My Time in Botswana

Patrick
Gaborone, Botswana

My previous posts touched on the culture and history of Botswana, but haven’t provided much insight as to my life here. With this post I hope to express to you little tidbits as to what my experience has been like here in Botswana – beginning first with music.

So what’s the music scene? In your opinion, what is the song of the summer winter? [#winterishere – where you at Jon Snow?]

The cultural umbrella of the United States stretches far and wide, with many people here in Botswana considering American artists among their all-time favorites. For example, the “song of the summer” back home, Despacito, is very popular here as well [and just like myself, the minor inconvenience of not knowing the lyrics hasn’t stopped anyone here from singing along (gotta step up my Spanish game)]. The popularity of American artists isn’t all encompassing, however, with most people here having a wide variety of musical tastes.

Based on local popularity, the “song of the winter” has to be “If” by Davido with his “Fall” coming in at a close second – I think I’ve heard the former just about everyday I’ve been here. Davido is an infamous Nigerian musician, which is the epicenter of the music scene here in Africa (another popular artist being Wizkid). The Nigerian film industry is also well received throughout the continent (as well as across the ocean). I first viewed a Nigerian film while I was in Belize, where my host family introduced me to the classic Nigerian comedy Mr. Ebu. I got some mad street credit the other night when I was talking with some new Batswana friends at an Indian restaurant (I had Chinese food) and I dropped a Mr. Ebu reference. The South African film The God’s Must Be Crazy, which I watched with my classmates before heading to Nicaragua, was also well received here and remains quite popular – the infamous Coca-Cola bottle scene is set here in Botswana.

As for local artists, I’ve gotten mixed reviews. Most people recommend that I stick to Nigerian or South African artists. It seems like DJs are the big music acts here in Botswana, but there are also a few other musicians who have gained some popularity. Vee seems to be the one who has the greatest amount of recognition in the country, but I’ve gotten a wide range of opinions as to how good he is. Charma Gal is another artist that people seem to like, but I am not as familiar with her work.

I played some Belizean music here for some of my friends, and they thought people would be into it here [So Supa G – if you are reading this – maybe think of going on tour in Botswana]. Caribbean music generally has a decent following here, with artists like Bob Marley and my boy Jah Cure being popular among some circles. I’ve even heard “Missing You” by Busy Signal a few times while I’ve been here – a catchy song that was very popular among us PCVs in Belize. Generally speaking, most people who like this music are referred to as Rasta, a group that combi drivers consider to include anyone with dreadlocks and will call “Hey, Rasta man!” when trying to procure their business. What’s a combi, you ask? Well, it’s one of my main forms of transportation.

How do you get around Gaborone?

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The rail line that divides the city, with the Central Business District off in the distance

Gabs, the colloquial term for Gaborone, is a fairly manageable city to get around. The population is around 300,000, and a rail line divides the city between new and old – vestiges of its colonial past that still carry importance today. Main Mall and the Government Enclave (consisting of most government buildings and Parliament) reside in the older part of the city, while the “new” Central Business District is largely being constructed on the other side of the rail line, with easily a dozen buildings currently under construction. This is where the new Court of Appeals building resides, as well as the Department of Public Prosecutions. There are two main roads that cross over the rail lines, bottling up traffic in those areas and leading to significant backups during peak traffic hours. There are also dirt paths you can take that cross right underneath the busy roads in a system of short tunnels, as well as a few pedestrian bridges right by Rail Mall (for a city of this size, there are a surprising amount of malls).

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Some combis en route

So how do I make my way around town? Mostly by using combis – which are a system of large vans that race through the city and pick people up at designated stops (usually a small pull-off area). The city is divided more or less into “blocks” – which are really a group of smaller street blocks – and on the front of each combi is a listed block or region in which it operates, with an accompanying route number for said block. So if I needed to get to Block 9, I would simply find a combi that had Block 9 listed on the front right corner of the vehicle, as well as the appropriate route number within that block. But where can I find a combi heading to block 9? Well, first, climb aboard any combi heading to the bus station – and from there you can find a combi heading to just about anywhere in the city.

