13 May 2009

Lifting the Veil of Ignorance

Philosopher John Rawls wrote much on the topic of justice and in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, Rawls describes a "veil of ignorance" that blinds representatives from seeing the individual characteristics of the represented. This lack of information about traditions and culture, religion and beliefs, results in a breakdown in leadership. And as George Kimble, an early 20th Century geographer so rightly stated, "The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it." So many of our leaders, President Obama included, have the best intentions of helping my new, second homeland, Africa. And what I learned here in Botswana is that as much Africans appreciate our help and acknowledge its necessity, they desire to help themselves and develop their own homegrown solutions above all else. They worry that we are all to willing to disregard what distinguishes Batswana from the Shona from the Luo when creating development plans. Ignorance still describes most Americans' relationship to Africa and I can only hope that my semester here as poked a few holes in my own veil.

On a lighter note, today is my last day. Tonight I will go to bed and wake up tomorrow morning, jump in a cab and head off to the airport, America bound. I am going to miss all of my friends, local and international. I will miss, perhaps most of all, speaking Setswana with people who think I am still wearing a veil. A special thanks to my fellow CIEE comrades. They have put on a bold face in this new country and have truly carped some diem. Batsi Chidzodzo, our program director (pictured left) has made all of our lives here in Botswana as carefree as possible so we have the confidence and freedom to try new things, be them dried caterpillars for dinner or a road trip to South Africa.

As sad as I will be to leave this beautiful continent and country, I am excited to share so much of it with you. My summer will be quite busy and it will be a nice change of pace from Botswana time. I will be working for my uncle's new food recycling company, a financial literacy center for Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, as well as Matt Entenza's gubernatorial campaign. Once I am back in my ancestral home of Carver County on Friday, I look forward to seeing and talking with all of you, so make sure to be in touch.

I will still have some more thoughts and facts to share with you on this blog before I finish the Botswana chapter of my college career. So keep checking back over the next couple weeks.

Go siame, boRra le boMma!

11 May 2009

Stranded comfortably in the Kalahari

A long time ago, in a post far, far away (check my January archives), I mentioned a Kalahari sunset. This weekend I saw one for the first time, and then again for a second (unforeseen) time. It was so serene out there in the veld. After a long day of driving in a stadium-seating safari vehicle, setting up camp, eating and a game drive, our last vestiges of daylight were too short.
My roommate Alex decided he wanted to go out into the "bush" one more time, and when he discovered it was going to cost more than a small herd of goats if he went alone, he invited all of us to split the costs. Our safari company took several groups of international students from UB in recent weeks, all of whom gave the guides high marks but lamented the lack of wildlife. In any case we got very excited at the prospect of traveling one last time before the mammoth flight back to the US. Four of us went and we were joined by seven UPenn medical students and residents working at the local hospital, Joe the trusty Motswana guide, and Tim, the gregarious Rhodesian safari operator.

Joe picked us up on campus right around 9 am on Saturday morning, followed by the UPenn students. The three-hour trek up to Khutse Game Reserve, adjacent to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) transitions from national highway to a seemingly endless gravel road crowded with feral donkeys. Another hour of slow driving in the reserve brought us to our campsite, one of a handful huddled together, all complete with rudimentary shower and bathroom facilities.

While Khutse itself is an amazing place, the CKGR offers up the most incredible stats: larger than Switzerland or Denmark, and even larger than Swaziland and Lesotho combined, and is the second-largest game reserve in the world. For those interested, Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve is the largest. Our Saturday afternoon game drive included a sojourn into the CKGR. The landscapes found in the Kalahari Desert are not the sand dunes of the neighboring Namib Desert nor the barren stretches of the American Southwest. Instead it can be called verdant at times, as it is covered in hardy plants and grasses. The soil is very light, most likely from the high concentration of minerals (especially salt) that manifest themselves as pans.

These flat expanses of short grass are perfect for viewing game, and we saw more than our fair share of ostriches (or ostrii, as Alex would prefer the plural to be), red hartebeest named for their heart-like shape formed by their horns, springbok, steenbok, bat-eared fox and wildebeest.

