Fireside Vision at the Back-of-Beyond

The Trans-Kalahari highway leads west northwest out of Lobatse one of Botswana’s earliest western-style towns. (It contained at independence in 1966 the only stretch of tarred road in a country larger than France.)  Once past Kanye, the land lies wide and open toward the ‘big dry’, the Kalahari, deepest overlay of sand on the planet. You might think that this would be southern Africa’s ‘empty quarter’ – devoid, like Arabia’s vast southeast.  But you would be wrong. Carried on the vast ranches of this high plateau are millions of cattle that browse the arid thorn scrub. And there is more. Dotted across that thirstland are the kimberlite ‘pipes’, the throats of ancient volcanoes, whose heat and pressure have produced troves of gem-quality diamonds.  It is this windfall, and its care and management, that has made Botswana the envy of her neighbors.

Roughly 30 miles down that highway, an unmarked sandy track leads north through a cattle gate into the acacia scrub.  It’s a byway I came to know well in the 1980s and ‘90s during visits to the small settlement of Pitseng, a few miles off the highway.  So scattered were the thatched homesteads there that it hardly seemed like a village at all. It consisted of a few dozen Bakgalagadi households, cousins of the San, who had long tended the fields and cattle of wealthier, more powerful clans.  There was no power. No indoor plumbing or piped water. In the early years not even a primary school, clinic or shop. The defining feature of the community was its life-sustaining borehole, a variety of well sometimes drilled hundreds of feet through sand and drawing to the surface fossil water that is thousands of years old.  Cattle and humans huddle about these sources of life.

Tidy, thatched rondavel typical of traditional housing around the Kalahari.  Acacia thorn tree to the left of the structure would offer precious shade for day time chores – cooking, laundry and child care, as well as socializing with neighbors and passers-by.  The carefully swept courtyard is the mark of a cultured family, one that gives no quarter to snakes or other undesirables.  The larger trees in the background, eucalypti, are an ‘invasive species’ introduced from Australia and seen mainly on the eastern fringes of the Kalahari.  The world captured in this snapshot was recently depicted for a western audience in the charming whodunnits of Alexander McCall Smith.   Photo credit: wikimedia commons.

One winter after the day’s pursuits and supper, I sat beside an outdoor fire with my host family.  We mused about life in the desert, about the cattle and persistent drought, about the struggle for land rights and the poverty of Pitseng.  As we rued the trials of life, the mother of the family silently spread a towel on the sand and laid an infant in the flickering light of the fire.  She removed its clothing, took some oil in her hands and began to gently massage the child, beginning with its pearl-like toes, its feet and limbs to the very crown of its glistening head.  The effect was stunning. Richly intoxicating. Utter contentment at the back-of-beyond. There was a madonna-and-child, illuminated by the fire, in a virtuoso performance of what it is to be fully, wildly, human, what lays bare the moral secret of life.  There in a single elemental image is captured a treasure whose want is the cause not only of anxiety, fear and strife, but even of war itself. That treasure is the real well. Here is the trove of real gems.

One last detail to finish this tableau.  Those who follow the ebb and flow of the Christian year will know that this is Advent, the preparation for and approach to Christmas.  The mother in this image from Pitseng has a name: Miriam. And she named her child ‘Immanuel’. He must be about 25 years old by now. Still basking in the glow of a lavish, earthy love.                  

14 thoughts on “Fireside Vision at the Back-of-Beyond

  1. Like the more of your ‘Traipse’ they are just too short. I was delighted to see that you had provided us with this latest Traipse but keenly disappointed that you did not provided us a glimpse of the night’s campfire stories, the sounds of the night, the sunrise of the next day, Need I go on?? Jonathan, your stories are gifts not only to stretch our knowledge of the far off places but also food to reflect on as to how we might LEARN.


  2. Harry, tsala ya me! You’re one of that endangered species – a long form reader. I say, may your tribe increase! But the blog course prof at Emory cracked the whip to rule that 350 – 400 words is where most web surfers begin to bail. Here’s a consolation tidbit for you – I’m not done with Pitseng yet! The telling is not nearly over!


  3. In my early visits to Pitseng (circa 1976), I didn’t know it was a named place, but rather a lands area for the Kanye Batswana who used the Bakglagadi as a labor pool. The borehole was long dormant and it was a long walk for water. I often used the back way to get there from Gaberone past Livingstone’s homestead on to Moshupa, a village so convoluted I couldn’t find my way to the Pitseng track in the dark but once on the track I could not get lost. Hence the refrain, “I need to go or I won’t get to Moshupa before dark.” Actually I almost got lost one chilly clear night when I set off to return to Gaberone after dark. I was headed directly into a beautiful full moon which I soon realized meant I was going due west. I lumbered around in “Puff,” a stretch Landcruiser with an aluminum box built over a Bedford bed, and headed east with tree shadows dancing in the moonlight.

    I cannot wait for the next installment Jonathan.


    1. Dumela, Larry! Beautiful touches to fill in the picture! I have wandered those braided tracks even in broad daylight. A following post will describe being lost on foot in a moonless night. A metaphor for navigating a new culture. Thanks for responding!


  4. We three not-so-wise “children” arrived soon after the birth of the child and if I close my eyes, the sights and sounds of that yard are vividly etched in my memory– Miriam lying on a mat in the rondoval with Immanual beside her. The florescent light required now to see my computer screen does not provide the same kind of illumination as William’s fire, the only light as far as the eye could–and the lessons learned as a result of those early, terrifying, exhilarating, life-altering days. Thank you Jonathan.


    1. Hello, Chris! I’ve sometimes thought of these travels not as ‘moon-shots’ but as ‘soul-shots’ – yielding a lifetime of sounding inner depths rarely visited. Mystery and beauty await especially at the far ragged edge. JPL


  5. Your words enrich my being. You remind me of the times I spent with loving people in remote places all over the world. Their goodness is genuine. Though they have so little of the material world, they have an abundance of the Spirit;enough for themselves and all others. Thank you very much Jonathan.


  6. Oh, my! I am glad I saved this delicious reading for a still moment. I will savor this word picture long as I hold our new little grandson, Oliver, in this Nativity season. I loved this detail: “The defining feature of the community was its life-sustaining borehole, a variety of well sometimes drilled hundreds of feet through sand and drawing to the surface fossil water that is thousands of years old.” Fossil water. Who knew? Thank you.


  7. I can hear your voice telling this story. What a blessing that our paths have crossed! Blessings to you and your family!


  8. Coming late to read this one. Wonderful! I’ve had some feeling in Mexico of a kind of simple happiness – like the women laughing as we were tightly squeezed onto the metro in Mexico City – laughing at our plight instead of grumbling. Such a general friendliness here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s