A coun­try made for the big screen

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Botswana -

As a new film about the his­tory of Botswana is re­leased, Mike Un­win ex­plains why this land of plains, deltas and deserts is rich in an­i­mal A-lis­ters

Vis­i­tors who first en­ter Botswana via its cap­i­tal city Gaborone might, as I did, find them­selves a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed. Alight­ing one swel­ter­ing morn­ing at the rail­way sta­tion af­ter the long overnight jour­ney from neigh­bour­ing Zim­babwe, I stepped out into what ap­peared to be a huge con­struc­tion site. Like other first-time tourists, I had been dream­ing of the Oka­vango and the Kala­hari. In­stead, the coun­try ap­peared to be noth­ing but cranes, traf­fic and shop­ping malls.

Ad­mit­tedly, this was 25 years ago. Yet to­day, in the 50th an­niver­sary year of Botswana’s in­de­pen­dence, most vis­i­tors still head di­rectly for the sa­fari riches of the coun­try’s north, barely aware of Gaborone and the towns fur­ther south. With some 38 per cent of the na­tion’s land given over to na­tional parks, it is per­haps hardly sur­pris­ing that his­tory and cul­ture are not a top pri­or­ity for vis­i­tors.

This week, how­ever, a new film is gen­er­at­ing cu­rios­ity about an­other side of Botswana. A United King­dom, which has just gone on re­lease in the UK, tells the ex­tra­or­di­nary story of the na­tion’s found­ing pres­i­dent Seretse Khama (played by David Oyelowo) and his con­tro­ver­sial mar­riage to Lon­don of­fice worker Ruth Wil­liams (Rosamund Pike), whom he met while study­ing at Ox­ford Univer­sity.

Khama hailed from Serowe, north of Gaborone. Chief-in-wait­ing of the Bang­wato tribe, he de­fied the Bri­tish colo­nial au­thor­i­ties to marry the woman he loved, se­cur­ing the bless­ing of his peo­ple at a tra­di­tional kgotla tribal court in a scene that sets the movie alight. Af­ter in­de­pen­dence in 1966, Khama took the na­tion’s reins and – cour­tesy of rich di­a­mond re­serves – steered it to­wards a pros­per­ity that the Bri­tish had never imag­ined. What’s more, this pros­per­ity came with a peace and sta­bil­ity en­vied across Africa: it was an achieve­ment at­trib­uted to botho, the tra­di­tional ideal of re­spect and to­geth­er­ness that was cen­tral to Khama’s phi­los­o­phy.

In Serowe to­day you can see Khama’s grave and birth­place, ex­plore the na­tion’s story among the relics of the Khama III Me­mo­rial Mu­seum and visit the old Lon­don So­ci­ety Mis­sion­ary Church, its steeple once a land­mark for mis­sion­ar­ies and prospec­tors. And you could also fol­low the his­tory trail fur­ther: from Old Palapye, the 19th-cen­tury cap­i­tal of the Bang­wato, to Ma­pun­gubwe Hill, where ar­chae­ol­o­gists have un­earthed arte­facts from an an­cient African king­dom. is cur­rently on re­lease na­tion­wide

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in ‘A United King­dom’, above. Right, from top, horse­back sa­faris are a way of see­ing the wildlife; bush­men in the Mak­gadik­gadi Pans; and a black-maned lion

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