People of Botswana
Botswana's population is made up of eight major tribal groupings, although within this broader framework there are 26 tribal groups in all. The Tswana are the most populous, and all citizens of Botswana – regardless of colour, ancestry or tribal affiliation – are known as Batswana (plural) or Motswana (singular). Almost everyone, including members of non-Tswana tribes, communicates in Setswana, a native language, rather than the official language of English.
Botswana means ‘land of the Tswana’ and about 80% of the country’s population claims Tswana heritage. The origins of the Tswana are simple enough. As land-owning agriculturalists, the Tswana ethnic group has clearly defined areas of influence. The Bangwato are centred on the Serowe area, the Bakwena in and around Molepolole, and the Bangwaketse near Kanye. A later split in the Bangwato resulted in a fourth group, the Batawana, who are concentrated near Maun in the northwest.
Known for being proud, conservative, resourceful and respectful, the Batswana have an ingrained feeling of national identity and an impressive belief in their country. Their history – a series of clever manoeuvres that meant they avoided the worst aspects of colonisation – has nurtured a confidence that is rare in postcolonial Africa.
The importance of the family in Batswana society has made the crisis caused by the HIV/AIDS pandemic particularly damaging. At last count, the country had more than 60,000 AIDS orphans (down from more than 90,000 in 2011), a staggering 2.7% of the population. How the country reacts to this breakdown of traditional family networks is one of the greatest challenges facing its people.
Traditional Tswana Culture
In Batswana society, traditional culture acts as a sort of societal glue. Villages grew up around reliable water sources and developed into complex settlements with kgosi (chiefs) ultimately responsible for the affairs of the community. Respect for one’s elders, firmly held religious beliefs, traditional gender roles and the tradition of the kgotla – a specially designated meeting place in each village where social and judicial affairs are discussed and dealt with – created a well-defined social structure with some stiff mores at its core. At a family level, in Batswana village life each family was entitled to land, and traditional homesteads were social places, consisting of communal eating places and separate huts for sleeping, sometimes for several family members.
Even today, as mudbrick architecture gives way to breeze blocks, and villages grow into busy towns and cities, most homes retain traditional features and life is still a very social affair. The atmosphere in family compounds is busy and convivial, although everything is done at a leisurely pace. Likewise, in shops and businesses people spend a huge amount of time greeting and agreeing with each other, and checking up on each other’s welfare.
Historically, the Batswana are farmers and cattle herders. Cattle, and to a lesser extent goats and sheep, are still, in many ways, the measure of a family’s status.
Botswana’s second-largest ethnic group, at around 11% of the population, the Bakalanga is a powerful land-owning group whose members are thought to descend from the Rozwi empire – the culture responsible for building Great Zimbabwe. In the colonial reshuffle, the Bakalanga were split in two and now some 75% of them live in western Zimbabwe. In Botswana, they are based mainly, although not exclusively, around Francistown.
The Herero probably originated from eastern or central Africa and migrated across the Okavango River into northeastern Namibia in the early 16th century. In 1884 the Germans took possession of German South West Africa (Namibia) and systematically appropriated Herero grazing lands. The ensuing conflict between the Germans and the Herero was to last for years, only ending in a calculated act of genocide that saw the remaining members of the tribe flee across the border into Botswana.
The refugees settled among the Batawana and were initially subjugated but eventually regained their herds and independence. These days the Herero are among the wealthiest herders in Botswana.
Basubiya & Wayeyi
The Basubiya, Wayeyi (Bayei) and Mbukushu are all riverine tribes scattered around the Chobe and Linyanti Rivers and across the Okavango Panhandle. Their histories and migrations are a textbook example of the ebb and flow of power and influence. For a long time, the Basubiya were the dominant force, pushing the Wayeyi away from the Chobe River and into the Okavango after a little spat over a lion skin, so tradition says. The Basubiya were agriculturists and as such proved easy prey for the growing Lozi empire (from modern Zambia), which in turn collapsed in 1865. They still live in the Chobe district.
Originally from the same areas in Namibia and Angola as the Mbukushu, the Wayeyi moved south from the Chobe River into the Okavango Delta in the mid-18th century to avoid the growing conflict with the Basubiya. They established themselves around Lake Ngami and eventually dispersed into the Okavango Delta. At the same time, the Bangwato (a Batswana offshoot) were pushing northward and came into contact with the Wayeyi. Over time this relationship became a form of clientship, which many Wayeyi still feel resentful about today.
In 1948 and 1962 the Wayeyi made efforts to free themselves of Batswana rule, but neither attempt succeeded. In 1995 these efforts were renewed in a more concerted manner with the establishment of the Kamanakao Association, which aims to develop and protect Wayeyi culture and language. Following this, the Wayeyi decided to revive their chieftainship and on 24 April 1999 they elected Calvin Diile Kamanakao as Chief Kamanakao I and recommended him for inclusion in the House of Chiefs. The government rejected this proposal, so in 2001 the Wayeyi took the matter to the High Court, which passed judgement that chiefs elected by their own tribes should be admitted to the house. In 2008 the Wayeyi chief Shikati Fish Matepe Ozoo was appointed to the House of Chiefs by former president Festus Mogae. In the meantime, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has pointed out that most Wayeyi children cannot speak their ancestral tongue, one of the keys to maintaining a distinct ethnic identity.
The Mbukushu (or Hambukushu), who now inhabit the Ngamiland area around the Okavango Delta, were originally refugees from the Caprivi Strip in northeastern Namibia. They were forced to flee south in the late 18th century after being dislodged by the forces of Chief Ngombela’s Lozi empire. The Mbukushu carried on to southeastern Angola, just north of present-day Andara (Namibia). There, they encountered Portuguese and African traders, who began purchasing Mbukushu commoners from the tribal leadership to be used and resold as slaves. To escape, some Mbukushu headed back to the Okavango Panhandle, where they mixed and intermarried with the Batawana. Many remain in and around the villages of Shakawe and Sepupa.
