Botswana fan Mike Brogden urges people to engage more with the local culture on their travels
Recently, Jenny Bowen wrote in September’s Travel Africa Extra: “When you go to Botswana, make sure you visit the Okavango. A visit to Botswana without visiting the Okavango is a sin.” The 143,000 tourists from Europe, the USA, Canada and Japan who go each year to Botswana may well agree with her.
The growth in tourism in Botswana over the past 20 or so years is a major success story, especially for the safari sector. The number of safari camps and lodges has more than doubled. Tourism is now the second most important contributor to the country’s coffers, after diamonds.
But now it may well be time to consider the under-developed and under-publicised ‘urban’ aspects of the tourism market. Most tourists visit the Okavango and Chobe areas, but they don’t often visit the non-safari areas. Safari holidays are relatively expensive, which may be the reason for the somewhat low figures of UK visitors: 24,000. There are many more visitors from the USA and Germany. About 10% of the visitors from the UK fly in for a day from neighbouring countries, presumably for a game drive – not the best way to get an insight into the country. With many of these safari companies being foreign owned and managed, local people gain fewer of the benefits.
My wish is that more tourists are encouraged to make visits to, say, Gaborone and Serowe, perhaps on their way to the northern areas or the Tuli Block in southern Botswana. Safari companies could broaden their offerings to include such stop-overs. This would enable more of the special character of the Batswana people to be experienced, along with their crafts, music and history.
In Gaborone, this means visits to the market in the Main Mall, the museum and art gallery, the Botswana Craft centre (for music as well as crafts), the Oodi Weavers, the Three Kings Statues, the Manyana rock paintings, the Thanaga Village Pottery, and an excursion to the Mokolodi Reserve, which offers a two-hour game drive amongst rescued and orphaned animals. The place to stay in Gaborone is the President Hotel, where Mma Ramotswe, of the famous No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency often took her redbush tea on the balcony, overlooking the market place with its leather work and baskets.
Serowe is a two-hour drive from Gaborone on very good roads, mid-way up the country on route to the northern safari attractions. This is a large village and the ancestral home of the royal Khama family. Seretse Khama’s story is probably quite well known, especially as a recent film tells how he married a white woman, Ruth, and caused the UK Government to have apoplexy. The Khama III Museum, the market where the San woodcarvers’ meticulous products are on sale, the Khama graves, the impressively large London Missionary Society church, and the kgotla (local meeting places in all large settlements that are the foundation of Botswana’s long commitment to democracy) are to be found here. The Khama Rhino Sanctuary offers a dose of wildlife watching, especially the protected white rhino. The Serowe Hotel is Batswana-owned and run, and has comfortable en suite rooms, good local food and colourful gardens.
So, here’s the challenge to travellers and tourism companies alike: please add a few days to your itineraries or set up separate programmes to enable visitors to experience the local, more urban Botswana scene which few tourists currently get to see. During my visits over several years, I’ve learned a great deal about the kindness and courtesy of the people and their highly-developed craft skills. It would be very good if more tourists could have similar enjoyable experiences.
Inspired by his travels to Botswana, Mike Brogden wrote “A Handbook and Guide to Botswana’s history, People and Culture” which gives information to help you plan a holiday to include the Gaborone and Serowe areas. It is available from www.botswanaculturalholidays.com
Artifact/attraction images by Mike Brogden
Sources: Botswana Government: Tourism Statistics Report 2015
Lesego S Stone et al: Tourism in Botswana in the Last 50 Years
Botswana Society Notes and Records, Vol 49 2017