Field Notes: Expediton #K2K – Okavango Delta, Botswana

CM Highlights Transboundary Water Issues in the Okavango

Following a thriving month in Pretoria, South Africa, Conservation Music (CM) headed to Botswana to combat transboundary water issues in the Okavango Delta for Expedition #K2K. We gathered artists from Gaborone and then headed to Maun, where we set off in mekoro (traditional canoes) for a four day wilderness expedition. This deep immersion into the local environment and culture made for a great month of eco-production and education. Take a look at Episode 9 of CM’s Webseries: On The Beating Path, which shares highlights from our field work, allowing you to trek with us throughout the entire experience! Check out more of CM’s stories and videos on National Geographic’s OpenExplorer platform. If you would like to contribute to Expedition #K2K, please visit our Patreon page, where you can schedule monthly donations of any amount.

Redefining Music as an Educational Tool with Local Artists

In Gaborone, we linked up with our new friend Stan who hosted us for the first week. He commonly hosts backpackers and travelers alike, yet his hospitality served great purpose for CM, as it allowed us to ground into the community and establish a core group of local musicians for the eco-song collaboration. First, we met with Tomeletso Sereetsi, a big name in the local scene who revolutionized the four-string sound by incorporating unique jazz chords. Then Tom recommended Gaone Rantlhoiwa, a local female singer with an unbelievable voice and wide array of styles. With our two main artists on board, we moved smoothly into the composition phase. The production crew sounded the melodies and rhythms, while Tom and Gaone wrote the lyrics. Inspired by the Okavango Delta’s transboundary water issues, the lyrics naturally called to bordering countries to preserve the delta’s diverse presence of life.

“I believe music is a really powerful tool. It’s the one thing I know that really unites people. It makes it easier for people to be receptive to messages because we all don’t like great talkers, so people talk all the time but people don’t listen… With music it’s really great because people are bound to listen and bound to enjoy the message. So it’s a tool that really should be used for community mobilization and community education. I think we should be doing more and more of that; using the power of the arts to bring people around issues and talk about them. I’ve seen this happen even in my own music…people are more likely to discuss issues that are taboo when the issues are in a song. It can be a beautiful ice-breaker! Artists have this artistic license and they can say stuff that most people don’t usually say and listeners can then talk about it because it is in the context of a song. They don’t realize they are talking about issues, they think they are just discussing a song. So I think music is a really powerful vehicle that we should be using more than we are actually doing right now.” ~Tomeletso Sereetsi | Gaborone, Botswana

As we moved forward into tracking, Tom linked us with Leroy Nyoni, an amazing sound engineer at Village Sound Studios. Leroy not only helped us with recording the song, but also added a back beat with incredible drumming. Field crew members Jake Taylor and Chris Volosevich, rounded it out with a few of their own bass and electric guitar phases. As the crew finalized tracking, CM Founder Alex Paullin flew to Canada to participate in a Summit Series entitled “Cultivating the Globally Sustainable Self” for a few days, where he discussed environmental sustainability with academics and practitioners from around the world.

With Alex back in the field, and production progressing, we geared up for the ten hour drive north to Maun, a city just outside the Okavango Delta. Upon arrival we settled into the Old Bridge Backpackers lodging, where we met with Matthew Merritt, CM’s Outreach Manager from the United States. Matthew spent two years in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, and now recruits for the Peace Corps, while volunteering for CM by inspiring stakeholders, sponsors, and partners to join the movement. Integrated into his six week backpacking trip through Southern Africa, Matt hopped aboard CM’s field crew for a few weeks to help with this month’s project. His experience in the field greatly benefited CM, and is one that he will carry back to the states. Connect with us to learn how to become a remote volunteer for CM.

Poling Into the Delta’s Wilderness

Early the following morning, we loaded into safari vehicles, linked with our guides, and headed towards the delta for four days of video shooting, cultural exchange, and nature immersion. After a two hour drive, we arrived at the launch station and transferred into mekoro, which are traditional canoes that we used to travel to each campsite. With production gear, instruments, an off-grid solar studio, volunteers, and artists in tow, we loaded seven mekoro and set off for our journey. As we weaved through the narrow waterways, we encountered herds of elephants, hippos, giraffes, zebras, hornbills and many other bird species. After long days of poling deep into the bush, we set up camp, recorded delta-inspired vocals, and filmed location shoots for the music video. At night we filmed more vocals by the fire, which was intentionally built large to keep the animals away as we slept. We shared delicious food, stories, and various improv jam sessions with the guitar, ukulele, and djembe. Tom and Gaone even had the chance to debut their song in Setswana, a Bantu language closely related to Sesotho, to an audience of local guides who then provided feedback and stimulated further discussions on the future of the delta waterways. It is such a reward when the educational ability of music can be seen first hand.

