Gaborone is on a plane, arid streets spread out in a horizontal sprawl. Houses in varying shades of brown and orange are fortresses: 6 foot concrete walls, topped with electric wires, metal gates with infrared sensors in front of the driveways. Most of the day the city feels strangely empty, especially after four months in a country where a neighborhood may have people than all of Botswana, but at 6 PM traffic is so bad one is lucky to cover 7 kilometers in 45 minutes. If you look in the Lonely Planet guide to Gabs it says “There aren’t many reasons to come here – it’s a world of government ministries, shopping malls and a seemingly endless urban sprawl, which is why most travellers either fly to Maun or cross overland elsewhere.” Maybe a little harsh, but when some friends went to the tourist office to ask what there is to do, the woman behind the desk said “Not much.”
There are habits I am having to unlearn. Americans in Botswana are considered “too energetic and rude” according to my host. Greetings are important, as is chewing the fat and generally taking a more lackadaiscal attitude towards life. I jump in forgetting hello all the time. At one point I was visiting a pay-to-use bathroom. I rush in, ask how much it is. The woman behind the counter is a little taken aback, says three pula. I slap it down, she slides it behind the glass and looks up with an over-the-top, mocking smile: “Good morning!” I’m chagrined, on my way out we chat for five minutes. Another time, I see a man outside a public bathroom 1 asking people something as they walk past. Trained by Indian panhandlers, I say “no” as he mutters to me and stonewall him. Once inside, I discover none of the toilets have paper. I see him walking in as I walk out, a roll in his hand. He makes eye contact, gives a little smile, lifts up the roll. My instincts from four months in India aren’t working so well.
The flat layout of the city is built for cars, so the options available to me are either a combi, a van of 15 seats that runs in a set loop, or a cab. The combi routes are nominally online, but what and where they run seems to vary based on the availability of drivers. Plus, the driver’s play games of pool while they wait until the combi is completely filled before leaving the central hub, making it a tough method for someone on a tight schedule. A cab, on the other hand, will show up to a location somewhere between 5 minutes and an hour, and cost about ten times as much. So regardless of what one does, there’s a lot of waiting involved.
This was nice for my first couple weeks here. Coming from India, I had learned to accommodate the constant presence of people, a guarded attitude towards interactions with strangers, but it had left me worn out. But this laidback attitude also filtered into project work. I accidentally arrived labor day weekend with a handful of phone numbers, but I found everyone’s schedules filled up by the short week. Delays and dropped phone calls and meetings canceled on short notice are the norm.
At one point I spent a day trying to contact a woman at a hospice who had “just stepped out,” when the hospice’s fax line kept cutting into the conversation, giving me flashbacks to the dial-up sound of my early childhood. Finally getting in touch with her secretary, I find she stepped out and didn’t come back. But once you do get ahold of someone and nail down a time, everyone is extremely gracious. Busy people make time out of their day, and do their best to set up connections down the line. Their pace may not be what I’m used to, but neither is the generosity.
What I take and publish from those conversations is a bit of a balancing act. I’ve always brushed off the description of the Watson as research. There’s no peer review in the process, I’m only evaluating myself. But here there’s the additional consideration that to do research requires a research permit, something I don’t have and don’t have time to acquire. As a sub-Saharan nation of 2 million people with a reputation for stability and relative wealth, it has attracted outsized international research attention. There’s a desire in the government to try to control the narrative published outside, and many communities are small enough that one article can be used to identify who made individual comments. For example, there is one palliative doctor for the country. It’s pretty easy to track things back to her without too much effort. So, I’m going to be careful in the subjects I explore and how I explore them to avoid getting anyone in trouble. This is part of my reasoning for not writing much in my first month here.
It’s also strange traveling in a country where English is regularly spoken after spending so long in spaces where it’s secondary at best. Don’t get me wrong, being an English speaker is a huge leg up anywhere in the world, but Botswana is the first space I’ve been in since Scotland where I can ask anyone a question and be sure I’ll get an answer. It changes my orientation to the place, in good ways and bad. Before I left, a friend gave me the book “Leaving Atocha Station.” The narrator travels to Spain to write a historical poem on a generous grant from a foundation. I would like to believe I’m less of a dirtbag than him, but there are plenty of sections that twist in my gut: “As we walked through the Reina Sofía I would offer up unconjugated sentences or sentence fragments in response to paintings that she then expanded and concatenated into penetrating observations about line and color, art and institutions, old world and new, or at least I imagined those expansions…Of course we engaged in our share of incidental talk, but our most intense and ostensibly intimate interactions were the effect of her imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force.” While he uses that ambiguity as a seduction method, I found the gap between language and understanding an impetus for analysis in India. Conversations failing to fall into predictable patterns forced reconsideration. In Botswana, the clarity and matter-of-factness tempts me to take interviews at face value. After so many encounters with this subject, I imagine I’ve heard it all.
Another reason for my sloth is what I think of as the 2/3rd semester feeling, at the time when the initial excitement has faded but I’m not quite in the desperate rush to wrap things up at the end. Factor in the difficulty of exploring the country and the fact I was pickpocketed,2 and the challenge of self-motivating begins to seem insurmountable.
But I kept going to meetings and writing things down and typing up notes and poking around and it turns out that there’s a lot here.3 I’m trying to pull this stuff together, find out the questions I want to explore for my last two months of the Watson, not fall victim to ennui and the illusion that after so much traveling, I’ve seen it all.
1.why are bathrooms the center of my cultural incompetency?↩
2. Okay, the story in brief. I was out for a night with some new friends and then discovered that my wallet had disappeared. Reported to the police and hotel we were at. It was an interesting contrast, the anger I felt at people taking my wallet, and the kindness expressed by all the people who stopped their night out to see if we could find it. We didn’t, and because of another long and complicated story, I’ve been waiting for my bank cards for the last couple weeks. ↩
3. Obviously. ↩