The San are Botswana’s first inhabitants: they were living in the Kalahari and Tsodilo Hills as far back as 30,000 years ago, as archaeological finds in the Kalahari have demonstrated. Some linguists even credit them with the invention of language. Unlike most other African countries, where the San have perished or disappeared through war and interbreeding, Botswana, along with Namibia, retains the remnants of its San communities – barely 100,000 individuals in total, which may include many with mixed San ancestry. Of these, around 60% live in Botswana (the !Kung, G//ana, G/wi and !xo being the largest groups), where they make up just 3% of Botswana’s population, and 35% in Namibia (the Naro, !Xukwe, Hei//kom and Ju/'hoansi), with the remainder scattered throughout South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
For a window on the life of the San, join local hunter !Nqate in Craig and Damon Foster’s film The Great Dance (2000), an inspiring collaborative project that involved the local community at every stage of the filming and editing.
And a word on terminology: in Botswana you’ll often hear the term ‘Basarwa’ being used to describe the San, but this is considered by the San to be pejorative as it literally means ‘people of the sticks’.
Traditionally the San were nomadic hunter-gatherers who travelled in small family bands (usually between around 25 and 35 people) within well-defined territories. They had no chiefs or hierarchy of leadership and decisions were reached by group consensus. With no animals, crops or possessions, the San were highly mobile. Everything that they needed for their daily existence they carried with them.
Initially, the San’s social flexibility enabled them to evade conquest and control. But as other powerful tribes with big herds of livestock and farming ambitions moved into the area, inevitable disputes arose over the land. The San’s wide-ranging, nomadic lifestyle (some territories extended over 1000 sq km) was utterly at odds with the settled world of the farmers and soon became a source of bitter conflict. This situation was rapidly accelerated by European colonists, who arrived in the area during the mid-17th century. The early Boers pursued an extermination campaign that lasted for 200 years and killed as many as 200,000 indigenous people. Such territorial disputes, combined with modern policies on wildlife conservation, have seen the San increasingly disenfranchised and dispossessed. What’s more, in the modern world their disparate social structure has made it exceedingly difficult for them to organise pressure groups to defend their rights and land as other groups have done. Even so, they have enjoyed a measure of success in fighting their expulsion from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).
Like so many indigenous peoples the world over, the San are largely impoverished. Many work on farms and cattle posts or live in squalid, handout-dependent and alcohol-plagued settlements centred on boreholes in western Botswana and northeastern Namibia, as debate rages around them as to their ‘place’ in modern African society. As such, the outlook for the San is uncertain.
Tourism provides some measure of economic opportunity for the San, who are often employed in Ghanzi- and Kalahari-based lodges as wildlife guides and trackers. But it is also argued that for this race to survive into the 21st century, they require not only self-sufficiency and international support but institutional support and recognition from within the Gaborone government.
For more on the San and the challenges they face in modern Botswana, contact the grassroots bodies such as South African San Institute (www.san.org.za) or Survival International (www.survivalinternational.org).
Books About the San
The Lost World of the Kalahari (Laurens van der Post; 1958) Classic study of the San people, including a haunting section on the Tsodilo Hills.
Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari (George B Silberbauer; 1981) Definitive anthropological study of the CKGR San in the late 1950s and early 1960s prior to their expulsion.
The Harmless People (Elizabeth Marshall Thomas; 1989) A 1950s anthropological study of the Botswana San, with updates from the 1980s.
Voices of the San (Willemien Le Roux & Alison White (eds); 2004) Fascinating collection of oral histories from ordinary San people.
The Healing Land (Rupert Isaacson; 2004) Generous and nuanced journey through the lands of the San in modern Southern Africa.
Tears for my Land (Kuela Kiema; 2010) Polemical and compelling treatise on San rights and dispossession.
Feature: Women in Botswana
If the statistics are to be believed, Botswana’s women are clawing back admirably against centuries of inequality. Yes, only 9.5% of the country’s parliamentarians are women, but 73.6% of adult women in Botswana have reached secondary school or higher (compared to 77.9% of men) and female participation in the labour force stands at 71.9% (compared with 81.6% among men). One of Botswana’s Paramount Chiefs is a woman, and around half of the country’s professional and technical workers are female.
But Botswana has a dark side and it’s one that you’ll rarely hear anyone speaking about. In a 2011 survey conducted by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (www.peacewomen.org), 86% of respondents rated violence against women as a community problem and 88% said it was on the increase. Over 60% saw severe beating as the most prevalent form of abuse; 47% identified rape. A third of respondents knew a woman who had fled her home due to violence.
Traditional culture is often cited as the ‘excuse’ for battering women, as traditional law permits men to ‘chastise’ their wives. Monica Tabengwa, director of Metlhaetsile Women’s Information Centre, went on record saying, ‘Most women expect to be battered and most men consider it their duty to batter.’ Customary or traditional law has always regarded women as legal minors who require their husband’s consent to buy or sell property and enter into legally binding contracts. That may be about to change after Botswana’s High Court in 2012 overturned a customary law which prevented women from inheriting the family home, holding that the law ran counter to Botswana’s constitution which guarantees equal rights for men and women.
Botswana’s current laws prohibit rape but do not recognise the concept of marital rape. The minimum sentence for rape is 10 years; the penalty increases to 15 years with corporal punishment if the offender is HIV positive, and to 20 years with corporal punishment if the offender knew they were HIV positive at the time of the rape.
Feature: The Stats
Botswana has one of the lowest population densities on earth: 3.75 people for every sq km which puts it on a par with Australia, Mauritania and Mongolia. An estimated 57.4% of people in Botswana live in urban settlements, mostly in eastern Botswana. Like most African countries, Botswana has an overwhelmingly young population, with an average age of 23.2 years, and one-third of the population under 15.
Feature: The House of Chiefs
Democracy may provide the basis for Botswana’s political system, but the 35-member Ntlo ya Dikgosi (House of Chiefs) also plays an important symbolic role. A purely advisory body with no legislative or veto powers, the House of Chiefs has eight members who are hereditary chiefs from Botswana’s major ethnic groups, 22 indirectly elected members who serve five-year terms (most are chiefs or subchiefs of other tribes) and five members who are appointed by the country’s president. The House of Chiefs oversees all legislation that relates to tribal law, organisations and property, and must be consulted for any proposed constitutional changes. And although their legal power is limited, it would be a brave president who completely ignored the views of a body that represents significant elements of his constituency.
