The Botswana I love, the Botswana I lost - Part ll

Traditional performers display the love of their culture
Traditional performers display the love of their culture

The historical record and archaeological excavations show our ancestors lived in that area and contiguous ones right up to the Transvaal for 500-years. Does this mean nothing to us as well? If we care so little for things that mean this much to us what future do we have as a nation?

This is not about the people of Mapoka and neighbouring villages only. Go  anywhere in Botswana and you’ll find people have done the same things to the environment. And we call ourselves people with a culture, people with a future. Am I wrong to argue that we regard Botswana simply as land from which we should take what we want, anyway we like, regardless of the consequences? Do we know what love of a country means?

Will our children and their children ever know the wonders of the bush I knew as a child? I doubt it. After killing these villages, how really are we going to contend with the fury and tyranny of harsh winds, red-hot burning dust bowls, and more terribly, floods, in the future? We’ve provoked nature in the worst way possible; how now are we going to make peace with this tempestuous woman? Nature, we should remember, is as impetuous and temperamental as we are; perhaps worse. It is not an easy thing to appease nature, and once lost nature is hard to reclaim.

In other countries they do things differently. Here we hate the things closest to our hearts. We do the best we can to devalue and destroy them all the time. And for what? In many parts of this country, especially on the margins of the Kalahari Desert, Batswana destroyed large tracts of land putting up useless farm structures because they hoped these would bring them wealth. When this did not happen they simply abandoned these sore sights and ran to seek green pastures in the cities, never to return. The desert, of course, refused to be used and then abandoned in this way like a bad-tempered whore, and now it is running after those molesters, seeking some kind of recompense, I suppose. That’s the malice of nature for you. Play balefully with nature and sooner or later she’ll pay you back in kind. By nature and definition Batswana ought to be the finest conservationists in Africa; for the most obvious reason, the land is dry, fragile and poor, rainfall erratic and unreliable. But no, we continue to pillage the country at will.

Throughout Botswana the bush is no longer a part of the village scene. And guess what? This does not stop us from continuing to feed our scrawny goats and cows in these dying villages. Just how long will rural life remain viable in Botswana? What will the rural landscape look like 50-years from now when our beautiful children are only 50-60-years-old? Are all these children going to have to move into towns, towns like Francistown, Selibe-Phikwe and Lobatse that are already dying before they are born, before they can flourish…towns that already house thousands of enervated, over-medicated, crowded and bewildered patient populations? What do these wretched towns have to offer our children? Nothing, absolutely nothing!

This country is sitting on a time bomb and nobody seems to care, and do you want to know why? We are indifferent because we have no sense of great suffering and tragedy yet, some of us still have food on our tables, we experience not the appalling shock of empty plates, a few amongst us still carry jingling soiled coins in their pockets, and we think we are smart, in time we’ll solve all our problems…fat chance. That’s not how things happen in the Third World. And don’t think anyone will come to our rescue. Charity is rapidly becoming a thing of the past in international politics. Nobody really cares how other people are suffering anymore. Look what is happening to Iraq and its people. Look what is happening next door in Zimbabwe. The spirit of universal humanitarianism and philanthropy that was brought about by the shocking realities of twentieth century war culture is quietly drifting from the psyche of the rising global society. Right wing politicians who are already coming to the forefront of this new order will not care much whether thousands of Batswana are dying of hunger and starvation or millions are killing each other in Rwanda. Can you imagine Donald Trump tearfully distributing food parcels in Shadishadi?

That is a new reality we must start learning to live with, that our circle of friends as a country is getting smaller every day, every second. This collapse of international solidarity and human sensibility is not a new thing, no, it happened before, after the deep economic crisis of the seventeenth century; giving rise to slavery and the spirit of capitalism and imperial savagery. Who is to say this won’t happen again? Then black people were simply turned into things that could be bought and sold in open markets, and the poor black child who did not fit the bill could be turned into horse food because the horse could then be made to work the land for his master. It’s human beings who did these things to others; just to get rich and, if possible, finally conquer the possibility of white death; survival of the fittest at is best. When I tell my children the importance of loving and protecting their land, their country, I am not joking. I am dead serious. If we don’t do things we need to do now to procure our future in a really serious and substantial way nobody is going to do it for us, not any time tomorrow, not any time in the future. This is a fact. We need to do the things that need to be done to procure and protect the future of this country, and not only the things that bring personal gain and wealth in the short term and great suffering, and possible annihilation in the future.