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Inside a combi

Writing this makes it all sounds so simple, but it took me a few weeks to get this system down. In part, this was because I only required a very small portion of this network of buses the first few weeks – those getting me to work, and those picking my up from work and bringing me home. The other reason it took me so long to figure this whole thing out is that most of the people who I met the first few weeks drive vehicles and are not familiar with the combi system – to them, the combis are merely irritating vehicles zooming in and out of lanes as if they are the only drivers on the road. No one could really advise me as to the routes or how they worked. The other issue was my accent – although most people here have learned at least some English in school, many of the combi drivers are not as proficient – and when you throw in an American accent, which is not the typical English accent they are used to hearing (usually South African accent, a place many refer to as SA), you run into some communication issues.

On my first full week I had finally gotten some vague advice as to how to use the combis, with a few route numbers that should bring me to work. Upon flagging down a combi, I tried to double check that this route would get me close to my destination. “Does this go to the Government Enclave?” The combi driver just stared at me with a puzzled look. “Ministry of Education?” Still puzzled, now looking to his companion for help but to no avail. “Central Market?” He gave me an affirmative nod and so I hopped on.

I’m still unsure if this was a nod was one of understanding or just a means of getting me to stop asking questions and climb aboard. I’m leaning towards the latter, because as I would later learn, there is no such thing as the ‘Central Market’ – what I had actually been referring to is ‘Main Mall’. Well, in any event, his nod worked as I shortly arrived at my destination. The next few days I kept trying to ask the drivers if the new route I was trying would bring me to such and such a place, and just about every conversation progressed in a similar fashion, usually with the driver eventually saying “let’s go!” and me jumping in and hoping for the best.

Looking back on it now, something I probably should have learned before hoping in any of these combis was how to say “stop” in Setswana – but I kinda just lucked out the first week or so (people were always getting off on my stop) and after that I just try and say with a slight, poorly executed accent “next stop!” and it hasn’t caused me any issues. For what it’s worth, the word for stop in Setswana sounds fairly similar to “hestapo” but I’m also positive that this isn’t correct – I’ve never had a good ear for languages.

The combis, well, they are fairly aggressive on the roads. They are very short in the front, and so the drivers can see how close they can get to other cars and make interesting moves I would never attempt. An example of this unique driving style is this one right turn my combi route needs to take every day, and almost every day as the combi closes in on the right hand turn it has to take in a three lane road that will expand to a fourth for the turning right lane, the combi driver will hit the gas, go left all the way until they are no longer on the road but instead on the pull off area, and then try to cut across all three lanes to merge into the fourth all while making the light.

This is my experience riding to work at least a couple times a week.

Most of the time the combi drivers work well with one another, sometimes even working in concert with one another – one day, these two combi drivers would ‘shake n bake’, with one combi blocking two lanes allowing the other combi to cut across multiple lanes and the blocking combi quickly following behind (with the leading combi now acting as a lane blocker if necessary). Sometimes a combi will drive on the side of the road at a red light and look for a combi towards the front to let them in. But every once in a while there is a combi driver that doesn’t want to play along, and they wont let another combi in. All of this happens, and the other vehicles really just do their best to navigate around these mini-buses.

One of my more interesting combi experiences happened a few weeks ago. I climbed into a combi, but it was odd because the driver didn’t even acknowledge me and then waited for two school girls to cross the street – these girls jumped in the front of the combi, leaving me all alone in the back. They both looked back at me puzzlingly. This isn’t really normal combi behavior, but it wasn’t too unusual so I just went with it. We went one stop with the bus really ‘bumping’ the tunes – so, me being me, I decided to take a selfie video to and show people back home what traveling is like here in Gabs when the driver  turns down the music and immediately yells back as we approach the next stop “Hey there white!” I look up at him and the two young women in the front of the combi – “you get on that next combi there, right? You get on.” Then he said something indistinguishable – it wasn’t clear to me why he wanted me to switch combis, so I just told him “No, I’m alright here.” He said something again that I didn’t really understand, and I again insisted that I was fine. I turn to the left and it instantly became clear to me why he was asking me to switch combis – a wave of students came rushing towards the combi, and as the driver shrugged at me saying “alright” the tide of secondary students crashed at the door, flinging it open and students began spilling into the combi. I got some looks from the students, the driver explained something to the kids teeming onto the bus when this girl getting on says “it’s a blessing!” and sits next to me. The combi filled up quickly, and just as the last students were climbing aboard the girl who sat next to me pointed at my phone and asks, “selfie?”

