Gaborone: Wide Open Spaces

Hey guys,

Yes, while it’s the name of a Dixie Chicks song which I have totally never listened to, it’s also the name of my official blog post on Botswana, more specifically Gaborone, where I spent most of my time.  After travelling into the night on a packed bus from Joburg, I would eventually cross the border and enter the limits of the one-time trading station turned capital city around midnight.  The trip had been seven hours from the rocky Gauteng Province to the largely flat, outer Kalahari.  My first impression of Botswana would be delivered by none other than the friendly family of a member of the Botswana Parliament, Odirile Motlhale, with which I would be staying my entire time in Gaborone.  Living in a beautiful two story house with satellite TV and air conditioning, the Motlhales immediately painted a picture for me of an African country on the rise.  While I understand that this was obviously the privileged family of a member of parliament, Odirile Motlhale was a Botswana success story before pursuing political office, having worked his way up from almost nothing to being a managing director at Mascom, a local cell phone company.  It would be this feeling of a country and a people on the rise that largely permeated my experience in Bots and Gabs (as the locals call them).

That being said, Gabs is pretty small for a capital city, about the size of Greenville, SC, at least for now.  Walking its streets can almost be surreal, as there can be a beautiful, modern government building on one block and then thick, undeveloped bush occupying the next. Except for the immediate downtown area around Parliament, the city from the air must look almost like a checkerboard of urban construction in some spaces and wild, open real estate elsewhere.  Yet Gabs is officially one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  Everywhere one looks a construction crane can be found with what are most likely Chinese contractors developing the spaces beneath them.  Bulldozers help make the brownish-red earth flat as the city population mostly walks to work on wide, endless, and unmarked streets that almost remind someone of those old antebellum American paintings where the human figures seem to get impossibly small as the eye is drawn toward the city centers of Boston or Charleston.

Gaborone and Botswana are not without their share of problems, however.  While the capital city is fast-developing, the country as a whole is suffering from one of the fastest desertification rates in the world as the Kalahari, like the Sahara and many other deserts, expand.  Mr. Motlhale informed me upon arrival that Botswana had been getting less and less rainfall for the past ten years.  Moreover, although Bots consistently ranks as one of Africa’s top countries in terms of economic and political performance, many of its citizens often get frustrated with the fact that this can cause the world and indeed their own government to overlook problems associated with human rights and, like many African countries, a massive problem with HIV-AIDS.  Finally, Botswana is largely dependent on its neighbors, with most of its businesses coming from South Africa (stores like Pick ‘n Pay and Wimpy) and much of its professional workforce coming from Zimbabwe.

However, the case is made here that it is still in the hands of the Botswana people to decide the fate of their rising country.  One of the coolest people I have met on this trip was Kago Motlhale, the thirteen year old son of Mr. Motlhale who was already almost as tall as me and was a local champion at the hundred meter dash and basketball.  Kago and I not only bonded over Monday Night Football on satellite TV and our love of all things Drake, but also his future plans as I filled out my own law school applications.  One day, when walking to the local petrol station to get a new supply of groceries and discussing whether Usain Bolt had ever actually tried his hardest in any world race, Kago decided that he wanted to race to the end of a street, to see if he could beat me (he had been noticing that I was loosely training for the 1500, since it’s really hard to practice shot put and discus in an African urban environment).  Reluctantly, I agreed, knowing that this kid, much like a young Usain Bolt himself, had much more sprinting power than me.  When he had beaten me by a smaller than expected margin (a positive for me), Kago congratulated me on a good race and told me, “that’s the thing about Tswana people (in Botswana, there is no official policy of multiculturalism.  If you are a citizen of the state, you are automatically a Tswana), even if you had beaten me, it’s the competition that we love.  It’s how we get better”.  For now, I can only hope that this attitude is shared by many young Tswana as the country faces more challenges.  If it is, Botswana has a lot of room to move even faster in the future.

A typical street in Gaborone.
The Attorney General’s Building. Typical of the new architecture popping up around the city.
Parliament and the House of Chiefs. (No photos inside, sadly).
Shops near Parliament and downtown.
Kago and I.