This is what I call a patriotic spirit; a poignantly informed and wholesome love of a country accompanied by a vibrant vision of the world of tomorrow and its expected demands on us as a people and a nation. I don’t call a diamond miner who’s no respect for the environment a patriot. He’s just a shameless exploiter. I don’t think a politician who mortgages my country to a bunch of foreigners is a patriot. He’s just a plain unwise person. Patriotism is a heroic spirit. It is Tolstoy’s War and Peace writ large on the human heart and its landscape; potent, pulsating, brutal, bloody, ugly, sensual and beautiful. It is not empty political slogans, no, patriotism demands personal sacrifice; it is the physical evocation of the human soul, a moral duty. In fact patriotism is the foundation of political art and authority. It is a fundamental requirement in public administration, and not just an expression of attachment to the nation. To the true patriot the violation of the national spirit is an act of physical botheration, a declaration of war on personal conscience. Any threat to national survival is a call to public action, and right now Botswana needs its patriots to stand tall and demand the supremacy of right over wrong in public life but I doubt there are many Batswana who even know what I’m talking about. The country is dying, and nobody seems to care.  

Yes, we need to create jobs but I think it is more sustainable to do this through projects that nourish and nurture both humans and the environment in the long term. There’s something I find particularly foolish about the way we conceptualize economics. Economics is not a concept alien to the African way of doing things. It does not come from European textbooks. It is not necessarily learnt in school curricula only. It is a basic human activity. It predates the written word. It is something in our blood as human beings.

But a government bureaucrat can never map out an economic project in this country without paying a private visit to a foreign consultant or some esoteric economics theory. And most of the time he does not understand at all what any of these two have to say to him. The local people, the people he ostensibly intends to benefit through this project, he ignores entirely. Intellectual ideas elude him, so he elides them from public life. This is dangerous. Why can’t an educated Motswana from Chobe and Shakawe guide government in the economic use of the Okavango delta wetlands by local communities? Why is it that government has so little faith in the people it educates? How can these people ever become established intellectuals if they don’t have the chance to apply and prove the worthiness of the thousands of development theories they learnt at school to the local conditions and environment? Why do we have so little faith in ourselves?

I really do think we are far too vulgarly cocksure of our ready-made destiny. There is something about Batswana that smacks of the so-called American dream, only more distorted than that megalomaniac national obsession. We have fallen into a dangerous half-truth; we are free, the land is ours, we can do as we damn like with it any time of the day, and anyhow we please. What we don't realise is that we are drifting into darkness. The resources, and pluck, that went into the rise of America and its manifest destination, as that dream is often called, are not available to us. We need to be much more in touch with our environment, live closer to it much more wisely longer, and think more about the things we do to it now than the needs of the future. But Batswana won't hear of such a thing. No, we want developments at any cost, and not many realise what we call development is actually self-destruction in the long term; how sad, how naïve!

Yes, history promised us progress and peace but now that we know this is a contradiction of terms, why not start doing things differently? Our day as a nation has not begun yet, and already we’re drifting to the sea shore and black sunlight. Isn’t that sad? We desperately lack a conscious political motive for the world of tomorrow, and we call ourselves civilised people; really? Enough of the triumph of political prodigality and the ruinous stampede of economic libido, let’s now turn to human life itself, and public space; the object of all things political and economic. The country, as conceived at political science and geography, consists of all possible objects, images and living realities of the ordinary world; things external and internal to it, to our very soul as a people-beings, events, feelings-and actions almost always accidentally placed in an indefinable but wonderfully fitting relationship, a relationship that continually feeds on a historically agreed upon general sensibility. Once the relationship between these things, objects and beings, especially actions economic and political, suffer a misbalance then you know right away the country is in trouble. Once the general sensibility, established by historical contingency and environmental necessity, collapses, you know right away the country is in trouble. As a country Batswana do things, should do things, differently from other people. We do not, as a rule, and should not ever, use our country the way Americans use theirs, or the way our neighbours use theirs; our history and our geography are different and demand slightly different models of development.

But in reality what do Batswana do? We copy everything from others, all the time; a bad thing, a very bad habit. We don’t even realise the objects and other things available for our human purposes; things like minerals, water, sources of energy, for example, attract each other differently in our land, and development experience, that we need different ideas of using them, that the ideas that represent them change in value and substance differently than say in Sweden and Canada, that their very nature demand we do things differently. We agree, I think the founding of a country is an accidental thing, at best a historical contingency turned into reality through rigorous human effort and purpose. We should not, however, assume a thing born of chance and the mysterious workings of historical fate will forever depend on chance happenings for its survival. Countries are born, and unless purposefully nurtured into harmonious health, vitality and maturing existence, these things die. The death of a country can either be environmental or political. We should never take the existence of our country for granted. Ask Ethiopians, Somalis and Eretrians of today, millions of whom now live miserable existences in far off lands. Ask what happened to the great land of that legendary figure; Emperor Haille Selaise? It is now dead; it suffered political death in our life time; a grim reminder we, too, are not immortal.

*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

Editor's Comment
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When the pandemic reached Botswana’s shores last year March, a nation united in the quest to defeat an invisible enemy. It is a moment never witnessed in recent memory, with the catastrophes of the world war and the 1918 Spanish influenza being the only other comparisons in living memory. Botswana, like the rest of the world, had to readjust its priorities and channel most, if not all, of its energies towards fighting COVID-19. It has not been...

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