The Race for Kgale Hill

According to local runners, the stage that separates the “Bushmen from the boys” during one of Botswana’s largest road races is the one that extends up the reticulated paths to the peak of Kgale Hill, Gaborone’s highest point. It is attainable only by conquering the unmarked, seemingly impassable routes of dense bush and sheer rock face that lead there. Kgale protrudes like a tubular knot from Gaborone’s otherwise unblemished flatland of saltpan and packed dirt, a nodule of soursop, baobab, bunch grass, camel thorn, hairy acacia and tangled hybrids all the same grey-green color. Experienced racers veer off Quarry Road at a predetermined entry point and begin their climb. Racers run in teams, and there is a tradition, the twilight before each race, to trawl about with teammates around the sides of the hill, braving the crepuscular insects and nocturnal fauna with rakes and machetes, cutting down the ziziphus and taller acacias to mark their own paths and ob- scure all the others.

 When I joined a team myself in 2009, my team- mates, a couple of students and other teaching aides from one of the capital’s primary schools, assured me that this annual attack on Kgale’s landscape didn’t do much more than rearrange the entropic mass of gnarled branches and undergrowth. The hill, after all, didn’t look much different the next morning. It’s endured far worse over the years, they said, and maybe they were right: Since

the 1920s, when the earliest Roman Catholic mis- sions settled at the base of the hill, the site has held the country’s first secondary school, a Setswana-language newspaper, and a television transmitter. While each, in turn, provided citizens of Gabo- rone with education, information, entertainment, and a spiritual alternative to the Anglicans that had arrived in the nineteenth century, each also contributed to a gradual scaling back of the Kgale habitat, forcing its wild mélange of desert plants and wildlife into a slow retreat up the slopes, beaten back by an expanding network of newly paved roads. In the 1970s, the closest thing to concrete in Botswana was the solidity of the sunbaked saltpans, but now, Kgale, Setswana for “the place that dried up,” has parking lots and squat buildings lodged into its base like stones caught in tumbleweed. So this year, at twilight, runners grabbed their trowels and cut divots into the slope, uprooting medlar and mimosa and scarping anything on the hill that seemed to promise a direct path to the new satellite radio receivers at the summit.

By nightfall, some men began drinking from saggy cartons of fermented sorghum, forfeiting the early morning race. They weren’t visible in the dark until the first small brushfires flared up and snuffed out, when a texture of light and shadow passed across their hands and mouths and their bodies seemed to freeze briefly in the interstices between the trees, when seeing was suddenly charged with a sense of scandal. The dry air was filled. After the police had cleared everyone out, the hill, briefly overrun by swarms of smoke and sirens, settled down again. From the flatbeds of pickup trucks and the back windows of mini- buses, the hill seemed squatter and squatter as it receded from view, pulled into the earth as the many teams drove towards the lights of the city.

*

 

Far north of Gaborone, the waterways of the Okavango River Delta are so clear that you can tell when the silt of its riverbed changes colors. The different shades of red desert sand mix with the rich dark soil. Grey spotted fish swim through the water with a torpid solidity, like dislodged, floating stones. The mokoro are hand-carved ca- noes sturdy enough for one passenger at a time. You must use a pole to propel your boat across the surface: oars entangled in the papyrus marsh. During the dry winter season, the water recedes from its depositories in the Kalahari Desert and pools like stagnant moats around the resorts fur- ther north. The visiting tourists shift their interest from wildlife safaris in the Delta to desert tours on 4x4 adventure vehicles and bus rides through game reserves. The hotels empty out during the daytime excursions, but there’s not much to see during the winter other than distant herds. The passengers return covered in dust kicked up by the vehicles’ tires, interminable gestures in the dirt.

