New Internationalist

Letter from Botswana: beautiful blue

November 2012

Wame Molefhe describes her joy as the first rains chase winter away.

This column was published in the November issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Susan had come to Botswana from England to work as an engineering consultant on a water development project. Right through the winter months, when she arrived at the office, she stood at the window through which you could see Gaborone’s city centre. I thought she was admiring the newly refurbished Onion Tower that stored the city’s drinking water; or perhaps she was studying the shiny, modern-looking structure where Botswana’s diamonds were sifted and sorted; once in a while she seemed to smile at some private joke. Maybe she was amused by the commotion that played out every morning at Gaborone’s newest, busiest set of traffic lights.

On the day the first rains arrived – a warm September morning – I searched for her at her vantage point but she was sitting at her desk, oblivious, it seemed, to the pull of the downpour. Standing where Susan usually stood was a Motswana draughtsman taking a break from drawing plans; I joined him at the window. ‘Finally, we can start to plough,’ he said. Together we watched workers scurrying across the road; a few carried umbrellas; most, caught unawares by the storm, ran for cover under bus shelters. There may have been a few complaints, but they were drowned out by pleasure that others in the office expressed. We stepped away from the window to get on with the day’s work. All morning it rained. Pula ya sephai (steady, gentle rain): the drops slapped the ground, settled the August dust and chased winter away.

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In a country where the Kgalagadi desert covers 84 per cent of the land, and prolonged periods of drought occur, it is not surprising that summer is awaited with impatience: not only does it confirm the end of the dry winter, it also holds the promise of rain. The word ‘pula’ is woven into the Setswana language and holds so many meanings. ‘Pula’ names our currency; it is a word that is used to welcome visitors; it also bids them goodbye. ‘Pula!’ is a word of triumph that often begins and ends political speeches, prayers, wherever people gather.

Illustration: Sarah John
Illustration: Sarah John

In days gone by, the first summer rains were the trigger for the start of the ploughing season. The able-bodied were expected to leave their homesteads for the farmlands where they would plant the crops that would feed the entire village. Once the seeds were safely in the soil, more rain was awaited – a rain different from pula ya sephai. It was hoped that the rain that came would be pula ya medupe: steady drops that fell throughout the day and night, or pula e namagadi, a mothering rain that fell gently to nourish and nurture. We wished that it would not be the harsh pula ya matlakadibe that rained so hard and wild that it dug out the just-formed seedlings. Whatever the kind of rain that comes down, it paints the dry, golden landscape green.

The last day of September is Botswana’s Independence Day; the blue, black and white flag is flown like it first did in 1966. As the Union Jack descended and the blue, black and white Botswana flag ascended then, it had begun to rain. The blue background represents rain; in the centre two white lines enclose a black stripe: the colours remind us that our nation was built on the hope that ours would be a non-racial society upon which rain will fall on all – equally. Seeing the Botswana flag fluttering in the wind gave me hope, for there had already been warnings about how low dam levels were.

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But let me get back to Susan.

By the time the water project ended and the time came for her to return to England, we had become friends of a sort, enough to have moved beyond pleasantries to stories about what she had learnt during her time in Botswana and what I had learnt living in England. So I finally asked her: ‘All those days when you stood by the window, what were you looking at?’

‘The sun. There is no sun like the African sun.’

‘A break from the rain…’

We laughed.

On the day that Susan left for England, we traded gifts: I gave her a straw sunhat with a blue ribbon. She handed me a gentleman’s umbrella.

Wame Molefhe is a writer based in Gaborone, Botswana. Go Tell the Sun is her latest short-story collection.

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