Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009- A Year of Hope

It’s 6 ½ hours until 2009 arrives in Botswana. It’s strange to think friends in Australia have already made their way into the new year and I’ll reach there before my friends and family in America. Funny how that works. (Yes- I was a certified science teacher, but still these things amaze me)

I’ve always loved New Year’s Eve. There is something magical about getting the chance to start anew. We all make mistakes. We have regrets. A new year is so forgiving of our human-ness. I love the hope of a new year. Everything is ahead of us. We can set goals and throw out our wishes to the universe and we have the year to see what comes our way. It’s like those lucky packets we had when we were kids. I was always a sucker for them. Maybe that’s why I love a new year so much; I want to see what “my lucky packet year” has for me. Despite my exterior which borders pessimism quite heavily, sometimes even crossing over and filling in the spaces, I think in my heart I am an optimist.

My optimism says this year bodes well. I know that this year an agent will realise my brilliance ;) and snatch me up. I know that I will finally write my big break-out novel. I know that my family will all stay healthy and beautiful and loving. I know my older sisters will finally see that it is time to cut the strings of our past and live the life that has been set before them, the life that cherishes who they are instead of denying it. I know this year my little sister will continue her brave work of educating her students on what being an American as well as a world citizen really means. She and her family will stay secure and sane and loving in a world that tries so hard to keep us from that. I know good news lies in the future for my writing friends who work so hard at their craft. Somehow I feel we’ve seen the worst of the financial crisis. I think a sensible Obama will help the world see talk is more important than egos and pride. Talk and find the way because peace is something far too fragile to play with. Despite the current depths of despair, I also feel that Hamas and Israel will find a place to agree and the bombs will stop falling. I’m giddy with hope for this new year.

So we will welcome the new year at home. We normally live in Lecheng at the school where my husband is a headmaster. This afternoon we arrived home to our own house in Mahalapye. It feels nice being home. Immediately we ran into people, one after another, who we hadn’t seen for so long and it felt like we had come home, and that was nice. Home is a concept I have very little familiarity with, it feels like that may be changing and that’s a good thing. Tonight we will stay up, make a braii, shoot off fireworks, and listen to Radio Botswana waiting for the DJ’s to tell us that 2009 has arrived, the 2009 filled of hope and promise and dreams fulfilled.

Wishing everyone a Happy, Happy New Year!

Monday, December 29, 2008

An Interview with Tania Hershman, Author of The White Road and Other Stories

Tania Hershman has been spending the last few months making stops at blogs around cyberspace on her blog book tour talking about her excellent collection of short stories, The White Road and other Stories. Today she's with us at Thoughts from Botswana.

Hi Tania, thanks for stopping by Thoughts from Botswana. Can you tell my readers a little bit about yourself?

Hi Lauri, thanks so much for having me. I am a former Brit, now living in Jerusalem, Israel, with my partner and two cats. I am a former science journalist, now full time fiction writer. I wrote for 12 years about Israeli science and technology but my real love is short stories. I have had a number of stories published and broadcast on Radio 4, won some prizes, and in September my dream came true when my first book was published, by Salt Modern Fiction, an independent publisher in the UK.

The White Road and other Stories is a collection of 27 stories with a mixture of both short stories and flash fiction. Flash fiction is an up and coming type of fiction. What would you say makes a good flash fiction story?

If short stories are my real love, flash fiction is like an exciting fling! There is something about a story told in less than two pages that is so intense, so thrilling. Things can happen in such a short and magical space which are unsustainable in anything longer. For me a good flash story is where not just every word but every space and every punctuation mark counts, there is nothing that doesn't absolutely have to be there. No waffle, no description, no padding. Bare bones, raw and astonishing. And, for me, the writing of such stories is also “flash” in that it can be done in only 20 minutes, it is totally different from writing a longer stories, which tells itself to you over time and which you then work on and revise. Most of my flash stories come out in one go.

What reaction do you want from your readers? Is it all about entertainment or are you searching for something more?

That's an excellent question. I don't write with a reader in mind, I don't write thinking, Ah, someone will find this funny/moving/distressing. I really do write for me, to make myself laugh, and, more often these days, to upset me, in a good way, by dealing with emotional situations, through my characters. What makes me happy is when a reader has read one of my stories and actually finished it. I know how little patience I have with short stories; I will abandon them if they don't grip me. So to get to the end of one of mine, that means something. It's a new experience for me, friends and people I don't know telling me they're reading the book and enjoying it, being moved by it, or, as one said the other day, finding it all very upsetting! (This is a little worrying, I didn't set out to write depressing stories).I would be delighted if someone absolutely hated a story, that would thrill me, that it got them so riled up. I feel, though, that I need to stand back from this. Someone said that a story I thought was rather dark and about grief she found hysterically funny. You can't dictate to a reader what to think, best not to even try!

Describe your writing process. Do you wait for your muse to pitch up or do you do the 9-5?

Ah, well! Neither, actually. I tried the 9-5 for a few days and then discovered that it doesn't work for a short story writer. Novelists need to put in the time, they have a lot of words to get down, and many redrafts to go through. But it doesn't help me to structure my writing like that. But - I also don't wait for any muse. I try to make the headspace for writing and writing-related matters. To just show up, as someone said. And I stimulate my writing by preparing sets of prompts for myself, and sometimes for my writing group, which I have found work excellent for me in terms of writing flash stories. I purloin words and phrases from other people's writing, poems or stories, and then write, attempting to get as many of these prompts into the story as possible. I have also recently found that this - which is not an exercise but has resulted in over 100 flash stories, some of which have been published – puts me into the right frame of mind, the “zone” if you will, to work on existing projects. But right now focussing on marketing my book is very distracting and I have recently decided to allow myself to be distracted and not feel too guilty that I am not writing at the moment.

I’ve had discussions with other writers about using new technologies to up the popularity of short stories and, especially, flash fiction (i.e. podcasts, SMS, etc.) . Do you use any of this technology? If so can you explain how you used it and if it was effective?

I have had two short stories broadcast on podcasts, I didn't read them myself, and I did love how they sounded, but I don't think this works for any short story. I am a great lover of the radio, but not all stories are intended to be read out. The way they look on the page, the layout, and the ability to read them at your own pace and hear the voice in your head as you imagine it not as the actor performs it, that for me is an essential part of the reading experience. Reading is an active task; listening is more passive. I listen to podcasts of author interviews, and book review programs, but haven't been attracted to short story podcasts. As for SMS, I don't really like the sound of that at all! I hate reading off the screen, I force myself to read short stories online on my computer, I cannot imagine reading them off my cellphone. I am fairly techy myself, but maybe when it comes to this I'm a purist, I just love the written word, on the page.

If you were queen of the world, how would you change things to make the short story the undisputed star of the fiction scene?

Oh, what a lovely question! Do I get a special crown?
(Of course, what is a queen without her crown?)

