Shivaji Das- “Big skies, vast lands, few people, many knots: A little while spent in Gaborone, Botswana

Every place has its own way of welcoming. Wherever I landed in the USA, I would be escorted to special immigration counters for some motherly intrusive questioning. There, I would often run into my schoolmates waiting their turn for interrogations, turning these occasions into unexpected alumni meets. In Malaysia, the immigration men would always ask with bright eyes if I was the lead character from the smash-hit film ‘Sivaji-The Boss’; losing hope in life as soon as I said no. In Botswana, they just asked me to turn back and leave.

The fault was mine and entirely mine. The officials said, “I will assist you” and then – an hour later – pointed out that while I did have a perfectly valid visa, the counter in charge of collecting the required fees was closed, that day being a Sunday. After three hours of further wait and a few phone calls to people who made more phone calls to people who finally made the right phone calls, I was let in. With all one’s stars in alignment, one could indeed come to Botswana on Sundays. Just when I walked out of the airport after such a prolonged greeting, Botswana embraced me, wrapping me up with a big blue sky. For much of Gaborone – the capital of Botswana – was the sky. It hung enormous over a land as flat as pizza with scant toppings of low roof houses and an unending toupee of thorny shrubs and small trees that gave this place a simple name – the bush.

The sun made up most of the vast skies in Gaborone, splashing bright orange and red over all that came its way during sunset, dying every grain of the soil into a red that stuck and lingered on for eternity.  On this red soil roamed the cheetahs, lions, elephants and giraffes that lured retired Europeans into exclusive game resorts.

I could only go for a short encounter with the animals, a two hour drive through the Mokolodi Game Reserve. Despite seeing all that there was to see at Mokolodi; the hippos, the cheetah, the antelopes, the land turtles and the giraffes – I was unimpressed. It was not because Mokolodi didn’t have any of the big five of Africa (game lingo for lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards and buffaloes). Perhaps, I had been too well conditioned by the comforts of modern life: animals up-close in maximum visibility zoos, large cuddly animal dolls, and the occasional transient emotional low of NGO sponsored pictures on social media of poached animals dipped in their own blood.

Yet, the guides of Mokolodi tried their best to keep my spirits high. When the ride through the trail became especially bumpy, our driver raised one hand and said, “Sit back, relax and enjoy. This is African massage.” Our spotter did his part to glamorize the less-glorified species that came our way.

“Do you see that bird at the entrance? We call it the Go Away Bird, because it calls like its saying ‘Go Away.’ Yes they like to sit at the entrance of the park.”

“Do you see that tree? They are called “Wait a bit” trees because their thorns get into people’s clothes and force them to stop and pause while they are walking.”

“Do you see the weaver birds hanging from the branches of that tree? The female comes to inspect these houses built by males. If it likes, then it will settle down with him. If it doesn’t, it will destroy the nest. What kind of lady manners is that?”

As in many cultures where real animals were being exterminated through deforestation, poaching and climate change while their toys – stuffed, molded, or carved – were multiplying with gusto, leaving factories and artisanal workshops with millions and billions, Botswana too was perhaps seeing this trend where images of mass slaughter of protected animals were contrasted by a proliferation of their cute representations in souvenir shops. I visited one such source of souvenirs, the potter’s village of Pelegano on the outskirts of Gaborone.

The road to Pelegano passed by rows and rows of lemon car shops selling ‘Singapore and Japanese owned cars.’ A mud track decorated with old tires painted in blue took us out of the main road to drop us into the sleepy village of Pelegano. There, we met Martin, the head of the village cooperative of potters. The gallery was choc-a-bloc with elephants, pigs, turtles, and zebras, all in baked clay, some painted, some in their original ochre. I moved around these items like the noblest maiden, careful not to disturb any one of them off their precarious balance with my ungainly backpack to bring upon me the curse of ‘Once broken considered sold.’

Martin explained that the women of the village worked the potter’s wheels and did all the glazing and decorating. The men collected the clay and did the baking.

“I just do the packing,” said Martin. “Because I love packing.”

I chose a piggy bank. 

Martin asked, “Is this for your child?”

“No, it’s to save money so we can afford children.”

Martin clapped his hands, “We Africans love children. I will tell Chogu, the woman who made this pig. She will be very happy.”

