Buses, Bushmen, and the road to Botswana.

Saturday, July 24.

Treasure is at the wheel, laughing and shaking his head.

“You cannot understand a word they say!” he says, laughing a rich, marvelous laugh. He lapses into clucks and clicks, wagging his head from side to side, smacking the wheel. Then again he is hysterical laughing. “You cannot understand them!” he shouts with undiminished pleasure. He turns the wheel, eases into traffic, shakes his head. What on earth am I going to say to the San, the legendary Bushmen? And just why am I going to Botswana anyway?

Treasure, the taxi driver, my Zimbabwean friend, is taking me to Park Station in central Johannesburg. In ten hours my 90-day tourist visa for South Africa expires, an event which would no doubt provoke South African immigration officials to ask the sort of reasonable questions – “Just what are you doing in Joburg again?” – that I would very much rather avoid. And so, Botswana. I should make it across the border with a few hours to spare. I will stay a week, or less, or more. Many of the practical details of this trip I haven’t worked out. My first priority is to make it across the border – to turn the clock back on my South African visa to the vital zero hour. Beyond that, everything that happens is a gift, a bonus.

Treasure – three decades now in South Africa – hasn’t lost any of the mischievous wit, the quickness and mirth, that I associate with his native countrymen. He is reciting now the vowel sounds of half a dozen African languages – isiZulu and Shona and Setswana and Sesotho – grammar lessons that he learned thirty years ago as a schoolboy. “Those languages are too easy to learn,” he says. And for him, they undoubtedly are. In the same way that I’ve come to move easily between the Romance languages – exchanging my modest Spanish for threadbare French or Portuguese, as the situation dictates – Treasure can converse with any of the region’s Bantu tribes. He is laughing again, asking my name in Setswana, in Shona. At the station we part warmly, riotously, exchanging our hopes for a happy reunion in a few weeks’ time.

In the parking lot hopeful porters push luggage carts my way. Buses idle, pouring out exhaust. The main terminal is bright, cavernous. Much bustling of passengers coming and going, families parting and reuniting. The briskness, the modernness of South Africa continues, after these past few years on the continent, to amaze. Each of the bus companies has its own departure desk, and at each of these a patient queue of passengers waits. Hanging over the hall is a massive TV screen showing World Cup highlights. I am mesmerized.

At the waiting area for the Intercape bus line I meet a Congolese girl who works at the French Embassy in Gaborone. She is waiting for her uncle who, it follows almost naturally from the fact of his Congolese-ness, is running late. We stand there and marvel at the simple fact of South Africa’s existence. Nancy, a Kinshasa native, has left the chaos and improbable happenstance of her home for a new life in the place they call Gabs. It is, after Kinshasa, a bit dull. She looks happily overwhelmed here in the bus terminal, a young girl in a big city with the unknown pleasures of the coming week ahead of her. We stand there laughing at the doldrums of Gaborone, the happy whirl and din of life in the Congo. More joyful cries around us as families are reunited. A young colored man comes up to us, pleasant and well-spoken, asking for change.

At twenty past two, just minutes shy of our departure, I join the queue at the Intercape desk. I hand my ticket and passport to the relevant functionary. There is brief scanning of the passenger manifest, then a more involved version of same. Something is amiss. Scrutinizing my ticket with a jeweler’s eye, the man gives a peremptory snort, hands it back to me, and says, “This is yesterday’s date.”

And so it is.

It seems my Joburg jailbreak has already hit a snag. Somehow, incredibly, I managed to miss the fact that the Computicket agent who processed my ticket had issued it for the same day. I was supposed to be on yesterday’s bus. My heart sinks; the ticket agent has already moved on to the next passenger. It hardly troubles me that a day-long delay might run me into potential visa problems. More to the point is the fact that I’m ready to go. Another taxi ride back to Auckland Park, another night of trying to scratch together a meal from the dregs of my cupboard, simply won’t do. One way or another, by the end of the day, I expect to be sleeping in Botswana.

Fortunately, my emergency plan – a long, crowded kombi ride to the border – isn’t set into motion: there are two seats left on the very same bus. Boarding with the bitter knowledge that my tight budget has already taken another R170 hit, I give myself a few mental kicks in the ass before acknowledging that, really, it could’ve been worse.