The flying varieties were equally incredible. Bustards are the heaviest bird able to fly and secretary birds seem capable of pecking a lot more than an Underwood-5 typewriter. Our great hope for this trip was the rarity of spotting a lion, not literally of course, but our trip was feline-free: no lion, no cheetah, not even the faux type, the meerkat. The closest we got to realizing our dream was a herd/pod/armada/colony (oh Lord, the confusion of animal collective nouns) of ground squirrels who looked like little Timons with long tails. It was an incredible change of pace from both Gaborone and our other game drives in northern Botswana. The medical students told jokes around the campfire with punchlines like "And so he gave him Vitamin K!", which were met with roars of laughter from medical students and distant jackals alike.Our morning driving went off the hitch, not without one. A bolt on our tire broke during the trip and the safari vehicle was deemed to unsafe to drive back to Gabs. The plan was for the UPenn students to head back first in Tim's Land Rover while we (Joe, CIEE students and one (un)lucky Penn student) were to drive the ailing truck to the lodge right outside the reserve and wait for a rescue car. The caveat was that the rescue car was coming from Otse, at least three and a half hours away. We got to the lodge just before noon and were not "rescued" until half past seven in the evening.

I say "rescue" because we spent the lazy, hot afternoon tanning around the lodge's pool reading ancient National Geographics lying around as well as novels like my handy volume of Henry James. Tea was served all afternoon and two meals were on the safari company. We made out like the fiscally-strapped college bandits we are. Finally, around 11 pm we arrived back on campus, fully rested and yet extremely tired. It must have been the crisp, untainted Kalahari air.

The Kalahari weekend was a perfect note on which to end our Botswana and indeed, African, travels. I have one more final tomorrow afternoon, followed by a Wednesday packed with packing. I will have just a couple more posts up before I get home, so keep coming back for a bit longer.

Thank you for following my semester in Africa and see you all soon enough!

30 April 2009

And there were bishops from Zimbabwe and other phantasmagorical things . .

While I still need to write a post about my stay in Cape Town, I thought I would continue first with my religious thread. This last Saturday, the 25th, I was invited and accompanied by my "cousins", who live here in Gaborone, to attend the ordination of the new Bishop of Gaborone. These are the cousins of my host family in Mochudi. My female cousin, Lapo, has been a big fan and great friend of mine here in the city. She is currently on the job hunt, whereas her brother, Tshepo, is studying graphic design at Limkokwing University. The best part about visiting my cousins is that they live on the railroad tracks, and I get to walk along and over rails frequented by aging, blue-and-white passenger cars and, occasionally, trains heaping with coal.

My uncle, their father, is a foreman for the railroad and he showed me the massive, outdated panels used. They looked like the command center in Apollo 11. As for the rest of the family, I don't exactly know their names, occupations, or even their relation to me. My aunt (pictured with me, left) is a reserved, but cheerful woman. Every time I visit my cousins' house in Gaborone, all the neighbors (whom I've never met) yell from their respective "backyards" (read: hardened red dirt with the occasional weed, which is merely a plant out of place, as my boss always told me), "Michael is here!"

On more than one occasion I have been asked in Setswana if I am Lapo's boyfriend/husband/soul mate . . . to which, I answer dutifully in Setswana, "Nyaya, rra. O ntsalake." No, I am her cousin. Very believable I'm sure. In any case, the issue was raised at the grocery store "Choppies" in my home village of Mochudi, where I was explaining myself to half the customers and workers. They laughed and cried when I tried my darnedest to talk my way out of being the best marriage prospect my cousin could have.

Anyway, back to the subject of this blog: the ordination of Bishop Valentine Tsamma Seane. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and I took a cab to the bus station and after getting completely lost for twenty minutes, found my way to home base. In true Botswana fashion, I was told to be there promptly at 8 am and we left around 9:30 am. Thankfully, there was two small breakfasts scheduled in that time.

Shortly before the start time of 10 am we arrived at what appeared to be an airport hangar-cum-cathedral. Rough estimates put the audience at 7,000 to 8,000, a healthy number for any Catholic event these days. The crowd, as I discovered, came from all over southern Africa: Botswana, a very large contingent from Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. Representing every parish and diocese south of the Congo, the mass commenced with a parade of priests and prelates.

The singing was lively, although in perfect Catholic form, dancing was kept to a simple step-slide-step-slide back. A great boon to my religious Setswana vocab was the thirty-page guidebook to the ordination, which contained all the hymns. Morena, Lord; Modimo, God. For four and a half hours, we stood, sang, sat, sang, stood, sang (207x).

