Gaborone, Botswana Report of what it's like to live there - 07/27/13
Personal Experiences from Gaborone, Botswana
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Not a first expat experience.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington, D.C. to Atlanta then a 16-hour direct flight on Delta to Johannesburg, then a 1 hour (or 30 min., depending on the size of the jet) flight to Gaborone.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
All U.S. Embassy housing, even for singles, is in single-family homes spread throughout the city. The houses themselves are all very nice, large, typically with large yards and swimming pool, and are equipped with diesel generators for the frequent (nearly daily, thanks to a power crisis) blackouts, and water storage and filtration/UV treatment systems for the non-potable water (the country is also in the middle of a drought/water crisis). Gaborone and its roads were not planned with the recent growth in population in mind (currently 200,000 people in the city), and as a result, cannot support the ever-increasing volume of traffic. Thus, even homes that are located a short distance (2 mi. or less) from the Embassy suffer from HORRIBLE commute times (30+ min.) during "rush hour."
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are surprisingly varied and readily available, but expensive. Everything is imported through South Africa from there, Europe, South America, or elsewhere in the world, so all manner of fresh produce and fine cheeses from England, France, Italy, etc. are available. Several American products are available as well -- even Dr. Pepper imported from Texas at one grocery store! You can find most everything you'd need, again, all at a price. One generally has to go to two or three stores to get everything you need/want. There is a store called Game that was recently acquired by Wal-Mart and has many of those types of household products.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing. Order what you need/want online and have it shipped -- slowly -- through the pouch.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Very limited. There is no McDonald's in Botswana, if that says anything. The only American chain, and only restaurant with a drive-through, is the KFC. There are a few burger places, Wimpy's, for example, but all are located in malls. It is hard to find a quick meal anywhere. There are a few good Portuguese, Chinese and Indian sit-down restaurants. There are also a few new restaurants that have opened in new malls/hotels. Food is expensive here, around US$25 a plate at a sit-down place. Local fare is bland (grits, beef, goat, chicken, squash). Not a country known for its cuisine, e.g. cooked caterpillars are popular when in season (Google image "mopane worms" at your own risk).
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Minor mosquitoes only in the summer. No need for malaria prophylaxis unless you are traveling to the tourist areas in the north of the country.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The Embassy has a pouch. We can only mail out packages the size of a VHS tape or smaller. We can receive packages, but it takes on average 3 weeks from the States. There have been many problems with the pouch, particularly in receiving the bags once they arrive in South Africa; the airlines flying from Johannesburg to Gaborone are small planes, and they de-prioritize sending the pouch mail on their flights. After more than two years of requests, the Government of Botswana has approved a DPO for post, but plans for establishing it remain forthcoming. Local mail is available, but I have never used it and would not be confident of it.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Limited availability of reliable, competent domestic help; extremely low cost (around US$1-2 an hour). Nannies are very hard to find. Cooks are next to impossible, not a culture that cooks much beyond staples. Best to try to hire domestic help from a departing employee, with their recommendation.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
A few. The Embassy has a modest gym facility a mile or so from the chancery building.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Fine to use them.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, there are Christian churches, including Catholic and Mormon. There is no Jewish synagogue. There are several Muslim mosques and Hindu temples.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
The local newspapers are in English; one has a section in Setswana. DSTV cable is available and is expensive.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
None. English is used everywhere, however, many people from the villages (employed in Gaborone as domestic workers; waiters; cashiers) do not understand or speak it well. Setswana is the local language.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Many difficulties throughout the city. The chancery building itself is 3 floors with no elevator.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
No. There are no passenger trains or city buses, only combis (public vans) and taxis. We are restricted from riding in combis because of rampant tuberculosis. The way people drive here, it would also be very unwise to ride in one.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
For in town, any type of vehicle is fine. The roads in town are mostly well-maintained. If you plan to drive into the bush, you'd want an SUV. Driving is on the left here, but left or right-hand-drive vehicles are acceptable. There is no restriction on imports. Many expats purchase cars from Japan and have them shipped here. Thanks to diamond revenue (and easily obtained loans), locals drive all manner of luxury cars. It is completely normal to pull up by one (or several) late-model Mercedes, BMW, Range Rover, Audi, Jaguar, etc. etc. ... at a stoplight.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet access is available from the government-subsidized phone/internet company, but it is expensive (US$100 per month) and is not high-speed. They offer either a bronze, silver, or gold package, but there is virtually no difference between them because they do not dedicate one line to each customer, you share a line with unknown others. If the others are using it at the same time as you, it is very slow or connectivity is lost. This is glaringly apparent at the U.S. Embassy. When the speed is good, however, you can Skype or even watch Netflix (with a proxy server).
