It took me a moment to recognise him. When I did, I was overcome by the shyness of seeing a friend after years, suspecting that he was scrutinising me to see how much of the old me I still retained.
K was a friend from school; we had been in the same classes all four years that I had attended Motalaote Lekhutile Primary School. He was one of the three classmates with whom I had maintained a friendly rivalry over grades—after every test we turned to each other to ask what was your answer for number six. After every exam we checked with each other to see who had topped the class. It was always one of us four.
This time I ran into him at the Serowe Bus Rank, where I was to board a bus to Gaborone. We would have been in our late teens or early twenties. The buses were running from the new station, which was newly paved, with booths set out for vendors. The vendors ignored the booths, swirling around us with their trays of fried chicken and chips and the bowls of roasted maize and boiled peanuts that they balanced on their heads. The bus stops and light poles had been painted the sky blue of the Botswana flag, to coincide with the Serowe Centenary celebrations.
He looked different, of course, older, as I must have looked myself. His light skin was dotted with dark pimple scars. He was cultivating a thin mustache that he kept scratching. His coat was heavy and long, going all the way past his knees. It must have been cold, although I recall a sunny day, flooded with light, the sky clear above us. We talked briefly, asking each other about our former classmates. He still laughed easily, his eyes narrowing and almost disappearing when he did.
I was reluctant to ask him where he was going, what he was doing these days. Part of me was always reluctant to ask this of my friends from primary school, absurdly afraid to embarrass them. At 14, I had been awarded a partial bursary to a private boarding school in the city, which got its prestige from selling itself as an international school, thus attracting children of ministers, ambassadors and the wealthiest in the country. My single mother was a primary school teacher, with a permanent government job, so in primary school I had been considered fairly well-off. As a boarder, I was one of the school’s poorest students, often called to the principal’s office because my mother had missed paying her share of my tuition. The fact that I attended this school, taking French and Drama lessons, around students who spoke English all the time and talked back to their teachers, meant that the trajectory of my life had taken a sharp turn from my primary school friends. Whenever I saw them, I worked hard to reassure them that I had not changed, that I was still the same person who had gathered with them over the soft sorghum porridge we ate at break time.
My wariness around K went further than that. I had heard that although he received excellent grades, he had foregone university— or was it senior secondary school —and gone to live at a cattle-post. I had heard that he was now married, with a child. The person who told me this had said, I am not surprised, the cattle-post is what these people know.
K’s ethnic community is understood to have descended from the first inhabitants of the Southern African region, now made up of countries such as Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. Complicated and unresolved discussions still abound over the correct name(s) to use for these ethnic communities. The terms Bushmen, Basarwa, San, Khoikhoi, Khoe, Khoisan have been used interchangeably by academics, civil groups, anthropologists and governments, but each term has been found derogatory or inadequate. In Botswana, Mosarwa (singular) and Basarwa (plural) are the names in official government use. In daily use, these names often become weapons. If people are thought unruly or uncivilised—if they show bad manners—they are said to be behaving like Basarwa. Often, the prefixes ‘Mo’ and ‘Ba,’ used in the Setswana language to denote people, are replaced with ‘Le’ (Lesarwa) and ‘Ma’ (Masarwa), to signal something less than human.
In Serowe, where K and I grew up, it was not uncommon for very wealthy families to ‘own’ Basarwa. I may hesitate to use the word ‘own’ but the verb used in Setswana – go rua – implies ownership. It is used to say one owns and takes care of cows, goats and dogs, for example. A wealthy family would own Basarwa in this way, looking after them, considering them a part of the family while in exchange they worked at the cattle-post, as herdsmen taking care of livestock, or in the village, as domestic help. In my childhood, this kind of ownership was an open secret; as much a part of life as having to go to your neighbours’ funerals and weddings. We attended school with the Basarwa children and were friends with them, but we understood that their being Basarwa was not something to be brought up. It was something embarrassing and shameful that they could not help. Only an ill-mannered person would bring it up and force everyone to reckon with it. The polite thing was to not talk about it.
K’ s family had been in such a relationship with the family of a man high-up in government, a distant relative of my mother’s, with whose grandchildren I had attended boarding school. I was afraid that if I asked K what he was up to these days, all of this unspoken knowledge and history between us would tumble to light.