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Fort Desperation: Troubled Voices and Phantoms in Selibe-Phikwe

Teedzani Thapelo

Institute of International Education Fellowship Award Winner and runner up poet to the 2016 Share Botswana Tourism Fiction Award, Teedzani Thapelo* arrives in Selibe-Phikwe mining town following the catastrophe at BCL mine where 5000 workers lost their jobs to find the township prostrate, the local economy somnolent, and residents comatose in their bewildered anguish. BDP is talking about impromptu and senseless rescue plans, many residents are bolting to start up again in their villages-even the rats are scuttling out, fast; it is a perfect nightmare, not the town he knew as a student when he first prophesied this impending disaster in his PhD thesis, and dramatized it in his controversial polyphonic novel, Seasons of Thunder, under the lead character Batjibilibili Madandume.


We are sitting round some caricature of a table, a most rickety contraption. Its unsteady posture seems ordered for the illustration of life in this dying township, something that, even within the tumult of events here, might stand as a symbol of existence. The men are talking incessantly, and I listen. No subject is taboo here; fights, work, sex, suicides, murders, theft, divorces, betrayals-even matters of sexual infertility, and infidelity.

Politicians in this country, it seems, lead very sordid lives, and the voters are not at all impressed by this charlatan libertinism. They associate it with moral sickness, and political decay. The root of our national problems, it would appear, stem from sexual pervasion, promiscuity and moral darkness on the one hand, and political profligacy and wanton greed, on the other. The argument is Freudian to the core, but not one of the people I am listening to knows anything about psychology. I am puzzled but decide to keep my counsel.

Studies about politics and psychology are nothing new to me. Not one person has a good word to say about the BDP. Ruling party politicians are derided, ridiculed, and yes, insulted as well. These people seem to even know a great deal about the private lives of these politicians, right from chequered public and political careers to their sexual habits and preferences. It’s like I am being introduced, for the first time here, to some obscure, but extremely tantalising, Botswana encyclopaedia; a macabre world of exotic knowledge and rituals, and all these because of the recent catastrophe in Selibe-Phikwe.


Writers are rarely shocked by public utterances. If anything it is our works that often shock and scandalise public sensibilities. But I must admit I find some of these utterances shocking though I am really, I think, beginning to get used to this sort of thing. Everywhere I go in Botswana I come across similar disclosures. How Batswana know these horrifying things is something I still have to fathom. I just wonder what our foreign visitors say when they hear these salacious stories being thrown about with such reckless abandon.

Four police constables walk by, and they are shooed away like some unruly chickens. There is plenty of beer around. It is as if beer is the food of life here, and gossip, the soul of the nation. Such public utterances are, however, more than just amusements of life. They are life itself. Public anxiety, I begin to recall, is a terrible thing. Talk like this has been known even to originate bloody revolutions in some countries.

 

In their fight against authority, people often start by belittling it. Talk like this is no different from undressing public figures, and exposing their nakedness to brutal violence. That rare thing, the internal gift of simplicity of heart and rectitude of the soul, the very thing that has defined a Motswana public persona for so many years, I note with sadness, is beginning to disappear.


No, Batswana are not becoming sophisticated. Far from it. Sophistication is a mark of civilized conduct. We are just becoming bitter, and vulgar, and unless something is done to trunk this moral decline, from here we can only slide into violence. This I find frightening. I look at these people, and one thing, I discover to my troubled conscience, is that if a government official, a ruling party politician, fell under a bus, right here in the awed presence of this bitter small community, these people would not hesitate to finish the poor fellow off.

Not one of them would call an ambulance. First, they would laugh, and then, in a most casual manner imaginable, finish the person off before quietly disappearing into the gathering darkness. Around the wobbly huge table I notice a lot of rust, dust, grime-soot aloft, and a lot of dirt. But the gathered crowd are mostly well dressed, articulate young folk, and full of so much gossip, I begin to wonder, if they have always lived like this.

But they tell me that is not so. Since the collapse of the mine, and the loss of jobs, people feel a strong affinity to come together, and talk. What about? Anything and everything. Do they intend sticking around? No, what is the point. I venture to murmur something about government help…and a few chaps move away from me. Mentioning such things in Selibe-Phikwe is like farting in public. People just move away from you, especially the youth.


