Once proudly referred to as “Africa’s fastest growing city,” Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, has been – since its inception – continually expanding, to the point that now the sprawling urban centre of some 300 000 residents has become nearly unrecognisable from the tiny, dusty administrative town it was at the country’s independence in 1966.
From the end of the nineteenth century, until 1963, tiny ‘Gaberones‘ Village, as the town was then called, consisted of only a small settlement on the railway line and a small administrative centre in the area now called ‘The Village.’ The land between both settlements was Crown land, Gaborone but was used by the people of the neighbouring village of Tlokweng as cattle grazing area.
Britain’s Bechuanaland protectorate (established in 1885) had its main administrative centre in Mafeking (now Maﬁkeng), in South Africa, just over the current Ramatlabama border. As plans developed for the country’s independence, it was clear it would need an administrative town within its political boundaries. Bechuanaland was the only territory in the world whose administrative centre lay outside its boundaries.
Nine possible sites were suggested: Mahalapye, Shashe, Francistown, Serowe, Artesia, Lobatse, Gaborone, Maun and a point within the Tuli Block. Gaborone was chosen because of its strategic location, its proximity to the railway line and Pretoria, its already established administrative ofﬁces, its accessibility to most of the major tribes, its non-association with any particular tribe, and most importantly, its closeness to a major water source.
The city was named after Kgosi Gaborone, leader of the Batlokwa people, who migrated from their ancestral homelands in the Magaliesberg Mountains and in 1881 settled in the Tlokweng area (then called Moshaweng). Gaborone literally means ‘it does not ﬁt badly’ or ‘it is not unbecoming.”
Once plans for the city had been drawn up, technical experts from several European countries were brought in to assist with the planning and building of the town; and architects, artisans, supervisors and labourers were brought in from surrounding areas in Botswana, and from Southern Rhodesia.
In mid-1963, construction on the Gaborone Dam began, while work on the town itself commenced in early 1964. In eighteen months, the new capital emerged from the African bush. By the time it was completed – incidentally nearly on time – it boasted National Assembly buildings, Government ofﬁce blocks, a power station, a hospital, schools, a radio station, an airﬁeld, a telephone exchange, police stations, a post ofﬁce, banks, shops, a church, a hotel, a brewery, a stadium grandstand, a dam, and more than one thousand houses.
Indeed the basic infrastructure was in place for Independence Day on 30th September 1966, when Bechuanaland became the eleventh British territory in Africa to become independent. Since then the city has grown into a modern, bustling government, commercial and industrial centre, now incorporating the neighbouring villages of Tlokweng and Mogoditshane, and with housing estates, industrial estates and ﬁnancial centres radiating from its centre.
Gaborone gained city status in 1986. Twenty-ﬁrst century Gaborone now boasts four, large American-style malls, replete with cinema complexes, a host of hotels, guest houses and restaurants, an international airport, a cultural centre, discos and nightclubs, a national museum and art gallery, as well as two golf courses and other sports facilities.
What makes Gaborone so unique, however, is that the visitor can enjoy all the familiar modern conveniences of home, but can gain entry into rural Africa, or wildlife areas, within minutes– having then the best of both possible worlds.
Scheduled for a face-lift, Gaborone’s ﬁrst mall – often referred to as The Main Mall – is a pedestrian-only business and commercial centre that boasts some of the town’s oldest shops and ofﬁce buildings, as well as one of its ﬁrst hotels, The President Hotel. At its top end, across the Nelson Mandela Road, sits the Government Enclave and the National Assembly; and at the opposite end are the Gaborone City Town Council ofﬁces. Shoppers will enjoy browsing the many outdoor stalls of African arts, crafts and curios that line the main walkway.
Adorned with trees and ﬂowers and several important monuments, the attractive Government Enclave is open to the public. It contains the National Assembly, where Parliament convenes, the Ofﬁce of the President, and a number of ministries ofﬁces.
One historical statue commemorates those Batswana who served in the Second World War; whilst another honours those Botswana Defence Force soldiers who perished in the Rhodesian war of liberation. (It is advised that permission be obtained before taking photos of Government buildings.)
SIR SERETSE KHAMA STATUE
Unveiled on the occasion of Botswana’s 20th anniversary of independence in 1986, this striking bronze statue now faces the National Assembly, having recently been turned 180 degrees from its previous position where it overlooked the Main Mall. The statue was sculpted by British artist Norman Pearce, and cast in Britain, then ﬂown to Botswana for its unveiling.