What would I do? I would print a short story every day in every newspaper in every country around the world. I would have flash stories read out on the radio before the news each hour. I would invite short story writers onto panel discussions, I would create a special fund which looked into short stories that would make excellent movies. I would, most of all, bring more short stories into the school curriculum – classic stories, modern stories, traditional, experimental. I don't remember reading a single short
story when I was at school in England. What better to read in class than a whole and complete story in one lesson? Start early, get the kids writing and reading, and make short stories commonplace, not oddities, not “special”, just everyday.

Tania, what is up with the story ‘Fish Filled Sea’? I read somewhere, or maybe I made it up, that you think a good flash fiction story should stick with you. Well- the image of that woman with her nose stuck up the funky armpit of her lover has stuck with me. Thanks. Inspiration for that one?

Ha! Inspiration? I am trying to remember. I can't actually tell you. I've no idea where that came from. Maybe something to do with all the fruity shampoos and beauty products that are around these days and how we cover ourselves with these confections to hide our true scent. Can't do better than that. Glad I left you with that image!

So you’re getting near the end of your blog book tour, what do you think about this method of marketing your book? Has it translated into good sales? Any advice for blog book tour wannabees?

I don't know about sales, I really have no clue. We authors aren't told about this sort of thing. I've really enjoyed it, though, but it has been a bit difficult for someone who likes to spend most of her time alone, in a fictional world, to talk about myself so much, every week for 11 weeks. I can't imagine I am not boring everybody silly! And I feel quite exposed by it. But what has been lovely is the generosity of all of you, hosting me on your blogs, reading my book, being curious about me and my writing. My advice: find a wide range of blogs in different countries and with different readerships, and try and roughly set out in advance the topics each one will cover, to
avoid repetition. Enjoy!

Okay, get my readers to buy your book in less than 25 words. (This is called a flash-ad. No, it’s not, I just made that up)

I love it. Brilliant. Ok, here's my flash ad:

“27 stories with GSOH. Short but full-bodied. Will transport you, from outer space to the Middle Ages, Antarctica to Las Vegas. Take them home.”

How's that??

That’s fantastic, Tania. Thanks so much for stopping by.
I’ve read the book, folks, and I thought it really did justice to what good short stories should look like. My advice- everybody go out and buy the book (Click the cover above to go to Amazon- where the book has 5 stars(!) )- forthright -(do not pass go do not collect $200)- support short story writers and teach those publishers a thing or two about how much we love short story collections!!

Tania’s Next (and final) Stop:

01/06/09: Debi Alper's Blog

Tania’s Previous Stops

12/23/08: Kanlaon
12/16/08: Kelly Spitzer's Blog
12/10/08: Eco-Libris
12/2/08: Eric Forbes’s Book Addict’s Guide to Good Books
11/26/08: Tim Jones: Books in the Trees
11/17/08: Sue Guiney: Me and Others
11/9/08: Vanessa Gebbie’s News
11/5/08: Literary Minded
10/28/08: Keeper of the Snails

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Why Attend Book Fairs?

I have a post up at The Blood Red Pencil about the reasons why book fairs are so valuable to writers. Read it here.

Buy Botswana Diamonds-Feed a Writer

Local economist, Dr. Keith Jefferis spoke at a conference at the end of October about the effect of the financial crisis on Botswana's diamond sales. Mmegi reported on the conference.

"If our diamond exports fall for a prolonged period, we will have to adjust to lower levels of income and consumption, and that will reflect in our living standards," said Jefferis.

"If the US economy is still under this heat by the middle of next year, we are going to have to start making some adjustments, which might include less government expenditure and a tighter monetary policy."

These are sad words for the ears of a poorly paid Motswana writer. I have two big pending projects for next year, a radio drama and a TV series, and both depend on government money. No diamond sales, no government money, no project= poor me!!

People out there please buy Botswana diamonds. Our diamonds build schools, pay for our national healthcare system, purchase ARV's for our quite large population of HIV positive people, and keep writers from starving (among many other things).

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Boxing Day with the Giraffe Family

The giraffe family
The father giraffe

This year we stayed home for Christmas. Christmas Eve we had a small party, Christmas Day we laid around eating party leftovers and watching an endless chain of pretty bad Christmas movies on eTV. It appears, much like music, if you drape a movie with a red and green cape and put in a few Christmas carols someone will snatch it up. I did like the Muppets Christmas movie, but that was saved by Whoopi Goldberg as a quite irreverent God.

Boxing Day we were off to the nearby Khama Rhino Sanctuary for some game viewing and a picnic. We’re lucky to have a fairly big game park less than an hour’s drive away, since most parks and reserves are located in the north around Maun and Chobe, it is really a treat. What’s lovely about the Sanctuary is that it was a community initiative. It is run by a trust made up of members of the local community. Quite a success story.

Unfortunately, we saw no rhinos yesterday. They have quite a few white rhino (the breeding programme has been very successful) and now two black rhinos. We normally see the white ones, but have never seen any black. Both types of rhino are endangered in Botswana, the black rhino even more so.

Although rhino are lovely in their own way, they are not my favourite, though I do like the babies. My favourite are the giraffes and warthogs. We saw this group of three, which in our anthropomorphic way we decided were a mother and father and their baby. We also saw plenty of warthogs. The biggest group had five babies and two adults. Warthogs are funny as they often come charging at the car and stop some distance away, take a good look at you, then turn with their tail held characteristically high and trot off. I read that they have poor eyesight, so perhaps they are just trying to get a better look.

We also saw ostriches having sex. Animal sex is often a handy segue for parents of teens, of which we are; a place to drop in a few bits of sex education without formalising it all with “THE TALK”. The male ostrich did his business and then got up and walked away as if he didn’t know the female. Our female giant teenager said, “Well that wasn’t very nice.” Seeing an opportunity, I said, “Typical one night stand.” Hope she got the message.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Case of the Flying Shoes

Okay, I think the whole shoe business is hilarious. I could watch the footage over and over and have. You gotta give Bushbaby some points for his quick reaction time. Very funny the whole thing. Unfortunately the secret service seems to have no sense of humour (whodathunkit?).

The shoes have brought out the parts of the internet that I love most- wildly free speech in an arena where everyone is heard. Apparently, the mainstream world didn't get the complete story (gasp!). The shoes had a message written on their souls (how appropriate). Read it here.
funny. very funny.

AND for a bit of Christmas fun go and watch this video. HA!!! Now there is someone who enjoys the snow.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Home Alone

My family has gone away. I am home all alone. I’m supposed to be missing them but, as is usually the case, I’m not feeling what I’m supposed to- I’m loving it!

I love being alone. My day is completely mine. I type, and no one interrupts me. I can talk to myself. I can sing for no reason. I can put things down and they will still be there when I come back. I can walk naked. I can let the dogs on the sofa. I can play my trumpet during commercials. I can think freely. I can have silence.