This is also the only time of the year that the desert is cool enough to walk on without shoes, though, so during my week in the delta while on leave from teaching in Gaborone, I spent most of my time on foot. Free from the winds that signal the brief transition between seasons, the Kalahari settled down. The dry air sharp in the lungs. I learned to run on dirty blisters and sandpaper skin, the broken surface of the saltpans tearing through my sneakers’ rubber, soft cuticles shorn after just two days on the cracked earth. Acedia, the noonday demon, the earliest manifestation of spiritual malaise, is said to have originated on the backs of the religious ascetics during their third-century trials in the Sahara Desert. Every mirage a temptation to slide beneath the sand. As a cross-country runner in high school, I only knew how to counteract boredom through the monotony of long-distance runs. The stillness counted along the beats of metrical strides. Time swallowed by the silky dunes.

After droughts in the Kalahari, the desert flora withers and no longer holds the sand in place; instead, it is lifted up in plumes during wind- storms. A few miles outside Gaborone, the first thing the disembarking passengers at Sir Seretse Khama notice is the air. It tastes. It leaves a thin gruel of desert dust under their tongues, a scum of sand and saliva along their lips. Sand accumu- lates around doorways and in carry-on luggage, as if sifting through fabrics or funneling through keyholes. The taste follows the visitors into their taxis or buses, whose seats and floor mats are already heavy with it. It is only within the city proper that it seems to dissipate, replaced by the smokes of intermittent veldt fires fed on the dry air and by the pollution of the capital’s urban sprawl.

Running in the capital during the winter season was impossible for my untrained lungs until I had built up my stamina in the Okavango region. The taste of the air abruptly changes upon arriving in Gaborone. It is saturated with the vapors of paraffin, firewood, and leaded petrol, which was sold in city filling stations as late as June 2011, despite the government’s putative regulations. That same year, the World Health Organization published an eight-year study of the average concentration of air pollutants in the atmospheres of 1,100 major urban areas. Gaborone was the only African city in the bottom twenty-five, the most polluted city on the continent (despite its relatively high per capita income).

Aeolia, the phenomenon of terrestrial reshap- ing that produces the taste of the air after windstorms in Botswana, is named after Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds. For years, scientists have predicted that this natural process will allow future windstorms to carry the desert’s soluble iron—the Aeolian deposits—in concentrations heavy enough to spark new growth cycles of underwater ecosystems in the Southern Ocean. Today, competing studies claim that the same Aeolian winds carry Gaborone’s pollutants be- yond its borders to the eastern regions of the sub- Sahara. In the Kalahari, I could draw sand from the air and grind it in my teeth, feel its coarseness in my throat. I could run until my tongue felt salted. The mesh and sponge of the upper respiratory tract are natural filters, but porous ones. Sulfur dioxide is small enough to coat the lungs. It diffuses into the blood.

 

*

 

In 2007, Kgale Hill was introduced to an international audience when two British filmmak- ers and Mirage Productions leased the hill from the Botswana government for ten years. They chose the site to film an adaptation of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith’s series of novels about a smalltime investigational practice that operates from the foot of the hill. The detective, a sententious Motswana woman who meditates on the identities of suspected insurance scammers and petty thieves under the shade of the acacias and baobabs, chooses the spot for its shelter and distance from the rising hubbub of Gaborone. Kgale is somehow in better touch with the pride of Botswana, the detective believes, than the new businesses thriving in the capital. After the hill was leased, the Botswana government invested in the Mirage project to preserve the sets for visits by tourists. Though plans for further adaptations of the nov- els have stalled after a short-lived television show on BBC and HBO, the hill continues to uphold an identity as “Kgalewood.” A mummified set, an empty lot, and a tourist center provide a space for a group of local producers and actors to hold film classes, rent equipment and attempt to contribute to a burgeoning film industry.

At the time of the race, though, the film crews are scrapping together a running team of their own, maybe to entertain themselves during a long and unusually wet winter, maybe to stir up some publicity for their projects, but officially to raise money for a Gaborone film production company that has emerged from the Detective Agency project. Batswana citizens worked and trained as members of the show’s crew during its shoots, and the Kgalewood sets are actually involved in supporting and supplying local film projects and productions.

