Tag Archives: gaborone

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.

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.