The village of Sese sits swollen on the ancient plains that are the Kalahari Desert’s cruel sands and stabbing scrub brush. Like so many villages peppered across the Texas-sized slot of earth called Botswana, it would be thought an anomaly by anyone studying up on the quite literally unparalleled awesomeness of this country’s development since Britain bowed out half a century ago. From not one road to liberate its people from the single-minded procession of dirt and boulder, to an economy eclipsed on this continent by that only of South Africa, Botswana is a celebrated nation among what the world prefers to think of a sea of dark grief.
This, however, would not be the first thing a traveler to Sese would note. Here is a lonesome triangle of earth where children play nude in overturned hunks of rust that were once cars and vie for the feral right to scoop fistfuls of discarded beans out of heaping metal bowls. Grandmothers recline atop the sand on worn pieces of cloth placed alongside diminutive shacks of corrugated steel, and no matter the weather – be it the churning midday heat of October or the hysteria of February’s cold winds – their serene stoicism offers the impression that they have been sitting there since the beginning of time.
Men and women in blue jump suits preside over squares of sand, their ownership asserted by fences of narrow tree branch and flimsy wire. Iron and steel have, mostly, supplanted the mud and thatch one would have been witness to decades ago, and homes are dinky one-room metal affairs that roast in summer, freeze in winter and flood when the rains come. Their residents, numbering 2,000 or so, speak in cavernous, guttural tones that emit from the backs of their throats and throw into sharp contrast an outsider’s voice, inevitably anemic and nasal.
One reaches Sese by turning, depending on where you’re coming from, either left or right from a paved road onto a brown slot through the brush. There is a new green sign a few meters before the turn-off that reads, “SESE” in white letters. Four kilometers over a stretch of sand and gravel flanked by hibernating corn fields that blur off into the horizon, past a sharp dip where there is a minor salt pan and into the realm of unnamed roads and anonymous paths. Just before the dip, a lone homesteader’s piece of the earth hosts a smattering of dogs and donkeys, his two kilometer separation from the huddle of his 2,000 neighbors suggestive of an outlaw’s wisdom, or a gentrifier’s vision or maybe simply that he was there before Sese was and there he is still. He’s never visible from the road, never outrightly visible, occasionally one might perceive a rustle or a moving shadow through the weaved branches of his outdoor kitchen.
Donkey carts hug the perimeter of this path, flat, wooden, ancient beds supported by enormous birch wheels carrying drums of water, sacks of maize, tires, spinach, people, everything, nothing. Boys or men spank packs of two or four donkeys with leather whips that crack louder than you’d think. Cars and trucks own the middle, flying by, mocking the carts, sometimes seemingly as ancient, sometimes new or at least not old BMWs or Mercedes, for this too is Sese. Sese is a three hour walk or a twenty minute drive from the world’s most profitable crater, a hole in the earth from which men and machines haul diamonds. And though the BMWs and the Mercedes stop in, their owners are mere tourists, would never think to live here, are dropping off workers, and along with them the wisdom of civilization’s prized Things, the wisdom that inspires the high heels a few teachers wear to walk through the sand, the phones young girls barter their bodies for, the chronic question: “When will you take me to America?”
It is not plain who was here before the digging began and who came after. To be sure, this was settled land. There are those who reminisce about plowing and harvesting and fashioning sandals out of leather, but those are few and they speak quietly and the great majority of the men and women who live here weren’t born here. They came mostly from other places in Botswana, but also from Zimbabwe and Zambia, their lives surely complicated but their reasons for coming to Sese simple. The mine, a 20-year-old funnel, employs thousands and many of them pack daily into the cramped, shockless vans that serve as shared taxis between Sese’s sand roads and the mine – little moving microcosms of Botswana life filled with loud music and gossip and contradictions. Riding in these vans it is possible to see, within the same blink, both a man in a business suit and a woman in worn out rags, her breasts heaved up over her collar ready to feed the small child she has absentmindedly handed you.
The population of Sese grows nearly daily but it was two years ago that the most devastating migration occurred. The government of Botswana evacuated and destroyed the slums nearer the mine where workers and their children slept and ate. They came en masse and flooded the small village’s single school, its solitary clinic. Also its bars. A single stretch of V-shaped gravel would serve as Sese’s main street, if it had one, with homes webbing out haphazardly for a few kilometers on either side. Aside from the school and clinic, on this road one finds one general store where bread, tomatoes, onions, sacks of beans, small candies, cigarettes and warm, treated milk can be bought. One also finds five bars. Cramped, mostly electricity-less, concrete “shabeens” where day and night, milk carton-like containers formerly filled with home brew scatter around in the wind.
The mine has recently announced plans for an expansion and surely it will require more labor, continually pushing Sese along into critical mass, a new crop of pioneer nomads ready to nudge the boundaries of what one resident calls “this condemned place,” ever further into the brush.
Here, one might be convinced she has, at last, found the final horizon on earth.