I tasted my first African host, although my cousin refrained, admitting she needed to confess her sins first. As most "firsts" in foreign countries require a "monkey see, monkey do" method of observation and instruction, I lost my cultural crutch. Thankfully, Catholic mass is catholic, i.e. universal, just like KFC and McDonalds. After a few platonic kisses amongst the holy men, we sang a bit louder in competition with the pouring rain. A newspaper account had this to say:

"During the proceedings, it started to rain and the masses went wild at the 'coincidence'."

Personally, I think the only 'coincidence' was that sun umbrellas suddenly had a function. A better coincidence was that of the mass's denouement and the return of clear skies. It was, nonetheless, a wonderful exhibition of Botswana's ability to put on a show replete with spontaneous singing for hours on end. Although I didn't buy any of the souvenirs (or as they say here, curios) imprinted with the new Bishop's face, I agree with the Sunday Standard's belief that "Catholics in Botswana are not likely to ever forget Saturday, April 25, 2009."

Somewhat sobering after such a ceremony was news that Bishop Seane released a statement blasting the use of condoms, saying that Batswana* should stick to the "traditional" ways. It is a large point of contention among all of the faiths here, perhaps more so for the Catholic community, but HIV/AIDS is plaguing Batswana much more than a crisis of faith or tradition.

Even more sobering is the fact I am leaving on May 14th, in the morning. Until then I only have two finals, one this Friday and one next Tuesday. This weekend four of us will go camping in the Kalahari desert, hoping to spot a lion or a cheetah, and catch a great African sunset one last time. Otherwise, this week is just a lazy week to hang out with friends and buy those last-minute trinkets.

Til my next post, cheers mates!

*Before I typed "that Batswana should stick", I wrote "that we should stick", signifying either I now self-identify as Motswana or that Catholic indoctrination really works.

23 April 2009

Genesis according to Oudtshoorn

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters.

God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light 'day', and darkness he called 'night'. Evening came and morning came: the first day . . .

God said, 'Let the earth produce every kind of living creature in its own species: cattle, creeping things and wild animals of all kinds.' And so it was.

God made wild animals in their own species, and cattle in theirs, and every creature that crawls along the earth in its own species. God saw that it was good . . .

The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven and all the wild animals. But no helper suitable for the man was found for him.

This is where the narrative found in the small churches of Oudsthoorn differs. You see, many would have you believe that this 'helper' was to be a woman, and so forth. Yet, God looked in all the wrong places for a helper suitable for man (honestly, a chest cavity?). It was not among the birds of heaven, rather among the birds of earth. Namely, the ostrich. And so it was in Oudtshoorn and it was good. Man and ostrich lived side by side in perfect harmony for eons.

22 April 2009

The Klein Karoo's strange resemblance to America

While the ANC might not win over many Boer votes, it still put out its message in Afrikaans everywhere: "Working together we can do more." Check out my earlier, prosaic post for more on the election.
The mountains seemed to follow us everywhere on our journey, and there were no complaints coming from the passenger seat. Check out any map of South Africa and you will see strands of Berge criss-crossing every which way.

Plettenberg Bay only looks this beautiful from far up. Any closer and you might see the townships, precariously built upon pencils of stilts, ready to crash down at any "fresh" wind gusts.

The above three pictures are from the first mountain pass we went through, just north of George. It was also the first time we got a picture of the two of us together. Thank God for timed photos! I felt the mountains behind us were missing some sherpas, yetis, and a few Tibetan prayer flags, but I had a very Zen moment nonetheless looking at their rocky greenness.

To be honest, I don't remember where this was taken, but it is the Everytown, South Africa, at least in the interior.
Another pass, with a bit more rocky and a little less greenness. Alex gives the new composition a thumbs-up.

A sort of visual tautology. Different views of the foothills of the Klein Karoo from Alex's camera and mine. Just imagine, this was all hiding 70 miles from aquamarine waters.

Can you say straight?

The loneliest stoplight. Several times in the middle of nowhere we stopped for imaginary traffic in one-lane-only construction zones.

Electrical Plants in Bloemfontein to Beaches in Port Elizabeth

Some great radiation stacks (terminology?) in Bloemfontein, our first stop. As it was mostly a place to sleep and the city was empty due to Good Friday, we didn't see much more than the city's skyline.

If I could offer the South African tourism office some advice, it would be to put up signs for lookout points. We passed so many at 120 km/hr, that it was only after hours that we finally could stop at one instead of look at it in the rearview. NB That's our trusty VW Golf. We named her "Lekgowa", or "white person" in Setswana. Because we're white. And she's white. Witty, I know.

