Botswana: How to measure success in a land where even the animals get drunk…

Amarula, African flowers and a sad tale of falling out of love with a country

You may well know Botswana from the well-rehearsed story that it is “an African success”, or even “an African miracle”, which seems more than a little patronising. Just as “female scientists” are actually “scientists”, so there is something dubious about Botswana being an “African success” as opposed to any other kind of success. But despite this wokier then thou complaining, I had been looking forward to finding out more about a country that went from being Bechuanaland — one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world — to the prosperous democratic state of Botswana.

A vegan braii!

My journey began well with the film A United Kingdom, the tale of the first President of Botswana Serese Khama who put two fingers up to South African apartheid, British racism and tribal elders of the Bamangwato, by falling in love with and marrying Ruth Williams, a white English clerk from South London. It is a feel good film that gave me hope that we would finally be spending a week learning about how nations succeed! This feeling was underlined when I remembered that even in the book Why Nations Fail, Botswana is held up as country with good institutions succeeding economically.

But then I read Place of Reeds by Caitlin Davies.

This feel bad book, starts in the 1990s when things are still going quite well for Botswana. But from the first line onwards there is a sense of impending doom… you can feel her love for the country and its people, but also her frustrations and then her fear and finally her hatred. She brings you on her journey of despair so convincingly that you can see that both her love and hate were truly warranted, but despite this I was left with the same feeling I always get when reading travelogues, that this is just one side of the story, one version of events. That one side was enough to break my heart a little and convince me to support Women Against Rape (WAR) one of the organisations Davies works with. You can support them too, here.

Reading the book got me thinking about whether things started to go wrong with Botswana once Khama left power. I’m sure nothing is as simple as that, but it is interesting to note that the authors of Why Nations Fail seem less positive now. It can’t help that Botswana is experiencing one of the most severe AIDS epidemics in the world, with women and young people particularly badly affected. The success story theme is starting to wear a little thin.

Frozen watermelon margaritas with plantain in the background.

But beyond the politics there was much joy to be had, such as xaxaba, a delicious flatbread which goes very well with frozen watermelon margaritas! Indeed watermelons come from Botswana and so were an important part of the week, be it for breakfast, barbecued and soaked in booze. Other than that though, every recipe seemed to require sorghum, which I could find nowhere, so instead we dined on braai, a Botswanan barbecue, which basically required me to go to Sainsburys and buy every vegan steak, burger and sausage I could find. One day though I still hope to eat mealie meale just so I can say I’ve eaten pap. I also wanted to try poykie — a meat, onion, pepper and beer stew cooked for half a day over a fire before being served in a crusty loaf of bread. Delicious but hard to recreate in rainy Brum!

Xaxaba, more than just the only food I know of beginning with x.

This week’s booze was the wonderful Amarula, made from the marula fruit that animals famously get drunk on. This scene of monkeys, elephants and more eating fermented fruit was filmed by Jamie Uys in Botswana… as was his film The Gods must be crazy which is so cringingly racist I gave up watching after five minutes. See if you can last longer!

Getting ready to pass out.

In terms of music, I was passed this YouTube playlist of Motswako/Botswana HipHop — you should check it out if for no other reason than to marvel at how deeply embedded US hip hop culture is around the world.

Plantain — I think I remember loving them.

There’s clearly much more to learn about Botswana’s successes and failures but I’ve limited myself to a week in each, so here I must stop and start prearing for a week in Tropical Brazil.

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