Batswana society is imbued with spirituality, whether that be Christianity or local indigenous belief systems. For most Batswana, religion is a vital part of life, substantiating human existence in the universe as well as providing a social framework.
Botswana’s early tribal belief systems were primarily centered on ancestor worship. For the Batswana, this meant the worship of Modimo, a supreme being who created the world and represented the ancestors. Other ethnic groups may have differing cosmologies, but the majority of belief systems revolve around the worship of an omnipotent power (for the San it is N!odima and for the Herero it is Ndjambi) and the enactment of rituals to appease the ancestors, who are believed to play an active role in everyday life.
Introduction of Christianity
By the 19th century, Christian missionaries had begun to arrive, bringing with them an entirely new set of ideas that dislodged many indigenous traditions and practices. They established the first schools and as a result the Christian message began to spread.
Today about 30% of Batswana adhere to mainstream Christian faiths (the majority are either Catholic or Anglican), while around 60% adhere to the practices of what is known as the African Religion, an indigenous religion that integrates Christian liturgy with the more ritualistic elements of traditional ancestor worship. It comprises a variety of churches (the Healing Church of Botswana, the Zionist Christian Church and the Apostolic Faith Mission), and is extremely popular in rural areas.
Arts & Crafts
Traditional arts and crafts lie at the heart of Botswana’s historical cultural life – Botswana’s earliest artists were the San, who painted the world they lived in on the rock walls of their shelters, and they were master craftspeople, producing tools, musical instruments and material crafts from wood, leather and ostrich eggshells. Traditional dance and architecture are also enjoying something of a revival, while Botswana has a small but dynamic contemporary music and literary scene.
Traditional Botswana architecture is compact and beautiful, and blends well with the landscape. A typical village would have been a large, sprawling and densely populated affair, comprising hundreds of round mudbrick houses (ntlo or rondavel) topped with neat thatched roofs of motshikiri (thatching grass).
The mudbricks used for construction are ideally made from the concrete-like earth of the termite mound, and then plastered with a mixture of soil and cow dung. Often, the exterior is then decorated with a paint made from a mixture of cow dung and different coloured soils. The paint is spread by hand using the unique lekgapho designs (designs made entirely using the fingers), which are lovely and quite fanciful.
The thatch on the roofs is also an intricate business. Roof poles are taken from strong solid trees, lashed together with flexible branches and covered with tightly packed grass. When it’s finished, the thatch is coated with oil and ash to discourage infestation by termites. Barring bad weather, a good thatching job can last five to 15 years and a rondavel can last 30 years or more.
These days, cement is the building material of choice, so the traditional home with its colourful designs may eventually die out. Decorated Homes in Botswana (1995), by Sandy and Elinah Grant, is an attempt to capture just some of the wonderful examples of traditional architecture and promote the art of home decorating.
One interesting and accessible village where visitors can see traditional Botswanan architecture is Mochudi, near Gaborone.
Traditional Arts & Crafts
Handwoven baskets and the traditional crafts of the San are the best of a fairly modest collection of locally made traditional handicrafts. There are some impressive woodcarvings and textiles in Botswana, but very few are produced here – most come from West Africa (Mali in particular) or the Democratic Republic of Congo. One exception is Lentswe-la-Oodi Weavers, close to Gaborone.
Botswana is most famous for the basketry produced in the northwestern regions of the Okavango Delta by Wayeyi and Mbukushu women. Like most material arts in Africa, they have a practical purpose, but their intricate construction and evocative designs – with names like Tears of the Giraffe or Flight of the Swallows – are anything but.
In the watery environs of the delta, the baskets serve as watertight containers for grains and seeds. The weaving is so tight on some that they were also used as beer kegs. All the baskets are made from the leaf fibre of the real fan palm (mokolane) and colours are derived from soaking the fibres in natural plant dyes. The work is incredibly skilful and provides one of the most important sources of income for rural families.
One of the best places to purchase the work is the Shorobe Baskets Cooperative in Shorobe, north of Maun. While it is always better to buy craftwork in the area in which it is produced (you tend to get better prices and the proceeds go directly to the community in question), another good place to browse for high-quality crafts is Botswanacraft in Gaborone.
Traditional San crafts include ostrich-eggshell jewellery, leather aprons and bags, and strands of seeds and nuts (you may not be allowed to import these into some countries).
In recent years, traditional San painting has been experiencing something of a revival, with traditional themes wedded to contemporary techniques. The following are the best places to see San art and handicrafts:
In traditional tribal societies, dance has an important symbolic role in expressing social values and marking the different stages of life. It is also a key component of traditional medicine and ancestor worship, where dance is a medium of communication with the spiritual realm. In a world without TV, it’s also a great excuse for a community knees-up.
The best-documented dances in popular travel literature such as The Healing Land (Rupert Isaacson; 2001) and films such as The Great Dance (2001) are those of the San, whose traditional dances have many different meanings. They were a way to thank the gods for a successful hunt and plentiful rains, to cure the sick and to celebrate a girl’s transition into womanhood. Implements used in San dancing include decorated dancing sticks, fly whisks created from wildebeest tails, and dancing rattles, which are leather strings through cocoons full of tiny stones or broken ostrich eggshells.
One of the more interesting dances is the ndazula dance, a rain dance used to thank the gods for a plentiful harvest. Another is borankana, which originated in southern Botswana but is now enjoyed all over the country. It features in dance and music competitions and exhibitions, and is practiced by school groups across Botswana. Borankana, which is Setswana for ‘traditional entertainment’, includes the unique setlhako and sephumuso rhythms, which feature in music by artists such as Nick Nkosanah Ndaba.
Most visitors will encounter traditional dancing in the rather staged displays at top-end safari camps. While they may lack the passion and spontaneity of traditional performances, such performances are important in preserving traditions that might otherwise be lost. A more genuine and less affected arena is the Maitisong Festival, Botswana’s biggest arts festival, held at the end of March in Gaborone.
The first work to be published in Setswana was the Holy Bible (completed by 1857), shortly followed by The Pilgrim’s Progress. As you may gather from this, Botswana had little literary tradition to speak of until well into the 20th century.
