Gaborone, Botswana Report of what it's like to live there - 04/30/17
Personal Experiences from Gaborone, Botswana
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
This was my fifth overseas assignment with State Department, my second in Africa. I served previously in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Madrid, Spain, Chisinau, Moldova, and Tel Aviv, Israel. In addition, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lithuania.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
I'm from Los Angeles, California. Many people take the 16+ hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg. I did that once and swore that I would never do it again. I prefer to fly LA to Frankfurt, overnight there, and fly the next day from Frankfurt to Johannesburg. From Joburg to Gaborone the flight is only 55 minutes long and there are 12 or 13 flights daily.
3. How long have you lived here?
I lived in Gaborone for three years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Assigned to the U.S. Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
I would say that two-thirds of the housing pool is good, one-third really stinks for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately mine was one of the latter. I'm a guy and I don't cry much, but the day I arrived and was brought to my new home I cried. Most of the housing at post is pretty nice but I guess I drew the short straw being a single guy and only an FS-03.
Other units in the housing pool were quite spacious and lovely, and just about every house had a swimming pool. Keep in mind that a pool is a great luxury if you or your family actually use it, but it's a expensive burden if you don't. Generally I would say that a small majority of the community was happy with their housing.
Gaborone is a small town, so commute times were never excessive, no matter where you lived. About 1/3 of the housing was within walking distance to the embassy, but I don't think many people walked to work regularly. One of my colleagues biked to work regularly, but Gaborone isn't a real safe city to bike around. There are no bike paths and streets and sidewalks often have potholes or open manholes. There is some great mountain biking on the outskirts of Gabs, so definitely bring a bike. I just don't recommend bike riding through the city streets.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are not cheap in Botswana but not expensive either. In Gaborone you can find everything you need, just maybe not everything you want. I imagine it is more difficult to grocery items outside of Gaborone or other major towns.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I can't think of anything specific, but since this post has no DPO, it is a good idea to review diplomatic pouch restrictions and plan accordingly. The big concerns are liquids and electronic items with lithium Ion batteries.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
The only food delivery I am aware of is a pizza chain called "Debonair." I thought their Pizza was OK, but I think most Americans did not think it was good.
There were quite a few fast food places that offered take-out. If you are into Fried Chicken then this is your post. There seems to be two or three fried chicken places in every mall. There is also a popular Thai fast food chain that opened a few years back (2 locations). Fast-food hamburgers are in very short supply in Gabs. A South African chain called Steers has one location in Gabs. There burgers are pretty good, but they seem always very crowded, and service is slow.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
There are a lot of mosquitoes at certain times of the year, but fortunately there hasn't been malaria in Gaborone.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Diplomatic pouch. The Embassy does not have a DPO.
If you are not attached to the U.S. Embassy, mail service is pretty unreliable and inadequate. The Botswana Post office does not deliver to residences no matter where you live. If you want to receive mail you must rent a PO Box. Valuable items often do not reach their destination.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very available, very inexpensive. My housekeeper worked for me 14 hours a week (two 7 hour days) and I paid her $120 per month.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The US Embassy has a small but adequate gym off-compound. There are also several nice membership gyms around town.
The embassy gym costs $250 per year for a family or $150 per year for an individual. I don't know the pricing of the membership gyms.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Yes. I used my credit card at gas stations, restaurants, and supermarkets regularly and never had issues. Be very careful, though, when visiting neighboring countries, particularly South Africa.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I only attended some local Christian churches (Baptist or non denominational). I know that Latter Day Saints is also very active, and Seventh Day Adventist. If you are Jewish you are out of luck. I don't think there are any synagogues in Botswana, although have run into a handful of Israelis so maybe there are some Jewish services that I am not aware of.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
In Gaborone, and other urban areas of the country English is spoken by everyone.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It is always difficult for people with physical disabilities, but, in general, I think Gaborone might be easier for people with disabilities than most places. It seems to me that many public places have made accommodations like handicapped parking spaces and access ramps for disabled people.
