Life In Botswana For Foreigners
Gaborone, (pronounced ha-bo-ro-neh with an ‘h’ that sounds like you are clearing your throat, although called the not-so-melodic “Gabz” by most ex-pats and many Batswana), is a small city of about 200,000 people and an unknown number of cattle and goats, named after the chief who donated the land.
The city was built from a small railway stop in preparation for Botswana’s independence in 1966, so it essentially grew out of the desert. Gaborone has its own kind of beauty that is most apparent at sunrise and sunset when the sun’s colours are at their best, though it appears somewhat washed out about midday, especially under the summer sun. When I lived here in the late 1970s, the city was in a semi-circle on the eastern side of the Lobatse-Francistown road, but now it is a sprawling metropolis with four-land highways and robots and numerous sub-divisions with construction happening everywhere.
The transition to life in Gaborone seems easy on the surface. There are grocery stores with recognizable fruits and vegetables, next to the dried merogo and phane worms, clothing stores with western clothing in fashionable styles (according to my teenagers), telephone and Internet services, cable or satellite TV from South Africa, and a variety of amenities. You can buy your cell phones, speak English, find your wireless connections, organize telephone service, join a gym, go to restaurants and coffee shops, and use credit or debit cards, so sometimes I wonder where I am.
Difficulties arise when one has expectations that if something resembles a service from home, it will replicate that service, which is not always the case. As in the time when the bank said it had been decided that, despite numerous forms and signatures (including my husband’s), my name could not be put on the account, much less on the cheques. No understandable reason, but it couldn’t happen.
When you move to Gaborone, your first priority will most likely be housing and there are a variety of options from which to choose. Some people want to be outside of Gaborone in one of the near-by villages where some lovely houses have been built. In the villages of Mokolodi and Gabane, there are numerous places that use local materials and designs, which blend beautifully into the environment.
On the other side of totally not blending is Phakalane, which has a range of housing available, but more on the lines ranging from suburban-type dwellings to mansions. Many places have swimming pools and lovely gardens, despite the periodic water restrictions, although in some cases, the house takes up most of the residential plot.
If your company doesn’t help you find your housing, there are numerous real estate agents available, and sometimes people work with several different realtors to find the place they want. I haven’t yet understood whether or not the systems are different, the realtors can’t show every house that is listed, or some of them are just stuck in their ways, but it seems you are free to use several different agents at a given time; don’t know whether this will change.
Another word of caution, read your lease carefully, because there is often a clause indicating the percentage the rent will increase on a yearly basis and there appears to be no consistency with this number. Also, landlords can be inconsistent, although like anywhere, some are better than others. If a house appears to be in a dilapidated condition, don’t expect that to change quickly. I suggest that you find the house in the condition you are willing to tolerate, as things take time.
It cannot be said too many times, be sure to ask your real estate agent if there are any unwritten, yet expected, things tenants must do, for example, when vacating or maintaining the house. Many ex-pats have landlord horror stories and security deposit nightmares, due to unwritten expectations. Read your lease carefully, ask questions, clarification and write things down! Enough said…
If one wants household help—particularly to combat the dust problem—it is not difficult to find. Unfortunately, the unemployment rate in Botswana is high and many people come to the capitol in search of jobs. Although there may be a constant parade of people ringing your bell asking for work, given that somehow everyone will know you are new in town, it is best to use word of mouth to find someone.
You can start by asking your contacts whether or not the household help they have knowledge of anyone, friends or relatives, who need work. Most people look for housekeepers and gardeners, although some may hire cooks or guards, as well. My experience is that everyone knows someone who needs work.
Now and again, the Botswana government will crackdown on the Zimbabweans who are working here illegally, hence the stories about household help and other workers just not showing up as expected, because they are being deported, which can be a confusing situation to handle, because while most people just come right back into the country, some do not make it back through the border. To work legally, one needs an Omang card (a Botswana government identity card), which all Batswana have.
English is said to be the official language of Botswana, although the local language is Setswana. At this stage, most people speak English, including grocery stores clerk and household help, so it is somewhat unusual to come across someone in Gaborone who is difficult to communicate with in terms of language.
Additionally, one hears many other languages, African and otherwise, being spoken, which is fun and makes Gaborone feel very cosmopolitan. Setswana can be interesting to study, so you can greet people and ask various questions, but it is not required to get along.
Groceries, markets, and shopping
In terms of grocery shopping and product availability, there are a number of malls with South African-based grocery stores, like Pick’n’Pay, Payless, Checkers, OK, Spar, and SuperSpar. Choppies is a locally owned chain with shops that are springing up all over Gaborone, as well as the rest of Botswana. Although many items are available all the time, like bread, eggs, beef, and biscuits, one cannot always expect certain things to be stocked consistently.
If you are organizing a braii (barbeque, we say at home), things are usually available, meat, salad makings, rice or potatoes. But when my children requested lasagne, it took several shopping trips to various places overtime to assemble the ingredients, particularly the ricotta cheese. This isn’t a problem, however… just a minor inconvenience. I compensate for such moments by stocking up on items that I always want to have available.
Woolworth’s, which has clothing shops as well as food shops, stocks various cheeses, prepared foods, and frozen items not always available at other stores. There are several other speciality-type shops, like World Foods, a German-owned shop on the southern end of town, which has cheeses and frozen meats and fish from all over the world.
Almost everything is imported to all the shops, except eggs, some meats, and various vegetables, so they are dependent on deliveries from South Africa. Most shops let you know when they are having delivery problems, as when the price of petrol soared, but this is only an occasional problem.
