Tag Archives: botswana

We have done this to ourselves.

Friday, August 6.

Jumanda must be stopped.

He has turned our morning supply run into a veritable shopping spree – a bonanza of little squeezy juice boxes and cartons of Clover milk and packages of processed cheese at a whopping P30 ($4.30) for 10 individually wrapped slices. Casey steps in as the voice of reason: the cheese will melt; the milk will spoil. We are trying desperately to rein in the costs of our trip to the Kalahari – a trip which has already burst my budget – and some thrift at the Choppies is required. It is a losing battle. Our cart is overflowing; between the three of us, we’re planning to consume enough to undoubtedly feed an entire San village for a week. The two storage containers we’ve wedged into the back of our Hilux, beside four 20-liter jugs of fresh Ghanzi tap water, include: 3kg of Choppies brand macaroni, 2kg of Tastic rice, 2.5kg of onions, 3.5kg of potatoes, 1kg of soon-to-be-bruised tomatoes, 1kg of carrots, 1.5kg of Class 1 apples, imported from South Africa; 800g of Yum Yum brand creamy peanut butter; 1 loaf of sliced white bread; 1 loaf of sliced brown bread; 500ml of Excella brand sunflower oil; 8 400g cans of Choppies baked beans in tomato sauce; 500ml of All Time brand chilli sauce in squeezable container; 3 satchets of Robertsons (“The Spice People”) Spice for Rice;1 box of Jungle brand tasty oats (apple cinnamon flavor); ± 500g of beef biltong (a master stroke by Casey, as we’ll soon discover); 1 liter of Choppies mango juice; 1 liter of Purejoy peach juice;1 liter of Choppies tropical nectar juice (the three liters of which combined will not be used once to quench our parched thirst);1 liter of Clover milk (a concession to Jumanda, who wanted to buy two); 1 500g can of Ricoffy instant coffee;1 500g package of Pure Sugar white sugar; 8 2.5kg packages of Pure Sugar white sugar, as tribute to village elders; and 15 50g packages of Boxer brand Piet Retief leaf tobacco, for same. It is an impressive haul. In the Choppies parking lot, struggling to find room for all our booty, we’re surrounded by hungry, eager San children. No doubt it looks to them like we’ve carted off the whole damn supermarket. Casey and I share our concerns – is it really enough? – lest we break down and find ourselves chewing on our extremities for survival. The chasm between the two worlds – the desert thrift of the Bushmen; the zealous abundance of the West – is something I’ll leave for the reader to comment upon.

A cozy squeeze in the backseat.

Fully stocked and getting one last tune-up en route to the CKGR.

On the way out of town we stop at the mechanic for one last tune-up. This will prove superfluous: the San of the Kalahari, as we’ll later learn, are not only skilled hunters and gatherers but seriously talented mechanics. With a toot of the horn and a wave of the hand, we kiss Ghanzi goodbye. Between us and our next hot shower are some 500 miles of parched sand and Kalahari dust, much of which we’ll be carting back to Ghanzi in our eyes, ears and hair.

Jumanda is focused; Casey is giddy; I am a bundle of raw nerves in the backseat. I’ve just plunked down close to $600 to research a story that has attracted exactly no interest from the editorial gurus of the great Western media houses; this strikes me, as does so much of my traveling, as entirely keeping with the passionate absurdity of my life. The thought will occur to me often this week, watching the San with their dusty feet and matchstick bodies persisting against the influences of the modern world: there is a part of our bodies hard-wired to live in a certain state because it is coded into each brain cell and corpuscle, and is as natural to us as the way we breathe. You couldn’t expect a San hunter to leave the sun-scoured veld and the desert sky for the sterile life of West Hannahai or New Xade, any more than you could ask a travel writer to leave his laptop and passport for a 401k and a comfy place in middle management. My bank account might be as dry as a Bushman’s borehole, but really, how else am I supposed to live?

This is pseudo-high-brow stuff; in the backseat, with the sun warm on my arms and face, I’m just trying to talk myself down from the cliff of my financial anxieties. It will be, if nothing else, an interesting week. On the outskirts of Ghanzi, we stop to pick up three hitchhikers on their way to New Xade. They are young, wiry, eager. One wears a blue lab coat with Charlton Electrical (Pty) Ltd. written across the back; another has a Billabong cap and a messenger bag with the Manchester United logo on it. They know Jumanda well; they cry out, “Juksi! Juksi!” when we roll to a stop. There is laughter, handshakes, greetings. They climb into the back of the truck, wedging themselves between the luggage and the spare tank of gas as we make our way to New Xade.

It is a long, dusty drive. We’ve turned off the tarmac road – smooth as a baby’s backside from here to Gaborone – and onto a powdery road of fine Kalahari sand. The barren trees and knotted clumps of grass scroll endlessly by. The palette is yellow, brown, gray. Now and then we’ll pass a small, bright-plumaged bird perched on a power line, lifting into the air with a flash of electric blue and ruby red. These small signs of color, of life, we receive like a benediction.

New Xade, suddenly, is upon us. It is a bleak town, washed of color by the Kalahari sun. Broad, dusty roads clotted with donkey dung. San youths on horseback prodding cows and goats toward meager clumps of grass. There are countless cinderblock homes, about as big as a single room, and thatched huts with dusty yards separated by short barbed-wire fences. I have read much of this place: more than a few journalists, reporting on the grim prospects of the San outside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, have come to New Xade for the requisite Local Color. I suspect I, too, will be returning at some point for the same. We stop outside a small shop; our passengers hop off. Good-natured words of parting are exchanged. A pack of teenage girls saunter by, big-hipped and -butted. One has a giant stomach looped over the front of her skirt. Her t-shirt reads, “LAZY AND PROUD.”

Enticing, isn't it?

Coolway Bar: The place to see and be shit-faced in New Xade.

On our way from town we stop at the Coolway Bar & Fresh Produce (“Come 1 Come All”) for some spirits to pass the cold Kalahari nights. The shelves are stocked with disreputable brands of liquor: Clubman Mint Punch, something called Zorba. Casey buys two small bottles of whiskey, earning the approval of the young drunk propping up the wall. Outside I meet a civil servant, a young man from Gaborone, who seems not at all put off by the heat and dreariness of New Xade. He has been here for two years and plans to stay much longer. “It is a decent, decent place,” he assures me.

Decentness notwithstanding, settlements like New Xade have been at the heart of the ideological debate over the fate of the San of the Kalahari. Critics of the government say that these settlements have deprived the San of their traditional means of survival (hunting and gathering), moving them instead into settlements where a lack of job prospects – and few qualifications to compete for work in larger towns, like Ghanzi – forces them to rely on government handouts. Programs to provide the San with cattle and goats have been counterproductive: the communal land shared by the herders is often crowded and overgrazed. The future for many San is bleak. Alcoholism is widespread; so, too, is HIV, which was only introduced into San communities after they left the CKGR. During our conversation in Ghanzi earlier in the week, Jumanda dismissed the notion that the government buildings in the settlements – a new brick schoolhouse here in New Xade, as well as a clinic with a fresh coat of paint – made up for what the San had lost.

“If you have the buildings there – the hospitals, the schools, the clinics – but there is no one getting anything from those schools and clinics,” he said, “to my knowledge, I cannot call that development.”

Having exchanged our passengers for booze, our business in New Xade is complete. On the way from town, we pass a group of youths sitting on a wooden bench outside a shebeen. The sun is hot and glaring off the tin roof. There is a listless stirring of bodies in the shade.

“This is what young people do,” says Jumanda. “They are getting bored. They have nothing to do all day.”

(A recent article in Botswana’s Telegraph newspaper highlighted the problem of home-brewed alcohol in San settlements, which led to high incidences of “rape, defilement and domestic violence,” in the words of an assistant court clerk. One woman, a shebeen owner named Barulaganye Inalame, lamented the fact that her husband could only find work as a “herd boy” on nearby cattle posts and ranches – not nearly enough income to support their family of 12. “I can make close to 200 pula (around $29) a day,” she told the newspaper. “I use the money to feed my children and take them to school, because my husband wastes all his money on young girls and alcohol every month end.”)

Self-portrait in New Xade.

Now we have left New Xade and its woes behind. Finally, now, the desert is before us. I would like to wax poetic here about the vastness and emptiness and etc. of this exhilarating landscape, but that would be disingenuous; what I feel is claustrophobic instead. We’re hemmed in by the wild growth of the Kalahari, with a wall of brush rising on either side of us. The road is two narrow ruts in the sand; the going is slow. More than once we have to stop and dig ourselves out of sand as deep as a snow bank. When the engine sputters, Casey and Jumanda have a very technical high-level discussion about engine failures past and present. In the backseat, I furrow my brow. As a native New Yorker – a non-driving, cappuccino-drinking sub-species of homo sapiens who regards asphalt as the fifth element – my usefulness runs out with the tarmac. I say a few prayers to my private, pagan gods. The engine coughs and thrums to life. Again we are moving forward at a rate of roughly 40 kph. We have biltong and apples for lunch.

San homes on the outskirts of New Xade.

What is incredible, as we make our slow, lurching progress ahead, is how much life stirs in that bleak landscape around us. Bright, jeweled desert birds thread their colors through the trees; squirrels and spring hares dart from the way of our sand-spinning tires. Coming around a bend we startle a posse of plump guinea fowls, which move skittish and quick-footed from our path. Later, at dusk, we will see three hartebeest prancing across the road, and a lovely kudu whose bright eyes catch our headlights long before we watch its body scampering into the bush.

This should not be surprising. “For the miraculous thing about the Kalahari,” wrote Laurens van der Post in The Lost World of the Kalahari, “is that it is a desert only in the sense that it contains no permanent surface water.”

“Otherwise its deep fertile sands are covered with grass glistening in the wind like fields of gallant corn. It has luxuriant bush, clumps of tress and in places great strips of its own dense woods. It is filled, too, with its own varieties of game, buck of all kinds, birds and lion and leopard. When the rains come it grows sweet-tasting grasses and hangs its bushes with amber berries, glowing raisins and sugared plums. Even the spaces between the satin grass are filled with succulent melons and fragrant cucumbers, and in the earth itself bulbs, tubers, wild carrots, potatoes, turnips and sweet potatoes grow great with moisture and abundantly multiply.

True, in the dry heat of this driest month, I see nothing of the glistening grass and luxuriant bush, let alone the glowing raisins and sugared plums. Still, the frequent sightings of game we’ll have in the coming days – a herd of zebra stamping their hooves in the dust; a solitary gemsbok swishing its lovely tail – were testament enough to the remarkable powers of this terrible place to sustain its desert children.