One young lady tells me even the rats are scuttling out! Rats? I am not telling a lie, she vows. Rats are indeed scuttling out. Where to? Simple. Many people are returning to their villages. Do the politicians know this? Oh, yes, she says…and they don’t care. Truth of the matter is madokrag want the land of Selibe-Phikwe for themselves, their children, and their foreign friends. So, re ba tohelela lefatshe la bone. They don’t want us here. Ah, I see. I had not prepared myself for conspiracy theories in this wretched town.

A ba sale ka lefatshe la bone. Oh, I see. But what really happened here? Who knows a chorus of unconcealed indignation shoots back, followed by a peel of brittle laughter, disturbing and frightening. I soon meet something even more strange in this small crowd; an amateur philosopher. The people of Selibe-Phikwe, he says garrulously and impatiently, have always lived with trouble. We have always lived with trouble, or expected to be in trouble. It seems people here can never be happy unless something goes wrong.

Trouble is our name. Now this is deep stuff, profound. Something that some busybody like Freud might want to investigate. So I asked why. He smiles at me uneasily. He looks dismal, but naughty. A real philosopher, perhaps? Then he says something most unexpected, a small whisper just above his breath; I know you, he says. You are Teedzani. As a writer you must be able to figure such things out. I was staggered. But then I noticed something else.

He had delivered this shocking revelation clandestinely, almost above a whisper, smiling knowingly and mischievously. The revelation was just a secret between us two; he didn’t want to endanger my life, he just wanted me to know that he knew me, he knew what I was up to, but that was not his business. This touched me a great deal. I have written about Selibe-Phikwe before, in both my PhD thesis, and the novel Seasons of Thunder. Yet I had forgotten there were such people in Selibe-Phikwe, smart, considerate, hardworking people. I felt sick.


But I had set myself an assignment and I wanted to see it through. So I thanked him, with a smile and conspiratorial eye. There is always a touch of romance in writing. Once you get your teeth into something, it is never easy to let go. We sat rather silent for a while. Till someone bought some more beer. Then we returned to philosophy again. I was reminded that everything dies; youth, wealth, achievements, human strength, genius…le madomkrag tota, and that in Botswana nothing really ever endures.

So the mess at the mine was expected? No, says the philosopher; we never thought they could go this far, the bloody wretched bastards! This outburst draws a lot of snorting and sniggering. I should admit it was quite an experience to hear a philosopher swear. I was beginning to absorb this new intellectual novelty when all of a sudden everybody started talking excitedly; all at once. Mapolotiki kill everything willy-nilly every day, without mercy, without rest.

It is not an easy thing to live with a politician. Ga e le madomi bone…phooo! Ga ba lapisewe ke go senya. Madomkrag mistrust other Batswana, they mistrust the youth, they mistrust common sense…and they make a point of showing all these things in a thousand little ways. Like closing the mine? Oh, that was a trick. There is more to it than sees the eye. They like to create confusion. They love moments of great confusion…a useful smokescreen for stealing public assets.

Did I notice lately a lot of BDP granddads and grandmamas were retiring? Ba ya go ja eng? Ke batho ba dijo…mo dijong o ka ba bolaa.  Ah. Of course. That rotten habit of colossal greed again. I hear about it everywhere I go.  I was not about to engage this noisy but amicable enough crowd in technical economic arguments. Nobody wants to make an enemy in Selibe-Phikwe right now, and I am not a fool. So I agreed with them that the mouths and bodies of madomi are designed for eating only.


Shit happened in this beastly hole, says a skinny boy inhaling cigarette smoke with such desperate effort I feared he would overdo the whole thing and faint. Miraculously he survives. I notice his fingers, which tremble a little, are dark like a smoked ceiling. He could not have been more than fifteen. I looked at the weary and serious faces of these unlucky people. Selibe-Phikwe is going away from them piecemeal. This has been happening for more than twenty years.

