In this provocative but seminal piece of work Botswana novelist, writer of short stories, poet, researcher, biographer, essayist, historian and human rights campaigner, TEEDZANI THAPELO*, argues that postcolonial modernity has turned his country, a country once beautiful like a postcard stamp, a cute plum in Kalahari Desert, into a grotesque caricature of its former self
Let me start with a question that appears on the surface to be ridiculous but turns out upon deep reflection to be much more serious and profound; what is a country? What is this thing that we call a country? What is Botswana? I want to argue a country is more than just a geographical expression. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? No, not if you know what you are talking about. Not when you know something that you really love very much, and certainly not when you get a feeling you have lost that thing. Most of us fail in definitions principally because we trust too much in received knowledge. We are too complacent to think outside the box so to speak. Any truths we didn’t learn at school sound suspicious, seditious even. We trust not our imagination to add more insight into received knowledge, better still, to create more and better knowledge through our own ways of thinking, through our own ways living in, and seeing the world differently every day. A writer on the other hand is always suspicious of intellectual dogma, and most of the time believes not at all the nonsense that passes for education in schools and universities, and this is the sort of thing for which I’m quite notorious.
To me education is the art of competing intellectual truths, nothing more, and nothing less. Only scientific truths, in their wretched stubbornness, always refuse to die; once born, they live forever. Other intellectual truths are not so smug, and I make it my business in my writings to demolish these fragile truths mercilessly. In fact this is the only reason why I write.
So what then is a country? Besides political boundaries, a country is a world of wavering, chaotic and phantasmal objects and images. What we call human life is the art of manipulating, exploiting and bending these things to our purpose, and the momentous consequences of such actions for our existence and survival in any given political space. Big mouth, you might think, and I agree with you. But to live comfortably and happily, in good health and robust spirit, we do exploit things like water, plants, and minerals, for example, by bending them to our purpose, don’t we?
We do the same with elements like fire and even the sun above our skies for similar purposes. If someone else, an alien, comes into our geographical space and starts manipulating and bending these same things to their purpose we get mad, really mad. We may even kill them. Why? Because this one political space is our country. It is our only real home on planet earth. It is our house. It is our property. It is our life. It is our destiny. It is our universe. It is our own world of significant things, animate and inanimate. It is our universe. We live here, we laugh here, we love here, we work here and we will die here. No other place on earth can give you so much, so many things, for so little effort.
This is what we mean by a country; a place to call home, with confidence and certitude. Within the deepest recesses of our inner selves this geographical space is our spiritual home. It is the ontological foundation of our very being, and there’s nowhere else in the whole world where a Motswana, born and bred, can plant feet and cultural roots better and deeper. Botswana is our country. A country is a world of many things, some simple imaginative intuition, others common sense, and by far the majority, natural things; rivers, animals, lands, human beings, and all the things they create through the manipulation and exploitation of the other things around them. In a country you find all sorts of things; good and bad, things like gods, institutions, properties, laws, ideas, chimeras, even witches!
These things can exist as organised wholes, they can exist as aggregates of distinct parts, and they can exist as isolated singular species, and once a misbalance occur you can be sure there’s going to be trouble, big trouble. And this, I think, is how I came to lose the Botswana I love. No, I’m not one of those people who fear change and new experiences. I don’t find it hard to hear new voices in society. I don’t fear new ideas. What I find hard to stomach are new ideas and changes that are empty of feeling. I hate things that smell like rusty shells the very moment they are born, the very moment I encounter and experience them. No, I don’t hate things just because they seem to have a ‘different’ feeling. I always try to experience things before I pass judgement. No, no, no, I don’t take drugs. That’s not what I’m talking about. There’s in this country a radical shifting over from the old way of doing things, from the old psyche if you like, to something knew; a displacement in the public regimen. I’m not so sure I like this displacement at all. We all agree displacements hurt, most of the time. But I particularly hate it when this hurt takes the form of little horrors that cumulatively metamorphose into black sunlight. Yes, I can write like a poet when I’m angry.
I find the displacements mushrooming in our political institutions and behaviour startling. I see here new little routines and schedules that unsettle the mind and more and more institutional procedures that dull and trunk human effort at every turn. The first culprit is parliament, second government enclave, and third our politicians; from across the entire political spectrum. I shall return to this issue in a moment. As a country this place is a homeland, and homelands, by definition and character, are spirited and dynamic things. They have steady and sturdy rhythms. They have strong and vibrant social fabric. They possess forces, motions and vibrations that in their total vehicular pulsating and gyrations give unique meaning and significance to the people who live in them. Like the human body a country takes its vitality and magnificent presence from the billions of veins and organs that constitute it; roads, telecommunication networks, energy sources, public institutions and officers, private sectors, workers, students, mothers, fathers, children and the entire ecology of animals and plants in it. In fact I’d argue it’s the vital effluence, the vibration, and chemical exhalation of this cacophonous mass that we call human society, that we call human life. Without all these things a country dies.
