Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Africa is teaching me Me.

In the absence of comforts and supports and escapes and distractions there is

Just Me.

And I meet myself here and I know my shape and color in a way I never thought possible.

I have learned more about who I am socially, spiritually, creatively and privately. I have learned the extent of my strength and the depth of my passion and the things that preserve me when both have reached their limit.

I have learned myself through complete solitude in a plethora of scenes. I now understand what I look like in fear, outrage, loneliness, compassion, exhaustion and awe. Some scenes have affirmed my sense of self and some have humbled and disturbed me. All have brought me closer to The Glass.

This past week I learned who I am in Heartache. Who I Really am, without the friends and family and gym and food and tv and car and music and alcohol. When my laptop crashes and I lose every document I've ever composed, I also learn who I am in Heartache without the ability to write. This gives me the sensation of being lost and on the point of panic as someone wrestles me into a blindfold.

Still, I survive.

I am surprised at the nature of this survival. I am particularly surprised that, in the absence of influence, I do not resort to the things I once believed I needed. For the first three days I do not respond to any emails, nor do I call one friend. I do not buy wine or cigarettes. I do not read or pray. I do not eat.

The oddity of that which I do find comforting both amuses and surprises me:

One morning I wake up at 4:00 to bake cookies for my neighbors. Most days I walk for hours through the sweltering desert. I am fixated on the rising of white dawn and the setting of yellow dusk. I spend entire evenings lying on my floor and inspecting the bugs on my ceiling. I drink copious amounts of tea. And I sleep. More than I ever thought possible. I sleep.

I also work extremely hard. With robotic focus and zealous engrossment. I work through tea and lunch breaks. I dive head first into projects and engineer a floury of stress and activity around me that shadows any pain or emotional indulging.

And so it is Here, racing around on a Friday morning in frantic motion and intentional stress that I finally find what I am looking for: Perspective.

And this Perspective brings Peace.

And this Peace brings Rest.

And this Rest brings me back to Me.

On Friday mornings I teach typing to the clinic nurses for two hours. This week I am teaching typing, completing the translation of a grant letter and meeting with the Lay Counselor, Thato, to discuss the initiation of a Teen Club in Kumakwane.

Botswana's Teen Clubs are funded by the Baylor Clinic in Gaborone and are designed to inspire HIV+ teens to live healthy and safe lives. Most Teen Clubs meet once a week to help the kids develop skills for practicing medical compliance, maintaining good nutrition and providing emotional support to one another as they cope with stigma and discrimination.

Thato and I have met twice before and this time he hands me a list of names.

These ones are interested in joining the club. He says. You can see their name, age, grade and the ward the live at here in Kumakwane.

I scan the list. Great. This looks great Thato. Thank you. I'll bring it over to Tumelong Counseling Center this afternoon and we'll start the needs assessment and plan a meeting with the parents and the Baylor reps.

On my way from the clinic to Tumelong it begins to rain as it has every day this week. On this ten minute walk I am not distracted by work or sleep and the ache rises to my throat and I cannot swallow it away.

Retabile meets me at the door and smiles through our greetings. I debrief her on the clinic progress and hand her the list of child names. There are eight.

Oh, so I'll keep this then? She says holding the list out from her.
Yes, thats fine. I say, distracted.
Well, but, dont you want to copy down the names for your own records?
I pause and refocus.
Oh yes. Yes, of course. Let me just get a pen.

The pen is soggy from the rain and I write laboriously with Retabile staring at the top of my head. When I get to the last name I gasp and cover my mouth with my hand. Retabile starts and says What is it? I swallow three times before I can look up at her.

Nothing. I say. It's nothing. I just... I just recognized one of the names.
Retabile stares at me for a long time and I cannot tell if she is confused or annoyed.
I excuse myself and walk back to the school.

And it rains and rains.


The patient whose name I recognized is my favorite of the PACT students. I have seen sickness in her eyes for months but those are the things you dismiss here-- in lieu of hope and self-preservation.

On Saturday I resort again to the therapy of work but this time decide to volunteer at a Teen Club event. Since I can no longer ignore this sickness I immerse myself in an effort to better understand it and in understanding, gain solace.

In the first 30 minutes I spot two other children from my school and they smile at me. I greet them and squeeze their fingers and smile back.

For three hours I play cards and dice with rotating groups of children who pour life and health and hope all over my narcissistic little heartache.

In the last hour I have a group of ten girls and we are playing team-UNO. Ngele is my partner because she's been fixated on stroking my hair and because she's staring at me with a giant smile that nurtures every broken part of me.

I am cross-legged on the floor and Ngele is to my right. She is 9 years old in the mal-nutritioned frame of a 5 year old. She presses against my side for affection and I put my arm around her. For 30 minutes she leans across my lap tossing our cards while I rub her back. After every play she looks up at me for approval and I smile down at her.

Heart-ache is relative. Pain proportional.

A 9 year old girl with a terminal illness is sitting in my lap, playing and laughing. I lose all empathy for the girl crying in the rain.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Pounding

the rain has started.

giant drops and thick thunder.

the lightning is beautiful but the pounding on my roof often keeps me awake at night.



I’m headed to Gaborone for groceries. I always bring a book to pass the time and to discourage overly friendly bachelors. Today moist desert landscape shines and distracts me from Kerouac. I look sleepily out the window fanning myself with the novel’s worn pages.