This has been another source of contention between the San and the Botswana government, which insists that the Basarwa represent a threat to conservation efforts in the CKGR. This is a difficult position to defend: the San, after all, have coexisted with Kalahari wildlife for thousands of years. The government has used whatever means it can, rejecting the applications of hunting permits by the Basarwa or tying them up in reams of red tape. (Appreciate the irony, if you will, of the government making hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from sport-hunting licenses, but rejecting the appeals of the San to hunt for their survival on the grounds of “conservation.”) Many San, Jumanda and others will tell me, have been waiting more than five years for their applications to be approved, and are forced to hunt illegally instead.

Casey brings up the case of Conservation International – an NGO which has been working with the government on a controversial plan to build a wilderness corridor between the CKGR and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, straddling the Botswana-South Africa border. That corridor would run smack through dozens of San settlements; thousands would be displaced. Conservation, says Casey, has a terrible track record with indigenous people’s rights. Meeting a high-level official at a lodge in Ghanzi the night before, Casey says, “She had no idea about the Bushmen situation at all.”

“There are towns, there are villages,” says Jumanda. “I don’t know what they’re going to do about those people.”

It is late in the day when we arrive at last at the Xade gate – the nearest entrance, from Ghanzi, to the CKGR. Inside the office sits a somnolent ranger whose spirit seems as rumpled as his uniform. Only with the greatest of efforts does he heave himself to his feet, open the log book – an ancient, hefty, weathered tome, like a Gutenberg Bible – and point to the place for us to sign our names. His duties discharged thusly, he slumps back into his chair. In a few hours, I’m sure the Kalahari spiders will be spinning their cobwebs around his head.

Frisky business in the Kalahari.

Plotting our next move at the Xade gate.

Outside, there is a new sense of purpose around the car. We had planned to spend the night at the government campsite here in Xade, but Casey – newly spry, after those sluggish hours behind the wheel – asks Jumanda if we can press on instead. The prospect doesn’t seem to thrill him; it is another “two or three” hours to Molapo, he says, which I take to mean “closer to four.” Still, Casey persists. We were hoping, after all, to spend as much time in San settlements as possible. Why waste a night camping in Xade when we could make it to Molapo just after dark? Jumanda seems reluctant, but he warily agrees. Five minutes after stretching our legs and preparing to set up camp, we’re back in the Hilux, making our slow, grinding way through the Kalahari sand to the place where we’ll spend the night.

I can imagine what sadness this trip brings Jumanda. He was born in Mothomelo and educated in Xade; inside the gate to the reserve, he points to a few derelict buildings in the bush: a clinic and the primary school where he was taught as a child. Both were closed when the Xade settlement was relocated in 1997. (“Those buildings there are not being used,” he says, shaking his head. “They are just going to waste.”) Growing up outside the reserve, he attended secondary school in Molepolole. It was there, mixed in with the other Batswana students, that his life began to change. “I felt the pressure at school with kids, the way they treated me,” he told me earlier in the week. He quit his studies and joined First People of the Kalahari, which was founded by Roy Sessana in 1993. Already Jumanda had heard of the work they were doing fighting for the rights of the San. He wanted to join the cause. “I decided to help people make a voice,” he said.

Darkness, now, and still an hour from Molapo. Little creatures dart from the road: spring hares and silver foxes, their eyes glowing in the headlights. We pass a tourist campsite, a shuffling of shadows around a roaring campfire. Across the road is a watering hole the government built for wildlife, which the San are forbidden from using. Jumanda’s voice is bitter as he tells us this. In 2005, he and 31 others were arrested for bringing water into the reserve. There were women and children in the prison with him. Later in the week we’ll meet a young boy who was locked up when he was eight months old.

Finally, now, nearly ten hours after leaving Ghanzi, we see the first San huts silhouetted against the night. We have come at last to Molapo. We park in a small clearing, dust off our hair, stretch our legs. The sky is strung with stars: Scorpio with its upturned tail, Orion the hunter chasing some heavenly game toward the horizon. Cooking fires burn brightly in the darkness outside a few of the homes. It is a cozy settlement.

Jumanda wants us to announce ourselves before setting up camp. He leads us to a large rondavel nearby and calls into the doorway. There are muffled voices, laughter crying out to us. We follow Jumanda inside, where two older couples are sitting around a small fire. It seems we’ve walked in on a dinner party. One gentleman rises, dusts his hands against his pant legs, and greets us warmly. (It is only later that I’ll learn this is Roy Sessana, founder of the First People of the Kalahari.) He exchanges some words with Jumanda, who turns to me and Casey and says only, “It is okay.” I had not realized there was a possibility of things being not okay. There are more handshakes, many words of thanks, much confusion of tongues. Outside a shooting star burns a bright trail across the sky. We pitch our tents in the sand, our tired bodies moving as if through water.

Before long a few men from the village start a fire in a nearby shelter. Their slender bodies crouch in the sand, flames licking at their bare feet. Soon an old man in a Sunday jacket and woolen hat shuffles past and assumes a squatting position by the fire. Much good-natured clicking commences. Casey and I sit whitely to the side as Jumanda and the villagers exchange the latest news. After some minutes Roy comes to join us: a tall man with a strong, noble bearing and a face like bark from the Tree of Life. He listens quietly as Jumanda introduces us and our business in the CKGR, punctuating his monologue with soft notes of approval. In the dim light that dances up from the fire, I can see him scrutinizing our faces closely.

When the introductions are finished, he rises for more firewood and returns with a single branch, presenting it to us like a priest holding aloft the Holy Eucharist. In the days ahead, I’ll note often the solemnity with which the San tend to their fires: the careful placement of wood to keep the fire burning slowly and steadily through the night, or the gentle breaths used to puff a dying fire back to life. Always these acts are performed with an ease and grace that make them seem like an extension of the body’s natural movements, matching the rhythms of our conversations. Probably these same gestures, these same silences, are as old as the earth itself.

Roy has heard our stories and sits with a great ponderous silence on his shoulders. We follow his lead, watching the sparks as they leap through the darkness. Finally he makes a short, guttural noise, as if in preamble, and rocks forward slightly in his seat. “I’m dying,” he says, slowly, but without sadness. “The government close the water. The clinic. The food.” He shakes his head and prods the fire, falling again into silence. We sit there in dumb, quiet reverence. It is like sitting at the feet of an ancient oracle. After some minutes Roy turns to Jumanda and asks him a question in Naro. Jumanda laughs. “He wants to know why President Obama doesn’t talk to Ian” – Ian Khama, the president of Botswana. We laugh and offer apologies on behalf of our country. It is hard to imagine our beleaguered president taking up the cause of the San anytime soon. Roy laughs and shakes his marvelous old head – a man schooled in disappointment. He pushes a branch deeper into the fire and combs the ashes with his foot.

“They said that we chose to live here, so we have done this to ourselves,” he says.

The others sit stone-faced, their knees gathered close to their chins. The sounds of the night surround us: the chirrups of desert insects, the growling of dogs, the rhythmic beat of Congolese music playing on some old household radio. Roy slowly creeks to his feet and apologizes: it is late, and he would like to prepare for bed. We shake his hand again in gratitude and wish him a restful night of sleep. He exchanges a few words with the others before turning toward his home. Then one by one they rise and, without a parting word, vanish into the darkness.

The government loves those Bushmen.

Tuesday, August 3.

Ghanzi, cow country. Dusty roads grazed by lean, scraggily goats. Chloe tells me to loop a wire around the front gate to keep the donkeys from pushing their way in. There are still prodigious piles of shit lying around from the last time they laid waste to the place. There is something slightly disreputable about her untidy plot; one of the neighbors, mildly alarmed, recently offered to help her rein in the entropy. Clearly, the last tenant – also an American volunteer – was not the whirlwind of domestic ferocity that is your typical African homemaker. Across the street, the newer government homes have solar panels and satellite dishes and well-groomed yards. Chloe’s house is old, there are bats in the walls. She has a screen door that’s coming off at the hinges. Already she’s wasted two full days at government offices, trying to persuade them to send a handy man. She is getting used to the African schedule of long waits and unkept promises.

I’m on my own version of Africa time: I’ve arrived in Ghanzi, as in so many African cities, with just a slight hint of how I’d like to spend the days ahead. I’ve arranged to meet with Jumanda Gakelebone, spokesman for First People of the Kalahari, later in the week, hoping that by then, my ambiguous San story will have started to take shape. Until then – what? Long walks, conversations on the roadside, a blind stumbling for clues in a sort of poor-man’s mystery novel. Often it feels like I’ve arrived at a locked door with a very large set of keys, fumbling to find the one that will fit inside and turn the tumbler. How I got to the door – and what I’m hoping to find on the other side – is never altogether clear to me. This is my African life.

The nights are cold. In the morning, after Chloe’s padded out the door en route to her ambiguous Peace Corps duties, I wind myself in my blanket and wait for the sun to drag itself into the sky. It is after seven when the day finally breaks. I watch the shadows creeping across the walls, dreading the shower. The water is so cold it burns. Later I leave the house wrapped like a roast beef sandwich. It is winter, but still, an African winter. By mid-day I’m shedding layers; the sun is a furnace. Everyone moves in a sort of dream state. The donkeys sit in the shade, swishing their fly-tormented tails.

The city stirs. Outside the Choppies and the Spar, women sit at small wooden tables selling hard candy, cigarettes and airtime. Others sit in the shade selling pillows and blankets, or second-hand shoes, or little baggies of herbal medicines. Raggedy street children scuffle in the dust – small, shrewd, barefoot San boys who ask you for change and then pursue you through the streets with naked aggression. Outside the CB Stores – purveyor of style-less, affordable clothing – ancient San men and women sit in the shade, watching the traffic. Now and then a 4WD will barrel down the road in a cloud of dust, its roof weighted down with camping gear and coolers and jerry cans filled with spare petrol. Most have South African plates and are full of ruddy South African faces, stocking up in Ghanzi at the start of their Kalahari expeditions. You get the feeling these bold Boers might just pitch up and plant the old oranje-blanje-bleu in the first barren patch of veld they come across. The trucks roar past, the city returns to its stupor. Like Chloe, I have taken to lingering walks through the supermarket, stockpiling dry goods for the coming days, as if I’m preparing for a nuclear winter.