Botswana’s most famous modern literary figure was South African–born Bessie Head (1937–86), who fled apartheid in South Africa and settled in Sir Seretse Khama’s village of Serowe. Her writings, many of which are set in Serowe, reflect the harshness and beauty of African village life and the physical attributes of Botswana itself. Her most widely read works include Serowe – Village of the Rain Wind (1981), When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), Maru (1971), A Question of Power (1973), The Cardinals (1993), A Bewitched Crossroad (1984), and The Collector of Treasures (1977), which is an anthology of short stories.
Since the 1980s Setswana novel writing has had something of a revival with the publication in English of novels like Andrew Sesinyi’s Love on the Rocks (1983) and Gaele Sobott-Mogwe’s haunting collection of short stories, Colour Me Blue (1995), which blends fantasy and reality with the everyday grit of African life.
Other novels that lend insight into contemporary Batswana life are Jamestown Blues (1997) and Place of Reeds (2005) by Caitlin Davies, who was married to a Motswana and lived in Botswana for 12 years.
Unity Dow, Botswana’s first female high-court judge, also writes novels dealing with contemporary social issues in the country; we recommend Far and Beyon’ (2002).
Like many African cultures, Botswana has a rich oral tradition of poetry, and much of Botswana’s literary heritage, its ancient myths and poetry, is still unavailable in translation. One of the few books that is available is Bayeyi & Hambukushu: Tales from the Okavango (1994), edited by Thomas J Larson, which is a primary source of oral poetry and stories from the Okavango Panhandle region.
Botswana’s best-known poet is probably Barolong Seboni, who, in 1993, was poet in residence at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. He has written several books of poems, including the short volume Love Songs (1994) and Windsongs of the Kgalagadi (1995), which details some of the Batswana traditions, myths and history that have been recited for centuries.
More modern poetry tends to highlight current issues. For example, The Silent Bomb aimed to promote awareness of HIV/AIDS. It was written by AIDS activist Billy Mosedame (1968–2004), who himself succumbed to the virus.
Musical traditions run deeply through Botswana’s cultural traditions, and have done so ever since the earliest San societies where men gathered around their campfires playing their thumb pianos (mbira) accompanied by music bows. Compact discs and cassettes of traditional San music are available in D’kar and at Botswanacraft in Gaborone.
Jazz, reggae, gospel and hip hop are the most popular forms of modern music – almost nothing else features on Batswana radio or is played live in nightclubs and bars.
One reliable measure of local talent is My African Dream, Botswana’s version of Pop Idol. The show is faithfully watched across the country and, as these things are wont to do, has plucked at the musical dreams of many a Gaborone-bound Motswana youth.
Jazz & Reggae
Bojazz is the colloquial term for a form of music called Botswana jazz. It has been immortalised by Nick Nkosanah Ndaba, among others, who recently released Dawn of Bojazz (2007), the first bojazz album to be produced in Botswana.
Another popular artist is Ras Baxton, a Rastafarian who plays what he calls ‘tswana reggae’, but he, like many other Batswana artists, has to go to South Africa to make a living. Banjo Mosele is huge all around the nation, while Bonjour Keipidile is perhaps the greatest living guitarist in Botswana.
Jazz performances are staged every few weeks in the winter (dry season) in and around Gaborone. Details are advertised in the English-language newspapers.
Fusion & Hip-Hop
Gumba-gumba is a modern blend of Zulu and Tswana music mixed with a dose of traditional jazz – the word comes from the township slang for ‘party’. Alfredo Mos is the father of rumba kwasa, that African bum-gyrating jive that foreigners have so much trouble emulating. Hot on his heels is kwasa kwasa king Franco, one of the most successful artists in Botswana at the moment, alongside the Wizards, Vee and Jeff Matheatau.
Wildly popular is Botswana’s version of hip hop, championed by the Wizards, who fuse the style with ragga and R&B. It’s nearly always been the case that talented Batswana musicians have had to move to South Africa to make a living, but as of this writing there was still some decent talent here, including Kast, Scar, Vee and Stagga Don Dada. Kwaito music, the South African township fusion of hip hop, house and all things that make booties shake, is also hugely popular.
Feature: Best Botswana Reads
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Alexander McCall Smith; 1998) The book that created a phenomenon.
Jamestown Blues (Caitlin Davies; 1996) Set in a poor salt-mining town, it explores the disparities between expatriate and local life through the eyes of a young Motswana girl.
Whites (Norman Rush; 1986) A collection of short stories on expatriate life.
Mating (Norman Rush; 1991) A prize-winning comedy of manners featuring two Americans in 1980s Botswana.
Far and Beyon’ (Unity Dow; 2000) Well-told chronicle of a family struggling with the often-contradictory pull of modern and traditional Botswana life.
The Lost World of the Kalahari (Laurens van der Post; 1958) A classic and often eulogistic account of the disappearing culture of the San in the 1950s.
Cry of the Kalahari (Mark & Delia Owens; 1984) A wonderfully written tale of seven years spent living among the wildlife of the Kalahari.
Botswana Time (Will Randall; 2005) An endearing story of the author’s time spent travelling with his school football team.
Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (Robyn Scott; 2008) Funny yet enlightening retelling of a childhood in eastern Botswana, including the Tuli Block.
Place of Reeds (Caitlin Davies; 2005) Fascinating story of life as a Motswana wife and mother.
Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (Bessie Head; 1981) An intriguing cultural study of life in Serowe in eastern Botswana.
Botswana’s environment stands front and centre to any visit to the country, from its stirring natural attributes of desert and delta to the wildlife that populates these extreme landscapes. Endangered species and species protection are among the most important environmental issues facing the country, but so, too, are the fraught problems of water scarcity; creeping desertification; managing the difficult balance between the lucrative livestock and tourism sectors; and the emotive issue of commercial or trophy hunting.
Botswana is the geographic heart of sub-Saharan Africa, extending over 1100km from north to south and 960km from east to west, an area of 582,000 sq km that’s equivalent in size to France. The country is entirely landlocked, and is bordered to the south and southeast by South Africa, across the Limpopo and Molopo Rivers; to the northeast by Zimbabwe; and to the north and west by Namibia.