Team Mirage doesn’t participate in the reshaping of Kgale’s landscape during the revelry before the race. Some say that they called in the police at the first sign of smoke, annoyed by the noises and stones that would occasionally slam against their trailers at the base of the hill, wary of damage to their sets. There are murmurs about the irony of their protests to a bit of ritualized razing, given that the film crew has done more to disturb the ecosystem of Kgale over the past two years than any other establishment in the past century. During the shoots, floodlights glare up and down the hillsides, pushing flocks of birds to the hill’s north face and provoking howls from tree-dwelling animals. Mirage also paved much of the ground and stationed dumpsters, trail- ers, and equipment trucks at the base of the hill throughout the season, attracting some animals and frightening others away, but most of all carving another concrete niche into a hill studded with increasing numbers of them.

During some training runs up the hill, while testing out different routes and examining bluffs for places to climb up the steeper parts, a local team caught two Mirage team members film- ing them just above the rocks and tore off their camera’s viewfinder. Many doubted that the British filmmakers would be competitive enough to scout other teams in advance, but every team had its own strategy for summiting the hill: tackling it vertically by climbing up portions of the south face, or moving laterally, stabbing upwards wherever the trees gave way to an opening. From the summit, the view of the city below would open up. The finish line, marked by a banner rendered impossibly bright by that hour’s sun, would practically guide runners to a course straight down to it. Teams tried to mark paths for themselves in advance, guarding the results of their reconnaissance and hiding their intentions from others, so after the fight in the hills the local teams devel- oped an unspoken rivalry with Mirage. Some undoubtedly fanned the flames for more political reasons—in 2007, many had spoken out in support of regulating the studio’s right to film with bright lights at night. To motivate themselves, some teams have declared the aim of this year’s race as “Take Back Kgale Hill.”

 

*

The students on my school’s team, Karabo and Henry, hailed from Orapa, a mining town 250 miles north of the capital, a place dug into the earth between the Okavango and Gaborone. The diamond mines, four pockmarks in a rock face, are covered by yellow trucks that claw along its face like hornets patching together the entrances to their nests. The Botswana government shares an equal-stakes ownership over these mines with the Debswana Diamond Company, and the partners have been slowly boring into the earth by shaving off layers of dusty Kimberlite volcanic rock in which the diamonds are embedded. Families in Orapa are intertwined with the larger organization of Debswana, which provides its workers with houses, elementary schools, medical care, a hospital, and HIV-AIDS testing. In 2008, Debswana’s parent company, De Beers, pioneered a Forevermark publicity campaign, in which all Botswana’s nationally produced diamonds are identified with a number at their source and thus guaranteed early to be conflict-free. In a continent whose diamond exports are besmirched by the blood diamond trade, the Debswana-Botswana partnership has been, to some extent, a model of a healthy relationship between a corporation and a government with mutual interests in the health and economic success of its citizens, as well as the reputation of its nationally produced diamonds.

Karobo began his track career around the age when American students begin junior high school, joining a Debswana-sponsored team and running laps around the tracks that circled the fences around the mining zones. While on the team, he met Henry, from Letlhakane, a suburb of Orapa. Henry was the son of owners of a cattle post that once surpassed 100 acres before much of the land was bought out and fenced off by De Beers. The first time he and Karabo trained together, they were the youngest runners on an airplane en route to Mount Kilimanjaro, where the company’s team spent a week elevating their red blood cell count by living at high altitudes. The runners from Orapa had wondered if the trip would be the first time they would see snow, but they took photographs of a craggy peak that, from the air, didn’t look all that different than the opening of a diamond mine. They were shocked by how clear the air felt, how far they could run without gasping. After the length of the trip, the runners who’d avoided altitude sickness during the two weeks midway up the mountain held a 5k race at sea level. The two youngest, Henry and Karobo, were the only ones to finish.

