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Life in Botswana

BotswanaI confess, I was singularly ignorant about the history of Botswana before my trip. But I soon learnt that Botswana had been a British protectorate (not a colony) from 1885 till its independence. Worried about a Boer (Dutch) invasion and getting incorporated into neighbouring South Africa, the leaders at that time, asked the British to protect their country.   Eighty odd years later, in 1966, under the leadership of the Botswana’s first Prime Minister, Seretse Khama, Botswana gained its independence from Britain.  At the time of independence, Botswana was a poor undeveloped country with no natural resources and only about 10kms of tarred roads in the entire country.  Given that they did not have any gold or diamonds, Britain granted them independence with minimal fuss in comparison with other countries that had to struggle for their freedom from Britain.  However, in one of those bizarre twists of fate for which I am sure, the Batswana are devoutly grateful; diamonds were discovered in Botswana just one year after independence.  The Botswana government made a joint deal with DeBeers for diamond mining rights making it one the world’s foremost suppliers of conflict free diamonds.  And they actually used their burgeoning fortune from the diamonds to develop the country financially and socially making it one of the economically strong countries in Africa.

There is also another interesting story about Botswana’s independence and this time it is a love story. Sir Seretse Khama—the country’s first Prime Minster was the leader on one of its more prominent tribes and in default the king of Botswana.  Pre-independence, he was educated in United Kingdom as a barrister. During the time he spent in London,  he fell in love with Ruth Williams,  a white girl. Now this was in the late 1940s…when apartheid was just becoming a formal ruling policy in South Africa. Naturally they were under tremendous pressure from the South Africans and the English governments ( who needed to remain friendly with the South African government ) to prevent their interracial marriage. More-over, he had to face the disapproval of his local tribe as well and justify his love for Ruth and his ability to continue ruling the country in the tribal courts or the “kgotlas”.  Apparently, Khama presented a eloquent case to his tribe to convince them and then did proceed to get married to Ruth in 1948.

However, due to international political pressure, they were not permitted to reside in Botswana for a number of years.  It is one of the enduring love stories as their marriage survived the tumultuous political climate.  Later Botswana gained independence and Ruth or Lady Khama as she was known, became a popular First Lady.  Ruth continued to stay in her adopted country, Botswana, even after Khama’s death.  Their son, Ian Khama, is the current President of Botswana now.

The country has moved from a cattle based economy (although cattle still is a sign of a man’s prosperity) to a mining economy although there are plans to promote tourism in the country.  It is quite modern with big malls and office buildings and good roads atleast in the capital city of Gaborone.  However the biggest social problem the country has now is AIDS.  My cousins told me that  among the youth, at least one in three are HIV positive. According to him, till recently AIDS was not taken seriously by the locals– with many considering it an American propaganda to sell their drugs. Although the government has now realized the seriousness and does advocate for preventive measures including distribution of free condoms (the immigration office at each of its border posts  has a huge bowl with free condoms!), it still hasn’t percolated everywhere.  Teenage sex and pregnancy is quite rampant.  In fact according to one of my cousins, it was not unusual to have a co-worker who would suddenly stop coming to work because he or she was “sick” and then hear that they had passed away.

Although the family structure is important, especially respect towards your elders and parents, multiple partners/ live in relationships apparently are quite common. In fact, my sister in lawCIMG1912 chimed in ” it is considered impolite to ask the name of a person’s father” because in many cases people were not aware of who their father actually was! Most people come to the cities for work leaving the family (especially children) in their villages and return there once or twice a month depending on how far it is.

CIMG1910As is evident, I have a lot of family in Botswana, three cousin brothers with their families,  one cousin sister and her family and an uncle and aunt: all totaling about 12 people.  We were lucky enough to live in Gaborone with my cousins for about 3 days and experience local life and do fairly normal things like hang out at the mall, visit the local grocery store and visit all my cousins.  I was excited to see Kgale Hill : since Precious Ramotswe of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (author : Alexander McCall)  had her office at the foot of this hill.

The Batswana were a happy group of people. Dancing seems to be in their blood, everyone seemed to be swaying and bopping, as they went about their work whether it  standing in the queue to check in at the airport or hanging clothes on a clothesline  to some inner music that only they could hear. All the local Batswana that we met were extremely polite, most of them spoke excellent English and went out of their way to be helpful.  Simple courtesies such as wishing them “Dumela Mma or Dumela Rra” (Hello to a lady and gentleman respectively) went a long way in eliciting big smiles from the locals. They did however lack a sense of urgency as they went about their tasks: the country’s unofficial motto  (again per my cousins) was “Hurry Up Slowly”.

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