For All Nails #214: Notwani Road

by Jonathan Edelstein

Gaborone, Kingdom of Botswana
23 July 1976

The first time Queen Alexandra had gone to Gaborone, she'd been a seven-year-old girl accompanying her father on a business trip. In those days, Botswana was still the Protectorate of Bokwanaland - protected, so the British said, from the Goldies and the Portuguese. Gaborone had been a town -- a village, really -- of no more than five thousand; there were a few brick buildings where the British had their offices, and the rest was dirt roads and huts.

Now, Gaborone had a hundred thousand people, half of whom had arrived within the past ten years. The outskirts of the city always seemed to look half-finished, with industrial zones and apartment buildings under construction all around the municipal greenbelt. Alexandra didn't care for the Gaborone newtowns -- they were block upon block of dreary sameness, and she could only imagine how they seemed to people who grew up in the limitless Kalahari -- but they weren't the shantytowns they would have been in other African cities. Almost alone among African nations, Botswana had the wealth and expertise to build its cities properly.

The person primarily responsible for that was sitting next to Alexandra now. Prime Minister Seretse Nkate had met her at the airport and driven her into town himself; as always, he had no driver. He claimed, as he had for as long as Alexandra had known him, that he drove in order to focus his mind, but she suspected the real reason was that servants embarrassed him.

Nkate was no more born to power than Alexandra herself; he had grown up with the herds and come of age as a miner. He had gone to the evening classes the mining company offered and attended political meetings; he'd become a member of Parliament, leader of the opposition and, for the past sixteen years, Prime Minister. There were still echoes of miners' slang in his speech, and he'd long since stopped trying to conceal them. That wasn't a bad thing -- it helped him win elections -- and it may have been one of the reasons for their mutual affinity.

Alexandra and Nkate had been friends since her election to the throne, and over the past five years they'd become rather more. He'd been an invaluable adviser to her in the days when she'd had to learn practical politics on the job -- and, even more, he'd been a shoulder to cry on. From this relationship of necessity had come the discovery of the many other things they had in common, including attraction to one another. And from that had come Alexandra's gratitude for Nkate's minor eccentricities; his aversion to personal servants meant that there was nothing unusual about their being alone together. She had a theory about how her strict Dutch Reformed constituents would view an out-of-wedlock liaison with a foreign head of government, but she didn't care to put it to the test.

The two of them passed most of the drive into Gaborone in silence; they had reached the stage of their relationship where they could communicate without speaking. They drove through the newtowns and the greenbelt, past the middle-class homes of Naledi and into the center city, a place of office buildings and cosmopolitan retail shops. He parked the car in Tlokweng Road, a main street near the government district and the location of their favorite restaurant.

The Mopane was another of the ways Botswana was different. In most African countries, whether settler states or post-colonial, African food was considered fit only for peasants, and the fine restaurants were without exception European. Botswana, though, had something the other countries did not -- self-confidence and pride. And, in Mothudi Tsholofelo, it had a chef who realized that most fine cuisines were really tarted-up peasant food, and that local ingredients were more than capable of being refined for discriminating palates.

The centerpiece of the dinner was a wooden bowl filled with a cleverly seasoned stew of pumpkin, onions and antelope meat. Next to this was a plate of mielie cakes - a traditional recipe, but one that Tsholofelo made on the griddle rather than deep- frying. They came out light and airy, with a touch of scallion; a perfect accompaniment to the stew. A plate of fresh fruit sat on the other side of the bowl, along with pitchers of redbush tea and local beer to wash it all down.

"Ke itumetse," Alexandra said -- "thank you." She saw Nkate's smile of approval; he had made a project of teaching her Setswana, and she had become fluent enough to use it in everyday conversation. He saluted her with a fried mopane caterpillar in groundnut sauce; they were a delicacy in Botswana, but one she had not yet summoned up the courage to try.

Dinner conversation was light, centered on tomorrow's signing ceremony. It had taken two years and half a dozen revisions, but she'd finally pushed the customs union treaty through the Volksraad; some of the joint authorities and trade courts would take time to implement, but the agreement would enter into force tomorrow. This was an area where she and Nkate saw eye to eye; neither country was tied into one of the big imperial trade networks, so the only real way to grow was to increase their domestic markets. Botswana would benefit first -- with the Cape border erased, it would have duty-free access to the sea -- but the wealthy Tswana would be an important market for Cape goods, and would begin to take up the slack in the Cape industries' overproduction.

The only problem was that Botswana was so small -- its people were well-off by African standards, but there were less than eight hundred thousand of them. Hereroland and Ovamboland had expressed an interest in joining the union, and Alexandra would do her utmost to bring them in, but they were also small, and they were very poor. The Goldies -- they were richer, certainly, but did the Cape want to have a white-ruled police state like Esperança as a partner or to become a party to Alberta's civil war? No, Natal was the prize - Transkei and East Griqualand and Sotholand, too, but especially Natal. Natal was rich, it had five million people, and it had United Empire trade privileges. Natal was the key, but it was also a historical rival of the Cape, and Alexandra and Nkate wondered what incentives might make membership worth its while.

After dinner, they returned to Nkate's car. Alexandra expected to be taken to the royal palace, where an apartment had been prepared for her visit, but instead the car headed out of the center city and up the Notwani Road. Nkate pulled in at a modest house near the greenbelt and opened the car door for her to exit; she realized, before he said anything, that the house was his.

In Cape Town, before she had become Queen, Alexandra had known bachelors' apartments, and she could tell at once that Nkate's house was another of the species. Not even a maid, she realized -- she was surer than ever that her suspicion about his dislike of servants was a correct one. He cleared a chair of scattered papers and motioned her into it, disappeared into the kitchen and returned a moment later with another cup of bush tea.

She inhaled the smell of the tea and took a sip, and they sat for a moment in companionable silence. "Alexandra," he said finally, "I'd like you to listen to me."

"Of course."

"Alexandra, I'm fifty-eight years old, and I'm not getting any younger. I've been meaning to have this conversation for some time, but I've always found some excuse -- after the negotiations, after the hearings on the treaty, after the vote in Parliament. It's always been a bad time; there's always been something that I didn't want to complicate with personal matters. But I've realized that there will always be complications, and I'm at the age where I don't have time to wait."

Oh my...

"Alexandra, I'm a lonely man - you know that - and you also know that I love you dearly. Will you marry me?"

Alexandra sat in silence for a moment and suddenly burst out laughing. She saw the hurt look on Nkate's face, and rose quickly from her chair to take him in her arms.

"Oh, no, I'm not laughing at you," she said, kissing him on the forehead. "Of course I'll marry you. But we'll have to tell everyone now..."

(Forward to FAN #215: Sins of the Father.)

(Forward to 24 July 1976: Kaffeeklatsch.)

(Forward to Queen Alexandra: Joining Up is Hard to Do.)

(Return to For All Nails.)

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