Gabarone, Botswana. The fashionable Riverwalk Mall (left) is just a couple of kilometers away from the Old Naledi Market (right), but these two urban locales are worlds apart from a socio-geographical point-of-view.

"No one can see if your belly is empty"


Why would you buy a suit if your belly is empty? Researcher Stephen Marr is studying how consumption in Botswana’s capital city Gaborone nourishes aspirations on the one hand and creates anxieties on the other.

At the time of Botswana’s independence in 1966 most of the country’s population lived in a rural setting. The newly appointed capital city Gaborone, previously little more than a colonial administrative village in the British Bechuanaland Protectorate, had less than 5,000 inhabitants. Today at least 80 percent of Botswana’s population live in urban areas and the country is one of Africa’s richest countries with a GDP of more than 16,000 dollars per capita.

“As one of my informants in Gaborone told me, ‘Botswana went from the donkey cart to the Mercedes in one generation’”, says Stephen Marr, guest researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute.

“The change is of course most notable in Gaborone, but even though the capital city today is home to big shopping malls, luxury cars and a wide array of electronic gadgetry, many people remain poor and don’t have easy access to this lifestyle”, he adds.

In a city so divided by class, Marr raises the question if consumption might serve as a means of resistance for those living on the urban margins. His research shows that poor people, although sometimes of so low income that they even have trouble putting food on the table, surprisingly often prioritize buying relatively luxurious items. For a young person living in Old Naledi, a poor area in Gaborone, saving up for a nice suit or dress can be more important than eating a proper meal.

“When the economically marginalized people in low income areas gain access to consumer items like fancy clothes and cell phones they can move more freely around in the city. Because consumption is so important in Gaborone such items can be seen as important means of inclusion. For example, they open doors to shopping malls, where you would otherwise be denied entrance by guards or undercover security. One of my informants at the fashionable Riverwalk Mall explained the logic behind this behaviour to me; ‘No one can see if your belly is empty’, he said.

From the point-of-view of the privileged ‘Western’ world, this type of consumption could be seen as superficial. But Stephen Marr stresses how important it is to understand that aspirations are very much linked to social inclusion in Gaborone, especially for younger residents. Aspiring to be seen as a modern urban person allows them to claim a space in the city. It also opens doors that would have remained closed.

“Living in the low income neighbourhoods of Gaborone is like living in a village. That’s how the people who don’t live there see it. And that’s how the people who do live there see it themselves. You’re seen as somehow backwards, you might be located in the city but you’re not really of the city. So these attributes of modernity are important means for the residents of Old Naledi and similar areas to feel included in the stories of Botswana’s prosperity”.

Stephen Marr also points at how changes in consumption structures create ‘urban anxiety’ among the rich people.

“When the poor get hold of social markers such as smart phones and suits, it’s no longer clear who is who in the anonymity of the urban space. All of a sudden they gain access to the ‘elite areas’, although they don’t really ‘belong’ there. That becomes problematic to the rich who see this as a threat to their privileged position”, says Stephen Marr, who has extensive fieldwork experience from Botswana.

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