Saturday, September 27, 2008


Everyday work starts at 6:50 and ends at 5:00. I spend these hours co-teaching guidance classes, working with the PACT students, training people on computer skills, writing grant proposals, attending kgotla meetings and filling out report paperwork. When I shuffle home at the end of the day I’m exhausted and looking forward to the comfort and privacy of my Cooking-Exercising-Setswana-Studying-Letter-Writing routine. This is the first time in my life I have ever lived alone and I find the silence and freedom incredibly peaceful. And addictive.

Before I left for China I took an ESL training course in Boston. Of my 12 classmates, two had recently gotten back from Peace Corps. Jim had served in Uganda for two years and Sara in Indonesia. Jim and Sara were nice enough people and had interesting stories but also had this tendency to be just a little too quiet and just a little too quirky at times.

Peace Corps Weird. Nichole said over lunch one day.
What do you mean?
I mean Peace Corps Weird. I’m telling you—people who do Peace Corps get weird. Too much time alone, I think. Too much time in alone in a strange culture. That’ll do it to you. They come back a little “off”.
Huh. I guess I can see that with Sara and yeah—I guess Jim can be kind of odd.
Yup. I’m telling you. That shit changes you.

So in an effort to avoid (or at the very least postpone) my Peace Corps Weird-ness I make it a point to be social. I invite the neighborhood kids over to play games, I host a party for a few teachers, I help the students with their homework on the weekends, I take a walk with the teachers after school.

Along with keeping me sane, these things help me learn the culture and language better.

The catch is that culture and language still get in the way. Not that there are problems—just that there is distance. In the subjects. In the humor. In the ease. In the significance.

And so it’s Tuesday night when Miss Bless knocks on my door. Dinner is in the oven and I’m ten minutes into leg-lifts and just Not In The Mood for entertaining. I consider holding my breath until she leaves but that seems like a very Peace-Corps-Weird thing to do so I get up with a sigh and open the door.

Hi Sweetie! She bellows with a smile.

Miss Bless dons tennis shoes and giant yellow earrings and a thin layer of sweat on her forehead.

I’ve been walking Bontle but I just wanted to stop by and say hi—only for a minute, baby, just to say hi.

Instead of putting on the kettle I make the executive decision to offer water and I take her to the sitting room. Since the room remains unwired we sit by candle light and talk about all the usual subjects:

The heat.
Weekend plans.
School exams.

I’m bored. Restless. I’ve begun scheming excuses to end our visit.

For days now I’ve been trying to remember what happened between that 7:00 restlessness and her 10:00 departure. Where did it start? What twist in polite banter got us wrapped up in development theory and theological discourse and behavior change? What moment of connection got her eyes watering and my chest thumping like that?

For the life of me I cannot remember where it began, but it Did Begin. And then it grew. For three hours this woman fueled something inside of me that I had silenced in village social circles and stifled in local conversation:


In PCV crowds you can be cynical and skeptical and disgruntled and even bleak. You can complain.

But in Batswana circles you are Commitment and Progress and Vision. You stuff down pessimism and plaster on a smile and tell them things are going to get better and you are going to help them.

You do not tell them you are scared to death that this effort futile. You do not tell them that HIV prevention efforts are failing all over the continent. You do not tell them that all the Lifeskills lessons in the world mean nothing if these kids go home to empty, alcoholic, abusive households.

But I slipped.

It wasn’t a rant but it was A Comment. And it did get us talking. Real Talking.

Ms. Bless leaned forward and began to tell me the story of her salvation experience. I watched her eyes get large in the candle light and I nodded politely at the appropriate moments and whispered a “wow” in her pauses and waited for her to finish. But she didn’t finish. Ms. Bless moved from her salvation experience to her students’. She told me a string of stories about orphaned children. Prostitute children. Poor children. HIV+ children. And she told me about their salvation: spiritually and literally.

