Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Africa is teaching me Me.

In the absence of comforts and supports and escapes and distractions there is

Just Me.

And I meet myself here and I know my shape and color in a way I never thought possible.

I have learned more about who I am socially, spiritually, creatively and privately. I have learned the extent of my strength and the depth of my passion and the things that preserve me when both have reached their limit.

I have learned myself through complete solitude in a plethora of scenes. I now understand what I look like in fear, outrage, loneliness, compassion, exhaustion and awe. Some scenes have affirmed my sense of self and some have humbled and disturbed me. All have brought me closer to The Glass.

This past week I learned who I am in Heartache. Who I Really am, without the friends and family and gym and food and tv and car and music and alcohol. When my laptop crashes and I lose every document I've ever composed, I also learn who I am in Heartache without the ability to write. This gives me the sensation of being lost and on the point of panic as someone wrestles me into a blindfold.

Still, I survive.

I am surprised at the nature of this survival. I am particularly surprised that, in the absence of influence, I do not resort to the things I once believed I needed. For the first three days I do not respond to any emails, nor do I call one friend. I do not buy wine or cigarettes. I do not read or pray. I do not eat.

The oddity of that which I do find comforting both amuses and surprises me:

One morning I wake up at 4:00 to bake cookies for my neighbors. Most days I walk for hours through the sweltering desert. I am fixated on the rising of white dawn and the setting of yellow dusk. I spend entire evenings lying on my floor and inspecting the bugs on my ceiling. I drink copious amounts of tea. And I sleep. More than I ever thought possible. I sleep.

I also work extremely hard. With robotic focus and zealous engrossment. I work through tea and lunch breaks. I dive head first into projects and engineer a floury of stress and activity around me that shadows any pain or emotional indulging.

And so it is Here, racing around on a Friday morning in frantic motion and intentional stress that I finally find what I am looking for: Perspective.

And this Perspective brings Peace.

And this Peace brings Rest.

And this Rest brings me back to Me.

On Friday mornings I teach typing to the clinic nurses for two hours. This week I am teaching typing, completing the translation of a grant letter and meeting with the Lay Counselor, Thato, to discuss the initiation of a Teen Club in Kumakwane.

Botswana's Teen Clubs are funded by the Baylor Clinic in Gaborone and are designed to inspire HIV+ teens to live healthy and safe lives. Most Teen Clubs meet once a week to help the kids develop skills for practicing medical compliance, maintaining good nutrition and providing emotional support to one another as they cope with stigma and discrimination.

Thato and I have met twice before and this time he hands me a list of names.

These ones are interested in joining the club. He says. You can see their name, age, grade and the ward the live at here in Kumakwane.

I scan the list. Great. This looks great Thato. Thank you. I'll bring it over to Tumelong Counseling Center this afternoon and we'll start the needs assessment and plan a meeting with the parents and the Baylor reps.

On my way from the clinic to Tumelong it begins to rain as it has every day this week. On this ten minute walk I am not distracted by work or sleep and the ache rises to my throat and I cannot swallow it away.

Retabile meets me at the door and smiles through our greetings. I debrief her on the clinic progress and hand her the list of child names. There are eight.

Oh, so I'll keep this then? She says holding the list out from her.
Yes, thats fine. I say, distracted.
Well, but, dont you want to copy down the names for your own records?
I pause and refocus.
Oh yes. Yes, of course. Let me just get a pen.

The pen is soggy from the rain and I write laboriously with Retabile staring at the top of my head. When I get to the last name I gasp and cover my mouth with my hand. Retabile starts and says What is it? I swallow three times before I can look up at her.

Nothing. I say. It's nothing. I just... I just recognized one of the names.
Retabile stares at me for a long time and I cannot tell if she is confused or annoyed.
I excuse myself and walk back to the school.

And it rains and rains.


The patient whose name I recognized is my favorite of the PACT students. I have seen sickness in her eyes for months but those are the things you dismiss here-- in lieu of hope and self-preservation.

On Saturday I resort again to the therapy of work but this time decide to volunteer at a Teen Club event. Since I can no longer ignore this sickness I immerse myself in an effort to better understand it and in understanding, gain solace.

In the first 30 minutes I spot two other children from my school and they smile at me. I greet them and squeeze their fingers and smile back.

For three hours I play cards and dice with rotating groups of children who pour life and health and hope all over my narcissistic little heartache.

In the last hour I have a group of ten girls and we are playing team-UNO. Ngele is my partner because she's been fixated on stroking my hair and because she's staring at me with a giant smile that nurtures every broken part of me.

I am cross-legged on the floor and Ngele is to my right. She is 9 years old in the mal-nutritioned frame of a 5 year old. She presses against my side for affection and I put my arm around her. For 30 minutes she leans across my lap tossing our cards while I rub her back. After every play she looks up at me for approval and I smile down at her.

Heart-ache is relative. Pain proportional.

A 9 year old girl with a terminal illness is sitting in my lap, playing and laughing. I lose all empathy for the girl crying in the rain.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Pounding

the rain has started.

giant drops and thick thunder.

the lightning is beautiful but the pounding on my roof often keeps me awake at night.



I’m headed to Gaborone for groceries. I always bring a book to pass the time and to discourage overly friendly bachelors. Today moist desert landscape shines and distracts me from Kerouac. I look sleepily out the window fanning myself with the novel’s worn pages.

As we approach the bus skids and sputters to a clumsy halt. The boy who collects our fare turn with wide eyes and screams:

Accident! Accident!

In one frantic motion all the passengers around me stand and press against the bus’ left windows. A woman crashes into my back and the space inside our cabin becomes unnaturally silent.

One car has been completely flipped. Another sits crushed into the middle of the road. A hundred yards further lies the third. Despite the rain, smoke billows from their engines and tires.

I am far more fascinated by these bus passengers than I am by the mangled cars.

Their urgency feels abnormally frenzied. Frantic even.

And then I realize. This is not mere curiosity factor.

1.7 million. Tiny villages. Few cars.

They are looking to see if they recognize the vehicles. They are holding their breath.

And they are praying.



The sun has returned but the streets remain saturated in milky puddles and wet sand.

When I find him Mr. Bathi is sitting hunched over his desk staring at a paper without reading it. He turns to look at me with blank, heavy eyes. I am shocked to see such vacancy in the face of our star athlete – the one who villagers come to watch on the football field, the one who flirts relentlessly with all the female teachers, the one whose students stay late to solicit his feedback on their art projects.

I forget the reason I’ve been looking for him.

What is it?

Bad weekend.

What happened?

He looks out of the corner of his eye at me and then back to his paper. He’s holding it firmly with both hands. Hanging on.

The words come slowly.

My cousins have died. Two of them.

I pull a seat beside him and wait. In the wake of his composure I watch him run an index finger along the edges of the paper. When his poise returns Mr. Bathi clears his throat and continues.

It was a car accident. On the Thamaga road. Just before Kumakwane. Five cars. The Thamaga counselor was killed too.

These words pull all the air from his body and he deflates farther into the chair.

I look from his fallen profile to his crumbled paper and then to my own hands. From out of me spills all those empty things that are meant to console and never do.

And then we sit. I don’t remember for how long. But sitting there feels like the most honest gesture I can offer. And he does not protest.



The PACT girls are making donation-posters in my office. We’re collecting Christmas clothes for the Kumakwane orphans and they girls are ecstatic for an excuse to draw all afternoon.

Okay guys 15 more minutes. The Headmaster says you need to be heading home at 5:00.

But Ms. Charles it’s pouring. Don’t you have a plastic bag we can use to walk home under?

I scan the office and find a stash of trash bags.

Alright, let me ask the teacher on duty if you can take some of these.

When I walk into the lobby the air feels black and dense. Seven teachers sit together beneath this cloud, shaking their heads and speaking in whispers.

Their Setswana is too soft for me to pick up words so I find a seat beside one of the younger teachers.

What is it?

An accident. Just there. She says pointing to the road a quarter mile from our school.

Was anyone hurt?

Yes, several school children from the next village. Primary school kids.

Were they hurt badly?

The teachers look away from me. Some at the floor. Some out the window.

We don’t know yet, Ms. Hane says. They’ve been taken to the hospital.

The ladies continue shaking their heads and mumbling. They seem to know something I don’t and the graveness in their posture terrifies me.


the rain has started.

giant drops and thick thunder.

the lightning is beautiful but the pounding on my roof often keeps me awake at night.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Sustainability of that Which Sustains Me

PACT is, by far, the most satisfying part of my job here.

The Peer Approach to Counseling Teens Club meets twice a week for formal meetings and three times a week to work informally on our club projects. These kids are super bright, funny, hard working, motivated and inspirational. Quite a few of them are orphans or live with very sick relatives or come to school in ripped clothes and un-plaited hair. They carry poverty and heartache in their eyes but there is such light and energy in their faces that I sometimes forget.

These are the PACT kids:

Bangtha is the Chairman of the group. He is tall with a pug nose and a gap in his front teeth. Bangtha’s popularity rides on his demand for attention and his phenomenal ability to make the space around him roar with laughter. When PACT performed health-dramas at the primary school last week, Bangtha was the lead in both shows. Bangtha took the sensitive topics of HIV stigma and sexual abuse and made them “cool” and “important”. After the dramas, the primary kids asked a thousand questions and Bangtha leaned back in his chair with an air of superiority preaching health messages and awing the teachers with his charisma and insight.

Omuketsile is Vice Chair. You met her in a previous blog and might remember her as the “wonder child” who was recently orphaned. Omuketsile led the PACT club in starting and maintaining a Question Box which continues to shake and scare the school administration. Every week students fill the box with anonymous complaints and questions about physical abuse, sexual abuse, relationship problems, teacher-frustrations, food complaints, school-rule inquiries, family concerns and sex questions. In its first week we got 8 questions and this past week we got over 50. On Mondays Omuketsile empties the box and spends hours writing answers with the other club members. The teachers begin to panic that complaints are coming in about their classes and petition the headmaster to take down the box. Omuketsile stands her ground and continues to collect and post responses to questions each week. So much of her manner and beauty reminds me of a lightning storm.

