Gaborone is not a bore

Typing in ‘Gaborone’ in the New York Times search engine and taking a look at the first 21 articles makes for some curious maths. Of these first 21 pieces, 5 were published in the 1970s, 7 in the 1980s, 2 date back to the 1990s and 7 were written in the 2000s. The average publication year of the first 10 is 1989. Of the first 13 articles, the second most recent one (from 2003) is off Alexander McCall Smith’s hand, the British author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, that take place in Gaborone. He opens his article with

What strikes you first is the sky and its emptiness. There is nothing there, just air of a blue that is so attenuated that it is almost white. You stand there, on the tarmac of Seretse Khama Airport, you breathe in the dry air, feel the sun upon your neck and you know that now you have reached the edge. Just a few miles away, over the scrub plain, is the Kalahari and its singing emptiness.

The latest piece that mentions Gaborone went online last year and covers the country’s mining industry. It refers to Gaborone as “Botswana’s capital city, which is an unappealing mix of scattered one-story concrete boxes.”

It’s not just the New York Times who gives the impression that Gaborone is an utter bore. Prosperous, but a bore. For the tourist, the city may serve as a stopover to the country’s wildlife and enchanting nothingness. To the business (wo)man, it might be an economic opportunity to get a sweet slice of the mining cake. Yet reasons to stretch a visit beyond the strictly necessary are hard to find. Has this dull heart of emptiness simply stood still under its comfortable and continuing diamond shower?

It hasn’t. An exploratory drive through the city presents fresh business parks, rapidly developing construction sites and other new developments. Close to the (many) malls, you’ll find fine dining, sushi, global cuisine, coffee bars, lush tea gardens and (behold!) even night clubs and bars. There’s a yacht club, a museum with an art gallery, cinemas and even a wildlife park at only a stone’s throw away.

It might not be Dakar or Nairobi, but Gaborone certainly does not look empty.

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Comments

comments

Maria Hengeveld

Maria Hengeveld is a graduate student at Columbia University. Previously she lived in Cape Town, South Africa.

9 Comments
  1. These are the first two sentences of what the American Express Centurion Concierge had to say about Gaborone back in 2007. I doubt much has changed on their end.

    “This sprawling and unattractive capital is not one of our favorite African cities-we recommend moving on quickly.”

    In addition to the attractions listed in this article, I’ll add a few of my favorites. True, there are new, fancy malls like Riverwalk and Game City. These, however, remind me of the Jo’burg staples (e.g., Sandton City and Rosebank) in which one can finally let down their guard: the battle for the public sphere is off in these sanctuaries of commerce. Security guards assure that you can purchase in peace.

    Rather than go there–or in addition to going there–one of my favorite things to do was, at lunch, to walk down Main Mall and buy some food from the basadi bagolo who have their tables set up. I then just sat on a step there and ate as time ticked by. You can get the flavor of Botswana pretty well this way. The well-heeled of the local embassies, ministries, and banks walk by, chatting, as do the workers who sweep the dirt out in front of those places. Instead of buying sushi in a mall, why not try some seswaa, stampa, and morogo, and strike up a conversation with your bench- or step-mate. (You’ll save a pretty Pula, too.)

    I also enjoyed hikes up Kgale Hill. From the top, you can see hills in South Africa, and you can picture the ’85 raid (if you really want). The Craft Market in Broadhurst is an expat fav and is worth a visit, as is Botswanacraft Marketing. Those Rep Gabs shirts pictured above are pretty sweet, though. Must be from that sweet shop in Riverwalk.

  2. The description that Lauren Beukes has stuck in “Moxyland” about two of her characters visiting Gaborone, is pretty hilarious. And, I hope satirical.

  3. Interesting stuff, but I can’t say that any city becoming further integrated into globalized capitalism is cause for celebration.

  4. @DJ SHREK, I agree, more malls just means more useless things in unsettling places. And local cuisine is something I care about when I’m living somewhere else; it’s nice to have a few options, but I don’t need everything. Doesn’t anyone else find life to be somewhat nicer when unnecessary choices are more limited (this excludes essential things like medicine, nutritional foods, alternative foods for dietary restrictions, etc.)? By which I mean, I don’t need 40 ice cream flavors, three or five are enough; if my favorite ice cream (or other food) is only found in one place, then I look forward to my time spent there. And forty flavors can be overwhelming to choose from. I know that’s not what the article is about, it’s just that I fail to understand the excitement.

  5. always had a desired to visit Gaborone but never have for various reasons. Nice to read this article and the following comments, I think integrating the country into global capitalism is important- you can’t keep a place (city or country) isolated. Anthropologists tried to keep ethnic groups in bubbles and it doesn’t work.
    http://www.habibasbookshelf.com

  6. It’s the Astana of Southern Africa! What a relief that there are malls and sushi, and even skater garb for sale. How exciting. Also, thank you for looking through the NYT archives for us.

  7. Thanks for the comments. Especially interesting to read the sentiments re the malls. True, malls (or what they represent) might not be the biggest thrill (though the argument about global capitalism is indeed debatable), yet that’s not what this post tries to claim. It includes their presence, because they form part of wider recent developments (that also include the UB recreational centre, as shown on the photo). Driving around, and observing recently finished developments as well as emerging sites, made me wonder what the city would look like in let’s say 5 years. For me, that (rather than indulging in the consumption cathedrals) makes it a more interesting place than is often suggested.. Again, thanks for the comments

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