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An unusual friendship:Botswana

Published:Sunday | May 20, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Egerton Chang, Contributor

She was from Botswana. I met her in 1984 at a housing symposium held at George Washington University in Washington, DC, administered and sponsored by USAID. I was then the director of mortgage operations at the National Housing Trust. It was a four-week convention involving almost 55 participants from more than 25 countries. Countries like Portugal, Kenya, Jamaica, Zim-babwe, Nepal, Burundi, Tunisia, Mauritius, among others.

There were two representatives from Jamaica - myself and Owen Smith, who was the top man at Jamaica Mortgage Bank. Likewise, there were two from Botswana, Lucky Ghanie and the subject of this coloumn. She was attractive enough to be a representative from Botswana to Miss World or Miss Universe. (Later, Mpule Kwelagobe, who was the first delegate ever from Botswana to participate in Miss Universe, walked away with that crown in 1999.)

She was Tshenolo Orapeleng, and somehow our 'spirit took each other'. We developed a friendship. Tshenolo was educated at a university in Botswana (I think), spoke fluent English and was open to interacting with other people of the world. Much to the chagrin of her fellow Africans, we took to liking. They would write her notes of how they felt about her and she would share the notes with me for a chuckle or two.

getting to know each other

Likewise, we shared her feelings in a number of other situations. Remember, apartheid was still practised in South Africa, and Zimbabwe had just become independent in 1980 (after 15 years of white minority rule). She spoke about apartheid with a certain amount of venom in her voice. As a 'front-lying nation', she said her mother had worked in South Africa and had to undergo apartheid-type treatment. She said no one who hadn't experienced apartheid first-hand could appreciate the degradation it caused.

The representative of the newly independent Zimbabwe was white, and the Africans, including Tshenolo, felt that "they should have sent a black person, even if he was the janitor".

Formerly the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, Botswana adopted its new name after becoming independent within the Commonwealth on September 30, 1966. It has held free and fair democratic elections since independence.

A mid-sized country of just over two million people, Botswana is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Botswana was one of the poorest countries in Africa when it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, with a GDP per capita of about US$70. Botswana has since transformed itself, becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in the world to a GDP (purchasing power parity) per capita of about US$14,000.

By one estimate, it has the fourth-highest gross national income at purchasing power parity in Africa, giving it a standard of living around that of Mexico and Turkey.

At that time, there were more head of cattle, which were quite prized, than people (slightly more than one million). Botswana was somewhere between underdeveloped and developing. Diamonds were just being commercially mined, and even then one could feel that Botswana, which is landlocked, would soon become a First World country.

Tshenolo taught me that pula was the currency of Botswana, and it also meant rain, which was quite scarce (most of the country being covered by the Kalahari Desert), and was also a form of greeting, literally meaning 'blessing'.

She spoke about the food they ate, including a kind of caterpillar. Gonimbrasia belina is a species of moth found in much of southern Africa, whose large, edible caterpillar, the mopani or mopane worm, is an important source of protein for millions of indigenous southern Africans. Tshenolo also spoke of Gabarone, Botswana's newly created capital.

We got as close as friends as one could get in four weeks without going any further - this strange couple, a 'chineyman' from Jamaica and this lady from Botswana. One Sunday, Tshenolo, Lucky and I spent the afternoon walking around some of the sights of DC, including the reflecting pool and the mall. We had a great time taking lots of photos. One night, we even went to a club named Kilimanjaro.

bride's value

She told me of the custom in Botswana of the groom being required to pay a type of bride price for a young woman's hand in marriage. The agreed bride price is generally intended to reflect the perceived value of the young woman. This was usually in the form of cattle. I jokingly asked her how much I would have to pay for her. She exclaimed, "I am not cheap, you know. You would have to pay 23 head of cattle."

We kept in touch for about a year thereafter and then lost contact. But not before Tshenolo wrote me "one day you will look at a map and see where Botswana is and where Jamaica is and realise that it wasn't meant to be". Gabarone is 7,448 miles from Kingston.

I have often thought about that period and wondered what became of Tshenolo. Then around four years ago, I decided to try the Internet to locate her. I couldn't.

This effort continued over a year on and off, still I couldn't.

Then I remembered she had said she was engaged to a Modise. Voila! There she was. Her Excellency. Mme Claurinah Tshenolo MODISE, Botswana ambassador to Belgium, to the European Union, to Germany, to France, to Italy, to Luxembourg, to Netherlands, etc. WOW!

I linked her via email and we exchanged photos of herself and her family, and of mine. She had even visited Barbados for a jazz festival. We still exchange the occasional email.

Egerton Chang is a businessman. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and e_rider69@hotmail.com.