Feri is our Secretary. Perpetual smile, bald head, cute lisp, complete lack of humility. On Saturday Feri saunters into the school hall with an armful of magazines. We are making beaded jewelry out of recycled magazines and selling them in the village to raise money for orphans and vulnerable children. Feri makes a green and a purple necklace with mechanical-precision. She hands me minutes from the last meeting with flowers and vines lining the page borders. You’re awfully creative, Feri. She smiles and says “I know” before prancing off to tease the boys in the back row.

Otarolo smiles rarely but when she does you want in on the joke. She’s got deep, serious features and a calm intelligence that makes people get quiet when she talks. In guidance class last week we were making “Trees of Life” where the branches represent your support-system and the roots your family and the fruit your values and the rocks your challenges and the birds your dreams. Otarolo bites on the end of her pencil and looks up from her symbolic branches: “Ms Charles, do you support me?” Yes, Otarolo always. She flashes me a giant smile and I remember there is still a child inside all that maturity and poise. Olorato writes incredibly profound responses to the question box inquiries and has the ability to solve all PACT club disputes with a single, authoritative sentence. When we were drafting letters for a library grant Otarolo submitted hers and I nearly ran home to giver her all my books. If Omuketsile is a lightning storm Otarolo is an eclipse.

Gabta is 4 feet tall with giant ears and the kind of humor that no one understands but which we find ourselves laughing to anyway. Gabta works very hard to convince the club that “R” rated movies are appropriate for the cinema-fundraising-project and loses in a unanimous vote. Last May he wore a cow-print blazer to compete in the school beauty contest and still managed looked debonair. He flirts relentlessly and successfully. Some kids have the kind of confidence that transcends societal-beauty-norms. Gabta is the prince dressed up like the jester. He plans to own a pharmaceutical business when he grows up and I have every confidence that he will be wealthy and successful.

Neo pronounced Nay-Oh has giant sad eyes and whispers when she speaks. We sit around a long table writing question box answers that Neo plows through with the compassion and intelligence of a trained psychologist. Other kids get stuck on questions or write incomplete answers but Neo gives the kind of advice that people pay for and yet never seems to exceed three lines in her reply. After they’ve been approved for the board Neo takes her penciled notes and re-writes them in bright green marker and litters the background with pink hearts. This reminds me that Neo is still a little girl and not a wise old sage. I feel a twinge of impatience for her to grow up so we can be friends.

Latoro was the mother in the primary school drama on sexual abuse. I didn’t understand a word of her Setswana lines but I was terrified every time she got on stage. When she yelled at the pedophile her eyes got big and her fists went up and the construction men working beyond the school courtyard stopped to watch her.

Mopo has been out-ed for having his heart-broken today. Since Batswana children are not allowed to date he denies this vehemently but then begs for an aspirin. I deny him the aspirin and he sits down without protest. His name means “gift” in Setswana and I believe it. He attends every meeting and writes question responses and smiles at me shyly. I am eager for him to open.

Tursy should be the cover page in a beauty magazine. Super tall and super thin with the prettiest black eyes I’ve ever seen. (Sans mascara, of course) Last Tuesday I told the PACT group they had been invited to perform 2 dramas at the primary school. The kids had exactly 6 days to prepare. By the weekend Tursy had written both performances and was energetically directing the practice sessions. She also starred in the sexual abuse skit as a molested child. In one scene she paces the stage singing “My sugardaddy how could you do this to me?” Her lament is beautiful and thick with grief. It stays with me afterwards and I find myself sadly singing her lyrics in my kitchen, three days later. I am confident that Tursy has reached her audience with this profound and haunting performance.

When Kris meets Oteng he cant stop saying “My god, she’s beautiful… she’s so beautiful.” Oteng doesn’t have Tursy’s super-model-splendor but her eyes are the kind you trust instantly and they make you want to know her. She opts to be a backup singer in the drama performances and doesn’t speak a word during PACT meetings. If you ask for her assistance on a project she nods and shows up on time and works hard. I catch her smiling from time to time and this embarrasses her. She is all quiet soft and subtle charm. And she has no idea.

I didn’t understand sustainability until I met the PACT kids. Capacity building was the theme of every MPH paper I wrote and the goal of every project I’ve begun in this village. Still, I didn’t get it. How do you initiate without controlling? How do you motivate without inspiring a dependence? How do you do without being?

About a month ago I was tearing out my hair trying to crush sustainability into the PACT group. I had 4 teacher-facilitators who never showed up for meetings and a headmaster who wouldn’t allow the club to function without staff representation. On Tuesdays and Thursdays 30 kids piled into the PACT classroom for their meeting and time and time again I was the only teacher who showed up.

I was furious and frustrated. This group is so powerful but without teacher support it’s not sustainable.

And then, one day, the Chairman stood to start his meeting and everything clicked.

I looked around the room:

Bangtha was opening the meeting.
Feri was taking minutes.
Oteng was collecting late fees.
Latoro was passing out the agenda.
Neo was saying the opening prayer.
Omuketsile was reading over the items she’d present.

And I

I was doing absolutely nothing.

I couldn’t even understand the Setswana.
These kids where running this group. All of it. And they were doing it well.

Yes, it’s true. We still need teacher leadership and, yes, I’m on the hunt to find someone who is willing to take the reigns.

In the mean time I am working to harness all the energy emanating from these kids. All their ambition and commitment and effort and perseverance.

Who says sustainability has to start at the top? or at the bottom for that matter?

It starts in the cracks … where the energy pools and potential waits to explode.

For 5 months I had been face to face with a wall and had never seen those cracks. They spidered and split in every direction but all I could see was the thick cement.

There is so much light pouring through these days. It’s blinding me and I can finally see.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Our Kennedy

brent shakes me.

get up. get up. he won. hes about to make his speech.

I shuffle into the living room where the survivors are still drunk and going strong while the rest of us are rubbing our eyes and easing into our hangovers. people clear themselves a spot between the chili bowls and beer bottles and obama t-shirts littering the floor. I lean on leah’s legs to watch mccain’s speech while someone starts pouring champagne.

it’s 7:30am when obama finally walks on stage. the room stills.

I always envied my parents for living through the Kennedy years. I always wanted to know what it felt like to love a president that much. to believe and trust a leader that way. someone once told me it wasn’t possible with today’s notorious media and the general lack of celebrity privacy. I believed them then. how do we maintain heroes when the paparazzi get rich off highlighting their vices and underlining their failures? I’ve felt this pessimism for years.

but there was obama.

obama with his smart suit and his tidy family and his honest smile. obama saying he was here to help us. admitting that he wasn’t perfect. praising us for believing in change. challenging us to trust him and to trust this country as he works to close a war and repair a recession. obama young and fresh and powerful and believable.

obama making us feel safe.

by 8:00 he had finished. I looked around the room at people crying and clinking their champagne glasses. someone said

this makes me want to be back home

and we all agreed as a wave of homesickness swept through the room.

where were you when kennedy was assassinated?
where were you when the twin towers fell?
where were you when obama won?

I was on a sofa in Gaborone, sipping cheap champagne and wiping my eyes and understanding patriotism for the first time in my life.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What Goes Around

Hands Down the most terrifying and nauseating experience of my life. Hands Down.

I will preface this tale by saying I am really, truly not afraid of bugs. I’m a hero when it comes to killing cockroaches, trapping spiders and spraying mosquitoes. Last night I killed what appeared to be a scorpion and preserved the carcass for further inspection. I am “girly” about a number of things but with bugs I should earn a Bravery Medal.

That said, it is now 8:46 on Friday night and I am camped out under my mosquito net with all the edges pinned down by books and pillows. Hiding. Literally.

It all began about an hour ago when I was sitting in my living room and heard what sounded like raindrops. Botswana’s rainy season started last night with a thunder and lightning storm so fierce it knocked out my District’s water and electricity for a full 30 hours.

But the noise I hear tonight was not rain.

Insects of a certain size and strength make a “clip” sound when they hit against cement walls-- like someone kissing the air. If that noise happens rapidly it sounds like rain. If that noise happens thousands of times a minute it sounds like a downpour.

By the time I make it to the bathroom the flying termites have encompassed the sink, windows, toilet and all four wall. Each termite is over an inch long and flies with the zest and enthusiasm of an angry dragon fly. I shut the bathroom door and grab my broom. My knuckles turn white around the plastic handle of the improvised weapon.

Now. This is how my thought process goes:

- If I can confine them in the bathroom I’ll be fine for the night
- How can I confine them?
- I’ll seal the cracks in the door with newspaper

After wedging in the newspaper I look out to kitchen window to see a dense cloud of termites swarming and smashing into the glass. The same scene is at my bedroom windows and again in the living room. I can feel a panic rising to my throat.

- Okay, theres one in the kitchen and two in the bedroom
- Got em. got em. guuuu-- got em!
- Shit, there are two more.
- Where are they coming from?

I’m stuffing paper into doorframes and widows but with every second more and more terminates pour into the house. In flustered terror I start hurdling my broom against the bugs who splatter green oil down my walls and over my floors. The ones I miss land on my hair and collect in my hood and I start to sweat and whimper involuntarily. Eventually I’m paralyzed by a lack of strategy and escape options. I stand in the center of the kitchen gripping the broom and my cell phone. I

- Alright, maybe I can call the Peace Corps medical officer and ask for advice
- Or should I call the safety and security officer?
- Should I bolt for the neighbor’s house and risk being engulfed in the swarm?

The cell phone beeps and it’s my landlord writing: “Bontle, turn off the lights, you’re attracting bugs.” I text back “There are hundreds in my house. I’m freaking out.”

The landlord knocks on my door 30 seconds later with two kids, the groundsman and the maid in tow. I am clearly in a state of panic and this is appears to be a source of great amusement for all five of them. They laugh and console me with the following comments:

- Don’t worry, the bugs wont hurt you.
- Look, you can just grab them by their wings like this and they die in your hand
- Yes, we get these after the rains. It’s not uncommon. They’ll be here for months.
- Just put out buckets of water and shut off the lights and they’ll all die eventually
- In Zimbabwe we rip off the wings and make a meal of these

They stay for 20 minutes helping me sweep out carcasses and fill bowls of water. When they head towards the door I swallow a plead for them to stay.

