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:
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.
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