Though low on excitement, Ghanzi is proving to be a friendly town – a reminder of African travels past. One morning I stop to greet a man on the road. Instantly we begin to chat with great warmth and animation, as if we’re the oldest of friends. His name is Tom; he is a campaign worker for the Botswana National Front, the country’s oldest opposition party. Campaign-working Tom has much to say about the state of affairs in Botswana c. 2010. The government is corrupt; the San are lazy; the president is untrustworthy (“He does not have a first lady or a child – can you imagine?”). Khama, he says, has overstayed his welcome in state house. “He has the paramount chieftancy in Serowe,” says Tom. “Those people there, they tell him, ‘Why don’t you come here and relax?’ That man does not know about the politicians.”

Tom, it seems, knows quite a bit about the politicians. He has high hopes for the opposition in 2014. The three main opposition parties are ready to form a coalition; next week, he says, there will be a massive rally in Ghanzi, where the opposition will show its strength. The challenge to the ruling party is long overdue. “We Batswana, we are suffering here,” he says. He makes a ragged, hang-dog gesture. “There is no work. Maybe someone with a small plot will pay me to clean their land.” He says he is on his way to the district hospital, where the government pays him P50.15 (slightly more than $7) a day to keep the grounds tidy. That the same government he is railing against keeps him gainfully employed doesn’t seem to deter this fiery young radical. Instead he decries government corruption and wastefulness. He turns his attention to the San, who he implies are more or less rolling in government pula.

“The government gives them living expenses every month, it gives them housing,” he says. “But they say, ‘You, Motswana, you must find work.’” He gestures to a middle-aged San, a beanpost of a man, walking past us with a grocery bag. “That man, he can go to the Choppies or Spar and swipe his card, and the government pays for everything,” says Tom.

“You to go New Xade, they have boreholes, they have everything.” The government, he says, gives the San cattle and goats to graze around the area. He sighs. “Those people have so much freedom. The government loves those Basarwa people.”

Now, this is not exactly accurate. The government largesse is part of its long and complicated relationship with the San – part welfare program, part reparations for the relocations from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. (Most of the San who have been given cattle and goats had earlier been evicted from their homes in the reserve.) Also, as Jumanda Gakelebone will explain later in the week, the monthly allowances are “not only for the Basarwa.” They are part of the government’s Remote Area Dweller Program (RADP), a program which was implemented in the 1970s as a successor to the Bushmen Development Programme, and which offers government assistance to tens of thousands of impoverished people from across the ethnic spectrum. (If it has a disproportionate impact on the San, this owes largely to their persistent exclusion from mainstream Botswana society.) The program, says Gakelebone, “is for the very old and destitute who cannot find work.

“There are many Basarwa here in Ghanzi who do not receive allowances,” he says.

Still, the perception that it is the San – and the San alone – who benefit from government hand-outs is pervasive; it is part of a broader pattern of discimination I will encounter throughout the week in Ghanzi. One man, who works at the local senior secondary school, will tell me, “The San do not value education.” (A large body of research depicts a causal relationship between discrimination against the San in schools and their consistently high drop-out rates.) They also, he says, squander the advantages the government gives them.

“The government will give them cattle and goats, and they do not know what to do with them,” he says. “You will see a man with ten cattle, and two years later he has none. Maybe he has sold them for 200 pula to buy his local beer.”

Spend enough time around disgruntled Batswana and you’d be convinced that the country’s San – long discriminated against, marginalized, and forced from their tribal homes – are little more than the welfare kings and queens of the Kalahari.

This is not surprising; as I’ve consistently discovered in the past few weeks, there are many Batswana who feel they’ve been excluded from the great economic miracles of this ostensibly prosperous nation. It would naturally follow that resentment against those who benefit from the government’s social-welfare policies is also widespread. (How do you tell a poor man that he’s not poor enough?) But then, the strongest criticism against the RADP – and the government’s attitude toward the San – is precisely that it encourages a reliance on handouts, rather than nurturing some broader development goals that would enable a greater degree of self-reliance from the San and other marginalized minority communities.

If you’ve spent any time in Africa, this debate might sound familiar. But the interesting wrinkle in Botswana is that it’s not the development industry of the West that’s at the heart of the debate, but the government itself – in effect, the first I’ve encountered in Africa that might be described as a welfare state. Conspicuous by their absence in Ghanzi are the ubiquitous SUVs of NGOs that one might come to expect in a frontier town like this one. In effect, the government is providing the services that in other countries would be outsourced to Western aid groups – what you would more or less consider to be a healthy thing in much-maligned sub-Saharan Africa. (This is a very crude treatment which requires boatloads of research for me to understand more fully; were it not for the terrible stomach bug that will level me for two days later in the week, I might have had a fruitful talk with the regional head of the UNDP here in Ghanzi.)

But the system isn’t without its flaws, not least because shrinking government revenue and the looming diamond draught are going to tax this country’s ability to sustain such costly programs. (Later in the month, the local press will give extensive, less-than-flattering coverage to the Ministry of Education’s failure to live up to its scholarship commitments to university students.) There’s also the fact that, as one Peace Corps volunteer tells me on a visit to Ghanzi, a culture of complacency has taken root in Botswana. Government handouts, she says, have stunted any sense of initiative. “Now no one wants to work,” she says.

This, too, bears further scrutiny – probably more than my time and money will allow before leaving the country. (My research efforts have been further hampered by piss-poor Internet connections at the bush camps from which I’m writing.) Still, as someone who’s witnessed firsthand the deleterious effects of Western aid in developing nations, I’m compelled to think that Botswana’s approach is a very big step in the right direction. (Please, anyone with a better understanding of the Botswana As A Welfare State hypothesis, feel free to chime in.) The Peace Corps worker I quoted above was visiting Ghanzi with a busload of seniors from a remote western district. They were in Ghanzi on a government-funded shopping spree, purchasing clothes with their 400 pula (about $58) monthly clothing allowance. A dozen of the old and infirm shuffled through the aisles of the CB Stores, holding up shapeless blouses and pairs of pleated khakis. (“Please note,” said a sign on the counter, “that for hygiene reasons no intimate apparel may be returned after purchase.”) The women wore knit hats and colorful sweaters and mismatched socks. The men were lean, leathery, with faces like corduroy. (One tall, copper-colored man with a neck like a Slim Jim wore a battered hunting cap, both ear flaps pulled tightly down.) At the counter, as the cashier rang up each purchase, they signed their names in careful, wobbly script on an RADP form. Those who couldn’t write pressed their thumbs onto an inkpad and left a black thumbprint on the sheet. (This brought one congenial old man to the brink of hysteria.) Beside them Amy, the Peace Corps volunteer, shepherded them through the whole process, offering her good-natured encouragement. Then they picked up their new jackets and sweaters and pants and, with smudged thumbs, went outside to the bus that was waiting to take them home.

It’s a good thing to chase away people for wildlife.

Thursday, July 29

I’ve done my best to keep busy this week, but for the past two days I’ve been leveled by a chest cold – a gripping, hacking cough that seems, to my mind at least, to be not unrelated to the clouds of dust swirling through the streets of Gaborone. This has made it difficult for me to be my usual, freewheeling self. I suspect many a fine friendship might have blossomed this week, had I not spent the bulk of my time doubled over at the waist, wheezing for air.

I have, nonetheless, managed to keep my few appointments around town. Today, after much good-natured negotiating of kombis and guzzling of cough syrup, I’ve come to the University of Botswana to meet with Professor Lydia Saleshando, a specialist in indigenous people’s rights in Botswana. The university occupies a large chunk of prime Gaborone real estate in the center of town, a short drive from the government’s administrative enclave and what passes for a CBD. It is the start of the school year, and there is much milling of new students around campus: outside the humanities building, to the very loud accompaniment of house music, they gather around the tables of student groups and local banks, signing up for Christian youth choirs and low-fees checking accounts with equal fervor. On the notice boards are advertisements for furnished rooms to let, and the services offered by Gadrey Cabs, and the Gaborone Cancer Walk 2010, and a public lecture on “the many ways of realizing God.” Here I regret the sickness that’s drained me of my strength and charms this week. In better spirits, I’d be happy to kill a few hours walking around campus, chatting with the future leaders of Botswana. (“ACADEMIC DISHONESTY,” a poster assures them, “harms the good name of the University”; “affects your personal integrity”; and “has a heavy penalty.”) Instead I find my way to Administrative Block 108, Office 143, where Prof. Saleshando – a tall, husky woman in traditional dress – is waiting at the appointed hour, two mugs of instant coffee at the ready.

The professor has long been a vocal advocate for the rights of Botswana’s indigenous people; her work with Reteng, a local NGO, seeks, according to the group’s literature, “to promote, nurture and preserve the linguistic and cultural diversity of Botswana’s heritage.” This has been no easy task. Since independence, Botswana has been portrayed by its rulers as a homogenous ethnic grouping, the Batswana; but the reality is that the Batswana – literally, the Setswana-speaking tribes – account for no more than 70 percent of the population. This invented homogeneity poses more than a few problems, not least because it ensures that minority groups – including, among others, the Bakalanga, the Bakgalagadi, the Bayeyi, and the Basarwa, or San – are culturally marginalized, forced to abandon their languages for Setswana in schools, and more or less compelled to adopt an ethnic identity that’s not their own.

(The myth of the Batswana also has a particular bearing on the conflict over land rights in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The government, by cynically insisting that all Batswana are equal inheritors of the land, has in effect prevented the San from claiming ancestral rights to tribal lands they’ve inhabited for tens of thousands of years – long before the Batswana were anything more than a twinkle in the eye of some Bantu herdsmen in the Horn of Africa. More on this later.)

“Since independence,” says the professor, “[the government] have opposed the rights of indigenous groups.” Earlier this year, the UN slammed Botswana for its appalling track record on the rights of indigenous groups. Reteng, an umbrella group of some dozen indigenous-people’s organizations, including the San advocacy group the First People of the Kalahari, has had some success in uniting Botswana’s marginalized ethnic groups under one banner. But the dominance of the Batswana in government – a dominance now stretching back more than four decades – has made even small victories a challenge. “The government is very clear they don’t want to recognize any groups beside the Tswana-speaking groups,” says Saleshando, “whether it’s with regard to land, to culture, to chieftaincy, to language.”

Reteng has described this in the past as a form of “cultural genocide”; not surprisingly, the group is on less than amicable terms with the Khama government. Their broad appeal across tribal lines has made them one of the country’s most prominent voices for minority rights.

“We are seen negatively by the government,” says Saleshando. “We are a stronger force because we’re a number of ethnic groups working together.”

