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.