2000s Archive

Amazing Grace

Originally Published August 2005
A week in Botswana is a homecoming of sorts—to dinners under a jacaranda tree, to boundless skies and optimism.

I like small planes, and now I am in one, the aircraft’s nose tilting slightly down toward the ground below. Botswana is beneath us, stretching out like a sea, the land interrupted here and there by little hills, like islands.

It is the end of the wet season, such as it is, and heavy clouds have drifted in from the east. As we descend, we pass through shifting veils of rain. The ground, the red earth, shows signs of the rainfall. There are shimmering patches of water at the edge of the fields, between the umbrella shapes of the acacia trees, the thorn trees that dot the countryside as far as the eye can see. There are tiny cattle; there is a boy driving goats along a track. And then we are landing at Gaborone, and the plane taxis toward the building with its sign, “Sir Seretse Khama International Airport.”And I think of what this name means: Sir Seretse Khama, first president of Botswana, paramount chief of the Bangwato people; the man who married an Englishwoman for love and who was exiled by the British government in an egregious example of shabby colonial dealing; the man who came back and built this country.

I walk across the tarmac under the soft, warm rain. Botswana is a dry country, and the rains this year have been late and are insufficient for the annual planting. To arrive in wet weather, though, is good luck, and people are smiling. There is a form to be filled in and temptation to be resisted. In reply to the question as to why one has come to Botswana, one could write: “Because it is a good place, and the people are kind, and the landscapes take the breath away.” But forms are no place for such flights of fancy, and so I tick that short, inadequate word: tourism.And then I am ushered into the country and met by friends. Nobody seems to arrive ungreeted at small airports like this, just as nobody seems to leave without a party of people waving good-bye. My hostess is waiting for me: She is the wife of a doctor who has lived here a large part of his life. He is a direct descendant of the missionary Robert Moffat, who first rendered the local language, Setswana, into writing and whose daughter married David Livingstone. We drive to their home, a sprawling colonial-era house in a garden dominated by a great jacaranda tree. It is surrounded by cool verandas and has an old, broad-planked floor that creaks as one treads upon it. From the window in my room, I look up into the sky, into an emptiness of attenuated blue. I feel strangely sad. I have come back to a country with which I have had a love affair for more than 20 years. And a love affair with a country, like any love affair, can make one feel sad, just as it can make one feel happy or content.

Unlike so many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Botswana was founded on very strong principles; right from the beginning, it stood for something. When what was then the Bechuanaland Protectorate achieved independence from Britain in 1966, the country had a handful of schools, a few miles of tarred road, and not much else. As first president of the new country, Seretse Khama made it clear that Botswana would be dedicated to ideals of racial cooperation and sound governance. Shortly afterward, diamonds were discovered, which was a matter of great good fortune, as it enabled the new government to build schools and houses and hospitals. In some other African countries, mineral wealth went straight into the pockets of politicians; this never happened in Botswana, where the country’s riches were used wisely and cautiously. But it was not just good government that gave the country its characteristic feel; there was also something more profound, more deep-rooted. That something was a natural courtesy and consideration—humanistic values—which seemed to survive the transition from a quiet rural society to one of growing towns and settlements. Botswana, quite simply, was, and is, a good place.

Monday, and the day after my arrival: A charity breakfast is served on the lawn of the wife of a local judge. This is for the benefit of a hospice, a small but important part of the battle against the AIDS pandemic that is stalking Africa. The house at which the breakfast is held has large gardens, all planted with succulents that can cope with the country’s dryness. Some of these are in bloom: bright colors against green—gray waxy leaves. There are 80 people—mostly expatriate women, diplomats, wives of foreign businessmen—and they have come to hear me talk about my Botswana novels in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Trevor Mwamba, the Anglican Bishop of Botswana, introduces me. Two years ago, I found myself sitting next to him at a dinner party, and now he is a friend. One can come to this country and make friends so easily. Everyone, or almost everyone, here seems to have the time to converse, and there is still a sincerity in personal encounters that we seem to be losing in our somewhat distracted societies.

The following night, the current president comes to dinner at the Moffat house. A table is laid out on the lawn, under the jacaranda tree, and candles are placed along its length. Underneath, slow-burning mosquito coils are lit; their tiny wisps of smoke will swirl protectively around the vulnerable ankles of the guests. At six o’clock, the president’s security men arrive and sit in a row under the tree, chatting in Setswana. Then, an hour later, when the 20 or so guests have arrived, a sleek green Bentley purrs up the driveway and Festus Mogae, third president of the Republic of Botswana, arrives for dinner.

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