Popular narratives of Gaborone in Africa’s Switzerland and beyond

The Guardian‘s Sam Wollaston once ‘failed miserably’ to like The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series by Scotland-based Alexander McCall Smith. So did a reviewer for The Times. But the Rhodesia-born author’s Newsweek essay on Gaborone (or Gabs) in Botswana (or Bots), a setting of the series,  is a not-to-miss homage to African CityBelow Steppes in Sync reprints it in full for you to enjoy.

“African cities can be discouraging. Many are surrounded by skirts of shantytowns—or informal suburbs, as they are charitably described. A visitor to Cape Town in South Africa, for example, must drive through miles of lean-to dwellings before reaching Table Mountain’s lower slopes. Farther north, things get worse. Some African cities can be downright intimidating, with their impossible traffic, frightening crime, and unplanned sprawl. Some African cities carry a health warning: do not visit unless you really have to.

And then there is Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. It is the one country in sub-Saharan Africa that seems to have avoided the post-independence slide into corruption and collapse that has afflicted the much-exploited and abused continent. Gaborone, like the country itself, is well run, neat, and, for most of its inhabitants, a remarkably pleasant place to be.

Gaborone buildings speak to a new and confident Botswana—prosperous, aware of where it’s going (courtesy of mmegi.bw)

The city is a new one. While many southern African cities have a good hundred years under their belt, Gaborone as a city really only dates back to the mid-’60s. Prior to independence, the country was administered as a protectorate, initially from Mafeking (now Mafikeng), which lies over the border in South Africa. In Botswana itself, there were in those days only a handful of towns, and Gaborone was very tiny. In 1966, when the newly independent state of Botswana came into existence, there was a small cluster of government buildings, a central mall, neatly ordered rows of government-issue houses, an airstrip, and not much else.

Then came the discovery of diamonds, and the economy of Botswana, carefully nurtured by stable and cautious government, prospered. The city began to grow.

Over the last 20 years, this growth has been considerable. Not only have extensive residential suburbs been added, but sparkling new commercial and light-industrial centers have sprung up at every turn. In the center of the city, around the government complex, a number of imposing glass towers have been erected, the headquarters of the various government ministries. These buildings speak to a new and confident Botswana—prosperous, aware of where it’s going. In the vicinity of these buildings, neat car parks house lines of well-kept vehicles under awnings. Everything is safe and well ordered: this is the polar opposite of ramshackle Africa. After all, there is usually a reason for a nickname, and Botswana, we might remind ourselves, is sometimes called the Switzerland of Africa.

Gaborone may not be as lively a town as Nairobi or Johannesburg, but it is a place where one can stand and look up at a sky so wide and empty that it makes the heart soar (courtesy of mmegi.bw)

But what of its character? There is more to a city than its water system and its public buildings. Modern towns can be soulless: bland international architecture imposed on a place says nothing of what that place has been, where it came from, and what it represents. Concrete, as W. H. Auden so acutely observed, desexes the space it occupies. There is plenty of concrete in a new city, but it need not have the effect of numbing the senses, and this has not happened in Gaborone.

The reason is that by some wonderful chance the architects who created modern Gaborone seem to have understood where they were. How they did this is a mystery. Most of the architects involved were expatriates, but I suspect that they were expatriates who actually liked the country they found themselves in and therefore had some feeling for the vernacular style. And that style really does exist. It involves a preference for curves, for feminine forms, and for shade—all worked into buildings that draw you from the heat and glare outside into a cool interior. As a result, there seems to be a direct connection between many of the new buildings of Gaborone and the lovely human effect of traditional Botswana village architecture. That architecture has a profound understanding of human scale and of domestic enclosure; consequently there is a sense in Gaborone of being somewhere profoundly comfortable.

And that is the prevailing note. This may not be as lively a town as Nairobi or Johannesburg, but it is a place where one can stand and look up at a sky so wide and empty that it makes the heart soar. This is a fine city, the center of a culture that is gentle and courteous, a good place.”

A preference for curves, for feminine forms, and for shade—all worked into buildings that draw you from the heat and glare outside into a cool interior. As a result, there seems to be a direct connection between many of the new buildings of Gaborone and the lovely human effect of traditional Botswana village architecture.

Themes and topics of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series (1998-2011)

Women in traditional vs nontraditional occupations
Rural way of life in Southern Africa
Social relations in traditional African society
Christianity and traditional belief systems in contemporary Africa
Clinical depression
AIDS and AIDS orphans in Sub-Saharan Africa

The BBC and American television network HBO filmed a series based on the books. It was shot on location in Botswana and was seen as one of the first major film or television productions to be undertaken in Botswana. (The Gods Must Be Crazy, a 1980 film set in Botswana was filmed mainly in South Africa).  The government provided five million dollars of funding for this television project.

Whilst she continues to delight millions of readers worldwide and thousands of visitors to Gaborone, Mma Ramotswe (the series’ detective heroine) has become an unofficial ambassador for Botswana, according to an African Business Special Report on the Southern African nation. From the same publication:

Says President Festus Mogae’s press secretary Jeff Ramsay: “Her name comes up all the time, and usually first! In India recently the president was asked how he felt being her president – only after he and his hosts had talked about Mma Ramotswe did the delegation get down to business.”

Visitors to Gaborone can ‘walk the beat’ of Botswana’s famous detective.

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