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The Embassy provides them to direct-hire personnel. Orange and Mascom are available if buying your own. It is expensive. I think only Orange supports iPhones. I don't know anyone with one. I don't think even unlocked iPhones from the States work here.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
No, but it is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to bring dogs into the country; they must transit South Africa, which has stiff regulations for dog imports, including a blood test that only 2 laboratories in the U.S. perform, to the tune of US$500. The blood must be drawn, tested, results mailed, and the animal shipped all within 30 calendar days, which proves nearly impossible with the airlines not always guaranteeing a spot on the flight you select for the animal (best to ship separate from PCS because of these stressful logistics). The air shipping is expensive. A pet expeditor must be used at least on the South African side, and typically a road transfer from there to Botswana, all at high cost. Cats are easy to import.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There are several veterinarians, care is fine. Kenneling options are available, but Embassy-affiliated pet sitters always seem to be available.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
A few, but becoming increasingly difficult as the government of Botswana seems to be limiting the availability of work permits and licenses.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
The Batswana (people of Botswana) tend to lean toward a more formal look. Suits, dress clothes at work. Some people dress more casually, but Batswana are generally modest in how they dress.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There are instances of home invasions, smash and grabs, muggings, and thefts, even in the embassy community. Crime seems to be increasing. Embassy housing (all houses, there are no apartments) are surrounded by 8-ft. walls topped with electric fence; every window and door has iron grilles, and every home has a safe haven. It is imperative to use them, and use the motion-detecting alarm at night and when leaving the house. It is not advised to go walking or running by oneself. The common sentiment in regard to security is "Well, it's not as bad as Johannesburg ..."
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
As mentioned, this is the country with the second-highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world. The drinking water was recently declared non-potable. The U.S. Embassy is installing high-tech filtration systems in all personnel homes and in the office facilities. Malaria prophylaxis is not necessary unless traveling to the northern areas of the country, including the Okavango Delta, which are malarial zones. Dental care is good. Medical care is marginal; medevac flights to nearby Johannesburg, even just for a consultative appointment, are common. The only Embassy-recommended OB-GYNs, a German couple, recently left the country because of difficulties as mentioned above with permits. Pediatric care is OK. The Embassy Regional Medical Officer visits quarterly from Harare. A local, U.S.-trained physician was recently hired to work some hours out of the Embassy Health Unit, which has improved the services available there.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Fine. It is a little dusty. It's a small city but there is still a lot of vehicle exhaust. The Marines say they can feel it when they go for runs.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The climate is wonderful, constant sunshine. "Dry heat" in the summers, which are comfortable, with sunshiney dry daytime highs in the 80s-90s, nighttime lows in the 40s. There are four seasons, and the winters are cold at night, hovering just above freezing, with winter daytime highs in the 70s, again with pure sunshine. It rarely rains during the winter, only during the summer.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are two main international schools that children of U.S. Embassy personnel attend. The common complaint is that the academic programs are lacking and not rigorous enough for many children, and that as a result students are behind their counterparts in U.S. public schools. That said, some students graduate from the IB program, so they do have that program here.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Nannies are VERY inexpensive (around US$1-2 an hour), so people with preschool aged children typically have one, making daycare facilities unnecessary. There are several options for preschools, the two most popular among expats and U.S. Embassy families being Humpty Dumpty and Dipeo.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, in the primary and secondary schools. I have not heard of any for preschool-aged children. The one dance school starts children at age four.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Large but shrinking; word is the government of Botswana is making it more difficult for expats to renew or receive permits and licenses to work here.