That said, I might have a totally different perspective if I spent a day or two pushing around someone in a wheelchair.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Affordable, yes. Safe, no. Long-distance buses are frequently involved in major accidents. Minibuses around town are overcrowded, and not well maintained. The drivers are distracted with collecting money and scanning the roadsides for additional passengers.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
An SUV is best if you want to go on safaris. Driving is on the left hand side of the road, but it is permissible to import vehicles with steering wheels on the left hand side. I imported an American vehicle (steering on the left) and found this situation to be of minimal inconvenience. There was one paid parking garage that I frequented where I would have to climb over the passenger seat to get the ticket, but other than this having a vehicle with steering on the left was a total non issue. People often say that overtaking another vehicle on a dual lane road can be more difficult, but I never found this to be problematic.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
This is a huge issue. In Botswana, internet service is very expensive and very bad. All the internet service providers in Botswana are inadequate, but Botswana Telecommunications Corp (BTC) is more inadequate than the rest. STAY AWAY FROM BTC!! Other ISPs also have frequent outages and service issues, but at least when you phone them and complain they are responsive and do their best to address the problem. BTC will not even answer their phones. Broadband Botswana Internet (BBI) has a special plan for US Embassy employees, and is the provider that most embassy staff was using (as of 2017). OPQ is another provider which the US Embassy frequently works with.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Local provider. Both Malcom and Orange seem to have good service at competitive prices. I would avoid beMOBILE.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
I had a very good vet for my dog. I think there are many quality vets in town and around the country. In Botswana I often think the healthcare for pets is better than health care for humans.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Local employment outside the embassy is pretty rare. There are a few EFM jobs with the US Embassy, but not enough.
People who have their own internet-based businesses have suffered with the poor quality of the local internet services.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
SPCA is pretty popular, as well as some orphanages.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Suit and tie for those that work with the public.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There are a lot of break-ins and home invasions, often at knife point. Walking around Gabs during the day seems safe. I took my dog for a walk daily and never felt in the least bit threatened.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The US Embassy and the Department of State have totally failed (FAILED!) to provide "the best possible" (or even adequate) health care to the State Department employees, in my opinion. There is no Foreign Service Health Practitioner at Post and the local doctor that the embassy has contracted is totally untrustworthy and incompetent. In addition, the doctors that are listed on the Local Medical Assistance section of the Embassy's website, and those that the Health Unit sends its employees to have horrible reputations, and to appear to recommended more because they are personal friends of the locally contracted doctor rather than their abilities.
In my view, the Department has turned Embassy Gaborone's proximity to Pretoria (a 5-hour drive) into a disadvantage. Issues that at other posts would warrant a medical evacuation, are not granted one from Gaborone. Essentially MED has taken a very liberal view of the term "local provider" ands deemed services available in Pretoria as locally available, and the patient is on their own to travel to Pretoria and pay for associated travel and lodging.
Many employees of the U.S. Embassy in Gaborone forgo the services offered by the Embassy Health Unit and utilize local doctors. This is one oasis in the midst of a very bad situation. There are some very good family doctors in Gaborone and elsewhere in Botswana. Ask your colleagues or the Community Liaison Office who they recommend. It is a bit odd to be working around the Embassy Health unit, but that is the unfortunate situation at this post.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
It is sunny in Botswana year-round.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
I don't know of any mental health issues, but I think morale at post is rather poor. Many would prefer this to be a two-year assignment rather than a three year tour. This isn't a matter of hardship as Botswana is pretty well-developed and modern. It is just that both personally and professionally, this his not a place to be long term. Gaborone is a pretty boring place, and the issues being addressed here are not critical to U.S. foreign policy. A lot of people would prefer to move on sooner rather than later from what I have observed.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The best way to describe the climate is dry. Many people have sinus issues because of how dry the climate is. The summer is hot and dry. The winters can get cool at night, but never too cold.
Schools & Children:
1. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I don't have children, but I have heard from colleagues that the situation is challenging, but doable.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The U.S. Embassy has about 70-75 direct-hire Americans. Morale was not very high while I was there. Poor management at the embassy had a lot to do with that, so these factors could change quickly with new leadership. The Health Unit situation really dragged people down because it was an issue that should have been easy for management to resolve. The lack of a resolution appeared to demonstrated a lack of concern for the welfare of the community, in my opinion.
