I Once Met a Witch in Botswana

In '98 and '99 I was staying on and off in South Africa, at first just traveling around with my girlfriend, and then for a while working in an Irish pub in Johannesburg. My in-laws time lived near Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana, where he would build roads and stadiums for the government using foreign aid money.

Botswana is a fascinating place. It only has a population of 2 million, yet an area just under 225,000 square miles (compared to the USA for instance at 325m people over 3.8m square miles), making it one of the most sparsely populated places in the world. It is also crazy flat, with really nothing that resembles a hill in the southern 90% of its lands. Most tourists would typically just visit the swamps in the very north for their wildlife, but perhaps 18 years on the capital might be a draw too. The main road leading from one of the border crossings to the city had a tree slap bang in the middle of it, which the blacktop and the lines dutifully diverted around, but in their pitch black nights, several drivers did not.

Education was important to the nation, but was 'rationed'. You studied hard and kept passing school years, and you could progress, all the way to a full scholarship to study anything you wanted, anywhere in the world, as long as you brought those skills back with you for a while. If you failed a year at school, you were done, and a big book would tell you what jobs were available to you; (and they would force rules on foreign companies to aid with creating demand for the jobs in the book, such as any meeting with an official must be arrived at in a vehicle that was chauffeur-driven by a local).

It's a system that would be hard to implement in a more modernized country, but there was a widespread sense of peace and satisfaction among the population; a feeling that everyone had a place, and was contributing in their own way.

Crime was not tolerated. The story of a South African woman who was tried for murder goes that she had killed her husband, having driven to South Africa and back to acquire a gun. The driving time was seen as plentiful to calm herself before the act, and so was found guilty on a Friday of premeditated murder. Her distraught father went to the jail to visit her, and was told they were closed over the weekends, and he must return on Monday. He did so, to find they had hanged her the day before! It sounds hard, it was, but at the time, it certainly keep the crime rate low, and I felt safer there than I ever have done in South Africa.

In the house next door to my in-laws lived a local Motswana lady (as an individual from Botswana is called), and if I remember correctly, her sons. I can't say I knew her, but I did meet her once, and was on nodding terms, as us Brits would say, for the rest of my visit. My in-laws rented their house from her, and so knew her better.

Some time later we went back for another visit, this time after the rainy season had begun. The first surprise was that the car we had left there now had a front wheel entirely encased in a termite mound, and was set like concrete, all the rubber dutifully eaten away.

The second surprise was that the lady next door was now dead.

Some of the locals in the village had turned against her. When the rains came in, the dry river beds flooded, as they do, and the new little bridge by her house had washed away. They blamed her, citing she was a witch that transformed herself into a water serpent, and had taken it upon herself to destroy the bridge; motivations unknown. Additionally, infidelity had occurred in the village, which in a country so badly ravaged by HIV, was a particularly serious problem, and so she was further accused of using her witching powers to lure men to her, as a prostitute.

When I was in high school and we covered the witch trials I remember they used to burn them, or even drown them in water, for their punishment. In Botswana in 1998, they baked her a cake laced with poison, took it round to her as a gift... and that was that.

I never did have the chance to return to that village, but my guess is that the rains keep coming and washing away the little bridges, but that the men might just be a little more afraid to stray from their wives.