The pig’s ears posed a complicated packaging problem for Martin. He scratched his head and said, “This is so interesting, let me think.”

“Ok, I will attack it this way. You must fight the hardest enemy first. So I will first wrap the ears.”

He then spent ten minutes wrapping the ears, making it safe from thermonuclear storms, and then with a quick flourish of limbs, packed up the rest of the pig. He threw it at me. Startled, I managed to catch it.

“See it is so well packed. We can play basketball with it and the ears will still be fine.”

“Have you ever broken an animal?” I asked.

“I can’t, because my teacher taught me that when we make pottery, we give it life by putting a part of our soul into it. And you just can’t break your soul.”

But just as he said that, he turned and collided against a cup that fell and broke.

At that fragile moment, I asked Martin for a discount. He recollected his poise.

“This is our livelihood so my teacher told us to not give discounts. But I can give you something small for free. Choose anything smaller than your palm.”

I loved an elephant but one of its ears was broken.

Martin said, “It was a fighting elephant. It fought the hunters and ran away.”

Many real elephants were not as fortunate. From time to time, pictures emerged from Botswana of elephant mothers whose heads had been hacked into half by poachers. And in a curious twist, the usually politically-correct Botswana government had disarmed the anti-poaching unit.

In contrast to this violence, Botswana, otherwise, was a gentle place. Every time a new person got on board a combi (public transport van), they exchanged hellos with every other stranger. And whenever I asked for directions, they would first tell each other, “Come, let us assist our brother.” But the gentleness was borderline bureaucratic over-formality and as I spent more time there, I began dreading that phrase that had welcomed me first in Gaborone, “I will assist you,” this often being a coded message that actually implied, “I have other things in life, so hang around for a few hours.”

The other phrase I heard too often was “We are not like the rest of Africa.”

The corporate and government types blurted out one glorious statistics after another; that Botswana ranked as a middle income country, that its literacy rate was one of the highest in Africa, that its democracy had never been snapped by dictatorships, that it was ‘almost’ clean from corruption. But the few expats – mostly South Africans – would inevitably counter-quip,

“It is all because of the diamonds. And they have so few people compared to South Africa. They have none of our complications.”

Indeed, in a country nearly double the size of Germany, there lived a population of humans that could not even fill a third of Singapore. They were mostly settled along the boundary with South Africa. The rest of the country – comprising of the famed Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta – belonged to the beasts and small clusters of Basarwa or San tribesmen.

The sparseness of the land expressed itself to me rather bluntly. At the Maitisong Festival where I was supposed to speak, the organizers, the booksellers, and I waited for hours for an audience. When no one showed up, the six of us – and a cat – just sat in a circle to talk. At the open mic segment in the evening, two people turned up but everyone else including the organizers was missing. After waiting long, they left. The crew came just a little later and then began another wait, for a new audience. Eventually we fled from that evening of lonesome silence, leaving behind our hopes of saying a lot to the world.  

The small population of Botswana, however, didn’t deprive it of the diversity that was characteristic of Africa, the continent being the fountainhead of human evolution. The 2.25 million residents of the country – the Batswanas – came in the form of ten major tribes further divided into tribes and clans, Indian and White communities, and other migrant groups from Zimbabwe, Angola, etc. While the arrival of Christianity had weakened the strength and practice of many ancient customs, the tribes still defined identity more than anything else. And tribal land formed a substantial share of all usable land in Botswana.

“‘Because it is our culture’ is a predictable response to questions as to why things were done in a particular way (in Botswana).” So said Wame Molefhe, a noted writer and a friend.

I had spoken to Sechele, a tribal chief of over 300,000 people, in a swanky restaurant where everyone was trendy, up-to-date with the latest European fashion collections.

Sechele was young and rather relaxed about his status. “The tribal leaders don’t have any formal powers now,” he said. “But they are still respected and people take pride in association with such leaders.”

And the connection with our land is deep.  I work in the city in the Government but every weekend, just like everyone else, I have to go back to the bush. All of us have to take care of four things – the family, the cattle, the farm, the house. So every weekend there’s a long line of cars going out of Gaborone into the bush. People would even drive eight to ten hours. When we go to the bush, we unwind, we connect, we rejuvenate. When Christianity came, many of the tribal customs were gradually lost, but still some tribes send their young men for initiation rites.”

