Botswana arose from the former British protectorate of Bechuanaland in 1965, an impoverished republic whose focus was on improving the lives of its people. The timing was fortuitous; within just a few years, the discovery of diamonds was to give a massive boost to the new country’s faltering economy. With stability thus assured, the government looked to its other major resource, the environment, introducing a ‘high-revenue, low-volume’ tourism policy that has resulted in considerable protection of the country’s wilderness areas. Together, Botswana’s national parks and huge private game reserves protect about 40% of the country’s total area.
Much of this wilderness is concentrated in Botswana’s northern safari areas, where people are heavily outnumbered by wildlife; the majority of the country’s population of two million or so live in the south-east of the country. While Botswana is a relatively new nation, its people date back some 60,000 years to the hunter gatherers of the Kalahari. Today, their ancestors, the San (or Bushmen), are marginalised within Botswanan society, which is dominated by the Bantu-speaking Batswana; indeed, ‘Batswana’ is also the term denoting a citizen of Botswana. Although the country’s official languages are English and the Bantu language of Setswana, these are just two among some 26 languages spoken here.
This diversity is also true of the environment. A land-locked country just a little larger than France, Botswana consists mainly of a gently undulating sandsheet punctuated by the occasional isolated outcrop of rock. In the north, two major features stand out: enormous saltpans, and the huge inland delta of the Okavango River. The climate follows a similar pattern to that of most of southern Africa: a ‘rainy season’ between November and April, typically followed by days of cloudless blue skies when daytime temperatures gradually rise to a sticky peak in October, but can fall below below zero at night between June and August.