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.
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.