2000s Archive

Amazing Grace

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The president is a courteous, highly intelligent man, easy to talk to. I think: This is the man who runs the most highly respected democracy in Africa. This is the man whose country produces the largest portion of the world’s diamonds. This is the man whose domain extends over the vast spaces of the Kalahari. Whenever I see such people close-up—which is not all that often—I find myself thinking about what they can do, about what they have to do. Perhaps presidents themselves do not dwell too much on such things; they, too, have their small talk. We have been served fillet steak from Botswana cattle, one of the country’s most important exports and a highly prized one as well—cattle here eat nothing but grass, and the beef is sweet and tender. The president certainly enjoys the beef. He tells me, “I am a quick eater, you know,” and smiles. By all reports he is a kind, cautious man—just like his country—and that is how he strikes me now.

The next day, we go out to Mokolodi, a small game reserve about half an hour’s drive from Gaborone. We drive out through the streets of the capital, past rich houses with walls around them, past poor houses with rickety outdoor latrines and corrugated iron roofs at odd angles, and then we are on the road to the south, the road to Lobatse. Above us, at the edge of the town, is Kgale Hill, with its litter of granite boulders perched one atop the other. I remember the line I chose for the very beginning of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.” I had been unable to resist the reference to that wonderful first line of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” That line, and the first few pages of Dinesen’s book, in my mind, say everything that there is to be said about the outsider’s encounter with the beauty of Africa, and the ache and longing to which it seems to give rise.

Mokolodi is a tiny part of Botswana’s plan to protect its wildlife. It is a small reserve, taking in a fold of hills and a plain, but it provides an easily accessible slice of typical Botswana thorn-tree landscape. We stop our jeep at the top of one of the hills and look out over the rolling bush. This is a country of wide spaces. Fifty miles away to the west is the Kalahari, and, sitting on this hill, I remember last year, when I went out with two friends into the Kalahari proper and how we sat at night around our campfire and shivered from the desert cold. Our meal was again Botswana beef, cooked by being wrapped in foil and buried in the sand at the bottom of the fire. When the fire was doused and there was darkness, we saw above us a canopy of stars so numerous, so bright, that it seemed like a blanket of white.

There are, of course, far more impressive places for seeing game than Mokolodi. In the north of Botswana, particularly around the Okavango Delta, there is still room for vast herds of elephants, room for the Kalahari lion, room for the game that is increasingly threatened in so many other parts of the continent. And these great spaces are never far away. Even in Gaborone, one has the feeling that one is on the edge of the emptiness.

Visitors to Botswana frequently are reluctant to leave. They like the pace of life, they like the sense of being in an unsullied place. They like the good humor and kindness they encounter; kindness that is often shown by those who have very little in their lives but who are still so generous-spirited.

On Friday, my last day, I go to the Maru-a-Pula school, to the office of David Slater, the organizer of the local arts festival. Slater, a South African who has lived in Botswana for decades, and who directs a choir here, tells me that he has found a young man who is a promising guitarist but who cannot afford a guitar. The young man is in the room. A friend has purchased a guitar for him and he is presented with it. He cannot believe his unexpected good fortune and lovingly strokes the polished wood of the instrument. Then he looks up at the sky and bursts into song. There is no hesitation—just sheer joy. When he has finished, he performs an impromptu dance. Later, when I am about to leave, I see him in the director’s office, hugging his new guitar. He waves good-bye. Africa breaks the heart. It breaks it.

And then I am back at the airport. Our plane lifts up into the air and the acacia trees become small, and the hills behind us, changing slowly to blue, fade into the sky.

Staying There

The Gaborone Sun
Chuma Drive, Gaborone (011-267-39-51-11-1; www.suninternational.com; from $172)

The Grand Palm Hotel Casino Resort
Molepolole Road, Gaborone (011-267-36-37-77-7; grandpalm.bw; from $138)

President Hotel
Botswana Road, Gaborone (011-267-39-53-63-1; cresta-hospitality.com; from $121)

Eating There

Molapo Crossing Mall, Gaborone (37-10-09-6)

The Original Fishmonger
Riverwalk Mall, Gaborone (37-00-11-8)


African Horseback Safaris
(011-267-68-63-15-4; safaris@africanhorseback.com) Riders must be competent.

Wilderness Safaris
(wilderness-safaris.com; tours are booked through tour operators such as Classic Africa, 888-227-8311)

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