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Combi Selfies are so in right now

I looked down, and sure enough in the commotion I had forgotten to turn it off and put it away – and so my phone still had the camera function on facing me (I turned off the video after the driver called “Hey there white” to me). I replied, “Yeah, you want to take one?” She Replied “Yes!” so I put the phone at an angle to take a photo, allowing anyone in the bus who wanted to join to do so, and snapped the photo. The two girls in my row started shrieking with laughter, the music was returned to its previously “bumping” state, and I rode all the way to my stop. The other girl who was in the photo took it upon herself to poke me. I thanked everyone for letting me join when I got off, paid the driver and was on my way.

The next day I asked one of my coworkers about these buses, checking if I had somehow boarded a combi only for students. I was told that this was a combi anyone could get on, however, certain combis try to cater to students by having nice, loud speakers and relatively clean vans so that students fill them up every day. Selfies were a big thing on a trip I did, which I’ll get to in a moment, but before I do I’ll talk about cabs and taxis.

There are cheap cabs at the bus station. The bus station was fairly intimidating the first time I arrived (I was alone, sun was setting, I didn’t know where I was, pretty expansive area to try and figure out), one side of the rail line terminal is on one end of the rail line, while a second portion is on the other side. I was so confused by the layout and business of all the different buses, combis and taxis (and poor directions I received from some people in the street) that I eventually took a taxi. Taxis are the most expensive, with passengers being brought to their designated destination with each stop costing about P30 ($3). You can go anywhere in the city for about this price with these taxis. Cabs, however, wait at designated locations throughout the city, and they go to a specific region once they have filled up. So you go to where these cabs are, ask this group of people I refer to as ‘the conductors’ as to which cab is going where you are going (such as Central Business District), and they’ll point you to the cab that is heading to that area next. They drop you off there, and it usually only costs P4 ($0.40). Combis cost P3.50 ($0.35). So I try to utilize these modes of transportations most when I can’t catch a ride with a friend or coworker.

Speaking of traveling, where have you been other than Gabs?

I haven’t traveled too much outside the capital, however, the little traveling I have done has generally been an interesting experience.

Teachers Day Celebration in Mochudi

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The President dancing at the Teachers Day Celebration

My third day in Botswana I had the opportunity to go to the Teachers Day Celebration being held at the Molefi Senior Secondary School in Mochudi, a village a little ways outside the capital. I was allowed in as a special guest, where I was given a blue fabric flower that was pinned onto my suit, and sat in the President’s tent. The President arrived, and there was some pretty big fanfare. A variety of individuals gave speeches to the crowd at the event, but the most interesting and contentious was a speech given by the representative of a teacher’s union. He publicly lambasted the president and the Ministry of Education to the ecstatic applause of the predominantly teacher and teacher supporting crowd. In the moment, I was taken aback that this was allowed to happen – that at an official government event the President and his policies would be very aggressively attacked at a government sponsored event. Later on that day, however, I began to realize why this speech was allowed to occur – the teachers’ unions (there are three of them) align very closely with the opposition parties that are uniting in an attempt to oust the ruling party for the first time in this countries history [the elections are fair and democratic, but the same party won the majority of seats in parliament (and therefore the Presidency) since the country’s independence. A similar thing happened in Japan and Mexico, where one party won the power to govern in subsequent elections for a substantial period of time (oddly enough, both of those examples I believe were voted out of power in the 2000s)]. Back to Botswana – the reason the leader of this union was allowed to speak at this national event that received lots of national coverage was, at the very least, political (they also may have been obligated in some way to allow them to speak).

Both the opposition and the unions have been claiming that they have been disadvantaged by the ruling party, that the ruling party is actively stripping them and the people of their collective voices/input and that the ruling party is disconnected from the electorate. To not allow a teacher’s union to speak at a Teachers Day event, an entity that represents teachers (‘the people’) and very publicly negotiates on behalf of ‘the people’ against Government, would play into the hands of that narrative. The unions and the opposition parties/coalition could point to that as evidence that the ruling party is not listening to the people, that they are trying to silence opposing views. An alternative – allow the union leader to speak but dictating what topics he may and may not speak about – would be a form of censorship, and might play even worse on the national stage than not allowing the union to speak at all. The only solution, then, is to let the man speak, and to counter him – which is precisely what the President did.

