In 1987, my mother decided she'd had enough of Zimbabwe. The democratically elected black government that replaced the racist white government in 1981, after a long and brutal war, put 45 percent of her wages in the pockets of the party's leaders. Zimbo men were sexist pigs, no matter what the color of their skin. And my father, an economist in the Ministry of Industry and Technology, had lost a big promotion because he wasn't from the right tribe. My mother, who had lectured at the University of Zimbabwe, left him, the stubborn men, and the party state and flew to Botswana where she joined the faculty of the University of Botswana. As I had just finished high school and had nothing else to do, I went with her. The flight left at 12:30 p.m., landed at 1:40 p.m., and by 2:30 p.m., we were in the lobby of the Gaborone Sun, the four-star hotel where we would spend the next year, thanks to a severe housing shortage in the city.
I had my own room. We ate at the hotel's Mongolian grill. We sunbathed at the side of its pool with the sun-worshipping British Airways flight attendants. We had watched all of the movies on the Sun's cable loop in just two weeks. I ended up seeing Oxford Blues more than 20 times during my long stay. This was the happiest period of my young life.
Botswana was everything that Zimbabwe had failed to become. Its democracy functioned, its supermarkets were well stocked, and its GNP per capita was, for a black African country, really, really high. I recall reading my father's World Bank data book and feeling pride upon seeing Botswana listed as a middle-income economy. It was in the same category as Portugal and Greece. European countries!
Botswana was run by black Africans and had the largest foreign currency account on the continent. If you went to a bank with two pulas and asked to trade the notes for American money, the teller would give you back one whole US dollar. This was amazing. The country had its shit together, thus freeing me from the Afro-pessimism with which Zimbabwe imprisoned the souls of its thinking citizens. (Afro-pessimism is the feeling that Africans cannot run a country, that we are too tribal, that our leaders always betray the noble ideas of the revolutions that brought them into power.)
My mother and I would sit and sip fancy drinks at the open-air bar as the sun set on the hotel. We saw our first fax machine in the hotel's lobby. We wore bathrobes and slippers and watched Rob Lowe rowing against the odds.
What made Botswana a success and its next-door neighbor Zimbabwe a complete disaster? A part of the answer can be found in the new and excellent movie A United Kingdom, directed by one of the few working black female directors in the world, Amma Asante. The film is about the founder of modern Botswana, Seretse Khama, played by David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma). Though Kingdom's plot is centered on how Khama, a black African aristocrat, met, romanced, and married a middle-class British white woman, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), it also shows how their interracial relationship was a diplomatic mess for the UK government, which still had close economic and political ties with a country, South Africa, that made racial separation (apartheid) official around the time the Khama/Williams romance began (the late 1940s).
The film explains why modern Botswana is democratic (the idea and practice wasn't imported from Europe but already a part of its traditional political system—the Tswana kgotla). The country's economic success, resulting from the discovery of diamonds, coincided with the establishment of black rule in the late 1960s. This is all in the movie.
When the fictional Khama is not defending his reasons for marrying a common white woman, he's talking about the local diamonds found by a South African mining company and how the right deal could pull Botswana out of poverty. Again and again, Khama wants his people to stop thinking about fucking white women and focus on the diamonds.
Lastly, the film does not fail to include the Skylarks' "Pula Kgosi Seretse"—featuring a young Miriam Makeba singing about Khama's return to Botswana in 1956 after a five-year exile—on its soundtrack. This tune perfectly describes the soul and feeling of this country's transition from colonial darkness to the light of a modern and functioning democracy.
Botswana, thank you for giving me one of the happiest years of my life, and, Amma Asante, thank you for evoking it so beautifully.