The small pool-ette (once again, terminology?) in the courtyard of our second hostel. 1 Cora Terrace in Port Elizabeth exceeded my expectations, with its charming host and architectural splendor.

Our first drive around Algoa Bay revealed that Port Elizabeth is not just English in name, but in its eerie, Boggart-inhabited coastline too.

Who doesn't enjoy a smiley, old African? "If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness" - Nelson Mandela

My first glimpses of the Indian Ocean in Port Elizabeth. What you cannot see in the pictures is the 30 km/hr wind blasting those poor souls with sand, as well as the line fish which became my dinner that night. Needless to say, it was quite mind-boggling that the next stop from PE was Antarctica.

20 April 2009

An impossible task

The nine full days I spent in South Africa were so intense that unpacking them into a series of blogs will prove daunting. My last blog detailed our itinerary, which went off without a hitch. Our hostel reservations were correct, our route was almost unaltered (we switched our last night to the diamond mining capital of Kimberley). Therefore, not too much time will be spent on the nitty-gritty of the hours-long drives through South Africa countryside, although not at the expense of beautiful landscape photography coming shortly.

I think the best way of going about sharing my experience is to offer an analogy, which while rough and sometimes inconsistent will perhaps familiarize my (American) readers with South Africa. The analogy is this: South Africa is like the African America, not to be confused with "the African-American". By this I mean that it was colonized by white Europeans who, in the words of my wise professor RKK Molefi, "came preaching the Bible and when the Africans closed their eyes to pray, the Europeans took the best land." The native peoples and the European newcomers lived in precarious peace, interspersed by civil conflicts and British-Dutch military spats (not unlike the French and British on the other side of the Atlantic).

Those who couldn't handle the British coastal culture (read: New England), headed eastward (read: westward) and founded farms and ranches (read: Midwest and Wild West). They became people of the cattle, the African cowboys if you will. Whites thought themselves much superior than the natives and in a unique combination of America's policies toward Native Americans and blacks, simultaneously relocated them and made second-class citizens of them.

These policies of relocation and racism resulted in major protests in the townships (mostly urban, in the African context) and in 1994, political fissures in the apartheid government gave way to Nelson Mandela and his ANC party. Today marked the fourth election since the fall of apartheid and the ANC is likely to stay in power, mostly due to its large investment in improving the situation of the nation's blacks. Like African-Americans in the US, South Africa's blacks were consigned to designated township areas, usually the worst pieces of land in the country. Note: while this separation resulted from social pressures and practices like red-lining in America, they were official government policies in South Africa.

The dire situation of many blacks in SA (South Africa) can be traced back to the physical separation. What shocked me most was not the tales of the black and colored (official racial designation of mixed race individuals under apartheid) townships in Cape Town. Similar settlements are to be expected in any major city in the developing world, in Rio de Janeiro for example. It was the presence of townships in the middle of the interior, South Africa's "Wild West". Driving through towns like Craddock in the desert terrain between Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, we saw not only the heights of mountains and depths of arid valleys, but the high class of quaint European main streets and the dismally constructed, corrugated iron shacks in the surrounding shantytowns. It was like moving West Baltimore next to Ely, Nevada.

Our gas station attendant in Vryburg (in the north) told us he lived in the township there, but contrary to our perception, there was not much crime at all. It was merely that they were poor. Crime-filled or not, the shantytowns would make any Motswana cringe with good reason. The villages of Botswana may not have much materially compared to America, but are practically oases in the Kalahari next to what we drove past.

The combination of geography and economics is very evident in South Africa and cannot be overlooked, that is why I went on at length here about it. The next couple posts will offer my light-hearted and fun experiences of mine, including the life-changing ride on a bucking ostrich. Stay tuned for more about SA and lots of pictures!

09 April 2009

The Ocean

I grew up in the middle of a huge continent. My idea of a large body of water was Lake Waconia, and then once I sailed around the Apostle Islands off of Bayfield, Wisconsin, I thought I could die peacefully having seen Lake Superior. What is an octogenarian in Duluth's Canal Park other than Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea"?

Until my trip to Europe in the summer of 2007, I can only remember seeing the ocean once: the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston Island. I was maybe 10, possibly younger. Because of dead jellyfish strewn across the beaches, however, I didn't even get to taste the saltiness of the ocean. While in St. Brieuc, France, I spent nearly eight days on the beach, splashing in the Bay of Brittany. My next encounter with the Atlantic was last October (2008) when I drove to Bethany Beach, Delaware with my friend Ryan.

