Reflections on stirring 

by Keamogetse Mosienyane

The Setswana name given to the action of using a wooden pole to propel a mokoro canoe is “go huduwa”, which means to stir. My first encounter with this action of stirring on this trip was in Boro, just outside of Maun, Botswana, and it continued to return to me in unexpected ways. I will be reflecting on different forms of stirring as gestures and reference points for an imagination of a spatial configuration or mapping that is situated in the breath and life of the Okavango. I noticed myself zooming in, slowing down, and tracing circular stirring movements on this trip. The motion served as a way to map disjointed labour, traditional knowledge and intimacy embodied by the people who live and work in the Okavango. 

The polers in the delta stir water. Using their hands and the balance of their bodies, this labour is a skill that Pretty, one of the polers, acquired when she moved to Boro in 2012. When the canoes depart, Pretty’s body is slanted. Her weight rests on the pole and on the water. The mokoro then gains momentum and glides across the water. Through this movement I am reminded of the tracks left by Pretty, the memory that the Okavango water holds, the mapping that Pretty navigates and the generosity of her map.

To meditate on stirring is to encounter repetitive movements — the continuous and repeating strides that the pole takes in the water. Pretty’s arms guide the pole into the water, in and out, in and out, in and out. Repetition as a navigation system, of carving routes known to Pretty, to the pole and the water. Repetition is a durational tool that puts Pretty in relation to the environment. As we glided across the delta, Pretty navigating, she spoke about her love of birds and named several birds along the way. She said her love of birds has no concrete origin story, and by encountering the delta through poling, she learns more and more about them. Through repetition she remembers some names, and through repetition she also forgets some. Stirring as location, stirring marking presence and relation. Pretty’s paths, Pretty’s favouritebird, Pretty’s movements from Boteti to Boro in 2012.

The paths that polers carve when they stir the delta also led us to “protected” biodiversity and wildlife zones where local communities have been forcibly removed on the basis of conserving the environment. Poling also exists within the context of canoeing tourists across the Okavango and the wildlife. In Boro, there is a literal fence that divides the residential area from the protected biodiversity zones where some of the local communities used to live.

When Pretty shared that poling in Setswana is “go huduwa”, we also immediately talked about traditional Tswana staple food such as maize meal which is prepared by using a wooden spoon to stir and mix water with crushed maize. Here, I am in Boro, I am in Pretty’s map, I am in water, I am in the kitchen, I am at the table at the restaurant in the Maun camp where I had maize meal and spinach on the first night. When mapping acts of stirring, we are fed food prepared by Dona in Rundu and Lily in Maun (thank you Anita for remembering Lily’s name). Several weeks ago, as I read June Jordan’s poem, I meditated on food, the hands, the presence and politics that produce them. On this trip, it is black women and black men that stirred the pots that fed us.  

A bowl of rice

as food         
as politics    
or metaphor
or something common to consume/exploit/ignore

Who grew these grains
Who owned the land
Who harvested the crop
Who could fill that bowl with rice how many times a day                         
                    how many times a week
Who would adore the hands that held the bowl that held the rice

     -  June Jordan, focus in real time, 1997

At the campsite at night in Samochima, a white woman opened the gate for us and told us that her husband was waiting at the communal area with dinner for us. When we arrived, it was Titi, a Black man who was the chef, who had prepared the food for the night and the night after. The white woman’s husband was there to show us around the camp, marking territory that was acquired through forced removals and coloniality.

Sitting with Jordan’s poem, here I encounter the stir, in Titi’s cooking, in us eating at the dinner table out of the bowls that hold the food, to ask: who would adore the hands that held the bowl? At the dinner table, I overheard romantic WhatsApp phone calls as we ate by the Kavango River in Rundu. To map the stir is to map romance and intimacy, as you hold the bowl of food served by Naledi in Maun while you call your loved ones to let them know that you have arrived and departed safely in Rundu, in Divundu, in Shakawe, in Gumare, in the morning and in the sun.

Yesterday on our way to Rundu, dispersed fires were howling and gasping, torching patches of grass on the field. The fires invited us, the burnt smoke nestled on my hair, my sight overtaken by the shadows of smoke that formed. I witnessed a man holding a long wooden stick stirring fire. Agricultural burning, prescribed burning, negotiated by stirring a log in the fire. A relation between burning and stirring to prepare the soil for the ploughing season. To spatialise stirring is to ask — who grew these grains, who harvested the crop? To stir the fire is to also assume responsibility of the fire in Ndonga Linena and elsewhere. The people tended to the fire and drizzled soil on it when it was time to let the burn and fire rest.

We met Mr Moleng after walking with Lops at the Tsodilo hills. I would describe Mr Moleng as a man with swag, a certain charming rhythm in the way he moved and spoke. He was not a man of many words. He welcomed us to his yard where we met his wife, children, sisters and grandchildren. Mr Moleng lit a fire with two sticks, one placed vertically over the other, stirring into the one that lay on the grass. Anita asked if we could watch him ignite the fire, and he said we should not gaze too long because the fire might not catch onto the grass if we did. After the first fire, he asked if anyone wanted to learn, and I volunteered. He asked me to take off my shoes and to put some weight on the horizontal stick, the one whose black insides spill onto the grass beneath it. These black insides are what spark the fire, the friction, a result of a collaboration between a vertical log and circular stirring movements initiated by Mr Moleng’s hands and knowledge. I encountered the stir again, here at Mr Moleng’s home, a repetition of fast circular movements passed on by the hands of a man who takes responsibility of the fire.

The stir of producing fire is sudden and fast, and that of stirring the delta is slow. The latter takes strides like the chameleon that fell off the tree, where Anita was napping by the Kavango river between Angola and Namibia, leisurely stepping from one joint to the next.

Stirring, go huduwa, repetition of hands using wooden tools to make circular movements in water, in fire, on wood, in maize meal configured my experiences in a particular way that grounded my presence. It was through the initial conversation with Pretty about poling when my mind wandered off to a memory of my father stirring his morning porridge and to now stirring fire with Mr Moleng. I am tempted to overstate the importance of stirring as I conclude this text. However, this has been a non-linear and incomplete exercise that follows the motion of stirring as it leaves a mark (whether visible or invisible).

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