Sir Seretse Khama (1921-1980) was the founding father and ﬁrst president of Botswana, who led his
Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) to election victory in 1965 to establish a uniﬁed, democratic, multi-party, multi-racial society. Through his political acumen, honesty, tolerance, and sense of humour he quickly won the respect and admiration of his people, as well as that of European and African leaders. He was knighted in 1991 by Queen Elizabeth II.
THREE CHIEFS MONUMENT
Crossing the railway tracks over the ﬂyover, and turning into a newly developed Central Business District, the Monument of the Three Chiefs is another impressive historical statue that marks an important turning point in the history of Botswana. In the late 1800s, Botswana territory was under threat from British industrialist Cecil Rhodes, who wished to take over Bechuanaland for his British South Africa Company. Three senior chiefs of the time – Chief Khama III of the Bangwato, Chief Sebele I of the Bakwena, and Chief Bathoen I of the Bangwaketse – travelled to London in 1885 to petition Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and whilst there, they were presented to Queen Victoria.
Gaining support from the British public, they petitioned the Queen for protection; and this was granted. The Bechuanaland Protectorate was established in the same year, thus circumventing the territory’s potentially disastrous incorporation into the British South Africa Company, and forever altering the history of the country.
The monument was sculpted and cast by North Korean artisans, using a photograph of the three chiefs. It was unveiled on the occasion of the country’s 39th anniversary of independence in 2005.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM AND ART GALLERY
Established in June 1967 and ofﬁcially opened in September, 1968 by the then Acting President of Botswana, Dr. Q.K.J. Masire, the National Museum has been a vibrant focal point of artistic and cultural activity since its inception. The mandate has always been to display and promote the country’s natural and cultural heritage, and to acquire artifacts relating to Africa south of the Sahara. The adjoining National Art Gallery was opened in 1975 and it continually stages quality exhibitions of art, crafts and photography, of increasing diversity.
Recently celebrating its 40th anniversary (2008), the National Museum and Art Gallery has gone from strength to strength in the collection of artifacts, research, exhibitions, national and international collaborations, and in its vigorous outreach programmes that bring the museum – and instruction in cultural heritage – to rural residents. This ‘Pitse ya Naga’ (‘Zebra on Wheels’) has now reached virtually every primary school in the country. Research is in such diverse ﬁelds as geology, ethnology, entomology, zoology, art, graphic and exhibition design, education and archaeology.
The Museum has registered and documented over 100 000 artifacts, 40 000 insect specimens and 20 000 slides; it houses priceless paintings and original historical photos. It has held over 300 local and international exhibitions and gazetted a number of national monuments. Colourful indoor and outdoor permanent displays chronicle the ﬂora, fauna and cultures of Botswana.
The National Museum and Art Gallery are frequented by thousands of schoolchildren every year, as well as residents of and visitors to the country.
Established in 1890 and for some time serving as an administrative centre for the southern part of Bechuanaland Protectorate, the Village once held a fort, (constructed 1890-91), the area’s ﬁrst post ofﬁce, a prison, a grave yard, and the ‘Gaberones’ magistrate’s house. Of these buildings, only the prison remains, albeit in rather poor condition; and the graveyard still contains the grave markers of the men who died in the Anglo-Boer War. A few late 19th and early 20th century buildings in the Village are still in use.
THAPONG VISUAL ARTS CENTRE
Situated in the former magistrate’s house (1902), the Thapong Visual Arts Centre is home to Botswana’s young, gifted – and sometimes avant-garde –artists. In addition to the exhibitions it regularly stages, this very active centre also periodically offers art courses for children.
The recently opened National Museum Botanical Gardens is a welcome addition to the city of Gaborone. It features walking trails (with labelled trees and plants), exhibits on the ﬂora of Botswana, a library of botanical books, and historical buildings, including a colonial guest house. This is a pleasant place for a family outing, also providing an educational perspective on the country’s ﬂora.
Initiated in 2002 by the highly active environmental NGO Somarelang Tikologo, Gaborone’s Ecological Park – situated on the corner of South Ring Road and Kaunda Road – is a welcome retreat for city dwellers. It also is a highly instructive facility that familiarises visitors with simple but effective technologies for resource conservation and waste management. The park has been developed to inspire people to live in an environmentally friendly life, whilst at the same time save money.
