Monday, October 6, 2008

Preserving Color

The village is bursting with color. Who would have thought springtime in the desert would include sprays of yellow flowers under bright purple trees and pink rose bushes. Even dried flowers hold the shape of globes and fans and I collect these to replace house plants I’ve lost to the heat.

Most days I disdain the thought of being seen as a tourist and make it a point to speak as much Setswana as possible and make lists of names to memorize. But next week I will reach the six month anniversary of my arrival and I’m starting to marvel (and fret) at how quickly time passes here. I see myself easing into that common human tendency to grasp and preserve everything we fall in love with.

On the hour-trek out to the primary school the village throbs loud with color and beauty. I make it half way to the school before I surrender and pull out my camera to capture fragments of a brilliance I will never be able to describe in words.

The path to the schoolyard is framed by blue and yellow rocks with children’s handprints pressed into the paint. The kid’s excited hum greets me in the courtyard where teachers who don’t fit in classrooms hold their lessons under thick trees. With 800 kids and just 10 classroom this leaves close to 150 students whispering and pointing as I approach. I slip into my Faux-Celebrity-Mode and wave back to their shouts and pretend I’m a hot movie star and not a weird-looking-white-girl. (Hey, we all have survival strategies)

Ahh, Bontle. Come in come in.

Mma Aogkel smiles and ushers me into a classroom where her and the other Guidance Counselor will hold our meeting. We idle awkwardly while Mma Etsile attempts to find us chairs and eventually resigns herself to the two and makes the third of her desk top.

Library project, fundraising, typing lessons and drama presentations. I’ve brought an agenda that we work our way through to the tune of 60 animated first-graders buzzing and giggling at out backs.

Alright, so the PACT kids are presenting on Secondary School Preparedness for the Standard 7s. There are over 15 kids signed up for this so I think its going to be great. Now, do you want Standard 1 – 6 presentations as well?

Yes, yes, dramas. That helps keep their attention. HIV/AIDS for the 1 – 3s… protection that’s what they need the most.

Uh-huh, great. Perfect—we can do this. HIV is focus of secondary Lifeskills too so this will be good learning for everyone. And the 4 – 6s?

There is a pause where Mma Aogkel removes her glasses and wipes the sweat off her face. She exchanges a look with Mma Etsile that turns the room white and silent. She replaces her glasses and looks at her hands for a moment before speaking.

This is when they start to be abused.

I have seen compassion from teachers in this country but Mma Aogkel’s face reads something very different.

Old men. Old men take them into their homes and then the girls tell me its love.

She is shattering.

Who does this? These men are sick. Sick.

She scowls and her voice gets louder.

So many of them, Bontle. So many have told me. They’re like sex slaves but they don’t even know. They think it’s a relationship. The men tell them it’s a relationship. They give them presents and sweets and tell them it’s … Something.

I put my hand on her arm and nod at her and we sit like that until the color comes back and we can hear the kids again.

Mma Etsile is being transferred at the end of the term and Mma Aogkel will be the sole guidance counselor to all 800 students. We make a plan to have PACT presentations on protection from abuse and we schedule a mandatory training on sexual abuse counseling for the entire school staff. The Ministry will be contacted to urge that they fill Mma Etsile’s position before the start of January term.

Not solutions. Not even solace. But a start.

When I walk back through the school courtyard the children have been dismissed. A group of girls gathers around me in an animated circle where they practice their English and touch my hair and giggle in that way that makes me able to breathe again.

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