University of Botswana History Department
Life in Gaborone
As you may know, violent crime is now a very serious problem in some parts of South Africa. Botswana, however, is a relatively safe place. (For that matter, most of Southern Africa is relatively safe for visitors). Of course there is crime in Gaborone, but it should not be a cause for alarm: rather visitors should exercise the same caution they would in an unfamiliar western city.
Good health services are available. It is easy to find private doctors in Gaborone. For serious cases there is a private hospital with western standards a short drive from the centre. A new private hospital has recently opened on the western edge of the city.
For all practical purposes, Gaborone is free from malaria. Malaria is a risk in the north of the country, especially in the Chobe and Okavango areas, but while living in Gaborone there is no need to take malaria prophylaxis. Doctors can advise on what precautions should be taken for visits to the far north (prophylactic drugs are available in Gaborone).
Water is very precious in Botswana, a near-desert country, and great care is taken with it. The water supply in Gaborone and other large towns is quite safe.
In guide books you will read all sorts of dire warnings about the elaborate precautions one should take with food. No doubt in many parts of the world this is sound advice. In Botswana, however, any of the food a visitor is likely to be eating (in restaurants, from fast-food outlets or supermarkets) is usually fine. Exercise the same caution you would when buying food in a western country, of course.
Mind you, when you come to a new country you are exposed to a range of unfamiliar bugs, and there is always a risk of stomach upsets. Since for a traveller on a short visit this may be a real nuisance, such travellers would do well to be a little more careful.
The powers supply is normally reliable. Power cuts do happen occasionally due to shortages or technical problems. Botswana uses 230 V AC (50Hz) - i.e., European appliances can be used but American ones will need a transformer. Transformers for large appliances such as heaters are expensive and (except for computers) it is probably easier to buy appliances here.
Two types of electric socket are common: the modern British three-square-pin type, and a type with three round pins. Adaptor plugs are readily available.
The Botswana telecommunications network is modern and reliable. As in the rest of Africa, cell phones are ubiquitous and have transformed life. You will encounter phones operated by enterprising citizens at plastic tables for public calls. These traders also usually sell scratch cards for cell phones.
Botswana, along with the rest of the region, drives on the left. The main roads are well-maintained. There are however problems of safety. Speeds are high, and overtaking is sometimes attempted in unwise circumstances. A lot of upgrading is taking place, often to create two-lane roads and dual carriageway for greater safety, so you are likely to encounter major road works.
Another problem (and one with which visitors may not be familiar) is that of animals on the road. In the south of the country the animals are livestock - cattle, goats and donkeys. Donkeys seem to have especially little road sense. In the far north, wild animals are common. In particular, on the road to Kasane elephants are common. Elephants are highly intelligent and not normally aggressive, but should be treated with respect. If there is an elephant in the way, wait for it to move well off the road.
On the main road, there is a cleared strip either side of the road which enables you to see animals before they jump in front of you. At night, it is much harder to see animals and accidents are common.
See below for information on road-blocks.
Travelling in a foreign country, especially by road, can involve you in more contact with officialdom that some westerners are used to. You may have read accounts of the peculiar difficulties which sometimes arise in some parts of Africa. But in Botswana, there is really nothing to worry about.
The basic rule to follow in all cases is that people in Botswana, including officials, expect all business to be done with courtesy. There is always time to be polite. Before trying to transact any business, always begin by greeting the other person. In Africa, a meeting cannot be just business - it is always a meeting of two people. This is part of what the Batswana call botho - personhood (ubuntu in South Africa). Greet people, show respect and friendliness, and do not be in a hurry.
In Botswana, as in some other African countries, limited police resources make road-blocks a useful way of checking for stolen vehicles, etc. If you travel by road, you will occasionally come across a police road block. This is a routine event and does not indicate any cause for concern. Police will typically wave some vehicles on and stop others. They will usually want to check your driving licence, and may briefly check some aspect of the car's roadworthiness, e.g. its indicators. If renting a car, have the car papers ready at hand.
There are also permanent road-blocks at certain points where the road crosses a veterinary boundary. These are for the purpose of checking that (for example) meat products are not being carried from areas with infections like foot-and-mouth. This is a very important issue for a country which wants to export meat to Europe, so be patient.
Botswana has the lowest corruption in Africa, and any form of corruption is dealt with severely. Officials in Botswana do not ask for bribes from tourists. See the Botswana government web-site for information on the anti-corruption unit, the DCEC.
Food in restaurants is not greatly different from what one would find in the west: European food, Chinese food, Indian food. Sometimes Botswana dishes like seswaa are available. Fast food includes both western types and fast-food versions of local staples such as meat with rice or mielie pap. Samosas and meat pies are common and usually of good quality; a little up the scale is chicken (including KFC, but also Nandos, a successful fast-food chain based in South Africa, specializing in chicken, but deriving from the Portuguese tradition in South Africa).
There is a significant Muslim minority, and so a lot of the meat sold in Botswana is halaal. The Jewish community is small and kosher products may be harder to find (although there is a much larger Jewish community in South Africa and kosher food is available in cities there).
Vegetarian food is rather limited, as Batswana traditionally like meat; however vegetarian products from South Africa can be found in supermarkets.
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By Bruce Bennett, email bennett@mopipi... [Click here for full email address]
Copyright © 2000 University of Botswana History Department
Last updated 13 October 2010