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."

11 March 2009


I apologize for my dismal updating this past week. It should have been a great time to catch up on different aspects of life in Botswana, but I blame the heat for my laziness. That or I am picking up the African ability to spend hours doing nothing and enjoy it. While I have a couple more substantial blogs coming up answering your questions, I thought I would share a few pictures of campus and the surroundings for your enjoyment. You may be wondering where the students are. I took these pictures early in the morning and in the evening, when campus is literally empty. Someday I'll be touristy enough to pull out the camera during the day. No worries. Cheers!

A sunset over the sparse Gaborone skyline
A view of the student center, with our dorms right behind the clock tower.

The UB Library, one of the most complete in all of Africa. The small buildings in front are normal classroom buildings.

A typical undergraduate dorm, with the ubiquitous red and white color schemeThe "Graduate Village" as Block 417 is so affectionately known. This is what I call home here at UB. Each suite consists of six singles, a shower, a toilet, and a combined kitchen/common area. It's a better set-up than most of us have at our American universities, believe it or not.


03 March 2009

What's on your mind?

While brushing my teeth, a time of much prodigious thought for me, it occurred to me that I should ask you what YOU want to know. From me, about Botswana, that is.

It's all fair game.

All you have to do is leave me a question in the comment space or in an email. I hope this experiment works and just to make sure it does, I will invoke the great Setswana call for luck, rain, money, etc:


Wait, there aren't Barnes & Nobles in Africa?

Despite the lack of in-store Starbucks serving caramel macchiatos, the bookstores have some interesting selections: Criminal Law of Botswana, Setswana-English phrasebooks and the latest from Robert Ludlum of "Bourne Identity" fame. While I have not been reading nearly as quickly as I'd like, (the heat sure takes a lot out of me during the day) I have made significant progress on a number of books. This blog will give my take, thus far, on a number of books and a few CD's from and about Africa.

First up on the review is Martin Meredith's "Mugabe: Power, Plunder and the Struggle for Zimbabwe". I just finished it tonight and it was like everything else I've read by Meredith: straightforward, accessible, and concise. With people already familiar with Meredith's subject matter, it will probably not be of great use, but as a Zimbabwe crisis primer, it's indispensable. The 2007 update of the original 2002 edition only proves how hopelessly stagnant the situation is next door to Botswana. Check it out on Amazon.

The first president of Botswana was at one time exiled before independence. Why? Because he married a white woman. Susan Williams' "Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and his Nation" follows the star-crossed marriage of Seretse and Ruth Khama when Botswana was still Bechuanaland, a British protectorate. Their marriage was condemned by apartheid South Africa and nearly caused conflict between the UK and South Africa. Williams' writing is extremely well-researched, lucid and surprisingly riveting. Khama remains a great figure in Botswana and knowing his story is knowing Botswana's. Available here.

Like geology? Agriculture? Economics? There is little that is not covered John Reader's encyclopedic and almost self-aggrandizing "Africa: A Biography of the Continent". The 682-page tome includes chapters like "Zulu Myth and Realities", "Bananas and Cattle", and "The Invention of Africa". Each chapter is nearly self-contained, and chock-full of fascinating facts. What sets this project apart, however, is that the majority of the book is about Africa before formal colonialism began in the 1880's. Reader pushes us to explore the history of a continent long before military coups were the norm, while simultaneously dispelling myths of a pastoral Arcadia. Mosquitos and elephants have determined the farming patterns of Africans for centuries, hampering local economies long before IMF structural adjustment loans existed. For those willing brave enough to tackle this behemoth biography, it's well worth it.

The only novel I've been reading here in Botswana, is actually Kenyan. Perhaps the country's most famous native son, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, was imprisoned as a political prisoner in the 1970's. His novels are snapshots and critiques of life and politics in Kenya and "Devil on the Cross" is no exception. In fact, according to legend, Ngugi wrote it on the prison's toilet paper. As I'm only halfway through I don't feel I can give it a just review. When I'm done, perhaps I will share some more thoughts.

What's this? You want to shake what your African mother gave you? Yes, music, the music of Mother Africa. While "house" music is the musique du jour here in Botswana, most of us Americans find the heavy beats and techno-feel a bit overwhelming, leaving us reaching for the Advil. But just as hip-hop does not need to define American music, "house" music is only one facet of a continent known for its complicated rythyms and musicality.

First off, two African giants are worth listening to no matter which CD you find: Miriam Makeba, of South Africa, and Youssou N'Dour, of Senegal. Along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, also from South Africa, these African artists have made a name for contemporary African music in the wider world. Now for more of my finds while here in Botswana . . .

South African music is huge in this country. There are a multitude of reasons for this. Botswana's small population and economy have always been tightly linked to South Africa, and the large musical output coming from Jo-burg to Cape Town is no match for the up-and-comers from Gaborone. It is no surprise, then, that one can hear Brenda Fassie, the so-called Queen of African Pop, on any radio station. One of my favorites is her track "Nomakanjani", although many locals prefer her big hits like "Weekend Special". The latter I heard while on my bus ride from Kasane to Francistown and couldn't resist humming along. I'm finally fitting in . . .

Yet another South African musical invader is the township music out of Johannesburg. With a long history stretching back before the student riots in Soweto, township music has undergone many transformations from a laid-back, reggae-like feel to the more contemporary kwaito. Some artists on my compilation include Chirro, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and Cijamlenze Nkwanyana. If you've ever seen a documentary of Hollywood film about Africa, watch the scene where the journalist is driving in a cramped bus, and this is inevitably the soundtrack.

Up last is local hit, Captain Dira, whose new album "Ke Itse Keje" is advertised everywhere in town. Against traditional African gospel harmony and whistles, Captain Dira takes on difficult relationship issues and social vices like drugs. Now only if I knew enough Setswana to understand the lyrics, I am sure the contrast between the words and the upbeat music would be fascinating. Alas, tis not the case.

More so than any other post, the hyperlinks here are very useful. Much of this music is hard to buy in the US, and so I encourage you to waste away a day at work on Youtube, clicking, clicking, clicking away! And while you're at it, get up, and shake what this traditional Setswana mother gave ya.