Last week Kris was running around my house smashing cockroaches and squirting Raid with terrified gusto. It’s possible I rolled my eyes at him once or twice. It’s possible I told him I had killed a spider and when he couldn’t find the carcass he scowled at me and knew I had lied. It’s possible I teased him about being more of a girl than me.

Welp. He wins. Kharma levels the playing field.

Still, was it really necessary to blanket my house in wings and corpses and green guts…?
The scope seems slightly excessive.


rush hour combi crowd crushing me home. someone closes the blinds so the colors go and I spend the ride staring at the ripped chair back and the flowered print of a woman’s dress. the man collecting our fare shouts out my stop and I make a wobbly exit under a 50 pound backpack.

the walk home is 15 minutes in sneakers but 20 with the pack. I brace myself for the longest stretch of the day and I check my watch. he’s boarding the plane now. I say a little prayer that they’ve given him a window and to see the blaze of one last African sunset.

orange twilight drapes the village as I start my trek.

five minutes into the walk I’m passing the school. the dismissal bell rings as the students pour out from the courtyard to the road. they smile and wave. they tell me they’ve missed me. two teachers come out of their houses to welcome me back. mr. sile waits to walk me halfway home. ms. meki meet us on the way and stops to tell me about her week and ask about my trip.

as I approach my yard I see that the landlady’s groundsman has come back after a 2 month stay at the hospital. he looks thin and sick but smiles in a way that draws light onto his face and makes me happy. we struggle through a botched-Setswana-sign-language dialogue where I tell him I’m happy he’s feeling better and he asks where I’ve been traveling and I tell him about zambia and tells me he’s worried about the wind blowing the roof tiles of my house off and I say I’ll talk to the landlady and he says goodnight and we smile awkwardly and I go inside.

sweatpants. water. sweep out the cockroach carcasses. flush the spider that’s died in the toilet. curse the water for being out again. flop on the couch.

knock knock. Oletum smiling at my door confirming our Sunday study date and where has kris gone to? and whens he coming back? and the landlady’s dog pokes her nose in for a pat and yes, I’ll be at morning assembly tomorrow. and see you tomorrow teacher.

when I close the door deep dusk marks the end of todays social scenes. I stand in my kitchen sipping water and listening to the neighbors prepare dinner over the outdoor fire. the rooster releases its classic erroneous crow and this feels alright.

and this feels right.


there is a pond behind the hotel where we sit and watch the monkeys play and snap the last of a thousand photos. a clock beats loud and long in the background and at 3:50 we surrender and shuffle back to the lobby.

in boston it was him. this time it’s me. somehow the one being left always takes it harder.

the shuttle driver beckons to me. he’ll let me ride into the airport and bring me back to the hotel. I thank him and shake my head. I have to get back to my village before dark.

kris waves out the window and I water blink water blink back and then hes gone and its over. just like that.

I stand on the sidewalk with the heat and the air and the space and I feel like a very small stain on a large dark planet. irrelevant and obvious.

the shuttle has been out of site for several seconds when the concierge approaches. he’s witnessed the good-bye scene and makes an effort to console me with gentle questions and polite conversation. after a minute the porter joins and they make me laugh and I start breathing normal again. we three stand there on the sidewalk and I marvel at this humane and gregarious gesture. and I remember this country and I remember this people and I fall in love all over again.

distance and proximity have such power on affection. the moment of remembering can nourish well.


two driving safaris. two boat safaris. jet boat on the Zambezi river. canoe trip with private guide. swim at the top of Victoria falls. falls rainbow. falls double rainbow. night swimming. sunset dinners. live music.

there is no way I can do these things justice through words. even hundreds of pictures couldn’t capture a fragment of this reality. suffice to say that southern Africa is paradise and for five days I got to bask in it.

A few footnotes to assist memory and inspire imagination:

- Zoo proximity pales in comparison to safari reality. put an animal in a cage and you lose their motion, energy, interaction and expanse. cage yourself instead. far more fascinating. frightening. humbling.

- Keep asking questions. You might discover that your canoe guide is a member of Zimbabwe’s democratic revolution movement. You might find he and three of his fellow revolutionaries were kidnapped and tortured by Mugabe’s military in 2003. you might find that he was amongst the two that survived. you might find he has some enlightening insight into Mugabe’s political strategies. Keep asking questions.

- Flying through mountainous gorges of the Zambezi river in a highspeed jet boat is exhilarating and fun and very wet. this particular activity is significantly more fun when those in the jetboat are the only people on the river. said activity becomes slightly less entertaining when one spots two very young children fishing on the banks of the Zambezi in ripped clothes with homemade fishing rods. Those children wave at you without smiling and this stayed with you for a long time.

- Elephants shower themselves with mud for sunscreen and sand for bug repellent. Female elephants are dominant and males submissive (at least one species got it right). Elephants have the strength and size to destroy local villages but are greatly limited by poor their eyesight. Villagers who gather on the side of the road to watch visiting elephants always remove their brightly colored shirts so as not to draw the elephants attention. They also stand nearly a quarter mile away from the visiting herd. Respect and humility.

- Zambians who want to visit to the UK pay a 150 pound visa fee. In retaliation Zambia charges both European and American citizens $150 for entry into their country. Africans cross the border for free but, even so, the truck queue for entry can take as long as 2 weeks to pass through. Most trucks are carrying goods through from Botswana and South Africa to supplement the DRC’s deprived economy.

- When you sign up to swim at the top of Vic Falls this is what it actually means: four guides take you and your fellow swim-suited-tourists to the top of the waterfall. they then beckon you into the “pool” where you perform a frantic dog paddle until one of the guides grabs you by the arm and pulls you towards the edge of the foamy cliff. at this point a strategically perched photographer snaps 35 photos of you terrified, flailing and, oddly enough, smiling. After that they take you to a lower ledge where you can see the exact height and fierce power of the cliff you’ve just been dangling off. it is here where your heart stops beating for a minute and you know why this particular site made it to the World’s 7 Wonders List.

- The best way to enjoy night pool swimming with its candlelight – live music garnish is to float on your back and watch the stars beside someone you love very much. Trust me.

- While it is true that Zambia holds more vivid poverty and more tiny villages and more tattered children and more classic culture and more obvious need – these images can not undermine the crisis or the need or your place in Botswana. Every developing country on this planet has the ability to shatter you to a new shape. there is no hierarchy of pain. Break into a million pieces for Zambia but then pick up every one and put them back together and go home to Botswana and do your job.

- Do not leave peanuts unattended in northern Botswana or southern Zambia. Do not leave your half eaten plate of breakfast on the table while you go up to the buffet for an oj refill. If you happen to make either (or both) of these mistakes snap pictures wildly while the monkeys scavenge your grub with gangly limbs and devious smiles.


It’s 6:06 on the evening of my birthday. Kris is finishing my present in the room and I’m watching the sunset over tall reeds and soft breeze on Chobe River. The pools reflect pink and yellow clouds and a safari cruise boat glides down the river front. Birds are flying in kaleidoscope patterns overhead and three Batswana are filling the air with the music of two drums and a xylophone.

I feel as though every color and sound and movement was designed for this moment and for me. I get to be alive. For 29 years.

And for today.

I have everything.


He’s across the airport. I’m calling his name but he can’t hear. pace quickens to a jog and then a run and then I’m laughing and he turn and he sees me and

just like that

my World’s collide.

Jess!!! There’s another one!

I kill 11 flying cockroaches and three spiders before Kris suggests a hotel in Gaborone. He’s survived thorny mountain climbing, sweltering combi rides, gamey village beef, cumbersome bucket baths, a slew of school introductions, and four nights under the mosquito net. He has also persevered through 30 hours of water-outage and a broken fan which he wrestled into submission with duck tape and willpower. He flashes me a smile I’ve craved for 6 long months and our browns meet and I sink into his t-shirt and consent.

It’s already 4:00 so the race is on to make it to Gabs before dark. We stuff backpacks, empty the trash, seal the gas and click off the fan. 4:45. I call to make sure the lodge has rooms. Kaleview is full. Kris is closing curtains in the sitting room when I call the second lodge. He’s washing his hands in the kitchen when I call the third. After hanging up for the 10th time I let out an exasperated sigh which catches his attention. We sit under the mosquito net with the guide book and phone directory making frantic calls. After being rejected by 20 lodges we walk to the school and use their directory to call ten more. All are full.

Kris puts his arm around me and squeezes my shoulder and says “Wasn’t there another tuck shop you wanted to show me? Let’s go get dinner. We’ll do Gabs tomorrow.”


On the 5th night we manage to book the last room at the Crystal Palace. Upon arrival they inform us that Gabs is booked everywhere because of a Ladies Detective Agency filming this week. We are impressed an annoyed. We spend a sleepless night in the Palace batting off mosquitoes and cursing the broken AC. I miss my village until morning when I shuffle into a hot standing shower and it all feels worth it.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Preserving Color

The village is bursting with color. Who would have thought springtime in the desert would include sprays of yellow flowers under bright purple trees and pink rose bushes. Even dried flowers hold the shape of globes and fans and I collect these to replace house plants I’ve lost to the heat.

Most days I disdain the thought of being seen as a tourist and make it a point to speak as much Setswana as possible and make lists of names to memorize. But next week I will reach the six month anniversary of my arrival and I’m starting to marvel (and fret) at how quickly time passes here. I see myself easing into that common human tendency to grasp and preserve everything we fall in love with.

On the hour-trek out to the primary school the village throbs loud with color and beauty. I make it half way to the school before I surrender and pull out my camera to capture fragments of a brilliance I will never be able to describe in words.

The path to the schoolyard is framed by blue and yellow rocks with children’s handprints pressed into the paint. The kid’s excited hum greets me in the courtyard where teachers who don’t fit in classrooms hold their lessons under thick trees. With 800 kids and just 10 classroom this leaves close to 150 students whispering and pointing as I approach. I slip into my Faux-Celebrity-Mode and wave back to their shouts and pretend I’m a hot movie star and not a weird-looking-white-girl. (Hey, we all have survival strategies)

Ahh, Bontle. Come in come in.