In my talks with the San in the coming weeks – especially with Jumanda Gakelebone, the outspoken spokesman for the First People of the Kalahari – I’ll learn that Reteng is the only locally based NGO (apart from FPK) that is seen in an unambiguously positive light by the Basarwa. (The London-based advocacy group Survival International – the most contentious and controversial of the San supporters – will get their own separate treatment later.) Ditshwanelo, the country’s leading human-rights NGO, has fallen out of favor with the Basarwa over its continued insistence to negotiate with the government, despite the fact that negotiations over land and water rights in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve have dragged on for over a decade. (As a not-irrelevant sidebar, Saleshando, Gakelebone, and others will point out that the leader of Ditshwanelo, Alice Mogwe, is the daughter of a former Minister for Minerals, and that her family owns shares in a number of mineral-exploration companies.) The San have lost faith in negotiations; in their recent high court hearing, as well as in conversations I’ll have with San leaders in the CKGR, the group has insisted that it wants only the right to prospect and drill for water – something it would be able to accomplish on its own initiative with the help of donors from overseas.

The government has stubbornly refused to grant the San permission to drill in what it claims is a state-owned and -protected area. But as Saleshando points out, “the constitution created the game reserve to allow the Basarwa to practice their hunter-gatherer culture.” You read that right: the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was initially created as much for the protection of the San as for the preservation of the wildlife that inhabited it. Saleshando insists that the government’s appeals for conservation simply (and cynically) obscure its more profit-driven motive to prospect for more minerals. (I have a feeling that the government’s position, given its hopes to develop the high-end tourism sector, is a bit more nuanced. But only a bit. As Saleshando concedes: “The government gets praised by international organizations by reserving 17 percent of its land for wildlife. For them, it’s a good thing to chase away people for wildlife.”)

In the mean time, talks over the fate of the San continue to drag on; a proposed Management Plan, which would allow for San habitation of the CKGR, was discussed and tabled; it now gathers dust. Many of the groups in the negotiating team, says Saleshando, have ties to the BDP government; there seems to be no political commitment to find a resolution to the impasse.

And while the court battle dragged on, the San continued to get uprooted from their homes. In 2005, during the last wave of large-scale resettlements, government trucks entered the reserve, rounded up villagers (often, according to the Basarwa, at gunpoint – a claim the government denies), and relocated them to government-built settlements outside the CKGR. Ostensibly these settlements, like West Hannahai and New Xade, offered a better way of life: there were schools, and clinics, and freshly drilled boreholes. (Two schools inside the reserve were closed by the government; a borehole used by a number of San communities for nearly two decades was sealed in 2002.) But many San felt alienated in their new homes. They were denied their traditional hunting and gathering ways; alcoholism and HIV rates were high. There were few jobs, and few prospects for finding a meaningful way of life that didn’t rely on government hand-outs. The fact that these resettlements were continuing throughout the negotiation process over the CKGR, says Saleshando, demonstrated the government’s bad faith in finding a solution that would satisfy the San. Instead, they were looking to gradually assimilate the San into mainstream – that is, Batswana – life.

“They are very adamant on their policies of assimilation,” says Saleshando. “Their model of development is everybody is the same – they don’t need to be sensitive to the needs of various communities.

“That kind of model is dangerous for development.”

The International Gold Star for Quality.

Sunday, August 1.

It’s half-past four when I groggily start what is bound to be a very long day en route to Ghanzi. Mokolodi’s resident roosters are already serenading the stars from their treetop perches; the lodge’s pregnant sow is also busying herself about the place, nosing through the dust for scraps. A young German couple, who are sharing a cab with me on their way to the airport, are engaged in some very complex and zealous ablutions in the bathrooms. These two have displayed a certain military rigor during their time in Mokolodi – a devotion to their well-thumbed and -bookmarked guidebook, a rigid schedule of early mornings and earlier nights, and a passionate fanaticism for ziplock bags. They are the sort of travelers for whom a two-week holiday in Botswana is a grueling Iditarod of malaria pills and photo ops. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone, apart from each other.

I am happy, though, to split the cost of a cab into town, for which the ever-reliable Rafael has appeared like clockwork at quarter-past five. There is a listless flow of early-morning traffic on the streets – mostly taxis like our own, shuttling travelers to the airport and bus station. At the latter, a few quiet, orderly queues have formed on the curbs; buses idle, brightly lit from within. There is little of the panicky disorder I associate with African bus stations in the early morning hours – the frantic scrambling to secure cargo to rooftops, the endless processional of somber families carting their households to distant villages. At just a few minutes to six, the Seabelo bus pulls up, lights ablaze. A young steward hops out the door and begins handing out luggage tickets. “I am sorry,” he says. “I am sorry we are late.”

The International Gold Star for Quality ain't what it used to be.

The route to Ghanzi – an administrative outpost on the far western fringes of the Kalahari Desert – is clearly not one of the country’s most-trafficked. Ours is a disreputable little bus, with the seats falling off their frames and bits of toilet paper used to plug holes in the windows. It is a tight fit – already I pine for the comforts of the Intercape bus company, with its promise of “30 percent more legroom.” Idling alongside us, the luxurious buses to Maun – tourist capital of northern Botswana – look as sleek as greyhounds. Not without a certain dose of skepticism do I eye the Seabelo Travel & Tours company’s boasts on a nearby billboard: “Awarded the International Gold Star for Quality.” Lean men pace the narrow aisle, selling sweets, airtime, socks, pies (“fresh and hot”). In front of me, a man in a handsome, tailored shirt is showing pictures of his girlfriend on his Blackberry to his neighbor.

After making our way through the congested station the city opens up before us. Already on this Sunday morning there are young boys in school uniforms walking alone, or in pairs, on some indefinable missions. Old men with small, battered suitcases wait at the bus stops. Women built like gas ovens stand with children nestled in their bosoms and thighs. The light is a deep, pre-dawn blue. Just minutes from the city there is nothing but sky and earth, the flat, dry plains covered by scrub brush and reaching toward a long, low, flat shelf of rock on the horizon. Cows and goats make diligent work of the dry grass in the fields. Sparse settlements of boxy concrete homes scroll by. In the distance, the sun rises through a bank of clouds like a great red coin. A man in a pinstriped shirt gets off in Moshupa. Chickens scratch at the dirt by the bus stop. A woman in a pink dress hangs laundry in her yard.

Sunrise over Botswana

The road is long and straight and smooth as a kitchen counter. This vast country passes in dry, flat monotony. There is a brisk boarding and disembarking in the towns we pass. Signs offer injunctions to “Obey road rules!” Others remind us to use condoms, abstain from drink, get tested for HIV. Another urges: “Promote DEMOCRACY! VOTE on ELECTION Day!” The date is 16th October 2009.

I doze off and wake up in Jwaneng. In 1978, the largest diamond deposit in the world was discovered here. It is a small, prosperous town. We’ve stopped in the parking lot of a Score supermarket. Women circle the bus selling shrinkwrapped packages of fried chicken and chips. They carry squeeze bottles of ketchup and vinegar. It is just past eight, and the shops are closed. Supreme Furnishers, Ludvic Beauty & Hair Salon. Much coming and going to the supermarket to stock up for the long hours ahead. Young women in bright orange uniforms push their brooms across the parking lot. A billboard says, “It Is Your Sparkling Town. Maintain Its Cleanliness.”

The country passes. Donkeys swishing their tails by the roadside, small kraals ringed by thorn bush fences. Great empty spaces. Botswana is a country of less than two million in an area roughly the size of France. The emptiness overwhelms you. For miles there is nothing to train the eye on. Suddenly, a family emerges from the bush like a mirage, carrying luggage. Hours from Jwaneng we stop in Kang, a small town on the fringes of the Kalahari. A great piling off for lunch at the Bigfoot Restaurant. Women sit in little wooden stalls selling hard candy and biscuits. A young man sits on a plastic chair under a plastic tarp, offering haircuts with an electric razor. Two boys with bare feet dig through a garbage can on the side of the road. They smile shyly when I greet them.

Pimp my ride. Please.

The No. 1 Ladies' Hair Salon, in Kang

The final leg of the trip is hot, oppressive. We are passing through the Kalahari – nothing but an immensity of sky and tawny blades of grass and mile upon endless mile of thorn bush and desiccated trees. The windows on the bus are closed – one of the great mysteries of African travel. (A friend in Ghanzi will tell me later that Batswana are warned by their doctors that fresh air causes sickness. This is actual advice given by actual medical practitioners.) Nearly seven hours out of Gaborone, and I am ready for this journey to be over. The severe desert landscape makes you long for warm smiles and cold beer. At one junction we pass a group of San herders, dressed in American-style cowboy hats and boots, rounding up their cattle on horseback. Later we pass a man kneeling, as if in some ancient devotional posture. He wears a yellow knit cap and a yellow t-shirt and blue jeans rolled up at the ankles. He is paring a stick with a small knife, scratching with great intensity. Beside him is a jerry can and a pile of gray, smoldering ashes. We stop and he exchanges some words with the driver. Then we continue on, leaving him to his work.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Africa...

An hour later, finally, Ghanzi abruptly appears before us. You would think this barren corner of the Kalahari would be an inhospitable place to put a town, and you would not entirely be mistaken. The first white settlers arrived in the 19th century at the prodding of that great swashbuckling gold-digger, Cecil Rhodes, who was hoping to establish a buffer settlement to ward off eastward encroachment from the Germans in what was then the territory of German South West Africa (present-day Namibia). I imagine even those first hearty Boers did a double-take at the coarse earth where they would soon be planting their roots. But there was a permanent water source nearby – more valuable than Rhodes’ gold in the Kalahari – and the town soon grew and prospered. Many of those first South African settlers remained; today their descendants own most of the vast ranches surrounding the city, in what is the cattle heartland of Botswana.

A few minutes after I’ve gotten off the bus, my friend Chloe arrives – like everything in this town – in a cloud of dust. I had met her through CouchSurfing – a website I’ve often turned to in my travels – and arranged to spend a few nights with her as I research my San story. Watching her trudge through the afternoon heat, she seems, at first glance, to cast a forlorn impression. The reason why soon becomes apparent: she just arrived a month ago at the start of a two-year commitment with the Peace Corps, and she’s still adjusting to life in a dusty, provincial, African town that is a very long way from her home in Astoria, Queens. Rural African life, I assure her, will take a bit of getting used to. She seems skeptical, but good-natured about the whole thing. Her first choice for a Peace Corps placement was the South Pacific – “the island-with-a-palm-tree fantasy,” as she’s quick to admit. The irony of finding herself in the dry heart of land-locked Botswana has provoked, I’m sure, many a bitter chuckle in recent weeks.

