When you sit on a bench at Main Mall, Gaborone, you will see many things: two girls in matching tops holding hands, their faces turned to each other to trade girlish whispers; a woman bowing down to hand her grandchild a juice-box, his face glistening under six layers of Vaseline; a stall occupied by an unoccupied woman, her wares hanging on the wires beneath her shade.
If you are sitting by the embassies, you may also see a stream of hopeful young people going in and out of the British High Commision, folders filled with letters and forms and printouts clutched to their chests like life-jackets.
You will see a Chinese couple walk past, closely followed by two bored-looking girls carrying a giant bag of counterfeit Victoria’s Secret garments to be sold at the family shop. A group of younger people walk past too, at the center of which is a girl with thick box-braids and a vintage shirt she got from a second-hand stall in BBS. She’ll speak extra loud and look above everybody’s gaze, her chubby gay friend echoing all her frustrations about “Chomees who don’t roll.”
And if it’s near-noon, the clink-clink of women carrying catering trays will rise up from the alleys and descend upon your bench like the chaotic tinkling of an orchestra tuning up before a big performance. A woman in a white hairnet might set up a stall behind you and the smells you’ve known your whole life: fried chicken, stewed beef, boiled beetroot, will hit you like it’s the first time. Your mouth will water at the thought of the P20 plate of bogobe you’ve eaten everyday since you were a child.
If you stay on your bench now, you will see the women in heels and black pants march to the food-stalls, name-tags dangling from their necks with the logos of Barclays and Standard Bank and De Beers and Samsung, their faces fixed in a don’t-hit-on-me scowl that melts at the sight of the mma-seapei (mother-cook) peeling cling wrap from bowls of cabbage salad and buttery pumpkin.
The laughter will begin soon. A combi conductor half-hanging out of a Chinese minivan might yell something ambitious to a woman rushing to the combi behind him and the sound of it will float to your ears, echoed between the big old buildings that line the inner-street of Main Mall.
“Batho ba ba stoutu,” a woman wearing a First National Bank name-tag might say to a stranger behind her in the food-stall line, and you will all laugh. If you’re feeling normal, you might add an affirmation, that indeed these combi men are naughty. A University of Botswana girl might take a seat beside you and tell you all – the people in the line, the mma-seapei, anybody who can hear, really – about the craziest thing a combi-driver ever shouted at her to profess his love.
Between your laughter and the clink-clank of the catering trays and the click-clack of heels on the cement-paved ground and the beep-beep of minivans rushing to the bus-stop and the hee-wena! of grandmothers calling after little boys and the hlwee-hlwee of people biting into too-hot chicken and the ijo-mma! of girls in matching tops gossiping and the ting-ting of clothes hanging off wires bouncing into each other and the ching-chong of Chinese couples arguing in the street and the he-wee! of young people who just got their visas and eisshhh of the combi-conductors who just saw a beautiful woman and the hey! of security guards play-fighting on the side-walk and the ao-mma! of people asking for a little more meat from the mma-seapei, the Main Mall will echo all these sounds between itself and into itself until they become one big hot noise that hums itself into your very bones, so that when the silence of one-o’clock comes, you can still feel the music in your heart, and you will know that you may have seen a lot of things while sitting on a bench in Main Mall, Gaborone, but it is what you heard and felt that will stay with you forever.
Siyanda Mohutsiwa (@) is a writer and satirist from Botswana. When her ‘#IfAfricaWasABar’ hashtag went viral, she triggered a lighthearted but electrifying discussion of some serious African issues. You can read more of her work at siyandawrites.com and watch her TED talk here.
Related country: Botswana