A country made for the big screen
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