A balcony garden in Botswana

This wasn't intended to be my next blog post. But now that summer has come to my neck of the woods and I'm in full gardening mode, spending as much unplugged time as I can, my thoughts roam to the first garden I created on my own, in Botswana, during my UN Volunteer posting. It was on the balcony of the one-bedroom 'flat' I moved into from my first temporary home at the Government Guest House in Gaborone. I only have one photograph of this first garden. Here it is: 


I knew my father would have approved of my efforts. He was an avid and talented gardener who took pleasure in having his two daughters help him tend the tulips, daffodils, and peonies brightening both sides of the entrance to our home, prune the climbing roses he trailed over a wide arbour hugging one side of the house, harvest sun-ripened cherry tomatoes, juicy strawberries, and lettuce–until Tommy, my sister's tortoise, ate every single plant–from the kitchen garden, turn over the rich-smelling and somehow mysterious compost, collect seeds, and pot the 'babies' from the spider plants outside our playhouse. I sent him the snapshot with the following caption: 

"I loved everything about my new home, especially my balcony. I painted one wall and enjoyed sitting there with a good book from the Public Library."

The balcony overlooked a public school, with single-storey, individual classrooms set well apart from each other on a generous, tree-dotted lot. On weekends my reading corner was tranquil, with only the happy chirping of masked weaver birds gathered in an impressive colony on an nearby acacia tree to keep me company. During my lunch break, I rather enjoyed the brouhaha from the blue and white uniformed school children who were at recess by the time my green Robin Hood bicycle got me home.  

RobinHood bicycle 1977

It was thanks to my bicycle that I was able to create my balcony garden in the first place. The front basket was strong enough to carry home plants (mostly aloes, cacti and other succulents), rocks, and soil, as well as a wire netting to support two climbers and the cans of paint I used for the small mural, inspired by the traditional patterns seen in the villages surrounding the capital city.  

A week's supply of groceries easily fit into the basket, as did the books I borrowed on my frequent visits to the Public Library. After years of living in countries where English was not the official language, I was ecstatic over the shelves and shelves of English-language books. So many new authors to discover! And so many hours on evenings and weekends to enjoy them (especially with no television set and no telephone)! 

Many of my British colleagues at the Buildings Department were voracious readers who kindly went out of their way to recommend their favorite set-in-Africa books to me. It is thanks to them that I discovered so many awe-inspiring authors. Camara Laye, Chinau Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer jump to mind. As do Doris Lessing, Okot p'Bitek, Bessie Head, and Wilbur Smith. And then there's Ngugi wa Thiong'o. How could I forget his third novel, A GRAIN OF WHEAT, first published by Heinemann in 1967? I bought a copy and sent it as a gift to my father. Now, thanks to my amazing sister who has been patiently going through our late father's belongings, the book has come home to me. Here it is, along with a few others from the bookshelves in my office.

reduced African books

Holding the book in my hand brought back a flood of memories and a deep gratitude for all the happy hours of reading made possible by the Gaborone Public Library. My visits to the airy and well-light building on Independence Avenue were always filled with joy. 

Only one unhappy incident stands out. With a fresh stash of precious just-waiting-to-be-checked-out books under my arm, I wasn't paying much attention to the woman standing in front of me. The clearly irate borrower, who happened to be a matronly white woman old enough to be my mother, was complaining about something. With my usual tendency to shrink back from conflict, I just stood there dumbfounded when she shouted, "How can you be so slow and stupid? I could do your job standing on my head!" And then out she stormed.

Anger. Embarrassment. Shame. Those were the feelings rippling through me. Instead of offering an apology, a few words to clearly and unequivocally state that the just-witnessed behavior was absolutely unacceptable, I kept my head down and never said anything, other than 'thank you', when the clerk handed over my books after date stamping the card with the return date. But I saw the pain on her face when our eyes met.

I've often regretted not speaking up immediately. "I am sorry you had to hear this," I should have said to the young Motswana woman. "I come to this library often and I know you do a great job. Please accept my apologies for what this lady just said to you. She had no right to speak like that. I hope this reprehensible incident will not make you think that all whites are racist. Have a good day, Miss." And then, I should have run after the white woman, and confronted her–politely, but firmly–preferably in private. Praise in public, criticize in private, is a maxim I believe in. 

The outburst I witnessed occurred in the middle of apartheid. White expatriates, I felt, especially those living in tolerant, multiracial Botswana which prided itself on being a Frontline State opposing the white South African regime, had a duty to refrain from any (verbal or non-verbal) behaviour that could be construed as racist.

The incident made me grateful for my British boss and British colleagues at the Buildings Department. They were great role models in the way they treated the single Motswana professional employee, the Batswana secretaries, and (later) the young (Soviet-educated) architectural trainee. I was proud to be working with them.

Several of the architects, engineers, and quantity surveyors were history buffs who took it upon themselves to fill in the abysmal gaps in my knowledge of African history. They were fans of the Rhodesiana Reprint Library, which had a subscription service. It was beyond my means. In fact, I couldn't afford to purchase very many books on my UN Volunteer stipend, but I did buy purchase Steve Biko's I WRITE WHAT I LIKE (published in 1978) as soon as it became available at the Botswana Book Centre in what residents of Gaborone call the mall (a delightful pedestrian strip running right down the middle of town and opening up onto several large squares). 

As far as I know, the Botswana Book Centre is still there today, in the very same spot it was in the last time I visited it around 1983. Much, however, has changed since then. Which brings me back to what this blog post was supposed to be about: 'Botswana then and now'. I have started writing it; I really have! But the illustration for it (a two-part collage combining recent headlines from newspapers published in Botswana and photographs from my volunteer days) is taking longer than anticipated. I'll post the collage and the text as soon as I can.

I think I'll stop now, change into my gardening clothes and head halfway up the hill behind our house in Atlantic Canada to continue digging a bed for the eight heather plants I purchased a few weeks ago. They really need to be lifted out of their confining pots so they can stretch out their cramped roots, grow, and blossom.  

Thanks for visiting my website and reading this blog. I hope you're enjoying your summer (or your winter if you're in the Southern hemisphere) and that you have a (private, public, or shared) present-day garden (or one in your memories) that you can enjoy now and then. Take good care!

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