My Matsieng memoirs

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Unlike most visitors to Botswana, when I arrived here I did not head straight for Maun or Kasane. My husband had recently landed a new job in Gaborone, so when my children and I flew out to visit him for the British summer holidays (July and August), our aim was to explore the capital city and its surroundings.

We were amazed by the number of shopping malls, shops, cafes and restaurants in the city, which reminded me very much of Phoenix, Arizona and other American cities in arid parts of the States. The restaurants are varied and offer great food. (Our favourite was The Abyssinian in Riverwalk Mall.) The cinemas are clean and show all the latest films. The quality and variety of goods for sale is certainly beyond anything available to me in my part of Britain. The two guide books I bought before coming here, namely the Lonely Planet and Brandt guides, provided plenty of ideas for interesting places to visit.

Being in a country for the first time is always a little nerve-wracking so we asked Precious, the maid of the house we had rented, and her daughter, Mighty, to come with us on our travels, which they seemed only too glad to do.  

Our first visit was to the National Museum and Art Gallery, where we marvelled over the detail and skill of the wonderful basket-ware on display. We then had lunch at Botswanacraft and tasted our first dish of seswaa, bogobe and morogo served in miniature iron pots. The children announced themselves instant fans of this food and asked me to make it at home for them. After this sumptuous meal, we walked around the shop, watched a man etch ostrich eggs with typical African scenes, admired the jewellery, which spurred me to begin compiling a Christmas shopping list for friends and family.       The next day we all set off to visit the ruins of David Livingstone’s church and mission in Kolobeng. I will never forget the excitement of that first trip out of the city, the clear blue sky above me, the red dry earth and curious boulders around me, and the radio blasting out the energetically joyful music of this lovely country. Despite being small, Kolobeng was signposted and staffed by a charming young guide who shared a great deal about Livingstone and the site. He also showed us shards of pottery and old nails that she and her colleagues had excavated. It was exciting to sit on the large rectangular stone that Livingstone’s patients used to sit on before being greeted and triaged by his wife Mary, who spoke Setswana. On a later trip to the Chobe and then Livingstone in Zambia, it was quite emotional to visit the museum in the town and see possessions of Livingstone from Kolobeng, which had been stolen by the Boers.

We spent most of the morning trying to find the site of Matsieng’s Footprints, which was difficult in view of the roadworks near the site. With the help of a friendly local lady who got in the car and spent the rest of the day with us, a factory owner and his workers, and the site guide, who walked out to the main road to guide us in, we found and explored the place. Once again, the guide was extremely knowledgeable and pointed out many details to us that we would otherwise have missed. Standing by the waterhole, looking at carvings created thousands of years ago while tiny jewel coloured birds came to drink, was very special.

We then proceeded to the museum in the old school in Mochudi in its magnificent setting, overlooking the town surrounded by boulders, which looked as if a giant had thrown them there carelessly.

My children enjoyed having their photos taken on the first tractor to have come to Mochudi, now long past its prime!   

Like many foreigners, I have learnt a lot about Botswana and Gaborone through the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, so we were delighted to hear of the tours that it is possible to take of the places mentioned in the books. My friends in Britain were excited to hear that my husband’s office in Gaborone is situated on the road to Tlokweng, where Precious Ramotswe’s husband has his garage in the novel.

Another favourite spot for lunch was the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency café, situated at the Thapong Arts Centre. The setting, food and staff are utterly charming and it is also interesting in that it is founded on the well signposted site of one of Cecil Rhodes’ garrisons. The ditches in which the ponies were kept can still be clearly seen. Sadly, we understand that the opera house, to which the café was once attached and was founded by McCall Smith, is no more.

We took a trip to Manyana village, to view the rock art there. Once again, a charming and informative guide took us under his wing and explained the history and purpose of the site, before jumping into the car with us to accompany us to the fig tree in the same village under which David Livingstone preached.

Lunch was taken at the cultural gem that is the Bahrutse Cultural Village in Mmankodi. The energetic owner, Mmankudu Glickman, is the perfect blend-a Motswana who is fiercely proud of and knowledgeable about her culture as well as being highly educated and well travelled, with an intuitive understanding of what tourists want. We ate a delicious traditional lunch under an enormous lapa, while a group of local farmers held a business meeting at the table next to us. Afterwards, we toured the village, visited several rondavels, learnt about how they were thatched and decorated with cow dung and even had a quick lesson in ululating with a Motswana/Ghanaian family, visiting from Britain also. I fear we need much more practice however!

We enjoyed walking around the immaculate government enclave. We posed beside the baobabs, and stood to attention as the national flag was lowered outside the police station at sunset. We admired the statue of Sir Seretse Khama and told our children the story of how he came to be the first president of independent Botswana and the trials he and his wife Lady Ruth encountered.

The open gate to the present president’s office and palpable lack of security seemed a fitting reflection of the democracy and stability of Botswana. Our local friends tell us Ian Khama is often seen around town, going about his business like an ordinary citizen. A trip to the grave of El Negro in the park by our house in Broadhurst was a sobering reminder of a more sinister age.

Another place, which captured my imagination, was the Gaborone Dam. The setting of the sailing club on a promontory is magnificent, but it must have been a long time since the sailing boats were out on the dam, judging by its present water level. Sanitas Garden Centre is a welcome oasis of green shade amidst the heat and dust of the city and we enjoyed walking around and looking at all of the indigenous plants. I am a keen quilter and another find was the charming Kalahari Quilts shop in Kgale shopping centre, which is a treasure trove of the art, produced by a team of locals and expats. Contrary to my earlier assertion about my dislike of shopping, I stocked up on presents for the family and friends.

My entrance hall table in Wales is now graced by a whimsical Motswana figure, hair tied up in a scarf and baby on her back, which brings back good memories. 

A recent striking addition to the city’s attractions is the life-sized elephant statue in the airport, comprised entirely of the tusks of elephants, which died of natural causes. Judging by the number of people who were taking photos of it, it has caused as much of a stir with locals as it has with visitors.   

We returned to Wales last week, cries of ‘Tsamaya sentle!’ ringing in our ears, suitcases bulging with biltong, rooibos tea and rusks, which we had never eaten before (my children told me that Nelson Mandela used to like to eat them), as well as samp and sorghum.

We have lived and travelled all over the world and rarely have we felt as comfortable as we were in Botswana.

Despite being in a minority as white Europeans, we were never stared at or harassed. Everyone we met was polite, charming and gracious. Whenever we got lost, people were quick to assist us. Botswana seems to have retained gracious manners, which have long fallen by the wayside in other countries. I noticed youngsters curtsying to older people and that shop assistants hold their hand under their elbow when passing over change.

We were in Botswana for five weeks, but we know that we have only scratched the surface of what the country has to offer. We can’t wait until we return next year to visit my husband again, and to continue exploring all that Gaborone and its surroundings have to offer.

Precious and Mighty have agreed to be our travel companions again.

One last curious thing happened when we got home. My daughter remembered a book she had studied in school long ago and went to dig it out of her bookcase. It is called Dyddiadur Kabo (Kabo’s Diary) and is written in Welsh (our mother tongue). It related the story of a little boy from Botswana who lives in Wales but returns to Botswana to visit his family. How strange that we should have read it all those years ago, never suspecting that we would one day develop a link between Wales and Botswana!

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