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.