In the professional public health world we call them FBOs. Faith Based Organizations. Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques.

Ms. Bless was preaching a development theory I had believed a year ago but somehow lost in all the overwhelming reality of this Actually Being Here. She was advocating for the role of FBOs. And she was right.

Now, allow me to put your mind at ease: I have not become a missionary. I have not begun preaching. I have not teetered into a new layer of Peace Corps Weird.

What has happened is that I have touched a sliver of Hope. And this is why FBOs can work. Need to work:

Batswana Children Do Not Have A Support System.

Dramatic? Embellished?


The GREAT majority of children are not being raised in supportive environments.
- Their parents are poor, uneducated, distant and/or deceased
- Their school teachers are frequently transferred, always overworked and too busy with their own stress to have energy left over for the hundreds of students they’ve been allocated
- Their village shares one social worker with three other villages. She does not have private transportation.
- Their clinic nurses are notorious for being rude and dismissive to children
- Their guidance counselor is on the pastoral committee, the fundraising committee, the PTA committee and she’s got a sick husband and five kids of her own. Oh, and she commutes an hour to work.

Still want to talk capacity building?

So where does a Batswana kid go for support? There is not an after-school program. There is not a YMCA. There is not a Big Brother Big Sister program. There is not a teen hotline.

There is a church.

In fact, there are 10 churches in this village. All within walking distance. All full of music and morality and care and hope. All focused on the missions of loving, helping, nurturing, saving. All open to children. All able to give what parents, teachers, social workers, health professionals and Peace Corps volunteers can not.

Churches are not perfect. Lord knows organized religion has its flaws. But churches are Something in a daunting void. Churches are a start.

I walk Ms. Bless halfway home and jog back over moonlit sand dunes. I have that rare sensation of conscious joy.


The next day at school Ms. Bless meets with the Scripture Union. This group has not had a staff facilitator in months. The students have begged for one but none of the teachers were willing to help. Last month the students took the initiative to call in a guest speaker. When he arrived the Headmaster sent him away because the Scripture Union didn’t have staff support or approval.

Ms. Bless meets with the Scripture Union on Wednesday and arranges for her pastor to attend as their guest speaker on Thursday. The man arrives at the 3:30 bell and gives a passionate sermon on love and empathy. Kids pour into the hall and listen intently. When he finishes they sing praise songs with a volume and energy unparallel to any other I have heard in this country.

I stand outside the hall and watch these kids worshipping. They look incredibly happy. And they look stronger.

Save a soul.
Save a life.
Save a kid.
Save a nation.

Semantics. We’re all working for the same thing: salvation

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Music Lessons

Motswana student’s school days go like this…

6:50 – 7:10 Morning Assembly
7:10 – 9:50 Classes
9:50 – 10:20 Tea break
10:20 – 1:00 Classes
1:00 – 2:00 Lunch
2:00 – 3:30 Study Hall
3:30 – 5:00 Clubs and Sports

Yesterday I was sitting in my office at 3:30 as the students finished their academics and headed out for afternoon activities. It’s the beginning of the summer here so the weather is warm and breezy. (Sometimes I close my eyes in all this sand and wind and imagine I’m at the ocean).

Since it’s still the beginning of the term, teachers seem to have energy for clubs and activities and extra help sessions. Students aren’t stressing over their final exams yet so there’s a kind of easy atmosphere that makes one relax. That makes one happy. That, at the right moment, may even make one sing.

That’s what happened at 3:30 yesterday. The kids just started singing. I heard them belting out worship songs in the courtyard and for a minute I stopped to listen to them. When it ended I thought nothing of it and went back to work.

This morning’s Assembly began like any other: the kids sang a song, said the Lord’s Prayer and two students gave a presentation on the week’s theme. A few teachers got up for announcements and then the kids prepared to sing their “marching song” for dismissal.

But before dismissal Mr. Gnoem took the stage carrying four long sticks. He scowled at the students for the length of an uneasy silence.

