Batswana are pastoralists. Almost everyone I know owns some land and livestock, usually goats or cows. People love their farms. One woman told me that it is her favorite place to be. Another friend told me that when she retires she can’t wait to go back to her home village in an extremely remote part of the country. A third told me that, though she has tried mightily to convince her otherwise, her elderly mother won’t move close to Gaborone because “who would take care of my goats?”
Livestock in Botswana is a source of wealth and pride – metaphorically and literally. Cattle are given as part of the bride price. They helped contribute towards the founding of the University. The president, traveling the country on his farewell tour, was gifted with some especially impressive cattle in one village. Beef is serious business here and the cows seem to live a better life than any I’ve seen in the U.S. The resulting meat is, according to Steve, some of the best he’s ever had, anywhere. He chalks that up to freshness and the fact that Batswana know how to cut meat well.
Cattle and goats are everywhere – including in the city. We can hear their bells clanging as they tour around the neighborhood. They walk along the sidewalks, have to be shooed off campus, and are so adapted to city life that – according to the last Fulbright family here – they know enough to wait at stoplights to cross the streets. If they did want to violate traffic rules, they probably could get away with it. In a country where the chances of being struck by a car are high (I know of three cases just in the time we’ve been here), drivers are profoundly cognizant of livestock in the street. Coming up on a car ahead of you with blinkers on means one thing – livestock in the road.
Outside the city, the cows in particular make driving a hazard. While they seem to stick to the shoulders during the day, they come onto the tarmac (where it’s warm) at night, making driving treacherous. Part of the reason we didn’t make it as far as we’d hoped on our first night of Christmas vacation is because the sun set and the hassle of negotiating the road was too stressful.
The cattle themselves are, honestly, beautiful. They look soft and velvety, with bright eyes. They’re exceptionally clean. I’m particularly partial to the butterscotch colored ones. Free ranging, they’re obviously managed well through a system of branding that is not mine to know. Goats are less attractive, but also clean, hardy, and free roaming, sometimes trailed by dogs who look an awful lot like greyhounds but who obviously have more smarts and stamina.
In addition to the cows and goats we’ll occasionally see horses, sometimes with riders. The horses make a lot of sense for managing cattle and farms in a country the size of Texas. More common than horses are the donkeys, used to pull carts. They also roam free, but less so than the cattle. In many places where we’ve seen donkeys, their front feet are bound with rope so that they don’t walk off. It is pathetic to see them hobbling along – hopping with both front feet. It makes me sad (and extra sympathetic during my time on crutches) but they seem none the worse for wear, and far be it for me to tell someone who subsists on this land to untether his donkey.
Donkeys make an interesting case in Botswana. As more Chinese foreign direct investment makes its way into the country (evidenced in part by new rail lines and paved roads where none existed before) more Chinese make their way in as well. The Chinese appetite for all parts of the donkey (largely, I understand, for medicinal reasons) has made the value of these animals skyrocket in recent years. Every part of the donkey – hooves and hide, meat and milk, even blood – is worth a lot of money. This has led people to be more careful about letting their donkeys wander, and also to the unfortunate setting up of at least one donkey farm that was so badly mismanaged that stories of the horrific abuse of starving donkeys dominated the news in the weeks after we got here.
In our travels around we’ve seen some beautiful animals. Cheetahs, lions, antelope, incredible birds. But day to day life for most people here either revolves around or in some way is tangential to livestock. Here we present another entry into the Beasts of Botswana series – the livestock edition: