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.
Yes, he had stolen food from the Lands.
When did that happen?
Did that happen recently?
How many times has this happened?
Many times, Ms. Charles. Many times.