07 April 2011

First posting from Botswana

As many of you have noted, I’ve been in Botswana for seven months now, and have yet to update my blog. No excuse really other than apathy and crappy internet service. When my sister Barbara has bugged me (repeatedly) to post something, I keep telling her that life here is so dull that I don’t really have anything to say. I don’t think she quite believes me, but we’ll see if she does after reading this…

So anyway, I guess I should start at the beginning, my house. I ended up on a sort of mini embassy compound which has my house in a shared yard with my colleague Kittie. Next door is our health unit and the gym (no excuse not to be hitting it hard when I only have to walk 20 meters to get there). Kittie’s and my yard is relatively small but does have a great big pool which I use on a regular basis. We share expenses for our Zimbabwean gardener who comes twice a week and our Motswana pool boy who drops by three times a week to clean and treat the pool. I also have a housekeeper who comes twice a week, so once again I'm basically hemorrhaging money on domestic staff.

I should break in here and give you a quick explanation of the words you will see throughout this update. The country is Botswana (pronounced like “boat”), one person from Botswana is a Motswana (like the moat around a castle), a group is Batswana (like knot, but with a “b”), think America versus Americans.

Okay, back to the living arrangements. You would never know it by looking at it, but I’ve spent a fortune on our yard at the local garden store. Since it is an embassy owned property, clearly no one has ever put any effort at all into improving it. So instead of a semi-arid tropical paradise like most of my co-workers’ yards, ours is rather sad and dejected. I’m getting a bit frustrated with the gardener because he is doing the typical thing, start out great and then slowly, bit by bit, become an undependable slacker. I’m going to have a serious come to Jesus talk with him one of these days.

So my house is pretty small and unmemorable. I got the old “he’s a single guy, put him in the small place” again. Little did they know that I’d be arriving with my maximum household effects weight of over 7,000 lbs of crap. Amazingly enough, I’ve jammed it all in, and the place is quite cozy. My friend Stuart came over after I had finished unpacking and commented that it looked like I had lived there 10 years already. I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or not. Anyway, I have a nice little porch which I’ve packed with houseplants and now that the weather is cooling down a bit, plan on using more often. The inside consists of a living room/dining room combo, kitchen, pantry, hallway, three decent sized bedrooms, a great big walk-in closet in the master, and two bathrooms. I’ve turned one of the guest rooms into an office which works out well. I’ve posted some pics, so you can see what it’s like. Unfortunately, we do have walls with electric gates and electric burglar fences. I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case, but better to be safe than sorry.

After almost $4,000 in transportation costs, Zoli finally came to live with me in December after a year of being spoiled and trained by my sister Barbara. The occasional thunderstorm aside, he has settled into life here quite well. I’m really enjoying Zoli more than I ever have before and feel much less stressed out by him. I’m sure this is partially due to the fact that he’s eight years old now and not quite so wild (actually quite lazy), but also because of all the hard work Barbara did with him while I was in Egypt. At any rate, we’ve developed a nice little routine that seems to be working out well for both of us.

So before talking about the Embassy and my job, I should give you a bit of background on Botswana as a country, its people and history, and the current situation. Botswana is roughly the size of Texas, 80% of which is covered by the Kalahari Desert. The Okavango Delta is up in the northwestern part of the country and is apparently one of the more amazing places in the region in terms of wildlife and beauty. I haven’t been up there yet, but it’s on my list of things to do while I’m here. The population is roughly 1.8 million people and 120,000 elephants. The largest ethnic group is from the Tswana tribe although there are smaller tribal groups including the San people (or bushmen) who live in the central part of the country. The governments record with the San is pretty deplorable, but more about that later.

The Batswana were fortunate enough to never have been colonized by a European Power. After the “great voortrek” when the Afrikaner settlers left the Cape Colonies and pushed north eastward and around the time of the Boer war between the British and Afrikaners, the British stepped in (basically to piss the Afrikaners off) and created a protectorate over present day Botswana which was called Bechuanaland. Later, when Cecil Rhodes was gobbling up present day South Africa and Zimbabwe to make into big mines, three prominent chiefs approached the British and asked to remain under their protection. Initially the British Prime Minister told them to work it out with Rhodes, but eventually public pressure within Britain reached such a level that the British government agreed to continue administering the territory. Over the next 50+ years there were all kinds of wheelings and dealings that went on between the British, the South African Government, and then Rhodesia, but the bottom line was that Bechuanaland was never “absorbed” into a neighboring country, and in 1965 there was a peaceful transition to independence.

