It had just turned midnight on April 2, and Botswana’s coronavirus lockdown began.
I sat in my dimly lit childhood bedroom in the village of Gobojango, working on the write-up for my PhD thesis. The last time I had written a school paper in that house, it was by hand, by candlelight – and more than 20 years ago.
Some things have changed in the village since then.
Over the years, mud huts have made way for concrete houses built in yards with acres of space between them. Some of them are remarkably sumptuous abodes – for a village – depicting how stark inequalities can exist even in generally poor societies.
Still, most other things have remained the same. Besides the now-faded white paint, a few cracks on the wall, and doves that have found a home in the tight spaces between the corrugated iron roof and the wall, my parents’ five-roomed old-style house is as it always was.
A silence hung in the air past midnight, and all was quiet save for the occasional barking of dogs or a donkey braying in the distance.
As the coronavirus ushered in a sudden breakdown of normality around the globe, my university in neighbouring South Africa shut its doors and, to avoid being confined to Johannesburg for an indefinite period of time, I returned.
But the thought of being confined there made me anxious – especially with talk in the village centred around “this deadly virus that is ravaging the world” and the constant Radio Botswana updates about the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in South Africa.
Gobojango was also not the easiest place for me to work. That is because of the complete lack of access to the internet – one thing that knows no inequality because no one there has meaningful access to internet services.
To us village folks growing up in the 1990s, the internet was an alien concept. And it remains that way for those still living there today.
Gobojango is a small village about 500km (310 miles) northeast of the capital, Gaborone. It is home to around 1,800 people, mostly subsistence farmers and peasants situated within the MASEGO enclave, which comprises the three villages of Mabolwe, Semolale and Gobojango.
In the 1990s, nobody in this part of the world knew much about electricity, let alone the internet.
The only source of light for studying was candlelight or a flicker of light from the dugout which served as a fireplace in the middle of our rondavel – a traditional thatched mud house – which my family later bulldozed to extend the concrete house of which my room is part.
A stone’s throw from home was the small village school where I spent my childhood studying. When I completed high school, like most youth in my village, I knew I needed to find a job to fend for myself and help my family.
In my mind, I saw university as an unreasonable detour that would delay my family’s economic empowerment. But I knew the Botswana Defence Force regularly sent its officer cadets to be trained abroad under the auspices of pacts it had with other militaries.
So I applied for officer training at the United Kingdom’s Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (RMAS). After a competitive process, it turned out I was the best candidate officer cadet to attend training that year. I relished the opportunity, soon leaving the village and Botswana.
12 pt Arial font
My trip to the UK offered respite from the shackles of poverty at home.
But my years of living in an economically disempowered rural village soon came to bear against my military training experience.
I remember the day we got our first written assignment at the RMAS. My platoon colour-sergeant said: “All assignments shall be typed in 12 pt Arial font with 1.5 line spacing and submitted to my office by first light without fail.”
My heart sank. I felt utterly defeated. I had never so much as heard of 12 pt font and typed assignments.
Until that point, I had never even touched a computer.
In the UK, I was constantly bombarded with questions ... 'Do you have cars in Africa?'; 'Is it true that in Africa people live in trees?'; 'Do people in Africa have mobile phones?'
All we had in Gobojango was a small school library which I rarely visited because it also served as a classroom. Everything in my school was limited: the number of classrooms, stationery, transport, furnishings. Assignments were handwritten while we knelt on a thin blanket around a paraffin-powered lamp or fire.
But now, there I was in Camberley, a small town south-west of London, a far cry from my modest village upbringing. A whole desktop computer sat on a mahogany desk, and I had no clue where to start except to press the power button.
When I first arrived in the UK, I was constantly bombarded with questions by my cadres, which I believe stemmed from ignorance and prejudice: “Do you have cars in Africa?”; “Is it true that in Africa people live in trees?”; “Do people in Africa have mobile phones?”
I was the only African in my platoon and incidentally the only officer cadet who could not use a computer. I dreaded asking any of my platoon mates to teach me how to type, lest I live up to their “primitive African” stereotype.
So over the next few months, I would sneak out of my room to the computer labs under cover of darkness to teach myself how to type through trial and error, typing one character every few seconds. Needless to say, my assignments were consistently submitted late, and the consequences were always severe punishments with scathing assessment reports about my “inability to do simple things”.
Between two decades
The story of my upbringing in Gobojango in the late 20th century is a story of deep poverty and lack of access to technological advancements. But as a child with nothing to compare it to, it just seemed normal.