And now, in the course of nine days, I will be swimming in two oceans and escaping the dry, inland country of Botswana. My roommate Alex and I are renting a car from Budget this evening, and leaving early tomorrow morning for the border. Since South Africa is such a large country and Alex will be the only driver (automatics are a luxury here and I can't drive stick), we won't be making our days too long. That means the first night we will simply taking a break, in the provincial capital of Bloemfontein. Here's a map of our whole route so you can get acquainted:
Then on Saturday, we reach our first major destination: Port Elizabeth, or simply, PE. A local friend of mine told me PE has some of the most beautiful beaches in Africa. Moreover, the buzzing seaside city has the largest selection of second-hand books on the continent, with vast collections of Africana literature. Could you imagine a more perfect place for me?

After two days in PE, we're moseying along the famous Garden Route, a verdant stretch along the coast between PE and Mossel Bay. Beaches, tropical vistas, and mountains: a drastic and welcoming change from the flat expanses of the Kalahari. While we won't be stopping much along the route, we are looking forward to spending a couple days along Route 62, traveling through the Little Karoo and its wine country.

Our base city along Route 62 will be Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of the world. If the PETA part of my soul doesn't object too much, I may even ride an ostrich at one of the farms. Between Oudtshoorn and Cape Town, we will be brushing up on our viticulture. There is no way I could pass up the opportunity of legally enjoying a day sampling some Cabernet amidst some incredible, South African scenery.

Then, our last stop is a three-day stay in Cape Town, or CT. Beside the major tourist attractions, including Long Street (where our hostel, Cat and Moose Backpackers Lodge, is conveniently located), Robben's Island and Table Mountain, we will be visiting my friend Mary, who is studying at the University of Cape Town this semester through CIEE. Back at Hopkins we always joked about being on the same continent and how we should meet up, but it is about to become a reality. A James Bond-ian rendez-vous in a foreign port, how classy!Our trip home will mostly just be driving for two solid days, although my Setswana instructor tells me that N1, the major highway, is also one of awe-inspiring views, especially near the Hex River area. It will be a while before I can adequately update this blog with pictures, etc. but I hope to at least let you know I'm alive and well along the way. Just a recap: renting a car from today until Saturday, April 18th. Visiting Bloemfontein, PE, Garden Route, Oudtshoorn, Route 62, and Cape Town.

They tell us it is impossible, but we talked to a couple Americans here at UB who pretty much did the same thing. You give an American a car and the open road, and amazing, unbelievable things can happen. Even the pessimists amongst us, like Chaska substitute teacher Mr. Nelson, can only muster, "Nothing is impossible, only highly improbable." Here's to high improbability and the slightly better chance that I am about to do the unforgettable!

07 April 2009

A Baldwinian Insight

One of my favorite authors, James Baldwin, once wrote:

"Voyagers discover that the world can never be larger than the person that is in the world; but it is impossible to foresee this, it is impossible to be warned."

What truth.

06 April 2009

The Daily Rounds

Believe it or not, but it is already registration time for the fall semester at Hopkins. Amidst the electronic page flipping, deciding whether to take a political economy course in the economics department (with a professor whose class I dropped like a hot lefse) or in the political science department (with the craziest Scottish man since William Wallace), I realized that I haven't even written about my courses here in Botswana. So I shall now rectify that grave injustice.

CIEE requires we take 16 credits, four of which are Setswana courses offered by UB and CIEE, and twelve from the regular university course schedule. This translates, in my case, into four 3-credit courses: two histories, a political science course and an economics course. For the first time in my college career, I have the same professor for two courses: one R.K.K. Molefi for both HIS342 and HIS446. The names of these courses are so ridiculously long, that it might just be easier calling them "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious I and II". In short, one should be on modern West Africa history, the other on economic growth, policy and development in the developing world. Yet, both have somehow become about Botswana: past, present and future.

HIS 342 has consisted of group presentations for the last month and a half, and has about forty students in it who surprisingly all come to class despite the mindnumbing monotony. It's another story in my intimate, 8 am HIS446. Only eight or so of us are registered and some are in absentia for weeks at a time.