Today, for the most part, Botswana is a rare success story on the entire African continent. It has a stable democratically elected government (although the main ruling party makes it difficult for opposition to compete), a growing economy and middle class (although unemployment is still near 25%), low levels of corruption, a high level of education, and relatively good infrastructure and health care. This was all made possible by the letter “D” (for the huge pile of diamonds the country is sitting on top of). The government of Botswana struck a deal with DeBeers which allows them to mine and take the diamonds out of the country for a tidy sum of money every month. Great for the country in many ways, but dangerous because eventually these diamonds will run out (like by 2035), and will leave the economy in shambles. They are quickly trying to diversify the economy, but struggling to do so.

The Batswana are by in large agrarian people who, how can I put this nicely, never having struggled for independence and having a government that provides everything for them have become a bit indolent to say the least. It sort of permeates every aspect of life from driving their cars and walking down the street to a decided lack of entrepreneurial spirit or a robust work ethic. They are very nice and gentle people, but the old saying you can take the boy out of the farm, but not the farm out of the boy is very apropos here. Any chance people get and over public holidays, they run back to the family cattle stand in their village. I’m not sure what they do there exactly beside stare at the cows.

One thing they have definitely done in the past is have lots of unprotected sex with multiple partners. This socially accepted idea of “multiple concurrent partners” stems from old tribal practices and has led to one of the highest HIV rates in the world with 25% of the population being HIV positive. It is a deeply religious and conservative society, which makes addressing this problem all the more difficult. Nevertheless, the government has hit it head on, and the rate of infection has actually decreased, and over 85% of those infected receive free anti-retro-virals to manage the disease.

The embassy in Botswana is considered mid-sized. The number of actual State Department employees is rather small, and aside from the normal consular, political, and economic work, we are here to support all the other official folks in country. We joint-run a successful international law enforcement academy with the Botswana government that trains officials from all over Africa in everything from anti-poaching to crime scene investigation techniques. The Department of Defense is fully engaged with the Botswana Defense Forces, and a surprising amount of training and exchanges take place between the two organizations. However, all of that aside, the bulk of what we are doing here is through the PEPFAR program (President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief). CDC, and USAID, and Peace Corps are all here in country working on reducing the rate of new HIV infections, treating those already infected, and addressing ancillary health issues like TB. I’m pretty down on foreign aid at the moment (particularly when our my own country is in such a dire economic situation), so I find it impossible to wax eloquently on all the good we are doing here, how the citizens of Botswana are so appreciate, and how the government of Botswana is working to eventually wean themselves off all the free aid, etc. Enough said on that…

Gaborone was built as a capital city after the country gained independence. They chose this site because they could dam up a nearby river and create a water reservoir to draw upon. The city is about 3500 feet above sea level and sits on the edge of the Kalahari Desert about 20km from the South African border. It is for the most part dry and dusty with one large hill on the edge of town. It’s actually one of the fastest growing cities in the world, but still has a population of less than 300,000 and feels like an overgrown village. One would think that starting a city so relatively late, they would learn from mistakes and successes of other cities around the world, but that wasn’t the case here at all. It is lacking a definable town center, and they clearly didn’t know the meaning of the word “zoning” or how to plan for future growth. What you’ve ended up with is a strange hodge-podge of light industrial areas next to housing areas, big empty spaces in the center of town with limited access because of railroad tracks, strange street layouts, random commercial centers, and new housing developments springing up in the oddest of places. Visually it’s drab and architecturally it is a “0.” Most homes were built in the 60’s, and we know what an esthetic decade that was. Up until the last six months, there were no street names, and everything was located by plot number. This might have worked 40 years ago when the city was so small, but now it’s just a nightmare to find anything. Thankfully they have finally begun to install street signs and actual stop lights at intersections.

