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A Spellbinding Visit with One of the Elder Statesmen of Africa

A Spellbinding Visit with One of the Elder Statesmen of Africa April 12, 2015
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It was a spellbinding lesson in Botswana’s history. The story of a newly-independent nation and its development through a half-century, as told by a remarkable man who was not only an eyewitness to that history, but who had a central role in making it all happen.

The occasion was a visit by students in the ACM Botswana Program to meet and talk with Sir Ketumile Masire, the nation’s president from 1980 to 1997 and a guiding figure throughout the region of Southern Africa.

Sir Ketumile MasireSir Ketumile Masire talking with faculty and students from the ACM Botswana Program.

Photo courtesy of Kayla Choun

“What an amazing opportunity for the students to interact personally with one of the elder statesmen of Africa,” said Cornell College professor Todd Knoop, a participant in a faculty site visit to the program that week. “Everyone had such a great time; in fact, he would not really let us all leave when the vans came because he was having so much fun.”

“This was a great learning experience for the students, and one that they will remember for the rest of their lives,” said the program’s Visiting Faculty Director this semester, Luther College professor Richard Mtisi, who arranged the visit with help from his contacts in Botswana. “From talking with the students, this was a highlight of their experience here so far.”

Masire was a leading politician during the years leading up to Botswana’s independence in 1966 and served as the country’s first vice-president for 14 years before becoming president. Through his leadership, particularly in finance and development planning, he played a key role in making Botswana a model of economic development in Africa.

The conversation during the three-hour visit to Masire’s official residence in Gaborone, was lively and wide-ranging. “He spoke so eloquently about the early days of Botswana, about the need to balance the need of a young country to centralize power yet build inclusive political institutions, and about his desire to become the first president in Southern Africa to leave power peacefully,” said Knoop, who was visiting faculty director of the Botswana Program in spring 2009. “He had all of these stories about dealing with [Zimbabwe President] Mugabe and the Apartheid South African government, participating in the Rwanda peace negotiations, and surviving his plane being shot down in Angola. Fascinating!”

Group photoGroup photo with Sir Ketumile Masir (seated, center).

Photo courtesy of Kayla Choun

According to the students, Masire was very open and accessible. Ben Labaschin, from Lake Forest College, called the experience “profound and unique…. He answered all of our questions, [such as those about] diamonds in Botswana, the political climate, eco-tourism, and the economy and agriculture.”

“The students were keen to ask questions about his term and were especially interested in having one-on-one time with him to ask their own questions,” said Mark Lisowski from Ripon College. “The last question I asked him was about his favorite kind of music, and he said he enjoyed the music of his country because it reminded him of the times growing up and of his culture.”

At age 90, Masire remains very active – he visited 14 countries in the past year – and involved in a variety of international efforts to promote democracy, as well as with the Sir Ketumile Masire Foundation, which he founded in 2007 to support the social, economic, and political well-being of the people of Botswana and the sub-region.

Two daughters of the former president were there and talked with the students, as well. Both have followed their father in public service and civic activities – Matshidiso Masire leads the Masire Foundation and Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba has served two terms as Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.

Sir Ketumile Masire flanked by Todd Knoop (left) and Richard Mtisi (right).

Photo courtesy of Kayla Choun

Along with taking courses at the University of Botswana, ACM’s partner in Gaborone, students on the ACM program complete an independent study project, go on frequent field trips, and engage with the local community by volunteering with organizations.

Mtisi said he hopes that the program will be able to build on this visit in the years ahead. “We discussed the possibilities for future ACM students to do their community engagement with the Masire Foundation,” he noted. “What an opportunity that would be for our students!”

“I was incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to meet President Masire,” said Lisowski in summing up the visit. “I have never met anyone of such political stature, and I think it was very important for us as students abroad to meet the former president of the country we are living and studying in. It expanded my ideas about Botswana and of how beautiful the country truly is.”


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