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Gaborone City! What City! - Pt 1

Room to improve: The author says Gaborone is lacking a ‘Central Park’ feature PIC: BASHI KIKIA
Is Gaborone your ideal city? If you had the means and the power, what would you change about this city? What would you like to see in Gaborone that you have appreciated in other cities? What is required to transform Gaborone from a functional but sterile city to an intriguing and quintessential melting point abuzz with enduring elements of humanity and social life, writes KEVIN MOKENTO*

Cast your mind, if you can, some 36 odd years back. Do you remember the buzz that went along with the unanticipated declaration of Gaborone a city? That year, the GDP growth rate for Botswana stood at 8.5 percent, down from 13.1% the previous year.

Excitement levels reached fever pitch as finally, after two decades of endurance, Gaborone was brought on par with Maputo (formerly Lourenço Marques), Johannesburg, Harare (formerly Salisbury) and Lusaka.

These places were declared cities in 1887, 1928, 1935 and 1960 respectively. It was almost like people were tired of the ‘indignity’ associated with the lowly town status. The ‘elevated’ city status was welcome with jubilation.

Of course the more pragmatic (read pessimistic if it tickles your fancy) and worldwise people were not caught up in the frenzy of that excitement. In their view, Gaborone was unwarrantedly overrated and a far cry from an ideal city. The change of label from town to city was merely of cosmetic utility if not egocentric value, unsupported by meaningful growth and development.

More like the covering of acne with makeup during the day, using an effective colour-correcting concealer, only for the acne to callously stare at you with the vigour of an accomplished vanquisher when you halfheartedly glance at your image in the mirror one last time before you hit the sack.

What’s your view? Is the conglomeration of concrete jungle in Gaborone your considered view of an ideal city? Hubert Horatio Humphrey Jr, the 38th vice president of the United States shared this sobering thought, “What is a city, but the people; true the people are the city.” The same thought was amplified by Edward Ludwig Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University who waded into this debate with this timeless soundbite of wisdom; “It is important to remember that the real city is not concrete but humanity. Real architectural greatness is about building for ordinary people.”

This highlights two crucial points; the importance of infusing socio-cultural imperatives into the development of a city and the need to engineer humanity into its DNA, thus giving a sense of belonging to its inhabitants. Do you think we have succeeded in building humanity into the development of Gaborone?

The development of Gaborone has been phenomenal. From a settlement with less than 10 kilometres of tarred road in the late 1960s to a thriving metropolis with a network of tarred single and dual carriageway roads at the onset of the third millennium.

In the early 1980s, I was always thrilled to board a bus from Molepolole to Gaborone. Whenever I saw WUC’s upside-down metallic ‘onion’, my antennas would flip outward with excitement, triggering the invasion of my system by a welcome rush of happy hormones. I was delighted to be a few minutes away from my venerated destination.

Upon arrival at the station, I would alight the bus with extreme happiness, looking forward to an adventure-filled day in Gaborone. I would immediately inch my way to the Main Mall, plodding with extreme trepidation! A long nerve-wracking walk for a boy who had just hit the outset of his teenagerhood. Between the station and the Mall lay a massive forest of acacia and other indigenous trees. The small hairs on the back of my neck would stand up as my eyes darted from side to side, nervously scanning the forest, my fertile imagination spotting multiple silhouettes of vampires along the way. By the time I arrived at my destination, I would have died and been resurrected several times! Gotta love the good ol’ times!

 Although I was never attacked during those walks, my mind was never at peace. My heart would burst with high-powered palpitations, gripped by untrammelled imaginations of falling victim to mythical Rabokos of the day. My parents always gave me money for a taxi, but my little mind had greater and more fulfilling plans for that money.

As you’d rightly guess, I had a narrow self-serving consumer-driven definition of adventure. Give me chips at Kings Takeaways, a succulent piece of steak bordered by a juicy silver lining of fat, a chilled can of Schweppes Granadilla, ice-cream and toffees, and voilà, you’ve made my day! Don’t you dare judge me now! I remain as lean as a toothpick.

It has been exciting to see Gaborone evolving into a commercial hub. Over the last two decades we’ve noted massive investment in residential, industrial and commercial property. From the small-pedestrianised mall in the heart of the city, several shopping centres have mushroomed culminating in destination malls. Riverwalk, Game City, Rail Park and Airport Junction.

Add to this the abundance of modern hospitality establishments as well as fine wining and dining joints that compare favourably with the best in the world. Call it tongue-in-cheek tarradiddle or wishful thinking, but I’d call it a fine line between fact and exaggerated optimism.

The battle for the glorious prize of the first supermall in Gaborone is quite vivid in my memory. Locking horns in the battlefield were Riverwalk and Game City. The former scooped the prize! Before that, ardent and compulsive shoppers crossed the border to South Africa to mollify their insatiable craving for a shopping fix. Mmabatho was the overhyped spot, home to a shopping centre called Mega City, a regional mall that lured many of our people with highly effective and addictive grab-now, pay-later baits. This was a mall that I would posit was developed to attract and milk Batswana, not so much the people living within the shores of the erstwhile Bophuthatswana Bantustan.   

