Gaborone Cows

Cows Near Princess Marina Hospital

Gaborone is a funny city. In some areas, you can feel like you’re right at home- great food, shining windows, and diverse groups of people. But when you’re driving between those areas, you will invariably see something that you don’t expect in a city: cows.

They’re everywhere. With the cow to vehicle density in the capital, it doesn’t take much imagination to see why there were more carbon emissions in Botswana from cattle flatulence than vehicles until earlier this decade. There is nowhere in the city that you will be certain to avoid a herd of cattle. Central business district? They might be there. Near some of the very nice private schools? You’ll be greeted with a ‘moo.’ Near or at a major mall or hospital? Yup, there too. I may actually see more cows here than I do in the small town in rural Michigan where I grow up. I certainly see them more close-up here since they’re right on the side of (or in) the road.

The system in eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland) is similar, and my friend who’s from there described it this way- “In the US, you build structures to contain your livestock where you want them to stay. Here, we build structures around the things we want to keep cattle away from.” Gardens are fenced, houses are fenced, etc.

Cows by the road

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More Cows

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So who owns them? Well, someone- all the cows have an owner who allows them to roam, and will travel around the city (or village or wilderness, depending upon which part of the country) to find them and sell them at the market. They’re often worth P3500 (about $350). This free-range method certainly isn’t because cattle are unimportant. Traditionally cattle are used as currency, including for dowries at weddings- I’m told 8-12 cattle is generally a fair price for a beautiful bride. Some families allow these transactions to be made in cash, but others will exclusively accept cows.

Cows on the Soccer Field

One thing you may be wondering is what the common procedures are if something happens to a cow while it’s wandering. If it’s stolen, there are very strict laws that would make it very hard to sell, unless you had your own butcher and storefront on the black market. However, exporting the beef would be very challenging without the proper documentation. Perhaps more interestingly, there is also the issue of vehicle-cattle accidents, as they have free range of the road. It’s actually a substantial problem. It’s not uncommon to see them dead by the side of the street after getting hit, and a large part of the reason I don’t drive at night outside the city where there are higher speed limits but equal numbers of cows. When a cow is hit, theoretically to incentivize farmers to keep them away from roads, the farmer must pay the cost of vehicle repairs. However, mysteriously it seems that farmers whose cows are hit can rarely be found in these instances. So either the meat will be claimed by no one, or the entire community will together eat its meat at a big BBQ (known as a braai in this part of the world).

So while Botswana’s economy has changed substantially and is a modern place in many ways, it still shows signs of a largely rural, cattle based country, even in the capital.

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