While other members of the team trained to- gether over the summer, Henry invited Karabo to stay at his cattle post. They ran laps around boundaries of the land—the river delta to the north, the De Beers fencing to the east—a course that ran straight through unkempt bushland before breaking into open fields spotted with hillocks of grazing bulls. In the morning, the men emerged from their too-small huts and tended to a fresh breakfast with sharpened knives. Afterwards, hounds chewed at the scraps, dipping their snouts into puddles of the youngest blood in the world. Karabo turned away to the sounds of lapping blood as flies sucked loudly on the spattered dirt, as cows lowed in the distance. After his morning run, he was immediately put to work, and the men were hard on him. The Botswana government has pressured landowners surrounding the four main mines to sell their land for a kind of modern-day prospecting; the land is leased to the company indefinitely and sold back at decreased rates to the local landowners if nothing is found. But years can pass before this process is completed; in the meantime, the land lies fallow and becomes overgrown with opportunistic desert flora, thorny grasses, and tough shrubs that take months to clear out because their roots extend all the way to the thin reservoir of moisture deep underground.

At night, Henry ran among the sleeping bulls. As a child his father had taught him the myth of Mantis, the legendary originator of the earliest Bushman, whose wife showed mankind how to find food, whose sons ran so fast they pulled the first grains from the wind, their steps so light they barely bent the stalks of savannah grass. The two young runners wouldn’t truly become friends until they both found themselves on the school team in Gaborone that fall. Yet on the cattle post, Karobo held his own. Clearing land for planting, sowing sorghum for fermenting, learning to cut the necks of goats and skin their hides, and playing with the young twins, he trained for his move to Gaborone. The twins chased him, hand-in-hand, their shadows lengthening far ahead, skipping along the first few meters of his run before losing ground to his long strides, screaming in laughter and encouragement.

 

*

The mutual interests between the government and Debswana have also aligned in their handling of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which has forced evictions of indigenous Bushmen living there. A British mandate founded the reserve in 1961, just before the first diamond deposits were found in Orapa, in a promise to provide the Bushmen “the right of choice of the life they wish to follow.” Under the pretensions of preserving the region for grazing, the Botswana government evicted six communities from the center of the reserve, banning hunting, requiring permits for re-entry, and relocating the displaced to the fringes of the reserve in New Xade. The government had handed over control of the Gope area, including its underground water reserves (an essential component to cooling the mines’ heavy machinery), to Debswana after evicting the Bushmen from the area in 2002. Campaigns against the development of Gope, Setswana for “nowhere,” eventually led De Beers to sell the undeveloped land to Gem Diamonds in 2007 for only a fraction of its projected net worth; the Botswana government, in turn, allowed the new owners to begin construction of a mine in 2011. Debswana has continued to thrive by focusing in recent years on the development of a new diamond mine in Damtshaa, developed the same year the company acquired both Gope and a coal mine in Morupule. Though the Bushmen have successfully sued for their right to reenter regions of Gope, no case has yet required the government or a diamond company to provide the natives access to their original water sources. The decisions are thus rendered effectively de jure.

It is a cruel irony of the government’s partner- ship with Debswana that the ongoing human rights crisis of the Bushmen’s relocation hinges on governmental claims of protecting the savannah environment. The carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide in Botswana’s atmosphere are traces of more than just its dependence on coal energy, lack of pollution controls in the capital city, and advanced industrialization relative to the rest of Africa—the chemicals also begin to tell a story of the nation’s economic success over the past half- century. Botswana’s growth in GDP since the discovery of diamonds in its Boteti Sub-District in the 1960s is attributable to its government’s 50% stake in Debswana, which owns, in Orapa and Jwaneng, the largest and richest diamond mines in the world. Debswana’s network—which also includes Orapa’s two satellite mines in Letlhakane and Damtshaa—is also the world’s most valuable system of diamond production. The government’s investment in the company has fueled national employment and economic growth rates for decades.