I asked him about inter-tribal relations. Botswana hadn’t seen the kind of violence and politicization that had plagued countries like Kenya. People from the major tribes lived in mixed communities and were well versed with the cultural nuances of each other.

“In Botswana, marriage between tribes is common. We say that ‘you find for yourself, you kiss for yourself.’”

Wame, however, held a contrasting mirror to the investor brochures that portrayed Botswana as the glorious land of peace and tranquility – where all tribes got along as Sechele claimed.

“It’s not so,” she said. “The desert tribes like the Basarwa and others are often insulted. The whole society is still obsessed by class, who is a chief, what is someone’s rank in society, etc.”

The Basarwa tribe had indeed faced years of discrimination and land grabbing and were forced to call upon the UN to chastise the government for seizing their land. Nearly century-old policies were in place to slowly morph the identities of the minority tribes into that of the Tswana who formed the substantial majority.

Wame had said, “My issue with the treatment of groups of people who fall outside the ‘eight main tribes’ has to do with the fact that there are major and minor tribes. The problem with this is that the minor tribes are treated unfairly. In the case of the Basarwa, their removal from the CKGR and continuing mistreatment is a big problem. Regardless of what the government is saying, the attitude is that they must ‘fit’ in with what someone somewhere has determined is best for them.”

Julia, a friend who had come along with Sechele said, “I wouldn’t marry a Kalanga, they are too rigid.”

Seychele had laughed out loud then, “Cultures, cultures. Among Kalanga, they have many rules. Like you don’t ask an elder how he is because he doesn’t want to tell about all his body aches. There are rules about when to sit when you visit someone’s home. So it’s all about cultures. They are so interesting.”

Julia went on, “Let’s see more. No Indians for me. I want the art of the Indians but not their culture. Like many of them don’t eat any meat. How can I survive without meat?”

Sechele was still laughing, “Cultures, cultures. Also don’t forget you have to give their men a dowry. Not like us Batswana where we have to give eight cows to get a wife.”

Wame had written about this in many of her stories, about how this practice of bogadi or bride price hadn’t made life any better for the Batswana women because the man then felt that he was entitled to all privileges over the woman just because he had paid a price.

Wame wrote to me once, “Bogadi, the bride price (I hate that translation) because it makes it sound as if the giving of bogadi is payment…whereas, done correctly, it is not. (I think.) But I concede that the lyrics of the song do say, ‘Don’t tread on my wife, I bought her with cows.’ And those are troubling.” 

In my discussion with Sechele and Julia, I had told them about other tribal cultures, of how the Toraja people of Indonesia routinely exhumed their dead to take them out for a walk after changing their clothes. While Sechele was immensely amused with these tales – “Cultures, cultures,” Julia was visibly repulsed, “What kind of culture is that? How can you even bear to think of the dead?”

Wame would tell me later, “We Tswana people are obsessed with death.”

“The funeralling that halts everything. The rituals that are followed. The expense that people incur. The time taken.”

I could understand that because death came too soon too fast in Botswana. Road deaths were frequent; one of the highest in Africa, resulting in Defensive Driving Schools cropping up everywhere. But the meaner terminator was the HIV, so much so that the population faced the threat of complete annihilation in the early 1990s because of the AIDS epidemic when Botswana had the highest infection rate (~30%) in the world. The AIDS epidemic reduced life expectancy from mid-sixties to mid-thirties within a span of 20 years. A series of programs put brakes on the virus although more than one in five remain infected today. (Botswana now ranks 3rd worldwide.)

Every family had a story to tell of premature deaths.  Society’s attitude, therefore, had evolved to become more accepting of HIV patients when compared to other nations where they could face discrimination. Yet stigmas had not been completely eliminated.

Wame said, “Here everyone passes jokes like that man is so thin, must be infected. But they themselves are not getting tested. It’s like the whole nation is busy diagnosing everyone except for their own self.”

It was the women of Botswana who suffered the most from the HIV crisis, and even today their infection rates were significantly higher than for men. At a photo exhibition at the National Museum, I saw a picture of female hands in chains placed on a BMW steering wheel, a reference to the prevalence of Sugar Daddies sponsoring beautiful girls from poor backgrounds.