Around 100 million years ago the supercontinent Gondwanaland dramatically broke up. As the land mass ripped apart, the edges of the African continent rose up, forming the mountain ranges of Southern and central Africa. Over the millennium, water and wind weathered these highlands, carrying the fine dust inland to the Kalahari Basin. At 2.5 million sq km, it’s the earth’s largest unbroken tract of sand, stretching from northern South Africa to eastern Namibia and Angola, and to Zambia and Zimbabwe in the west.
Depending on who you believe, between 68% and 85% of the country, including the entire central and southwestern regions, is taken up by the Kalahari. The shifting sand dunes that compose a traditional desert are found only in the far southwest, in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. In the northeast are the great salty deserts of the Makgadikgadi Pans; in ancient times part of a vast superlake, they’re now the largest (about 12,000 sq km) complex of salt pans in the world and considered to be part of the Kalahari.
In Botswana, large tracts of the Kalahari are protected, with at least five protected areas (listed from north to south):
The Okavango Delta is one of Africa’s most extraordinary landscapes, not to mention the antidote to the Kalahari’s endless sea of sand. Covering between 13,000 and 18,000 sq km, it snakes into the country from Angola to form a watery paradise of convoluted channels and islands that appear and disappear depending on the water levels. The delta is home to more than 2000 plant species, 450 bird species and 65 fish species, not to mention an estimated 200,000 large mammals.
The delta owes its existence to a tectonic trough in the Kalahari basin, a topographical depression that ensures that the waters of the Okavango River evaporate or are drunk by plants without ever reaching the sea; the delta is extremely flat with no more than a 2m variation in the land’s altitude, which means that the waters simply come to a halt. The delta’s waters surge and subside at the behest of the rains in far-off Angola, and every year around 11 cu km of water flood into the delta. The flooding is seasonal, beginning in the Angolan highlands in January and February, the waters travelling approximately 1200km in a month. Having reached the delta, the waters disperse across it from March to June, before peaking in July and August – during these months, the water surface area of the delta can be three times that of the nonflooding periods.
Botswana could be one of the flattest countries on earth, but there are a few sites of topographical interest. The country’s highest point above sea level is the rather modest Otse Hill (1489m), which lies around 45km south of Gaborone.
Of far greater interest are the Tsodilo Hills in the country’s far northwest, with dramatic scenery and prehistoric rock art; the Tswapong Hills, a range of low, flat-topped hills cut through with vertiginous canyons, good for hiking and birdwatching; and the Tuli Block, shadowing the Limpopo River in Botswana’s far east, with otherworldy kopjes (hills) rising up from the riverine plains.
Botswana is home to anywhere between 160 and 500 different mammal species, 593 recorded bird species, 150 different reptiles, over 8000 insect and spider species, and more than 3100 types of plants and trees.
Lions may be the easiest of the big cats to spot – leopards are notoriously secretive and largely keep to the undergrowth, while cheetahs live in populations of much lower density and can be extremely shy. But don’t let appearances fool you: the lion is under threat.
Scientists such as the peak cat conservation body Panthera (www.panthera.org) estimate that fewer than 20,000 lions remain in Africa (there is a tiny, highly inbred population of Asian lions in the Gir Forest in Gujarat state in India). Only six lion populations in Africa – the Okavango Delta is one of these – are sufficiently protected to hold at least 1000 lions, the conservation gold standard that Panthera applies for guaranteeing the long-term survival of the species. The most recent estimates for Botswana suggest a population of around 2700 lions (or roughly 14% of all lions left in Africa). Of these, the most important populations are the 1750 lions in the Okavango Delta and northern savannah woodlands (including Chobe and Savuti), around 300 in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), and approximately 500 in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (of which 350 are thought to reside on the Botswana side of the border). As such, Botswana is one of the lion population’s most important strongholds.
Like lions elsewhere, lions in Botswana are facing threats from poisoning, either in retaliation for killing livestock or encroaching onto farming lands, bush-meat poaching and habitat loss.
According to the results of the Great Elephant Census (www.greatelephantcensus.com), published in 2016, Botswana has more elephants within its borders than any other country on earth – an estimated 130,451 out of 352,271, which represents more than a third of African elephants left on the planet. According to the same continent-wide survey, Africa's elephant population fell by a staggering 30% in the preceding seven years. By these standards, Botswana – which has lost 15% of its elephant population since 2010 – is doing better than other countries, although the figures are still deeply concerning; some 7% of elephants seen from the air in Botswana during the census were carcasses.
Botswana's elephants overwhelmingly inhabit the country's north, spread across the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park. The Chobe population in particular, which may number more than 70,000 elephants, represents the densest concentration of elephants on the planet.
Rhinoceroses were once plentiful across Botswana, particularly in the north, with black rhinos concentrated around the Chobe River and white rhinos more widely spread across Chobe, Moremi and elsewhere in the Okavango Delta. But the poaching holocaust in the 1970s and 1980s that sent numbers of both black and white rhinos plummeting across Africa saw the rhino all but disappear from Botswana. By 1992 the black rhino was considered extinct in Botswana, with just 19 white rhinos remaining in the country.
At around the same time, the 4300-hectare Khama Rhino Sanctuary was established, and all remaining rhinos were shut away in the sanctuary in a bid to save the species. The sanctuary has been something of a success story, now protecting around 30 white rhinos and four blacks.
Better still, in 2001 the Botswana Rhino Reintroduction Project, a collaboration between the government, conservation groups and tourism operators (among them &Beyond, Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains Conservation), began the process of sending rhinos once more out into the Botswana wild. At the time of writing, official estimates put Botswana's wild rhino population (mostly in Moremi Game Reserve and elsewhere in the Okavango Delta) at between 77 and 100. In 2015, airlifts of rhinos from overcrowded or imperilled South African parks began, with plans to have doubled the country's wild rhino population over the following two years.
A recent upsurge in rhino poaching – rhino horn had an estimated black-market value of US$60,000 per kilo in 2016 – has seen the number of rhinos killed in neighbouring South Africa rise from 13 in 2007 to as many as 1338 in 2015; with approximately 18,000 rhinos, South Africa is home to an estimated 90% of the world white rhinoceros population.