For all of us in the village, having a pair of shoes or a new set of clothes was considered a luxury. Most of us children had one meal a day – beans and porridge – provided for free at Gobojango Primary School, a cluster of corrugated iron-roofed concrete blocks with three to four classrooms per block. The school had two ablution blocks which are still in use today, one for girls and the other for boys, and the state of the pit latrines is as dire now as it ever was.
Most of the pupils in my class walked barefoot, regardless of the weather – during the summer when the scorching sun hit the often-dry ground, and in the winter when the cold, semi-desert breeze tormented our bare feet. Most of us did not have shoes, but somehow nobody seemed bothered.
Uniforms – sky blue shirts and grey shorts for boys and a white-collared blue dress for girls – were compulsory. But the varying level of each pupil’s poverty could be measured in how faded the colour of their uniform was, or in the number of holes that could be seen on the backside and the collar.
Two decades later, pupils still tend to whatever is left of their families’ livestock after school hours and on weekends. Many still have to fetch firewood from the outskirts of the village after school so that they can have enough light to study around the dugout fireplace.
Apart from electricity and a tarmac road that traverses the village, not much infrastructural development has taken place. My former secondary school, which was built in the early 1990s, is now dilapidated. The lockers, windows and doors are broken; the ceiling sags inwards and, as it does, the fibreglass that is sealed into the roof falls on to the desks; and bats and rats rule the roost, scampering around randomly.
It is almost inconceivable that any kind of learning takes place in this environment.
Poverty and the internet
Botswana’s coronavirus lockdown ended on May 21. But Gobojango seems perennially under lockdown, albeit in other forms.
The village has no shops for basic goods and services. People have to travel to Bobonong, a bigger village with better infrastructure, almost 40km (25 miles) to the west. But the transport system for such a journey is almost non-existent. People mainly use donkey carts in the village – only a few individuals have cars – so the only way to travel to Bobonong is by minibus taxi, which is hard to come by.
Access to the internet is also out of reach for most people. Broadband costs start from $79 per month, in an area where more than half the population is formally unemployed, and where even those with jobs earn less than $5 a day.
In South Africa, where I normally live and work as a legal researcher on human rights issues while I complete a PhD in International Law, access to the internet is also a luxury for most, at about $59 per month. But Botswana’s unaffordable data dwarfs South Africa’s problems.
As I struggle to do research with limited internet data, my heart cries out for the hundreds of young people in my village where there are no libraries and no computers.
Technically, Botswana is not a poor country, but the poverty rate in many rural areas and villages like Gobojango is over 46 percent, meaning only a handful of people have enough economic power to access the internet at these costs.
There is little doubt that Gobojango brims with potential, a fact reflected in the resilience of its people. In the midst of their economic calamities, they still try to keep their fields and cattle alive. Many brave the danger of being trampled by marauding elephants that have invaded the community’s farmlands, and press on in the face of livestock rustlers who have been looting their herds.
The will and instinct for survival run deep in this community.
But amidst the poverty and the deprivation from the internet – which keeps many people cut off and away from education – hardship can easily cancel out potential.
My experiences from 20 years ago are still the reality for the majority of my people in 2020.
As I struggle to do research with limited internet data, my heart cries out for the hundreds of young people in my village. Getting research done is a Herculean task when there are no libraries and no computers.
A glimmer of hope
After the lockdown ended, I moved back to Johannesburg, where I once again have a regular internet connection and access to libraries.
Before I left, I met a final-year high school student in the village, a young girl who told me she had just received a scholarship to study for a geology degree at a UK university in 2021.
She was delighted to share the news.
But I could not help but worry, as I imagined her struggling to switch on the desktop computer, and not understanding what 12 pt Arial font with 1.5 line spacing was – because, like me 20 years ago, she has never touched a computer.
I got flashbacks of my midnight crawls to the RMAS computer lab, and I dreaded to think of this young girl in my position, potentially not performing at her best because she – like me – will be seen as someone who “lives in a tree” and cannot type or “understand simple things”.
My time back in Gobojango once again brought me face-to-face with the challenges that many still endure, and the inherent potential our circumstances and environments have to either make or break our destinies. For most rural folk, being condemned to a life of poverty is the default and success is sadly still an exception.
But there is potential, as I found in the new geology student I met.
The majority of Gobojango’s youth never make it out of the circle of poverty, so seeing one young person like that gave me a glimmer of hope that if we all put in more effort, things may change for the majority.
Which is why I bought two used desktops to donate, and made a vow to myself to help change the situation in the village.
Things can change, and they shall, but the change has to start with us.