Botswana 1971

by Daniel Gover

Thanks to the War in Vietnam, I became a high school teacher in Botswana, in southern Africa. It’s funny how some of the worst things in the world can lead to detours that turn out well. New York City was the only place in America that I ever heard of that deferred college students and teachers from the military draft. Bless their hearts. With over two million people, my hometown of Brooklyn may have been the largest Draft Board in the country. Several guys who went to college with me became public school teachers in the city. When I was burning out in graduate school, I almost joined the Peace Corps and went to India, but didn’t. Fortunately, the next year I learned of a volunteer teachers’ program in Africa. A guy I knew had taught at a high school in Botswana—Swaneng Hill School. It was started by a South African exile named Patrick van Rensburg who was prohibited from returning to his old country just across the border. His school had become a mecca for anti-apartheid activists, just my kind of place.   I had learned of Apartheid, or racial separation in South Africa, as far back as when we read Cry, the Beloved Country in high school. I wrote a letter, got a job, sent the letter to my draft board and basically dared them to call me back from Botswana. Luckily, they didn’t.

I flew into Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg without a visa. Bad advice from a friend. The South Africa immigration officials wouldn’t let me out of the airport, even to take a train up to Botswana. I spent three days in the transit lounge, a motel right next to the runways along with other undesirables, mostly black Africans in transit. Finally I boarded a small plane for Botswana, despite some very good advice from a psychic relative to never get onto a small plane. Yet within two days in Serowe, the large village where the school was, things began to look up. Pat van Rensburg now considered the school too elitist and had moved on to develop the Brigades, skill training programs for kids who couldn’t get into or afford high school. He had also begun to set up a Producers’ Cooperative called Boiteko to aid poor people in the village. During my first week he and his crew were digging a well by hand down on the land. Of course I volunteered for the work and was lowered about thirty five feet down what looked like a wishing well. I sat on a water pump at the bottom and banged away at the rock floor beneath my feet with hammer and chisel. Then I loaded up a bucket with the rock and they hauled it up to the top for emptying. It banged against the sides of the wall and pretty much soaked me as it went up. I wouldn’t have minded because I was wearing a hard hat, but the water that sprayed me was cold. Funny how the bottom of the well was much cooler than the warm air at top. Botswana is on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, a hot and dry country in September. It’s scrub bush and cattle country, something like I’d imagine West Texas might be like. So I liked banging on the rock, didn’t really mind that the bucket soaked me going up, but there several four or five inch lizards that fell out of the walls into the water at my feet and then scurried away. Sometimes they landed on my shoulder or back first. I tried to befriend them and ease myself by singing a song, “Hello Frank the lizard, you’re a good friend of mine.” They must have heard me up top, because Pat yelled down,” Don’t mind the lizards. They’re harmless.” Easy for him to say; he lived there. Still, I was proud to have helped dig a new well in southern Africa and felt immediately that we were in the vanguard of social change. When Peter Hawes built a pottery at Boiteko, Hugh Pearce and I joined him to feed wood into the kiln fire every five minutes all night. He made this hand-thrown heavy pottery, plates and mugs in earth colors. The white staff loved and bought his pottery, but most of the Africans preferred the thin metal and enamel painted plates and mugs that looked liked they had served the old Forty-Niner miners back during the California Gold Rush.

Swaneng Hill School was a wonderful place to teach in 1971. It had over five hundred students, many living in dormitories, some commuting from the village of 20,000 people. The staff of forty teachers were mostly white ex-patriots from Britain, South Africa, the US, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Senior students prepared for the O level Exams from Great Britain. The literature curriculum I taught them included Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: a perfect trio for an American teacher.   I was able to rent the American movies of these books from MGM in Johannesburg, starring Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck to show to the students. It led to me ordering films for the whole school shown outdoors in a classroom courtyard on Friday nights. Our biggest hits with the students were the films of Elvis Presley, especially Viva Las Vegas [with Ann-Margret] and Speedway [with Nancy Sinatra]. The faculty craved more dramatic fare like Lord of the Flies or their favorite, Far From the Madding Crowd. The one film that everyone loved was That Man From Rio starring Jean Paul Belmondo, a French New Wave action film. We charged five cents admission, but I think the projection crew let their friends in for free. I only got into trouble once as a teacher. When my younger students were reading Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, I had them beat out tom-tom rhythms on their desks. That drew complaints from neighboring teachers, but we worked it out. The younger students were only beginning to read African writers like Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi when I was there.