I’ve never understood people who hate being alone, but then too I’ve never understood people who like to move around in big crowds. Constantly talking and reacting to others wears me out. I need to be alone; if too much time passes without it I can feel the tension building as the need becomes desperate.

I grew up under difficult circumstances and when I think of my childhood, my happiest moments are always times when I was alone. Part of my childhood we lived in an old rundown farmhouse. Behind the barns was a vast pasture that had a small stream running through it. I have a lovely memory of winter and going back there and shovelling off one section of the stream. I put on my ice skates and skate round and round dreaming I was Dorothy Hamill. Spinning and twirling. Alone and completely happy. I had friends and I enjoyed them, but being alone is where I found myself. As a teenager I lived near Lake Michigan and I would spend hours alone by the lake, watching the ships and the waves; hiding in the rocks away from people. They were lovely times.

They’ll be coming back tomorrow, my family. I’ll be happy to see them. Their noise also has its good side. Having a sensible, loving family is something I’m always grateful for, but my alone time is important too. It’s the weave of the complex cloth that makes up a life; my life.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Transformation of Any Man

(Search Engine Fiction prompt his week was verglass- here's my stab at it)

She looked out the window and gasped at the beauty. The world had turned silver overnight. The bare branches of trees hung heavy with ice as if encased in crystal. Light twittered off in all directions. The newly fallen snow, crusted over with ice, reflected the iron grey sky back. She might have stayed at the window all day, but he pushed his head around hers to have a look.

“Verglas,” he said and she wished so badly he hadn’t. She wanted him not to be who he was. In her head, he was someone very unlike himself. Someone who didn’t use words like verglas. Someone with more meat and less bones. Someone secretive, and maybe a bit dangerous.
Falling back on the bed, she waited for the inevitable.

“It’s the word for the ice that forms on the branches and the walkways after an ice storm.” Mr. Walking Dictionary. She restrained herself from throttling him. Why couldn’t he just fucking say sidewalk- why walkways? Why?

"That’s interesting," she said, though she didn’t mean it. What she wanted to say was can you get dressed and get out of my apartment, but she knew she wouldn’t. Any man is better than no man, her mother’s words rang in her head. She was an expert on any man. She’d been testing any man for years. Testing and testing, but no results were forthcoming, at least not positive results. She was teetering on the brink. She was about to tip the other direction. She was about to go with no man. (She thinks she can hear her mother’s heavy sigh hundreds of kilometres away)

“So I guess we’re stuck in for awhile,” he said sitting up, revealing his hairless, muscle-less chest. She thought of long ago Antonio. Though he too was an any man, his broad, hairy chest kept him a notch above the others. A shiver went down her spine looking at the bony, bald expanse before her. She suppressed a ‘YUCK’ which sat bitterly in her throat.

Picking up his t-shirt from the floor, she threw it at him. “You better put this on. It’s cold.” Though it wasn’t really.

“I’ve only got bread and coffee. Good enough?” Not waiting for his answer, she headed to the kitchen, anything to be away from him. “How quickly do you think they’ll get the salt trucks out?” She needed him gone. A quickie in the darkness of night was one thing. A conversation in the unflinching morning light was another.

“I would anticipate they’d start with the major byways first, leaving secondary roads, such as the type you are located on until afternoon.”

She scowled into the fridge. Until afternoon? In this tiny studio apartment? She put the coffee and bread on a tray and carried it with heavy feet to her bed.

He slurped the coffee and chewed the bread with his mouth open. The list against him had fallen over to page two.

"So I understand you write?” he asked his mouth still full of food. My God-was he raised by wolves? she wondered.

“Yeah … I write.”

“I’m so impressed by people who can write. I’m sure you’re excellent at it.”

She gave him a look from the corner of her eye. What was he up to now? Was this some kind of trick? “I’m okay….I’ve had a few things published.”

“Published? Wow! I’m truly impressed.” He did look impressed. One thing he wasn’t was an actor. He was who he was. Transparent as glass.

“I had a short story published in The New Yorker.” She said it softly into her coffee. She didn’t tell people that. There was a holy circle of silence around the entire event; her acceptance, the magazine with her story in. These were private, sacred things. Why was she telling him?

He set the coffee on the table and jumped to his feet. He wore only the T-shirt, his too long, too thin legs going on for ages underneath, but she didn’t notice. “Could I read it?” he said in a low voice, pregnant with want.

A man interested in what she cared about? Interested in her writing?

She dug her copy of The New Yorker out from the box of her most important stuff. She wasn’t sure what was happening. Any man was changing.

Time slipped by and the salt trucks had passed and the sun had burned most of the verglas off the trees where it dripped, dripped onto the ground. She was unaware, but any man had slipped, without notice, into the notch for the man; a surprise for all in attendance, a surprise waiting out in their future yet to be discovered.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Real President Bam-Bam

Ao! Guys! You have got to go to this photo. The more I get to know this guy, the more optimistic I become. I might even un-renounce my American citizenship. (not likely)

Cool Dude!! .....and what ya smokin' there Barry????

Yeah, I want to Write a Book

WARNING: Turn away; this post is going to be bitchy. If you are not in the mood to hear it, please go somewhere else. Go and read Stuff White People Like which is always good for a laugh. Come back here tomorrow. I promise a jolly post tomorrow.

I always hesitate telling people I’m a writer. I don’t want to hear the words that will force me to dislike the speaker. Once they’re said, there’s no turning back. A big black tick has been mentally placed next to their name and mostly I’m done with them.
I’m talking about non-writers here. People who haven’t a clue about what it actually takes to go from blank page to published book. The hard work and stress of it.

If you’re a writer, you’ve been in my place. You meet a new person (a non-writer) and the conversation goes something like this.

Non-writer: So what do you do?
You: I’m a writer.
Non-writer: Oh yeah. I want to write a book one day too.
You: (disappointed monotone, eyes searching for exit) Oh really.
Non-writer: Yeah, I blah blah blah blah blah…….. blah.
You: Nice, sounds good. I need to go fill my drink.
(You drift away and spend the rest of the time dodging the person)

Why does this conversation piss me off?

I’ve thought long and hard about it. First, of course, there is the undermining of your work. Writing, what a joke- that’s not a real job.

That’s enough in and of itself, but then you have the attitude of simplicity. It is a simple thing to write a book, any Joe can do it. It’s a sort of disrespect of all of the lessons I’ve learned, of the time and effort I’ve put in, of all of the writing I’ve done to get to the place where I’m able to write a book. For the days of re-writes- first, second, third, fourth drafts that still aren’t right. The brutal, ego-bashing search for a publisher. Then when you finally land one, the fight to get them to see your vision, which always ends in a disappointed compromise. The sales figures that have you earning less than the woman who washes your clothes.

And what about talent? Does this not play in somewhere? Fine, everyone can type on a computer or write with a pen- but is it true that everyone can write? I don’t think so.

