“How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute.”
John F. Kennedy in a speech upon arriving at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on October 14, 1960, at 2:00 a.m. Members of the press had retired for the night, believing that nothing interesting would happen. But 10,000 students at the university were waiting to hear the presidential candidate speak.
I spoke to one of these Americans that has contributed in such a manner about his recent journey to Botswana, Africa to help them celebrate 50 years of independence. I happened to have had many prior conversations with this person, as it happens to be my father and Des Moines, Iowa resident, Thomas Andersen. I will briefly put into writing that I took a stage name over a decade ago, as is common among radio announcers and musicians, I chose Battaglia to pay homage to my mothers native land of Italy and to strike a blow at the patriarchy. I did not think patriarchy was best battled with matriarchy, so I did not take my mothers exact birth name either. Long story short Tom is my blood father and I could not be more proud of him so I decided to put our talk about his return to Botswana in an article.
Marco Battaglia: How did your return visit to Botswana come about?
Thomas Andersen: I was there originally in the Peace Corps teaching, from 1966 to 1969, in the village of Mochudi. I had plans to return at some point but the 50th anniversary of their independence seemed like a wonderful time to get back because it also was the 50th anniversary of my time there as well. One of my friends, Gary Whisler, resettled in Botswana and built a home there. My other friend Sheldon Praiser let me know he was going, so it seemed like a great opportunity as the three of use were there living in the same village fifty years ago. We were invited to the American Embassy for multiple events. We were considered among the guests of honor. We were surprised by the presence of former President Quett Masire and by the presence of national media. We were asked to speak and ended up on national television. There were people from a lot of different countries. I was very happy to participate in these events. There was also a Peace Corps exhibit that was opening at the Botswana National Museum, and I attended this as well. They had displays of projects that the peace corps had been involved in over the last fifty years. It really made us feel good to be among the thousands of volunteers that had helped Botswana get through the years since their independence.
MB: Were you among the first Peace Corps presence in Botswana?
TA: We were. We were the first Peace Corps presence south of the Sahara Desert in Africa. We first got to Botswana about two months after their independence. They became independent September 30th 1966.
MB: What perspective did you have in relation to the developments over the half a century?
TA: When I was first in Mochudi it did not have running water, electricity, or paved streets. The primary housing was mud huts, these were thatched roof rondavels. The only light you would see at night were from from fires, lanterns, and candles. There was no television and radios were even scarce during my first few years there. During this time the country broke ranks with the front runners to independence; whereas the norm was to adopt a one-party democratic system as a standard form of democracy, Botswana opted for multiparty democracy. Now there are paved roads, modern housing, wifi, and the teachers there share a concern with teachers all over the world in that their students are on their cell phones too much, or taking in some form of media constantly. We were amazed because 50 years ago the biggest issue for us was that kids would not have light to do their homework after sunset. We actually had set aside time for students to do homework at school before going home because of this. My travels this time were much easier. Botswana is about the size of the state of Texas. Trips I took in 1968 in a four wheel drive jeep took seven or eight days, this time, the same trips in a standard sedan took about 7 or 8 hours. There are larger homes and an emerging middle class. There was not much of a middle class to speak of back in the sixties. Botswana now has a pension for retirement, tuition aides, and universal healthcare. Botswana provides universal health-care to all citizens through a public healthcare system, but privately-run healthcare is also available. In fifty years Botswana went from being the third poorest African country to the third wealthiest. Because of this stellar performance, political economists called Botswana an “African Success Story.” This was in major part due to the existence of rich diamond fields.
MB: What travels did you go on aside from the independence celebrations?
TA: I went diagonally across the Kalahari Desert. Botswana is about 80% desert with about 6 to 8 inches of rain a year. I traveled to the Okavango Delta for a few days, one day by boat, another day we rented a four wheel drive vehicle and went out driving around the delta. We saw hundreds of zebras, elephants, giraffes, impalas, wilder-beasts and much more wild life.