The President addressed the crowd, countering most of the points the union leader stated.  He stated how every year Government looks to increase the salaries of teachers (this year by 3-4%) but the unions refused these salary increases and demanded more. This resulted, apparently, in teachers not receiving greater pay for six months this past year and snowballed into a teachers strike that lasted more than a month. The President’s speech argued that it’s easy to advocate for one single objective/group because it allows you to be critical of a single policy without regard for the big picture and the complexities of governing. He then called the arguments made by the union leader as “fake news” – getting some laughs in the crowd. He continued his speech by highlighting the gains they have made and the continued march forward in improving education in Botswana (regulating classroom sizes, teacher housing, literacy rate increasing since 2006 by over ten percent to something like 92%).

20170602_123049.jpgThe rest of the day was interesting as well (there was a cultural dance, I got to eat in the Presidents tent, and I went to see a house the teachers donated to the community) but this event served as a great introduction for me to the politics of Botswana. It also showed me the partisan divide in the news – the government sponsored papers didn’t really mention the union reps speech, while the private newspapers focused solely on this debate. I’ve had some other interactions with the papers as a result of my work (I helped author a rebuttal to some stories in some private papers) and have seen how the private papers seem eager to publish damning stories without necessarily getting the facts straight. The government papers seem to be more factually based, but don’t provide much criticism of government and don’t hesitate to omit damaging information. So to actually get the news here, you have to buy both public and private papers, and actively read between the lines.

Desert Race at Jwaneng

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Part of the course that passes through Jwaneng

One of the biggest events here in Botswana is the Desert Race – a three day event where cars race across a dirt path in the Kalahari Desert. I went to the event down in Jwaneng, home to one of Botswana’s largest diamond mines. I was able to see the mine off in the distance, but the race itself was not there. A friend from Zambia offered to bring along myself, two Canadians, and another American. None of us had been to the race before, so we were all excited to go. Legitimate campsites were found on the properties from Jwaneng to where the race would pass through, but most people were posting up on both sides of a road where the race would cross and continue on the other side. We never actually saw any of the race – something a friend of mine warned me was likely to happen. We walked around for a bit and asked people when the race would come by, but got a wide variety of answers: they already passed; they are soon going to pass; and they are coming later. Those answers illustrate a truth we came to know quite quickly: not many people were here to actually watch the race. It was really just a giant party on both sides of the road outside of a mining town, with music blasting from different vehicles and food vendors selling from the back of trucks or off of braais. We parked by a bunch of vendors, and so we went to a braai and got some beef that they were cooking, something super starchy called pop, and some green vegetable stuff that I don’t know what it is. We bought some soda from another vender, and then went back to the car where we ate on some yoga mats.

20170624_145241A brief aside about food: I’ve gotten pretty used to eating with just my hands here. I like to think that my time in Central America helped train me for this style of eating – a friend of mine once observed that tortillas essentially acted as edible silverware. Now the training wheels of eating with my hands (tortillas) are off. When appropriate (like at a braai), I just pick up the meat by itself and eat it – same thing for the pop (think of stiff mash potatoes for an idea of the consistency) and that vegetable thing (can’t think of the name now – spinach in oil/dressing is the best way I can describe it). Now all I need to do is learn how to properly use chop sticks. I’m also a big fan of what is called Fat Cakes in English – basically, it’s just fried bread. I feel like this is a pretty good litmus test for myself as to whether or not I think I could live somewhere: do you deep fry some sort of bread? Yes? Oh, well I’ll get along just fine here then. Belize had Fried Jacks (and I miss them dearly), the USA has donuts, and I’ll give Nicaragua a pass with their fried plantains.

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Fat Cake

Anyway, the race really wasn’t about racing for us mere spectators, it was really about interacting with people. And as we walked around it became very apparent that people like selfies with us, especially those who were intoxicated. In the beginning we were more hesitant to join into selfies with random strangers. However, the requests became more and more frequent as we walked around, and although we could brush off some of the requests, others wouldn’t really let us through without taking a selfie with their group, and then there were those who would just come up and snap the selfie without asking. But yeah, overall – an interesting day.