My economics course, billed as Development Policy and Problems, is quite straightforward and standard American university fare. Once again, though, the focus is Botswana. The last course is one of which I'd rather not speak. The first professor, who taught most of the semester thus far, was possibly the worst lecturer I have yet encountered. I think Botswana snails were outpacing his lecture notes and we were no closer to discovering "Politics and Poverty in Southern Africa" two weeks ago than when I got on the airplane in Minneapolis. In fact, we haven't touched on politics or Southern Africa, really.

BUT, have I had an education on Botswana. Even if we have been off topic in all of my classes (although, econ less so), we have been have frank and open conversations about everything Botswana: politics, HIV/AIDS, youth culture, alcohol, education, you name it. And this all something not found in the books listed under "Recommended Reading".

It has been a large adjustment for the group, myself included, to move at a slow pace in all of our endeavors, especially the academic ones. We are now feeling the pressure, however, as we close in on final exams. Professors are cramming in their mid-term assignments (continuing assessments, as they say) just a couple weeks before finals, end-loading their courses greatly in terms of work. This week alone, I am turning in two papers, a project, and presenting on Paul Kruger. This is in part due to my absence from campus next week. Because of a road trip.

Through South Africa.

For nine days.


Find out more in my next post, coming in the next couple of days. And I will try to work some multimedia of some sort in, since this post is visually underwhelming. Apologies.

02 April 2009

Inside the Botswana Beltway

Life has been pretty ho-hum on campus the past couple of weeks. Not much to report. Before I get to the meat of this post (I apologize for this pun in advance), there is a great piece in the New York Times about how one can acquire a taste for goat. As much as I've come to enjoy seeing herds of dipodi, or goats, crossing highways more intelligently than most pedestrians in American suburbs, I'm not quite sure I will stomach a nice, juicy goat steak on my Ruby Tuesday's menu.

We should be, as my economics professor Dr. Laurence Ball would say, "steaming ahead". This post will try to be as neutral as possible and a disclaimer to all Batswana reading this article: I know that I have only been here a few months and these observations are based upon my own interactions with other Batswana. They may not be representative of every Motswana, but bear with me.

Botswana's claim to fame in Africa is its serenity, thus the lack of traditional Pan-African colors on its flag (photo courtesy of FutureAtlas.com). Instead, the light blue reflects the peace this country has enjoyed in its forty-four years of independence. Unlike most other countries in Africa, Botswana was never colonized in the formal sense and was only taken on as a British protectorate when Botswana's chiefs felt a physical threat from South Africa. Then in 1964, Botswana leaders put forth proposals for independence which were granted and in 1966, Botswana's first general elections were held with the winner being Seretse Khama (left).

Khama is a looming figure in Botswana, not only noted for his central role in creating the modern nation of Botswana, but now his son, Lt. General Seretse Khama Ian Khama is the fourth president. When President Festus Mogae resigned in April 2008, Ian Khama became Botswana's fourth head of state, a number which is not lost on those critical of Botswana's democratic regime.

More than once here, someone has asked me how many presidents America has had. "With Obama, that's 44," I tell them. "See we are forty presidents behind you!" they respond, as if the strength of a democracy is the number of leaders. A quick counter-example in Mexico sticks out, as its one party regime produced a new president every four years for nearly eighty years. The PRI is hardly the democracy I believe Batswana or Americans envy. A more accurate assessment of the situation shows that the US has had nine presidents (including Obama) to Botswana's four since Botswana's independence.

This is still a marked difference, just as the political monopoly held by the Botswana Democratic Party is. Founded by big Khama and now led by little Khama, the BDP has held the majority throughout the nation's history, leading many in the opposition to question the democratic character of Botswana. The main opposition party, the Botswana National Front, currently holds 12 of the 57 seats in the national assembly. My (in geographic terms) representative is one Dumelang Saleshando, the only seated member from the Botswana Congress Party, commonly known as the "most outspoken" MP. Per usual, the opposition parties have their base in the urban areas, and the BDP has very strong appeal in the rural areas.

The current president, however, has shaken the nation in several profound ways. First off, Ian, as we CIEE students affectionately call our new leader, is not seen as truly of Botswana. Raised abroad, his Setswana has not quite attained native fluency. Hard to hold that against him, considering America's own era of presidential grammatical incorrectness. Yet, even more pressing to Batswana is his failure to find a wife and start a family.