I know this person won’t stick it out. I know this person will start and then find a reason to justify why he can’t finish his masterpiece, a reason having nothing to do with himself or even the job at hand. A reason that lets him still keep his preconceived ideas in place. He’ll still believe he can do it. Writing a book- Easy ka Peasy.

Or maybe, just maybe, in that rare instance, this person, years from now, will get a peek into what writing a book REALLY means and will remember our conversation so, so long ago and will feel ashamed.

Okay, I’m done now.

Jolly tomorrow.

I promise.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lessons Learned at Music Camp

So I’m back from Botswana Music Camp. It took me a few days to recover but now I am back to my computer too. What a fantastic experience it was! I learned a few crucial things that, though learned from music, can be applied most everywhere. I thought I’d share.

1. Listening to others will show you your way. I found the most difficult thing for me was to listen to my other band members. I’d never played in a band before and I was used to playing my written music in my bedroom. In jazz, you must pay attention. You can’t cling to your notes. Someone may decide out of the blue to go into a solo and then decide he liked it so much he’ll continue. You must just keep your ears peeled, listen to the drum, the bass guitar, the keyboard and lead guitar and find when it’s time for you- they will show you, if you only let them.

2. No matter your age, it is always the time to take chances. I’ll be 45 in a few weeks. I’d never in my life experienced anything like Music Camp and before I left I began to panic. My trumpet playing is at beginner level, but I found a way to fit in. I got to know a whole new group of people who are talented and madly passionate about music. I felt uncomfortable at first, but that was good. Take chances, feel uncomfortable, go to that edge and jump off! Flying is fun, folks!

3. The stage is not a scary place. People who read here or who know me, know that I am deathly afraid of getting up in public to do anything. I move into my head and go into spazz mode. This has led me to missing many important events in my life- my first book launch, the AngloPlat/ BTA Awards, the Orange Botswerere Awards. These were all very important days in my life, but I don’t remember them because I was scared to death. Not anymore. We performed three times at Music Camp. The first time I was sickly nervous like normal, but when I got on stage I had to pay attention to others. I realised that people really don’t care about me. Even if I make a mistake, it’s okay- the world won’t stop. Once I realised that, the next two times were a breeze. Yeah, I wasn’t perfect- so what! I had fun, I did it, and most importantly- I was present- that’s what is important.

These were important life lessons and I feel changed by the experience. I will definitely go next year. In the meantime, I need to try and learn to play by ear and practice my notes. Maybe next year I’ll be the one zipping off on an improv solo! (maybe not)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ladies' No. 1 Field Trip

Yesterday at Music Camp we took a field trip to the place where they filmed the Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency film. They are here working on the TV series but they were not at the site when we were there. The place was just an empty field at the edge of Gaborone, now it looks like a small mall. The buildings, though they look cement, are actually made of wood. It is quite amazing what these folks can do.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Music Camp Day 2

Botswana music camp is an annual event started in 1985 by a group of musicians including the famous South African trumpeter, Hugh Masekela. It is organised into seven groups: marimba, segaba (a Setswana violin type instrument), African drums, solo singing pop, solo singing classical, dance and instrumental.

I’m in instrumental. Our teacher for instrumental is the very talented Tsilo Baitsile, an exceptional saxophonist and singer. In our group we have a band made up of 12 people, drummers, keyboard players, guitarists and a trumpet player (me).

Each day we attend camp choir in the morning where we learn songs together. So far our repertoire includes a song in Sesotho, one in Setswana, and yesterday one in Italian. After camp choir we spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon in our main group. The last hour or so of the day, we attend one of the other groups that we didn’t choose so as to have exposure to it. Yesterday we did marimba. It is a bit more than exposure. In that hour, he taught our group a whole song (!) with all of the different parts. Amazing.

The people here are very talented and committed to music. I am severely impressed with the whole thing. I have never played in a band before; my trumpet playing has been confined to 30 minutes 2-3 times a week locked in my bedroom. Playing in a band is a completely different kettle of fish I can tell you. Also I am a musician who reads notes from a page. The other people in the band play by ear. It is astounding. Someone will play a song and then the teacher will say okay accompany him. Magically they find their parts and play! I am astounded. We are mostly playing jazz and every song has sections for improvisation. The teacher just points at someone and the person plays- on the spot made up in his head. He made the mistake of pointing at me the first day. I think he learned the futility in that. I will have learned an incredible amount if I can get through the six or so songs that we will be performing on Saturday, I think we’ll save any improvisation for next year’s camp.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Away to Music Camp

I have just finished my first day at music camp in Gaborone. I thought I'd be able to write here daily, but I can see that this is a very strenuous business. There are so many talented musicians in Botswana! I play my trumpet in the bedroom three times a week for 30 mins per day- I am seriously in over my head- and on Saturday we give a live performance! Well I wanted to challenge myself and I've succeeded in that but not much more.

I'll let you know how it goes... if I survive!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Kate Atkinson’s Pictures

I am a BIG Kate Atkinson fan; for the last few years she has been hovering in position one or two of my favourite writers ever. I’ve just started reading When Will There Be Good News?. (Fantastic first chapter, by the way) I can’t help but notice Ms Atkinson’s picture in this book.

I’ve been following her book photos and this one I find quite disturbing. I’ll admit I do appreciate the fact that she changes her picture to reflect her new adjusted status in the world of books as each book comes out, and to reflect the passage of time, unlike authors like Bill Bryson, for example, who has used the exact same picture forever. We know you don’t look like that anymore, Bill, so who are you trying to fool? BUT this photograph of Ms Atkinson standing in a doorway in a khaki coat is unsettling.

In her first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, (I can’t show you that picture because I loaned the book to someone and they did the unforgivable- they never returned it. I know, it sickens me too) she obviously used a picture taken by a friend, no money for a professional photographer just yet. It was endearing, her hair windswept, on a hike somewhere perhaps.

For Human Croquet and Emotionally Wired she took the glamorous model angle, showing the world a more professional side, likely guided by the prestigious Whitbread First Novel Award she had in the bag, and the good sales of her books. She was obviously enjoying her success.

We see the emergence of the coat theme in Case Histories. In this instance though, it is a soft, almost jersey looking, jacket that she clutches around her body, her face blank, and, though some would disagree, I see the edge of a smirk about a minute away from the moment captured in the picture. I like this photo, to me it says I’m a writer BUT I’m not your property I’m going to keep a few of my secrets.

And then we have the newest picture. Why the weary look over your shoulder, Kate? Have we readers become the burden that you must carry? And the coat? What does it mean? I think the coat is meant to tell us she has had enough and is on her way out. Why else stand in a doorway in that coat? That is nothing if it is not a coat meant for walking. The eyes look sad and the mouth turns downward. I’m very concerned about this photo. I’m concerned as a reader, but also as a writer. Is this what success brings- sad, pleading eyes in a trench coat made for walking?

Do you think I’m reading too much into this???