Camping at Khutse Game Reserve

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I made some friends who were planning on camping, and I luckily was extended an offer. Camping in Botswana is a bit different from the states – it’s more about game driving, not hiking. And it’s a lot dustier camping in a desert than in the ADK. There are some strong similarities though: eating round a braai (cooking fire/grill), drinking, and sleeping in a tent. I had a blast, and became very good friends with those I went with. We watched a lot of ‘Bush TV’ – just staring into the fire or watching some animals. Heard some lions on the hunt off in the distance, but didn’t see any. We did happen upon a cheetah, a rare find. Evidence of elephants were everywhere, however, we didn’t see any. Learned about honey badgers and how the infamous Youtube video is true – even lions give them their distance. Saw a bunch of other animals and learned a bit about tracking animals in the bush. Dropped to 34 degrees while we were camping the first night, so we were a bit cold – but we were more or less well prepared for that. Overall, a great weekend.

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Teachers Conference in Kanye

I went with my supervisor to Kanye, a town here in Botswana (the people there like to think the artist was named after their town, but I’m unaware of a direct connection between the two), where we talked with teachers and administrators from the Kalahari region about proper procedure in reporting and investigating incidents among staff members, with a focus on how they should be gathering evidence. It was an interesting day, and nice to get out of the office – but other than that I didn’t do much in Kanye.

I’m looking to try and take advantage of my long weekend and explore somewhere a little farther from the capital, so stay tuned!

Hey Pat, you just mentioned how it almost dropped to freezing while you were in Khutse – is that what the weather is usually like?

Temperatures usually hits something like 75 during the day and drops to as low as 35-40 degrees every night. I haven’t seen rain since I arrived. It’s fairly dry, and almost everyone uses chap stick or something. The sky is almost always clear and blue – but sometimes there are a few clouds.

What’s something you wish you would do more of while you’re here?

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Early sunrise at Khutse

I wish I got to spend more time outside at night – it’s my first time in the Southern Hemisphere, and therefore the first time I’ve ever see some of these stars and constellations. Unfortunately, the light pollution from the city has made for some poor star gazing, but while I was out camping I got a pretty good opportunity to see the stars. I now can spot the Southern Cross, and there are these two stars near it that you can draw a line between heading towards the horizon that point south. Hopefully I’ll get a few more chances to appreciate the stars here, this upcoming weekend is looking promising!

How’s your Setswana?

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From my trip to Khutse

Eh, not good. I know how to greet people, but past that I’m pretty useless. Most people know English, but as mentioned above, people claim to be having trouble understanding my accent.

People here like speaking in Setswana, and, usually, even if I’m in a conversation, they eventually switch to Setswana. Its similar to when my host family in Peace Corps would switch to Quechi Mayan and I wouldn’t know what they were talking about – and my habit of saying “Oos” (Mayan word for “good/okay”) at a lull in a conversation I can’t follow doesn’t mean anything here, so I had to break that habit.

What do you do for fun?

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On my way up Kgale Hill

I’ve joined an ultimate Frisbee group, which I participate in quite a bit. I also play soccer with some of the neighborhood boys, but recently they haven’t been playing as much. I climbed Kgale hill by myself one Saturday, where I ran into some baboons. The people here are very nice and welcoming, my biggest problem initially was just finding where people hang out. Now I’ve got a pretty solid group of friends I hang out with on a regular basis – we meet up to watch rugby and have a couple beers, go to braais, and play a variety of games. Its crazy to me that my time here is already winding down – I feel like there is so much I still would like to do. I’m trying to fill the next few weeks with as much as I can – so stay tuned for those adventures.

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The view of Kgale Hill from Gaborone Dam

How’s the pizza?

Ah – I’ve had some decent pizza, but I likely won’t have what many consider to be the best pizza in the country until the last weekend of my trip. If I had to rank the best countries for pizza in terms of where I’ve been, it would go like this: (1) USA; (2) Belize; (3) Botswana; (4) Nicaragua (sorry Nicaragua). I found a couple of really good pizza places in Belize, but it is possible Botswana will find a way to edge it out for that coveted (2) spot (hard to beat the USA in the pizza department – maybe if I go to Italy I’ll have to move it back a spot, but, until that day – I think the USA will reign supreme in the pizza department).

Alright, well that’s about all I’ve got on my end. Hope you enjoyed the photos and reading a little more about my life here!

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From my trip to Khutse

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