Environmental ruin can destroy Botswana in less than a century from now. But Batswana seem not to care. Many will not agree with me we’re right now preparing for that death, and not some prosperous future, that we must start right now to do things differently if we’re to procure any future at all!
Frequent, and common experience, especially floods, droughts and other pestilential plagues, teach us we should never allow our consciousness to be invaded, filled, and entirely absorbed by careless and ruinous development projects and social experiments. As a country we’re still in a very fragile waking state, that the relationships that hold us together, the relationships that tie us to the land, are irregular, and inconstant, that the national spirit that has taken hold of us for the last 50 years, can only be sustained to a certain extent, and that beyond a certain measure of proportion what we do with our land may lead to disintegration as well as sustained growth.
But we don’t listen. We prefer to muddle through historical experience without caution. We talk about tomorrow as if it already exists for us, ready-made for more careless use. We forget that tomorrow may never come, that human actions of today may be the ruin of the future. We forget a country, like a house, is a living machine, that it is very easy to reduce it to a dilapidated rusty shell. A country is both a mental and physical idea. The ideas that seize, fix and reshape a country are not always spontaneous productions. No! Building a country demand continuous and deliberate human effort and direction. But in Botswana re nwa magapo, re iketile. We even send people to parliament to play, to have fun. Nobody cares how the country is run. We only care about what it can give to us, now, in gargantuan abundance! We shall live to regret this complacent indifference. Personally, I don’t want to be around when the merry-go-round breaks down. Sadly, I fear my children may be victims to this impending night sun. I put down this record to absolve myself from the charge of ignorance of the reality of my generation and its contemporary world.
Far too many people assume once established and concretised as a physical entity the country will continually assert itself and make itself more resilient, and continually become more remarked, more respected, and more beautiful; how wrong they are! The strength and beauty of a country are contingent upon considerable pastoral care. It is not a product of chance. Acts of men are not acts of God; they lose their strength and beauty in no time. Any unfortunate person renovating a huge crumpling house right now at terrible expense will see immediately what I mean, and so will any official charged with maintaining of our physical infrastructure and national assets. Let’s stop playing God with our environment and natural resources. Though an act of man, the growth of a country, and its subtle system of rhythms, what laymen call development, far easily and more rapidly outlive understanding. General excitement can note, provoke and handle development projects but it’s never an easy thing to check the momentum of development, and this, I suspect is where we lose direction. Right now our government wants every Motswana to be an entrepreneur, to be involved in taking from the land as much as they like; the most ridiculous thing of course, but the reality is not one Motswana actually grasp the political madness that drives such an ideology; human greed and plain stupidity. So there are no jobs in Botswana, why not properly educate our children so they can find them elsewhere?
I have a hard time accepting any student who graduates from our universities, schools without even libraries and intellectual direction, are really educated people. I might be wrong but my guess is many of them have great trouble even making sense of what I’m writing here, and I’m not even a university professor-I’m just an average self-schooled amateur writer. Can these people lead this country into the future? I doubt it. Make no mistake about one thing, education is a thing supposed to keep on acquiring value even after classroom experience, anything that stops at the classroom door, or worse, is never experienced in the classroom itself, will never acquire even a small portion of this finite significance.
But educated voices, not just privileged noises-which are what you get from some of our universities, are essential for the life of a country. They add value and resonance to the national spirit. They do not only improve the quality of human experience but by expelling the world of crude noises from public space, these voices help define national values and guard against spontaneous actions that are ruinous to national growth and development.