I wonder how many of them noticed. It is not an easy thing to live in a town that is being gutted bit by bit every year, being stupid with fatigue and thinking of nothing but empty existence and survival…without spirit enough to even wish yourself dead. For most of these people there is no longer any real life here, only angry crowds and benumbed political authority, indifferent and reckless. They are exposed to extinction like some sailors on a raft at sea.

They grope in ruins, surrounded by wreckage, jabbering cheerfully to themselves, clinging on to their berth, hoping for miracles, and meantime inexorably drifting to the fag-end of their endurance. Crowded in that carcass of a township, the hungry crowd has to contend with endless official tinkering and mock rescue plans that never come to anything. Is it any wonder even the rats are scuttling out? The young lady confides to me that magodu a fodogetse ko Palapye…go maswe rra.


The smoking kid says mining is a foolish business. He always knew it would end badly. It is not even possible now to buy anything on credit in the town. Every shopkeeper knows us, he says laughing. You just cannot lie to anyone. Ba re itse sentle!  I ask about the miners. What happened to them? O se ka wa bua ka matagwa a le, says the young lady furiously; ba ile…ka bontse…ba re togeletse bana ba ba senang maina …ba ile.

I see I have touched a raw nerve. So I retreat. It is a terrible thing to live the life of youth in ignorance and hope. The youth of that young girl is right where she is and so long as she lives in that wretched town it will always throw her years and her weariness in her face.  She was born in that city, reared in it, has lived all her life in it, and most probably she will never know another town again. And yet people still want to see her only home die. Things like this break my heart. Of course, there is still her youth to make her patient.

But really how many youth in Botswana have any hope about their future lives and happiness? Absurd delusions, like absurd dreams, have long ceased to sit well with the placid ignorance and agitation of our youth. The loneliness and emptiness surrounding their stolid souls are things so deep our officials no longer bother to look too much into them. Sadly even most parents are giving up on them. Generally, our youth are no more than just children of the streets and birds of the night.

They are like people who have been blown up in some miserable ship at sea, and government, it is obvious, is already done with their ridiculous troubles. In fact nobody cares about them at all. They are regarded as profane scallywags with no redeeming points.
Yet in reality these are really frightened children, and this unconcern, is hurting them deeply.

The real people to blame are parents, public professionals, and politicians, all of whom now are very expert at how to shirk, and laze, and dodge when it comes to looking after young people in times of crisis. Selibe-Phikwe is no exception. I never bothered to go into government offices and talk to BDP officers about these things.

I have always found their stupid arrogance and ignorance too annoying to help such situations. I also happen to know our youth have neither time nor respect for government officials, and I know why. It will take more than the racket in that town to unite our youth to the bosom of parents and the care of bureaucrats. The real tragedy is that on the surface of things one is inclined to think these children are actually capable of making merry in the midst of all this violence and disasters.

But truth be told, these children are suffering, terribly; and it won’t be long before the weary ghost of their wholesome miserableness bursts into public life like a maddening grace, like a gift of sorrow, to this unfortunate country, further obliterating hope and public security. Feeling frustrated, and already tired, I rise to leave. I take infinite precautions about my movements. People are known to die in the night in this country. We have become a land of incorrigible vultures. My host is a homeboy who styles himself a small businessman. What do you do, I want to know. But he only laughs.


I dare not live in any public place. Bakalanga are generally very upright people. So I really don’t expect my host to be some rotten cannibal. After ten he announces he is going to church. Don’t worry cousin; he says, cheerfully, I will see you in the morning. I am reassured when he brings in the landlady and tells her, I am a trusted relative, and that I won’t cause any trouble. She looks at my luggage, and writing gear, and nods her approval. She is a huge woman, rather sullen.

Left to my devices, I start pondering events of the day, and the preceding few months. I am a little ashamed to see my room is sparkling clean. Obviously my young host went to a lot of trouble to make me feel at home…in this town where nothing can be bought on credit anymore. I feel guilty as hell. A faint breeze through the boarded-up window feels me with breathless delight…till I remember where I am. I pity these people for the unlucky choices they have made.

