Arrival in Botswana: Elections, Friends, and a Used Car

Dumêlang borra le bomma! That’s greetings in Setswana, the national language of Botswana.

After a 7-hour flight across the Atlantic, an 11-hour layover in England, and an 11-hour flight to South Africa, I boarded a small twin-engine prop plane for my final flight to Botswana. My equipment backpack was too large for the overhead bin, so I strapped it into the seat beside me. I buckled my own seatbelt and closed my eyes for a nap. A little less than an hour later, the plane touched down in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana, and the real journey began.

Ed Pettitt, a friend who has been advising me over the past couple of months, met me at the airport. Ed spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in New Xade (pronounced Ka Day, with a click sound preceding the K), one of the San resettlements, and has played a key role in bringing my project to life. I’ll be staying with him for the next nine months when based in Gaborone.

A member of parliament waves to his supporters.

A couple of days before I arrived in Botswana, the country had held elections. The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) won decisively, but it was still the closest election since independence in 1966, with 17 seats taken by the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), the major opposition party. Ed and I mused about the outcome on the way back to his house and he informed me that members of parliament were being sworn into office later that day. After dropping off my bags, I went to parliament to watch some of them take their oaths. The officials walked by my spot in the crowd, many of them holding their hands above their heads in the shape of an umbrella, the symbol of UDC. Perhaps because of the many changes I’m sure to face in these upcoming months, I wondered then whether the election will bring significant change to Botswana.

After watching some of the parliamentary proceedings, I met Ketelelo and Philesco, both of whom are San and come from New Xade. Ketelelo goes to school at Maru-a-Pula in Gaborone on a government scholarship, and Philesco was in town visiting for a couple of days. The three of us walked around the central part of the city. They showed me some of the main attractions like Rail Park Mall and the newly built Masa Centre, where we stopped for sodas.

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Ketelelo.

While we sipped Coca-Cola, Ketelelo chatted about life in Gaborone. We talked about his studies at Maru-a-Pula, the election, and eventually found ourselves on the topic of resettlement. Ketelelo has a unique perspective. Resettlement brought formal education to New Xade. Ketelelo excelled at his schoolwork there and later graduated at the top of his class in Ghanzi – the first San to do so. As a result, he received a government scholarship that brought him to study for his A-levels at Maru-a-Pula, a premier institution in the capital. Ketelelo is currently applying for colleges in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and his future seems full of possibilities.

“If resettlement hadn’t happened,” Ketelelo says, “I wouldn’t be here now.” He has an interesting story, and I’ll be following him with the camera for the next couple of weeks to learn more about his life and hopefully share some of that with you.

I look forward to getting to know Philesco better, too. I’ve hired him to help me out over the next nine months: to teach me Setswana and G//ana, one of the San click languages; to serve as translator and cultural mediator; and to help navigate the long road to New Xade.

Given that long road – New Xade is a 10-hour car trip from Gaborone – I also bought a used car. It’s a Nissan X-Trail and has four-wheel drive to help with the sandy roads to the settlement. Having relied on public transportation in New York for a couple years, I never needed a car, so this is my first one – which is exciting! It’ll certainly be a unique first car experience as I adjust to driving on the left side of the road here in Botswana.

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Posing with my new car.

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Daniel Koehler, of New York City, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. He will film a documentary on the San living near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, focusing on the loss and change of their culture.