You cannot run a country as if you’re editing some journal of a notorious woman. You cannot run a country by providing security to vice and hoping somehow in the end this rouge commercial culture will morph into human virtue. You cannot run a country by freely indulging in ceaseless pleasure of excess and exaggeration. The growth of a country is always constrained by circumstantial realism; a necessary restraint. I find the somnambulistic excess and gigantic emotional energy of that lot at government enclave frightening. I do not understand why a small and fragile country like Botswana should give license to a world of monstrous passions and nervous energy, why we should abandon the culture of ideal value that served our ancestors so well for thousands of years, why development must be turned into a cosmic farce, why moral magnificence should give way to public rot, why this devastating spectacle of human waste must be called development at
Yes, my brothers and sisters:
I returned to these our heretic mountains
And their pervading dignity
And in the mass of plaited serpents
Where lush forests used to stand
Sentinels to the music of human flesh
At the dead of cheap nights
And lions stand astounded
At the river of carcass for hounds
I found things no longer at ease
And tongues of the dumb
Lolling to the sound
Of black sunlight
I returned to these our heretic mountains
And where the village chief used to stand
After the burning grass
Share in the marabi dance
I found things falling apart
And the nation
The crucible of our fervent passions
One sullen house of hunger
And the children
By the season of migration to the north
At the height of the thirteenth sun
The treacherousness of the river between
And when I asked politely
Why the sudden ruin
Our irate black masters
God’s bits of wood
Locked me up
Fed me toads for supper
I returned to these our heroic mountains
The shrines where vaulting ambition
And the urn of joy originate
The heart of foolhardy deeds
Old village graveyards
Used to compel the spirit to live
Where ardent lads
Used to pluck petals of blood
Amid singing grass
And here I found
Where the interpreters
Used to argue
During a walk in the night
And women lock up doors
At the time of the butcherbird
Children born with great expectations
In hard times
For the harvest of dreams
Had turned their backs
Plunged the ant-hills of the Savannah
Into an immense
Heart of darkness
The bitter taste of liberty
In the long walk to freedom
It’s hard to say exactly what really happened to Botswana in the last fifty years.
What looks like a poem above is nothing but a mischievous weaving together of literary titles for novels, short stories and biography by leading names in African literature of the postcolonial period. Yes, just about all of them are dead but their words are a living African reality; they will never die. I speak to their memory and reverence their foresight, and artistic excellence.
Chinua Achebe leads the pack, followed by Ngugi WA Thi’ongo and the last line is recognisable from Nelson Mandela’s biography. It took me a long time to realise how perceptive and apprehensive this literary canon was concerning the reality of trauma and uncertainty in postcolonial African societies and, more significantly for our purposes here, how their cantankerous voices spoke so eloquently about us all. I give them back their words with gratitude and a sense of dismay, dismay because had I paid more attention earlier to their prophetic vision of this human experience I’d probably be a better person today than I am. I have a feeling this probably applies as well to many Batswana who have over the years looked at, say Achebe, as just a Nigerian writer or Thi’ong a Kenyan writer. These people wrote for, and about, us all. Only two titles come from my favourite western authors; Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; a reminder that truly great literature belongs to all humankind.
Who could ever have imagined Botswana would one day feature in development discourse under epithets like, Banana Republic, Vampire State, Predators in Power? What happened to my country? My plea to Government Enclave is simple: give me back my country, a country once beautiful like a postcard stamp, a luxuriantly beautiful plum abutting that great but equally beautiful menace, the Kalahari Desert.
In place of the age-old cool temperament of the ordinary Motswana one now finds the possession of shrill, and angry voices, and throughout the land the only signs of life are subdued tongues, little cries and endless sighs; what happened to my country, the country given to me by my mother as a child only fifty years ago? What happened to the spectacular greenness, tidiness and apparent prosperity of the countryside? What happened to the almost well-kept garden that we called the village?
A country once wonderful for its bigness, Botswana is now a desolate landscape were the streets are not lighted, institutions are not stable, people now pave as they think proper, each before his door, and our plain tables are now remarkable for their frugality and the shame of empty plates…what happened to this country?
The land is now a mere shambolic tourist trails at the end of which sit aliens who call Batswana names, and I ask my friends; do you still have country, do you still have homes, do you still have jobs, does this wretched country still belong to us? No, madoda, give me back my country!
*Teedzani Thapelo is a Botswana novelist, historian, poet, essayist, biographer, writer of short stories, travelogue and author. He has been Guest Researcher at Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden, and Fellow at the Institute of International Education, New York, USA