It is a ten-minute walk to her house, and already I’m remembering the mixed emotional bag that marked so much of my time in small African towns: how quickly the mind moves from a joyful sense of peace to a crippling boredom – and back again. There are a few small shopping centers in the middle of town and then a few pleasant streets of government housing before the bush begins. Chloe herself is being put up in a government house – a tidy one-bedroom, built in a rondavel style, with a small kitchen and living room that will soon be dominated by a very large spare mattress. Outside is an unkempt yard and across the neighboring fence are a group of children laughing and squealing at their obscure backyard games. (Chloe, who has much time on her hands, has been cataloguing the various sources of entertainment for neighborhood children. Her favorite involves four kids lying side by side in the middle of the road – she’s never lingered long enough to catch its tragic denouement.) It is a quiet place to live a quiet life. Chloe has already found herself walking home by herself at night from bars an hour outside town. Even the drunks seem good-natured, harmless. With time, I think the place might start to grow on her.

We spend the afternoon shuttling between the town’s two supermarkets – the South African chains, Choppies and Spar – which Chloe unapologetically admits is a daily ritual. It’s hard to blame her – the sight of such naked commerce and prosperity in a land as desolate as the Kalahari does funny things to the pulse. I remember too well the tugging at the heartstrings produced by well-stocked shelves in Nairobi or Maputo, after weeks of surviving on the meager wares of small, thrifty, upcountry shops. It is, in its own small way, a reminder of a normal life, of home. I suspect I, too, will be a familiar face at the Spar checkout line in the days ahead.

Chloe’s other reminder of home is a worthy one – an external hard drive stocked with American movies and TV series, which makes the rounds of hard-up Peace Corps volunteers around the country. There is something touchingly tribal and archaic about the sharing of this valuable relic, like the passing of a peace pipe. I remember, too, the narcotized pleasure of sinking into glitzy Hollywood fare after a long day in a foreign land. (Long-time readers of my previous blog will recall the two-day binge on 24 that saw me through some difficult days in western Tanzania.) After the long ride from Gaborone, bracing for the even longer week ahead, there’s no shame in curling up on the couch with a new friend and tuning out for a few hours. In this way I pass a restful night, bundled against the winter cold of the Kalahari and dreaming about home.

Diamonds, weekend herdsmen, and why they don’t make botho like they used to.

Wednesday, July 28.

Earlier in the week I’d fallen in with a group of travelers who’d arrived in Gaborone the day after I had: an attractive young French couple – a stage director and opera singer who were, improbably, on their way to perform in the Congolese city of Lubumbashi (!) – and a young Argentinean backpacking his way around southern Africa. We, along with my Reunionnais friend from the Intercape bus, spent a happy day tramping through downtown Gabs: making merry at the forex bureau, eating oversized portions of various local stews, and wandering around in search of the Diamond Trading Company – a mythical compound in which, according to rumor, we would be able to lay hands on uncut diamonds. (These apparently lay around the place like so many bowls of jelly beans.) The afternoon reached its comic denouement at the reception desk of the Orapo House, a bland bureaucratic outpost which was, according to the latest Lonely Planet, home to the DTC. It seems the diamonds were moved from the Orapo House shortly after the LP went to press. When I asked if a lot of white people came to the Orapo House looking for diamonds, the receptionist’s embarrassed laughter more or less said all one has to say about the stupid things white people will do if the Lonely Planet tells them to.

The day was nonetheless an eventful one. Leaving Mokolodi in the morning, we hitched a ride with a man named Tsepo, a self-described “weekend herdsman” who spends his workweeks as a professor of physiology at the University of Botswana. On the weekend he tends to his cattle on farmland some 30 kilometers south of Gaborone, the discussion of which occupied a good portion of our drive into town. Tsepo asserted that your average Motswana (plural: Batswana) was more or less not worth his weight in cow dung if he couldn’t precisely enumerate the size of his herd, rattle off the going rate for a calf or stud at market, and show a nearly fanatical obsession with the breeding habits and preferences of various types of parasites. Had this reporter had his notebook handy, the reader’s knowledge of the cattle industry would have no doubt grown exponentially with the preceding paragraph.

Tsepo had a lot to say about just about everything. He was a proud Motswana, amazed at the rapid growth the country had seen in his lifetime. “We started with nothing,” he said. “We had 5 kilometers of tar roads.” Much was owed to the vision and scruples of the country’s founding fathers, who sat quietly on newly discovered diamond deposits in the 1960s until Botswana had achieved its independence. (Tsepo, at this point in the telling of the story, drew an imaginary zipper tightly across his lips.) The effect was dramatic. “In 1966, there was nothing,” said Tsepo. “In 1967, there were diamonds everywhere.”

The diamond boom that followed spearheaded Botswana’s rapid transformation from a poor ranching society into the geopolitical equivalent of a Rick Ross video. Diamonds, indeed, were everywhere: building a modern infrastructure, funding progressive social-welfare policies (including old-age pensions and monthly living allowances for the destitute), and more or less insuring, over three decades of remarkable growth, that the trickle-down benefits shared by all – schools, roads, clinics – were enough to overshadow the inequalities that would eventually become impossible to ignore when the diamond-driven growth began to slow in the 1990s.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Botswana’s diamonds has been to create boatloads of wealth for a very small cadre of people, most (all?) of whom have close ties to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, and who seem to be involved in a permanent game of political and financial musical chairs dating back to independence. Look closely and you’ll find that the names of high-ranking BDP figureheads invariably appear on the boards of directors of any corporation with a sizable economic interest in the country – including, most notably, the Grand Puba of Botswana’s post-independence boom, Debswana. (Here’s a great story on how Debswana and De Beers have maintained a slush fund to finance BDP campaigns for three decades.) Despite the country’s reputation as one of the continent’s cleanest, many of those leaders were actively involved in an embarrassing series of corruption scandals in the 1990s, which served as a very loud and public wake-up call to the traditionally passive Batswana. While outsiders continue to tout the economic marvel that is Botswana – branding it, with that great, time-tested, back-handed compliment, “an African success story” – the view of government inside the country is increasingly bleak. Corruption scandals are headline news each day, as are the growing rifts that threaten to tear the ruling party apart.

Even Tsepo noticed a growing unease in recent years. Gaborone, he said, was growing too fast. Crime was on the rise. Traffic jams clogged the streets. In the evening, the smog that clouded the city’s once-clear skies – “just like L.A.,” he assured us – seemed to be an ominous omen of what lay ahead.

The Batswana, too, were changing. Perhaps inspired by their money-hungry leaders, people seemed more driven by self-interest and -enrichment than the greater good. No one looked out for their neighbors. In the past, said Tsepo, “you would deny yourself some things so that your cousin could go to school.” But that way of life was now gone. “We do not have that communal spirit,” he said.

Change is a word I’ve heard used often this past week, rarely as a positive force. Gaborone, though ostensibly a sleepy village as capital cities go, has undergone dramatic changes in recent years, the negative impact of which – most notably, with regard to crime – has been much commented upon in conversations I’ve had this week. In the Mokolodi II residential development where I’ve been staying, my first and strongest impression – of tall walls crowned by electric security fences – was that the place looked surprisingly like Joburg. This is no coincidence: while crime rates are still a long way from South African levels, they’ve increased dramatically in Gaborone in the past decade – including a distressing number of violent robberies and armed break-ins. Hendrik, owner of Mokolodi Backpackers, had to run off one night to attend an emergency meeting of alarmed homeowners in the community, which has seen three break-ins in the past month alone. Later in the week, two backpackers visiting the Mokolodi Nature Reserve one kilometer up the road will report that a police car was parked outside – it was responding to a break-in at the lodge earlier that morning.

I’ve heard many theories looking to pin the blame on some group or other; Tsepo felt that the rise in crime coincided with the influx of refugees from Zimbabwe, who were fleeing that country’s collapse in large numbers earlier in the decade. (He conceded that many crimes were probably being committed by economically marginalized Batswana now, but that they learned their criminal ways from the Zimbabweans.) Given the violence and sophistication of many of the attacks, a South African connection has also been suggested. Hitching a ride with a father and son – the elder, South African-born, having raised his 20-something son in Botswana since he was three months old – I heard about well-coordinated break-ins by commando units with advanced surveillance equipment and military training. “Five years ago, we didn’t have any fences,” said the son, Danny, a computer programmer educated in England. Now there were South African-style armed response teams patrolling the community. Danny and his father kept regular radio contact with the local police station, ready to alert them at the first sign of trouble.

To whatever extent foreigners are involved – and name me a single country that doesn’t pin the blame for its problems on someone else – it’s unlikely that a large share of the crimes are being committed by anyone other than Batswana – the very same Batswana who have, for the past four decades, been peacefully coexisting with a track record that is the envy of the inhabitants of roughly 47 to 51 of the countries surrounding them. Placing this crime in a broader context – the sluggish growth of the diamond sector; the limited employment opportunities afforded by same; the pervasive corruption of the political class; the growing authoritarianism of the current president; the increasing gap between rich and poor; the frustration of young Batswana, who see only a bleak, jobless, diamond-less future ahead of them – you begin to get a picture of very dangerous moment in a country whose traditional social structures seem to be fraying at the seams.

This is, at least, the wonk’s-eye view of things. I’m trying hard to balance my travels this first week with frantic readings on Botswana past and present, and while the overall impression made by the latter tends toward pessimism, the feelings of the former are more heartening. Coming from Joburg, it’s impossible to ignore the easy-ness and gentleness of the people I meet on the street (those, at least, not looking to bash a rock over my head). A conversation on a kombi quickly leads to an exchange of phone numbers and a text message thanking me for my friendship. A simple request for directions is guaranteed to end up with a personal escort to whatever shop or bus station was the object of my desire.

On a bus one morning, a young man named Osborne – handsome, well-dressed, his shoes polished and his shirt buttoned to the chin – tells me about his plans for the future. He is bookkeeping for a local export company, but has his eyes on a rival firm – they pay a gaudy P12,000 ($1,700) a month, along with a house and a company car. In five years’ time, he hopes to have saved enough money to buy a plot of land in the city. On that he will build his home. “First you must establish yourself, before you can start a family,” says reasonable Osborne. In the mean time, he lives with his brother in a modest apartment, hoping to meet a nice girl to occupy his future home with him. In his spare time he likes to “study, read novels, go to church.” You couldn’t have pulled a more humble youth from the pages of Alexander McCall Smith.

