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THERE was much debate about hiring pot plants and a red carpet, and just who was going to cook the lunch, when the president of the Republic of Botswana, His Excellency Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama was slated to visit our exploration camp earlier this year.
In the middle of the bush, people in plummy cars began arriving to appraise our modest dining room as a luncheon venue, as we braced for an influx of Men in Black to assess security (we were fairly confident the dining room would be declared a no-fly zone, owing to an ultraviolet insect light we’d recently installed to deal with a serious fly situation).
The excitement was palpable. Our school board had on it words like: bodyguards, helicopter, military and excite + ment. For a week, everything anybody did seemed to have some bearing on the impending presidential visit. Even when Warwick replaced some of his torn field shirts, we joked that everyone would think he was getting a new shirt for the president.
One morning the boys rushed in, wanting to know why the roadside rocks were being painted white. Despite mulling a good question, we replied “for the president’s visit”.
We also had to field the pique of the camp chef, who couldn’t understand why he had not been asked to cook for the president. It took a while to persuade him that his rustic kitchen could never cope with the burgeoning guest list, said to include local chiefs and their entourages, mining executives, and assorted museum people.
For a week before the president arrived, workers swept up leaves in camp. It being the season of falling leaves, the task was infinite. After a week of raking, our camp looked like a Zen garden with its sandy striations and concentric circles of dry water. Still, with leaves bobbing on top. Sentiments were far from Zen, however.
Two flagpoles shot up feverishly at the gate, and a framed photograph of His Excellency arrived, to be forever installed in the dining room.
Two days before the event, a small detachment of soldiers arrived to check on security. Plied with tea and biscuits, the soldiers reciprocated with clipped small talk. The next day, however, the real security detachment arrived, not Men in Black as much as men in a big black car. Suffice it to say, they were people to whom wide berth is given.
As the penultimate day wore on, a large white tent materialised, teeming with catering paraphernalia and staff from an upmarket hotel in Francistown. Our dining room was repainted, inside and out, and where there had been metal camp tables (with the odd scorpion dropping down from the thatch), there were now large round tables, formally decorated. And rolled up at the door, was a 10-metre carpet. A red one.
In the midst of all this, the local police department disgorged into the camp, one of them twitching a swagger stick against his leg. Gabriel abruptly announced that he wasn’t excited about the president’s visit anymore. Boyish interest in how you greet the president, what do you call him and, was it good to ask how his family was had given way to apprehension. (It presented a good moment to discuss a value system that held all people to be equal, no matter what job they did.)
And then just when everybody’s stress levels were through the thatch, word came that the president was not coming to camp. He would keep his appointment but lunch at the camp was off the table, so to speak.
In spite of this news, the next day had a momentum of its own. Steaming food arrived from town, a military detachment secured the camp, and armed soldiers patrolled the perimeter fence.
Not wanting to miss a photographic opportunity, the boys and I went off to greet an officer with the customary handshake and “Dumela ra”, and to ask if the boys could take a photograph of the ceremonial flag-raising. Although the refusal was genial, the boys learnt the value of asking permission to take a photograph.
On the walk back, we were surprised at the sight of the red carpet being swept with a grass whisk. The president was coming, the caterer assured me. Yes, confirmed the military, His Excellency was indeed coming. However, the men in the big black car demurred , he was definitely not coming. Ah, we thought, decoy speak, and nodded knowingly.
Confused by our own logic, we scanned the sky for the choppy sound of a presidential helicopter, just in case (by now it was beginning to feel as if we were in a performance of Waiting for Godot). At the very least, I told the boys, he will fly over the camp just out of curiosity.
But he didn’t. And shortly after a helicopter veered westward over Mopane woodland, the big black car sped back into camp, its incumbents divesting themselves of their wires and earpieces in preparation for lunch, a very good lunch.
Much later, after the last plate had been scraped and stacked and camp was once again our own, the sky split open and doused us in 50 mms of rain in only 20 minutes. It was a good thing it hadn’t happened earlier, because it collapsed one of our tents.
The next day the national flag fluttered poetically from a camp washing line, and Thursday was finally over.
• Writer Tania Spencer and geologist Warwick Bullen, returned recently to Hilton from the Botswana bush near Francistown, where they were living for a year with their sons, Gabriel and Thomas.