Lugging two large boxed fans, pillows, and plastic bags containing toilet paper en route to University of Botswana dormitories, Australian debate contestant Fiona Prowse tripped and tumbled to the ground.
Ms. Prowse, a member of Australia's Monash University debate team, competing in the annual World Universities Debating Championships, took a moment to appraise her bruised and bloodied shins.
“I don’t think this will affect my performance,” she concluded. And it turns out she was right.
After 13 rounds and dozens of challengers from 171 schools across the world, Prowse and her debate partner, Victor Finkel, were crowned champions of the “Olympics of Debating.”
They had edged out teams from University of Sydney, London School of Economics, and Oxford University after speaking in support of an action to invade Zimbabwe, a topic that triggered rousing applause from the host audience here in neighboring Botswana.
This year's event, Botswana Worlds, was a far cry from the luxury of last year’s contest held at a Turkish resort on the Mediterranean. Yet, despite organizational and logistical missteps by first-time organizers, debaters from Western and developing countries alike agree that Botswana hosting the elite competition is an African victory.
A first for debate championships
It was the first time in its 31-year history that a historically black African university hosted the annual event that draws more than 1,000 debaters. The debating championship has come to Africa twice before at Stellenbosch University, a mostly Afrikaans institution outside Cape Town, South Africa, “in extremely privileged circumstances in almost all white situations,” says Alfred Snider, a longtime University of Vermont debate director who supported the Botswana bid.
This year, schools representing 10 African countries participated, the most ever, although none advanced past the preliminary rounds.
Spirit behind the competition
More important, the spirit behind the competition that promotes intellectual rigor and quickly synthesizing opposing arguments to develop counter-arguments, stands in stark contrast to the continent's troubled history in which disagreements – debates, if you will – are frequently settled with civil war, ethnic violence, and disregard of democracy.
“We are past the idea of using guns, and using violence, but it’s now putting ideas on the table,” says Privilege Mogo, a debater from National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Justice Motlhabani, convener of Botswana Worlds, characterizes debate as “in its kindergarten stages on the African continent,” yet growing.
Mr. Motlhabani led the effort to bring the debate competition to this sprawling university surrounded by private homes and grazing cows, strengthening the university's credentials by starting a Pan-African debate competition. Two losing bids later, he finally secured a win and government education officials elevated Worlds to the “national agenda.”
“This debate has always been about Africa, about developing nations, and spreading debate to new regions of the world, “ he said.
Now playing host to the competition has rekindled a passion for debate in Botswana.
University of Botswana debater Mokgabo Thobega predicts debate could join soccer as a major national pastime. Through the kgotla, a community gathering and meeting place whereby decisions are arrived at by consensus, Botswana has practiced democracy since precolonial times.
“We’re not really good at sports, fine,” says the precocious Ms. Thobega. “But... we have debate."