It has come to my attention that several students were misbehaving yesterday. He began.

Every movement paralyzed. The students looked up at him in stone.

Singing loudly and disturbing people is not the way we expect you to behave in this school, ga ke re? (right?)

Eeh, rra. The students answered meekly.

Now, I am going to read a list of names and I want these students to come stand on the stage with me. You will notice that many of these students are also low-performers academically and I think we can see why. Esther, however, Esther is a surprise. She is a PACT member and is meant to be a role model for her peers. This is very disappointing.

The students shifted back and forth on their feet as Mr. Gnoem called out the 10 names. When beckoned, each child came obediently to the stage. The group formed a line in front of the school and Mr. Gnoem picked out a stick. I began to feel sick. I looked at the tree line beyond our schoolyard and focused on controlling my cringes.

Mr. Gnoem whipped each student while the audience roared with laughter. By the end, he had gone through all four sticks. Not one of the punished students had so much as flinched.

When finished, Mr. Gnoem demanded a marching song for dismissal.

The Family Story

Omuketsile and her best friend sit in my living room sipping coffee and looking at magazines. I’ve asked them to come so I can see how Omuketsile is doing after her mum’s death. We all know this but the girls giggle and chit chat for a full hour before they get quiet. I think we’re all nervous.

Omuketsile is fine.
Her family is fine.
Yes, she’s been sleeping.
Yes, her grandmother is taking care of them.
Yes, her brother and sister are at home.
The brother is working.
Grandma is not.
The sister is on maternity leave.
The brother is a delivery man in Gabs.
Yes, she worries a little about the money and food.
Yes, she’d like me to help her register as an orphan at the kgotla.

Omuketsile, like most children in Botswana, does not have a father. Men in Botswana die young from AIDS or get transferred away from their partners to teach in rural villages or work in the country’s diamond and coal mines. Thousands of Motswana men also work in South Africa’s gold mines where their salary is paid in the “strong rand” —just enough for trip a home once each month. or season.

Some men opt to live what I’ve come to understand as the Mostwana Dream: an agricultural life. Men who work as farmers remain close to their partners but most do not make enough money to pay their bride’s lebola (dowry). Traditionally, Motswana fathers demand their daughter’s lebola at than 10 cows. Nowadays, men who opt to pay lebola in cash can be asked to shell out as much as 20,000 Pula (over $3,000).

If a man does managed to get over the dowry hurdle the couple then must pay for a wedding and a feast large enough to feed their entire village. If the couple happens to be from different villages, they must host two separate wedding celebrations. Both celebrations are judged by the variety, quantity and quality of meat offered. The bride changes into a minimum of three elaborate gown in the course of her wedding day.

Marriages still take place in Botswana but are rivaled by the growing popularity of co-habitation. In the 2003 WHO report on domestic violence, Botswana was the only country where statistics were listed not only for married and single women, but also for co-habitating women. To have missed this group would have greatly under-represented the nation’s female population.

Cohabitation offers a neat alternative for the enormous expense of marriage but rarely results in long term, monogamous relationships. Most couples separate after a short time due to work transfers or infidelity.

In Botswana’s social circles men praise one another for sleeping around while women pile into the churches waiting for a “good man” to come along and love them like they deserve. Every day I get petitioned by women begging me to find them an “American-Man-Who-Knows-How-To-Treat-Women” and we shake our heads together and laugh at How Men Are and pretend this is all a trivial matter and not the crumbling foundation of their nation’s families, economy and healthy.

In PCV circles we blame patriarchy and economics and dowry and ceremony and promiscuity and government and AIDS and sex. We wrap it up in theories and rue the administration and rally for change. And we pity little girls who don’t know enough to feel sorry for themselves.
Next week the government will begin delivering Omuketsile a monthly food basket and paying for her school fees and uniform.

Next week the government will also transfer hundreds of workers away from their families.

One step forward, two steps back.