Itumeleng, a young woman engrossed by this picture told me, “It is sad but this is very common in Botswana. Maybe the whole of Africa. These women are the ones who get HIV so easily. The infected men move around. Just one can spread hopelessness among so many girls.”

Itumeleng was at the gallery with her friend Sethunya. They took turns to explain the photographs one by one, all of abused women: a bride inside a house in ruins, a woman with handprints on her back.

 “It’s an issue often put under the cover,” said Itumeleng. “Domestic violence is supposed to be a common thing and even a justified thing to keep a family functioning.”

“Actually, a lot of the injustice and inequality and violence is inbuilt in Tswana language,” said Sethunya. “Say we have proverbs like ‘a man is an axe, it has to be shared,’ or ‘a woman is all hands’ which means she is only good for labor, or ‘a San man is an animal but a San woman can be made a human if she is raped by a Tswana.’”

Itumeleng reached a conclusion, “You see all these problems are because society expects us to be monogamous. We should all be allowed to have multiple sexual partners, not just the men.”

I joined Itumeleng and Sethunya to attend a reading of one of Wame’s stories titled ‘Sethunya Likes Girls Better.’ The audience was small, mostly women, a few young men, and a big elderly man. A well-known television actress read the story that was an account of a woman living through a mundane marriage who eventually turns lesbian and finds peace with life. With dramatically timed tears, the reader chose to emphasize the lead character’s suffocation in the marriage and deemphasized her homosexuality – a taboo for most in Botswana. The audience too ignored the lesbianism and saw it as a shout for women’s rights. In the discussion that followed, I heard points of contention that had been debated and settled many decades ago – perhaps – in many developed and developing countries: about the need for men to share daily chores, about women driving and so on. Some young men in the room complained that they were feeling marginalized with women getting preference in many initiatives. The burly elderly man, who was from Swaziland, gave it a magical-realist twist, “I am a spiritual healer. In my spirit world, there is nothing like man or woman. We are all the same. So we shouldn’t debate these things like man versus woman.”

Itumeleng cut him off, “You men take many things for granted in Bots, like you will never feel scared of working along other women, but for us woman, the fear of getting raped in Botswana is very real, it’s always there.”

I asked why the majority of writers in Botswana were women. Sethunya replied loudly even though I was sitting next to her,

“That’s because our voices have been suppressed for so long that we are finally bursting to release all the pent-up frustrations.”


Besides HIV infection, Botswana topped the world rankings in another inglorious table, by becoming one of the world’s most unequal countries. And nowhere else in Botswana did the inequality flaunt itself as egregiously as it did in Phakalane. Around a sprawling golf estate that mimicked wild Africa with manicured termite nests, palatial houses cropped up from all eras, confusing my geography and history, there were houses that replicated the Moroccan Riads, the Roman Amphitheaters, the Indian forts, all squatting next to each other and to the occasional modernist glass and boxy concrete enclosures. I was told that these were the houses of retired Afrikaners who had given up on post-apartheid South Africa, and the Indian diamond merchants, the CEOs of banks, and the newly arrived Chinese daredevils who had begun to put up on their doors those flashy red and white strips of upside down fortune characters. Nothing moved in Phakalane except for long cars with space-dark windows. Fat black centipedes, bigger than my fingers, the biggest that I have seen, crawled clueless all over Phakalane, hoping to not be the ones for the day to be flattened by  black tires. The Zimbabwean migrant workers, their heads down, were the only people to be seen in the architectural wonderland of Phakalane; watering plants, walking dogs, washing cars, cars and more cars.

While the rich Batswana convened in the several boxy malls of Gaborone, the others assembled near the street market known as the Main Mall. The Main Mall was the first shopping mall in Botswana but as it aged, it abandoned its cool to the newer glitzy centres such as the Riverwalk. Today, tarpaulin covered shops dominate the pavement of the Main Mall, selling knock-off American gangster clothing and the occasional handicrafts for those tourists who dropped by for a ten minute stroll through ‘authentic’ Botswana. Along the edges of the pavement, small boxy stores – mostly taken over by the Chinese – sold made-in-China traditional wear. I fell for their charm and bought a Mandela shirt, a second-hand white hat and a factory made walking stick. Something made me change into these new and pre-loved wares and as I emerged from the Chinese shop and hit the street, everyone noticed the latest dapper in town.  I caught the stares of all the bomma-seapei , the lunch ladies who sell home-cooked food on the streets. A seller of pirated CDs called me for a high five.

