12 surprising things I learned while in Botswana

Let me introduce you to my new favorite place to travel

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For the past couple of years, I’ve had the word “Botswana” scribbled on a note above my desk, a place that I’ve been longing to visit for as long as I can remember.

Ever since I was a little girl, I would rip out pages from my parent’s National Geographics depicting lions on the hunt or Jane Goodall with the chimps, my curiosity piqued; even then, I had the desire to travel to these places and experience their wonders for myself. A few years ago, I visited South Africa for the first time, and I was hooked.

I have been counting down until I could return to Africa.

My curiosity was and is immense for Africa, and was fizzing with excitement to return, this time traveling to Botswana with De Beers Group. Yes, those De Beers. The diamond ones.

botswana travel

botswana travel

While going on safari in the Okavango Delta in Botswana had been a dream of mine since I was little, deep down, I knew there was much more to learn about this unique part of Africa. I’ve been itching to dig deeper on my travels, and share stories and cover beyond the expected.

We all know that Africa is so much more than lions and gazelle. A complex and profound part of the world, I was eager to explore it through an entirely new lens – community, people, economics.

Almost as soon as I stepped off the plane in Gaborone, I realized that nearly all of my preconceptions about Botswana were off-base. But that’s why we travel, and I never forget that.

botswana travel

botswana travel

Botswana is special. Really special. And its uniqueness comes directly from something you might not expect – diamonds.

The cradle of humankind, the ancestral home of humanity, is right here in Botswana, and it is the people here who have made all the difference. Kind and welcoming, they have moved me tremendously. As I listened to their stories of how many opportunities they’ve had (thanks, in part, to De Beers Group and its partnership with the government of Botswana), I could feel the sand shifting beneath my feet of everything I thought I knew.

Botswana taught me so many things, and now it’ll sit firmly in my psyche as a place of exceptional education for me. Here are some of the most surprising things I learned while exploring Botswana – enjoy!

botswana travel

botswana travel

1.  Botswana is one of the world’s biggest producers of diamonds

While diamonds have been discovered all over the world, from South Africa to Russia, Botswana is undoubtedly at the heart of the diamond world. In fact, Botswana is one of the world’s largest producer of diamonds by value, contributing around 20% of the total world production of diamonds.

Botswana also contributes 60-70% of De Beers Group’s total diamonds, and diamonds count for nearly half of the government’s value.

Did you know that diamond revenues enable every child in Botswana to receive free education up to the age of 13?

botswana travel

botswana travel

2. The Okavango Delta is the largest inland delta in the world.

The Okavango Delta has topped the bucket lists of most travelers enamored with wildlife who dream of safaris in Africa.

Perched at the geographical heart of southern Africa, Botswana’s Okavango Delta is the closest thing to Eden left on the planet.

As crystal clear waters trickle down thousands of kilometers from wet highlands of Angola, they disperse almost finger-like out into the hot sands of the famous Kalahari desert. Here, classic Africa wildlife thrives in the largest wetland in the world.

Though right now the Delta is sitting in a drought, which is why it looks so dry.

botswana travel

botswana travel

3. The growing economy of Botswana is powerful

Fifty years ago, Botswana was one of the poorest places on the planet.

With only a couple of kilometers of paved roads, three secondary schools nationwide, and only one doctor for every 48,000 people, you don’t need me to tell you that the future seemed tough, and the outlook for many was bleak.

Then in 1967, a year after gaining independence, the first diamonds were discovered in Botswana, and everything changed. Instead of descending into chaos like you might have imagined (me), Botswana flourished.

De Beers Group partnered with the people of Botswana, setting up a 50/50 partnership called Debswana to mine diamonds. Not only that, but 15% of the whole company is now owned by the government of Botswana too – wow! So for the past 50 years, billions of dollars have been invested back into the economy here.

81 cents of every dollar from the partnership with De Beers Group in Botswana goes straight back to the country’s economy. In effect, the people of Botswana own part of De Beers Group. Let that sink in for a second.

Now, Botswana is considered to be an upper-middle-income country with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its GDP has grown 500 times since 1960, and Botswana is in the top 5 countries with the highest increasing GDPs per capita. 

botswana travel

botswana travel

4. Botswana’s currency means rain

When 84% of a country is covered in a sandy desert, there is one word that reigns above the rest – rain or pula.

Pula is so significant to the people of Botswana that it also is the currency. After all, what is more critical here than rain?

Pula is also used as a greeting that means welcome, farewell, blessings, and cheers, among other uses. 

botswana travel

botswana travel

5. Botswana is home to the world’s largest African elephant population

Honestly, is there anything better than watching elephants in the wild? Especially babies?

Nope, didn’t think so.

botswana travel

botswana travel

6. It’s not a cheap tourist destination

Botswana is by far the most expensive country to go on safari in Africa.

Botswana is not the cheapest tourist destination to travel to. However, their policy is “High quality, low impact,” reducing visitor numbers by bringing in those willing to shell out for it. Appealing to those who want to enjoy a wildlife safari without the tourist crowds that are so common in many other national parks, Botswana is worth every dollar.