The climate is a similar to what it was in Johannesburg, 300+ days of sun a year with a rainy season Nov-April, but a bit hotter and dryer here in the summer. I miss the prolific birdlife that I had in Joburg (I put up my extensive birdfeeder pole system 3 weeks ago and haven’t had one bite, very sad), but I do have lots of lizards around the house and there are baboons and vervet monkeys around town. Baboons tend to freak me out so I’m glad they aren’t near me, but I am a bit jealous of my colleagues who have families of vervet monkeys in their yards. I’m told to be grateful because they are pesky little things with opposable thumbs who are always getting into trouble (i.e. opening your kitchen windows and eating all your food). On the down side, I have monstrous spiders around the house from time to time. One type, I refer to as the “pie plate” spider because they are so big and flat, aren’t poisonous, but are so fast that I catch them darting across the wall out of the corner of my eye and almost have a heart attack. The other, the dreaded baboon spider, or Africa’s answer to the tarantula is very dangerous and poisonous enough to kill a pet. They hardly every come inside, but I was lucky enough to find one in my hallway one night. It was so big and chunky that I really didn’t even know what to do. I ended up spraying almost an entire can of Doom on it and the damn thing still wouldn’t die. At one point it flipped over and stuck its legs straight in the air, I thought to myself, “shouldn’t its legs curl up if its dead?” and sure enough, a minute later if flipped over and tried to run away again, sneaky bastard. I ended up getting the broom and beating the thing to death and then felt somewhat guilty about it, whatever…

One huge difference to living in South Africa is that a drive of no more than 20 minutes or so and I’m literally in the bush. We even have our own little game park about five clicks out of town with everything except the big cats and elephants and only 25 kilometers and one border crossing is Madikwe Park in South Africa, one of the best game parks in the region. I really do love getting out into the bush and have myself all kitted up to start weekend camping trips. We had one planned in a park just south of the Kalahari Game Reserve last month, but had to cancel because four of the six going got sick. Camping here is a bit different than you would think because you literally just pitch your tent out in the bush. The area we were planning to stay in was near a watering hole and you would likely have lions and/or hyenas in your campsite at night. Disconcerting to say the least, but everyone says as long as you do not leave your tent under any circumstances, you won’t have any problems. Apparently animals do not comprehend that they could rip the tent with one claw to get to the delicious center.

Anyway, how would I describe life in Gaborone in one word… lackluster, lifeless, monotonous? Really any of those would suffice. It really isn’t a horrible place to live by any stretch. You can drink the water from the faucet; the roads, while inadequate for the number of cars, are in decent shape; electricity works most of the time; crime, although increasing, isn’t as bad as in neighboring countries; there are two movie theaters; and lots of familiar stores I used to shop at in South Africa. The only things missing are decent restaurants, a nice place to go out for a drink at night, and just some basic energy. I’ve talked to many people who’ve spent time all around Africa, and even in some of the more “difficult” cities (Kinshasa, Luanda, Lagos, etc.) there is at least some sort of vibe or an edge. Gaborone is truly the dullest place I’ve ever been in my life. Although life was difficult in Dhaka, at least every day was an adventure. Here, every day is just like the one before it and tomorrow will be.

I know you are probably thinking, “what a total whiner,” but I truly didn’t realize before coming here how difficult true boredom is. Thankfully I have a great group of colleagues at the embassy and have made some friends in the local community to hang out with. Unfortunately, most of my embassy friends are transferring out this winter/summer, so I’m hoping the new group is as good. Another positive thing is being so close to friends in Johannesburg and only two short flights from Cape Town. Although the slackers in Joburg still haven’t come up to visit me here, I’ve been down there regularly to escape. It’s always a bit strange to return to a city in which you once lived, but my friend Angie’s home has become my “home away from home” and makes visits much nicer than staying in a hotel.

Hmm, for not having anything to say, I managed to fill up almost four pages pretty quickly. There are many things I’ve left for future updates, but for the time being, think I’ll leave it at that. I hope you are all doing well, and those of you in the Northern hemisphere are enjoying your well deserved spring. For those of you contemplating a visit to Africa, please don’t let my at times unenthusiastic take on things dissuade you from a visit. This truly is an amazing part of the world with lots to experience and see. You will only have to suffer Gabs to get over jet-lag and as a stopping point to relax and do laundry.