On Sept 30 we celebrated 50 years of independence with the country of Botswana. Since I arrived in January, the whole country has been aflutter with excitement and anticipation for this week. It was to be the biggest celebration in the history of Botswana and an estimated 10 million dollars were spent on preparations for the events of Bot 50 – making it a very HUGE deal! Over the past 9 months the whole country has been getting inundated with signs of national pride – everywhere you looked were Bot 50 shirts, Bot 50 banners/placards/decal/signs, Botswana flags, and zebras. Blue, black and white colored everything you could think of from trash cans to piles of rocks on the ground.
The celebrations initially kicked off 1 year prior when an Olympic style torch was lit by the president at the 2015 independence day celebrations. Over the ensuing 12 months this “roving torch” visited every village in the country to drum up national pride and remind everyone of the ideals that the country was built on since independence – that of Democracy, Unity, Development and Self Reliance. At each of the 220 sites visited there were a range of accompanying events including religious services, traditional concerts, history exhibitions, poetry and comedy, traditional dance festivals, football matches, contemporary music festivals, fireworks, parades, essay/poem/art competitions and local art festivals. We had the chance to see the torch 3 times on its travels – at a national church service, at Main Mall (the “town center” of the capital) and when it visited Princess Marina Hospital and literally came right past my clinic room!
The first night of the celebrations consisted of what would best be described as an “opening ceremony” style performance of interpretive dances and storytelling to portray the history of Botswana since independence. The national stadium was fully packed and we sat next to a group of young kids who provided endless entertainment on top of the show.
There were laser lights, huge blow up animals dancing, marching bands, as well as waves and waves of costumed dancers. The night culminated with a grand firework display.
Then the next morning, a second celebration was had at the national stadium. It started at 8 am but we had to get to the stadium by 6:30am to get a spot in line – they actually had to turn a lot of people away because the stadium reached capacity. The highlight of this day was the “calisthenics show” – 1.5 hours of 7000 school children performing dances to symbolize and celebrate every aspect of Botswana history and culture. It was incredible – I swear not one of these kids made a single mistake in the whole show! I’ve never seen anything like it! Then they had traditional dancers performing in native costumes – also amazing!
Then there was probably the longest parade I have ever seen. It reenacted each decade since independence with floats to symbolize what the country was like at that time and how it advanced throughout the years. Following this was a crazy military display – basically every single piece of military equipment owned by Botswana was paraded through the stadium – tanks, trucks, boats, more tanks, more guns…. Seriously insane!
Then the best part was the two trained zebras that pranced around the stadium. We had heard rumors of this but really didn’t think it would happen! The show ended with a fly over by Botswana’s air-force who dropped off 10 parachuters who then touched down in the middle of the stadium. The last one was carrying a huge flag of Botswana – no idea how he managed to navigate down with the wind drag that thing had! All in all it was a seriously incredible display. We had no idea what to expect and we were certainly blown away!
I knew very little about the history of Botswana prior to this week – the Bot 50 celebrations actually taught me so much about the people, the culture and the history of my new home. Botswana gained its independence on September, 30 1966. Prior to that it was a British protectorate called Bechuanaland. Largely ignored by the British empire who invested little into colonization and administration of the area – it was seen more as an appendage to the highly sought after South Africa and Rhodesia. At the time of independence in 1966, Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world with almost no infrastructure and meager natural resources. There were less than 70 people in the whole country who had any higher education! What a daunting decision it must have been to pull away from the safety and resources of the British empire to go out on your own with no idea if you will be able to survive as an independent nation. I have very high respect for the early leaders who made the brave decision to step out into the unknown to fight for the chance of a better future for their children. Little did they know that just 1 year after declaring independence diamonds would be discovered in Botswana! What amazing luck! This changed the entire course of history for the country – fueling economic growth and providing a sustainable source of income for the country over the next 50 years. Today Botswana is one the biggest success stories in Africa. Since independence they have managed to maintain a peaceful democratic nation, build a solid infrastructure of roads, airports, hospitals, schools, universities and a medical school. The government gives back to the people with generous social spending including free education, free healthcare and a strong welfare system for those in need. The country is almost completely corruption free – which is hard to say of any nation let alone in Africa!
My favorite part about Botswana is the strong stance they have taken on protecting the environment. Between the Okavango Delta, Chobe and the Kalahari – Botswana is home to some of the most unique and captivating ecosystems on the planet. Early on Botswana recognized the importance of protecting its animals and has been able to preserve the largest population of elephants in the world. Because Botswana has always been at peace, there has been no need for a military – however – it was decided that the Botswana Defense Force would be created not to defend the people of Botswana but to defend its animals! The BDF undergo special training to seek out and eliminate poachers. Botswana is very unique in that it has a zero tolerance policy for harm to animals – you will be shot on sight if you are thought to be poaching. I find this to be the best and most effective policy against poaching of any country in the world.
All in all even though Botswana certainly isn’t perfect (we have quite our share of frustrations with living here) – it really does have a lot to be proud of! Happy Birthday Bots – so glad we got to celebrate with you!