Quality of service is a current issue in Botswana and is the topic of at least two talk shows on two different radio stations. Consumer Watchdog is a local organization that takes on consumer issues, some that seem unbelievable, but somehow not surprising after you have lived here for a while. Both shows do service provider celebrations and one had a party with the President of Botswana, Festus Mogae.
A new development may be coming into our lives…we had a taste of random power cuts earlier in the year when South Africa, from whom Botswana buys most of its electricity, could not produce enough to supply themselves and still sell to neighbouring countries.
After a week or so of random power outages, Botswana Power Corporation, in a remarkable move, published a schedule of neighbourhood power cuts, which then never happened as planned due to power coming over the border.
At present, we have not experienced extended, planned or announced power cuts, but there is a random hour or six when the power goes off without warning, depending on where you live. Who knows what the future will bring, but to its credit, Botswana is working on developing local sources of power.
In terms of medical and dental services, there are a number of choices of physicians and paediatricians and dentists from which to choose. As just one example, the Capitol Medical practice at the Riverwalk Mall can be reached at 370-0066/7.
Additionally, there are several different local hospitals with many services, including Gaborone Private Hospital (general information 3901999) and other in villages near Gaborone, but you would want to get a referral to a specific doctor from one of your friends or coworkers. One can also go to South Africa for medical treatment fairly easily. And there are local counselling services available with southern African or expatriate staff if one or one’s family needs this kind of help.
Cultural, social, outdoor
Gaborone and the surrounding areas offer much to do in the way of cultural, social, and outdoor activities. There are two multi-screen cinemas, as well as a film society and other periodic movie offerings by, for example, the Alliance Francaise. Drama and musical productions are often produced by local, as well as international, groups. Various restaurants and tea gardens are available, including several South African franchises, which offer a range of traditional, colonial, and ethnic food choices.
Mokolodi Nature Reserve, south of Gaborone, offers the opportunity to view game – either driving yourself if you are a member or providing safari vehicles for those who are not members. One can also camp or stay in self-catering chalets within the reserve. For those who want a restaurant with a view as an outdoor activity, it too is available in a picturesque spot with a nearby playground.
An added attraction to Botswana in general, not Gaborone in particular, is the number of wonderful places one can visit to enjoy the wildlife. There is the Kutse Game Reserve in the Kalahari Desert, the Tuli Block in the east, Makgadikgadi Pans, Chobe National Park in the north, the Okavango Delta in the northwest, and numerous other sites to visit.
Accommodations range from simple camping all the way to luxury tented resorts, depending on where you are going, whether you are going with children, and what you want to spend. Many places have booking available online or through various travel agents (I have heard that Green Rhino Travel is reasonable). The best information is gathered from expats and Batswana who like to travel within the country.
You may have heard any number of tragic stories about safaris in Botswana, as there have been accidents resulting in the deaths of tourists, expats, and Batswana, but these situations are not the norm. One needs to be aware of what one is doing and exercise caution, when appropriate, i.e., travelling in a caravan through sandy or isolated areas and closing one’s tent at night, for example, in order to be safe and enjoy the journey.
Yes, there are accidents, but most can be avoided by doing adequate research for the trip, carrying the necessary equipment, listening to the guide if you have one, collecting information on the various areas before you embark on the trip, and checking in with Park personnel, among other things. Preparing in this manner can ensure an enjoyable trip to the unique places available in Botswana.
Meeting people, clubs, gyms
While the local market offers some opportunities for expatriate spouses to work, jobs are not always easy to find. Yet, one can stay busy with many other activities, including sports, art classes, and social clubs.
Athletic activities are easy to access, including golf, tennis, swimming or the local Hash, as well as working out at the local gyms, like GymActive in the Village, Energym in Broadhurst, and the G’West gym in Gaborone West. Some have personal trainers (if you need someone to get you or keep you on your programme). There is an indoor heated pool where one can either do swimming lessons or join just to swim laps.
Although winters in Gaborone are not dreadfully cold, one cannot swim in an outdoor pool without a wet suit or polar bear tendencies. Several local hotels also open their gyms for membership and several have outdoor pools, which can be a nice way to spend Sunday afternoon with the family.
Several local galleries offer art classes, including decoupage and pottery. Additionally, one can find individuals who offer various classes in their homes, like cake decorating and quilting. Book groups offer another way to spend time productively and new ones seem to spring up from time to time, although there are several that have been going for years. You can ask around to find one with book choices and people you like.
There are at least two women’s groups, the International Women’s Friendship Group and the African Women’s Group, both of which organize charitable activities, informational talks, and other social events. In addition, Gaborone has a number of churches that hold services in English and Setswana and several of them have women’s groups affiliated with the church.
While Gaborone is not seen as a shopping mecca, there are standard options, like department stores, and unique opportunities, including craft fairs, to exercise the shopping muscles. Additionally, one might find it interesting to seek out shops recreationally, for the thrill of finding something you didn’t know existed (like the time in 1980 when a friend came across wilted celery in a grocery store in Kanye and made a complete ruckus…but maybe you had to be there).
A more recent example was when a friend of mine mentioned finding a fabulous office supply shop, complete with book bags and craft makings. Who would have known…?
Gaborone can be a great place to live but can be challenging, as well. After the initial settling in process, which can go on and on for some, one needs to find the many activities that fill the day, food that fills the stomach, intellectual stimulation that fills the mind, and friends that fill the heart to make it a worthwhile stay….and that can certainly be done. Sala sentle mo Gaborone.