When I arrived to Peru, I was very keen on picking up on all the minute differences between there and back home. The language, the transportation, the clinic, the architecture, etc. In Guatemala I still remember looking out the car window immediately after arriving to take in and digest the unique flavors of the country as far as I could tell through a window. I was wondering how similar my experience in Gaborone, Botswana would be to these past trips. A few days in, I realized that instead of feeling the strength of the differences between places, I’m actually most overwhelmed by the similarities. I feel like I’ve moved back to the Midwest.
I realize that many of you are already wondering whether I’ve gone off the deep end only 2 weeks in. But stick with me, I think you’ll agree.
The city of Gaborone does not inherently emanate African culture from its pores in the way you may expect; this is because it’s such a modern city, constructed in the 1970s to be the new capital after the British left in 1966. It is of no fault of the Batswana (people from Botswana), but rather is because the more historic capital of the Tswana people, Mahikeng, was kept within South Africa because the British liked it and the surrounding land. Classic colonialism. If you were to ignore the color of people’s skin and just look at the buildings, you could believe that the Central Business District (CBD) was in any middle-sized American city, and many of the smaller shops could also match our standards of stores in the US.
Yes, as you are well aware if you’ve been following the blog, they drive on what I continue to regard as the incorrect side of the road here. But other than that there are some parallels in driving with my experience back home. This is very much a commuting city. Many people live outside the city in smaller towns and commute in on weekdays to get to work, so there are many cars on the road at both rush-hours. It reflects how rural of a country this is as well, with only 2 million people in a landmass comparable to Texas (population >20 million). Within the city, driving is still essential. There are some combis (shared vans which operate on set routes for public transit), but there are no obvious maps and they don’t say their stops like would have been done in Cuzco; they aren’t an easy option for foreigners. Since the city is so large, it can also take a long time to get to a destination using these. Taxis are around, but get expensive if you have to use them every day. So driving seems to essentially be required, and while differences exist, there are striking parallels between the transportation options in Grand Rapids and Gaborone.
Social norms here may be more similar to my home here than in Boston. Initially I thought having to say hi to everyone on the street would be exhausting, then I realized that it’s no different than what I experience in rural West Michigan when I go home. Whenever you see someone, you should at least do a basic greeting in both places; slightly different than in Boston where the protocol is to ignore that the person exists in every way except altering your path as necessary to avoid crashing. The warmth of people here goes well past the greetings though; everyone continues to be very welcoming and kind to me, as I’d say pervades my home in western Michigan.
Christianity is no doubt the dominant religion in Gaborone. Though Grand Rapids, MI has the highest number of churches per capita in the US, this dominance is even more evident here. On Sundays, the streets are empty. This is not because people are missing church to sleep in. It’s because almost everyone is at church for much of the day, some in the city and some in the smaller towns where they live. Many people’s WhatsApp default messages are positive Christian messages instead of “Hey There! I am using WhatsApp,” which is the default most of us don’t change in the US. After attending my first church service here last Sunday, it’s no mystery that the strength of the Church in the global south is still extremely strong.
The Radio Station:
I really should get a good antenna so I get more than one station, but “Radio Botswana” has a cow mooing in their tag-line for the station name. If you can think of another place more likely than the Midwest to feature cattle on the radio, I’d like to hear about it.
There are of course a number of differences which I’ll explore more in the future posts (food, culture, language, history, etc), but that hasn’t been my main take-away from these 2 weeks here. When I first started traveling internationally in 2014, I started learning how big the world was. Now I’m learning just how small the world is.