It is truly a sad state of affairs to be alone in Setswana culture. Many have pity on my status as an only child, thinking I have no friends or playmates and must therefore be depressed. Families are the ultimate goal of many African traditions, and in the traditional ways, the larger the family, the more powerful the father. My roommate Josh, from Malawi, recounted to me once an argument with an elder of his. "He told me to sit down and said until I had three wives and fourteen children, my opinion didn't matter." It is easy to see then, once again pardon the pun, why some Batswana see the new president impotent in a certain traditional sense.

In the world of policy, the true nuts and bolts of government, the new president has left much to be desired by the nation's progressives. Seeing moral decline as the largest threat facing Botswana, especially reckless driving and alcohol abuse, Ian Khama took his first few political steps in the area of social policy. More specifically, he raised the taxes on alcoholic beverages by 70%, much to the ire of university students and youth in general. More recently, he elevated the fines on traffic violations.

Personally, I can see the rationale. Traffic deaths are the leading cause of death in Botswana, and are at the highest levels in all of southern Africa. Alcohol abuse, which not only increases the amount of traffic accidents, is proliferate in a country with almost 20% unemployment. Many jokes are made about the chibuku (traditional beer) drinkers in Botswana. Ian's newest controversy is the civil dress code, which aims to return a paternal sense of "decency" to the government's female staff. Even the BBC picked up this story.

More worrisome to outside observers is Ian Khama's seeming disinterest in the economic crisis engulfing his country. Debswana, the joint venture between DeBeers diamond company and the government of Botswana, suspended operations in its largest mines. Not only is Debswana the largest diamond mining group in monetary value, it is only responsible for almost half of Botswana's annual revenue. Drastic cuts are being made, and Khama's opponents feel that he has done little to mitigate the damages.

General elections are scheduled for this fall, and the newspapers are littered with political scandal in all parties, but especially within the BDP. Opposition supporters are hoping to steal a majority in the Assembly. The level of political criticism in this country is a testament, despite the somewhat undemocratic nature of the ruling party, to the peaceful and tolerant nature of the Batswana. The ability to speak one's opinion without fear of retribution is something many Americans hold most dear, and it is reassuring to find it so close to the hostile politics of Zimbabwe and South Africa.

I hope you are happy, Miriam. This post sapped the energy out of me on this Thursday night, but I really needed to blog for you all. My next blog will talk about my upcoming road trip through South Africa. Until then, boroko boRra le boMma! (Setswana: Good night, ladies and gentleman!)

23 March 2009

If there's no running water, then you don't have to catch it

It has been an unbelievably fast week, especially by Botswana standards. It was not so much that I accomplished that much, rather that I was constantly on the move. As you may know from the previous post, I spent the last nine days in a village, Mochudi, about forty miles northeast from Gaborone. The caveat was that we weren't staying in Mochudi but commuting every day to class. As most of us had class at 8 am, that meant waking up at quarter to/of five (in numerals, 4:45 am) to make the 5:30 or 6:00 bus. Then we had to leave after our three o'clock afternoon classes to make the 4:30 or 5:00 bus back. Altogether I spent at least four hours a day commuting, ugh.

BUT . . . my family made up for whatever exhaustion and grumpiness the commuting aroused in me. My mother (to the left), Lebogang, is worthy of her name since it is derived from the Setswana leboga "to thank", something which I cannot do enough of for her. Tumi, my 12-year old younger brother, attached himself to me as tight as a Kalahari barnacle but as an only child, I understood his want for companionship perfectly.

While Tumi's love for WWE championship wrestling didn't quite mesh with my interest in French expressionism, my astonishing ability to give him piggy-backs and watch Jean Claude van Damme movies without falling asleep ensured instant success with the kid. Throughout the week, we spent a lot of time meeting all of the relatives. My mom has one brother and is herself one of five girls. Adding a certain historicity to her house, my mom hung up decades-old pictures of her family.

My new home for the week was a simple concrete home with a porch, a large living room fully furnished with satellite TV, a kitchen (without a sink), and four bedrooms. The bathroom you ask? Why, the pit latrines outside. The running water? Why, the spigot out back. Hot water? That's what happens after you boil the water from the spigot out back. Bathing in the morning was more or less me sitting in a plastic tub (sorry for the PG-13 image that conjures) splashing water over myself and the floor.

I only make a point of the water situation because there I was the son of a plumber in the least plumbed of houses. Not to mention garbage disposal consisted of throwing the garbage on a pile in the back yard hidden by trees. (The grandson and nephew of garbage men that I am, How did I find this house?) I jokingly told my mom that my whole family would be better off in Minnesota since they'd be unemployed here.

