Koketso “Koki” Mookodi is a National Geographic Explorer and Botswana country director for the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP), which aims to secure permanent, sustainable protection for the Okavango River Basin in southern Africa. The basin covers parts of Angola, Namibia, and Botswana, where its waters fan out to form an iconic inland delta. Koki’s vision is to ensure that NGOWP’s work includes—and benefits—the people who live in and around the Delta. Improving the quality of local education is key to achieving that vision.
“One of the catalysts to me doing this was my exhaustion of hearing about the Delta from people who are not from Botswana,” Koki says in Guardians of the River, an eight-part podcast about the people striving to safeguard this enigmatic place. After building a career in tourism, Koki joined NGOWP with the goal of making a difference—“in my way, not through somebody else’s idea of how it should be done.”
In her new role, Koki applied her expertise in logistics and tourism to organizing research expeditions into and out of Botswana. She also launched her own project, Educator Expeditions. She wrote about it in a recent op-ed in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper. In the following transcript from Guardians of the River, excerpted from episode six and edited for clarity, Koki shares more about the inspiration behind the project. The narrator is Kerllen Costa, Angola country director for NGOWP.
Koki: Educator Expeditions is a project that is aimed at primary school teachers, mainly in the Okavango Delta. And it is designed to sensitize these teachers with the use of research and science as well as Indigenous knowledge to better condition them to use those as tools of education in the class.
Kerllen: Koki knew that the best way to share the Delta with young Batswana was through education. Koki was joining her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in the tradition of teaching—but in typical Koki fashion, she was also challenging the status quo.
Koki: How can we not celebrate the people who teach us how to read and write? But even they need development. A lot of the teachers are taught how to teach basically by standing in front of a classroom of kids and regurgitating what’s in a book and not creatively thinking outside of the box. And so this is my way of bringing them out of their shells and allowing them an opportunity to individually become themselves in a teaching environment, as opposed to a unit of government.
Kerllen: This project was Koki’s chance to share the Delta with Batswana, to reclaim it as their home and their heritage, to fall asleep to the roar of lions.
Koki: We saw our first pride of lion. I was expecting all of the teachers to be frightened and they weren’t. Everybody was very interested in everything. Going into it, I thought about my boredom with the trees and the grasses and the birds and thought, this is the first time most of them are going on a game drive or experiencing wildlife so they’ll probably want to see the big five. And that wasn’t the case. From the moment they arrived, they were interested in every single thing. And that gave me hope. I breathed a sigh of relief and I knew that, OK, I’m doing the right thing.
Kerllen: Koki hopes that taking local educators out into the bush will inspire structural changes to the Botswana education system. More engaged teachers will mean more engaged students— and more demands for equity.
This transcript covers 22:37 to 27:42 in episode six of Guardians of the River. Listen to the complete episode here, or find the full series at the website of the Wild Bird Trust or on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or other platforms.
Koki: What really, really drove me to start this project was the decline in overall academic results within the primary schools. Every year, the statistics show that the students in Ngamiland are failing further and further. It’s been a 10-year study that I’ve been doing. And it’s embarrassing that the people who are in the richest part of the country are performing the worst. And the naysayer in me makes me wonder whether it’s by design and whether it suits the tour operator to keep the local community dumb, which makes sense. I mean, I suppose if I was a ruthless profit-making tour operator, I would want to keep the people around me as lowly educated as possible. And so as a Motswana, I cannot allow that to happen. It is in my vested interest not just for me but for my daughter and future generations to take back our education and take back what it is that we want our students to know and to bridge that knowledge gap.
Kerllen: Ngamiland is the region of Botswana surrounding and including the Delta. And Koki’s use of the word “rich” is an interesting one. She doesn’t necessarily mean that Ngamiland has the most money. Or diamonds. She means it has wealth of all kinds: geographical, cultural, mineral, touristic. That the Delta region has it all.
Koki: So that they give their students an opportunity not just to be a safari guide or a chef or a housekeeper in a lodge, as wonderful as it is. It’s not enough. We need scientists and researchers and representation of people from Botswana in the world of conservation in order to make it a lucrative environment for young people to see themselves thriving. And the only way to do that is to inspire their teachers to inspire the classroom.
Kerllen: In these past 20 years, Koki has observed the Okavango Delta from many angles. She understands the stakeholders’ perspectives. She ran the opulent tourism camps and entertained their guests. She sat in the homes of the Wayei and the Bushmen, employing them in the NGOWP and positioning them at the heart of her education experiences. And she has organized the research outposts of scientists, ensuring they have all the food and supplies to do their work. She’s watched the Delta fill up and dry out and raised her daughter, Khokho, along its waters. To me, Koki has many of the answers about how to protect a place like the Okavango Delta and its headwaters up at the source lakes in Angola.
The featured image is by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
The original podcast transcript is courtesy of the Wild Bird Trust.