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Seeing Change and Continuity in Botswana

Seeing Change and Continuity in Botswana January 6, 2016
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As a Peace Corps volunteer, just out of college, Stephen Volz taught at a junior high school in the village of Thamaga, Botswana.

More than 25 years later, Volz is still teaching. Now a history professor at Kenyon College, he regularly returns to Botswana to conduct research, meet with academic colleagues, and visit longtime friends. On his visits he’s seen both change and continuity — change that has come with modernization and urbanization, as well as continuity in some aspects of Botswana society and its ongoing peace and prosperity.

Stephen VolzStephen Volz

A year from now, Volz will return again, this time as visiting faculty director of the spring 2017 ACM Botswana: Development in Southern Africa program.

“I hope that my experience in Botswana, my familiarity with it, and my affection for the country and its people will in some way rub off on the students,” he said, “and that they will see the depth and richness of the culture.”

He is planning to lead the students in exploring some of the changes he’s seen in Botswana through a course he will teach on Urban Africa and by his involvement in the program’s orientation and frequent field trips.

The ACM program is centered at the University of Botswana (UB) in the capital city of Gaborone, where students take two classes taught in English — the program director’s course and an elective from the UB curriculum. They also study Setswana, the national language, and engage in independent study projects on topics of interest to them.

Stephen Volz with a former studentStephen Volz with a former student from his Peace Corps days, who now works at the University of Botswana library.

“For me, one of the most interesting parts of Botswana is not Gaborone but the major historical capitals of each of the ‘tribes,’ because of the history and culture there,” said Volz. His course will examine various types of urbanization not just in southern Africa, but also in comparison with other regions of the continent, including cities such as Nairobi, Dakar, and Lagos.

According to Volz, urbanization has deep roots in African history. “There is an assumption that a city or town is a European creation and that the ‘villages’ are the African settlements, but until the late 20th century those villages were actually the major population centers of Botswana and the centers of power and authority,” he noted. “The whole project of building Gaborone was parallel to the growth of the modern state of Botswana.”

Watch a webinar featuring Stephen Volz on Big Villages and Small Cities: Urbanization and Development in Botswana

Due to factors such as rising housing prices in Gaborone as well as family obligations, many people still live in rural communities and commute to work in the city. “Most people in Botswana sort of have one foot in the city and one foot in the village at the same time,” he said. “I’m hoping to provide the students with opportunities to make those contrasts and to understand the connections between rural and urban Africa, so they can see that the two cultures or realms form a single society.”

Volz said he plans to use excursions to communities outside Gaborone to help students grapple with questions about the effects of urbanization in Botswana, such as: What is the legacy of the tribal capitals? Has the authority of the chiefs, or traditional leaders, been completely superseded by the national government, or do they still retain some of that authority? Do people in Botswana still think of these villages as the centers of their culture, or do they now think of Gaborone as having those traits?

Change over time in Thamaga, Botswana

Thamaga in 1987 Thamaga in 2012
Photos taken by Stephen Volz from the same spot in 1987 (at left) and 2012 of the village where he lived as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Along with having students go outside Gaborone for the Urban Africa course, Volz cited the program’s independent study projects, field trips, and encouragement of volunteer activities as important ways that students can experience a variety of aspects of life in Botswana.

As visiting faculty director, Volz will supervise the students in their independent projects, which usually include interviews and field observation by the students as part of their research. “I think this is an area where I can really be of service to the students, helping them identify viable independent study projects and make contacts,” he said. “Or they might have questions about transportation or about the social formalities of how to approach people that I can help with.”

“I hope that with my assistance they will become confident and feel comfortable leaving the university campus, stretching their comfort zones, and engaging with people in the community,” he added, “and that they will be excited to do so.”

Photos courtesy of Stephen Volz.


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