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.

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

  1. Barbara Soloski Albin

    Hi again, Due to Alexander McCall Smith’s Books and the series the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency many of us in the United States and around the world have fallen in love with Botswana, so keep up your wonderful stories as I enjoy them and they are well written and informative. Thanks again for giving me a little slice of the life in Botswana. Barbara

  2. Pingback: Digest – August 15 2010 – The Story

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