Mma Aogkel smiles and ushers me into a classroom where her and the other Guidance Counselor will hold our meeting. We idle awkwardly while Mma Etsile attempts to find us chairs and eventually resigns herself to the two and makes the third of her desk top.

Library project, fundraising, typing lessons and drama presentations. I’ve brought an agenda that we work our way through to the tune of 60 animated first-graders buzzing and giggling at out backs.

Alright, so the PACT kids are presenting on Secondary School Preparedness for the Standard 7s. There are over 15 kids signed up for this so I think its going to be great. Now, do you want Standard 1 – 6 presentations as well?

Yes, yes, dramas. That helps keep their attention. HIV/AIDS for the 1 – 3s… protection that’s what they need the most.

Uh-huh, great. Perfect—we can do this. HIV is focus of secondary Lifeskills too so this will be good learning for everyone. And the 4 – 6s?

There is a pause where Mma Aogkel removes her glasses and wipes the sweat off her face. She exchanges a look with Mma Etsile that turns the room white and silent. She replaces her glasses and looks at her hands for a moment before speaking.

This is when they start to be abused.

I have seen compassion from teachers in this country but Mma Aogkel’s face reads something very different.

Old men. Old men take them into their homes and then the girls tell me its love.

She is shattering.

Who does this? These men are sick. Sick.

She scowls and her voice gets louder.

So many of them, Bontle. So many have told me. They’re like sex slaves but they don’t even know. They think it’s a relationship. The men tell them it’s a relationship. They give them presents and sweets and tell them it’s … Something.

I put my hand on her arm and nod at her and we sit like that until the color comes back and we can hear the kids again.

Mma Etsile is being transferred at the end of the term and Mma Aogkel will be the sole guidance counselor to all 800 students. We make a plan to have PACT presentations on protection from abuse and we schedule a mandatory training on sexual abuse counseling for the entire school staff. The Ministry will be contacted to urge that they fill Mma Etsile’s position before the start of January term.

Not solutions. Not even solace. But a start.

When I walk back through the school courtyard the children have been dismissed. A group of girls gathers around me in an animated circle where they practice their English and touch my hair and giggle in that way that makes me able to breathe again.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


Everyday work starts at 6:50 and ends at 5:00. I spend these hours co-teaching guidance classes, working with the PACT students, training people on computer skills, writing grant proposals, attending kgotla meetings and filling out report paperwork. When I shuffle home at the end of the day I’m exhausted and looking forward to the comfort and privacy of my Cooking-Exercising-Setswana-Studying-Letter-Writing routine. This is the first time in my life I have ever lived alone and I find the silence and freedom incredibly peaceful. And addictive.

Before I left for China I took an ESL training course in Boston. Of my 12 classmates, two had recently gotten back from Peace Corps. Jim had served in Uganda for two years and Sara in Indonesia. Jim and Sara were nice enough people and had interesting stories but also had this tendency to be just a little too quiet and just a little too quirky at times.

Peace Corps Weird. Nichole said over lunch one day.
What do you mean?
I mean Peace Corps Weird. I’m telling you—people who do Peace Corps get weird. Too much time alone, I think. Too much time in alone in a strange culture. That’ll do it to you. They come back a little “off”.
Huh. I guess I can see that with Sara and yeah—I guess Jim can be kind of odd.
Yup. I’m telling you. That shit changes you.

So in an effort to avoid (or at the very least postpone) my Peace Corps Weird-ness I make it a point to be social. I invite the neighborhood kids over to play games, I host a party for a few teachers, I help the students with their homework on the weekends, I take a walk with the teachers after school.

Along with keeping me sane, these things help me learn the culture and language better.

The catch is that culture and language still get in the way. Not that there are problems—just that there is distance. In the subjects. In the humor. In the ease. In the significance.

And so it’s Tuesday night when Miss Bless knocks on my door. Dinner is in the oven and I’m ten minutes into leg-lifts and just Not In The Mood for entertaining. I consider holding my breath until she leaves but that seems like a very Peace-Corps-Weird thing to do so I get up with a sigh and open the door.

Hi Sweetie! She bellows with a smile.

Miss Bless dons tennis shoes and giant yellow earrings and a thin layer of sweat on her forehead.

I’ve been walking Bontle but I just wanted to stop by and say hi—only for a minute, baby, just to say hi.

Instead of putting on the kettle I make the executive decision to offer water and I take her to the sitting room. Since the room remains unwired we sit by candle light and talk about all the usual subjects:

The heat.
Weekend plans.
School exams.

I’m bored. Restless. I’ve begun scheming excuses to end our visit.

For days now I’ve been trying to remember what happened between that 7:00 restlessness and her 10:00 departure. Where did it start? What twist in polite banter got us wrapped up in development theory and theological discourse and behavior change? What moment of connection got her eyes watering and my chest thumping like that?

For the life of me I cannot remember where it began, but it Did Begin. And then it grew. For three hours this woman fueled something inside of me that I had silenced in village social circles and stifled in local conversation:


In PCV crowds you can be cynical and skeptical and disgruntled and even bleak. You can complain.

But in Batswana circles you are Commitment and Progress and Vision. You stuff down pessimism and plaster on a smile and tell them things are going to get better and you are going to help them.

You do not tell them you are scared to death that this effort futile. You do not tell them that HIV prevention efforts are failing all over the continent. You do not tell them that all the Lifeskills lessons in the world mean nothing if these kids go home to empty, alcoholic, abusive households.

But I slipped.

It wasn’t a rant but it was A Comment. And it did get us talking. Real Talking.

Ms. Bless leaned forward and began to tell me the story of her salvation experience. I watched her eyes get large in the candle light and I nodded politely at the appropriate moments and whispered a “wow” in her pauses and waited for her to finish. But she didn’t finish. Ms. Bless moved from her salvation experience to her students’. She told me a string of stories about orphaned children. Prostitute children. Poor children. HIV+ children. And she told me about their salvation: spiritually and literally.

In the professional public health world we call them FBOs. Faith Based Organizations. Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques.

Ms. Bless was preaching a development theory I had believed a year ago but somehow lost in all the overwhelming reality of this Actually Being Here. She was advocating for the role of FBOs. And she was right.

Now, allow me to put your mind at ease: I have not become a missionary. I have not begun preaching. I have not teetered into a new layer of Peace Corps Weird.

What has happened is that I have touched a sliver of Hope. And this is why FBOs can work. Need to work:

Batswana Children Do Not Have A Support System.

Dramatic? Embellished?


The GREAT majority of children are not being raised in supportive environments.
- Their parents are poor, uneducated, distant and/or deceased
- Their school teachers are frequently transferred, always overworked and too busy with their own stress to have energy left over for the hundreds of students they’ve been allocated
- Their village shares one social worker with three other villages. She does not have private transportation.
- Their clinic nurses are notorious for being rude and dismissive to children
- Their guidance counselor is on the pastoral committee, the fundraising committee, the PTA committee and she’s got a sick husband and five kids of her own. Oh, and she commutes an hour to work.

Still want to talk capacity building?

So where does a Batswana kid go for support? There is not an after-school program. There is not a YMCA. There is not a Big Brother Big Sister program. There is not a teen hotline.

There is a church.

In fact, there are 10 churches in this village. All within walking distance. All full of music and morality and care and hope. All focused on the missions of loving, helping, nurturing, saving. All open to children. All able to give what parents, teachers, social workers, health professionals and Peace Corps volunteers can not.

Churches are not perfect. Lord knows organized religion has its flaws. But churches are Something in a daunting void. Churches are a start.

I walk Ms. Bless halfway home and jog back over moonlit sand dunes. I have that rare sensation of conscious joy.


The next day at school Ms. Bless meets with the Scripture Union. This group has not had a staff facilitator in months. The students have begged for one but none of the teachers were willing to help. Last month the students took the initiative to call in a guest speaker. When he arrived the Headmaster sent him away because the Scripture Union didn’t have staff support or approval.

Ms. Bless meets with the Scripture Union on Wednesday and arranges for her pastor to attend as their guest speaker on Thursday. The man arrives at the 3:30 bell and gives a passionate sermon on love and empathy. Kids pour into the hall and listen intently. When he finishes they sing praise songs with a volume and energy unparallel to any other I have heard in this country.

I stand outside the hall and watch these kids worshipping. They look incredibly happy. And they look stronger.

Save a soul.
Save a life.
Save a kid.
Save a nation.

Semantics. We’re all working for the same thing: salvation

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Music Lessons

Motswana student’s school days go like this…

6:50 – 7:10 Morning Assembly
7:10 – 9:50 Classes
9:50 – 10:20 Tea break
10:20 – 1:00 Classes
1:00 – 2:00 Lunch
2:00 – 3:30 Study Hall
3:30 – 5:00 Clubs and Sports

Yesterday I was sitting in my office at 3:30 as the students finished their academics and headed out for afternoon activities. It’s the beginning of the summer here so the weather is warm and breezy. (Sometimes I close my eyes in all this sand and wind and imagine I’m at the ocean).

Since it’s still the beginning of the term, teachers seem to have energy for clubs and activities and extra help sessions. Students aren’t stressing over their final exams yet so there’s a kind of easy atmosphere that makes one relax. That makes one happy. That, at the right moment, may even make one sing.

That’s what happened at 3:30 yesterday. The kids just started singing. I heard them belting out worship songs in the courtyard and for a minute I stopped to listen to them. When it ended I thought nothing of it and went back to work.

This morning’s Assembly began like any other: the kids sang a song, said the Lord’s Prayer and two students gave a presentation on the week’s theme. A few teachers got up for announcements and then the kids prepared to sing their “marching song” for dismissal.

But before dismissal Mr. Gnoem took the stage carrying four long sticks. He scowled at the students for the length of an uneasy silence.

It has come to my attention that several students were misbehaving yesterday. He began.

Every movement paralyzed. The students looked up at him in stone.

Singing loudly and disturbing people is not the way we expect you to behave in this school, ga ke re? (right?)

Eeh, rra. The students answered meekly.