Transforming a once idle open space into an oasis of eco-friendly technologies, the facilities on offer are wide ranging and exemplary. They include:
- The Green Shop, selling a unique assortment of products made from natural or recycled materials, such as jewellery, hats, mats, bags, aprons, waste bins and children’s mobiles, as well as sweets and snacks made from desert fruits;
- the Drop Off and Recycling Centre, the only such facility of its kind in the city. (Separate receptacles for cans, bottles, plastics, paper and cardboard are provided, and drop off is permitted 24/7.);
- the Organic Garden, demonstrating low water usage, water recycling / harvesting, organic growing techniques, organic pesticides, and selling fresh organic vegetables once a week; and
- the Children’s Playground, made from recycled and natural products.
GABORONE GAME RESERVE
Possibly one of the few national reserves to be situated inside a city, this relatively small (5 square kms) but well stocked park is home to a number of Botswana’s indigenous species, including zebra, eland, gemsbok, red hartebeest, blue wildebeest, impala, kudu, steenbok, vervet monkeys,
warthog and rock dassies, as well as numerous resident and migrant bird species, best viewed from the small dam in the park. Terrain includes tree savanna, riparian woodland, marsh and rocky outcrops. The park is popular for weekend outings and picnics, with two well-appointed picnic sites. There are also animal and bird observation hides and a visitors’ centre; and pre-booked educational tours can be arranged for both schoolchildren and visitors.
The life source of Gaborone and its surrounding areas, the Gaborone Dam is often part of people’s
conversations during the dry season, or drought years, during which time a neon signboard in town regularly informs residents of how full the dam is. In this desert country prone to prolonged drought, water – and having enough of it – is an over-riding preoccupation.
Construction on the dam began in 1963, capturing water from the Ngotwane River, to supply the country’s planned new capital city. The reservoir ﬁlled, and overﬂowed, during the 1965-66 rainy season. Ten years later, the dam wall was raised by eight metres. Other sources of water to supply the ever-growing metropolitan area have been built further north at Bokaa and Letsibogo.
The Gaborone Yacht Club is situated at the south end of the dam; this very active club offers canoeing, yachting, picnics, and bushwalks and is open to the public.
THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY FILM SET
The award-winning British director Anthony Minghella, upon searching for the right location to ﬁlm Alexander McCall Smith’s international best seller, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, chose a cul de sac at the base of Kgale Hill. Here his production crew rebuilt a segment of the old-time Gaborone city, replete with butchery, general supplies shop, beauty salon, bike repair shop and outdoor eatery. Long-time residents of the capital city have remarked how the colourful ﬁlm set had captured the exact look and feel of bygone Gaborone. The set will eventually be opened to visitors. ‘Mma Ramotswe’ tours – visiting the various locations that inspired the stories, can be booked in Gaborone.
Gaborone’s warm, sunny weather makes it an ideal venue for sports enthusiasts; and the city boasts a number of modern sports facilities. These include tennis courts, squash courts, boating, yachting, cricket, rugby, football, horse riding, golf, netball, softball, volleyball and of course swimming. There are a number of well equipped ﬁtness centres that offer weight training, aerobics, yoga and dance.
Gaborone’s most visible hill – and one of the city’s major landmarks –overlooks both the Gaborone Dam as well as its largest mall, Game City, providing a beautiful panorama of the city, and in the late afternoon, dramatic African sunsets. Kgale (meaning ‘the place that dried up’) is popular for climbers and picnickers, and has clearly deﬁned routes up and down. Some wildlife still lives in the hills, and the most visible are the ubiquitous baboon troupes. The climb takes approximately one hour.
MUSIC, DANCE, DRAMA
One of the greatest attractions of living in, or visiting, Gaborone is its dynamic music and dance scene. The happy, infectious, soulful music of Botswana, and southern Africa, is everywhere, and is one of the most exciting aspects of culture to experience here. And it is rarely performed without fabulous dancing. Regularly staged performances in traditional, rock, pop, jazz, classical – just about every kind of music imaginable– can best be seen at the Maitisong Cultural Centre, situated at Maru a Pula Secondary School campus; other venues include the Alliance Française and Botswanacraft. There are many jazz clubs and nightclubs in town, or in surrounding areas, and several of the hotels have inhouse musicians who perform on the weekends.
In addition to the Art Gallery at the National Museum, arts and crafts exhibitions, by both local and international artists, are regularly held at the Alliance Française and Botswana craft.
Gaborone has three casinos, at the Grand Palm Hotel, the Gaborone Hotel and at the Gaborone Sun Hotel
- Game drives
- Rhino tracking
- Cheetah visits
- Elephant walks
- Guided walks
- Giraffe tracking
- Horse-back safari
- Bird watching
- Picnic and bush braii
- Cultural tourism
- Museum visits
- Historical and National Monuments
- Botanical Garden
- Arts and Crafts
- Water Park