“You’re looking so cool, man. If I could get these clothes, my woman would never leave me.”

The well-built security guard at Payless supermarket – there are none of the fancy South African chains like Waitrose in the Main Mall – followed me quietly as I walked the aisles. To settle his suspicions, I bought another bottle of sour milk or madila, perhaps my fiftieth for the week.

At the Main Mall, I was looking for Spitz, a musician, who busked there. Spitz wasn’t around but I chanced upon his younger brother. Spitz II – I would call him that – moved about with exaggerated gestures, as if he lived every moment of his life as if it was a music video.

“Hei man, you want to buy a cap?

Let’s do a deal.

With a handshake we can seal.

And you gotta film me as I say it.”

I told him that this wasn’t a day for caps and asked if I could call Spitz.

“You can use my phone

But that will cost you a bone.

It’s forty Pula

And yo u gotta film me as I say it.”

I negotiated the price to 10 pula and called Spitz who asked me to come in the evening. But Spitz II was interesting enough.

“See my notebook,

Last night I pulled it off the hook

A song for world peace

May the rich give the poor a fish

And you gotta film me as I say it.”


One day, I met Wame over lunch. She used to work as a biotech scientist. But ten years back, she left everything to take up writing. She was perhaps in her 50s and didn’t wear the long braided hair that most women preferred in Botswana. She looked frail and it was hard to guess at first sight the way she had shaken some parts of Botswana’s society with her bold writing on women’s issues and homosexuality.

We talked about politics.

Wame said “Even though Botswana is a democracy, the same party has been in power always as the opposition is always weak, with leadership issues, and  struggles for power. The current president (Ian Khama was still president at the time of my visit), the earlier President’s son, has been rather ineffective and the family is buying a lot of land in the Kalahari. Earlier, people used to be very vocal politically but nowadays the young are a bit scared to voice their opinion. You know what, to get the feel of the people, the only way is to take the combis. Only there, people speak their mind.”

Our conversation turned to religion, that great African obsession. Wame herself was not religious and had lost faith when she saw her mother – “She was a good person” – suffer a lot from cancer.

“But I don’t declare my lack of faith assertively. It is almost a taboo here. I didn’t follow many customs during my parents’ funerals. Many people were passing comments. I told them, if you have come, try to be compassionate and support me in this pain, rather than criticizing me. The churches also ignore issues about women and domestic violence. They only like HIV because they can use it as an excuse to push their morality.”

In Botswana, Christianity was big business. Facebook was full of campaigns by young pastors in flashy clothes promising a prosperous path to heaven. To get a first-hand experience of the appeal of African Christianity, I walked inside a big white tent in the backyard of a giant shopping mall, one of those several ‘fayafaya’ churches that cropped up impromptu all over Sub-Saharan Africa like mushrooms after a rain. Inside, there were over a thousand chairs stacked on top of one another. At the center was a small podium. The place was built for Sundays when everyone turned up in their best clothes for the service and some socializing. I had walked in on a Saturday when the place had only Oba, the preacher, along with five young children. Oba was perhaps in his sixties. The children were all younger than ten. Oba’s skin was lighter than the rest.

“Come, come, young man. Come join us,” Oba spoke to me with a loving, American accented voice. “Not many people today because they have just got their salary so everyone is wasting time at the mall. But we will pray.”

I took a seat behind the row where the children were seated. Slowly more people came in but some left immediately thereafter. Among those who stayed was a muscular young man with spiky hair, perhaps in his late teens. There was a young lady whose arms were badly burnt. Oba was busy organizing his props, a few books and poster rolls. Suddenly I realized how hot it was inside this tent. 