Thursday, December 4, 2008

African Chick Lit- Behind Every Successful Man

I’m at a point right now if I read one more African book about a corrupt dictator or the ravages of war I might have to poke BOTH of my eyes out. Can we just lighten up folks? Yeah for Zukiswa Wanner who has done just that with her latest book Behind Every Successful Man. She’s not trying to win the Nobel Prize, she doesn’t want to make some earth shattering point- she just wants to write an entertaining book poking a bit of fun at the new BEE class in South Africa and she has succeeded in doing just that.

Beautiful Nobantu is married to successful Andile. Like women all over the world, she put her life plan on hold to help her husband and raise their children, but as the years pass the nigglings became shouts and she realises she needs something more. Andile has no interest in listening to her, so she makes the tough decision to leave husband and kids to start her own children’s clothing business. She tells Andile that she will not move back home until he supports her like she supported him for so many years.

This is Wanner’s second book and is published by Kwela. The first, The Madams (Oshun), met with good reviews. The author was born in Zambia to a South African father and a Zimbabwean mother, a real product of SADC. I met her in Gaborone at Bontekanye Botumile’s book launch last month. She gave me a bit of a fright as her energy levels rival a nuclear power station, but I was thankful she suggested we swap books, that’s how I got my copy. I hope she continues writing these types of books. Popular fiction will pull in a popular reading public; this is exactly what we need to get Africans reading.

Thanks, Ms Wanner, and good luck!

(Click on cover for link to Amazon if you want to buy, BUT they have no stock (!)- come on what is up with distribution folks??)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Super Power No. 1

You know how you have something you should do and you keep putting it off even though you know the stress about not doing it is killing you and if only you would get your lazy ass to make a plan to get it done you could have a free and clear mind but for reasons unknown you just don’t? I know you know it; we all know it. We might not want to admit it, but we have all been there.

So I was there. I have had a digital camera since 2000. The camera chows very expensive AA batteries like Oprah plows through blueberries. For eight years, I’ve been popping out P50 every month, which I see now comes to a whopping P4,800 on batteries! My god- I could have bought ¼ of a Japanese Fong Kong for that! A good one- with an FM radio that only plays stations on frequencies found on the Asian continent.

So, all this time the youngest giant teenager who is under the impression that he knows more about technology than I do, primarily because he does, keeps repeating, “Why don’t you buy rechargeable batteries?” Although I knew what he was saying made sense, I didn’t quite believe life could be that easy. Yes- I own a cellphone and a laptop, and yes- they have rechargeable batteries inside, BUT to take just any device and insert rechargeable batteries- well it sounded like crazy talk.

Then I saw rechargeable batteries and the chargers at Spar. That was about three years ago, in camera battery talk 36 battery changes ago. I kept passing the counter saying to myself, “I really should buy that thing.” But I didn’t. Why? Each time my batteries died and I popped out another P50, I said-“If only…” But STILL I didn’t do it.

Finally a few weeks ago, I shouted to the world, “No More!” I walked resolutely (yes, I will use an adverb) into Spar and bought the charger which came with four AA batteries at a price of P118. Now I feel like a superhero- I can charge my own batteries!! And not only can I use my new machine to charge AA batteries, but I can charge a wide range of sizes of batteries.

I am an Invincible Charging Machine!
So much power in such unworthy hands; I hope I don’t let it go to my head.

Very satisfying checking that off my list, I must tell you. Very satisfying indeed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thoughts from the other side

When Colleen Higgs asked me to compile the stories for Modjaji Books’ short story anthology on the theme of bed, I jumped at the chance. Mostly I love the idea of Modjaji Books and wanted to be part of it any way I could, but I also liked the thought of seeing the world from the other side. As a writer, I’ve not been immune from seeing the people receiving my own submissions as fanged and prone to carrying pitch forks. The process has been enlightening for me as a writer and I thought it might be of interest to others to see what I’ve learned.

I love deadlines. As a writer I always submit ages before the deadline. I hear stories like Henrietta Rose-Innes’ about submitting ‘Poison’ to SA/PEN hours before the closing time, and I shiver. I’ve assumed that she and my writing partner, who waits until the last day to submit, were anomalies. I realise now they are not- I am.

Once the bed anthology was announced submissions trickled in about one a day, one every couple days, and I was getting very worried. Would we even have enough submissions for a book? But then in the last two days before the deadline we received over 250 entries! I was shocked! Writers are procrastinators of the first order!

Though it seems that I am, in fact, the odd one out, I still think waiting until the last minute is a dodgy modis operandi. Things go wrong. With bed, many attachments couldn’t be opened, critical information was missing, or submissions did not fall between our word count. Now what? The time is finished. My advice to writers- submit early.

When reading the submissions, I looked for a story that pulled me in, characters that made me want to know them; most of all I wanted interesting stories. I also didn’t want that interesting story to only begin after a page and a half. Get into it straight away.

One thing many people did wrong was to go with their first idea and, unfortunately, most people’s first ideas involved a grandmother, a feather bed, and/ or a hospital. I’m sure everyone loves their grandmother, but that’s just it- everybody loves their grandmother. Unless your grandmother and her feather bed dashed through the air fighting aliens on a quest to save planet earth, it is unlikely she will interest most people.

There were quite a few stories about infidelity; some interesting, some not. A lot of sex which was nice for the reader- me. There were a few “The Beds of my Life” sorts, on the most part not compelling. There were garden type beds which sometimes pulled me in. Bed rock was rare and interesting. To be honest, I discovered as I read that when given a theme such as this, writers should not tackle it straight on. Sideswipe it a bit. Let the scent of it waft through your story. This is where the writer will find a place that is hers alone; these were often the stories I liked best.

Another interesting revelation to me was the bios. Since we are writers, one would have expected writerly bios, but surprisingly that was often not the case. This is my own point of view, but writing about your religious quest is not a good idea, some people, not myself, take such things quite seriously and may be offended if you are of a different view. People sometimes were pleading in their bios- “this is my first story ever and I hope you will be merciful…” kind of thing. Again not advisable. Some went off on wild tangents about their passage through life up until now- though interesting to me personally - to the real editor types it might shout unprofessional. In bios, stick to publishing history, and minimal personal stuff.

I was surprised at the number of people who put nothing identifiable on their story. No name, no email. Don’t do this unless you are asked to, for example in a blind contest. It is a huge hassle. HUGE.

The other thing that shouts unprofessional is constant questions about the status of the submission. Give people a chance. If by six months, you’ve heard nothing, then send a polite reminder. Sending emails after a week, insinuating that the publisher is being very rude by not communicating, is likely not a good idea.

Over all I liked the process. I learned a lot. It was difficult to send rejections because I know how some people are affected by such things, but all published writers I’ve met have the skin of elephants, the only way to survive; developing it sooner would be advisable. I think there were more excellent submissions than Modjaji will be able to use, and that was nice. It said something quite positive about the status of women writers in Southern Africa. The process has made me a better writer and I thank Modjaji Books for that.