Field Recap from Matthew Merritt:

“The conversations held around the fire following the song were groundbreaking. It was then that we discovered that while the guides and polers had spent their whole lives on the delta, they were unaware that the water originated in Angola. It wasn’t until they heard the song that they asked questions about where the water came from and what was happening to cause the waters to lower. This was the reason we were here; to bring environmental education to rural communities in need. It was iconic and something I will never forget.”

With each rising sun, we set out by foot on guided safaris to explore the area and seek out wildlife. We encountered mixed herds of giraffes, zebras, antelope, ostriches, and elephants. The elephants made for the most memorable experiences as we witnessed a herd of over fifty travelling together, as well as unknowingly trekking into the wrong territory and getting false charged by one from the side. Luckily, everyone walked away safely with a humbling reminder of nature’s power. We followed up with supplementary filming, including shots for Gaone’s location shoot and a few ad-libs from Tom. On the last day we set out for one last shoot to wrap up filming before heading back to Maun.

CM’s Lesotho Chapter Lands a Grant

Earlier this year, our first local chapter Conservation Music Lesotho was built by local volunteers. Led by four women, the chapter landed its first grant this month, which will directly support local screenings of CM content to further educate students and rural citizens around the country. This is a landmark achievement for both the local chapter and the CM movement at large. Each step further proves that our scalable vision for a global network of self-sustaining chapters and implemented partners is viable. We are very proud of our local chapter and excited to see what the future holds!

Spreading Awareness

We landed back at the Old Bridge Backpackers lodging and connected with our good friends Helene Forward and Stiger Sola Molefi. Helene is a multi-talented artist, who also owns the Old Bridge Backpackers. Stiger has been performing in and around Botswana for decades and it’s always an honor to spend time with him. Together, we composed and recorded the song’s finishing touches, as Helene added flute and fiddle and Stiger closed out the track with his four-string guitar. With the month coming to a close, Helene allowed us to perform at the Old Bridge Backpackers, where we were able to share our message and collect some gas money for the road to Zambia. The performance was a beautiful memory to end on as we jammed with Helene and other new friends beneath a fig tree on the Thamalakane River. This month was packed with fulfilling work, intense wilderness expeditions, and countless memories. After we said our goodbyes, we hit the road for Livingstone, Zambia, where we were set to take on leg six of Expedition #K2K. Stay tuned for more stories!

Expedition #K2K is our third iteration of long-term field work, and it is by far the most exciting. To learn more about CM, and to stay connected throughout the mission, please subscribe to our Newsletter below, check out our blog on National Geographic, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. For live updates from the field, be sure to check out our page on National Geographic’s newest digital journalism platform, OpenExplorer. If you would like to contribute to Expedition #K2K, please visit our Patreon page, where you can schedule monthly donations of any amount.

This post was written by Charles Ross for Conservation Music.

About Conservation Music

Our Musical Nonprofit For Conservation

of Conservation Music

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Conservation Music is on a mission to produce and promote musical media that educates listeners and viewers in conservation and sustainability, with an emphasis on rural developing communities, and to serve as a platform for similar efforts. Currently, the organization primarily collaborates with musicians throughout Southern Africa, catalyzing songs in local genres and local languages regarding local conservation issues in countries like Lesotho, Botswana, Angola, and more.

About the Editor

Alex Paullin

of Conservation Music

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After years of soul-searching and months in the African wilderness with the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, musician and geographer Alex Paullin combined his foremost passions and founded Conservation Music, a non-profit aiming to foster a global culture of sustainability using music as the messenger. Throughout his life he aims to expand the Conservation Music movement globally, in hopes that his lifetime will see and hear songs of conservation being sung throughout the world.

CMP Month In Review : August 2016

Featured Photo by Thalefang Charles for Cross Okavango Delta Expedition.

Okavango, Okavango, Okavango… The Conservation Music Project glided into August aboard a mokoro, a week after launching from its birthplace of Seronga with the Cross Okavango Delta Expedition (CODE) on July 25th. It was a scramble to reset and repack in Johannesburg after arriving from Zambia July 21st! (The Zambia project, Tushange Isamu, was done alongside Greenpop, a Cape Town-based environmental education and tree planting group. More on that in another post!)

