Welcome to Botswana!
This week begins a dive into Africa. As someone who occasionally describes myself as an Africanist, I have struggled a lot with combating the hegemonic invisibility of the continent to the western gaze. How can you study the tragedies and problems of a place without reducing it to its darkest moments? How can I bring back knowledge of a complicated and diverse place to my country, which often views 'Africa' as a remnant of a past the rest of the world has mercifully left behind? How to capture the delicate balance of progress and tradition, boundless hope and crushing despair I have encountered in my travels? How to explain the complexity of reality?
Botswana's capitol city: Gaborone
A Botswanan Landscape
Botswana, in my brief exploration of it, is a great example of this complexity. It is a country known for two things: disease and diamonds. At one point it held the world's highest rate of diamond production and percentage of the population with HIV – 37.9% of the population. This is almost impossible for me to imagine. What does having almost half the country ill with a potentially deadly disease really mean? It means a life expectancy of 46 years. It means every weekend had a funeral. It means a country of slowly dying orphans. It means death is always close, always waiting. For the healthy it means not just a burden of burying and mourning the dead, but of caring for the ill and the dying. I try to imagine myself in this situation - how would I live my life if I knew it was unlikely I and my friends would make it 40? Would I really devote half my precious years to schooling? Unlikely. Would I be cautious in love and family, or would I throw myself into it and try to live as much as I could before I died? Would I do everything I could to prolong my life, or would on some level I decide to die with those I love?
But in this desperate situation Botswana has managed to transform their natural resources into health for their citizens. Under President Festus Mogae Diamond wealth was transformed to free HIV medication. Botswana spends the most per person on health care of any African country, and pays for 70% of this without outside aid. Mother to infant transmission dropped to 4%. Life expectancy slowly increases. The ill and dying are able to return to their lives. Between their successful fight against aids, and a relatively stable political situation since independence, Botswana is largely considered an African success story. For more on the aids epidemic in Botswana, see this NPR story.
And yet, success is always measured. While Botswana has managed a sustained multiparty democracy since independence with no coups or civil wars, an political opposition leader recently died in a suspicious car crash. Botswana has also come under fire for forcing the last remaining Basarawa Bushmen off their ancestral lands to make way for diamond mining. And the wealth of diamonds, which has staved off death for the majority, has not yet brought them wealth. While Botswana qualifies as an 'upper middle income country' it has one of the highest inequality rates in the world as diamond wealth collects in the urban upper class. Death. Wealth. Prosperity. Tradition. Modernity. Democracy. Corruption. Life. Hope. Is this Africa?
This week I read literature centered around Botswanan woman, and concerns which had little to do with death or diamonds. It was a humanizing reminder that despite these flashy issues, many the daily trouble we face around the world are the same. Unfaithful men. Raising children. How to keep a family together when work forces you apart. I read "The No. One Ladies Detective Agency" - a cute mystery novel, and a beautiful short story called “The Collector of Treasures” by Botswanan author Bessie Head. It is well worth the few minutes it will take to read it. You can read the full story here
I also tried making Botswanan cabbage! (Am I doing a culinary cabbage tour of the world? Maybe.) You can try the recipe here!
For more on Botswana in general, as always, I recommend the BBC country profile as a good place to start.