Now, I am going to read a list of names and I want these students to come stand on the stage with me. You will notice that many of these students are also low-performers academically and I think we can see why. Esther, however, Esther is a surprise. She is a PACT member and is meant to be a role model for her peers. This is very disappointing.

The students shifted back and forth on their feet as Mr. Gnoem called out the 10 names. When beckoned, each child came obediently to the stage. The group formed a line in front of the school and Mr. Gnoem picked out a stick. I began to feel sick. I looked at the tree line beyond our schoolyard and focused on controlling my cringes.

Mr. Gnoem whipped each student while the audience roared with laughter. By the end, he had gone through all four sticks. Not one of the punished students had so much as flinched.

When finished, Mr. Gnoem demanded a marching song for dismissal.

The Family Story

Omuketsile and her best friend sit in my living room sipping coffee and looking at magazines. I’ve asked them to come so I can see how Omuketsile is doing after her mum’s death. We all know this but the girls giggle and chit chat for a full hour before they get quiet. I think we’re all nervous.

Omuketsile is fine.
Her family is fine.
Yes, she’s been sleeping.
Yes, her grandmother is taking care of them.
Yes, her brother and sister are at home.
The brother is working.
Grandma is not.
The sister is on maternity leave.
The brother is a delivery man in Gabs.
Yes, she worries a little about the money and food.
Yes, she’d like me to help her register as an orphan at the kgotla.

Omuketsile, like most children in Botswana, does not have a father. Men in Botswana die young from AIDS or get transferred away from their partners to teach in rural villages or work in the country’s diamond and coal mines. Thousands of Motswana men also work in South Africa’s gold mines where their salary is paid in the “strong rand” —just enough for trip a home once each month. or season.

Some men opt to live what I’ve come to understand as the Mostwana Dream: an agricultural life. Men who work as farmers remain close to their partners but most do not make enough money to pay their bride’s lebola (dowry). Traditionally, Motswana fathers demand their daughter’s lebola at than 10 cows. Nowadays, men who opt to pay lebola in cash can be asked to shell out as much as 20,000 Pula (over $3,000).

If a man does managed to get over the dowry hurdle the couple then must pay for a wedding and a feast large enough to feed their entire village. If the couple happens to be from different villages, they must host two separate wedding celebrations. Both celebrations are judged by the variety, quantity and quality of meat offered. The bride changes into a minimum of three elaborate gown in the course of her wedding day.

Marriages still take place in Botswana but are rivaled by the growing popularity of co-habitation. In the 2003 WHO report on domestic violence, Botswana was the only country where statistics were listed not only for married and single women, but also for co-habitating women. To have missed this group would have greatly under-represented the nation’s female population.

Cohabitation offers a neat alternative for the enormous expense of marriage but rarely results in long term, monogamous relationships. Most couples separate after a short time due to work transfers or infidelity.

In Botswana’s social circles men praise one another for sleeping around while women pile into the churches waiting for a “good man” to come along and love them like they deserve. Every day I get petitioned by women begging me to find them an “American-Man-Who-Knows-How-To-Treat-Women” and we shake our heads together and laugh at How Men Are and pretend this is all a trivial matter and not the crumbling foundation of their nation’s families, economy and healthy.

In PCV circles we blame patriarchy and economics and dowry and ceremony and promiscuity and government and AIDS and sex. We wrap it up in theories and rue the administration and rally for change. And we pity little girls who don’t know enough to feel sorry for themselves.
Next week the government will begin delivering Omuketsile a monthly food basket and paying for her school fees and uniform.

Next week the government will also transfer hundreds of workers away from their families.

One step forward, two steps back.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Best Moment Yet

PACT stands for Peer Approach to Counseling Teens.

The PACT workshop is run annually by Hope World Wide (an NGO that assists developing countries in promoting and improving their national health).

All secondary schools in Botswana are expected to have an operating PACT club. My school has one. It has members. It has a lead teacher. Last term it never met once. Why? Lead teacher wasn’t in the mood.

Even so, on the first day of the workshop 30 kids from our school show up to participate. Although our bus transport is a 2 full hours late, we eventually arrive in Thamaga and are greeted by over 100 students from other PACT clubs in surrounding villages.

The HOPE facilitators divide students into three groups and launch into lessons on decision making, alcoholism and teen dating. I am propped in the corner of one classroom as the Token Volunteer. The students from smaller villages stare at me while chanting answers to the facilitator’s questions. All questions and answers are delivered in half English, half Setswana. All answers sound like they’re being read out of a book. Or a dictionary.

Motswana teenagers have an amazing ability to endure hour upon hour of this type of learning while reciting long definitions and explanations of key terms from the subject at hand. Rarely have I seen a lesson where students ask questions, discuss, or debate. And yes, all classes are held in Setswinglish… immensely frustrating for my novice-ear.

Although I’ve watching numerous classes like this I have yet to master the art of Feigned Attention. After the first hour I begin to squirm in my chair and force myself to take notes. (Yes, I doodle in the margins. No, the kids cant see what I’m writing.) Maybe all Americans have ADD…? I contemplate this thought while searching the students faces for signs of boredom or inattention. They give nothing away but when the tea-break bell rings they rush the door with such enthusiasm I decide to drop my national analysis theories.

After tea break the head facilitator tells the volunteers to rotate classrooms. For the second half of the morning I get Molly. Praise the Lord for teachers like Molly.

Molly’s sets her room up in a horseshoe shape instead of the traditional All-Facing-The-Board Formation. She calls each student by name and the class runs on a kind of easy rhythm bouncing between her questions and their discussion. An exchange. Learner centered. Facilitating verses lecturing. I am genuinely impressed and tell her this at the break.

Great. She smiles. Maybe you can help with the games in the next session.

What?! Really?

For all the teachers in my audience who sincerely love teaching: imagine sitting on the sidelines and observing other people’s classes for 4 months and not being allowed to participate. Imagine the frustration when you observe weak classes and can’t help. Imagine the disappointment when you observe strong classes and can’t be a part of the energy. Torture.

After three singing games without “lesson learning points” (yes, I’m also fixated on purpose… teacher-trainer residue) I tell Molly I’ve got a fun team game.

“Backs To The Board”. It’s my secret weapon. It’s the perfect game to get kids ‘warmed up’ at the beginning of class. It’s the perfect way to review vocabulary. It’s the perfect strategy for rescuing a lesson that’s about to flop. It’s the perfect trick for recovering a lesson that’s already flopped so the kids don’t leave wholly class disappointed.

The game in a nutshell:
Two teams. One volunteer from each team sits in a “hot seat” at the front of the room with their back to the board. The rest of the team faces their volunteer and reads the word I write on the board. The volunteer cannot look at the board but must try to guess the word from hints and gestures their teammates show them. The first volunteer to guess the word correctly earns a point for their team. Then someone else gets a chance to be in the “hot seat”.

Best part: teacher gets to sit back and just play the referee. Totally learner focused. Totally participatory. 100% successful 100% of the time.

So the PACT workshop vocab I select are things like: HIV, ARVs, prevention, transmission, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, condom, circumcision, PLWHA, stigma, orphans, abstinence, etc.

Each time a team guesses a word correctly I give them 1 point and then a follow-up question:

What percent of Motswana citizens are infected with HIV? (33%)
When can a mother transfer HIV to her baby? (during pregnancy, during birth, while breastfeeding)
What does PLWHA stand for? (People Living With HIV and AIDS)
Male circumcision reduces the rate of HIV infection by what percent? (60%)
What is one way you can reduce stigma at your school?

So as if I wasn’t buzzed enough from the kids energy and enthusiasm over this game, something even more inspiring starts to happen:

The kids start asking questions.

It’s amazing. In the middle of the game they just start raising their hands. Then they start answering each other. Then they start debating.

The energy and concentration in the room quadruples as we discuss some of the most basic questions interspersed with deep, heart wrenching inquiries.

This Q+A session goes on for a full hour with questions such as:

If I eat an apple and share it with my friend and they have AIDS, can I get it?
How many people have AIDS in America?
Why does Africa have so much more AIDS than America?
What if my sister cuts her foot and I am cleaning it? Can I get AIDS from that?
How can we talk to our parents about HIV when they wont listen to us?
How long can people live with HIV?
What should we do when the nurses at the clinic are rude to us and wont help us?
One of my friends mother is dying from AIDS and I don’t know how to help her.
Is it true that a prostitute can live with AIDS longer than other people?
Are more black Americans or white Americans infected with HIV? (I skirted this one and said IV-drug users and people in prison)
If I’m helping my dad kill a goat, can the goat give me AIDS?

Flora (a PCV colleague) is watching the class and jumps in to help with questions. She has 30 years of professional counseling experience in the States and I am thrilled and relieved to have her support. We work together answering kids questions for a full hour.

At the end of the session the kids thank us, clap for us and some of them make us cards and notes. One girl raises her hand and says: “Please please go talk to the other children in Botswana. We need to hear these things.”

Flora has bright red hair and deep blue eyes. She wears a straw hat, sun dress and perpetual smile. When we walk out of the class Flora puts her arm around my shoulder:

That was great. She says. That’s what we came here for.

It is my favorite moment yet.

Monday, August 18, 2008


At 8:30 on Sunday Oletum knocks at my door. It is my first morning after returning from the Youth Form and I feel a heavy reluctance to leave the warmth of my bed. Oletum knocks louder and I shuffle into slippers and head to the front door.

Although he greets me with a smile, I notice right away that Oletum’s face looks incredibly thin. I did not realize that black skin could turn pale but his has become a light grayish color, turning him into an old and frail version of the teenager I knew two weeks ago.

Oletum hurries through our greetings and then tells me he is very hungry and has a terrible headache. His parents are in Gaborone for the weekend and he and his grandmother have run out of food.

I’ve been away for the week and so I have very little to offer him. I scan my kitchen and find half a package or pasta, one can of beans and a tin of tuna. That is all I have.

Oletum asks me if this food will help his headache and I say yes.

The truth is that I have no idea if the food will help Oletum’s headache. I have no idea if he has a mother and father. I have no idea if I am inspiring an unhealthy dependence. I have no idea if he needs to go to the clinic. I have no idea if his family is registered with the government assistance program.

