In 1989, when I learned I would be going to a country in Africa to teach science for two years, I was like most Americans. I could point to the continent of Africa on a map. I could probably find South Africa. But if you held a gun to my head and asked me to list five out of the 50 odd countries on the continent, I’m afraid you’d have had to shoot me. When I was told I’d be going to Botswana, I said, ‘Where?’
Before leaving, I read everything I could find, which wasn’t much. I found out it was a small country the size of Texas located in southern Africa, bordered by South Africa to the south and east, Namibia to the west and Zimbabwe and a smidgeon of Zambia to the north. It was rich in diamonds and wildlife, and poor in rainfall. The colonial name was Bechuanaland.
So I boarded a plane heading south. I’d never travelled before. I come from a sub-working class family who were the recipients of the canned goods and the frozen turkey the church collected at Christmas time. Travelling was so far down the list of priorities it fell off the page, never to be seen again.
When I went for my interview with the volunteer organization that sent me to Botswana, the man told a defeated me: ‘I doubt they’ll choose you.’ ‘Why?’ I asked desperately. ‘Most people who have never travelled before tend to ET.’ ‘ET?’ ‘Early termination,’ he said, nodding his head.
Nevertheless, they let me through and I arrived in Botswana in July 1989, very tired and blurry-eyed, but as excited as a 25-year-old woman could be. After a few weeks in the south, I was posted to Mahalapye, a large village in the Central District halfway up the main road, on the eastern side of the country, where the majority of the people live.
I was posted to a brand-new junior secondary school. In 1989, schools in the country were popping up like dandelions. At independence in 1966, there had been only three secondary schools in the entire country; when I arrived there were about 200 – that’s about nine secondary schools built every year. The government had loads of diamond money and was using it to educate its citizens and to keep them healthy (clinics were also being built at the same astounding rate). I was surprised at how modern my new school was. The laboratory was well equipped with everything a science teacher might need. We didn’t have electricity yet, as there was often a lag in the implementation of the stages in a particular development, but we managed.
When I was told I‘d be going to Botswana, I said, ‘Where?’
Mahalapye is named after the almost always dry river that runs through the village, the Mahalatswe River (Mahalapye being the British way of pronouncing it). It started as a stop for the South African Railways trains heading north. People living in the village in those early days used to call it Ko Diponeng, the place of lights, because the railway station was the only place outside of Lobatse, a town in the south nearly on the border with South Africa, which had electric lights. A friend of mine, who has lived in Mahalapye all his life, told me that when they were young they thought those lights had special qualities. They used to go to the railway station to watch their shirts change colours under the lights which were fitted with bulbs of different colours.
The Mahalapye I live in now is quite modern. We have two sets of traffic lights. The headquarters of the national Botswana Railways, a three-storey building with an old train engine out in front, is now in Mahalapye. We have three banks, quite a few shopping malls with modern grocery stores. And we have plenty of electricity; young boys no longer go searching for lights to laugh at how they change the colour of their shirts.
Initially when I was brought to Mahalapye, I was supposed to stay for two years; 22 years later and I still haven’t succumbed to the pull of an ET. Perhaps I’m stubborn. More likely there was something about this place – this dry, dusty place – that suited me.