Can’t wait to see the book-watch this space!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Nigerians die- is anyone watching?

This morning I was watching France 24 news and they allocated just about a minute to the deaths in Nigeria, enough time to say 200 or more people have been killed in religious clashes in Nigeria and the situation is under control. I waited thinking that was just a headline but, no, that was it. No explanation just that. More Africans killing each other – old news, right? Or in other words- who gives a shit?

Meanwhile we’ve had non-stop news about Mumbai. I’m not saying the deaths in Mumbai are not horrific, they are. The point I’m making is where the media’s eye falls is something to dissect. The rich Indians and foreigners, or the poor black Nigerians? Which murders are more important according to the media? And how much do the media decide the worldwide answer to this question? Must I even ask?

In Jos Nigeria they estimate the death toll could be as high as 400 from clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs that erupted after local elections. Apparently the disruptions started after the results from local elections, which hadn’t been able to be held in more than ten years, were announced. The People’s Democratic Party was declared the winner, but the mainly Muslim All Nigeria People’s Party contested the results. The ethnic and religious divide of the people in the area helped to fuel the anger resulting in up to 400 dead and hundreds more injured.

I’m not even sure what I want to say except that many horrible things are done under the cover of darkness, behind doors, hidden from eyes. When the media picks and chooses where to shine the light, are they not complicit in some way? Yes, Africans should get their acts together, but Nigeria is a perfect example yet again of the ways in which leftovers from bad policies of colonisers still course in the continent’s blood. Those stray bits of poison incite some of the conflicts that look so puzzling and convoluted from outside.

I guess what I really want is for an African life to be equal to the life of every other human who walks this earth.

That’s all this is about.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The White Road and other stories by Tania Hershman – a review

For me, this book is unique. In Southern Africa it is uncommon to come across collections of short stories, especially in bookstores in Botswana, but I have yet to see a collection that mixes flash fiction among short stories. I cannot comprehend the aversion of publishers to short stories. One would think in this world of rampant ADD and time gobblers at all corners, short stories would be the exact package for fiction and flash fiction would be even better. When publishers in this part of the world will catch a wake up, I don’t know. The mixture between short stories and flash in The White Road is very nice.

A lot of hype has been made of the fact that some of the stories in The White Road are inspired by articles in the New Scientist magazine. Hershman is a former science journalist and has a strong science background, so finding stories in the collection stemming from that would not be unlikely, but my fear is that some might give the collection a pass, scared off by the science. Please don’t.

I think the better terminology, in this case, would be that the stories are sparked by science; the writer read a scientific article and from there her imagination got in the driver’s seat and drove the car to a place that, in almost all the stories, hardly holds a passing resemblance to the starting point. An example, the story ‘Self Raising’ was inspired by an article about coronal mass injections, basically the sun spitting. That’s the inspiration, but the story is about a woman who studied to be a scientist but was captured, as many women are, by marriage and children; her own dreams thrown to the side. She finds herself middle aged, baking cakes in the shapes of test tubes, Petri dishes, and the sun. The theme of the story is the taking back of her life, the science is incidental. This is how most of the science inspired stories are, so please, don’t be scared off.

The thing that stands out so startlingly about this collection is the ease in which Hershman approaches her stories. There is no tangled language that fights with the reader. She is not a flashy writer. She uses simple, strong, confidant language to walk with the reader through profound issues.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is ‘Evie and the Arfids’. You start the story with a middle aged woman telling her own story in her own voice, husband gone, children gone; she’s drifting, struggling to find anything to cling to; a common identifiable story for many women. She gets a job and then a friend and you as the reader cheer for her. But that is not the story Hershman is telling; her story is a commentary on the abuse of technology, a terrifying ending waits for the reader. Simply written; slyly told. Hershman does not want to bash you over the head with a stick, but she still wants you to fall down.

Some of the flash fiction is quite exceptional. My favourite is ‘I am a Camera’ about a woman losing her memories. ‘Heavy Bones’ was a fun piece of flash. (Isn’t good flash such a delight? When will the publishing world wake up to that???)

I personally could relate to ‘Express’ which is about trying to learn another language when living in a land where you were not born, and the daily struggle with it and the subconscious relief when suddenly you are back in the land of your first language. Hershman lets the reader into that mental state in such a smooth-as-silk way. Very nice.

There are so many excellent stories in the 27 story collection. They often have humour mixed with an undertow of sadness, a good example is ‘The Incredible Exploding Victor’ about a boy who believes he will one day explode because his sad, sad mother keeps forcing food on him and ‘You’ll Know’ about the odd prescriptions often demanded of people wanting to adopt foreign babies.

There are a few editing slip-ups that distracted me since I thought UK publishers would do better. In a way, perhaps it made me feel better about our local publishers in an ‘even the big guys make mistakes’ way. I was also a bit disappointed by the lack of stories set in Hershman’s adopted home, Jerusalem. I would think stories abound there; my hope is that her next collection will take that into consideration. On the other hand, as a person who also lives in a place that she was not born, I am aware that stories come from where stories come and, if we are to be true to ourselves, we must write them. Pushing a story to fit where it doesn’t, never works. Hershman’s Israeli stories will find their way out when the time is right.
So folks, read the book, and then send me questions for the author because on the 29th of December, Tania Hershman will be stopping by Thoughts from Botswana on a stop during her blog book tour. Send questions to

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Butterfly People

At the top of the mountain my spirit sank. The stingy acacias and the rocky ground underneath them was all I could see; another valley, another dead-end. I came searching for the lost tribe of the Amandebele, the powerful warriors that wrecked havoc in Southern Africa, and realised once again I would go home unsuccessful. For more than a hundred years the legend passed from mouth to ear, in a chain of hopeful people; the legend of the Lost Tribe, hidden somewhere in the hills of eastern Botswana, cut off on the trek of the tribe from South Africa to Zimbabwe, and then never seen again.

I sat down on a pink sandstone boulder patched black with lichens. I took out my water bottle; my throat was parched from the climb and the biting dry air of winter. I wondered if it was time to head back to the camp, the valley below didn’t look promising, but I decided to check it out anyway and rearranged the pack on my back and started the climb down.

As I descended the steep side, I realised the distance had been distorted, the valley was much deeper than I originally thought. The mountain side was shaded by the hills opposite and the temperature lowered at least ten degrees. The moisture in the air increase as well. I was no longer climbing through sharp thorns, but pushing aside the soft leaves of trees I wasn’t familiar with. I still could not see the bottom.

I watched each step, careful not to fall, and something brushed like a feather across my cheek. Looking up, I found myself in a cloud of butterflies; crimson and jade, navy and orange, black and brown- every colour of the spectrum. Then I noticed a noise just above the level of hearing. A strange, whispery sound. I felt my body relax into it as if its systems, the movement of my blood, the snap of electricity between the synapses, the beating of my heart, all synchronised with this almost unheard noise. I closed my eyes and turned my face into the coloured cloud and wished for the sensation to continue. Time slipped away, it could have been minutes, hours, but then without warning the butterflies parted and I opened my eyes.