At the heart of these encounters, I think, is what the Batswana refer to as botho – a sort of social contract that binds people together through a system of mutual trust, respect and responsibility: of looking out for each other. I can think of no better example of this than the willingness with which Batswana offer lifts not only to the occasional white tourist, but to one another. True, this ingenious hitchhiking system most likely developed in Gabs as an antidote to that city’s overtaxed public-transportation network (and elsewhere in the country because of the scarcity of public buses). In the evening rush hour, you’ll see dozens of men and women gathered on every street corner, flashing esoteric hand signals to passing drivers in the hopes of scoring a lift home.

This simple act – of flagging down a passing car, or of stopping for a traveler on the roadside – implies a certain bond between strangers that is, I suspect, the very communal spirit that Tsepo feared was slipping away. (Tsepo himself, who seemed so eager to offer us a lift that he nearly plowed through us on the road’s shoulder, said his name meant “confidence,” or “trust.”) Many Batswana might have been tempted by the pursuit of personal wealth that is the lynchpin of any modern, capitalist economy; and many more might have lost faith in their wayward rulers. But the Batswana largely still seem to believe in one another.

One morning I catch a ride from Mokolodi with a Boer farmer named Tommy, a friendly, chain-smoking, middle-aged man who, like many Afrikaners, seems to have given his tailor explicit directions to leave the top six buttons off his shirt. Tommy and his family live on a farm 30 kilometers south of Gaborone. His two young children are being homeschooled; his wife no doubt engages in some worthy pioneer pursuit, like churning butter or making quilts. Tommy was bitten by the Botswana bug years ago and, shortly thereafter, sent for his wife in South Africa to join him. They lived a simple, homespun life on the farm, perhaps no different, in many ways, than the life his ancestors lived on the veld a century ago. “Six months here, and you’ll never leave,” he says, gesturing expansively out the window. Then he adds, with a mischievous smile, “The first six months is the hard part.”

Life in Botswana hasn’t been without its challenges. The cattle business places constant demands on his time and energy; and then, of course, there’s the problem of wildlife. Last week Tommy had to kill two zebras that had encroached on his farmland. (“They break through the fence, and then all the cattle get out,” he explains, not unreasonably.) Still, he gets misty-eyed talking about his adopted country.

“I’ve been to Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Ghana, China,” he says, shaking his head. “This place is home. There’s nowhere like it.”

In the parking lot of Game City I ask about South Africa, and he makes a bitter face. “The whites and the blacks, they try to outdo each other. Racist, arrogant.” His voice trails off. He goes back every few years to see family and friends, but otherwise, he’s happy to be on what most South Africans would consider the wrong side of the border. I ask if he’d ever consider returning to South Africa, and he gives a loud, hearty snort.

“You couldn’t pay me to go back,” he says.

The mystery of the disappearing film industry.

Tuesday, July 27.

Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s wildly popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series are no doubt aware that the books – as well as their HBO spin-off – are set in modern-day Botswana. I know little about the series, apart from a general awareness of their earnest, homespun character, and the “traditionally built” protagonist that is Mma Ramotswe. I know, too, that the first book in the series begins, with a tip of the topi to Isak Dinesen, “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.”

Readers of this blog will recall that the very same Kgale Hill lies just a few kilometers from Mokolodi Backpackers, and that this narrator has, for the past few days, passed it repeatedly on his to-ings and fro-ings about town. I can say on good authority that the detective agency itself – or, at least, its Hollywood reproduction – also sits at the foot of the very same hill, having gone from set piece to tourist attraction for those with time to kill in Gabs.

Jill Scott as Mma Ramotswe, in front of her detective agency

The fact that the ersatz detective agency attracts only the casual tourist – as opposed to the crowds of actors and technicians of a big-budget Hollywood production – is indicative of some of the economic challenges facing Botswana today.

In 2007, the BBC filmed a pilot for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency which, the following year, was turned into an HBO series (starring the singer Jill Scott). The series was expected to give a shot in the arm to Botswana’s moribund film industry, as the first big-budget foreign production to be filmed inside the country. (Fans of The Gods Must be Crazy will be disappointed to learn that film was actually shot in South Africa.) The series was shot on location in Gaborone and the Okavango Delta; some 600 local actors and technicians, according to the series’ Gaborone-based production manager, Ndipo Mokoka, were employed during the filming. When Vice-President Mompati Merafhe visited the set, according to Mokoka, he was impressed by the scale of the production.

“That’s when [the government] realized this is a serious thing, and it can sustain us for a long time,” Mokoka told me at his office on Tuesday.

Despite the superior infrastructure of neighboring South Africa, the producers thought it was important to shoot inside the country that inspired the books – “almost seeing Botswana as one of the characters in the script,” as Vlokkie Gordon, of the South African production services company Film Afrika, which worked on the series, said to me by phone from Cape Town.

There was a sense, too, that the production could have a lasting impact.

“The feeling – and (director) Anthony (Minghella)’s vision – was not only to shoot the film in the country, but also to contribute to the country by helping to build a mature film industry,” said Gordon.

To that end, nearly 200 students received hands-on training during the filming of the 2007 pilot; many returned to work on the HBO production when it began shooting the following year.

“Our dream was…to identify more people that we could replace South Africans with,” said Gordon, “in such a way that eventually, by the end of two or three or four years, we would just have some key people that we bring in, and that the rest of the people would be Batswana.”

That plan was derailed earlier this year, when the producers packed their bags and relocated to Cape Town. The reason was a simple case of hard-luck economics: South Africa’s sophisticated film industry, which receives a generous helping hand from government, was able to offer the production an attractive package of tax incentives and rebates (which, in the world of international film production, is one of the main ways to lure fancy-pants Hollywood films to your country). Botswana simply couldn’t compete.

Jill Scott as Mma Ramotswe

Those involved with the production said that after contributing $5 million toward financing the pilot, the recession-strapped government of Botswana – which, as I wrote earlier, was hit hard by the sluggish demand for diamonds last year – balked at coughing up more cash for the series. As negotiations dragged on to try to keep the production in the country, Gordon said “there was no doubt that we would go on a wild goose chase expecting money.”

This is puzzling on the surface, yet indicative of the mixed message the Botswana government has been sending on the economy. While acknowledging for years the necessity to diversify the economy and wean the country off its diamond dependence, the government has, in effect, done the exact opposite, increasing its reliance on the diamond industry by shifting its focus from production to aggregation and marketing. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Botswana’s failure to establish a viable manufacturing sector owes not only to a small domestic market (and stiff competition from South Africa) but to a ponderous government bureaucracy which is reluctant to support risk-taking ventures. (Kenneth Good, from whom I’ve culled much of the above data, tells the story in Diamonds, Dispossession and Democracy in Botswana, of the failed attempts to establish a car-assembly plant in Gaborone. When the initiative collapsed in 2000, the government’s “prime concern was not to protect a new and productive resource, but to secure its financial investment.”) Despite manufacturing incentives introduced last year, the country is still hampered by the high cost of state-owned utilities like water, power and telecommunications, as well as interest rates that are the region’s highest, after Zimbabwe. Agriculture, too, is suffering: though roughly half of Batswana make a living through agriculture, it produces less than 3 percent of GDP.

There is, of course, no way to suggest that the film and TV industries would contribute a significant portion of GDP anytime soon – certainly not with the South African industry as its nearest competitor. Still, it should be in the interest of this government – certainly with its stated aims of diversifying the economy – to support a nascent industry that has the potential to produce a few thousand skilled workers in the next few years.

When I visited Mokoka at his office in a suburb of Gaborone, though, he painted an unflattering portrait of government interest in the film industry. A proposed film commission has failed to gain traction, and despite plans to introduce rebates, there are still no incentive schemes to compete with neighboring South Africa. Negotiations to keep No. 1 Ladies’ in the country stalled during a cabinet shake-up last year. The left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right one is doing. “When you go to [the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology, which oversees the film industry], everything is news to everybody,” said Mokoka.

“It’s so demoralizing. After working so hard and being so patient in the industry, and all of a sudden it just dies.”

Mokoka began working in the industry in 1997 with World View Botswana, the country’s first production company. Today he is the director of the production company Just Between Us. In more than a decade he has watched the sluggish growth of Btv, the national broadcaster, and the emergence of a number of small, local production houses. The lack of a regulatory body to give the industry oversight and coherence, though, stands in the way of its continued growth.

“How do you work for an industry for 20 years, and still, there’s no improvement?” he asked.

Mokoka is a young, handsome man, fastidious of manners and dress. When I met him he was sitting behind an executive-style desk in his office on the outskirts of Gaborone. The walls were bare and white-washed; the chairs were ergonomically correct. On his desk sat pictures of his son and daughter, as well as a boxed DVD set of the first season of No. 1 Ladies’, and a small reproduction of a director’s slateboard. (“Film is my life,” he said, with a sigh.) We moved to a nearby table and he rang for his secretary to bring us coffee and tea. She arrived – a brisk, stout woman in a modestly cut dress – carrying a tray with four canisters of instant coffee, tea, sugar and powdered milk. There were two mugs and two plates, each with four round biscuits and half a sandwich of buttered white bread, cut into triangles. Mokoka watched me nervously as I sloppily spooned coffee and sugar into my mug, much of which seemed to end up on the serving tray. I could see this poor, delicate man was in a state of distress. Fussily he picked at stray crumbs on the table with his manicured fingers. Each time he did, I hastily wiped away the crumbs that had gathered beside my plate. This nervous dance continued throughout our interview, which was otherwise, I assure you, a very pleasant one.

Mokoka said he had been wrangling with the government for years over the state of the industry. A film commission was in the process of being set up in 2008, he said, but was side-tracked by the government shake-up that followed President Khama’s assumption of power. The cabinet was reshuffled; the minister in charge of setting up the commission was now in the Ministry of Wildlife. The progress made during filming of No. 1 Ladies’ had stalled.

“Many people have been trained, but right now, nothing is happening in the industry,” he said.

In a country of less than two million, this is not surprising. But the industry’s size and limitations, he said, were putting a strain on everyone. “Our market is very small. A few of these people still have something to do, but most have found other work because of the lack of continuity in their jobs. You can do one job in three months. But you cannot have a family like this.”

He gestured to the room around him. “This office here is a family transport business. It is a way to put food on the table.”

Despite the challenges, he was still upbeat. Foreign films are eager to shoot in the country, he said; next month a major UK production company is coming to scout locations. Even the producers of No. 1 Ladies’ had left the door open to return to Botswana.

