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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
A place much like home

Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Febraury 12, 2004

Gabarone — The realization crept up on me slowly. After a day or two in Botswana, the country began to remind me of somewhere. Somewhere peaceful, stable, prosperous, with a long history of tolerance. With a quiet sense of superiority. With an uneasy relationship with a much larger neighbour to the south. Botswana, where prized cows occasionally amble into the highway and the daytime temperature frequently hits 40 degrees, is actually a lot like ... Canada.

Botswana has been a stable and prosperous democracy from the day of its independence in 1966. Its first president, the revered Seretse Khama, married a white English woman named Ruth Williams, and the country became a racially-tolerant haven on the doorstep of apartheid South Africa.

Botswana is, by neighbourhood standards, immensely wealthy. It is the largest exporter of diamonds in the world (and the EU's largest supplier of beef). The currency, the pula (named for the cherished rain) is one of the strongest in the region, and Botswana's credit rating occasionally surpasses that of nations such as Japan.

A transparent, fiscally prudent government has channelled the diamond wealth into social services. And so Botswana has, by African measures, excellent public health, access to safe drinking water, and education. In fact, the government spends more money on education per capita than any other in the world. Any student who finishes secondary school with good grades is entitled to a fully-paid university education, anywhere in the world they want to go, for as long as they want to study (providing they agree to work for the government when they come home).

Like Canadians, the Batswana (as the people are known) are obsessed with their place on UN indices – until the late 1990s, Botswana consistently ranked at the top for the developing world, with a rate of per capita income growth that matched Singapore. In recent years, the plague of AIDS has knocked Botswana out of middle-income-country status, a source of immense frustration here. This is the most-infected nation in the world, where an estimated 37.5 per cent of the adult population has HIV/AIDS, but it is also the only African country with a national program to provide free anti-retroviral drugs to any HIV-positive person who needs them.)

The country is gripped by a love-hate relationship with its mighty neighbour to the south (sound familiar?) Botswana's televisions are full of South African channels, its malls full of South African stores. South African companies dominate most sectors of business here. Rural Batswana have gone by the thousands to work in South Africa's mines, while many of those who make it big in business or entertainment here also go south to the bright lights of Johannesburg.

Like Canada, Botswana is physically vast, with a very small population (just 1.6 million people). Almost half of those people live in the capital, Gabarone – Gabs, as its known to many of its denizens. It is a startlingly prosperous city, full of gleaming buildings; seven new malls have been built in the past two years. Botswana TV has a headquarters the CBC would envy. Some 750,000 people – almost half the population – own cellphones. The country also has the largest number of Range Rovers in the world. Not per capita, the largest number in the world.

(This is no African utopia, of course: there are still plenty of villages where people must draw water from a central well, and mining is still the largest employer. The town of Selibe-Phikwe is believed to be the centre of the global AIDS pandemic, with an adult infection rate above 70 per cent. Funeral parlours across the country operate 24-hour service.)

In much the same way that Canadians who live thoroughly urban lives often hold cherished ideas about the wilderness, the Batswana's traditional ties with cattle have endured into the modern age. Any aspiring entrepreneur – and even the new-economy tycoons – have their wealth stored in the form of glossy auburn longhorns. There are some three million cows in the country today, or roughly two per person. The government aims to build the national heard up to five million beasts by the end of next year in an effort to improve wealth distribution; the tourism industry, the key earner after diamonds, has had almost no trickle-down effect. And while many people now make their home in the cities, if you ask them where they're from, people invariably name their “home village”, the rural area where their cows graze.

And for all its successes, Botswana remains a modest place. The president, a disciplined man whose one known vice is the occasional glass of good red wine, provoked a national nagging sessions over his car. President Festus Mogae drove the same presidential Bentley that had served his two predecessors since Independence. But that was 1966, and by last year, the car was old. The President resisted urgings to get a new one; the old car was perfectly serviceable, he said. But after the presidential Bentley broke down repeatedly and the newspapers featured a series of photographs of the president stranded at the roadside, the Batswana raised a hue and cry until their parsimonious president got himself a new vehicle.

People in Gabarone like to tell this story, when they relate it, in a self-deprecating and amused fashion, they sound positively – Canadian.

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