The town is plainly not much of a home but they have lived here all their lives, and it is now evident the prop they chose to sustain their lives is a rather poor walking stick. There is trouble everywhere, every time. Do they really apprehend the fatal signs? After the present stage of stupor, of incredulity, and of indignation, there must at some point appear the poignant finger of fatal encounters. I doubt even BDP is prepared for this, if they really anticipate this eventuality. All signs, though, are that it will come.

These people must open their eyes to the fundamental changes of the modern world. It is not only the known things and good men of our time who have departed. Departed too are the opportunities which we used to know how to seize. It is no use mincing matters. Words like progress, prospects…are now things we can only murmur with caution. A black night has descended on the fortunes of man and his prized possession; society.


I sat thinking for a very long time. Batswana, I considered, had long thought, and felt, they could depend upon the country to make her courses through any troubled waters. But now her compasses are out, and there is no telling what might happen to you before the week is out. We had always assumed her great age had given her wisdom, knowledge, and steadiness. But we had never really reckoned with those bumbling misfits at Government Enclave. I felt great anger mounting in my breast.

I once thought I knew well the order, the sights, and even the people of this country. Now I am no longer so sure, and this I always find terribly irritating. Even when one is going round many parts of this country, it is becoming well-nigh impossible to hear the same voices in the same places. Certainty and consistency, the hallmarks of all civilizations, are things we still need to nurture.

Unpredictability and personal endangerment are still marks of daily human experience-not a very enterprising life for a small country that once held so much promise for so many. The downfall of Selibe-Phikwe, which has shaken thousands of people like an earthquake, is just one instance of incessant human vulnerability in this country. We should expect more, and if you doubt me, start counting.


Many people are ashamed about the ruin of that town. The really surprising thing, I discovered to my shock, is that many had even believed in the stability of BCL groups of companies and their mining ventures; the result of misinformation by BDP officials. It is natural, I suppose, that people should take genuine pleasure in their possessions, in the dignity of their reputations and their wealth.

But to live a lie; that is worse than a sin. To mistake a town like Selibe-Phikwe for a garlanded perpetual festival with an unfading wreath is nothing more than self-delusion. Don’t even ever feel the same way about Botswana; not unless you wilfully want to set yourself for a horrible disappointment. BDP’s punctuality in failure is a matter of recorded history. It doesn’t really matter where you live. Always expect national failure to visit you there. The people of Selibe-Phikwe must now brace themselves to the derogatory nature of failed human experience.


Unfortunately, many are defenceless before this insidious work of adversity. That much I saw with my own eyes. The more rigorous the open assaults on their fate and fortunes, the poorer the firm front they can present. The more open the battering of the sea of endless problems and troubles, the weaker the cliff gets, and far too many people are tumbling over, astounded and miserable.

Men and women once substantial and dignified now find themselves confronted with the unenviable task of reassessing their fortitude. What to the nation was merely a rushed closure of the mine is to them a momentous event involving a radically new view of life, and many do not like this at all, not a bit of it. The hopes of their youth, the exercise of their abilities, every feeling and achievement that gratified their great expectations, had all been indissolubly connected with that wretched mine. Now they are asking themselves, what next?

The propositions by BDP to do something about the situation are treated with scorn. They are used to this kind of empty talk, it is a creed traced in obsolete words-in a half-forgotten language. To accept this phony political pity is like stripping naked so they can be kicked again to the ground. They are not going to give themselves away for less than nothing. They have no use for anyone’s pity. I sat thinking these things for half a night while the township slept, its sorrows heaving uneasily in the hearts of thousands of disappointed souls, and then, as usual, around three, I started writing.


I wrote for a long time. At daybreak my young friend returned. How was church, I asked. He laughed. He was already dressed for work…another phantom of the dark night. He noted I hadn’t slept and proposed breakfast. I kindly declined. An hour later I was on my way to Gaborone. I figured I had stayed long enough in this heart of darkness. Only five days, and I had gathered enough material for a book. A good writer does not need details. They tend to muffle and stymie the perception of things. Philosophy of Death and the Ruin of Selibe-Phikwe is now with a publisher.


Teedzani Thapelo* is former Distinguished Africa Guest Researcher at Nordic Africa Institute, Research Associate at the Centre for Economic Policy in Southern Africa, Economic History Lecturer at the University of Botswana, and author of Philosophy of Death and the Ruin of Selibe-Phikwe: abandonment and revolt, forthcoming in 2018.