African Wild Dogs
One of Botswana’s most charismatic creatures, the African wild dog (also known as the Cape hunting dog) is under serious threat. Where once half a million wild dogs roamed 39 African countries, today only 3000 to 5300 remain in the wild in just 14 countries.
African wild dogs live in packs of up to 28 animals, which may account for the fact that they have one of the highest hunting success rates (as high as 70%) of all carnivores – that and their maximum speed of 66km/h. Their preferred prey includes impala, red lechwe, wildebeest, steenbok and warthog.
Moremi Game Reserve is believed to be home to 30% of the world’s population, with the Linyanti Marshes one of the best places to spot wild dog packs. Numbers are lower, but the species also persists in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Tuli Block.
Reptiles & Frogs
Botswana’s dry lands are home to over 150 species of reptile. These include 72 species of snake, such as the poisonous Mozambique spitting cobra, Egyptian cobra and black mamba. Although about 80% of snakes in Botswana are not venomous, watch out for the deadly puff adder, much more frequently seen than the cobras and mamba. Tree snakes, known as boomslangs, are also common in the delta.
Lizards are everywhere; the largest are leguaans (water monitors), docile creatures that reach over 2m in length. Smaller versions, savannah leguaans, inhabit small hills and drier areas. Also present in large numbers are geckos, chameleons and rock-plated lizards.
Although Nile crocodiles are threatened elsewhere in Southern Africa, the Okavango Delta is full of them. You will hear rather than see them while gliding through the channels in a mokoro (traditional dugout canoe).
Frogs of every imaginable shape, size and colour are more delightful; they jump from reeds to a mokoro and back again, and provide an echoing chorus throughout the delta (and elsewhere such as the Boteti River in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park) at night.
Insects & Spiders
Botswana boasts about 8000 insect and spider species. The most colourful butterflies can be found along the Okavango Panhandle (the northwestern extension of the delta), and include African monarchs and citrus swallowtails. Other insects of note include stick insects, expertly camouflaged among the reeds of the Okavango Delta; large, scary but harmless button spiders; and sac spiders, which look harmless but are poisonous (although rarely fatal) and live mainly in rural homes. The delta is also home to grasshoppers, mopane worms and locusts, as well as mosquitoes and tsetse flies in increasing and potentially dangerous numbers.
Scorpions are not uncommon in the Kalahari; although their sting is not fatal, it can be painful.
Botswana is not only a big wildlife country but also a birding paradise. Between September and March, when the delta is flush with water, you should be able to train the lenses of your binoculars on any number of Botswana’s 593 recorded species, including the delta’s famous African skimmers, the endangered wattled crane, slaty egrets, African jacanas, bee-eaters, pygmy geese and the shy Pel’s fishing owl. You can still see many bird species in the dry season, when it’s often easier to spot them around the few remaining water sources.
More than 2500 species of plant and 650 species of tree have been recorded in Botswana.
The Okavango Delta enjoys a riparian environment dominated by marsh grasses, water lilies, reeds and papyrus, and is dotted with well-vegetated islands thick with palms, acacias, leadwood and sausage trees. At the other extreme, the Kalahari is characterised by all sorts of savannah, including bush savannah with acacia thorn trees, grass savannah and arid shrub savannah in the southwest.
The country’s only deciduous mopane forests are in the north, where six forest reserves harbour stands of commercial timber, as well as both mongonga and marula trees. Also common around Botswana are camel thorn trees, which some animals find tasty and which the San use for firewood and medicinal purposes; and motlopi trees, also called shepherd’s tree, which have edible roots.
For more on the plant life of the Okavango, pick up a copy of Common Wildflowers of the Okavango Delta (1998) and Trees & Shrubs of the Okavango Delta (1998) by Veronica Roodt. Both have informative descriptions accompanied by useful paintings and drawings.
Feature: Which Field Guide?
Field guides, apart from being damned interesting to read, can be invaluable tools for identifying animals while on safari. Our favourites:
A Field Guide to the Carnivores of the World (Luke Hunter; 2011) Wonderfully illustrated and filled with fascinating detail.
The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (Jonathan Kingdon; 2nd ed, 2015) The latest edition of the classic field guide covering over 1150 species.
The Behavior Guide to African Mammals (Richard Despard Estes; 1991) Classic study of the behaviour mammal species. Estes' follow-up The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals (1993) is an excellent, slightly more accessible alternative.
Stuarts' Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa (Chris & Mathilde Stuart; 2014) Another excellent guide with easy identification clues and information on tracking.
Birds of Southern Africa (Ian Sinclair et al; 4th ed, 2011) Easily the best field guide to the country’s birds.
Watching Wildlife: Southern Africa (Matthew Firestone & Nana Luckham; 2nd ed, 2003) Lonely Planet’s very own field guide, complete with colour photographs.
Mammals of Botswana & Surrounding Areas (Veronica Roodt; 2011) Handy, well-written guide available in many lodges and bookstores around Botswana.
Feature: Botswana’s Endangered Species
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), species which are listed as Vulnerable in Botswana include the cheetah, black-footed cat, lion and hippo. In greater trouble and listed as Endangered is the African wild dog, while the black rhino is considered Critically Endangered.
As a relatively large country with a very low population density, Botswana is one of Africa’s most unpolluted and pristine regions. Botswana faces most of the ecological problems experienced elsewhere in Africa, such as land degradation and desertification, deforestation (around 21% of the country is covered by forests), water scarcity and urban sprawl. In addition to these, some major ecological and conservation issues continue to affect the country’s deserts, wetlands and savannahs.
The Fence Dilemma
If you’ve been stopped at a veterinary checkpoint, or visited the eastern Okavango Delta, you’ll be familiar with the country’s 3000km of 1.5m-high buffalo fence, officially called the Veterinary Cordon Fence. It’s not a single fence but a series of high-tensile steel-wire barriers that run cross-country through some of Botswana’s wildest terrain.