Despite the village's modest size (around 40,000 Mochudi-ans), it felt quite small and the pace of life made Gaborone feel like a bee hive of activity in comparison. My home sat along a great expanse of floodplain, making the views and walk to the bus stop extremely verdant and truly breathtaking. While everyone I met, and those with whom I only had passing conversation using my ice-breaking Setswana phrases, was very welcoming, I was still met with the most penetrating stares since my arrival at UB. Not too many Americans, i.e. whites, pass through town and very rarely do you see them walking alone and taking local transport or back-alley paths. And we were often alone since every CIEE student lived in different households throughout the village, so there was no accidental run-ins between us. My time with my family was largely constrained during the week due to my traveling and classes at UB, but in the evenings, family life revolved around cooking, eating, washing and most importantly, South African soap operas. More specifically: Generations, Scandal, and Rhythm City. Strangely enough, living in the village afforded me my first opportunity to freely watch television. But make no mistake, lugging water around in five-gallon buckets all day made up for whatever relaxation I gained on the couch.

Sunday is church day, and in fact, one of the Setswana words for Sunday is simply church, Tshipi. Right on time for me here, we showed up about an hour late to church this past Sunday. This week was a local revival for several of the Dutch Reform congregations in Mochudi. Long story short, the Dutch settlers-cum-Boers brought with them their own brand of Protestantism into the northern part of South Africa, near the border with Botswana, where it crossed with the help of the migration of the local tribes. The revival was not quite the Bible Belt experience I had anticipated, but it was filled with spontaneous four-part harmonic singing. It was one of the most moving musical moments or moments musicaux (excessive alliteration, completely unintended) of my life. Three non-stop hours of dancing, singing, clapping, and complete joy.

Ernest Hemingway prefaced his accounts of life in 1920's Paris with the following: "For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and some were known by everyone . . ."

There is no way to recount everything I've done in Mochudi, or in Botswana for that matter, in this blog. I hope, however, that it will provide material for many stories to come when I'm back stateside.

12 March 2009

Heading to the Village

One component of the CIEE-Botswana program that aims to immerse us in Setswana culture and language is a home stay in a nearby village of Gaborone. We learned a while ago that our home stay would be in the village of Mochudi, which is approximately 35 kilometers north of Gaborone. Now while we have already been to Mochudi, our visit was limited to the Phuthadikobo Museum, which has an extensive web site. As I've noted in an earlier blog, Mochudi is well known for its strong ties to traditional ways, including a kgotla (the village meeting place where communal decisions are made) and brightly painted houses.

We leave this Saturday for Mochudi on an 8 am shuttle, and will remain there all of next week until the following Sunday. This translates numerically to the 14th until the 22nd. On the weekdays we will still have to come to classes at UB, which should be very fun considering every day my classes start at 8 in the morning. Considering it's over an hour each way, I will be waking up with the sun and roosters to catch the combi in to town.

This small detail doesn't bother me all that much, as almost all the CIEE students have class that early, so we can commiserate in our Politics and Poverty of Southern Africa class. Today, I found out who my host family is, and somehow in a country with a fertility rate hovering around three children per mother, I was placed with a mother and her 12-year old son. Do not take this the wrong way; I am ecstatic about the set up. As an only male child, I am sure that I will be able to get along with/understand my new host brother much better. Moreover, my host mom is a local teacher in Mochudi. I'm hoping her teaching skills extend to Setswana over family dinners; I am in sore need of practice!

I think many of us are dealing with mixed expectations vis-à-vis the homestay but now with our family's demographics in hand I think we can now construct a realistic expectation of the week-long experience. Plus, didn't I mention the view from the hill is amazing?
In other news, we had an unexpected and sad visit from Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in Gaborone. Here is a link to the tragic story about Tsvangirai's car accident which resulted in his hospitalization here in Botswana and his wife's death. Batsi, our CIEE director and Zimbabwean, returned from a trip home with both news and a surprise. Of the incident, he said the national mood is one of mourning and this event may have advanced the cause of the new unity government in ways unforeseen just days earlier.

The surprise was both welcome and, literally, completely worthless: a 50-billion Zimbabwe Dollar note for each of us. One could hardly buy a few text messages here with that.

Borrowing from Garrison Keillor, whose impression of Lake Wobegon is not too dissimilar to mine of Botswana: And that's the news from Gaborone, "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve . . . where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."