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Close to the land

Working in Botswana’s villages and countryside, geographer Kelley Crews explores how ongoing changes affect its people and ecosystems

April 18, 2011

The people of the Okavango River Delta region of Botswana live close to the land.

The delta’s watery fingers provide water for crops and livestock. They draw wildlife that sustain the tourism industry and they grow grasses that go into crafts and other products.

Kelley Crews, an associate professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at The University of Texas at Austin, is in the midst of several research projects concerning the interactions of the people and the environment in the Okavango Delta.

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“It’s a puzzle, a very messy puzzle,” Crews said. “I’m an academic because I like trying to solve puzzles.”

Her goal is to fit together as many puzzle pieces as she can to depict a region and its people in transition.

Crews uses an assortment of the geographer’s tools: she searches for patterns in satellite images, interviews people in their homes and gets detailed information on the ground by walking specified routes — transects — in the Botswana savannah and bush.

She lived and worked in Botswana for 18 months in parts of 2009 and 2010, which grounded her in how life is lived in the Okavango Delta.

She got in tune with local mores and ate the local food. She dealt with snakes trying to get into her house and worked in places where, if you get too far from your tent or vehicle, “you’re on the menu.”

Her field research will be useful to local and regional resource managers in Botswana and developing countries with similar puzzles of problems and choices.

In Botswana, she collaborates with local researchers, who help spread the information and techniques to others.

The geography classes Crews teaches in Austin are informed by her latest research and techniques she develops in the field.

She also takes students to the field. This summer Crews’ field team will include three graduate students and three undergraduates, thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the university’s Environmental Science Institute.

Okavango Delta of Botswana
The Okavango Delta of Botswana is the largest inland delta in the world. The ecosystem supports people, a wide range of mammals, fishes, birds and reptiles. It’s a growing hub of ecotourism with preserves, safari and wildlife companies.Photo: Teo Gómez, Wikimedia Commons

A Home in the Country

Crews and her husband, Thoralf Meyer, also a researcher and who has lived and worked in Africa for more than a decade, rent a house in Maun, a village of about 40,000 residents on the eastern edge of the delta. Their brick house is in a fenced-in compound with tight security.

While there’s not much violent crime in the area, the burglary rate is high, Crews said.

“Half the people there will tell you how many times they’ve been broken into, not if they have or not. Knock wood, we haven’t yet in that house,” she said.

She said that, overall, the region has been a safe place to live and conduct research.

That doesn’t mean it’s entirely risk-free.

“We’ve had a black mamba up in the shower window trying to get in the house,” she said. “So even though it’s nice to have the windows and doors open, we don’t because there are so many poisonous snakes and they like to come in. Then they hide and you don’t know where they are.”

Crews went through an involved process to secure government-issued research permits and to become an official resident of Botswana. That helps her stay longer and makes it easier for her to travel and in and out of the country and around the country.

Camp in the Okavango Delta
A day of field research starts before dawn and continues with hours of walking transects and identifying species. Sometimes the day ends with a rainbow punctuation. At night, however, don’t get far from camp or “you’re on the menu.”

She engineered her extended stay in Botswana with a Fulbright Fellowship as well as several grants for research from the National Science Foundation. She also received a fellowship from the Humanities Institute at The University of Texas at Austin that aided the development of her Fulbright proposal.

Crews recently received her largest NSF grant for research in the Okavango Delta.

With it, she and her colleagues will look at the interactions of flooding and fire, cyclical and longer term climatic change and human livelihood decisions and the impact they have on the people and the delta.

The Geography

For a region that’s more than 8,700 miles away, the Okavango Delta has similarities to the Austin area.

“It’s lowland savannah and wetlands,” Crews said of the Okavango Delta countryside. “To the eye you might think you’re in Central Texas. It’s interesting in that it seems familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.”

The Okavango River runs from the Angola highlands to the west, through a slice of Namibia before emptying out in northern Botswana.

The river’s delta floods every year. It’s not a hard, fast flood, but almost a slow motion flood. As the river flows into the flat lands of Botswana and the Kalahari Desert, the water loses energy, diminishing its force.

