear and was running away. I thought I was sweating, but when I stopped I realized it was blood.”
His bravery and strength still impressed Lehutsana. They have been married for 16 years now.
“You had to get through these challenges before you could be a man,” Dicks says. “But it’s not a practice anymore because of the law and western culture.”
I find his survival story oddly comforting, as we sit stranded beside a pride of lions.
The big cats lounge, submerged in the thigh-high grass, snuffling and grooming beside the running board of our Land Cruiser. Flies buzz in their fur, which is marred by cuts, snagged by thorns, and smeared with the blood of other animals.
The lions drowse and yawn and resettle themselves, so close I can count their incisors, rose fading to an ivory hue at the fine, sharp tips. “Ooooohf,” they sigh, bathing each other. Their carrion breath eddies in the afternoon heat.
We can’t push-start the truck without tripping over them. And everyone here knows: stepping out of a vehicle means stepping into the food chain.
My friend Paul Joseph Brown twists on the bench seat. As a photographer, he’s covered wars, revolutions, famine, and genocide. He now focuses on poverty and health challenges throughout the developing world. Paul is no cream puff. But wild apex predators are straight-up snuggling with our tires.
“Dude,” he whispers, his eyebrows climbing. “We are stuck beside lions.”
On the other hand, my nerves remain steady — numb, even.
Last year, my partner Doug and I were primary caregivers during two intense family deaths within a seven-month stretch. Each stripped away vanities and everyday worries like a thirsty elephant debarking a baobab trunk.
Grief, I realized, still has its claws hooked deep as Dicks’ leopard.
The air draws tight as an old drum skin. “The Great Thirstland” locals call it. The terrain attracts some of the world’s most endangered mammals, including lions, cheetahs, and the largest savanna elephant population. Not to mention African wild dogs, petite predators with Mickey Mouse ears and polka-dot coats who can hit speeds of 44 mph and bring down gazelles. It’s a small wonder UNESCO named the delta its 1,000th World Heritage Site.
The guides tinker with a sputtering radio, finally broadcasting an almost comical, “The lions are close. Please come out and help?”
Static crackles out of the speaker. Unintelligible.
We’d brought spare parts for the truck and communication system in from Maun. But in our excitement, we scrambled out for game drives without doing any maintenance, hoping to front-load the storytelling before more guests arrived. So now our group of five sits, sipping gin-and-tonics from Thermos lids, as dusk creeps over the plains and glittering waterways.
Humanity’s most ancient bloodline springs from this part of Africa, where hunter-gatherers have thrived since modern man emerged. As James Suzman, author of Affluence without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, explained in an interview, “until about 20,000 years ago, they were unquestionably the most successful society on planet Earth. Somehow, they found a kind of balance between sustainability, their environment, hunting and gathering, and living that made them unbelievably enduring. They were there for an extraordinarily long time. That makes them unique.”
Their descendants followed in their footsteps until the late 1980s, when the Botswanan government forcibly resettled the Bushmen, later banning hunting entirely. But instead of letting their prowess fade into legend, the Bukakhwe tribe opened the first indigenous-owned safari camp in the country: Bushman Plains.
Dicks, who is one of the co-owners, says: “All these skills come from generation to generation to generation and now to me. I grew up sleeping in the bush with no cotton, no shoes, seeing only my family. I was around 10 when the government decided to educate Bushmen kids. They had to track us to take us to school.”
Lessons were taught in Setswana or English, and Dicks spoke neither. He kept leaving class to find his older brother, Ola, who eventually helped him trade his tanned-hide apron for more modern clothing.
“I took [a garment] out of the plastic and asked him, ‘what is this?’”
“This is underwear.”
“How do I do it? Can I put it up on my head?”
“There are three holes, one for your waist and two for your legs.”
“OK, fine,” Dicks says. “So I put on the underwear, then go out and call my friends, laughing: ‘look at this funny thing!’ I take it off and give it to the next guy. I don’t even know who was the last one to own it. It went in circles. This is how we wear clothing out. Nothing is more ideal.”
I try to fuse this mental image with the 41-year-old leader and visionary entrepreneur before me. Even on the dustiest game drives, Dicks always looks impeccable with his head shaved smooth and his crisply pressed khakis and button-down shirts. He speaks in the low, controlled tones of an expert tracker trying not to alarm animals. He has that intimidating British Empire pronunciation — unsurprisingly, as Botswana only achieved independence in 1966 and remains part of the Commonwealth. Still, it’s hard for a Yank like me to reconcile that accent with confusion about tighty-whities, however hilarious.
As the guffaws fade, Dicks guides us back to the heart of the matter with his usual grace. “Our traditional skills are getting smaller, they are at risk of dying. My children watch TV, my daughter plays computer games …”
The Bukakhwe hope the camp will preserve their ancient tracking and survival knowledge for their kids, but also for their guests. “At Bushman Plains, we are not putting on a show. We are sharing our culture openly with everyone who is interested to learn. Every human being has got a tiny nip of Africa in them.” He glances at my skin, made even more fish-belly pale by mineral sunscreen. “Even you.” Everyone cracks up again.