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The Daring Dozen at Bari

8th December 2020
JEFF---Batswana-smoke-unit

Seventy-seven years ago, on the evening of December 2, 1943, the Germans launched a surprise air raid on allied shipping in the Italian port of Bari, which was then the key supply centre for the British 8th army’s advance in Italy.

The attack was spearheaded by 105 Junkers JU88 bombers under the overall command of the infamous Air Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen (who had initially achieved international notoriety during the Spanish Civil War for his aerial bombardment of Guernica). In a little over an hour the German aircraft succeeded in sinking 28 transport and cargo ships, while further inflicting massive damage to the harbour’s facilities, resulting in the port being effectively put out of action for two months.

Over two thousand ground personnel were killed during the raid, with the release of a secret supply of mustard gas aboard one of the destroyed ships contributing to the death toll, as well as subsequent military and civilian casualties. The extent of the later is a controversy due to the fact that the American and British governments subsequently covered up the presence of the gas for decades.

At least five Batswana were killed and seven critically wounded during the raid, with one of the wounded being miraculously rescued floating unconscious out to sea with a head wound. He had been given up for dead when he returned to his unit fourteen days later. The fatalities and casualties all occurred when the enemy hit an ammunition ship adjacent to where 24 Batswana members of the African Pioneer Corps (APC) 1979 Smoke Company where posted.

Thereafter, the dozen surviving members of the unit distinguished themselves for their efficiency in putting up and maintaining smokescreens in their sector, which was credited with saving additional shipping. For his personal heroism in rallying his men following the initial explosions Company Corporal Chitu Bakombi was awarded the British Empire Medal, while his superior officer, Lieutenant N.F. Moor was later given an M.B.E.

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A Strong Marriage Bond Needs Two

8th December 2020

Remember: bricks and cement are used to build a house, but mutual love, respect and companionship are used to build a HOME. And amongst His signs is this: He creates for you mates out of your own kind, so that you may find contentment (Sukoon) with them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you; in this behold, there are signs (messages) indeed for people who reflect and think (Quran 30:21).

This verse talks about contentment; this implies companionship, of their being together, sharing together, supporting one another and creating a home of peace. This verse also talks about love between them; this love is both physical and emotional. For love to exist it must be built on the foundation of a mutually supportive relationship guided by respect and tenderness. As the Quran says; ‘they are like garments for you, and you are garments for them (Quran 2:187)’. That means spouses should provide each other with comfort, intimacy and protection just as clothing protects, warms and dignifies the body.

In Islam marriage is considered an ‘ibaadah’, (an act of pleasing Allah) because it is about a commitment made to each other, that is built on mutual love, interdependence, integrity, trust, respect, companionship and harmony towards each other. It is about building of a home on an Islamic foundation in which peace and tranquillity reigns wherein your offspring are raised in an atmosphere conducive to a moral and upright upbringing so that when we all stand before Him (Allah) on that Promised Day, He will be pleased with them all.

Most marriages start out with great hopes and rosy dreams; spouses are truly committed to making their marriages work. However, as the pressures of life mount, many marriages change over time and it is quite common for some of them to run into problems and start to flounder as the reality of living with a spouse that does not meet with one’s pre-conceived ‘expectations’. However, with hard work and dedication, couples can keep their marriages strong and enjoyable. How is it done? What does it take to create a long-lasting, satisfying marriage?

Below are some of the points that have been taken from a marriage guidance article I read recently and adapted for this purposes.

POSITIVITY
Spouses should have far more positive than negative interactions. If there is too much negativity — criticizing, demanding, name-calling, holding grudges, etc. — the relationship will suffer. However, if there is never any negativity, it probably means that frustrations and grievances are not getting ‘air time’ and unresolved tension is accumulating inside one or both partners waiting to ‘explode’ one day.

