When Norman Rush went to Botswana in 1978 he arrived in a country largely uncolonized by the writing imagination. As the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the country existed in the yellowed journals of missionaries, their pages crisped by the dry heat. Post-independence, it had one novelist, Bessie Head, a refugee from South Africa. She was a woman of mixed race and volcanic temperament, living uneasily in a large tribal village, and subject to periodic bouts of madness; in those days, hardly anyone read her. So when Rush arrived as codirector of a Peace Corps project, Botswana was a country waiting to be written into being: endless tracts of scorched blue air, a vast uninscribed wilderness of scrubland, the dazzling salt pans whiter than paper.
When independence came in 1966, it was granted to the scorpion and the snake, to thorn bushes and cattle posts, to the dry well and the quarantine fence; there were fewer than a million people. Among Europeans, the country was usually described as being the size of France and Belgium put together, which probably didn’t impress Americans much. Vastness and desert heat didn’t faze them, nor did the tropical night sky and the moon, massive and low, solid like a lump of wax; I recall an evening when I pointed to it, gibbering with awe, to be told by a puzzled Peace Corps volunteer, “We have that moon in Colorado.”
Landlocked, hedged in by territories at war or in some uneasy stage of half-revolt, Botswana functioned as a parliamentary democracy, though the president happened also to be the paramount chief. Seretse Khama had been exiled for six years by the British, but he forgave them. He had a white English wife, and this example from the top suggested to people that racial hostility, if it existed, should be kept under wraps. The country had diamonds but was short of water. Tourism was not yet developed. There were only short stretches of hardtop road; electricity was an urban luxury, and telephones worked sometimes. Crime was containable—housebreaking was frequent but usually petty, and even the shanty settlements growing up on the fringes of the small towns did not boast the nightly casualty figures of their equivalents over the South African border. Corruption was low-level, not because the Batswana were more pure in heart than other peoples, but because they lacked practice.
The people were hard to know, the language difficult. Little girls curtseyed when spoken to; their voices never rose above a whisper. Prostitution was a big career choice. Syphilis was a problem, tuberculosis was a problem, drought was a problem, and children still died of measles. No one had heard of AIDS. To paraphrase Tacitus, it was a wilderness; you could call it peace.
Botswana was also a one-joke country. Of what does a bushman family consist? Mother, father, and six anthropologists. So when Rush published his first Botswana stories, Whites, in 1986, it was natural that an anthropologist should be one of the characters and …