2. Morale among expats:
Fair. Those who absolutely love Africa, the bush, and safaris (and have the paycheck and time off to enjoy it) love it here. Those who love big-city life, dining out, and cultural opportunities (art, museums, music), don't. Morale at the Embassy is not high.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Most social activities center around entertaining at home with brunches, braais (bbq), dinners, etc. A new 3-D movie theater recently opened that is very nice. There are farmers markets, small musical performances, and the like now and then. It is a pretty limited town as far as the availability and frequency of entertainment events.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's fine for everyone. The majority of activities in Gaborone are geared toward families. Everyone, particularly singles, can get bored with the lack of options of things to do. Many take trips (5+ hr. drive) to Johannesburg/Pretoria on the weekend. There are abundant safari lodges just across the border (45 min.+ away) in South Africa's Madikwe game reserve, and in northern Botswana (12+ hr. drive or a few hrs. flight) but all are very expensive. It must be mentioned that this is the country with the second-highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world, currently at 25% of the adult population infected; something to consider if dating.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It's fine. Homosexuality is illegal here, but there are public and vocal gay rights groups. Gay locals and expats alike do not seem to encounter any real prejudices or problems.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is no problem for people of any color or combination thereof. The current president is the son of the first president of the country, who was a black man married to a white Englishwoman. Many religions are represented here. There are, however, issues with gender-based violence in the culture here, but expats generally would not be personally exposed to this. There also seems to be general anti-American sentiment. The Batswana (people of Botswana) identify much more favorably with the British.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
As mentioned, there are insanely expensive safari options. Even with "resident rates" one can expect to pay US$600 or more -- even up to and surpassing $5,000 -- PER PERSON per night ... for a tent, some scones and stew, and hours of driving around in a truck to see animals. Knowing how low the minimum wage is (around US$1 per hour), it's very hard to justify the exorbitant expense. Of course, if you are really into the safari experience, as some are, it is worth it. Regional airfare is very expensive, around US$500 for a flight to nearby (16+ hr. drive) Cape Town, South Africa. Folks make the 5+ hr. drive to Jo'burg because the flight costs on average US$300 roundtrip. There's not much to do in Gaborone and less (apart from safaris) in the villages and vast open space outside it. Think very hard about your interests, what you can afford and how much time you might have to take off to enjoy it.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Handwoven baskets? "Nice" ones are very expensive (hundreds of US$), but are indistinguishable from cheaper versions. Local handicrafts sold at booths are usually from West and Central Africa or South Africa, not Botswana. This is not a very handicraft-oriented society.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The weather is great. There is world-class, EXTREMELY expensive, safari tourism in the north of the country, the Okavango Delta.
11. Can you save money?
If you don't go on safari. But if you don't get out of town now and then, you will be bored to tears.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Going-out clothes; sense of urgency; expectation that this will be an "easy" post or place to live; belief that this is "Africa lite".
3. But don't forget your:
Patience, and lots of it; DVD box sets for something to do; willingness to work long hours.
4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Again, No. 1 Ladies', the HBO series based on the books, is a fun show, but not based on reality.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
None. No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Alexander McCall Smith) makes for entertaining fiction, but is just that -- fiction -- not based on any real experience to be found in Botswana. Do not mention this series to locals, they resent it.
6. Do you have any other comments?
This is a post where you really need to be able to make your own fun, or you will be bored and disappointed. For a country so dependent on luxury safari tourism, the general lack of customer service -- at a cultural level -- is surprising. The locals are generally not warm, welcoming, friendly people. The ones who are just see dollar signs across your forehead (see luxury safari tourism). Too often the "this is Africa" excuse is used when things don't work as they should, or are difficult to accomplish, or are not as expected, including within the Embassy. Outside the mission, it is constantly difficult to work with the locals, who seem to hold the USG in very low regard. Overall this has been a surprisingly difficult post.