Is Gaborone your ideal city? If you had the means, what would you change about this city? The two articles highlight a few must-haves that would give our beloved city an enduring spark of life. I will run through a few that I believe would transform Gaborone from a functional but sterile city to an intriguing and quintessential melting point abuzz with enduring elements of humanity and life. The first article will focus on two critical must-haves and the next will address three more must-haves and a couple of nice-to-haves. Have you ever given thought to a public square? A focal point for social life and cultural activities. A huge easily accessible public lounge and entertainment area that would

afford city slackers an opportunity to appreciate the idling and milling around of people, oftentimes with no sense of purpose.

Humans are not meant to be in closed doors all the time. A family-centric exclusive lifestyle that restricts company to the same people over and over again, mewed up in closed quarters, can lead to repetitive bouts of depression.

This could happen even when we love such people dearly. The majority of Gaborone dwellers live in dull cages. No garden. No trees. No swimming pool. These cages can pull a George Floyd on us, compelling us to frantically gasp for fresh air. Struggling for survival as if our environment’s knee was bent on mercilessly choking us to death, lonely in the midst of our loved ones. Bottom line? From time to time we need people outside our regular circle of kin and kith. Even if it means just watching them passing-by, busy with their mundane activities.

If we are not careful, it can seem as if we are incarcerated in a Norwegian penitentiary, enjoying a good measure of civil liberties but still lonely, our loved ones reduced to nothing but impersonal inmates. City squares have a beautiful way of contending with this problem.

They grant one an opportunity to people watch and unwind, with no chance of being accused of starring. A chance to feast one’s eyes on other humans and appreciate God’s excelling humour and ingenuity in creating people of all sorts. If you’ve never done this, try it and get a kick out of revelling in a fascinating jambalaya of heights, weight, complexion, beauty and walking styles. This type of wholesome escapism can be quite refreshing and soothing.

Think about cities with squares that are always teeming with crowds. A few spring to mind. Tiananmen Square in central Beijing that can hold a million people. You can go there and lose yourself in the crowd. Russia has the Palace Square in St. Petersburg and the Red Square in Moscow. Trafalgar Square in London is a popular place for blowing off steam by Londoners and tourists.

New York City has Times Square, which is not a square in the strictest sense of the word, but remains a gathering place of choice, always jamming with New Yorkers and pleasure trippers.  Johannesburg has the Nelson Mandela Square graced by the humungous statue of the iconic man who continues to be revered by many almost seven years after his demise, all this despite the fact that he acknowledged, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Even the two smallest countries cum cities in the world, Monaco and the Vatican have public squares. It is an established fact that cities with squares have an appealing je ne sais quoi about them. The Main Mall in Gaborone used to double as the city square in the 1980s. It was a popular meeting place whose strength was diluted by the proliferation of modern malls. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a square in Gaborone? The area must be safe, paved and well-lit with well-maintained ablution facilities.

Cafés and restaurants offering outdoor seating areas would attract people to the square. A well-arranged market, waterfront (huge manmade pool) and a plenitude of social amenities would be a big plus! All these factors could contribute towards sustaining the chillaxing culture, where people would be compelled to linger at the square without doing anything of material value. It is this culture that would breathe life into the square.

The key to a vibrant square is effective management. Wholesome open air live entertainment activities that would appeal to people of different ages would work well.

Managers of the square would need to take time out once in a while to review the effectiveness of their strategy in improving the longevity of the square and harmonising activities to what appeals to people.

Innovation by the square’s management team would trigger potential for plying people with activities that would attract them without waiting on them to spell out their wants.

Owing to the social element attached to the development of a city square, investors can only be lured through incentives, such as offers of land at sub-market rates or attractive tax concessions. It would take a visionary investor to identify a suitable piece of land and take the initiative of presenting a bankable project that the powers that be would find irresistible. A sustainable plan that would not turn the square into a seasonal ‘theme park,’ but a perennial stomping ground for refreshing and destressing.

Don’t you think you need a well-maintained park in your neck of the woods? Accessible? Free?  Flush with a variety of plants, flowering shrubs and trees? A romantic rendezvous. A place to open a book and lose oneself in it unconcerned with tracking time. A spot to saunter around at leisure or run for physical fitness while feasting one’s eyes on a vast array of vegetation and birdlife. A site to sprawl at leisure, arms and legs akimbo, happily absorbing the sun’s rays for a good dose of Vitamin D. An area to picnic with friends and family, our nasal sensory neurons tickled by the gentle wafting of mingled flavoursome odours of roast beef, sausages and chicken.

A calming environ with a big pond. A place to straddle without a care in the world, soothed by the palliative power of water. A joint affording one and all an opportunity to detox and momentarily run AWOL from the fatigue-inducing stresses and tribulations of this world.

A place to indulge our senses and imagination without any inhibition. Fully exploiting the moment to recover from the curve balls that life ever so often mercilessly flings at us during lean times. Nothing is more satisfying than being tickled by a refreshing breeze in this type of environment.  How are we doing in our bid to develop Tsholofelo Park to this level? The next article will share more insights on what should be considered in our vision to transform Gaborone to a city endowed with loftier elements of humanity.


*Kevin Mokento is a contributor to Mmegi who has requested anonymity for professional reasons

Opinion & Analysis



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