Letter from Botswana

An argument hots up in the parking lot of a local shopping centre. When one of the combatants shouts, ‘Your mother’s...’ I brace for the last word (bound to be an anatomical reference) and flinch when it is shouted.

‘He insulted your mother?’ ‘Show him his mother.’

Those cries sound like a bell ringing to start a boxing match. The first fist is unleashed. Passers-by are jerked from their normal business; some watch in silence, a few bay for blood; others avert their eyes and walk quickly past. A woman shouts: ‘Stop them. Stop them, please.’ I turn away, thinking that it is a word – a careless, thoughtless word – that precipitated this violence. It is such words that negate my belief in botho. Botho is a principle that Batswana claim to hold dear; it is enshrined in Vision 2016.

The formulation of a national long-term strategy for Botswana, our Vision 2016 began in 1996 during a period of national introspection. The result was an expression of shared aspirations; a collective dream for Botswana that we said would be realized. We said we would cherish democracy, development, self-reliance, unity and botho. Botho encapsulates the spirit of oneness; it says that you will do unto others as you would have them do unto you; botho should breathe in our words, it should live in our deeds.

As a nation, we pledged allegiance to Vision 2016. We said we would become an educated, informed nation that would be prosperous, productive and innovative; we would be compassionate, just and caring; a safe and secure nation; open, democratic and accountable; moral and tolerant; and we would stand united and proud. 

Illustration: Sarah John

We had already set off on this journey, before it had been articulated in Vision 2016, when HIV/AIDS arrived in Botswana in 1983. We did not understand it then, but we persevered and, under President Festus Mogae, we established enlightened and sensitive ways to conquer this virus and save our nation. Vision 2016 says we will have access to health facilities located within a reasonable distance from our homes. We will be equipped to deal with unexpected epidemics and natural disasters. Adequate nutrition, quality sanitation and clean drinking water will be for all. We will halt the spread of HIV, and people with AIDS will have access to quality care in health facilities, in their community or workplace.

I believed Botswana was winning the battle against HIV. But the careless, thoughtless words in the parking lot reminded me that HIV is also still a swear word here. At times, I feel it is 1983 again. HIV lurks in the shadows, spoken of in hushed tones. Rumours, innuendo and stigma.

But this is 2013, I think.

We have a healthcare system that is free and available to all, but it is imperfect. When you wait 12 hours in an emergency reception before seeing a doctor, you learn patience. When a heartbeat monitor stops bleeping, you watch deadpan, as the nurse puts on his saddest face, wrings his hands together and offers his condolences. When the ‘dead’ patient, who has been breathing steadily throughout the performance, coughs it is hard not to laugh. It’s the machine that has died – not the person attached to it. Laughter is a good salve.

But laughter and tolerance run dry when you hear step-by-step instructions on how to care for someone who is being admitted to hospital. Bring a bucket to the hospital so you can bathe your patient. Bring sheets. Bring blankets if it is cold. Report to the ward every morning to wash and feed your patient. Doctor knows best. And the patients are reminded to take medicine with prayer – for it is God who heals.

And so, just when I think we are beating HIV, I realize that HIV is not yet ready to surrender. HIV is a swear word, for it is still hurled by those who have learnt nothing in the 30 years it has been in our midst. HIV is a swear word if it can still be used to tar and tarnish during a parliamentary debate on a Public Health Bill. HIV is a swear word still, if testing for HIV carries with it shame and fear. And so until the day that HIV is no longer a swear word, botho will just be a five-letter Setswana word, devoid of meaning.

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

Letter from Botswana: beautiful blue

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

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.