“Today’s session is about guiding your heart,” Oba began with a loud declaration. He asked the kids to volunteer and read verses from the Bible. But the children were shy and glued to their chairs, their heads down. Oba picked one of them and made him read the verses he had chosen for the day. They were all about the heart. Oba repeated what the boy said, but almost in the style of a rapper, going into rages of emotion and compassion with aaaaahs and ooooohs. The other kids began scratching their limbs and counting the grass.

Soon thereafter, Oba unrolled the teenager-length posters. They could have been from in Viet Cong or from the USSR; bright red portraits in bold outlines on yellowing paper, well used, cracked at parts, taped from behind. The first poster on display was that of an oversized heart of a man being torn apart by an angel and Satan.

“God is the protector, like the security-guard, he protects you from whommmmmm?” screamed Oba with his eyes closed.

There was silence and big eyes across the small audience.

“Whooooo do you need your house to be protected frommmmm?” Oba asked.

One child answered in a barely audible voice, “A thief.”

“A thief, ah a thief. He comes and steals your money, your TV, your chair, your clothes.”


“Just like that, Satan is the thiefffff.”

Longer silence.

I was transfixed.

Oba turned over the poster and the second one appeared: the oversized heart of a hapless black man with bloodshot eyes, inhabited by the Satan with his spear. Forming a pizza-pie pattern around the heart were animal icons – a dog, a snake, a pig, a lion, a frog, a peacock. What could be next?

“What is this animal?” Oba pointed to the dog in the poster.

Again after much prodding, he got an answer from the shy kids.

“Yes, a dog, a dog. It does whatever comes to its mind. Do dogs marry? No they don’t marry. They sleep around with anyone. Like that, Satan wants you to sleep around before you are married. Like a dog. Your school says, no, it’s ok, use condom, but nooooooooooo, noooooooo.”“Are you a dog? God doesn’t want us humans to be dogs.”

The five year old kids listened with blank eyes. I started wondering if dogs used condoms but then Oba moved on to the next animal.

“Now this is the pig. What does it eat? It eats anything. Like that, Satan wants you to go to nightclub. You go to a nightclub and then you do anything. You take drugs. Your life, your life is finished. The police catch you. Your mother cries. You are finished. You don’t want to be a piggggggg.”

Just like that he explained why the Satan wanted us to be the peacock. “A peacock is arrogant, so Satan wants you to be arrogant, boasting about your clothes, your TV, your car, you are in university, look at my jeans, my shoes, I don’t need no God, there is no God; then this frog, greedy, greedy for another student’s pen, stealing it, hiding it, pretending that no one has seen; the lion, always angry, always angry and you go home and beat your father, you go home and beat your mother, you fight with anyone; the snake, the forked tongue, you lie, you say a plane has crashed, have you seen the plane crash yourself, then why do you lie?”

Oba looked as if in deep pain.

He was a man in a different time and place. His eyes never opened but he moved from poster to poster and image to image and kept us all spellbound, his lips and hands moving with muscle memory.

Oba’s next poster was that of a streak of light coming from one corner of the poster that flooded the heart. The animals and the devil were running away from this ray.

“When you guide your heart, it’s flooded with the blood of Jesus. The pig runs away, the dog runs away, the Satan runs away. Look at the man’s eyes. It’s happy.”

The pain from Oba’s face had disappeared.

Oba then showed the poster of a dying man, his heart enjoying a direct luminous connection with a crown above it.

“If you have guided your heart,” Oba swung around his free hand, “when you die, you go to heaven.”

He quickly flipped the chart to show the image of another man, dying, miserable and wretched, Satan poking his heart with a trident.

“But you don’t guide your heart, this is how you die. Look at the man. He is so miserable. Why do you want to die like that? And when you die, you are burned in eternal fire.”

“Eternal fire, a fire that never stops, you burn, you burn and you burn. Do you understand?”

Oba stopped. His jaws were clenched as if his skin had just been kissed by the eternal fire before he escaped from it. My uninitiated mind was running back and forth, imagining a dog wearing a condom, wagging its tail towards the eternal fire.

I was tempted to ask questions, to poke holes, why does God allow Satan free reign till deathbed? What about all the statistical data on the proof of the counterfactual? And would this lovable old man turn demonic himself if and when he was taken to a zoo filled with snakes and peacocks, Satan’s armed forces?