True to the agent’s word, there’s little room to spare. I take a seat beside a slender, woefully deprived looking backpacker with blond dreads tied in an unruly knot above his head. He smells powerfully of cigarettes and unwashed hair. He is from Reunion – “You know eet?” – a small, volcanic, francophone island a few hundred miles off the east African coast. He arrived in Joburg two days ago with plans to make his way north to Malawi in the weeks ahead. Wedged between his legs are a guitar and another string instrument of ambiguous provenance. I can picture him settling happily in a hammock overlooking Nkhata Bay, seducing some young Australian backpacker with romantic tales of Reunion – “You know eet?” – and rolling spliffs the size of a horse’s leg. Across the aisle is a white-haired couple wearing the pleasantly narcotized facial expression I associate with senility and happy old age. Shortly before leaving Joburg they lovingly interlock their hands, and whether on account of tender solicitude or arthritis, their fingers will remain like so for the remainder of the seven-hour trip.

Outside the sprawl to the south of Johannesburg: shopping centers, car dealerships, housing developments with row upon tidy row of identical, candy-colored homes. Dotting the veld around the city are mine dumps as broad and flat as table tops. The light is flat and chalk-colored; it makes everything look harsh, unlovely. Before long a stout, church-going woman rises, introduces herself as Faith, and asks to lead the bus in prayer. Murmurs – of assent or otherwise – are taken as tacit approval. Faith staggers from side to side as the bus weaves through traffic, keeping a tight hold on the small black Bible in her hand. “We want to invite Jesus onto this bus,” she says. (I think, not unreasonably, that he’ll have to fight for a seat.) Shortly into her homily the bus conductor taps on her shoulder and asks her to take a seat. It’s not that he objects to her preaching – oh no, on the contrary. He himself would like to lead us in a prayer of his own – part of the Christian mission of the Intercape bus company, which informs us during a short promotional video that they “start and finish every journey with a prayer.” (Also: “We will expand the company by the grace and guidance of God.”) When the conductor finishes he entrusts us again into Faith’s capable hands. “You might ask God, ‘Why am I suffering? Why do I not have a job?’” says Faith. “But His will for you – they are perfect!”

We are beyond the city now, barreling through landscapes parched by the dry Highveld winter. Brown hills and valleys, pastures the color of burnt wheat. Cattle with their dumb bovine heads bowed to the grass. Tractors, windmills. A line of distant ridges, like an EKG. We pass a squatter camp of wooden clapboard homes and tin shacks with tin roofs. Laundry is strung across the yards – bright print dresses, primary-colored sweatshirts, little kid-sized socks. Clouds of dust blow through the settlement with a Biblical fury. A woman and a man are on the side of the road, sitting beside two empty wheelbarrows. (“Are you HIV-positive? Do you have cancer? Just lie there, relax, because He is there. He is the great healer.”) Power lines stitched across the sky. A freight train solemnly scrolling across the landscape with a ponderous certainty.

Approaching dusk we pull into a rest stop, the Platinum Highway Super Shop. Much happy piling out and stretching of legs. Bakkies are lined up along the curb; teenagers pull into the lot, their cars throbbing with bass. There is a low-rent convenience store and a greasy fast-food joint charging R40-50 to clog your arteries. I buy cookies and a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate – neither the first nor last time I’ve had a meal of pure carbs on the road. Outside darkness is drawing like a curtain across the horizon. By the time we pile into the bus and pull back onto the highway, night has fallen like a rock off a cliff.

Half-way to Botswana now, and I’m nearly 100 pages into The Lost World of the Kalahari, Laurens van der Post’s tale of the San – or Bushmen – of the Kalahari Desert, written half a century ago. Van der Post, an Afrikaner whose family were among the first Voertrekkers to set out from the Cape in the 1800s, was one of the last century’s great explorers. The books describing his travels across southern Africa are a rich repository of myth, memory, history, anthropology, naturalism, humanism – and, of course, a florid prose in which a sky can be described as “velvet” or a view as “Olympian” without the slightest hint of irony. The Lost World of the Kalahari is a fine, fine book. Writing about the Bushmen – considered to be southern Africa’s earliest inhabitants, and a fixation of van der Post’s from an early age – he seemed to find the one subject whom, despite his diminutive stature, could match the epic scale of the elder van der Post’s velvet, Olympian prose.

My interest in van der Post’s Bushmen is not incidental. Nearly two years ago I proposed a story about the San of the Kalahari to my editor at National Geographic Traveler – a story that, I hoped, would match the heroic and comic exploits of my time with Kenya’s Masai in 2007. Though my editor left the magazine before we could discuss the details, it’s a story I’ve wanted to write ever since – sitting, as it does, at the crossroads of tradition and modernity in a way that seems emblematic of so many upheavals across Africa today.

