Monday, August 18, 2008


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.

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