Dumela! Hello! The first weekend of August found us in Botswana. The country is one of the most stable countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and has the highest Human Development Index in the region. Botswana is roughly the same size as the state of Texas, but just over two million people live in the entire country, which is slightly less than the population of the city of Houston, Texas. (The reason for the low population density is probably the fact that approximately 70 percent of the country is desert, the Kalahari.) About half of the country’s population lives in rural areas, and the country’s capital, Gaborone, also the biggest city, is home to about 230,000 people. After a hectic week, Derek and I were relieved to stay in Friday night and take it easy. We decided to head to Botswana a little early, by watching the first episode of the television series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which is based on a book series by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. The story revolves around a woman, Mma Precious Ramotswe, who runs a detective agency in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, and the mysteries she solves. The series (now cancelled, sadly) was filmed on location in Botswana. You can watch a promo for this highly entertaining show here.
We began Saturday with sorghum porridge, which came out similar to cream of wheat. Sorghum, though, is a type of grass and is gluten-free. It’s an important food crop in Africa because it can tolerate heat and hold up well in droughts, and is rich in protein, iron and other important nutrients. As we ate, we watched a short documentary that focuses primarily on Gaborone (a sister city of Burbank, California), but also addresses the HIV/AIDS crisis in Botswana—about 25 percent of the population is HIV-positive.
Botswana has a lot of cattle, so naturally beef has a prominent role in its cuisine. But with some digging, we found some vegetarian-friendly recipes. One of which, a vegetable potjie, needed to stew for a while, so we started preparing it shortly after breakfast. We also made madombi, dumplings, to eat with the potjie. During the afternoon, we watched more episodes of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and also enjoyed some bush tea (also known as rooibos), which happens to be Mma Ramotswe’s drink of choice when solving mysteries. For dinner, I made some stewed spinach greens, which we ate with leftovers. The dish might not look pretty, but it was pretty tasty. Derek took charge of making dessert, malva pudding, which we enjoyed while continuing The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. If we sound like couch potatoes this weekend, that would be fairly accurate, but we do like the show. Like many other detective stories, it’s nice knowing that the mysteries will be solved by the end of the episodes, but this particular series is refreshing with its unusual setting, and a protagonist who doesn’t fit the typical detective persona. The next morning, we made sorghum porridge again. It was considerably less lumpy this time, which we both thought was an improvement.
We were going to a family party later in the day, and wanted to bring something related to Botswana that wasn’t too “out there.” (Even if I weren’t a vegetarian, I’m not sure how well seswaa, a traditional Botswanan meat dish that’s boiled and shredded, would have gone over with everyone.) In our research, we’d found that watermelons are believed to have originated in the Kalahari Desert—which, you may remember from earlier in this post, covers much of Botswana. Since it’s summer, watermelon seemed like a perfect way to bring a little bit of Botswana to the celebration. Derek cut the watermelon into chunks and threaded the cubes on skewers. We had a little bit of time before we had to head out for our party, so we watched one of the special features included in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency DVD set, called “Botswana: The Gem of Africa.” This gave a lot of helpful context to the show, with background information on the country and the book series, and the impact of the show—the first major televison/film production in Botswana intended for an international audience—on Botswana and its people. You can also see this feature on YouTube:
Our watermelon kebabs were well-received at the party. Back at home later in the day, we watched the final two episodes of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
In “Botswana: The Gem of Africa,” the series creators addressed some of the criticism that the show is perhaps too positive and not realistic enough. They do acknowledge that the show is positive, but argue that this is important—most of the depictions of black Africa in the news and in films are bleak, but good does exist, and also needs to be recognized. What’s more important than accuracy, the creators say, is capturing the spirit of the place.
I’d like to think that our globetrotting is similar. We’re not always accurate. Some of this is purposeful, like making sure that anything we make ourselves is vegetarian and nut-free; other times our research may just point us in the wrong direction. But if we manage to capture the spirit of a place and its culture, then we’ve done all right. And thanks in part to Mma Ramotswe and the other characters in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, I think we’ve done all right with Botswana.