The Creative Crossing

CODE 2016 marked the first official “Creative Crossing” of the Okavango Delta, in hopes of supplementing research efforts to understand and conserve the place with poetic and musical messages to bring more Batswana (people of Botswana) on board, as well as to inspire a global audience. As many of you know, the Conservation Music movement was crystalized in Angola, en route to the Delta, aboard a mokoro in 2015 with Dr. Steve Boyes’ Okavango Wilderness Project (OWP). At the time of this writing, the OWP crew is pulling their boats through the deep, muddy wilderness as the water that carried our crossing continues to drop during theirs. You can follow along with live updates at

The CODE 2016 crossing was quite special… a group of 15 Batswana was joined by just a single foreign member, Conservation Music founder Alex. In general, the Delta is visited and run by either foreigners or white Botswana nationals, and one intention of CODE is to inspire more Batswana to visit and invest in this incredible national heritage site. Needless to say, it was an honor to be made the exception and join the team of creative celebrities, media professionals, and polers from Botswana to produce a song and music video throughout the two-week crossing.

EricPoleVideo still shot by Alex Paullin.

The song is entitled, “Okavango Oa Moxa,” which means “Okavango You Are Beautiful” in seYei, the mother tongue of famous four-string guitarist Stiger Sola, who was born into the lineage of the baYei, also known as the “Watshara,” or “The River People.” This tribe is said to have been the first to break into the Delta long ago, bringing 6-meter long wooden mekoro (mokoros) to enter the deep, wild paradise that the land-based KhoiSan bushmen in the region left alone.

Indeed, Stiger Sola himself was born inside that very wilderness… his aunt assisting his young mother to deliver him on an island, as his uncle waited aboard the mokoro, long ngashe pole in hand. They were still far from the village of Sharobe, the place where he was meant to be delivered, which would soon become his home. Thus a legend of Botswana was born in the heart of the same inspiration that our expedition was seeking…. We brought him back into the wild with a guitar.

Stiga River

Photo by Thalefang Charles for Cross Okavango Delta Expedition.

The other musical celebrity on board was HT Tautona, a Maun-born rapper who grew up on the cattle post but made his claim to fame in Gaborone, Botswana’s capitol. For HT this trip was like returning home, but finally seeing the Delta he grew on the edge of the right way… by mokoro, in the depth of its wilderness. His lyrics describe the overflow of emotions upon returning to this place “like a pen without ink” and being filled with inspiration to write. HT was a major team player and was easy to find helping in the kitchen.


Photo by Thalefang Charles for Cross Okavango Delta Expedition.

Last but not least, as a surprise addition to the music team, multi-talented poet Leshie Lovesong spoke up during a fireside brainstorming jam session with a poem she had written, which now serves as a deeply emotional opening to the song. Once she was brought aboard the music team, she also lent her voice to the chorus, responding to Stiger’s calls of “Okavango, Okavango, Okavango” with Stiger’s own declarations to his mother, the Delta, of her lovable, everlasting, beautiful nature, and her role in his existence as “a way of life.” Leshie’s own way of life took quite a shock in the wilderness… prior the expedition she had never even been camping.


Photo by Thalefang Charles for Cross Okavango Delta Expedition.

Conservation Music is extremely excited to be part of Botswana’s 50th anniversary celebrations. As we speak, the new song “Okavango O Moxa” is being registered with the Copyright Society of Botswana (COSBOTS) so that the artists involved can earn their royalties and protect their rights when this song hits the radio in September. The music video shot in the Delta is soon to follow, and will we broadcast on Botswana Television (BTV) and on Youtube and Vimeo. The song and video will also be made available on iTunes and Google Play soon!
Overall the Cross Okavango song project has been a resounding success. The tune is set to be a hit, the video will be made up of some incredible moments with people and wildlife out in the deep wilderness, and new opportunities are coming up rapidly as this project gains attention. We cannot wait to release this song and video, and hopefully do it all over again next year.

What’s Next On the Horizon?