I say goodbye to Oletum and go inside where my worry grows into anxiety and then fear.

By 9:30 I’m dressed and heading to the tuck shop for groceries. On my way back I walk towards Oletum’s home but realize that his “White House Over There” description is not sufficient enough to guide me. I greet a group of neighborhood kids throwing rocks and they agree to take me to the right hut.

When I arrive Oletum is cooking the spaghetti over an outdoor fire with his wrinkled grandmother looking on from a nearby stool. The color has come back to Oletum’s cheeks and he says his headache has started to wane. I pass his grandmother a loaf of bread and then grill him for a full five minutes. Oletum obliges…

My parents will be back at 9:00 tonight.
I ate porridge for breakfast.
Yes, I’ve been drinking water.
No, our family does not receive the monthly government food baskets.
No, I do not want you to speak to the guidance counselor about registering us.

This goes on until I consider the very real possibility that I’ve Been Had.

I look around the family compound at three white washed brick houses and several healthy-looking chicken. I notice the grandmother’s neat flowered dress. I see melon slices hanging on a clothes line to dry in the sun.

Oletum, what did you tell me your parents do for work?

My father is a driver and my mother works at the Council in Gabs.

And how many siblings do you have?

Four brothers but they are older and none of them live in Kumakwane now.

So there are two possibilities: Oletum has completely lied about being in need or Oletum is being neglected by his parents. Either way I am certain that the family in middle-class and there are options for food other than soliciting handouts from the new American neighbor.

I walk home in a gloomy cloud of irritation and self-doubt.

A few hours later Oletum returns to knock at my door. This time he doesn’t have a story or a need. This time he just stands there and smiles at me.

Oletum comes in and we play cards and talk together for 2 hours.


A couple of years ago Jon and I were walking through snowy Boston streets on our way to dinner. He passed a dollar to a homeless man who to thank him in a thick, dramatic slur. Jon was always giving money to beggars but this time I scowled at him.

That man is drunk.
But don’t you think he’s just going to use the money for alcohol?

Jon walks with a light bounce in his step and stands a full foot taller than me. He looks down into my disapproving glare and smiles.

It’s freezing and the guy is homeless, Jess. Maybe he needs food. Maybe he needs a drink. All I know is, he needs that dollar a whole helluva lot more than I do.


After he beats me at both War and Uno, Oletum heads home to make dinner for his grandmother. I sit in my living room and think of the pasta, tuna, beans and bread that Oletum needed or didn’t but which I replaced for myself within an hour.

Maybe we who Have will never fully understand Paucity. Maybe the closest we can get to compassion is accepting that Reality is Relative and Need is Personal.

We cannot rank pain. We cannot rate the bowl or vessel or emptiness one chooses to fill with that which they receive.

Our job is to pour. To pour into hungriness, loneliness, sickness and little boys who just need to be Heard.


I arrive home from the Youth Forum at noon, exhausted from a week of 12-hour-work-days, blazing hot sun, and the endless energy of summer camp kids. A 2 hour bus ride, 20 minute walk, three keys, two doors and I’m finally inside. I shed my enormous backpack and lumpy sleeping bag with animated relief.

The night before we left for the Forum I had invited people over for dinner and drinks, the residue of which greets me on every table, chair and counter. I make one valiant effort to comb the rooms before allowing myself a Much-Earned cat nap.

On the floor by my front door lays a long strip of paper with pencil writing on it. I assume this has fallen out of someone’s bag and throw it on the kitchen table beside wine glasses and dinner crumbs.

The slip of paper sits there for 5 hours before I read it.


Omuketsile is the first student at Kumakwane Secondary School whose name I learn. She is a picture of exaggerated beauty: very tall, very dark, and very thin. Omuketsile wears a scarf when other kids wear jackets and long straight hair when her classmates plait theirs. She leads morning assemblies no fewer than twice each week and is active in both the PACT club and the Traditional Dance Club. Last term Omuketsile placed among the top five students in her class and then rocked the school’s beauty contest as a finale.

Whenever Omuketsile stands up to speak about the week’s health theme one of the teachers will turn to me and exclaim some praise of her brilliance. A few teachers have told me she has a twin sister but they nearly always punctuate any mention of the other girl by informing me she is no where near as intelligent or articulate as Omuketsile. This bothers me until I realize it is not meant to be malicious… it is a simple fact: Omuketsile is dynamic.

When I have been at the school for less than two weeks, Omuketsile and her best friend approach me in the hall asking for assistance with a project. I assume they want me to edit one of their English essays and so agree to meet with them the following day.

The next day the girls arrive to our meeting with 10 handwritten pages. As I skim their notes I am shocked to find that I am reading a proposal to pilot a new Teen Health Program on BTV (BTV is Botswana’s only domestically produce television channel-- all others imported from South Africa).

The girl’s proposal is very professional and shows a serious desire to help improve the health of their generation. After talking more with them about their plans for program elements and funding I start to get excited about the project myself. By the end of our first meeting I am fully convinced that a talk/news/entertainment show run by teens for teens has the potential to be an incredibly powerful tool in reaching this country’s modern-ized, technolog-ized, teliv-ized youth.

The girls and I meet every afternoon for two months to draft and type the proposal together.

The following paragraph is part of the cover letter I sent two weeks ago with Omuketsile’s proposal to the BTV producers:

…Botswana is currently in the midst of a perilous health crisis which is inflicting great burden on your nation’s families, community and economy. In addressing Botswana’s health needs your country’s leaders are struggling to empower today’s youth to combat the rising prevalence of HIV/AIDS (33% of the population), teenage pregnancy (20% of female youth) and poverty (47% of all households) as well as other national crises such as passion killings, school drop outs, STIs, theft and assault.

National and international leaders are under pressure to initiate new prevention programs to address these issues but many are failing for a lack of personnel, funding and passion.

These young ladies represent a rare and necessary voice of enthusiasm and ambition that is vital in addressing Botswana’s health crisis. In addition, their youth equips them with a point of view that can relate and appeal to their peers in a way that their parents and teachers cannot.


I stumble into the kitchen after my nap and begin making a cup of tea. As the water boils I put dishes in the sink and start throwing away small pieces of trash and bottles. I come to the note again and realize it is a child’s writing. Before tossing it into the barrel I skim the paper’s words.

And then I read it slower.

And then I read it out loud.

The paper holds a simple message:

Dear Ms. Charles: Omuketsile’s mom is dead so we were visiting you to break this bad news. We will come to see you on Tuesday.

I read the message three times before I begin to sob. I do not understand my tears or the incredible pain this message pulls from me but I know that I cry deeply and for a very long time.

The note was delivered a full week ago. I have missed both visits and all of the services. The funeral ended 3 hours before I arrived home. I do not know where the family lives. I do not even know Omuketsile’s surname.

Helpless little white girl crying for Something she cannot touch and cannot heal but which swirls around her with such force it can sometimes make one dizzy and often make one weak and always make one ache.

Black and White Pictures

“If Obama becomes president will they call the white house and black house?”

I’m in stitches. Five little boys crowd our dinner plates asking these hilarious political questions interspersed with Setswana lessons and requests to be taught new American “street talk”. I’m mortified that the only slang I can remember is “Chillin”, “Sweet”, and… shockingly: “That’s Wack”. Fortunately, the boys aren’t able to date my “coolness” and so we manage to maintain this banter through dessert.

The Youth Forum is jammed with lectures, music, debates, games, dramas, group work, songs and sports. A break from hours of tortuous exams and route memorization fills these kids with such energy and excitement it’s hard to take your eyes off of them.

In addition to the novelty of student-centered instruction, this is also the first time I’ve seen Motswana children fully equipped for a learning environment: each child spends the week toting around a free backpack filled with paper, pens and rulers while donning a new orange t-shirt with matching visor.

The t-shirts read: “Empowering Youth for Life: Be on the race’. Although the slogan appears to have a preposition error the kids seem to understand the message despite faulty metaphors. It is fascinating to watch them pour such profound thought, creativity, discussion and inquiry into topics like
· teenage pregnancy
· child rights
· hygiene
· volunteerism
· substance abuse
· behavior change
· truancy
· decision making
· youth stress

This active involvement in combination with each day’s menu of 3 hearty means and 2 tea time snacks means kids are left with little reason for complaint, quarrel or theft (theft is, by far, the worst problem for children growing up in the midst of Botswana’s vast social disparities and grossly underfunded public school system).

As part of the “Security Committee” I spend evenings patrolling the halls and dorms where kids are found comparing the days notes, plaiting each others hair, wrestling, giggling and full of all the summer camp chaos that make kids kids despite a color and a continent and a need.

And so this is a slice of Botswana at its worst and at its best. OVCs eating, clothed, learning and entertained. Seven days for 100 kids. Maybe a start, maybe a break but, either way, a picture of what can and should and will be, on day, in Botswana.

“No.” I smile back at Katlego’s big goofy grin. “No, they won’t call it a black house but they might call it a better house. Change is coming.”

And he beams back at me with all the hope and promise a 10 year old boy can hold.

Little Miracles in Mayhem

Thursday was the last full day of our school term before the August break. Three weeks I had planned to use finishing my site report, studying Setswana, and beginning a community outreach program with the clinic staff.

On Thursday at noon the headmaster delivered me a one page fax which said, quite simply, that all Peace Corps Lifeskills volunteers were required by Botswana’s Ministry of Education to attend a seven day Youth Forum in Pitsane. We had exactly two days to prepare, pack and get ourselves to Gabs for transport.

I turned the fax over three times: That’s it? But what is the Youth Forum? What is our role at the Forum? Are we supposed to present? Supervise? Entertain? Who else is attending? What is the dress code? What type of accommodations will we have?

Peace Corps had no answers. The Ministry would not return calls. Other PCVs were equally shocked and confused.

Eventually I resigned myself to ambiguity, threw the better portion of my wardrobe into the backpack and headed for the bus stop.

Upon arrival in Pitsane we unloaded from the bus and sat on the stoop of a boarding school for exactly six hours promoting the notorious Peace Corps slogan: “Hurry Up and Wait.” Lily led some yoga, Hael broke out a deck of cards and Lee made everyone cheese sandwiches.

