Tag Archives: ghanzi

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.

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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.