“If the government is willing to help them, yes, they will come back,” he said.

Another beautiful day in Africa.

Sunday, July 25.

Cold and stiff, I wake up to my first morning in Botswana. Repeatedly. First, with the crowing of the cocks; then with the barking of the dogs; and then, finally, with the braying of the backpackers. How quickly I’ve forgotten, in the relative comfort of my Joburg digs – themselves the South African equivalent of a 19th-century shtetl – what it’s like to sleep in a stuffy dormroom full of creaking beds and irregular breathing. The campsite, too, is overcrowded. Two large contingents of British high school students have arrived on a goodwill mission to Africa, pitching in for a few days of conscience-cleansing volunteering in the slums of Gaborone and the San settlements of the Kalahari before taking off on a guilt-free, month-long overland tour of Botswana and Zambia. (I overhear one of the group’s leaders, a stringy, bearded man of indeterminate age, warning his wards not to get “too emotionally involved” in the lives of people who, as he readily admitted, would face the same daily struggles once these young do-gooders had departed.) There are tents pitched on every available inch of floorspace; much giggling commences once the kids are hoarded into their sleeping bags at the end of the night. In the morning they’re up and spry as spring chickens, kicking soccer balls around the parking lot, fussing with their money belts, and arguing over whether Jenny or Katie or Clare had already spent enough time on Facebook, and whether maybe she should give someone else a turn at the computer instead.

After coffee I hitch a ride into town with Hendrik, the South African owner of the lodge, and a big, beefy Boer friend of his who’s just arrived in Gaborone to start a project for Parmalat, the dairy giant. Much talk in the car revolves around the challenges of jumpstarting the moribund dairy industry in Botswana, which sees most of its milk products imported from South Africa. Farming and herding, I will learn in the days ahead, are the A-number-one preoccupations of a very large majority of Batswana. Outside is a clear, mild, marvelous morning, the air already notched a few degrees above the mid-winter norms of Joburg. Driving past Kgale Hill – a large, knobby protuberance on the city’s outskirts, believed to be sacred by many Batswana – Hendrik turns his dewy eyes toward the sky and says, “Another beautiful day in Africa.”

They drop me at Game City Mall, the city’s first outpost traveling in from Mokolodi. Already there is a late-morning bustle in the parking lot: groups of backpackers stocking up for the long drive north; South African families shopping for a Sunday braai; a few American tourists in head-to-toe khakis; packs of Pakistanis; hordes of Chinese. Gaborone’s well-to-do are also out for a Sunday stroll, the kids in stylish little track suits, the fathers ample-bellied and patriarchal. It is a revealing portrait of Botswanan life on a Sunday at the mall, a snapshot of the many cogs that keep the wheels of this country’s economy turning. At a Portuguese-run café adjacent to the parking lot, three tall, severe, mustachioed Russians stare grimly into their espressos, no doubt dreaming of Moscow, Odessa, St. Petersburg. With a curt nod to them and the ancient Portuguese man who sits installed in the corner like a grinning Buddha, I order a coffee, unfold my copy of the Sunday Standard, and give myself a crash course in Botswana c. 2010 A.D.

The headline news – “OP and DIS to be probed for abuse of funds”; “Minister Mokaila blows P300,000 [about $43,000] on home furniture” – is on par with many of the low-level scandals I’ve grown accustomed to on the continent. Somewhat saltier is the report of a “Chinese mafia syndicate” which has been shaking down prominent locals and foreign nationals at “hotel lobbies and airport check-in desks, cafeteria, meet and greet areas,” and other prominent spots around Gaborone. This syndicate has allegedly “deprived well-known businessmen of large amounts of money while waiting to board planes at the airport.” They have also been implicated in a gambling scam which has “deprived” the Gaborone Sun Casino of some P1.5 million (about $210,000). A second criminal syndicate, also of Chinese origin, has apparently crossed the border from South Africa with the express purpose of extorting money – often through violent means – from Chinese businessmen in Botswana. (The Chinese, for those who aren’t too familiar with Sino-African relations, have an especially large presence in Botswana; last year the country became the third on the continent to establish a Chinese-language newspaper, after South Africa and Nigeria.)

More revealing, though, are the scathing criticisms leveled at President Khama throughout the paper. Columnist Kenneth Dipholo, in a provocative op-ed piece, titled “Parliament should consider impeaching Khama,” insists that “President Khama’s desire to rule by fear has made him the most divisive president Botswana has ever had.” What follows is a litany of crimes committed by the ruling party during Khama’s two-year reign: a spate of extra-judicial killings that gripped the nation last year; a hostile stance toward media; a refusal to abide by a court ruling in favor of local labor unions; the stirring of tribalist and xenophobic fears, seeking to undermine government critics. Khama has openly raised the specter of civil war in the face of opposition, and has even, according to Dipholo, gone “on record stating that if people don’t vote [for] BDP candidates, they will be starved of development to teach them a lesson.”

Quoting Proverbs 28:15, Dipholo reminds his no-doubt Biblically astute readers: “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked man ruling over a helpless people.”

This is the tone taken throughout the paper (which, according to the Batswana I asked, is a solid, reputable one). A second columnist points to Khama’s disastrous alcohol levy (more on that later) as an “economic crime” which will eventually overshadow the president’s legacy; a third, in an “open letter to President Khama,” worries about the trajectory the current government is taking, and where it might lead for a country that has long prided itself on peace and stability. “For over 40 years, Batswana have been conditioned to be peaceful and to believe they are their own masters in their own land,” writes John V. Kula. “We are accustomed to being convinced, [rather] than dictated to.”

This dictatorial drift has been a concern since Khama succeeded former President Festus Mogae in 2008. Khama, who attended the British officer-training school Sandhurst, and who led the Botswana Defense Force until 1998, has taken to issuing presidential “directives” rather than governing by consensus; a professor at the University of Botswana told me that Khama had overstepped his bounds by “bringing his chieftaincy into a democracy.” This position has not sat well with many, both in- and outside of government. A growing rift in the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) culminated in a splinter party, the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), forming two months ago. Since then, a number of prominent BDP members have defected to the opposition camp. (My waiter at the café, when asked about his political stance, assured me, “The youth like me, they are for the opposition.”) This week, a local newspaper reported that some inside the ruling party’s ranks are calling for the head of Vice-President Mompati Merafhe, in the hopes of shoring up the fragile party, which is being torn apart by in-fighting. (Even Apostle Johnson Suleman, a preacher who, according to local advertisements, is “storm[ing] Botswana with [a] life transforming program,” is in a combative mood. The subject of his sermon: “And the enemies submitted.”) Talks of a coalition between the three main opposition parties have raised the prospects of the first legitimate threat to the BDP’s rule since 1966.

These are, it follows, nervous times in a country that, for the first three decades after independence – ! – had consistently boasted the fastest-growing economy in the world. In the ‘90s the economy slumped, but it was the recent global recession which took an especially heavy toll on this diamond-dependent nation. According to the International Monetary Fund, the economy contracted by more than 10 percent last year. Though the country and the diamond market have both recovered in 2010 – the South African diamond giant De Beers increased its production by more than 100 percent in the first half of this year – the shaky Khama government is still hard-pressed to find a way forward once the diamonds run out. The challenges are great, as Bloomberg reported last year:

[blockquote]Diamonds, which the IMF says will be depleted by 2030, have transformed Botswana from a poor, cattle-ranching society into the success story of Africa with a per capita gross domestic product last year of $13,900, close to that of Mexico. Still, 30 percent of the 1.8 million people live in poverty, unemployment stands at 20 percent, and Botswana has the world’s second-highest prevalence rate of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.[/blockquote]

High-end tourism is taking up a growing share of GDP – but that, like diamonds, is subject to the whims of the global economy (and still accounts for just 5 percent of GDP). Coal production is being tapped as a possible income generator, as Botswana hopes to become an energy exporter to its power-starved neighbors. So, too, is a more diversified mining sector, with a diamond-manufacturing industry (i.e., the cutting and polishing of rough stones) looking to supplement the extraction on which this country depends, and large-scale copper deposits being discovered in recent years.

But Botswana, like most of its southern African neighbors, is at the mercy of the lumbering giant to the south. Analysts say a manufacturing sector would struggle to take hold in Botswana, faced with the competition and cheaper prices South Africa offers. And in Gaborone’s Western-style malls, it is South African chains – Nando’s, Woolworth, Mr. Price, Pep, Pick ‘n’ Pay – that predominate. Former President Festus Mogae himself admitted to parliament in 2005 that “80 percent of any income generated by Botswana would be spent on South African goods and services.”

There is a cultural bullying, too. In CNA and Exclusive, the South African bookstores, the shelves are crowded with biographies of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jacob Zuma, and histories of the South African border war, and coffee-table books with glossy pictorials of the Kruger Park, Cape Town, and Soweto. You have to look hard to find one of the few slender volumes devoted to Botswana (the one exception, of course, being the much-loved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of Alexander McCall Smith, which has spawned not only its own TV series but a number of local tours). Thumbing through the display copies on the shelves at CNA, you would be forgiven, as I observe to a nearby shopper, for thinking that Nelson Mandela was the famous president who ruled Botswana after independence.

The man I address this comment to, it turns out, is Kenyan. Somehow, as my time in Joburg has illustrated, I have a way of attracting east Africans wherever I go. A few “Habari yako” and “Mzuri sana”’s later, John and I are deep in a discussion of Kenyan politics, that free-wheeling circus of patronage and broken promises that is the source of such gallows humor for his country’s people. Such conversations have come to offer me great comfort – Kenya will always be a kind of nyumbani, my first African home. From talk of the impending constitutional referendum and the threat of Islamic militants, we move on to politics in Botswana – a far cry, despite the recent ruling-party schism, from Kenya’s torturous power struggles. Though John grew up in Nairobi, and has now spent two years, as a professor of African literature at the university, in the overgrown village that is Gabs, he’s come to terms with the languor of life in Botswana. “Here, at least, we have peace,” he says. It is impossible to overstate the importance of those words for him.

We talk a bit about my work, and what brings me to Botswana. When I mention my interest in the San of the Kalahari, John laughs and shakes his head. “That is a very sensitive subject,” he says, lowering his voice. As will become increasingly clear in the days ahead, the controversy over the San resettlements is the one issue over which the government is keen to have no foreign noses poking around. Even John’s colleagues at the university, he says, are less than eager to talk about the evictions. “They do not like to talk about that,” he says, “because they saw what happened to Kenneth Good.” Kenneth Good was a visiting professor from Australia who was unceremoniously booted out of the country as a Prohibited Immigrant in 2005, after making increasingly critical statements about the government. His book Diamonds, Dispossession and Democracy in Botswana – which, John tells me before we part, is on sale at the Riverwalk Mall across town – quickly rises to the top of my must-read list while traveling in this country.

Outside the day has grown hot, the city is sun-scorched – a low-lying haze seems to settle over the streets. I decide to spend my first day in Gabs exploring the city, or, at the very least, going as far as I can before sunstroke gets the better of me. It is a long, dusty, unlovely walk toward town. On either side of the road, narrow footbridges lead across drainage canals toward communities with names like “Phase 7” and “Extension 12.” The houses are ranch-style, protected by short walls or chain-link fences and, if they are lucky, boasting a satellite dish or a small shade tree in the yard. Along the way I meet two young men, who I greet, as I so often do, in the easy African manner. They are short, slender, in jeans and second-hand shirts, walking with no discernible sense of urgency or purpose along the Lobatse road. I ask where they’re going and the man beside me says, “We are looking for work.” I offer my apologies that I have none to offer them. I ask about the life in Gabs, and they both shake their heads sadly. “The life is very difficult,” says the first, Richard, 25, a father of three who does casual work as a painter and laborer. “Even me, I am hungry,” says Isa, 31, who has a six-year-old daughter at home. They both have ragged belts pulled tight across their narrow waists. When we reach the intersection with the Molepolole road, which leads toward the city center, they ask for money to buy “fat cakes” to eat. I apologize and say I have nothing to give them. Though a number of bills of varying denominations are crumbled together in my pocket, I’ve made a habit of never taking money out in public unless I know exactly what will be in my hand when I do. I don’t know if some small charity might’ve prevented things from going the way they did. Yes, you can see where this is heading.

I would like to backtrack for a second before hinting, with a sense of foreboding, at what lies ahead. Walking with Richard and Isa, I could tell that these were two hard-edged and hard-up young men, and that they were not, as is often the case with the people I meet strolling around some African city, looking to become pen pals with their new American friend. At times they would lapse into a low, rapid Setswana with one another, and Isa had a very suspicious habit of glancing toward the bulge in my jacket pocket (the keys to my room at Mokolodi, which were unfortunately attached to a rather large and impractical wood carving). Three years of life in Africa had conditioned me to be wary of guys like these. And yet another part of me – the big-hearted, trusting part – wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. I was suspicious, but I didn’t want them to think I was suspicious. I wanted to hope that we could still part on amicable terms.

When we reach the intersection, I cross the road and idle in the shade of a big-boughed tree, pretending to jot something in my notebook while I watch Richard and Isa watching me from across the road. At this point, really, I should’ve hopped in the first available combi that came barreling down the road. Instead I wait for them to walk off, hoping that they would lose interest and disappear down some dusty side street. I cannot easily explain this stubborn refusal to do the most obvious and necessary thing. After five minutes I continue along on my wary way; about 100 meters down the road, Richard and Isa are sitting in the shade, clearly not looking too hard for work. As I pass them we exchange strange pleasantries, as if we’ve only just met. Isa gives a cheery wave, as if he hadn’t told me that he was hungry, and I hadn’t, in effect, told him I didn’t care. Approaching the fly-over that spans the city’s railway tracks, I pause at a bus stop and ask an older man if it is too far to walk to the city center, and if I might be better off waiting for a combi instead. “It is not too far,” he says, as Richard and Isa again saunter in, stage left. They exchange some words in Setswana, and the man’s furrowed brow brightens.

“These two boys will help you,” he says.

“Um,” I say.

Then he leaves me to the wolves.

I would like newcomers to this blog, and first-time travelers in Africa, to read with care how even smart people can do very stupid things, especially when they are overly sensitive to the fact that they don’t want two young Africans to perceive them as a suspicious white guy. I have walked with two unfriendly men, one of whom kept staring at my bulging pocket; I have rejected their appeals for help; I have been followed by them at a conspicuous distance; and I have now agreed to walk with them over a lonely fly-over on a desolate Sunday afternoon (in fact, Isa first suggested if we might want to walk under the fly-over instead, my agreement to which would’ve surely led to the preceding being published in condensed form in the Botswana Gazette, under the headline, “Stupid white guy gets what he deserved”).

I will give some credit to my would-be robbers; this time, when I nervously ask where they’re going, Isa gestures ambiguously toward town and says, “To church.” It is a master stroke. How indeed could I fear two fine, church-going youths, who want nothing more than to say a few prayers and help a stranger along the way? Could there be anything more Christian, more exemplary, than such pious behavior? Why not stop to feed a leper along the way? Who was I to doubt good-hearted Richard and Isa?

Approaching the fly-over, Isa, under the pretense of blowing his nose in a piece of newspaper, falls behind. I’m exchanging some idle conversation with Richard when a voice behind me says, “My friend, give me your phone.” Let us ignore the obvious irony of such a statement – “my friend”? really? – so I can describe the pathos of what is now unfolding. Isa has raised his voice to what he assumes is a menacing tone, but when I turn to face him, I can see he lacks conviction. He is holding a very large rock, but it is casually at his side. It takes a few seconds for his words and his ersatz threatening posture to really sink in. Yes, I am being mugged. Richard has taken a cautious step toward me, but neither has made any move to overpower me. Clearly this is the first time they’ve ever attempted a mugging. It is the very definition of an opportunistic crime: two hungry, hard-up guys walking along when some naïve foreigner just happens to enter the picture. Probably it was only then that a malevolent thought entered their heads on this Sunday afternoon. Replaying the events in my mind later, I’ll realize with a chill how lucky I was: had the two been more resolute – or more experienced – Isa could very well have whacked me over the head from behind. I was very fortunate not to spend my second night in Botswana in a ditch on the side of the road, or in a hospital bed.

Instead, there is this strange face-off on the side of the road – a slow-motion mugging where none of the parties involved seem to be quite sure how to play their parts. I don’t hand over my phone, nor do I put up a fight, since there isn’t actually any sign of a struggle taking place. We all stand there staring at each other; then I bolt into oncoming traffic.

It’s my good fortune that a bakkie had been stopped at a red light, and is still gathering speed when I run in front of it. I throw up my arms for the driver to stop, and he slows just long enough for me to scramble toward the back of the truck. (As he’ll later explain, he didn’t quite realize at the time I was being mugged: he thought we were friends play-fighting in the street. “If I knew, we could have beat those boys up,” he says valiantly.) There is a comical half-struggle with Richard, who has pursued me into the road. He reaches into my jacket and tears the keys from my pocket as we drive off. The driver, still not realizing what’s going on, continues on for nearly 200 meters with me hanging on to the side of the truck and dragging my feet over the tarmac. Finally he hears me calling out for help and pulls to the side of the road.

I explain the situation, which even now, as the words leave my lips, feels a bit unreal. Everything was so strangely choreographed, as if we’d been moving through water. I’m not entirely sure what to do next. I don’t want to circle around to confront my two attackers; but I don’t want to report the attempted crime, either. (What is there to report?) It seems a bit silly to continue on to the city as planned – this was all a bit traumatic, wasn’t it? But I don’t want to go back to Mokolodi, and I’m already hesitant to put this poor man and his family out on a Sunday afternoon. He decides I should go to the police station to at least explain to them whatever it was that just transpired. Beside him in the cab, his wife and two young daughters try to take this all in, looking slightly amazed at everything.

The station is a small brick bungalow in a residential area nearby. Out front is a dirt lot with a tattered flag hanging over it. Inside a young mother sits on a bench with her daughter, and another young woman sits beside them, her right eye swollen shut. An officer is sitting with a man in a distressed corduroy jacket, taking a statement; another sits behind a small desk, filing papers. My friend, whose difficult Setswana name I never quite manage to catch, helps me to gain an audience with a young officer, who listens patiently as the driver pantomimes the altercation and his heroic role in it. There is much specificity of location and detail, which primarily serves, it seems, to persuade the officer that this happened outside his jurisdiction. There is nothing especially unseemly about the whole thing. The officer has an easy and helpful manner, and I suspect he is simply bound, by the rigid bureaucracy and protocol of this country, to do things by the book. This isn’t his crime. And since there wasn’t much of a crime in the first place, he doesn’t seem entirely sure, with his clipped English, what it is I’d like to report. In the end, a colleague listens to my truncated version of the afternoon’s events, asks me to write my name, phone number, country of residence, passport number, and local address on a sheet of A4, and promises to call me should my keys turn up. We both seem a bit shy and awkward about the whole thing, as if embarrassed by the utter unseriousness of my crime. Then she thanks me and sends me on my way.

I will have more to say about this later in the week, since crime and a growing sense of social fracture and insecurity will be a recurring theme for me in Gabs. On this afternoon, though, I’m only slightly stunned and put off by the encounter. My big fear is that it will leave me less eager and trusting in the days ahead, but this will quickly prove unfounded. Already, by the time my new friend drops me off at Game City and brushes aside my insistence that I give him some gas money for his trouble, I find myself writing off the afternoon as an unfortunate stroke of bad luck and bad timing. I put myself in a stupid situation, and was lucky to get out of it unharmed. By the time I get back to Mokolodi at the end of the day, I’m already thinking of how best to embellish the afternoon’s events, so that they’ll strike just the right note when I’m sharing them around the campfire.

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.

Memo to McCall Smith: Africa sux!

Seems not everyone is charmed and cheered by the syrupy sweetness of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. Speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival last week, the best-selling author responded to criticisms of his rose-colored view of the continent.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has a lot of problems, but it is not universally bleak and I wanted to show the inherent goodness in Botswana, which is a very well run country, with very little corruption and a wonderful people,” said Smith.

This, it seems, is a controversial statement. As Reuters reports, “In Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series, there is little corruption, disease or dictatorship.”

Bowing to the criticism, McCall Smith announced plans for a new series, The No. 1 Malnourished AIDS Orphans Agency. This will be followed by a film adaptation of his unreleased novella, The No. 1 Brutal Kleptocrats Club, starring Don Cheadle.

McCall Smith's new series focuses on The Real Africa

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Yesterday a hippo was wallowing in the water off the shores of Saga Plage. It attracted quite a crowd. Every now and then it would surface and spout water from its nostrils and wriggle its little hairy hippo ears. Squeals of delight all around. Little boys flashing their smooth little backsides decided to throw sticks to get its attention. Luckily, carnage was avoided.