Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cultural excursion of Southern Botswana

            Last weekend, the University of Botswana took the international students on a cultural excursion to the surrounding area of Gaborone. On this excursion we were introduced to the practices of the traditional Kgotla in Botswana. We also spent the night at a cultural lodge, and took a ride around the Mokolodi game reserve. This trip exposed us to some of the traditional practices of Botswana that have helped shape the culture and society here. We also got to see the landscape and wildlife that make the country the beautiful attraction that it is.
            First things first, when you go to see a Kgotla, proper dress is required. It is seen as a sign of disrespect to dress immodestly when visiting a Kgotla. Now, apparently I mistook the ‘modest’ request for ‘dress up’ because I seemed to be the only person, especially male that decided to dress up for this event. But no matter, better to be too respectful than not enough I suppose; and I sported my shiny black shoes with pride.
We boarded the bus at 8:00am, and set out for the village of Kanye, which is about 90km southwest of Gaborone. While most of the students were fast asleep for most of the ride, I couldn’t help but seize another opportunity to take in the land of Botswana. A good conversation with my seatmate also worked wonders in the effort to remain awake on this early morning drive. The skepticism that had grown in me about the beauty of Botswana as a country as I researched the country prior to my departure has all but been obliterated after only a few excursions around the Gaborone area. The land of Botswana in the Gaborone area is that of large rolling hills, which could almost be referred to as ‘little mountains.’ In addition they are covered in richly green trees and grass. We did, however, learn that many of the vegetation here have evolved painful defense mechanisms, including thorns and fiber glass-like material which causes painful rashes.  
Upon our arrival to the Kgotla in Kanye, we were directed toward the area where meetings and trials are held. We were all seated, with a stern warning not to enter the elevated stage area, as this was reserved only for a select few. Our host then explained to us some of the more traditional practices both historically and contemporary that involve the kgotla. The term kgotla can refer both to the meeting place, as well as the meeting itself. Basically a kgotla is a public meeting, where, traditionally, a tribe or village would gather to discuss issues. It is headed by a kgosi, or chief, but discourse between all those present is allowed and encouraged. Because this represents the traditional form of governing in Botswana, it is said that the transition to a contemporary democracy was very smooth due to the history of acceptable discourse. Although they are traditional, the kgotlas still exist in practically every village and work in concurrence with the government of Botswana. Many minor disputes that arise in a community are still resolved through a kgotla. The interaction between the two forms of governing is something that is still not completely clear to me, and which I hope to learn more about throughout my time here.
Our next major stop on this trip was a visitation to a pottery workshop. Here a small group of Batswana create hand-made pottery, which they sell both in a local shop, as well as on a larger scale to the government of Botswana. It was interesting to watch as they explained the process of creating this art, and then demonstrated to us several of the steps, including forming the pot on the pottery wheel. While in general, there was not much here that is truly unique to Africa, the touch and smell of clay always reminds me of home so I especially enjoyed this visit. Thanks Mom J
Next, we visited a site in the country where rock paintings that are estimated to be around 2000 years old have been discovered. Our tour guide walked us around this cliff and pointed out the shapes to us. At first glance, I could not see the shapes and was starting to think that the ‘paintings’ may be nothing more than natural coloration of the rocks. However, once I got close, the shapes became clear and animals could be seen in several locations around this cliff. After the tour, several of us climbed to the top of the cliff and were able to catch a beautiful view of the Bots countryside.
The day culminated with an overnight stay at a cultural lodge, where tents and huts were prepared for us to stay. In addition, the lodge was set up as a traditional village, where we were introduced to some Botwana dances, games, and traditions. One game which was particularly interesting was some sort of hybrid between tick tack toe and chess. Played on a sheet of metal with a board chalked in and rocks used as game pieces. My first and only attempt at this game was a success as I beat a local Motswana, although two of the older men played more of the game than I did, so I can’t really claim the victory. As the evening wore on, the rain came and sent us scrambling for cover. We were able to wait out the rain under a pavilion and stay relatively dry. The rest of the night was spent socializing with local and international students, making new friends and getting to know others more.
The next day we visited the Mokolodi animal reserve. Upon our arrival we were served with champagne and orange juice, with a choice of mixing our having the drinks separate. It was an interesting welcome to an animal reserve in the middle of a country area. After introductions and drinks, we loaded onto the tour trucks, and began our drive around the park. We saw many interesting animals on this drive. The most common animal of the park is the impala, of which we got many great views. We also saw kudus, zebras, and wart hogs. The lone cheetah of the park is kept inside a fenced area, so a good view is rare unless a special tour is given. We were lucky enough to spot the cheetah, however he was laying in the grass and our view was far from clear. In my research of this country prior to departure, I read about the danger of kudus in driving at night. I read that sometimes kudus will jump into your car, causing an accident. By this description, I was under the impression that these were some kind of small rodent-like animal. To the contrary, kudus are large moose-like animals that have massive vertical leap abilities for an animal of this size. The tour-guide told us that these animals can jump 3 meters high, and are attracted to headlights of cars, which they try to jump over at night, hence the danger. Obviously this is a much greater risk than was conveyed in my guidebook. It also makes the danger of deer in Nebraska seem almost trivial
After the tour of the park, lunch was provided to us near a lake in the park. Unfortunately, the rain came again, and this time our only cover was the tour trucks. Fortunately the trucks were equipped with water-proof tarps, however the rain still soaked the edges, forcing us to huddle toward the center in vain attempts to stay dry. Once the rain had finally slowed to a drizzle, the drivers decided it was okay to head back to the welcome area of the park. This was quite an interesting drive, as the driver had to keep a good speed so as not to get stuck. Trying to take pictures of the after effects of the rain on the park was also quite the challenge, as major bumps jolted me quite severely on this high speed exit of the park. Despite the grungy feeling of being partially soaked from the rain and then getting on a bus with 50 other rain-soaked students, the experience of seeing the exotic animals as well as simply enjoying the rain and its affects on the park was well worth it.
Once we left the park, we finally returned to Gabs, where we were free to shower, sleep and recover from a long and exciting weekend.

I hope all is well back in the States, as well as in other parts of the world that may be tuning in. I experienced my first clinic visit today, so my next post will finally enter into the issues of healthcare in Botswana well as my personal observations.

Stay well!

Our welcome drinks at the Mokolodi reserve
The Kgotla, with some international students checking it out

A view of the 'village' of Kanye

The international group trekking a forest

'Joe' shaping a pot

The finished product

The Kgosi of our cultural lodge performing a dance

This is the game I was talking about

Can you see the giraffes?

The countryside of Botswana

This is a kudu 

Impala posing for the camera

The beginning of the rain

A 'puddle' on the exiting drive. This was not here 2 hours ago


  1. WOW!!! The impala are gorgeous, the cave paintings way cool, and the colors beautiful, but the one place I wish I could have seen in person was the Potter Studio!! Amazing talent!
    Thanks for all the detail, Tom! Stay well!

  2. Tom, Thanks for creating your blog. For a moment while reading and looking at those amazing pictures, I feel as though I am in Botswana with you . Great job!