Mind the Teeth

Tigerfish, Hippos, Crocodiles, and Tiny Canoes.

[by Miles Nolte]

It hung behind the bar in the cool shade of thatch, looking like a cross between a striped bass and a piranha. I couldn’t take my eyes off that broad torpedo body, the wide tail, that mouthful of dagger teeth.

I was a senior in college, doing a semester abroad and sitting in a lodge bar in northern Botswana. The lodge sat on the Chobe River, a tributary of the Zambezi that marks the border with Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Botswana had already infatuated me—the shifting landscape from desert to badlands to wetlands, its friendly but proud people—and I was about to discover tigerfish.

Reeling in the luxury of the lodge, I sipped a sweaty beer. The previous six weeks had left my assumptions about privilege wobbling. I had lived with a host family in a rural village, where few spoke English and nothing was familiar or comfortable. I bathed in a rusting tub by lamplight, with water heated over an outdoor cooking fire. I ate caterpillars, goat, and various cow stomachs. I walked dozens of dusty miles to help my rope-thin host brother tend the family cattle.

Like many Americans, I grew up suburban with indoor plumbing. That month and a half of village living molded my fledgling ideas about necessity, luxury, and happiness. Immediately after, I found myself surrounded by overstuffed tourists in wide-brimmed safari hats who complained incessantly.

This was my vacation before the second half of the semester, a safari lodge in the vacation town of Kasane. I found the pastel cocktails, embroidered napkins, and nightly shows advertising “the spectacle of African dance” unsettling. I sat alone at the bar, alternately feeling self-righteous toward other foreigners (certain that they couldn’t imagine the “authentic” experience I was having) and ogling the fish on the wall.

I hadn’t known sport fishing existed in Africa. I hadn’t thought about fishing since I arrived in Africa, not until I noticed that glossy mount over the bar. I drained my beer and winced as I walked to the concierge desk: just another tourist.

The guide, Batsi, had grown up fishing the Chobe, bare-chested, paddling a mokorro, a hand-carved canoe. Now his canoe was an imported bassboat powered by a Yamaha, and he raced tourists up and down the same turbid flow wearing a bleached collared shirt. Early the next morning we went downstream, where a large tributary cleared the stained Chobe to the color of weak tea. Batsi grabbed a heavy spinning rod, tied on a steel leader, and clipped a Mepps Spinner to the snap.

“Cast this side,” were his only directions.

After a fishless hour or so we moved to a deep, swirling hole. Batsi pulled a tilapia from the live well, snapped the neck, scored the skin, and sliced it in half. He replaced the Mepps with a 1/0 wide-gapped hook, attached a drop weight, and impaled the back half of the baitfish. I tossed the rig into the heart of the churn and fingered the line in front of the bail. Heat rose in humid waves from the river, while the sun seared downward. Batsi handed me a water bottle and cracked one for himself.

The first few hours of conversation with Batsi were like hiking in new boots. He let a grin slip when I attempted to start a conversation in Setswana. Love isn’t the universal language; self-deprecating humor is.

His guard shrank from a fence to a wall. Five years later, as a guide myself, I would begin to learn the subdued waltz of working intimately for people about whom you know almost nothing. Unlike Batsi, I would never have to glide through that dance as a black man working primarily for South African whites less than a decade after the end of Apartheid.

We sat in the heat and the silence. Occasionally a mokorro would pass, and Batsi would stand tall on the captain’s seat yelling in a language I didn’t recognize before settling back into a subdued commonwealth demeanor.