There before me was a collection of tidy mud huts. The thatched roofs pushed far out over the walls creating a wide, shady veranda around the whole diameter. Each had a large enclosed lowlapa at the front. Intricate patterns dyed in the colours of the butterflies decorated the walls of the huts and the lolwapa. In the distance, I could see fields of green crops trailing off though the thin valley. The houses were arranged in a wide circle and in the middle people were collected perhaps a hundred, no more than three hundred. They watched me with cautious eyes as I walked toward them.

“Dumelang,” I tried not knowing what language the lost tribe spoke, for I was sure I had found the Lost Tribe of the Amandebele.

A tall, middle-aged man stepped forward. He wore only a leather loin cloth, his bare chest muscled and hairless. He spoke a language I was not familiar with and yet I knew exactly what he was saying. “Welcome.”

After he spoke the women gathered round me ululating. They closed me in and herded me toward a large rondavel at the far side of the massive circle of huts. A young woman with thick, black lashes resting on her cheeks slashed with two traditional marks on each side took my hand and we entered the cool darkness of the hut. She smiled and indicated a leather mat in the corner. “This is where you will stay.”

“Stay? Thank you for you hospitality, but I can’t stay.”

Smiling, she ignored me, turned, and disappeared leaving me alone. I looked around the hut; it was nearly empty. There were a few clay pots and the leather mat which was apparently to be my bed. I sat down on it and waited, not sure what to expect.

I was thinking about how excited everyone would be back at the university when I told them about my find, when an elderly man wearing the skin of a leopard entered. He was followed by a line of elderly men. I could see that the man at the front must be the chief, the others his council. The chief spoke first. “We are happy that you’ve decided to join our tribe. We always welcome foreigners.”

“No, I…” I started but one of the elders raised his hand and shook his head to indicate I should remain silent.

“There have been others before you. We welcomed them as we welcome you. Ranania has shown you this house. You will live here until you marry. We encourage marriage to foreigners. Just indicate which young woman you would like to marry and all will be arranged. There are a few rules. You must never climb the surrounding hills. They are home to the gods. The butterflies that welcomed you will not be so kind if you try to leave. We live in harmony. There is no fighting. No war. No murder. Unlike the world that you come from. We share everything. There is no want and no greed. All is done for the benefit of the group, unlike your world where the individual rules at the expense of the tribe.”

The old men who were now sitting behind the chief on the smooth dung floor of the hut, nodded in agreement. They whispered a word, “Phypere. Phypere” like a mantra. Others closed their eyes and hummed the word as the chief continued. Every time it was spoken I felt the same sensation I had in the cloud of butterflies. I slipped into a synchronisation with the sound waves produced by the word, a wash of contentment flowed over me. Phypere, phypere. I suddenly realised the word was the gentle hiss of the butterflies on the hill.

“You will find a life here that is pure and allows your mind to reach areas it would have no chance of seeing on the other side of the hills. Embrace this life and happiness will follow.” The chief got up and reached his clasped hands out to me. I took them in mine. “Phypere,” he said.

I looked into the deep recesses of his eyes and discovered that I had found the home I had not been searching for there among the butterfly people.

Africans and their love of English

There is a hilarious article in the Mail and Guardian about Africans, Nigerians in particular, and their love for bombastic words- the longer, the more obscure, the better; maintaining the meaning of the sentence takes second seat to the beauty of the vocabulary. The article is entitled ‘Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes’ and is written by C Don Adinuba. He gives laugh-out-loud examples such as, “I never perused the inner anatomy of the female homo sapiens.” This was said by the historian Emmanuel Ayandele when pointing out to a group of students how he had remained celibate through his undergraduate years.

Botswana is not immune to this phenomenon. The good lecturers at the University of Botswana, according to my husband when he was there, are the ones that used “powerful jargon”, the ones that took ten words to say something that could be said with two. If you found that person, you knew you were in for some real learning.

I used to type letters for an elderly man who was the head of a tiny political party with a socialist inclination; so tiny in fact I often wondered if he might have been its only member. He was always busy dashing off letters to the president and to international bodies complaining about what he thought was going wrong in the country. He was a big fan of using two or three words where only one was needed. He did this most often with verbs and adjectives. A sentence such as, “I read your long letter” could not be left in such an anemic state. He’d beef it up to, “I perused and studied in an attempt to understand your lengthy, extensive correspondence.” I’d sometimes edit claiming I couldn’t read his handwriting and he’d always carefully instruct me about the words I had so carelessly left out. He had a reputation to uphold.

The title of the M & G article is actually the first line in Wole Soyinka’s novel, The Interpreters. Very funny indeed.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Life Built on Choices

I had a friend for quite a few years who I realised at one point was unhealthy for me, and I slowly distanced myself from her until now I doubt either of us considers the other a friend at all. I think about her sometimes and feel sad, it’s always sad to lose a friend, but I know looking back it was the right thing to do.

She would always say to me, “Lauri, you could do so much more with your life. You have so many talents. You’re hiding yourself here in Botswana. You must leave this life and find the one you were destined for.” She would say this in so many ways and in so saying she was negating the life I had chosen. She seemed to have a plan for me and often led me by the hand down the path that she had chosen. When I look back, I often wonder how she did that as I’ve been known to be stubborn; maybe she got me at vulnerable moments. Twice I nearly left my husband because of her. I drove away certain I was on my way to the life she knew waited for me elsewhere, but I didn’t quite know the way. That alone frightened me. I’ve run away before; my life has a theme of running, but always I knew where I was going. I had a plan, a map drawn out in my head. It was because the leaving was of my doing I guess. It was a choice made by me, not imposed by the wishes of another.

I don’t know if it’s because in a few weeks I will be 45, but I look back on my uncertainty during that time and I feel sad and not a little bit scared. Scared how easily I could have done the wrong thing. How many times in our lives have we made choices? Some good and some bad, but most made on little more than instinct, sometimes not much more than a mental flip of a coin. It is terrifying to realise what comes of such whimsical decisions. What if that 16 year old girl I was so long ago hadn’t got on the bus that took her away from the psychotic abuse she could stand no longer? What would my life be if I hadn’t run from America to Botswana? What if I hadn’t chosen to remain in Botswana and marry my husband and instead went off to the internship at the United Nations? What if I hadn’t decided to take that leap of faith that led me to become a full time writer? Out there somewhere in ‘what if land’ lay the lives I chose not to live.

