Baeti Moheta is the airstrip manager in Wilderness Safaris Kwedi Concession, on the northernmost boundary of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. An incredibly lush myriad waterways and floodplains teem with wildlife, making this area very popular – hence a busy airstrip – used by four different camps. Baeti’s job is to make sure that the airstrip is clear of wildlife or any other obstructions at all times, ensuring that the planes take off and land safely.
“I am the first person to welcome guests and wave to them as they land, and the last person to say goodbye,” he told me. But this is no ordinary man – Baeti has danced, smiled and waved his way into the hearts of pilots, guests and managers alike with his incorruptible enthusiasm and contagious happiness!
Baeti first started working for Wilderness Safaris in 2001 as a camp hand where he spent time on jobs like cleaning the pool and sweeping the camp decks. In 2006 the need arose for somebody to be based full-time at the concession’s airstrip and 55-year-old Baeti was chosen as the perfect man for the job. Baeti is from Beelsha village, just outside the concession and is married to Leto who is a housewife and looks after their four daughters. When on leave Baeti spends time with his family and takes care of his cattle. Sometimes Leto visits Baeti at Vumbura, which he absolutely loves, “I don’t just smile when her plane comes in, I dance for her!”
“Baeti, what do you do in-between the planes landing? Do you listen to the radio… do you ever feel lonely out here?” I asked him.
“Whenever it’s quiet and there are no planes I entertain myself by singing – mostly church songs. I enjoy working by myself because no one comes here and tells me what to do, and I enjoy concentrating on my job the whole time.” Even as a kid Baeti says he enjoyed his own space. “I liked playing around with my friends and climbing up trees but if my friends were not happy about something I would prefer to be by myself. I am not a person who likes fighting.”
“12 to 20 minutes before my next plane I will drive around and check that the airstrip is clear and safe. No matter the weather, I am always here up until the last plane. I must be monitoring the situation of the airstrip at all times and then communicating with the camp to update Wilderness Air. When it’s very busy there can be up to eight different planes landing in one day.”
Recently, Baeti had an interesting encounter with wild dogs on the runway: “The pilot called over the radio to tell me that the plane was going to land. I had already tried to chase the wild dogs away with my vehicle but it didn’t work so I communicated with the pilot and warned him about the danger. The pilot said not to worry and he would fly low to scare them away, but it didn’t help. The wild dogs remained on the airstrip. I had to make a plan because I did not want to keep the plane waiting so I got out of the vehicle and I took a spade to defend myself and ran at them to chase them away!”
On a few different occasions, Baeti has had to warn pilots about lions on the side of the airstrip, and elephants too.
“One day I was chasing an elephant off the runway but the elephant was cheeky and didn’t want to move, it wanted to attack me. But I stood my ground and managed to push the elephant away until it left.” Despite this experience, elephants are Baeti’s favourite animals and he usually sees them about once a day on their way to drink. “The reason why I love the elephant is the way it walks, watching elephants walk is just beautiful to me.” Another memorable moment was seeing a leopard with cubs crossing the runway.
Baeti’s attitude to life is incredibly moving and inspiring…“When you work you have to love your work. When you are given a responsibility or a task you should show interest and love. You shouldn’t be negative and think that you cannot do it but be positive at all times, even if your boss is hard on you, you should repay him or her with love. I have realised in my life that if you are a person, that is how you should live and if somebody is a fighter and attempts to fight you, love can change them. When my boss says “go and do this Mr Baeti” I am happy to do it and I am happy when he shows me my mistakes.”
“I love my job! The pilots especially are very happy with my services. Whenever they call I am on time and I answer the radio on time. Whenever they land I am there waving. At all times I am a happy man – they have never seen me with a different face. If I was to change and be somebody different I wouldn’t be able to do my job because guests arriving at the airstrip should see that happy smiling face at all times. A person doing my job should be happy to all the people using the airstrip – not just to paying guests but also to staff members and anybody coming in. You must show them that you love them. When I am on leave people ask, “Where is Baeti? Where is Baeti? They always want to see me. When the guests arrive I will be there and if the guests are chatty or if they laugh and it’s something interesting or funny I will also join in and laugh and they will see that I am part of the team.”
What the pilots have to say…
“Baeti is like the personality of the Delta, he always puts everyone in a good mood when they arrive at Vumbura because he’s got such a contagious laugh and is the most crazy man – he’ll be waving when you land and going crazy on the side of the airstrip. When we radio in to make sure the airstrip’s clear, he’s always very very friendly. He’ll tell me the airstrip’s clear, “clear clear morena” and then he will tell me that the animals are on the side. So he’s just very very funny, got a great sense of humor. He’s just fantastic; he often gives us lifts back to the camp so we get to spend a bit of time with him.” (Chase Wells)
“Every time you hear him on the radio it’s just fantastic. I wouldn’t say that any other airstrip personnel or guides are like that, there is just so much enthusiasm, he just loves being out here, loves seeing the planes land, it’s fantastic. When I flew in yesterday he was going on about the baboons on the side of the airstrip and then when we landed he did a little bit of a dance like a baboon.” (Benjamin Jacobsen)
(Thank you to Tumo Morena who translated Baeti’s answers for me from Setswana.)