As is now tradition after interviewing fellow Iowan, Maribeth Savage, on her journey out of the country to Pakistan last year, I shall tell you some of what I learned about Botswana over the years. Botswana is a landlocked country located in Southern Africa. The citizens refer to themselves as Batswana. Formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, Botswana adopted its new name after becoming independent within the Commonwealth on the 30th of September, 1966. Since then, it has maintained a strong tradition of stable representative democracy, with a consistent record of uninterrupted, multiparty, democratic elections. Botswana is roughly the size of our countries state of Texas, the population is approximately 2 million people. Botswana is one of the most sparsely populated nations in the world. Since my father’s first visit there, Botswana has transformed itself into one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
The country has been among the hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world. The original inhabitants of southern Africa were the Bushmen (San) and Khoi peoples. Both speak Khoisan languages and lived as hunter-gatherers. The official language of Botswana is English although Setswana is widely spoken across the country. In Setswana, prefixes are more important than they are in many other languages. These prefixes include Bo, which refers to the country, Ba, which refers to the people, Mo, which is one person, and Se which is the language. For example, the main ethnic group of Botswana is the Tswana people, hence the name Botswana for its country. The people as a whole are Batswana, one person is a Motswana, and the language they speak is Setswana.
Other languages spoken in Botswana include Kalanga (sekalanga), Sarwa (sesarwa), Ndebele, !Xóõ and, in some parts, Afrikaans.
In June 1966, Britain accepted proposals for democratic self-government in Botswana. The seat of government was moved from Mafikeng in South Africa, to newly established Gaborone in 1965. The 1965 constitution led to the first general elections. Seretse Khama, a leader in the independence movement and the claimant to the Ngwato chiefship, was elected as the first president, re-elected twice, and died in office in 1980. The presidency passed to the sitting vice president, Ketumile Masire, who was elected in his own right in 1984 and re-elected in 1989 and 1994. Masire retired from office in 1998. The presidency passed to the sitting vice president, Festus Mogae, who was elected in his own right in 1999 and re-elected in 2004. In April 2008, Vice President Lt. Gen. Seretse Khama Ian Khama (Ian Khama), son of Seretse Khama the first president, succeeded to the presidency when Festus Mogae retired.
My father’s travels took him through the Kalahari Desert, which is a large semi-arid sandy savanna in southern Africa extending 900,000 square kilometers (350,000 sq mi), covering much of Botswana, parts of Namibia, and regions of South Africa. He also explored the Okavango Delta. The delta is a very large, swampy inland delta formed where the Okavango River reaches a tectonic trough in the central part of the endorheic basin of the Kalahari. All the water reaching the Delta is ultimately evaporated and transpired, and does not flow into any sea or ocean. Some flood-waters drain into Lake Ngami. The Moremi Game Reserve, a National Park, is on the eastern side of the Delta. The scale and magnificence of the Okavango Delta helped it secure a position as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, which were officially declared on February 11, 2013 in Arusha, Tanzania.
My father spent most of his time teaching in Africa in the village of Mochudi. Mochudi is one of the larger villages in the country of Botswana. The tourist destinations of note inside Mochudi are the Phuthadikobo Museum at the top of the hill, which contains old photographs and historical texts relating to Mochudi and the history of the Bakgatla people. It is housed in a building that was originally the first school of Mochudi. Nearby is the hulk of the first tractor owned by a Motswana and huge footprints that legend says belongs to “Matsieng”, a giant and ancestor of the Tswana, who led his people and the animals from the center of the earth to inhabit the world. While in Mochudi my father lived in a rondavel. The rondavel is a hut that is usually round or oval in shape and is traditionally made with materials that can be locally found in raw form.
I shall include a link here to a National Geographic documentary on the Okavango Delta
If you have a question or a suggestion for an interview or a story please do not hesitate to message me on social media or to email me at, firstname.lastname@example.org
“Burke said that there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate, more important far than they all.“ Thomas Carlyle
Marco Battaglia writes for the Iowa Free Press and is a proud member of The Fourth Estate