We should look back every once in awhile I think, not with regrets, because I have no time for those, but to assess; to take a look at the path that we’ve built by those choices. At 45 (less a month or so) I feel I haven’t done so badly. I’ve carved out a small, simple life for myself that keeps me sane (a big deal in my family of legally declared loonies). To others, my former friend included, small and simple are not important attributes for a life, they are not something that should be striven for; but that doesn’t matter. For me it is exactly what I’ve been searching for. A little spot to be safe, and happy in the odd moment; the successful life defined and built by the only person that matters- me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

HIV/AIDS and Botswana’s Battle

In the 1990’s I used to feel like a blanket of sadness covered the country. People were dying everyday it seemed. No family was immune from loss, including mine. You wouldn’t see someone for awhile and then you didn’t want to ask as it was likely they were dead. We went to so many funerals. Achingly sad funerals of people far too young to die. I think about all of those dead and how if they could have lasted just a few more years they would have been saved. Now the government gives out free ARV treatment, so those same people would likely have survived and they would still be with us today.

The government in so many ways must be applauded for their efforts regarding HIV/AIDS. Former President Mogae, unlike many presidents around the world, never hid the problem. We are a small country, only 1.6 million, and he knew if nothing was done we could perish, all of us. That’s how it felt at that time anyway.

I was under the impression that things were getting better, but in yesterday’s Daily News (the state newspaper) the headline reads “Botswana leads in HIV/AIDS Prevalence”. According to a speaker from Scottish Livingstone Hospital in Molepolole in the south of the country, Botswana is still number one in Southern Africa for the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. I found the article so disappointing. I really thought we were getting better.

Part of the problem might be a disconnect between traditional practices and modern life. PSI Botswana is running an advertising campaign about ‘the small house’ and how it fuels HIV infection. Traditionally it was accepted to have concubines and this is what the small house refers to. But there were rules that governed this behaviour. What has happened now is the traditional practice is maintained without the rules, which were lost along the way.

When a young woman gets married she is taken to the side to sit with the older, married women to be told the ways to be a good wife. Among the advice is that a married woman should never ask a husband who is coming home late where he has been. Again there were reasons for this. Those reasons have been forgotten, but men have held tight to the practice. A wife who queries a husband arriving late in the night is a bad wife needing a sharp clap or a visit to her uncles for a complaint.

Both of these practices lead to concurrent relationships which is one of the drivers of HIV/AIDS in the country. Culture is often a sacred cow that should not be questioned or tampered with, but sometimes cultural practices that are causing harm should be dropped or at the very least questioned and better understood.

Botswana’s Vision 2016 has as one of its goals zero new HIV infections by 2016. Something is not working if after spending millions of Pula we are still having the highest prevalence rate in the region. We better change tactics if we want to reach that 2016 goal.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Intangible Cultural Heritage

I spent two days in Serowe at a workshop on the 2003 UNESCO Convention on Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). It may sound slightly boring, but in fact it is fascinating. It is all about saving the parts of heritage that we can’t touch things such as language, dance, song, and proverbs, but also other less obvious things like body language and gestures. The Department of Culture and Youth is moving around the country (doing quite an excellent job BTW) meeting with stakeholders to consult. After this it will go to Cabinet and Parliament who will decide if Botswana should sign on to the Convention. Culture is suddenly taking its rightful place in Botswana, so it is likely the Convention will be ratified.

Our facilitator at the workshop was Zimbabwean dramatist and writer Stephen Chifunyise. He is so passionate about his culture it is infectious. He very easily showed us where Botswana’s ICH is endangered in many areas. Our dances, for example, are slowly changing being influenced by modern dances to the extent that sometimes the original dance and its meaning have been lost. A lot of ICH is lost in this manner. Colonisation and modernisation have done a severe number on ICH all over the world.

He told a story about a dance in Shona culture called Mbende. The dance represents human creation. It is danced by a man and a woman who are eventually synchronised in their movements. At one point, they come together and push their hips at each other. When the missionaries went to Zimbabwe they looked at the dance and immediately banned it thinking it was too sexual. The dancers didn’t want to leave this important dance behind. To them it meant the synchrony and union of man and woman to create a family, a very important part of their culture. So they thought and decided to give it a Christian sounding name, that this might appease the missionaries. So they called the dance Jerusalema. Voila- all was fine with the church and they continued with their dance. Then independence came and the dancers were sure that maintaining such important cultural heritage would be paramount in the new administration. Within a short time, the freedom fighters, still struggling with their colonised minds, banned the dance at all government sponsored events. This nearly led to the loss of Mbende/ Jerusalema. Luckily cultural workers in Zimbabwe applied to UNESCO to have the dance declared a Masterpiece of Human Creation. The application went through and now they have been given a large sum of money so that they can safeguard this important dance.

Though in Botswana we haven’t had any out right banning, some traditional Setswana songs are not played on the national radio stations because the station administrators believe them to be suggestive and yet they play all sorts of songs from America which are far more suggestive. This is the same sort of censorship that can lead to important ICH being lost.

For myself as a writer, I think I have a role to play here. I made some very important contacts and am looking forward to seeing where this path leads me. Exciting, exciting.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What inspires you?

There are few questions I hate more than – what inspires you?. I am always blank (obviously ‘Your question’ is not the right answer), and I usually give an answer that is fictional and almost always stupid. To be honest, mostly I get inspired when I’m done writing and I look back and say “Hey that’s not so crappy!”. But today I realised something. It appears, at least in some cases, the news inspires me.

Those who read Thoughts from Botswana know I love newspapers. I love the smell, I love the mess. I read and talk to the newspaper at the same time. I rage and laugh. It is a total emotional experience. In Botswana, newspaper days used to be Wednesday for Midweek Sun and Gazettte, and Friday for Mmegi and The Guardian. Now we have Mmegi every week day and Sunday we have the Sunday Standard. YEAH!

I also love TV news. I love France 24, the only 24 hour news station we get since we stopped DSTV in protest of their monopoly, and a few other things I’ll not mention- NO, it is not because the Botswana woman decided to have oral sex on Big Brother. I am, despite rumours that may suggest otherwise, NOT a prude. But having said that- I mean YIKES!

As I said I’ve discovered, before I went off topic, that the news inspires me, it’s not the only thing, but at least it’s something, an answer next time I’m asked. I wrote this week’s Search Engine Fiction story around a baby dumped in a pit latrine after it became a big news story here in Botswana. Funny enough, my writing partner (She Who Will Remain Unnamed) also wrote a baby in the pit latrine story. That got me to wondering if I do this often. Do I write stories inspired by news? It seems that I do.

One of my favourite stories is The Collector of Lives about an Indonesian man left alone in the wreckage who waits to collect bodies as they wash up on shore and then buries them in case the families ever come back. It was inspired by the tragic news of the tsunami victims. I have another story about 9/11, surprisingly with a happy ending (how many writers could do that?). I even have a story about the terrorists in Russia where my terrorists, to my astonishment, were wearing baklava instead of balaclavas ( and yes, I submitted it to a publication like that...). Even the week before this one, my DRC story was inspired by the news.

So now I’m ready…….

Next time:

“So Lauri, what inspires you?”

“Well, Oprah, I get quite inspired by the news.”