It’s not really Day 2 — I’ve been in Africa for almost four months now.
In a couple of days I’ll return to the closest place I can call homebase – Livingstone, Zambia, as I finish leading my first Grand Africa tour. The town, the country – this part of the African continent – feels more than familiar now, but I remember how it felt when I saw it for the first time, from the tarmac of an airport that was more like a hangar.
The first image that really struck me on arrival in Africa came a day later, after crossing the border from Zambia into Botswana. It was a handful of Motswana women, laying on the side of the road in the shade, just outside immigration.
Their clothing is not new, nor clean; their shoes are not worn, but disintegrating. Yet it is not so much their dress that strikes me, though it is an interesting mix of the traditional (wraparound, patterned skirts or kikoys and loose-fitting tops) and the modern (denim jackets?). Their tunics are so loose, in fact, that I think their boobs are scheduled to make appearances. If and when they do, however, the ladies’ reactions are those of no concern. Not because of immodesty, but because of an indifference tied to thousands of years of bodily acceptance, a habit we’ve failed to form in the west.
Clothing and surprise guest appearances aside, it isn’t even what they are doing or not doing that strikes me. (Although I haven’t reached any conclusions on why there is such a leisurely gathering at the border. Some are sleeping. Some are relaxed, jovial in conversation. A mother, young but confident, adjusts the wrap that holds her baby over her shoulder. The woman with the denim jacket is selling beef jerkey (called biltong) and looks fatigued, or not overly eager to make a sale. All seem contented).
What I can’t stop staring at, the image that will really imprint itself in my memory, and what will be the first impression I’ll associate with the people of this region, is the size of these women’s biceps. The strength of their arms.
The sun gives a luster to their smooth, dark brown skin. It outlines days and years of labor, of lifting, carrying and pulling. The majority of the population in Botswana earn a living through agriculture or livestock rearing. Here, to work is to employ the body.
Most of these women are wearing sleeveless tops (barring our biltong dealer in denim) and now, are more or less resting – the midday heat allows for little else. Yet even in their relaxed postures, I trace the resistance of their muscle. They’re lounging, but like an athlete, there is poise in their torso; they’re softened but alert. Round, structured shoulders merge into the pronounced curves of their biceps and triceps. I follow these lines through to their forearms down to their fingers. Even with their strong musculature, their hands don’t fit the build. They appear too large, too burly and too worn to belong to women.
I wonder how much they can lift.
Here, while men find income outside the home, the women run the homesteads. After spending days on the road through Botswana, the women will be the ones I see most in the fields, tools in hand. They have created their bodies just as much through labor as they have with food.
These women, while fit, are not thin. They’re all sizes. Biltong dealer in denim is skinny; the young assured mother would easily be classified as overweight in western society. Most are average, with a little extra in the hips, breasts and bellies. Their asses, as ever, are enviable.
I look for cellulite and see none, even on the heaviest woman. Even on the heaviest woman, I see definition.
I look for insecurities. Again, I see none. They wear only their strength and securities and they wear it very well.
That day, I had been in Africa for just 24 hours, but even then, I felt like I’d seen so much.