The success of the diamond mines has also fueled, incidentally, most of Botswana’s other industries and private residences. Debswana owns the Morupule Colliery coal mine, which, after an expansion between 2010 and 2011, enabled the Botswana government to wean itself off of dependence on South African plants and thereby provide its industries with domestically produced power for the first time. Coal, the most abundant and cheapest fossil fuel to transport in the sub-Sahara, is also the most carbon-intensive: it is one of the culprits behind Botswana’s air pollution ratings. It is also the future of Botswana’s economy: this year, the mine consultancy agency Analytika Holdings estimated that diamond production in Orapa and Jwaneng will not be able to sustain its levels beyond the next decade. Seizing upon its stake in the Morupule Colliery as a means of diversifying its role in the nation’s economic future, the Botswana government began seeking investors in March 2013 for a proposed $11 billion railroad between the Morupule region and a Namibian port. Beyond fueling its own citizens and domestic industries, Botswana is attempting to become as significant an exporter of cheap energy as it was of expensive diamonds: the government’s plans include hitting a target of 60 million tons of coal exported per year within the next decade. Morupule currently produces one- twentieth of that amount.

Crucially, too, coal represents another boon for the Botswana government. By unilaterally attracting investors to the railroad project who could support such lofty export targets, thus shifting its focus from diamond production to coal exports, the government would produce seismic shifts in the Batswana economic hierarchy. Debswana will inevitably fade in importance as the economy diversifies and diamonds are diluted. For the first time since 1969, the government’s handle over the country’s economic lifeblood would then be free from the ties of a multinational corporation. Its interests would no longer lie in clearing out space for expanding diamond mines, but in establishing transportation routes for a single network of coal mines in one corner of the Kalahari Game Reserve. With diminishing economic incentives for forced evictions, but newfound incentives for legitimately combatting environmental pollution, the government could find it actually advantageous to preserve the savannah, maintaining the integrity of its original habitats and respecting the rights of its legal inhabitants.

 

 

*

Karabo and Henry are fast enough to qualify as individual racers in the professional division. This takes place before the heat kicks in and begins to threaten runners with serious dehydration during the long flatland stretches from the starting line to Kgale. They choose, however, to stick with the team event, to give us a chance against the Debswana team. A mixture of students who continued their primary school studies in Orapa rather than gravitating to Gaborone, and employees who had run with the company for years, occasionally provides the national team with a recruit or two. This recruitment makes De Beers’ involvement in a Gaborone race somewhat more palatable to the local teams, because the health of runners in Orapa is tied to the health of the national team (which most recently produced Amantle Montsho, the World Champion 400m sprinter). A symbiotic relationship between corporation and country is also evident in the company’s reliance on a healthy and loyal workforce in Orapa. The Botswana government’s legislative maneuvers to free up natural resources for mining operations in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve further contribute to this dynamic. Yet this comes at the expense of the rights of an entire indigenous population and the environmental health of the entire South African region. The relationship between De Beers and the Botswana government is unusual and occasionally uneasy, but at times like the Kgale Hill road race it becomes clear there’s a right team to root for, the local favorite over the visiting behemoth.

Karabo and Henry finished first and second in the amateur 15k. The Mirage team didn’t even field the full five members. At least one member of most local teams never finished, lost on the way up Kgale, whose overgrown flora obscures any direct view of the peak until it’s already been reached. Runners skilled enough to claim the hill, past the thick trunks of leadwood trees and the stately obelisks of termite mounds, would find their view obscured not by overhanging branches or vines but by a mazy tower of electrical cables and intertwining TV and radio antennae. They’d pause to look over the path, the spots where they felt hopelessly lost and their teammates’ paths diverged, the shining tubes of the trailers at the base of the hill, and, over the shimmering air of the saltpans, the single asphalt road leading out of Gaborone and north 250 miles, to the eco- nomic heart of the nation. But, turning around again, they’d see the city itself and its surround- ing roadways leading to Kgale, cars streaming towards the hill to pick up the exhausted contes- tants, the mass of spectators welcoming the first ones to arrive at the banner burning brightly in the midday sun.