In the meantime, lots of other things are happening too! For example:

Conservation Music Presents Sotho Sounds @ Rocking the Daisies

For instance, Conservation Music is preparing to bring our old friends the Sotho Sounds from Lesotho down to Cape Town for the massive Rocking the Daisies* music festival! The festival runs from the 7th-9th of October, and we’ll be rocking the Hemp Stage in the Green Village area on Saturday from 2-2:45pm. The Sotho Sounds are a group of rural musicians with enormous heart and talent, and we are extremely excited to give them the chance to perform for such an audience, and hopefully to sell some of their handcrafted merchandise!

FYI, preceding the festival opportunity, we are discussing a collaboration in Lesotho with an American celebrity musician. More on that soon!

SSCrawfurdPhoto by Jacob Crawfurd of Crawfurd Media.

Zambian Tree Song “Tushange Isamu” Release with Greenpop

Quite close to the release date for “Okavango O Moxa” in Botswana, we look forward to releasing the tree planting song and music video recorded in Livingstone, Zambia alongside Greenpop. In July, the song was composed and performed by the Mosi Oa Tunya band, alongside members of the Golden Leaf band as well as Conservation Music’s own Alex Paullin. September is Arbor Month, so this release is very relevant!

ZamStagePhoto by Lee-Ann Olwege.

Return to Angola with The Okavango Wilderness Project

Conservation Music looks forward to returning to Angola in October, following Rocking the Daisies festival in Cape Town. The Okavango Wilderness Project (OWP) is bringing several research teams to survey the Angolan catchments of the Okavango watershed. We are grateful for their continued enthusiasm regarding the power of music to foster conservation ethics in the minds of the people living in the region, where decades of aggression have scarred both the people and the landscape. The beauty and importance of the landscape there are something to be proud of, and we look forward to encouraging that pride alongside OWP and National Geographic.

AngoVidVideo still shot by Alex Paullin.

The Elephants’ Playground

As soon as we beached on this island I named it the elephants’ playground… Dozens of tall, regal, royal fan palms dot the place, evermore dotting the ground with their fruit. I tasted this palm fruit today, which lived its life high off the ground, tucked away between its crunchy outer shell and the large ball of vegetable ivory within. As I write this, the trees that surround me are shaking the as elephants ram them to bring down these bittersweet morsels.

Two nights in a row now we’ve slept with the elephants near. Today I ate their fruit. Tonight I ponder if they will come visit me here. Last night they had already past when my head hit the pillow… but before my tent was up I had been with them like never before.

The images are clear in my mind… I will never forget, thus yet again I can relate to my elephant friends. The herd of fifteen-odd adults and adolescents with their two wobbly-trunked younglings in tow had just passed by our camp as the light became golden. I found a perch atop a standalone turret, a sandcastle built up by termites for years. I was hoping to watch the herd crossing the river en route to the flats near Jao Village, Djedibe, the place that made me think this afternoon that we would not see any wildlife this evening. From upon my tower I watched them turn towards me.

An elephant’s moment is longer than others, but to them it must have felt like an instant as I slowly felt my heartbeat picking up as they grew closer, tree by tree. Through the zoom lens of my camera I had watched from afar as they brought down a tree for the babies to eat from. At this point the naked eye was plenty to capture this larger-than-life moment… they were standing right in front of me.

The matriarch had given me her blessing. We had been making frequent eye contact as I focused my intention on peace, love, and respect for the herd. These emotions undeniably mingled with fear… what if the villagers nearby had been in conflict with these animals? Or if a young male in the herd had been spited that day? Or a mother grew defensive, or her mate had a toothache? But consciously I focused on peace, love, and respect. Any negative visualizations must pass by as glimpses, not to be focused on.

But even when a youngling stood less than two meters below me, it’s trunk reaching up for a leaf near my dangling foot, and was startled to find me there, spreading its ears out and stumbling back, the mothers that surrounded me stayed calm. A significant look here and there, a bit of a head shake, perhaps a raised trunk. We were sharing the space. I was granted a point on the plane. For a moment, even less than an elephant’s instant, I could feel like a part of the herd. As the sky became dim, they moved on. Their wind tunnel breathing and near-silent footsteps that were filling up my ears had grown distant the moment the matriarch pointed her trunk in the direction they had come from. Only two of the herd were nearby when she pointed, but as one they all departed. An ultrasonic rumble of the stomach was the real cue. The herd had moved on through the trees, but our mother remained there with me, locking eyes for an eternity. I raised my hand. She raised her trunk and went.

On assignment for The Conservation Music Project and Cross Okavango Delta Expedition. Follow @crossokavango and @intotheokavango for more stories like these.