I remember Africa. Growing up there, I remember the hot burning sun in the summers. I remember the cool evenings and the many friends that would often meet in car parks for a true African tailgating experience. I remember playing cricket on dusty sand grounds, driving the game reserves and standing to a tradition of the weekly ‘Braai’. I remember the countries thirst for rain during its annual droughts and the sweet smell of the earth post Pula, or Rain. In fact, Pula is the name of the currency, so much is the value of rain. Frequent trips to India as a teenager however really made me feel the best of both worlds. The crowded cities of India stood in stark contrast to the vast wilderness and openness of Africa.
Indians have a long history of association with Africa. Indeed, it is said that when Vasco da Gama came around the Cape of Good Hope in a search for India, he came across a Indian navigator along the coast of Mozambique that guided him the rest of the way.
It is even said that Indian artifacts have been found at the great ruins of Zimbabwe. In Mapungubwe South Africa, a small one horned golden rhino was excavated dating to around 1000 ad. It is only the Indian rhino that has one horn, in obvious contrast to the African rhino that has two. Through history it seems that Indians have always made the trip to Africa in search of its riches. A great many Indians however arrived much later and really settled in South Africa as indentured laborers around Durban. Much later in the 70s and 80s another immigration took place down into southern Africa into growing and booming economies especially Botswana.
Botswana had much to offer in that time. A booming diamond industry and the relatively small population of just 1 million people meant that they were huge resources that the government could offer on a contract basis. Hundreds of families started to arrive from across India and were contracted to work in different ministries to educate and support the government. There were Indians involved in Healthcare, the Police service and even the Army to help train and treat Batswana. A majority also arrived as teachers to fill a huge dearth in the most remote locations to educate the populace. Specialist doctors and surgeons form the backbone of the local health industry. Enterprising Indians took the risk of setting up businesses in various fields and reaped rich rewards. Life for the majority in the 90s was a relatively comfortable life. Most Indians it seemed could afford at least one luxury car and indeed all Indian homes had a African maid to help with the daily upkeep of the house.
Some maids even learned to cook Indian food so that truly there was a lot of free time on offer. Meeting with friends and family is a much more common affair that we in now more in the west, simply don’t have the time for. Indian functions and festivals were always celebrated with vigor in decades past at the initial Hindu mandir in Gaborone.
Within 20 years this would grow to four different Mandirs, including a grand Balaji Mandir. Others including a Baps Swaminarayan, ISKON and Sai Mandir sprung up for the numerous communities that were steadily flowing in. At one stage Botswana could boast of one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Not just Indians but Gaborone its capital was a magnet for many Africans all around the continent where their own countries were ravaged by civil war.
Botswana however had its hard times. Throughout the 90’s the HIV pandemic seemed to surge through the populace and it seemed that funerals were a daily affair. Often times workers would turn up for work the day before and by the next day would be “missing”. By the day, after news would filter through that he had died rather quickly from a “mysterious” disease.
Having come first hand with African’s in the terminal stages of HIV called AIDS, this was all too common an affair. The rate of progression of PCP pneumonia from a relatively healthy person in the morning to terminal and death by the evening was astonishing. Their lungs would quickly fill with fluid, they would go into respiratory distress and then fail. Thankfully, because the country was awash with the diamond money Batswana started to get access quickly to antiretroviral medication which became the lifeline that they needed.
Foreign African nationals however were not so lucky. Those that came from ravaged countries of civil war or with economic crisis such as neighboring Zimbabwe were essentially doomed. As many of them poured into the local hospitals, they were denied access to life-saving medication on account of their nationality.
Realizing its need to diversify, the government made some changes in the new millennium. both for Indians and Batswana alike. The government still awash with diamond money tried to fund many educational institutions with a multitude of degree programs. Many Batswana were offered free travel the world over to study and return. Oftentimes, this was really in the healthcare industry where budding doctors chose to study the world over but hardly ever returned. Citizen Batswana were offered free loans often in the millions of Pula to start new businesses. Many of these startups however legitimate and many times not, quickly floundered.
Some early settlers who chose to take citizenship could afford to take advantage of some benefits, but the government quickly caught on.
Thereafter, many Indians staying for decades and who decided to take avail of such programs were simply denied citizenship on the grounds that they were not African enough. Many contracted workers were simply asked to return when their terms expired and denied any further stay or contracts.
The government started to look inwards believing that too many outsiders had benefited from its riches. In saying this, most of the enterprising jobs creating Indians and their businesses slowly started to fold up and look towards on the countries where they might be able to set up again with less restrictions.
In the last three years something drastic has happened. With the value of diamonds crashing, Botswana was not able to generate income it once had. There were many educated Batswana coming out of the many universities but there were no jobs for them to pursue.
As previously stated many of the enterprising Indian businessman who felt pressured by the restrictions placed on them decided to really pack up and leave, mostly down to South Africa and the world over.
This has led to huge levels of unemployment with some estimating that it may be around 30 to 40% of the population. This was also compounded by the vast immigrant African population especially Zimbabweans who previously came in and worked at a much cheaper rate.
Into this unhealthy mix, came a steep rise in the levels of violent crime against foreigners especially the Indian community. Rumors have spread among the Batswana and other foreigners especially Zimbabweans that Indians are gold hoarders.
While there are only around 15,000 Indians in Botswana, life has become a constant watch to make sure that you might not become another statistic.
Not a week goes by where several stories emerge of Indians are held at gunpoint in their homes while the house is ransacked. While previously you may have escaped with your life, more recently several stories have emerged of victims being shot first, and then their houses robbed at leisure.
The police force is quite incapable to take up any leads or investigations and is quite rare to see any suspects being apprehended. This is led to Indian families installing multiple layers of security around their homes. Electric fences, camera’s, guard dogs are now a common site for most homes. Unfortunately as many of them are trying to enter their house, they are quickly shot in the back or in the car and dragged in through the gate.
A lot of this news however never really makes it to the mainstream. Indians have taken up to neighborhood watch groups and trying to fund their own private security personnel to patrol their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, those that can’t afford to join the neighborhood watch group or stay on their own isolated houses are usually watched and targeted.
What began as a promising and booming nation, Botswana is surely on its way to becoming another in the long list of failing African economies plagued by violence. Batswana from the leadership down have lackadaisical in their approach to tackling the menace, possible because of the animosity that foreigners are still capitalizing off their country. What is readily forgotten is the relationship where enterprising Indians created large companies that hired and trained many Batswana into steady paying jobs. The government on one hand while creating masses of educated youth, never full heartedly focused on job creation. Many of them hold degrees in computer science yet drive taxis and many others have taken to murder as a living.
Botswana may have looked to other African nations such as Uganda where its exclusion policies forced emigration of Indians leading to the bankruptcy of the economy. What is also required however is a drastic change the mindset of local Batswana that Indians who have stayed and those arriving are a committed enterprising people. They can serve to re-energize Botswana and its economy again leading to growth and wealth for all. Let us stop the rain of blood from Indians and foreigners in Botswana.