“So, Renee,” my co-worker Natefo said. “Do you want to go to a taping of My Star?”
“Sure! … What’s My Star?”
Thus began my Friday.
It is American Idol, Botswana-style. A bunch of us met after work, and this was how I learned about public transit in Botswana. People get around mostly using combis, which are van-type mini-buses where you get to play SQUISH! with 12 of your soon-to-be close friends. Every time somebody from the back wants out, the people sitting in the fold-down isle seats pile out, and then pile back in. I have an idea for some sort of a game that involves taking a drink every time the people behind you want to leave, but it would shortly lead to a breakdown in the “getting out quickly and getting back on” system.
Combis have a sort-of-regular route, although they’ll take detours or shortcuts and they don’t run on any sort of schedule. Technically they are taxis, as far as the government is concered (taxis have blue license plates; cars yellow), but far cheaper: 3 pula ($0.35) for a one-way trip, compared to 30 pula ($4) for a cab.
This was a two-combi trip, and I never would have made it if it wasn’t for Natefo. We took the first combi to the station, simply called Station (cue Bill and Ted reference), which was swarming with combis, taxis, cars, and people. In the dusk we wended our way through an enormous mass of bodies and booths selling sunglasses, home-made candy, fruit, and cell-phones. Up over one of the biggest overhead pedestrian walkways I’ve ever seen, and down into “Riverwalk Mall” — this is pretty much like every mall in North America, except more open to the weather, dustier, and more worn-down and crowded — a description that applies to almost everything here. That, and I didn’t recognize any of the stores…
By this time it was dark, and as the mall was emptying (everything closes early, and dawn/dusk happens at 6 — equatorial!), the combi-lot beside the mall was filling up. In and out: this combi will take us there! No, no, he just said that to get passengers… clambour out. Next one? Yes! This is it! Pile in! No, it’s full! Over here! — there’s nothing like the UBC bus loop, with names and signs and some recognizable order. No queueing. The combis have a route in stick-on numbers on their front, but you can only count on that being true some of the time. Not a busy Friday night: chaos! But Natefo got us into the right bus (phew), and we arrived along with the rest of Gaborone at the studio only a little late.
It was full.
“…Would you like to sit on the floor up front?”
So, 30 pula ($4) and we sat down on the floor right in front of the stage. Soon we were totally surrounded and squished in, and when the judges took their place an hour later (three famous Motswana: one a local DJ whose station plays only Setswana music, one an actress on the first Botswana soap, and one musician who owns a studio here) they walked right in front of us — well, they carefully picked their way through all of our legs and feet, anyway. The crowd went wild for DJ Sid, who had bleached-blonde hair and had painted every fingernail a different colour, maybe channelling a bit of his American Idol counterpart Steven Tyler.
The judges sat down at a collapsible table facing the stage, and the two hosts walked on, in matching dresses, lit only by two work-lights and a colour-changing light-box. The backdrop was a black cloth with holes poked in it with a strobe light shining through (you know, for stars). I was a bit skeptical as to how professional this would all look on the cameras (two cameras, one hand-held by a guy with arms of steel, the other planted amongst the audience), but what the heck…
The show was, of course, loads of fun. Lots of spirit, the judges hating everything (One sample: “Work harder. Work on your vocals!” “Crap!” “Not bad, I liked it.”) and the crowd loving everything, and holding up signs for their favourites. The contestants not only chose their own songs, but also their own costumes, and some of them were very inventive, finding cowboy hats and fascinators, and altering things they owned to look extra Rockstar.
By the end of the show my back was killing me, I was half-deaf, and the girl beside me appeared to have grown five extra knees, three of which were poking into my side, but that didn’t matter: we had a blast. When we got together later to watch the broadcast, it looked fancier on TV than it had in person – I was pretty impressed with what they’d managed to do with the low-budget setup. Editing is everything, as they say.
And, when I got to work on Monday, everybody said “I saw you in the audience on Botswana Star!” So it’s true what they say: anyone can be a star.
(UPDATE: A friend advised me that they have a Youtube channel showcasing the contestants! So awesome.)