But this was not the time for that. This was the time to sit back, relax, shudder, relieve, and enjoy the show, Oba’s show, a man transmitted by the heavens onto humanity. 

“You say there is no God. Where is the proof? The proof is here – his words, the Bible. His words is the proof that God exists. So that’s why, Shakira, Julliet, Joshua, you must always carry the Bible. You take it to school. You talk about his word to your friends. You take it to the university.”

“Be careful what you seeeeee on TV, be careful what you reaaaad, what books you read. Be careful what you listeeeeen to, you ask those liars have you seen it, then why do you lie?”

Oba then formed three groups, mixing up the children with the elders. In these small groups, we were asked to hold hands and pray.  The elders took the lead, making up prayers as they went, improvising, eyes closed, voices passionate, three small groups ending letters to God. Their ten minutes of eloquent verbiage could be summed up thus, 

“We pray for us, we pray for the Holy Spirit, for the friends and families, for our church so we get the money to build a permanent building, for our friend from Singapore, for his safe trip. Amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, hallelujah.”

Slowly, our group relaxed. Brown, one of the men holding my hand, began chatting with me instead of God. He was a military man who had lived in India for two years.  Walter, the man holding my other hand, was an economist working for the government. They left for a while, leaving me alone with Shakira, the five year old daughter of Walter. Oba urged our group to pray. Noticing my helplessness with holy words, Shakira took charge. She had been silent thus far, just lip-synching with the prayers of the adults. But left alone, she spoke in her baby voice with a fervour and intensity that left me startled.

“Let the Holy Spirit drive away the dog and the pig. Let the Holy Spirit drive away the dog and the pig. Let the.. ” She was almost in trance, a five year old, shaking her head and legs violently.

I woke her up, “Are you scared of Satan?”

“Yes, I am,” said Shakira, her eyes fixed to the grass, her feet dangling from the chair, making circles in the air.


“He will make me sin. Then I will go to hell”

My heart sank to hear the mind of a little girl so burdened by the prospect of heaven and hell at such a tender age.

Once it was all done, everyone came out of the tent to escape the heat. Suddenly these people changed. I replaced God and the Satan as the centre of their attention as each one of them came to thank me profusely for having dropped by and asked about my whereabouts. When I asked the spikey haired muscleman why he came here, he said, “We have song and dance. If you come on a Sunday, there is a lot of good music.” They asked me about the nature of churches in India and Singapore and after I told them that I was an atheist, there was a brief moment of awkward silence before we all became humans again, enjoying just being together in that chance encounter, taking selfies, posing with Vs and shoulder hugs, children making crazy faces at me, laughter bereft of the fear of hell. And I wished that I could have met them every day, just like this, not inside that tent where those terrifying charts were opened.


On my last day in Gaborone, I found myself stuck under that vast reddening sky of Gabarone. The combis were full to the brim. There was an enormous crowd on the road, waiting for a pick-up. All thumbs were pointing to the left. After much hesitation, I too put my thumb up and begin begging for a ride. But I was going to Phakalane. Would the rich of Phakalane dare or care to stop? A van did stop.

“Yes, Phakalane.”

But as I was about to get in, a man held me back.

“Don’t go into this car, brother,” he said.

I looked inside and there was a bunch of women in skimpy clothes who were screaming, laughing and pointing fingers at everything. The music was booming, mashed up with their giggles. The men inside asked me to come in but my shoulder was still hinged to the fingers of the man pulling me from behind.

“Zimbabwean girls,” he said. “It is not what you thought earlier. Come back.”

I understood and moved back but the door of the van remained open as it sped away, spreading the bush with Nigerian beats, Zimbabwean giggles, and South African perfumes.

Car after car passed by. It had already been an hour since my thumb had gone up. The crowd around me was thinning, their thumbs back into their fists, their bums neatly packed into obliging cars that had taken them in. The fantastic sunset had made way for the gloom of street lights. Finally, there was a car for me, a young black driver who worked in Phakalane. Five of us got in. I asked everyone how much I should pay. No one answered. After my repeated pestering, one rider said,

“He is just helping us. So you give him whatever you want or don’t.”

We stayed quiet for the rest of the trip as a giant boom box throbbed in the centre of the car, surrounded by all of us strangers. It was playing “Dumela (Welcome).”