Monday, August 18, 2008

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.

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