The area has large numbers of wildlife, including lions, hippos and giraffe. Overall, there are 32 large mammal species, more than 650 species of birds and dozens of fish species.

Maps of Africa, Botswana and the Okavango Delta
Botswana is in southern Africa, just east of Namibia and north of South Africa. The Okavango River flows into Botswana from Angola, passes through Namibia and creates the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana.Maps of Africa and Botswana courtesy Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection

The delta is a growing hub of ecotourism with preserves, safari and wildlife companies doing business.

The geography is complicated by disease.

Botswana has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS cases and related deaths. Other diseases include malaria and schistosomiasis, a parasitic infection.

Using Data

Placing information about where disease outbreaks are, where vegetation is changing and where people gather in the context of a map can illuminate patterns and help officials determine where to put resources.

Crews and colleagues can do that with satellite images and geographic information systems (GIS).

“We can plug into GIS where people get water, from a pump or the river,” she said. “They might go to the river because it’s closer even though a well with a pump is available.”

Taking the extra steps to go to the well instead of the river could prevent sickness.

“We’re basically finding where to put resources where they are most effective,” Crews said. “We can also identify where things might happen, where the population’s going. We can run simulations based on warming trends to see where resources might be needed.”

As exact as satellites can be, the information from their images needs to be verified.

That’s where going into the country, walking through the savannah and identifying what’s there comes in.

“We do a lot of vegetation analysis and one of the reasons for that is vegetation is important in and of itself, but it’s a great surrogate or index for other things that are going on,” Crews said.

Crews, colleagues and students walk transects, walking straight lines through plots of land for a certain length and identifying species.

“Then we can calculate what the vegetation diversity of a region is,” she said.

With that more exact information from ground level, they can extract more information from satellite images.

Life in the Field

Some of the fieldwork has been in the western Kalahari Desert.

“When we’re in the Kalahari, we have to take all the fuel and all the water we need, usually for most of the time we’re gone,” Crews said. “Some areas are so far apart there won’t be a gas station between them so you have to have extra fuel.”

They have to take time out of the research, drive out, fill up on fuel, water and supplies and drive back to the site.

“So you learn to live with very little water, which is tough when you’re trying to make sure your entire team—all your research assistants and yourself—don’t get dehydrated when it’s really, really hot,” she said. “There’s not a lot of showering. You’d be surprised how little water you can wash your dishes in.”

A typical day: Get up before sunrise, have breakfast and coffee. Start fieldwork by 7 a.m., walking transects until about 1:30 p.m. Come in for lunch and rest to avoid the hottest part of the day. Back out around 3:30 p.m. and then back to camp around sunset. For the next few hours, fix dinner, eat it and clean up.

“Then you go to bed and ‘poof,’ you’re out,” Crews said. “You sleep so well.”

At night, members of the team don’t get too far away from camp because of predators.

If someone has to get up during the night, she said, “We won’t allow anyone to go farther than being able to touch their own tent.”

The People

Part of Crews’ research involves talking to the people affected by the changes about their perceptions of what’s happening and how they plan to react.

A lion in the Okavango Delta

The Lions Roam at Night

For researchers in the field in places like Botswana, being close to wildlife, such as lions, is one of the thrilling parts of the job. It also can be dangerous if precautions aren’t taken.

Crews recounted a closer-than-usual encounter she and a colleague had with two lions one night in the Botswana bush:

We were preparing dinner after dark in our campsite and one of my colleagues spotted a lion. (This is why you don’t go far from the tent or car after dark!)

We saw what appeared to be either a female or a young male (it had no mane) walk down the track that takes you to the campsite. Once it was past us and it was safe to move, we hopped into our Cruiser and very quietly and slowly went in the direction we saw the lion move.

Lions, like people, like to walk on dirt roads or paths because they are easier to move on. They spring off the path once prey is sighted. The sand there reflects light very well, and there was, happily, a full moon.

We found them only 150 meters past our campsite still walking down the track, prowling around. They are a little freaked out by headlights, so with the full moon and the reflective sand, we were able to see them extremely well without headlights.