Yes, places die; I entirely agree with D.H. Lawrence that places die. Public spaces die. Communities die. Nations die. Nobody should ever take their country for granted. A human being becomes stateless for one reason, and one reason only; the death of her country. A person becomes an exile because of the rot in his country. A person becomes a migrant because of national failures in her country. A person becomes an outcast because of negative forces in his country. All these things, statelessness, emigration, and exile are forms of national death, symptoms of dead or dying places. The ruination of a country is the worst thing that can ever happen to a citizen, and, believe me, it is a fate more cruel than human death. There’s no experience of pain, suffering, humiliations and shameful submissions to strangers and strange environments after people have died. That’s we say the rest in peace.
You collapse of exhaustion after eating too much candied sweet potato at Christmas Day dinner and we happily bury you six feet down, period. No more pain, no more suffering. No more hope, no more ambition, and no more disappointments. Human death is the healthiest thing in the world. Some day we all must die, and we accept this; exiting your country this way is nothing shameful. It is a wonderful thing. In fact in some of my morbid thoughts I often wonder why some of those irritatingly noisy jingoists and rabid primary patriots; the tribe we politely call politicians, are never willing to sign out of this world this way; we’d have to learn how to honour them, a small price to pay compared to the misery they bring to our lives through their violently discrepant utterances and reckless political actions. If we lived forever we’d just ruin the world we live in; our countries would die from the claims and demands we place on them. Countries are fixed and finite resources. You can only use them so much and no more, which is the reason why I’m writing this article.
Dying for your country is a great human sacrifice, the noblest deed in human history. But before a person dies, he has to live first, and while he lives the country is his only place of refuge, security and survival. Yet we use our countries damnably bad, and Batswana worst of all. More than our indifferent actions, what even terrifies me more is the physical fragility of our land. As a desert oasis we should be the finest ecological conservationists in the world but we don’t care. We are happy to just gobble everything up. That our county is a dry haven matters not at all. There’s even a perception titled physical property can and should be used any way we like. To escape the charge of exaggeration I’ll use the case of village life in postcolonial Botswana to illustrate my point.
Village life is the simplest thing I knew as a child; the Botswana I knew as a child. It was a beautiful world, and I suppose it still is, to the discerning eye. And yes, it had its own defects. But that is in the nature of things. I was born same time with this beautiful country, in the years of great drought and famine. We lived beside a river in the bush. Its mud water and mosquito infestation are still clear in my mind but the rest of it is gone. Where it once flourished is now a terrible scar, a dried-up riverbed; thanks to senseless sand mining upstream, and the malice of nature. The spectacular cascading force of its waters will never be heard again. The valley where our home was situated and it’s haggardly choked rank grass that towered above our heads and made us feel as if we were being smothered is also a thing of the past. I doubt if any family member misses the flesh-eating ulcers, malaria and those terrible deep spear thorn wounds. But still that place was home to me, and I loved it.
In the end, of course, we left that dead land and moved to Mapoka village. In Mapoka, if I remember very well, my last really wonderful rainy season as a lad was the deluge of 1976. There was so much water that many streams flowed into village walking paths making them resemble small ponds and rivers. Back then a grass path was a great village treasure-the way we treasure Mandela Highway in Gaborone today. As herd boys we had a hard time of it falling into bulls’ footprints right up to our thighs. To cross flooding rivers we had to hold tight onto cow tails and float across.
Women particularly had a terrible time. At the time the economy of a household was a very public space affair. Wood had to be gathered from the bush. Grain had to be threshed out in the open. Fields needed ploughing and weeding. Drinking water came from the river. People relieved themselves in the bush. And never mind what the cultural record says a lot of young people still lost their virginity in the bush. Married couples could only conduct their love affairs in the bush. Just about all village maidens met their future husbands in the bush. Sporting activity took place in the bush. The bush was the heart and soul of the village. It was the source of energy, entertainment, and sport. It was our toilet. It was the boudoir for illicit love affairs. It was the scene for scandals and social wonderment. It was the playground for both kids and adults. It was also the source of fruit, meat and building materials. It was our butchery, our wholesale, our park and people spent more time out in the bush, and the fields, than at home; men, women and children-and in 1976 the whole village was flooded. Just imagine how this affected village life that wet year. Out in the forests huge trees had fallen across pathways forming breast-high walls that we had to climb over. It was a fantastically amazing life.
Caught in the open, for hours on end, in drenching heavy rains, everyone would be obliged every evening to strip off their clothes, and dry them by the smoky fire in the hut. One bout of pneumonia and you were a goner. This is one part of my life that I remember most vividly; that heavy rain season. We’ve never had another one like it again. As I write the bush around our village is dead. In the last forty years we ruthlessly harvested everything from it, wood, sand, poles, water, food, to feed the new appetites coming with the demands of postcolonial society and its lifestyles. Just forty years and we threw everything away without a care in the world. How did people who lived so close to the bush do this terrible thing to it? Why did we do it? Why did we fail to preserve even a small part of it? Did it really mean so little to us?
*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