A decade ago, the government of Botswana launched a series of large-scale relocations of the San, forcing them from their ancestral lands into resettlement camps. Thousands were uprooted. Four years ago, a grassroots organization called the First Peoples of the Kalahari launched a campaign for the restitution of their lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. A high court ruling in 2006 declared that the San had been wrongfully evicted. Yet since then, those that have returned say they continue to face harassment from the government.

Last week, the San returned to the high court to protest government efforts to deny them access to water – literally a matter of life and death in the Kalahari, one of the driest regions in the world. Since 2008, the San have failed in their attempt to reopen a borehole that had been sealed by the government in 2002; they have also been denied permission to drill a new one. Rights groups say the government is trying to expel the San as a concession to a nearby luxury safari lodge, as well as to a number of diamond mining concerns with interests in the area. Stephen Cory, of the rights group Survival International, noted that the Bushmen are being “denied water on their lands when it is freely provided for tourists, animals, and diamond mines.” As a result, the 1,000-strong San community still living in the Kalahari are forced to bring water to their households from outside the reserve – a long, difficult journey which is usually undertaken on foot.

The government has claimed that the San’s presence in the Kalahari is at odds with conservation efforts; they have also said that the desert’s harsh landscape and punishing climate offer no future for their traditional way of life. The government-built settlements, they note, provide access to education, health care – in effect, a modern way of life. But advocates insist that the San are entitled to preserve a lifestyle they have lived for thousands of years. They paint a bleak picture of San life in the government camps, where they are denied their traditional vocations as hunters and gathers. Few can find work; alcoholism is rife. In a matter of years, the way of life of the San – one of the world’s oldest tribes – could become extinct.

This is a complicated story on many levels. Leaving aside the usual and obvious critiques about various parties’ interests and the malleability of the facts in serving the same, what seems to be at the heart of this conflict are two distinct and wholly incompatible visions of what it means to live in 21st century Botswana. The government, despite troublingly authoritarian tendencies in recent years (more on this later), has one of this continent’s most enviable post-independence track records – one that would most likely impress, even if the bar weren’t set so terribly low. For President Khama, the future of Botswana lies in a robust, diversified economy, led by an educated population of entrepreneurs and technocrats – not hunter-gatherers. The San are trying to preserve the way of life – however difficult, however incompatible with the country’s development goals – that they have lived with dignity and pride for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years – a way of life that, by Khama’s standards, is not only archaic, but obsolete.

The president’s feelings toward the San can best be summed up by the tale of Dorsey Dube, a South African who was detained by authorities last year after she commented that the president “looked like a Bushman.” Insulting the president is a punishable offence in Botswana. Clearly, Khama did not take the comparison as a compliment.

These are the thoughts occupying my admittedly overworked noggin as we make our way to Botswana. At the border we move briskly through passport control. Money is exchanged at a less-than-favorable rate. Outside the bus the musician-cum-vagabond from Reunion is smoking cigarettes with a tight, pinched face. He is talking to a young rasta from Gaborone, also a musician. The impression they give is of co-conspirators in a plot that involves much good-natured jamming and boatloads of weed.

Soon after boarding the bus we are again barreling through darkness. But after just a few kilometers, suddenly, the city is upon us. There is, at first glance, little to differentiate it from the bush that preceded it. Only the telltale signs of streetlights and round-abouts – and then, magnificently, a very South African-looking shopping mall – are enough to convince me that this is, in fact, a capital city.

At the bus station, a driver from Mokolodi Backpackers is waiting to collect us. Along with my dreadlocked friend, a young couple from Switzerland crowd into the idling hatchback. Much good-natured negotiating of oversized string instruments commences. Finally we’re settled and making our way through the lifeless, Saturday-night streets toward Mokolodi – a 12-kilometer trip from the center of town. On the outskirts of the city, again, darkness. My feeling is that, after three months in Joburg, I’m back in an Africa that I’ve come to know so well. It is a peaceful feeling indeed. I sit in the happy glow of this reverie as a cold wind blows through the car, a moonlit, starless sky overhead. It is a new country, a new adventure, and yet in some small way, it still feels like a homecoming.

3 responses to “Buses, Bushmen, and the road to Botswana.

  1. Great and beautiful piece! I once rented a white minivan and drove from Gabarone up to Francistown on a quest to visit the detention center for Zimbabweans there. All along that long long very straight road, we encountered bushmen and others who were convinced we were the local bus. I wanted so badly just to pick up people and give them a lift to wherever there were going but company security regulations said no. I’ve always regretted that.

  2. This is one of my favorite pieces of yours. I laughed (many times), I learned something (a lot), and I could almost be in Africa again through the colours of your words. thank you :) xo

  3. Thanks ! You’ve painted a very vivid picture

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