“Let not some men among you laugh at others: it may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): nor let some women laugh at others: it may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames.” (49:11)

We all have our individual faults though we may not see them nor want to admit to them but we will easily identify them in others. The key is balance between the two extremes and being supportive of one another. To foster positivity in a marriage that help make them stable and happy, being affectionate, truly listening to each other, taking joy in each other’s achievements and being playful are just a few examples of positive interactions.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best character and the best of you are those who are best to their wives”

UNDERSTANDING

Another characteristic of happy marriages is empathy; understanding your spouses’ perspective by putting oneself in his or her shoes. By showing that understanding and identifying with your spouse is important for relationship satisfaction. Spouses are more likely to feel good about their marriage and if their partner expresses empathy towards them. Husbands and wives are more content in their relationships when they feel that their partners understand their thoughts and feelings.

Successful married couples grow with each other; it simply isn’t wise to put any person in charge of your happiness. You must be happy with yourself before anyone else can be.  You are responsible for your actions, your attitudes and your happiness. Your spouse just enhances those things in your life. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “Treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.”

COMMITMENT

Successful marriages involve both spouses’ commitment to the relationship. The married couple should learn the art of compromise and this usually takes years. The largest parts of compromise are openness to the other’s point of view and good communication when differences arise.

When two people are truly dedicated to making their marriage work, despite the unavoidable challenges and obstacles that come, they are much more likely to have a relationship that lasts. Husbands and wives who only focus on themselves and their own desires are not as likely to find joy and satisfaction in their relationships.

ACCEPTANCE

Another basic need in a relationship is each partner wants to feel valued and respected. When people feel that their spouses truly accept them for who they are, they are usually more secure and confident in their relationships. Often, there is conflict in marriage because partners cannot accept the individual preferences of their spouses and try to demand change from one another. When one person tries to force change from another, he or she is usually met with resistance.

However, change is much more likely to occur when spouses respect differences and accept each other unconditionally. Basic acceptance is vital to a happy marriage. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: “It is the generous (in character) who is good to women, and it is the wicked who insults them.”
“Overlook (any human faults) with gracious forgiveness.” (Quran 15:85)

COMPASSION, MUTUAL LOVE AND RESPECT

Other important components of successful marriages are love, compassion and respect for each other. The fact is, as time passes and life becomes increasingly complicated, the marriage is often stressed and suffers as a result. A happy and successful marriage is based on equality. When one or the other dominates strongly, intimacy is replaced by fear of displeasing.

It is all too easy for spouses to lose touch with each other and neglect the love and romance that once came so easily. It is vital that husbands and wives continue to cultivate love and respect for each other throughout their lives. If they do, it is highly likely that their relationships will remain happy and satisfying. Move beyond the fantasy and unrealistic expectations and realize that marriage is about making a conscious choice to love and care for your spouse-even when you do not feel like it.

Seldom can one love someone for whom we have no respect. This also means that we have to learn to overlook and forgive the mistakes of one’s partner. In other words write the good about your partner in stone and the bad in dust, so that when the wind comes it blows away the bad and only the good remains.

Paramount of all, marriage must be based on the teachings of the Noble Qur’an and the teachings and guidance of our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). To grow spiritually in your marriage requires that you learn to be less selfish and more loving, even during times of conflict. A marriage needs love, support, tolerance, honesty, respect, humility, realistic expectations and a sense of humour to be successful.

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Chronic Joblessness: How to Help Curtail it

30th November 2020
Motswana woman

The past week or two has been a mixed grill of briefs in so far as the national employment picture is concerned. BDC just injected a further P64 million in Kromberg & Schubert, the automotive cable manufacturer and exporter, to help keep it afloat in the face of the COVID-19-engendered global economic apocalypse. The financial lifeline, which follows an earlier P36 million way back in 2017, hopefully guarantees the jobs of 2500, maybe for another year or two.

It was also reported that a bulb manufacturing company, which is two years old and is youth-led, is making waves in Selibe Phikwe. Called Bulb Word, it is the only bulb manufacturing operation in Botswana and employs 60 people. The figure is not insignificant in a town that had 5000 jobs offloaded in one fell swoop when BCL closed shop in 2016 under seemingly contrived circumstances, so that as I write, two or three buyers have submitted bids to acquire and exhume it from its stage-managed grave.

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