We approached very slowly, lights off, and let them get used to us. It was early in the night so they were just starting to hunt and seemed quite relaxed — so much so that they sat down in the dirt track to rest and listen.

We waited and slowly crept up until we were about 1.5 meters away. One of the lions was just outside my front passenger door — and I realized that the window was down. That was great because the view was wonderful, but was frankly a mite intimidating (this is the “don’t try this at home, kids” part!).

They turned out to be a pair of beautiful adult lionesses, and what struck me once I was able to breathe again, was the sheer magnitude of their necks. They really look to be all muscle.

We watched them for a while and after around five minutes they stood and ambled off.

We went back to our campsite and cooked dinner, mindful of — as always working in such places — frequently panning the darkness with a flashlight beam to scan for eye reflections (which are much easier to see than the actual animal, especially from a distance).

The next morning we went out to examine the paw prints and took photos of them. They’re a good reminder that we saw these critters by sheer luck. In the bush, it’s typically what you don’t see that is more dangerous than what you do see, of course.

That remains the most [literally] breathtaking wildlife experience of not only my work in Botswana but in my life.

Of course, that being said, my favorite bush animal is still the honey badger. It’s small, fluffy and tougher than any cat there is.

Many are shy, she said, and don’t seem approachable.

“But the second you smile and try to speak a couple of words of their language, they’re quite welcoming,” said Crews, a faculty associate in the university’s Population Research Center.

She did homework to figure out how much information she could ask for without being considered rude.

She asked people she saw in a store a couple of times of week or people who had lived in the area for years about what to ask.

“If I go out and ask somebody like how many cattle do you have, is that OK? Is that polite? May I only ask a man or a woman that? May I only ask the elders?”

Then there are things she learned while on the job.

Where she’d need to wear a long skirt — even when it was hot. Or where she could have her underarm exposed and where she couldn’t.

She avoided being a “paratroop” researcher, one who swoops in, scoops up data and is never heard from again.

“We assure them that we will be back, probably about the same time next year,” she said.

Last year, some Botswana residents called the researchers on the ultimate good that might come from the research.

“We had people say, ‘You [researchers] come in and you ask your questions and you leave and nothing changes for us. So what are you going to do for us?’” Crews said.

That’s a hard question to answer, she said.

“It’s tough,” Crews said, “because you can’t say this will change things and make things better for you and protect the environment. You don’t know that that will happen.”

She did tell the people that she and her colleagues would send a copy of the final report on the project to whomever the residents wanted it sent.

She also takes comments, not necessarily related to the research project, from the residents.

“What we’re doing now is, in essence, writing an addendum to the back of our report saying this is what people ask us to tell you from this area,” she said.

Neither names nor precise locations are included in case something is controversial or becomes so later.

“A stunning number of people have said thank you for asking me this,” Crews said.

Coming Home

After 18 months in Botswana, the sights and sounds of America were hard to get used to again.

The traffic, the tall buildings, over-air-conditioned buildings, the number of people constantly connected to electronics — it all seemed odd, Crews said.

“You think this is a waste of money and water usage, even here in Texas we should know better,” she said. “I came back and saw all these inefficiencies and waste, but also technology and abundance.”

Her first trip into a grocery store on her return was like going to a Disney park.

The abundance and variety of food, from produce to freshly baked bread was “just mind boggling,” she said.

“I didn’t feel deprived there, but it’s really different to come back and see it and appreciate it and say, ‘Wow there are some ways we could live more simply and it wouldn’t really harm us too much in the process.’”

For more information, contact: Tim Green, Office of the Vice President for Research;
On the banner: Dr. Kelley Crews in Botswana.

2 Comments to "Working in Botswana’s villages and countryside, geographer Kelley Crews explores how ongoing changes affect its people and ecosystems"

1.  Jelena said on Dec. 28, 2011

I am the editor of Tourbo Magazine-Botswana’s Tourism and Lifestyle magazine and would like to ask you if there are stories about Botswana which you would like to contribute to our magazine.

Jelena Ivancevic

2.  Pearl said on March 30, 2012

Very cool, thanks for posting this!