Rock’n’roll in Botswana

2012-09-07 13:35

A small town in dusty Botswana has fallen under the spell of rock’n’roll and other substances. Percy Mabandu and photographer Leon Sadiki went to meet the leather-clad junkies

A daytime road trip to Gantsi, a small town on the northwestern edge of Botswana, is a special kind of hell.

Apart from occasional sightings of ostriches and cattle on the 627km stretch of lonesome road from the Lobatse border with South Africa, there’s nothing but boiling sun to contend with as you drive.

Gantsi is a place of unending dog days and knows few visitors. All the non-residents that find themselves here are on their way elsewhere.

They’re either passing through to Namibia, Caprivi Park or the Okavango strip with their more appetising tourist attractions.

Those that find themselves sleeping over at Gantsi’s lodges are only observing the golden rule of Botswana’s road travel: thou shalt not drive after sunset.

There are more animals than people in this tiny nation and they wander into the main roads willy-nilly. Driving after dark could cost you your life.

Accordingly, my camera-toting colleague and I reach Gantsi at dusk.

As we learn upon arrival, we just missed the Donkey Cart Derby. Yes, this is Gantsi’s most exiting calendar item.

It involves the lousy chariots racing around the town’s worn-out soccer pitch for prize money of 1 000 pula (about the same in rands).

The other spectacle is Botswana’s latest curious fad: semirural boys and girls who have taken to heavy metal music.

This craze is what has brought us to this backside of beyond.

After spending our first evening at the manure-ridden lodge called Tautona, recovering from the punitive drive, we meet with members of a band called Overthrust, a quartet of rowdy instrumentalists with a penchant for leather outfits, a fondness for anarchy and a peculiar taste for hard liquor and sorghum beer.

Their favourite bitter brain-bender is called Chibuku or Shake-Shake.

It’s a commercial derivative of mqombothi.

We follow them around until we settle at a beer hall called Sexanana. Located near the main road that cuts through the town, it’s a rectangular building with wooden desks, a booming speaker box and lots of alcohol.

This is where Gantsi’s youth drink away their leisure time.

It appears there’s no other option. Gantsi is more than 500km from the nation’s capital and biggest city, Gaborone, where any young person with real prospects goes.

Sitting across me at the beer-littered table is Venlix. The band introduce him to us as their public relations officer, a profession he is studying through the University of Botswana in Gaborone, where he spends his weekdays.

He wears a skull-decorated black bandana and a full-length leather coat, boots and a pair of faded denim trousers.

Visibly inebriated, he keeps repeating one phrase: “Yeah guys, welcome. It’s cool to have you here.” He spurts out this line every time there’s a pause in the conversation.

I ask him how the obviously conservative community receives their unusual tastes.

 “Most people think we are Satanists, but we are not. We are just like ordinary people who practise what they preach. Anyway, everybody needs something to believe in. So we take this rock thing as a culture.”

He doesn’t carry on speaking.

The booze and lack of sleep claim him for a moment. He buries his head on the table as if to sleep.

Then, suddenly, he snaps out of it and shoots out another line: “Don’t give up on us!”

Then slumps his head again.

This is when Suicide Tormentor, another band member, takes up the chatter.

He tells me he’s been drumming since he was 12 years.

Suicide Tormentor started out playing with a band called Vitrified.

“We are the only band in Botswana that uses a double-pedal drum kit. So I’m as fast as a helicopter propeller on the chops,” he says.

As we speak, another band member staggers towards our table. He thrusts his hands upwards and screams into the air.

They call him God-F**k or God-Fee.

He’s got the wildest streak of the lot.

God-Fee’s real name is Lepololang Malepe and he is 30 years old.

He’s the oldest member and has a wife and two sons.

God-Fee makes a living as a police officer. As he continues his rampage of performed rage and drunken banter, Suicide Tormentor mentions that: “God-Fee only drinks whisky or vodka.

No beer.

“He’s hard to the core. He’s our rhythm guitarist and he knows he must get at least three hours sleep for him to enjoy his time on stage.”

Having disappeared, God-Fee marches back to our table with his shoulders hunched and hands open with splayed fingers.

He then gives us one of his aphorisms: “Rock’n’roll is my life. I even told my wife, I said: ‘Baby, if I don’t play my rock, I won’t f**k you.’ So before I make love I play my guitar.”

Everybody laughs with approval as he walks away.

A quick glance around the room and through the door reveals a horde of hangers-on and other curious patrons.

Shabby and skinny with chalky complexions, these are Gantsi’s everyday people.

 They’re desperately poor and booze beaten, with few hopes of escape.

All they have are the psychedelic haze of a fashionable musical fad or joining the public service as a cop or teacher, or working in the nearby game parks.

Overthrust’s lead guitarist, Spencer Thrust, AKA Shelton Monna wa Dikgane, joins us to share that the band made it on to the top five of the death metal charts in Germany.

He then insists on playing us the single in question, Freedom In the Dark.

“Our music talks about dirty deeds,” he says.

As the booze takes its toll on the bunch and the evening fast approaches, Vulture Thrust, real name Tshenolo Mosaka, suggests everyone retires until 6pm.

He is the band leader, bassist and vocalist who also doubles as a cop.

With a black belt in karate, he provides stability in the chaos.

We part ways with a promise to meet at the Town Hall, where the band is hosting an impromptu concert.

But that will only follow after the kids in chains and straps have had their fill of Shake-Shake at Sexanana.

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