Nevertheless, Swaneng Hill School was not above having a classic student school riot. It grew out of the protest against the hated yellow mealie meal. Corn or mealies are white in southern Africa, unlike the US where corn is yellow. Botswana had been given free sacks of yellow mealie meal by the American government. They were labelled Alianza Para el Progresso, originally meant for an aid program in Latin America created by the Kennedy administration. Some of that corn meal found its way to our school in Serowe as redirected food aid on a very slow boat. Our students complained that it didn’t taste the same, they claimed to have found a few bugs in it, and worst of all, it was yellow instead of white. Color, it turns out, is important in food. One night a crowd of the older boys broke into the kitchen storeroom and threw the hated yellow mealie meal around the school grounds. Then they charged up the hill where the teachers lived and broke several windows with rocks while yelling at the staff, before finally subsiding back down to their dormitories. As I said later on after the dust settled and we comforted our colleagues whose windows were broken, the students got one glorious night of rebellion and the faculty got an entire month of terrible meetings. We were even lectured by a white neo-colonial bureaucrat who blamed us radicals for the riot. In the end after a government inquiry, the English headmistress was replaced by one of the Motswana teachers. I was almost fired during the strike for tutoring the ten student leaders who had been expelled, but in the end wasn’t. Pat van Rensburg promised to hire me as a Boiteko baker which I would have liked. From teacher to baker, it sounded right to my ear. Maybe I could have introduced the New York bagel to Botswana. I can just hear some of my snarky Canadian friends telling me, “It’s okay Gover, but it’s no Montreal bagel.”

During my two years in Botswana I met some of the most interesting people in Botswana including two younger, hip chiefs. My English girlfriend taught at the secondary school in Mochudi and she introduced me to Linchwe, the hippie chief who boasted that he bought his flowered bell bottom pants on Carnaby Street in London where Mick Jagger shopped. Linchwe might have been the ambassador to the US for a while because he had a photo of him shaking hands with Nixon in the White House. Under his tuxedo he was wearing what I identified as a white ruffled Rock n Roll shirt. He must have also been Botswana’s ambassador to Ethiopia because he told me what it was like to meet the Emperor Haile Selassie. When he went to present his credentials in Addis Ababa, he was told to watch for three marks on the rug in the enormous throne room. As he approached the Emperor’s throne, he was supposed to stop at each mark and bow, then approach closer. He finally got to shake the Emperor’s hand and give him his credentials. After a minute or two of talk, he turned and walked out.   But as he got to the back of the room he heard a small voice say, “Don’t you turn your back to me.” Apparently he was supposed to back out and bow three times. No wonder Ethiopia had some problems after the reign of Haile Selassie.

Another chief I met in Serowe was Sekgoma Khama, the cattle baron of the royal family who was related to the first President of Botswana Seretse Khama and was the grandson of Khama the Great. The latter was one of the three chiefs and kings who got Queen Victoria to protect Bechuanaland, Lesotho and Swaziland from the expansion of the Boers in the white republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, then awash in new money from gold and diamonds mines, and then from Cecil Rhodes the British colonialist. When I was a neighbor of the writer Bessie Head in Serowe, she used to tell me how much she hated Cecil Rhodes. Many times. Anyhow, I met Sekki as he was called when he was going out with one of my co-teachers, Alison. She was a bit of a Red Hot Mama with many male admirers. Sekki could do a mean Elvis Presley impersonation, and I once accompanied him on “Jailhouse Rock.”   At one of our parties he asked me if I knew the Bob Dylan song “Lay, Lady, Lay/ Lay Across My Big Brass Bed?”   Did I? I knew every Dylan song ever recorded, I boasted. Okay, but had I ever seen a big brass bed?   I was stumped. Couldn’t say as I had. Seki offered to show me his grandfather’s big brass bed in his own bedroom. I jumped at the chance. When he drove a bunch of us to his big house on the outskirts of Serowe, there in his bedroom was his big brass bed. And it was big. The light gleamed off the brass like a gas station on a lonesome desert highway. I wondered if it had ever been Khama the Great’s bed. After all, it was truly Great. I had read that Khama was a very devout Christian and had helped bring monogamy to the Bamangwato people in Serowe, maybe all the Batswana. I went home singing Dylan that night.

Alison had many exciting adventures in Botswana that I recall. One night a bunch of us Swaneng teachers climbed into Hughie’s land rover and headed into the town hall to hear a new hot band from South Africa. At the end of the evening Ali told me that she was going off with the guys in the band. She really took a shine to their lead singer. I don’t remember if he was the guy who started off with Percy Sledge’s “Live in South Africa” album before launching into “When a Man Loves a Woman.” But I do remember that he was a really good singer. When we all got back to the land rover, Veronica asked me where Allison was. I told her that she had gone off with the band and their lead singer. Suddenly Veronica seemed to sober up and said, “I don’t think we should go back to Swaneng without Ali.” Most of us were tired and just wanted to go to sleep, but I decided to stick up for freedom. “But Veronica,” I said, “Ali’s with the Lead Singer.” “I don’t care,” she said. “I don’t think we should leave her by herself.” “But she’s not alone,” I said. “She’s with the Lead Singer in the Band. The Lead Singer in the Band!” I swore I could read his character from his singing voice. After some back and forth, Ali and I won out. The others were just too tired. We went home without her. She turned up the next day—just fine. Maybe I was young, reckless and crazy, but it was the spirit of the time: the spirit of Rock n Roll.

Bless you, Botswana, and thank you.