In an area of southwest Ohio surrounded by farmland and steel mills, Middletown is the quintessential combination of the rural and industrial Midwest. But each fall, Middletown bucks its small-town roots to host a large-scale celebration of world culture.

This year, Middfest International honors Botswana, a country in southern Africa, with an October festival highlighting Botswanian arts and culture.

To set the stage for authentic performances, food, sports, art exhibits and children's programs, Middfest invites the featured country to "tell its own story." Performers, artists, government officials and business people travel to Middletown to present their country, their way of life, and to promote "international understanding and peace."

Middletown began hosting Middfest in 1981 with the small European country of Luxembourg and has continued the international celebration each year with countries including Ireland, Turkey and Chile, regions including the Caribbean and Eastern Europe and, in 2005, the world's indigenous peoples.

"It's a great opportunity for exchange (between cultures)," says Christina Papakirk, Middfest's marketing director. "It's an incredible experience and takes an in-depth look at a country's culture." Both entertainment and education are vital to Middfest.

The events are for all ages and are filled with lectures and exhibits that inform, not just amuse. "Our main focus is education," says Virginia Ritan, Middfest's executive director. "We have a lot of speakers, lectures, exhibits, films and documentaries to inform people about the country."

Botswana-themed events take place all year, culminating in the major weekend celebration at Middfest. Through Sept. 26, readers can join a Reading Challenge to experience Botswana through Alexander McCall Smith's books, including "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and the HBO series it launched. Anyone interested in the Books of Botswana Challenge can join individually, integrate the books into an existing book club, or form a new group to discuss Smith's work. Details are at www.middfestinternational.org. Readers will be honored on Sunday, Sept. 26, at the Botswana Tea 'N Talk in the Middletown City Building. Dr. Neil Parsons, author, historian and Botswana expert, will speak and guests can participate in prize drawings, tour the exhibits and drink red bush tea, a favorite of Precious Ramotswe, the main character in "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency."

During the week prior to Middfest, performers visit area schools. The Saturday morning of the celebration is Super Saturday and children are invited to take a closer look at the exhibits and performances before the celebration opens to the public. Ritan predicts the most popular event will be an exhibit on "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," which will include a re-creation of the detective agency's office and re-enactments from the series by professional actors.

Ritan says the familiar book will spur excitement for exploring Botswana.

"When we say we're doing Botswana, people just give me a confused look," she says. "But when I mention (Smith's) books, then they recognize what I mean and are excited."

Middfest includes a Botswana-themed food court, stages for cultural music and performances, lectures about the history of Botswana up until its creation as a sovereign country, and a safari-themed youth park. And it won't just be the event-goers who receive a lesson in culture. The foreign visitors are sure to, as well. "We encourage (the visitors) to stay with local families to get a real one-on-one experience," Ritan says. "They sometimes form long-lasting friendships, with communication going on for years."

Ritan, who has been involved with Middfest since its inception, says working on the project fuels a passion she has for learning about the world. "It's my favorite thing to do. We need to know about the world and become connected in our everyday lives."

Papakirk calls it learning in a festive environment. "There's an old motto we had before that said Middfest was 'bringing the world to Middletown.'

"And I think it's entirely true." 

Middfest International will be held Oct. 1-3 at Donham Plaza in Middletown. For more information on performances, exhibits and events, visit www.middfestinternational.org.