At 5:30 with exactly one hour until sundown we were gathered together and told that there were not enough beds to accommodate all the attending staff. A chaotic conversation ensued and resulted in PCVs agreeing to double up in the twin beds to fit 4 volunteers in each dorm room. The Ministry representative promised to work out more comfortable accommodation by the second evening. We plastered on smiles and optimism despite our doubts.

On the way to dinner we finally cornered a few Motswana staff long enough to get a answers:

· Botswana’s Youth Forum began in 1999 to provide psychosocial support for the nation’s at-risk youth.
· Today, the Youth Forum invites 100 OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) for an annual week-long camp with educational workshops and events to encourage youth health and empowerment.
· The Youth Forum is funded by UNICEF, The UN Population Fund and Botswana’s Ministry of Education

Wow. Impressive. So where does Peace Corps fit in?
Um. You know… extra hands.
Extra hands for what?
Well… um… for everything, I guess.

As we approached the dining hall our Motswana informants scatter.

Fortunately the Dinner Process renewed my commitment to this event. For the first time since arriving in this country I watched children fed before adults. I am deeply impressed. Karl tells me that this novel system is the direct result of a previous PCV’s overt outrage at children going hungry during last year’s Forum. I am elated to see the kids eating large chunks of chicken, healthy portions of rice and even sides of squash and cold slaw.

In Kumakwane our school is constantly running out of firewood to cook with or having heaps of rice stolen from the kitchen. I once began a 12:00 class where the students were sleeping on their desks and refusing to answer my questions. I teased them…

A bit tough to get you guys going on Friday afternoon, huh?
No, Ms. Charles, we’re hungry. We haven’t eaten today. We cant concentrate when we haven’t eaten.

My cheeks burned with embarrassment and rage.

Three days later sitting at the weekly teachers meeting I watched a senior staff member stand up and severely chastise the headmaster for neglecting the nutritional needs of their students by failing to provide adequate funding, timely delivery and kitchen security. The frightening, authoritative headmaster sat with his tail between his legs nodding and apologizing. The other teachers cheered.

(It an important point this exchange was only permitted because the outspoken instructor was the eldest on staff. Age Hierarchy at its best.)

Still, less than a month later the firewood ran out again and for three days in a row the school was let out early so students could go home for lunch. A very large percentage of these kids left school for homes equally void of food.

So there I was at the annual UNICEF Youth Forum watching 100 OVCs pile their little tin bowls fill of greasy protein and thick carbohydrates. I had half a bed, a cold shower, and a vivid sense of useless attendance at this event… but looking at a room of orphans eating and laughing made all the logistics seem inconsequential.

After an hour, the adults were served. We ate on plastic chairs in the cold night air while the kids filled the dining hall talking and eating for hours.

When finally satisfied with food and social energy, the kids came outside to dance and sing. Their uninhibited energy pulled us in and several of us began dancing with the kids under the stars.

For a minute we lost the Americanisms: the need for planning, the obsession with purpose, the demand for definitions. For a minute we felt Motswana culture with all it’s spontaneous, communal, chaotic charm. And for this one minute it seemed we were fully, finally… Here.


Ms. Gamona from the Ministry of Education arrives unannounced at my school one day. I’m called from class.

“Bontle. Take me to your house.”
“Eeh, mma.”

We drive the quarter mile to my house and then enter so Ms. Gamona can prace through the rooms raving wilding. At this point I have scant furniture, no water and only half the house is wired with electricity.

“It’s gorgeous Bontle! So cute!”
“Eeh, mma.”
“Huh. This room is what?”
“Well, it’s nothing now. I’m waiting for furniture and it should be a sitting room eventually.”
“Yes. They should give you furniture for here. Tell them.”

Hm. Them?

In the months that pass the following items arrive in this order:
a tin roof
a sink
a toilet
burglar bars
a ceiling
a metal door

Bit by bit the house comes together. The empty room waits patiently on promises of coffee tables and cushioned chairs. It accepts its temporary roles as an exercise room, storage room, and laundry-hanging room. Guests sit on my bed or lean against my gas cylinder sipping tea. I tape a couple of post cards to the grey cement walls in a vain attempt to create hospitable warmth.

Two months after requesting furniture the supplies supervisor tells me she’s managed to dig out a coffee table and chair for me from the school’s storage room. I suppress the urge to embrace her in a Bear Hug and make my way to her office.

The table looks chewed and stained but sturdy enough to support a decorative plant and a candle or two. The chair’s untorn cushion inspires so much of my joy it shocks me.

So how will you get them home?
Don’t you have a truck?

The label “volunteer” will never trump the label “American”. I will always be the object of pula-requests, the vision of western-excess and the image of superficial-wealth. I live in three tiny rooms and take long combi rides to buy groceries each week but, yes, let me just go grab that truck I’ve been hiding away for a day like this.


In the end Tumelong, Khumo and Retabile (all school cleaners) are told to help me carry my furniture home. They glare at me for a minute but when I promise to thank them in choppies (gum) they are quickly convinced.

We begin the trek in midday heat. I’m pouring sweat 10 minutes into the walk. Khumo is equally uncomfortable at the other end of the coffee table and I swear I can feel her glares resurfacing.

As we stop to rest a donkey cart comes skidding up beside us. The driver stops and there is a brief exchange of words and gestures. I, of course, am deaf without the Setswana but within seconds understand that the request has been granted.

The donkey cart whisks away carrying my furniture and three little neighborhood boys who say they know where I live. (I swear I’ve never seen these boys before)

The cleaners eagerly accept their choppies and, by the time I get home, the furniture has been perched safely at my gate and the donkey cart and boys have vanished. A teenage neighbor stands patiently by the door waiting to deliver the pieces inside. He is also thanked in choppies.

I close the door and get to work:
candles (because still no electricity)

The following night I throw my first mini-dinner party and sink through one more layer of village settling and community integration.

Donkey cart driver, village boys, school cleaners, the teenage neighbor… a pleasant twist to America’s Welcome-To-The-Neighborhood-Cookies.

And far more filling.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Broken Composed

On Friday Mr. Gneom stood before the morning Assembly explaining funeral logistics to the students. The kids listened intently nodding “Eeh, Rra.” (Yes, Sir) to requests that they sing hymns, wear their uniforms and be respectful at all times.

Now, I know you are all very sad. Mr. Gneom said in conclusion. But I want to remind you that this service is not a time to cry and upset the family.

Eeh, Rra.

We expect you to be composed and polite. Students who become very emotional and weep will not be helping the family. Is that understood?

Eeh, Rra.

At morning assembly students stand in a square of long straight lines and teachers arrange themselves along the edges to supervise. I turn to Ms. Gnsid and ask her why the children are not permitted to cry.

We just don’t want them distracting people with their emotions.

Do most Motswana try not to cry at funerals?

She looks at me and smiles.

No, Bontle. We cry. You will see.

There are no tears at the memorial service and there are no tears the evening before the funeral when they gather at the family’s house for a final meal together.

On Saturday we arrive, as is customary, at 6:00 in the morning to view the body. People are somber but silent in their grief. There are hymns and prayers to follow and then the coffin is loaded into the hearse and the procession begins. Most people walk the half mile to the cemetery where we form a ring around the coffin. A man is handed a tattered garbage bag from which he extracts several bunches of plastic flowers. These are placed on the coffin while hymns continue. The crowd’s melody aches with sorrow and yet people are resolutely composed throughout the service.

It is nearly 8:00 when the last prayer is said. The sun has risen and is starting to warm us. I stand between two graves piled with rocks and covered in the arches of low green tents. The bushes and weeds at my feet are dry and sharp with thorns that catch and pull at my long skirt.

At 8:10 there is a heavy silence where the minister sighs deeply. He gives a final solemn nod to the men on his sides and they begin to work. The crowd stills as funeral pieces are removed: the stands, the wood, the soft green mats. When they have finished the coffin looks remarkably bare and incredibly small. The men position themselves at the four corners and, in unison, begin to lower the casket into its grave.

They turn the knobs no more than three times before the children start falling. One by one I watch them collapse between the graves. They are sobbing and leaning heavily against one another. Their fathers come to scoop them off the ground and carry them to grassy areas beyond the crowd.

Ms. Elitsab is standing beside me and we lean down to console two children. We rise after a few moments because their grief has begun to break us just as deeply.

Once the coffin has been fully lowered the men form two long lines along the grave’s periphery. There are three shovels resting against the pile of dirt and, one by one, men take turns covering the grave.

This process takes nearly an hour. We sing hymns the entire time and at one point I look behind me where the teenagers are pressed against their parents legs or stroking one another’s hair. Their pain weighs heavily on us and Ms. Elitsab begins to speak with me in a low voice. She is a strong, thick Motswana with deep, velvet eyes. Her voice anchors me and we comfort each other in this soft and subtle gesture of conversing.

When the last of the dirt and stones have been piled onto the mound, the children approach to sprinkle tiny handfuls of sand across the grave. Before leaving the cemetery we form an aisle for the family’s vehicle to pass through and the crowds file behind them out of the gates.

A colleague approaches me as we are exiting.

What did you think of your first Botswana funeral?

Your services are beautiful.

This is how we bury Motswana, he says.

My eyes must look very heavy because he adds,

Don’t worry, Bontle. You’ll get used to it.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


As planned I spent the day typing and researching in an effort to recuperate from an emotionally draining week.

At mid-day I had recovered my optimism and decided to look back over my notes from yesterday.

As I read through the officers words, the thought struck me that maybe the he had been embellishing. How could an organized, developing suburb of Gaborone allow traffic accidents to repeatedly take the lives of their child citizens?

Surely he had exaggerated.

And then I found two articles:

Yes, it really happens...


And, yes, the village has reacted passionately, even violently… with little government response…


The Straw

Kumakwane must have two primary schools. One is not enough. This is our biggest needs.

Why do you think this? Is it the teacher shortage?

No, Bontle. Because they’re dying.

The teachers?

No. The students.

Silent look of horror.

