As I listen to the news that once again an American jury—grand or otherwise—has acquitted a white man of killing a black man and/or boy, I can’t help but think of the Botswana flag. When I first arrived in my village, a young man in the senior secondary school proudly explained their black, white and blue flag: the blue is for water, which is the most important element in a desert world. The black and white is for the fact that blacks and whites live together peacefully.
He told me this not that many miles away from the border of South Africa, a land where Apartheid kept blacks and whites living in fear and anger for decades. I almost didn’t believe the young man, it seemed too sweet an idea.
Once considered the poorest country in the world, Bechuanaland was home to the Tswana people. In 1885 the Tswana asked the British to offer them protection from the Boers, who were invading their lands from neighboring South African Republic. Can you imagine asking the British, one of the major colonizers of the world, to ‘protect’ you? The British agreed, but couldn’t be bothered to set up any offices in scruffy Bechuanaland, so for years the capital remained across the border in South Africa.
When Botswana gained its independence in 1966 there were many white people living within their borders—mostly cattle ranchers in the Ghanzi district. They could have told them to leave—this was their land now. They could have forced them to emigrate. They did neither. Botswana offered citizenship to all people living within their borders, no matter what their race.
Most people know of Botswana from Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladie’s Detective Agency series. My life in Botswana was not as cheery and humorous as that depicted in the McCall Smith books—rapid growth and economic disparity were changing things, particularly in the major cities. Still, I did not walk in fear. Batswana are gentle people by nature. I was more afraid of someone on the bus bursting out in song than brandishing a knife.
Today I think of their flag, which according to the World Atlas, has colors that correspond to those on the national coat of arms. The blue represents water, the white-black-white bands depict the racial harmony of the people as well as the pluralist nature of society. They are inspired, the atlas adds, by the coat of the zebra, the national animal.
And I think of the zebra (also the name of Botswana national soccer team): a social animal that lives in small harems or large herds. Unlike their closest relatives, horses and donkeys, zebras cannot be ridden. The first time I saw a zebra was from the bus as it drove past the Botswana Defense Force on the way out of Gaborone. What was a zebra doing in the middle of the capital city? Someone explained it to me: the BDF protects all inhabitants of the country, including wildlife. The zebra had been saved from poachers and was grazing behind the gates of the BDF until it could be returned to its home.