The fences were first erected in 1954 to segregate wild buffalo herds from domestic free-range cattle in order to thwart the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. Botswana’s beef-farming industry is one of the most important in the country, both economically and in terms of the status conferred upon cattle owners in Batswana society. At the same time, wildlife tourism is a major money earner and the country’s international reputation is often tied to its perceived willingness to protect the country’s wildlife. Balancing these two significant yet sometimes-conflicting industries is one of the most complicated challenges facing Botswana’s government.
Dangers Threatening the Delta
Despite its status as a biodiversity hot spot, Unesco World Heritage–listed site and the largest Ramsar Wetland Site on the planet, the Okavango Delta has no international protection (apart from the Moremi Game Reserve), despite the fact that many prominent conservationists consider it to be under threat.
Wetland ecosystems are disappearing globally at an alarming rate, partly due to climate change and partly due to mismanagement and unsustainable development, and the Okavango Delta is no exception. Already a survey team from the DWNP and BirdLife Botswana has concluded that the delta is shrinking. The Kubango River – originating in the highlands of Angola – carries less water and floods the delta for a shorter period of the year.
Other key threats include overgrazing, which is already resulting in accelerated land and soil degradation, commercial gill netting and illegal fire lighting, unplanned developments in Angola as post-civil-war resettlement occurs, and pressure for new and increased abstraction of water for mining, domestic use, agriculture and tourism. Most worrying of these is the proposed extraction of water from the Okavango River to supply the growing needs of Namibia. One such proposal is the construction of a 1250km-long pipeline from the Okavango River to Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, which first reared its head in 1997 and has grown and faltered in fits and starts since.
In 1994 Botswana, Namibia and Angola signed the Okavango River Basin Commission (www.okacom.org), aimed at coordinating the sustainable management of the delta’s waters. Although the commission has high principles, the practicalities on the ground are far from simple and the process of moving towards a sustainable management plan and eventual treaty has been very slow. As Angola, the basin state where 95% of the water flow originates, settles into its first period of peace in some 30 years, it is hoped that the pace will accelerate.
Botswana's government banned commercial hunting in 2014.
Poaching is not common in Botswana due to its relatively stable economy, which makes such a risky and illegal undertaking unnecessary and unattractive. Also, transporting hides and tusks overland from remote areas of Botswana to ports hundreds of kilometres away in other countries is well nigh impossible, especially considering Botswana’s well-patrolled borders, which are monitored by the Botswana Defence Force (BDF). What little poaching there is seems to be ‘for the pot’ – local people supplementing their diets by hunting wild animals – rather than large-scale commercial enterprises.
Feature: Fences: A History of Conflict
Fences are a big issue in Botswana. At its core, the issue is simple: wildlife populations and the country's lucrative livestock herds don't mix, and so the government has built fences stretching for thousands of kilometres to separate them. In practice, it's all a bit more complicated than that.
The main problem with Botswana’s fences are that many prevent wild animals from migrating to water sources along age-old seasonal routes; national parks often enclose only part of their migratory routes. As a result, Botswana’s wildebeest population has declined by 99% over the past 20 years and all remaining buffaloes and zebras are stranded and in decline because of the fences.
The worst disaster occurred in the drought of 1983, in which the Kuke Fence barred herds of wildebeests heading for the Okavango waters, resulting in the death of 65,000 animals. The final section of Mark and Delia Owens’ Cry of the Kalahari (1984) chronicles another heartbreaking example, with wildebeest from the southern Kalahari suddenly barred from their grazing grounds around Lake Xau. The Owens’ publicising of the issue ultimately led to their expulsion from the country.
The 80km-long Northern Buffalo Fence (a fence designed to separate wild buffalo herds from domestic livestock populations north of the Okavango Delta) has opened a vast expanse of wildlife-rich – but as yet unprotected – territory to cattle ranching. Safari operators wanted the fence set as far north as possible to protect the seasonally flooded Selinda Spillway; prospective cattle ranchers wanted it set as far south as possible, maximising new grazing lands. The government sided with the ranchers and the fence opened up to 20% of the Okavango Delta to commercial ranching.
In 2003 the controversy started up again with the proposal of a new cordon fence around the Makgadikgadi Pans. When (or if) completed, the fence will extend for 480km and is intended to limit predator-livestock conflict along the Boteti River. However, on the completion of the western section of the fence, the Environmental Investigation Agency (www.eia-international.org) found that the alignment failed to adhere to the suggestions of the Department of Wildlife & National Parks Environmental Appraisal, and as a result the majority of the Boteti River now lies outside the park, cutting off the animals within.
The net effect was immediately felt: in early 2005 some 300 zebras died trying to reach the river. In addition, the cattle fence around the Okavango Delta has already been damaged by roving elephant herds. The issue has been largely frozen in time since then and the fence has been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that elephants and other wildlife now routinely cross the Boteti River unimpeded.
Feature: The Hunting Debate
In 2012 Botswana announced to the world that it would ban all commercial or trophy hunting within its borders from 2014. The hunting industry, previously an important money-earner for the country with numerous private hunting concessions across the country's north, was aghast, while many conservationists applauded the ban. But the ban remains controversial, including within Botswana, and the issue is far more more complicated than it may first appear.
While abhorrent to many conservationists, some recognise that controlled hunting can play an important part in preserving species. If we can distil the conservation argument in favour of hunting to its essence, it would be as follows. Tourism revenues (whether national park fees or lodge revenues) have too often failed to reach local communities, reinforcing a perception that wildlife belongs to the government. Hunting on private concessions, however, generally attracts massive fees (lion licences in Southern Africa can sell for US$20,000), of which, the theory goes, a significant proportion is fed back into local community projects, thereby giving wildlife a tangible economic value for local people. Hunting, the argument goes, also makes productive use of land which is considered unsuitable for photographic tourism, either because of its remoteness or infrastructure. If controlled strictly – through the use of quotas and killing only a limited number of solitary male lions who are past their prime, for example – hunting can, according to its proponents, play a part in saving species from extinction.
At the same time, opponents of hunting argue that the whole debate is premised on the failure of governments and private operators to fairly redistribute their revenues from non lethal forms of tourism – why, they ask, should we expect that hunting be any different? They also argue that the solution lies in a fairer distribution of tourism revenues and greater community involvement in conservation rather than in killing the very animals upon which tourism depends. And finally, some critics point to the double standards of arresting and imprisoning locals who hunt wildlife (whether for commercial or subsistence reasons), while permitting rich (and usually white) hunters to shoot animals during short visits to the continent. Among the biggest critics of the hunting industry is respected wildlife film-maker Dereck Joubert, who, along with Great Plains Conservation (www.greatplainsconservation.com), has transformed Botswana's Selinda Concession from a hunting concession into one of the most exclusive wildlife experiences – wildlife has returned in great numbers and the economic model seems to be working.
The debate continues.
National Parks & Reserves
Around one-third of Botswana’s land mass is officially protected, representing one of the highest proportions of protected areas on earth. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the figure is 30.2%. Government sources put it at around 17% of the country locked away in parks or game reserves, with another 20% in ‘wildlife management areas’ (WMA). Most parks in Botswana are characterised by vast open spaces with a few private safari concessions, next to no infrastructure and limited amenities.
Visiting National Parks
All public national parks and reserves in Botswana are run by the Department of Wildlife & National Parks. There are other park offices in Maun and Kasane, as well as a rarely visited outpost in Kang.
There are a few things worth remembering about visiting Botswana’s national parks and reserves:
- Park fees have long been slated for a significant rise – we thought it would have happened by now, but don’t be surprised if they’re significantly above those listed here by the time you arrive.
- Although there are exceptions (such as the Chobe Riverfront section of Chobe National Park) and it may be possible on rare occasions to get park rangers to bend the rules, no one is allowed into a national park or reserve without an accommodation booking for that park.
- It is possible to pay park entrance fees at park entrance gates, after a spell in which places had to be reserved and fees paid in advance at DWNP offices in Gaborone, Maun or Kasane (you’ll still see some signs around Botswana to that effect). Even so, you should always try to book and pay in advance.
- The gates for each DWNP park are open from 6am to 6.30pm (1 April to 30 September) and from 5.30am to 7pm (1 October to 31 March). It is vital that all visitors be out of the park, or settled into their campsite, outside of these hours. Driving after dark is strictly forbidden (although it is permitted in private concessions).
Camping & Booking
The Department of Wildlife & National Parks runs a small number of campsites (especially in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park), and reservations for any DWNP campsite can be made up to 12 months in advance at the DWNP offices in Maun or Gaborone; Chobe National Park bookings are also possible at the Kasane DWNP office. It’s at these offices that you can also pay the park entry fees (upon presenting proof of a confirmed campsite reservation).
We recommend that, wherever possible, you make the bookings in person or arrange for someone to do so on your behalf. In theory, the DWNP also allows you to make bookings over the phone or via email, but in practice getting anyone to answer the phone or reply to emails is far more challenging than it should be. If you do manage to make a phone or email booking, insist on receiving (either by fax, email or letter) a receipt with a reference number on it that you must keep and quote if you need to change your reservation.
When making the reservation, you need to tell the DWNP:
- the name of the preferred campsite(s) within the park – in order of preference if listing more than one
- the number of nights required, and the date of your arrival at and departure from the park and campsite
- the number of adults and children camping
- the vehicle’s number plates and also the country in which the vehicle is registered (this may be waived if you don’t yet have a vehicle)
- proof of your status if you are not paying ‘foreigner’ rates.
Once you have booked it is difficult to change anything, so make sure to plan your trip well and allow enough time to get there and look around. A refund (less a 10% administration charge) is only possible with more than 30 days’ notice.
It costs P120 per person per day for non-residents to visit Botswana's parks and reserves, plus P50 per vehicle. The parks are accessible to all, although some are quite remote and require considerable expeditions to reach and explore. Once you're there, the money you pay goes a long way in both contributing to the development of local communities and bolstering conservation strategies.
While these fees are relatively low, budget travellers may feel excluded by the often-prohibitive costs of staying in some lodges and camps of the parks and reserves, although camping can be cheap and numerous operators in Maun offer cheaper options for groups.
Wildlife in National Parks & Reserves
Most national parks in Botswana boast four of the Big Five – buffaloes, elephants, leopards and lions. In Chobe National Park alone, the elephant population has swelled to around 70,000 (at last count), and in Moremi Game Reserve (the only part of the Okavango Delta to be officially protected) there survives one of the few healthy wild dog populations in Africa. Because the Okavango Delta and Chobe River provide an incongruous water supply in a semi-arid environment, nearly all Southern African mammal species are present in the Moremi Game Reserve, parts of the Chobe National Park and the Linyanti Marshes. In the Makgadikgadi & Nxai Pans National Park, herds of wildebeest, zebras and other hoofed mammals migrate between their winter range on the Makgadikgadi plains and the summer lushness of the Nxai Pan region, one of the largest such migrations on earth.
Feature: National Park Fees per Day in Botswana
Infants and children up to the age of seven are entitled to free entry into the national parks.
Feature: National Parks – Best of Botswana
|Central Kalahari Game Reserve||52,800 sq km; one of the largest protected areas in the world; semi-arid grassland||wildlife viewing; walking; visiting San villages||year-round|
|Chobe National Park||11,700 sq km; mosaic of grassland and woodland; high elephant population||wildlife viewing; birdwatching; fishing||Jun-Oct|
|Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park||38,000 sq km; straddles the South African border; semi-arid grassland||wildlife viewing; birdwatching||year-round|
|Khutse Game Reserve||2590 sq km; adjoins Central Kalahari Game Reserve; same features||wildlife viewing; walking; visiting San villages||year-round|
|Makgadikgadi & Nxai Pans NPs||7300 sq km; largest salt pans in the world; migratory zebras and wildebeest; flamingos||wildlife viewing; trekking with San; quad biking||Mar-Jul|
|Moremi Game Reserve||3800 sq km; grassland, flood plains and swamps; huge wildlife density||wildlife viewing; walking; scenic flights; boating||Jun-Oct|
|Northern Tuli Game Reserve||collection of private reserves; unique rock formations||wildlife viewing; horse riding; walking; night drives||May-Sep|
|Khama Rhino Sanctuary||43 sq km; last refuge of Botswana’s rhinos||wildlife viewing; birdwatching||May-Oct|