I live in a fairly large village in the Central District of Botswana on the eastern edge of the country. The village is called Mahalapye, though its real name is Mahalatswe; the modern name the spelling that seemed more sensible to British tongues. It is named after the normally dry river that runs through it. Mahalapye is not very pretty. It’s not so exciting. It doesn’t even have a very colourful history having grown from a railway stop where Cecil John Rhodes’s trains from Cape to Cairo (actually Cape to Harare) would refuel. Though it is not the most captivating place, it is a typical Botswana village, it’s home, and I love it.
Perhaps the nondescript, unexciting way of my village is the reason why when the TV man asked me what I missed about Africa when I was away, I first drew a blank. I was in London having been short-listed for the Caine Prize. The winner had already been decided the night before so the TV man was asking us, the rest of the writers, the losers, other types of questions, our answers meant to be sprinkled around those of the winner, to add local colour about the continent.
Like so many before him, though he knew Africa was made of lots of different countries, the TV man hadn’t made the leap that inside of each of those countries would be found so many different types of people and lives and ways of being. So he asked me again, “What do you miss most about Africa when you’re away?”
I hesitated. Africa? Am I meant to say lions and elephants? Sand? Tropical rain forests? Hunger? So I asked- “Do you mean Botswana? Do you mean Mahalapye?” He nodded. But that didn’t help, still I was blank.
By that time I’d been away from home for almost a month. I’d been first to Lagos and then to London and I was missing home desperately, but I couldn’t put my finger on one thing I missed concretely. And then I said it. It just came out, and my mouth ran, and my brain tried to keep up and I watched the whole thing as if the person speaking was not me.
“The fatalism,” the woman said, the one who sounded very much like me.
The TV man was not pleased. “The fatalism?” he asked, his face twisted into a scowl.
I was sure we’d got the whole thing wrong, me and her, but the woman continued as if she had thought about this for some time when I know for certain she hadn’t. “Yes, the fatalism. There’s something very nice about just accepting that things happen. That’s what I miss.”
The TV man was still not pleased. “But fatalism can be a bad thing too.”
The woman accepts that but still sticks by her answer. The TV man, frustrated, moves on. He asks her to describe Africa in one word, she says without thinking, in a way I find very reckless, “Space”. Again the TV man gives her his look of disapproval and I’m sure she’s messed it up completely.
The next day I talk to the other writers and find that indeed her answers were not correct. Africa in one word? Diversity, they say. I ask nothing else for fear I’ll learn the truth about my failure. In any case, the TV man will just edit it out, that’s what TV people do when they don’t like certain parts. It’ll be fine.
But later I think further about the answers the woman who was interviewed gave. As I dig around in the crevices of my mind I begin to see that, in fact, she had got my answers correct.
I grew up in America. America, if nothing else, is a land of people looking for answers. Unanswered questions are not allowed. There is a reason for everything and if you can’t find it you’re just not trying hard enough.
In Botswana, people accept that life sometimes goes wrong. Problems happen. Sometimes things don’t work. Sometimes the outcome you expect is not the one that you’ll get. It’s just the way it is.
There’s something very comforting about that. It alleviates a lot of responsibility. I suppose that’s what the TV man doesn’t like, but for me it sets me free. Not every action requires you to be ready to accept the entire burden of responsibility, so you can be freer to make choices that might mean things don’t work out. I don’t need to search and search for the reason behind everything. I don’t need to worry about things I can’t control. I can go forward and accept that sometimes things won’t go my way and that’s fine. And in that embracing of fatalism is where I find all the space I need.