Dicks recovers first and continues: “It is everyone’s identity. When you come here on safari, you’re coming home.”
I appreciate the warm welcome. But it’s hard to untangle the idea of “home” from the hardships my family has faced there lately.
I can’t unhear Doug’s mother as a tumor strangled her spine: the cries of an animal in a saw-toothed trap, hurt crowding out every sense, even a sense of self. And part of me remains stuck in the E.R., where the man I called my brother woke up, clawing his skin and pleading to die after 17 years of crippling, chronic disease peaked. I swaddled his gaunt body in clean, hot blankets, crooning and rocking him, until he finally slept.
I retreated to the waiting room. “I can’t do this,” I told Doug at the time. “I’m not that grown up.”
“No one ever is,” he said, belting his arms around me. “But we still have to.”
I did it, of course, and we endured. Our world winnowed to one of singular purpose: making sure our loved ones were not left alone with their fear. Never had privilege mixed so closely with pain than in those stark, beautiful, heart-rending weeks. What I couldn’t fathom was how to come back — how to escape the leopard.
As it turns out, breaking down next to lions focuses the mind … at least for a Seattle city-slicker like me.
The big cats remain sacked out a few feet away. They look like grand, stoic statues outside a library, that is if library statues occasionally let loose great ripping farts, rank from a diet of game meat. Apparently, being “king of beasts” isn’t all about lithe, murderous grace.
Heat starts streaming from the desert, escaping into the cloudless night sky, and the temperature drops toward 50°F. American wildlife biologist Bill Given, the camp’s only non-Botswanan shareholder, catches my worried glance at the truck’s flannel-lined ponchos. “The Bushmen grew up in the cross-over generation, the last to hunt and forage,” he says. “They have mental maps of the land and know how to avoid dangerous animals. We could walk back safely, no problem, even in the dark. Or we could just sleep here — it’s all good!”
I hold still, listening to the predators breathe in the dark, curled tight beside us. Isn’t it worth one night of discomfort to lie down among lions?
Then the distant grumble of a truck splits the savanna’s silence. The guides swing our spotlight around and signal. Finally the jeep pulls up, full of eager faces from one of the other three camps in the barely touristed area.
Oblivious to our plight, they announce, “Hey, we heard there were lions here!”
We point toward the grass and they’re treated to a glimpse of the hindmost cat’s rump, as the pride steals away to a more serene thicket.
The guides climb out and jumpstart our truck. Then we lurch into the black velvet night, tires clawing over rutted tracks, grass hummocks, and the occasional strand of barbed wire. We pull our feet high, as we ford the delta’s channels, water swamping the cab’s floor, then streaming away through drain holes.
My adrenaline does the same, leaving me alone with grief’s hollowness once again.
Western culture has long romanticized the people who thrived in the Great Thirstland. Take Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. After the furor of WWII, her industrialist father wanted to reconnect with his family and chose a singular avenue: searching for the Kalahari Desert Bushmen. They encountered the Juwa tribe after several months … and returned repeatedly, sometimes staying for entire years. Her mother trained as an anthropologist. So did her brother, who was also a documentary filmmaker and fierce political advocate for the Bushmen. Elizabeth studied English alongside Sylvia Plath at Smith College, then turned out the 1958 classic, The Harmless People — one of the bestselling anthropology titles of all time.
“Their culture insists that they share with each other,” she wrote, “and it has never happened that a Bushman failed to share objects, food, or water with other members of his band, for without very rigid cooperation Bushmen could not survive the famines and droughts that the Kalahari offers them.”
Yet Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, for all of her ethnographical care, fell prey to the era’s prevailing theory: that hunter-gatherers lived difficult, precarious lives. Eight more years would elapse before Richard Borshay Lee, who studied the Ju/’hoansi-!Kung Bushmen on the border of Botswana and Namibia, changed anthropology forever. His bombshell: hunter-gatherers only averaged 15 to 17 hours of work each week, even in one of the earth’s least hospitable environments.
Marshall Sahlins, then a University of Michigan professor, took things a step further. “The original affluent society was none other than the hunter’s — in which all the people’s material wants were easily satisfied,” he declared. “To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognize that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.” As the Summer of Love began in 1967, activists for peace and equality lionized this view of the Bushmen.
It would be easy now to do it again. But as the Information Age grows ever more frenetic, not even the Bushmen can revive the Old Way.
Their kids want WhatsApp, Fortnite, and modern conveniences — and why shouldn’t they?
Two days after the lion-side breakdown, six of us slip single file through the scrub near camp.
“We believe the gods help us … and they do,” says Motswasele “Diesel” Tshosa, the Bushman Plains guide leading the heritage walk.
We skirt a tower of giraffes as he elaborates: “When I wake, I have to let the gods — and my ancestors — know what activities I’m doing and ask for their strength. Often they reply through the woodpeckers.”
Diesel continues as we trek: “They have many calls. Some for regret.” He whistles once. “Shreeeeiii!”
“Shrike-shrike-shrike signals ‘let’s go!’ Then there’s the laughter,” he pauses. “It resembles a person sharpening a knife and can mean ‘let’s hunt’ or ‘visitors are arriving.’”
“What does it sound like?” I ask.
On cue, a woodpecker replies from a nearby tree. “Tsa-tsa tsa-tsa!”
“That might be my grandfather!” Diesel exclaims.
What would it be like, I wonder, to feel my mother-in-law’s boundless love again, reflected in creatures of my Pacific Northwest home? To hear my brother’s shy bark of laughter in the “kwok” of a raven?
Would I be less angry about their fierce independence and mistrust of doctors, which made their deaths messier and more painful for us all? Would it be easier to forgive a year lost to hospitals, red tape, and the grim task of cleaning out their homes? Could I grieve the holes they left in our lives more cleanly if I felt them watching over us?
Raised agnostic, I have no framework to soften the sorrow. Only nature helps and I haven’t been getting outside enough.
The woodpecker whistles again. My eyes slip down to my notebook and take in my scrawl.
“Once for regret.”
I shiver and stride away.
That evening, the truck rattles towards camp, then detours into a nearby meadow. “Surprise!” Dicks announces. “Tonight we are cooking on the fire like the generations before us.”
Lehutsana and her team already have a blaze going, circled by logs and stumps for seating. They grill eland tenderloin, as a kudu stew simmers. Stars appear like eyes staring down from dark wilderness above. All 16 of us — staff and guests — draw tight around the flames. The scene is as old as time. At the day’s end, we gather to share our food, warmth, stories, and laughter.
What abundance could be greater than the freedom to care for each other?
The Gordian Knot in my chest, snarled tight since that first diagnosis 17 months ago, slackens a few degrees.
I realize that Doug and I never faltered in caring for those we love. If the woodpeckers sing of regret, it’s only for our loss.
For the first time, I put down some of the pain, letting it seep away like the Okavango River dissolving into the Great Thirstland.
The grief remains, of course … just as the Bukakhwe still mourn 200,000 years of the world’s most enduring and successful culture, changed forever in the span of Dicks’ Gen X childhood.
He was born an owner and guardian of this harsh terrain, hunting and gathering in a small family group, moving swiftly and lightly to let areas rejuvenate. The government tore all that away, turning the Bushmen into a marginalized minority in a rapidly changing modern state, subject to underpants and other tyrannies. Yet here he and his people are, back on their ancestral lands, remixing the Old Way and the new into something extraordinary. Not just a cultural seed bank, but a community — one with arms wide to welcome us all home, reaffirming our shared humanity and connection to nature.
To see them adapt gives me hope. For the first time, I start to imagine that a path out of my own fog might exist.
A voice cuts across my heavy thoughts. “Night drive! Let’s go see the lions again!” We pile back into the repaired Land Cruiser and careen across the delta. To my untutored eye, we move in a series of pivots and lunges like the wild leaps of a flea. But the guides unerringly take us to the last known location of the big cats, then begin tracking by spotlight at an incredible speed. It is like watching Frida Kahlo paint or Eddie Van Halen shred. I realize then that no one will ever come close to possessing the virtuoso survival skills of the last generation of hunters here in this extraordinary landscape.
Golden grass splits and bows before the truck’s bumper, as we thresh across the savanna. The effect is hypnotic and after a dawn start, a long day, and two beers, I doze lightly until we jerk to a stop beside a perfectly featureless wall of waist-high vegetation.
A sleepy grunt rumbles behind the veil. We roll forward slightly, mashing down more stalks, and suddenly I am face to face with a lioness.
We blink fully awake at the same time, focus sharpening. I raise my camera and her copper eyes drill right into mine through the viewfinder.
For a moment, I feel a deep connection to the Okavango and the people sharing its abundance. The Bukakhwe tribe’s brave new world is big enough for us all: the cats, the awestruck guests, and the children receiving the Bushmen legacy: humanity’s most ancient skills.
These people have escaped the suspended animation of pure grief. They have found a way through and so can I; for I have lain down with lions and found a measure of peace at last.
Writer and photographer Amanda Castleman lives on the traditional land of Seattle’s first people, the Duwamish. A Lowell Thomas Award winner, she has contributed to AFAR, Outside, Sierra, BBC Travel, Delta Sky, American Way, Robb Report, Scuba Diving, Bon Appétit, Coastal Living and The New York Times. She has also worked on 30-odd books, including titles for Frommer’s and National Geographic. A longtime instructor, Amanda recently founded Write Like a Honey Badger, an online school offering scholarships to POC, non-binary and LGBTQIA authors.