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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.

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)