June 6, 2008
After sitting through a few classes and meetings I decide to take a walk through the village. The Africans I have met seem to have a very hard time understanding the concept of pleasure-walking but I assure Angeline (26, the Zimbabwean maid) that I am fine and will be back in about an hour.
I walk past the school and two small tuck shops selling soap, sodas and canned foods. As I approach the main road people who I’ve never met shout my name and make a valiant effort to sell me a dozen watermelon. I assure them I will be their best customer once I’ve moved in but they persist: “It’s nice Bontle… so nice… you try it now.”
Mme Elistab pulls up in her baby blue truck and saves me from the watermelon hagglers. I tell her I’m walking to the primary school across town. Despite the fact that it’s three in the afternoon and “across town” is just half a mile, Mme Elistab calls a boy to walk with me. The boy is heading for a haircut but obliges to take me half way and I wish Mme Elistab goodbye in the customary form:
“Ke a le bog a, mme” (thank you, madame) Hands clasped, small bow.
She returns the thanks.
“Tsamya sentle, mme” (Go well, madame)
She wishes me the same.
“Go siame, mme” (Good bye madame)
The boy walks me ten minutes before we reach a group of young girls who agree to take me the rest of the way. They range in age between 9 and 12 and speak impeccable English.
Earlier in the day I had spoken with several teachers who all assured me their students were well behaved, intelligent, moral and happy. In my first meeting the Guidance Counselor and Headmaster assured me that poverty was minimal in Kumakwane and the local social worker was actively involved in making sure the orphans and vulnerable children were well cared for. Alcohol abuse was rare and pregnant students were counseled and assisted in every way possible. I smiled at my new colleagues and praised them for their success.
Walking through the village I remember back to the suffering I’d seen in Olibukom and feel frustrated. How could they have placed me in a village that needs so little when the rest of the country is struggling to stay alive?
The girls walk me through the school yard and correct my Setswana as I stop to greet people. They ask to touch my hair and agree to draw me a map of the village. The oldest girl tells me she’ll be enrolled at the Secondary School in just a year…
Are you a teacher? She asks.
Do you beat?
Do you punish?
That’s good. Punishment is better than beatings.
The little girls describe the beatings to me. They show me the area where they line up to be whipped. They talk about the offenses: standing on a particular part of the cement walkway, forgetting their books, not bringing enough tin cans to win the competition, getting a math answer wrong.
My curiosity inspires further details. The dry classes, the teacher who slaps their faces, the lack of food for twelve hours. By the time they’ve walked me back to the road I am nauseous.
They smile and stroke my hair before waving goodbye. I walk away discouraged and inspired and exhausted and stirred. I walk alone for two more hours before returning home.
Sometimes need does not manifest itself in statistics or authority or poverty. Sometimes need is more subtle.
When I reach the yard I see they’ve finished attaching my doors and windows. My place here taking shape.