Unreliable home Internet was a local reality that certainly contributed to frustration and low morale. Hopefully local infrastructure improvements will resolve this issue soon. I heard there were issues with the schools that also draining, but I don't know first-hand about these problems.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Fortunately, when I lived in Gaborone, there were several families that I was friends with who like to entertain at home. Most things revolved around drinking alcohol. Around town, there wasn't a whole lot to do. There weren't many clubs or bars to hang out at or events going on around town, so entertaining at home was the main activity.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I am single, and I don't really feel this was a great post for single people. That said, I made the best of it. I never really saw any of my single colleagues dating Batswana. Even the Marines weren't intermingling with the locals. Some might say that this has to do with the very high HIV/AIDS rate among Batswana (25%). I am sure that has a lot to do with it, but I think there is also a cultural divide that I think is hard to overcome.
There is very little night life to speak of in Gaborone. This town closes up at 9:00 PM.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I don't think it would be a fun town for LGBT, but I do think it is a livable. The Batswana are more tolerant than most countries in Africa. There are no Pride parades but I don't think this community is persecuted.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
My African American colleagues and friends told me that they were frequently victims of black on black prejudices. As a white male, I noticed that my bags were rarely checked by the person whose job it was to check every bag or cart as customers left the store. I didn't see any discrimination based on religion, but that certainly doesn't mean it didn't exist. Generally, it seems to me that Batswana are relatively tolerant people.
I understand there is a great deal of domestic violence at home. I imagine there is gender inequality in the workplace as well.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
There is a lot to see in country and in surrounding countries. The Okavango Delta, Chobe Park, the salt pans, and many other incredible places to see wildlife are all must-see. Victoria Falls is just 50 KM from the Botswana border in Zimbabwe. In South Africa, Cape Town and the Western Cape are very beautiful.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The Gaborone Game Reserve is great!! It is a game reserve right in the middle of the city. It only cost $1 per person and $1 per vehicle, and you can drive around for hours. There are no big game there, but plenty of zebras, monkeys, warthogs, ostriches, and deer-like creatures. Bring a six pack of beer for you and you friends to drink at one of the picnic areas or game viewing blinds and you've got a great afternoon. You can also barbecue at the picnic areas, but watch your meat carefully, as monkeys will try to steal it right off the grill.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
I don't really think of Gaborone as a "shopping post", but let's just say this is a "shopping assignment." Anyone assigned here will certainly pick up some beautiful and unique crafts and artwork along the way. It's almost unavoidable. Most of those crafts come from other places, and there is not a lot of great local crafts shopping in Gabs, but you will no doubt accumulate stuff.
There are cute LED solar lanterns made out of mason jars that people often buy here. They soak up the sun all day, and light your dining table at night.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It is close enough to Pretoria or Johannesburg that you could travel there frequently. Several of my colleagues went to Joburg every month.
Madikwe is a fantastic Game Park located just 45 minutes from Gabs.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
If I had know about the health care situation at post I would never have come here. Again, this is not a Botswana problem. There are plenty of good doctors in Botswana. This situation is a failing of post and the Department. Someone going to Botswana unattached to the Embassy should have no issues finding competent health care providers in Gaborone.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No. The internet issue made the post too isolated, particularly since Gaborone was otherwise pretty boring. It is great to be able to visit the Okavango Delta, Victoria Falls, Chobe, and Cape Town, but perhaps it would make more sense to do all those things on a one month vacation rather than a three year assignment. Gaborone is not a great place to live for three years.
3. But don't forget your:
Humidifiers. Get one for every bedroom. Maybe more than one.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Movie "A United Kingdom" provides some historical background of the country.
The "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" books, and TV series, though fiction, provide some cultural context.
5. Do you have any other comments?
Don't come here expecting to go on safari every weekend. The best places, like the Okavango Delta and Chobe, are a 10-14 hour drive from Gaborone, and ridiculously expensive. $1000 per night per person would be considered a bargain at many of the lodges. You will no doubt have some great trips during this tour, but it will not be your day to day reality unless you work on environmental issues, wildlife preservation, or tourism. I mention this because a factor contributing to the low morale at post is unrealistic expectations.