The bus stops of Botswana

By Mark T. Brown

The Bus Stops of Botswana took on a life of its own the first time I drove from one end of the country to the other.  It wasn’t long after crossing the Limpopo River from South Africa into Botswana on my way to the Okavango Delta that I noticed these sculptures of found objects that occasionally appeared along the roadside.

BusStop1Curious, I asked our guide and friend, Mike, “what’s up with the roadside sculptures?”

His answer was simple, like so much in Botswana,”It’s a competition of sorts.”  Pressed, he elaborated, ”No one knows for sure how or why they got started, but it seems not long after one or two were seen here and there, the numbers suddenly increased to where there are now hundreds throughout the country.”

He went on. ”It’s thought that as more bus stops showed up along the roads, the creators were challenged to add more to existing ones, so it’s not unusual to see existing bus stops grow in complexity over time. It’s a competition. Batswana (the people of Botswana are called Batswana or Motswana) are not competitive by nature, but in this subtle way they compete.”

Pressing Mike further, he suggested that they are the places where people, who live kilometers back in the bush come to the main road to wait for a bus, or possibly a passing friend, to take them to town.

BusStop2I imagined the first bus stop was constructed out of the urge to create and the time to do so.  Waiting for a bus in the bush of Botswana can take some time, as they may only come once a day, or they may not come at all.  Hanging around for hours, waiting, with an occasional car or truck driving by, it’s not long until you pick up that hub cap and that bumper and stack them, then rearrange them, then add something else, purposefully composing a statement from found objects.  Maybe even walking down the road a ways and carting back that broken chair you saw  fall off a passing truck.  Before you know it, the bus stop has taken on a life–drawing you,  beseeching you to add more.

Some are very elaborate, others simply a plastic jug impaled on a stick (I think of these as just getting started, as seeds, or at most seedlings just emerging from the chaos). As my understanding of the bus stop culture grew so did my desire to photograph them.  Traveling anywhere in Botswana became an all day affair, no matter how short the distance.  No one wanted to ride with me, as I stopped at every bus stop.  Occasionally there would be someone there, waiting,  and not wanting to up set them, I’d pass it by, take a GPS reading, and make a plan to return. I was obsessed.

My collection now stands at well over 100 bus stops, and almost 1000 images.  I often reflect on the bus stop culture.  It’s art, no question, but maybe more interesting is that it is an example of self-organization–spontaneous global order and coordination arising out of local interactions without a central agent directing or coordinating things.  The feedback that results from observing another bus stop causes an artist to add to his/her own, which increases the order.  In complexity theory, the bus stops are “attractors”–islands of organization in a sea of chaos. I’ve never been able to look at roadside trash in quite the same way as before, often thinking that discarded fender would make a great bus stop beginning.