Greetings Batswana, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Carter Rubin. I am a Political Science student from the United States currently participating in a four month cultural exchange program in Botswana. For the next month, I will be interning at The Sunday Standard and the editor, Rra Mokone, has asked me to share with you my experiences so far in Botswana.
To begin, let me just explain why I decided to come here in the first place. At my university, Pitzer College, which is located near Los Angeles, California, I had a chance to study Botswana as well as many other countries in Africa and around the world.
It seemed that every day we would learn about another country that was overwhelmed by corruption, civil unrest, and a host of other chronic problems. Yet when we studied Botswana, the story was different. Here was a country with a history of peaceful democracy and prudent resource management. Sadly, the American media often emphasizes Sub-Saharan Africa’s problems, and not its promising success stories.
As a politics student, I found the Botswana exception to be fascinating. So on a calculated whim, I decided to come here hoping to better understand how Botswana managed to avoid many of the problems that have plagued former European colonies throughout the world.
Along with eight fellow American students, I arrived on August 15th after a 24 hour flight that took me from my home in Los Angeles, across the US to Georgia, across the Atlantic Ocean to Senegal, down to Johannesburg, and then finally to Gaborone. Three different planes and three stops along the way. For the first month each of us stayed with a Batswana host-family in the village of Mmankgodi where we studied Setswana.
Ee, ke itsa Setswana, mme eseng thata.
Being immersed in Botswana life helped me learn the customs quickly, as there were always plenty of kind bo-mmemogolo to greet as I walked to and from class. Additionally, I attended weddings and funerals, trying to absorb as much culture and tradition as I could during those special occasions.
I even saw a cow slaughtered. This was a shocking first for me. Because, living in a city in America, people are usually so far removed from the source of their meat. We just buy it from the shop without ever thinking about where it came from. Having been to my host-brother’s cattle post, I certainly gained an appreciation of how much effort Batswana put into raising their cattle, and how important dikgomo are to Tswana society and culture.
After leaving Mmankgodi in mid September, I spent three weeks in Molepolole living with another Batswana family and volunteering at Scottish Livingstone Hospital. The day I arrived for work was the very day that the brand new facility opened and things were expectedly hectic. It’s a monolithic sandstone and reflective glass structure that sits on top of a hill. You can see it from almost anywhere in town.
My initial reaction was of excitement to see the government investing so heavily in the healthcare. But by the end of my internship, I became concerned that the money invested in the hospital was not used as effectively as it could have been. I recall specifically one doctor’s lament that there was no CT scanner at Scottish Livingstone and that referrals to Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone were continually backed up about three weeks.
It is truly unfortunate that such a vital tool is effectively unavailable to residents of Kweneng East, due to the long wait at Princess Marina and the difficulties many face in transportation to Gabs and back. No doubt, having a well stocked hospital (in terms of equipment and staff) is more important than having a beautiful looking building. There are a couple of pertinent axioms at play here ÔÇô don’t judge a book by its cover; don’t judge people by their appearances, but by the content of their character, and so on. The moral is: what’s on the inside matters.
That, and there was no soap in the public bathrooms at any point during my three weeks. This is absurd (somewhat hypocritical) when you consider that national healthcare is built upon certain foundations like good nutrition and sanitation.
However, I am not trying to give the impression that I came to Botswana only to point a finger at its problems, or just as important, that I do not hold the same critical lens to my own country. The US is so flawed that it makes me dizzy, then angry, then nauseous, then motivated ÔÇô and rarely in that order. I’m an equal opportunity criticizer at heart. I do it because I truly believe that quality criticism is crucial for the health of any good government and society, as long as it is done constructively. But back to my trip…
After Molepolole, all of my fellow students and I traveled north for a week long study trip to Kasane and Chobe. I have seen some beautiful places in my life, but nothing can prepare you for seeing an elephant for the first time ÔÇô let alone a hundreds of them unwinding around a watering hole after a long day of being enormous, which seems really exhausting.
Seeing such an incredible place made me very hopeful for what tourism could bring to Botswana’s economy. I kept thinking of ideas for local businesses that could compliment the requisite lodges and safari outfitters: furniture making using local wood, ceramic dishware, etc. Some things really do not need to be imported from South Africa.
The great thing about tourism is that, unlike diamond mining, it can be done sustainably. But to do so requires a lot of both citizens and government. Firstly, we all need a collective sense of responsibility towards our environment ÔÇô let’s treat it like our home, because it’s the only one we have. And if that fails on occasion, there needs to be an effective regulatory system; laws that have “teeth,” so that if you break them, you get “bitten.” Or better still, we don’t break them in the first place, because the likelihood and consequences of getting caught are too great.
In particular, proper waste management, which I’ve noticed has been so lacking in Botswana, is absolutely crucial for the long term health of the environment, and by extension, the success of nature-based tourism. In Chobe National Park, I watched in mute horror as one of our guides burned our empty plastic bottles sending toxic plastic fumes into the air and ash into the soil. One time may not seem like much, but it adds up quickly. And before you know it, the water is so polluted that it makes the animals sick.
And don’t let me say that without pointing the finger back at myself and my country too. We almost killed off our national icon, the Bald Eagle, whose importance is like that of the Zebra to Botswana. It soars across our currency and the jerseys of our sports teams ÔÇô its symbol is ubiquitous. But a few decades ago, the pesticides we used on our crops were destroying their eggs and it took until the bird was nearly extinct before we changed our ways. I just hope this beautiful country can learn from and avoid the countless mistakes that countries around the world have made in the name of Development, Progress, and Profit.
But right now, I am not in America with her Eagle-blazoned dollars, I am living in Botswana with her Zebra-crested pula. And it dawns on me now that I do not know what “Ipeleleng” means, so I’ll have to ask someone right away.
I have spent the last four weeks here in Gaborone with my third host-family, who, like my last two families in Mmankgodi and Molepolole, are tremendously nice and caring people for whom I will be forever grateful.
I look forward to this next month of interning for The Sunday Standard; it will be my last in Botswana this time around. Maybe I can make it back for 2016 ÔÇôhere’s hoping. But above all, I hope that, when my trip here is over, I will be able to leave with a sincere understanding of the country that has been kind enough to adopt me. Ke a leboga. Re tlaa bonana beke e e tlaang.