The kids from Newtown Ward have to cross the main road to get to school each day. And sometimes they’re just not careful enough.

Have cars actually hit the children before?

Every year we lose two or three this way.

I walk back slowly from the kgotla. I think of Sanoj and Oletum. People stop to greet me but I am heavy from the week and forget the formalities.

Tomorrow I will stop asking questions. Curiosity has consequences. And resilience limits.

Salvation Comes to Those Who Pay

Sanoj Mesiog is one of our Form 3 students. She’s about to graduate from Kumakwane Junior Secondary School at the end of the year. She is in the Scripture Union Club and plays on the school soccer team. She also has a history of asthma and struggles with peaceful breathing on a daily basis.

Last Saturday night Sanoj couldn’t catch her breath. In Kumakwane the health post closes at 4:00 and afterhours emergencies are sent to Thamaga Hospital… 40 kilometers away.

Sanoj’s family is very poor. They do not have a car or a phone. Like most Batswana they refuse to leave their homes at night for fear of being robbed or assaulted.

Sanoj’s mother held her through the night but early Sunday morning the girl began coughing blood. She died before the sun rose.

It is coincidence that I have planned an interview with one of the police officers today but it is fortunate. I have questions. And I am angry.

The officer tells me that there is an ambulance available in Kumakwane but that it sometimes takes hours to find and wake a driver and get the patient to Thamaga. The officer tells me that this is a major concern for the village as many pregnant women go into labor in the evening and weekends. Many of these poorly timed pregnancies have dreadful outcomes.

Still, I know Sanoj’s parents did not call for an ambulance and this makes me furious. I cannot understand why they wouldn’t have tried to help her.

And then the officer says something that clarifies this seeming negligence:

It’s cheap, the ambulance. Less than 50 pula. Maybe even 20.

20 pula is 3 dollars and 30 cents. Sanoj’s family didn’t have it.

When I heard the news at 7:30 this morning I was enraged to think that a young girl could die from a preventable problem like asthma.

But it wasn’t asthma that killed Sanoj. It was poverty.

The sun is setting at the memorial service. The students have come in their uniforms and us women arrive in skirts and head coverings. We sing hymns and pray. I understand nothing of the service so pray silently to myself

I pray for her wrinkled, barefoot, weathered mother
I pray for her tiny cement house with no glass in the windows.
I pray for the one chicken.
I pray for the beer cans littering the yard.

Our chairs are perched beneath a thick tree and the branches hang down so low they are nearly touching our heads. These branches weep yellow leaves on us throughout the service.

No one cries. Life is cheap in Africa. And expensive.

I hold a leaf between my finger and thumb and bite down hard on my lip.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Oletum is built like most Batswana teenagers: tall and lanky. What strikes you about him immediately are two enormous black eyes framed by thick, curly lashes. He looks young for 15 but speaks proficient English through a voice crackling with puberty. He is my neighbor.

In Botswana it is acceptable to stop by for a visit without calling ahead. This is actually a sign of genuine friendship and so, if someone “checks” you, you should be quite flattered. The downside is that being “checked” also puts you at a risk of being caught in your sweat pants, with your hair in a knot, washing your socks in a bucket. Irrelevant in Botswana. You drop the socks and heat up the kettle for tea.

The first time Oletum checks me he asks for help with his English homework. I’ve been missing my ESL tutorees back in Boston so I quickly agree and send him off to retrieve the novel he’s been assigned. Oletum returns 6 hours later and says his parents had made him go to The Lands to work for the day. It’s late now and he’s sorry but maybe I can help him in school tomorrow.

The second time Oletum checks me he asks for video games. I’m not sure why he assumes that I have video games but, oddly enough, Kris has just sent me a package with the video game in it. I tell him that the package should arrive in a week or so.

This second check happens on a Monday.

Oletum checks me again on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Each time asking for the game. The following Sunday the game finally arrives and Oletum is elated. He runs off to play it on the school computers.

Ten hours later Oletum returns looking exhausted. It’s after dark and he should not be out (all Mostawan are locked in their houses by 7:00 every night. “Avoiding thugs” they say). I collect the game from him and wish him good-night.

Oletum shifts back and forth on his feet and does not begin to leave my porch. There is something heavy in his eyes and I ask him how he’s feeling.

He does not hesitate.


His eyes drop and the shifting accelerates into a nervous sway.

“Havent you eaten today?”

“No.” he says to the floor. “No. Not all day Ms. Charles and then my parents gave my dinner away.” There is a twinge of anger in his voice that breaks me.

“Gave it away? Who would they give it to?”

“We had visitors. They needed to be fed.”

My weeks in Botswana seem to have themes. This week’s theme was Child Hunger. The morning after this visit from Oletum (which culminated with bulky sandwiches, of course) I’m helping a few girls in the computer lab. Somehow we start talking about public punishment.

Have you ever seen a child punished publically?

Oh yes. At the kgotla.

How was he punished?

Beat. With a stick.

Who punished him?

The parents first and then the land owners.

Land owners?

Yes, he had stolen food from the Lands.

When did that happen?


Did that happen recently?

Nervous laughter.

How many times has this happened?

Many times, Ms. Charles. Many times.

Thank you

So some of you are praying for my physical comfort, some for heightened self awareness and some of you are praying more for the people I’ll work with. One running theme, however, has been that you are praying for Safety.

It is a strange sensation to Feel other peoples prayers but I want you to know that this has been the case for me in recent weeks. There are break-ins and rapes I hear about daily and in May a volunteer passed away in a car accident. These things happen in the States but feel magnified here by my solitude and vulnerability as well as the inescapable language/cultural barriers.

Still. I feel safe. Protected even.

Two stories:

Kumakwane is a squiggly line intersected by a long tar road that runs from Gabs to Moleps. Off the squiggly line are dirt paths and tuck shops and a clinic and the kgotla and two schools. At the far reaches of this line are “The Lands” where people keep cattle and grow melons and live in tiny roundeval huts. I adore The Lands for a number of reasons: The Lands feel like Real Africa. In the right light Gaborone and Francistown can look a bit like suburban Florida with a bunch of strip malls and potted palm trees and restaurant balconies. But The Lands. The Lands are wide stretches of desert and livestock and tangled trees and tall grass. If you walk through the Lands for an hour you might pass four donkey carts and 2 roundeval huts. If you walk for an hour you also might come to an expanse of deep sand dunes and if the sun begins to set over those enormous dunes you will catch your breath in such a away and you will feel Africa and you will know that you are happy.

This walk through the Lands was fast becoming my ritual when the builder came to talk with my landlady. At first I was miffed. Its daylight. I’m running. I carry a blow horn. I pass people all the time. It’s the only place where I don’t have to dole out a thousand greetings. But the builder was adamant and came back the day after to see me in person and told me it was very unsafe. Yes, even in pairs. I sighed like a teenager who has just been grounded and went inside to jump rope.

Still, this was my first reassuring sign that the Safety Prayers are being answered. So thank you.

Story Two:

I lied about the burglar bars. I know. I’m sorry but I was afraid The Boyfriend or The Parents might go and do something crazy like complain to the Peace Corps office or fain illness to lure me home. I lived in my Kumakwane hut for exactly 31 days without burglar bars. And I felt their absence every night. It started to intensify with Telocs visit (see “Make Shift Alarm System” entry) and then became really frightening when one of my friends had his house broken into. He was home. He lives a quarter mile from me.

The other facts are that everyone, Everyone in Botswana has burglar bars. If you ask about local theft people shrug and say “Well, you know, this is a good country but it is still Africa.”

Last term thieves broke into the school and stole all of the kid’s food for breakfast and lunch (they go to school from 7:00 – 5:00 daily). The Headmaster couldn’t secure funds to replace the food and so was forced to end the school day at 1:00 and send the kids home for food.

Some people blame the Zimbabwean refugees but I think local poverty and alcoholism are equally responsible. When Peace Corps sent us crime statistics for Africa, Botswana was significantly lower than other countries for rape and assault but we were off the map for theft.

So I knew that a phone call would fix it. I’d call Peace Corps or the Ministry of Education and just say “I feel unsafe, the landlady needs more rent money so we can get burglar bars.” The problem is that I had already spoken with the landlady about the bars and she had told me she’d “get a quote” and asked me NOT to call the Ministry for funding. Sigh. In Botswana respecting the hierarchy is incredibly important and one slip up can ruin a relationship. Going over the landlady’s head would have been social suicide and even if the burglar bars did come, this maneuver might compromise the landlady’s willingness to help me with the rest of my housing needs (mainly furniture, wall paint, floors, bedroom electricity).

You see the pickle.

Even so, it was last Thursday and I was sitting in my office feeling tired after another sleepless night. My friends kept saying “Call Thuso” and I considered it since Thuso is the Amazingly-Attractive-Professional-And-Powerful-Peace-Corps-Safey-And-Security-Officer. (sorry Kris) Still, I worried about his approach and if he’d out me to the landlady.

But I was t i r e d and it was the end of the month when people get desperate for money and the crime rate goes up (most Batswana get paid the last Friday of the month. It is almost a sure bet that all ATMs in the country are cleaned out by Saturday morning and most people have to wait until Monday for them to be filled again. Those who do have money go straight to the bars and spend the weekend celebrating. Alcohol and poverty: excellent combo for crime)

So I start to text message Thuso: “Hi Thuso, I was wondering if you could call…”

No. No. It’s going to create problems. I’ve heard of other people botching village relations and it’s just too much of a risk. She’ll get the quote. The bars will be installed in a couple of weeks.

I’m rationalizing my way out of the text message when the door to my office opens

And Thuso Walks In.

I am flabbergasted. I am elated. I jump up and hug him and I’m talking in very fast and excited English that he can’t understand and I eventually realize this and apologize and take a deep breath. It’s just that being able to tell him In Person will allow me to be thorough about my safety concerns and fully express the urgency of addressing the issue discretely.

Thuso hands me a few pieces of mail and sits down and takes out a pencil and a pad of paper: “Okay, Bontle, start from the beginning. What’s on your mind?”

That was Thursday. The burglar bars were in the windows by Saturday morning.

So this entry is just to say thank you for your prayers. They are working.