Conservation is vital in Botswana, and it’s been a global leader in a national commitment to protecting wild spaces. Approximately 38% of Botswana’s territory is protected as national parks, sanctuaries, reserves, and wildlife management areas.

Botswana has one of the highest conservation land ratios in Africa, with more than 25% of the land area set aside for parks and reserves to conserve the national heritage.

botswana travel

botswana travel

7. Botswana is the least corrupt country in Africa

Botswana is the least corrupt country in Africa, according to the findings of the annual Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. Ranking 34 out of 180 countries, Botswana has consistently ranked high in terms of least corruption, outpacing even countries in Europe.

botswana travel

botswana travel

8. The value of diamonds in Botswana is both ethical and priceless

Diamonds represent up to a third of Botswana’s GDP and are an inevitable fact of life here. Botswana is peaceful, and all diamonds mined here are conflict-free.

Around 13,000 people in Botswana are employed directly through the partnership between De Beers Group and the Government of Botswana. With tens of thousands more supported through the supply chain of diamonds, and through the spending on employees and suppliers within the economy. In fact, around one in every 20 jobs in Botswana stem back to De Beers Group’s partnership with the government.

Even the first lady of Botswana was once an employee of Debswana, De Beers Group’s mining partnership with the government.

botswana travel

botswana travel

9. Zebras are Botswana’s national animal

Zebras were chosen as the national animal of Botswana for the most beautiful reasons. Seemingly harmless and lovable, they’re popular with the people of Botswana and are full of symbols for this unique country.

Zebras, with their iconic black and white stripes, signify the racial harmony in Botswana. These stripes join on the face of the zebra to form a diamond shape – remarkable given the role diamonds have played in Botswana’s development.

When Botswana became independent in 1966, the black and white stripes on the new flag were primarily influenced by the zebra, and the stripes were meant to represent the harmony between people of different races and ethnicities in Botswana.

botswana travel

botswana travel

10. Though maybe termites should be the national animal

Back in the ‘60s and ’70s, scientists discovered minerals from kimberlite, a type of rock that hosts diamonds, on the surface of the Kalahari Desert. But how did diamond minerals that dwell 40 meters below the surface of the earth come to see the light of day?

Termites dug them up while looking for water, building large mounds they call home. Termites led to the discovery of the Jwaneng mine – considered to be the richest diamond mine in the world.

Team Termite!

botswana travel

botswana travel

11. There’s no room for tribalism in Botswana

As I was flying from Botswana, editing photos, and listening to podcasts, This American Life started to share the most exciting story about Botswana’s progressive democracy. To combat tribalism, Botswana requires all civil servants to move to a different tribal area from their own for a few years. Holy crap! I’ve never heard anything like this.

While I’m far from educated enough to A. have an opinion on this and B. fully understand the nuances of something so complicated as tribalism in Africa, here’s the gist of what I’ve learned.

Post-colonial Africa is complicated, and a standard narrative is that after independence, ethnic violence ensues. When Botswana became independent 50 years ago, they were afraid that tribalism would rip the new nation apart so they did everything they could to create a feeling of one country and to avoid the patriotism of tribes, even forcing civil servants and teachers to live outside of their “tribal” areas.

botswana travel

botswana travel

12. Botswana is home to some of the kindest people

While in Botswana, I was always impressed by the kindness and friendliness of locals.

I saw and heard firsthand so many compelling stories from the people that live there. I learned so much about how diamonds have changed lives here. I could really see how De Beers Group has spent decades working on building a long-term positive legacy and creating a future for the people of Botswana.

The story of Botswana is fascinating, and the people are amazing. Now, when can I come back?

Did you know any of this about Botswana? What did you know about diamonds before? Are you Team Termite too? Spill!

botswana travel

botswana travel

Many thanks to De Beers Group for hosting me in Botswana, like always I’m keeping it real. All opinions are my own like you could expect less from me!

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23 Comments on “12 surprising things I learned while in Botswana

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  1. I’m another long-time reader very disappointed to see this. De Beers might have some nice CSR projects going on now, but it’s a company with a long bloody history in Botswana and elsewhere. Human rights organizations have reported over and over on the issues at De Beers and in the diamond industry as a whole – it’s not “misinformation.”

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, but I’ve done a lot of independent research around it, and it’s definitely not true. there’s a lot of misinformation around diamonds today, and a lot of the previous issues from the last century have been resolved with systems put in place (led by de beers) to not only set the highest of ethical standards in diamonds but beyond. They also work with the united nations on their projects, so I am not sure what human rights issues you’re referencing. In fact, I would guess you’d be hard pressed to find a company who runs on such high standards and works so hard to give back – if you’re interested I can send you some good reading on this!

      1. Please do send me what you found, I’d be very curious to read it.

        I used to work in research a related field, and there is a huge body of academic research and human rights advocacy on the problems with De Beers and diamond mining in general, including failures on the part of the UN and the Kimberley Process. Here are just a few examples:

  2. I visited Botswana two years ago and I agree, it’s such an amazing country! The people are so incredibly kind and welcoming. I learned so much on that trip, but your article reminded me how much I still don’t know. Hopefully, I’ll get to go back one day!

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