As we approach the bus skids and sputters to a clumsy halt. The boy who collects our fare turn with wide eyes and screams:

Accident! Accident!

In one frantic motion all the passengers around me stand and press against the bus’ left windows. A woman crashes into my back and the space inside our cabin becomes unnaturally silent.

One car has been completely flipped. Another sits crushed into the middle of the road. A hundred yards further lies the third. Despite the rain, smoke billows from their engines and tires.

I am far more fascinated by these bus passengers than I am by the mangled cars.

Their urgency feels abnormally frenzied. Frantic even.

And then I realize. This is not mere curiosity factor.

1.7 million. Tiny villages. Few cars.

They are looking to see if they recognize the vehicles. They are holding their breath.

And they are praying.



The sun has returned but the streets remain saturated in milky puddles and wet sand.

When I find him Mr. Bathi is sitting hunched over his desk staring at a paper without reading it. He turns to look at me with blank, heavy eyes. I am shocked to see such vacancy in the face of our star athlete – the one who villagers come to watch on the football field, the one who flirts relentlessly with all the female teachers, the one whose students stay late to solicit his feedback on their art projects.

I forget the reason I’ve been looking for him.

What is it?

Bad weekend.

What happened?

He looks out of the corner of his eye at me and then back to his paper. He’s holding it firmly with both hands. Hanging on.

The words come slowly.

My cousins have died. Two of them.

I pull a seat beside him and wait. In the wake of his composure I watch him run an index finger along the edges of the paper. When his poise returns Mr. Bathi clears his throat and continues.

It was a car accident. On the Thamaga road. Just before Kumakwane. Five cars. The Thamaga counselor was killed too.

These words pull all the air from his body and he deflates farther into the chair.

I look from his fallen profile to his crumbled paper and then to my own hands. From out of me spills all those empty things that are meant to console and never do.

And then we sit. I don’t remember for how long. But sitting there feels like the most honest gesture I can offer. And he does not protest.



The PACT girls are making donation-posters in my office. We’re collecting Christmas clothes for the Kumakwane orphans and they girls are ecstatic for an excuse to draw all afternoon.

Okay guys 15 more minutes. The Headmaster says you need to be heading home at 5:00.

But Ms. Charles it’s pouring. Don’t you have a plastic bag we can use to walk home under?

I scan the office and find a stash of trash bags.

Alright, let me ask the teacher on duty if you can take some of these.

When I walk into the lobby the air feels black and dense. Seven teachers sit together beneath this cloud, shaking their heads and speaking in whispers.

Their Setswana is too soft for me to pick up words so I find a seat beside one of the younger teachers.

What is it?

An accident. Just there. She says pointing to the road a quarter mile from our school.

Was anyone hurt?

Yes, several school children from the next village. Primary school kids.

Were they hurt badly?

The teachers look away from me. Some at the floor. Some out the window.

We don’t know yet, Ms. Hane says. They’ve been taken to the hospital.

The ladies continue shaking their heads and mumbling. They seem to know something I don’t and the graveness in their posture terrifies me.


the rain has started.

giant drops and thick thunder.

the lightning is beautiful but the pounding on my roof often keeps me awake at night.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Sustainability of that Which Sustains Me

PACT is, by far, the most satisfying part of my job here.

The Peer Approach to Counseling Teens Club meets twice a week for formal meetings and three times a week to work informally on our club projects. These kids are super bright, funny, hard working, motivated and inspirational. Quite a few of them are orphans or live with very sick relatives or come to school in ripped clothes and un-plaited hair. They carry poverty and heartache in their eyes but there is such light and energy in their faces that I sometimes forget.

These are the PACT kids:

Bangtha is the Chairman of the group. He is tall with a pug nose and a gap in his front teeth. Bangtha’s popularity rides on his demand for attention and his phenomenal ability to make the space around him roar with laughter. When PACT performed health-dramas at the primary school last week, Bangtha was the lead in both shows. Bangtha took the sensitive topics of HIV stigma and sexual abuse and made them “cool” and “important”. After the dramas, the primary kids asked a thousand questions and Bangtha leaned back in his chair with an air of superiority preaching health messages and awing the teachers with his charisma and insight.

Omuketsile is Vice Chair. You met her in a previous blog and might remember her as the “wonder child” who was recently orphaned. Omuketsile led the PACT club in starting and maintaining a Question Box which continues to shake and scare the school administration. Every week students fill the box with anonymous complaints and questions about physical abuse, sexual abuse, relationship problems, teacher-frustrations, food complaints, school-rule inquiries, family concerns and sex questions. In its first week we got 8 questions and this past week we got over 50. On Mondays Omuketsile empties the box and spends hours writing answers with the other club members. The teachers begin to panic that complaints are coming in about their classes and petition the headmaster to take down the box. Omuketsile stands her ground and continues to collect and post responses to questions each week. So much of her manner and beauty reminds me of a lightning storm.

Feri is our Secretary. Perpetual smile, bald head, cute lisp, complete lack of humility. On Saturday Feri saunters into the school hall with an armful of magazines. We are making beaded jewelry out of recycled magazines and selling them in the village to raise money for orphans and vulnerable children. Feri makes a green and a purple necklace with mechanical-precision. She hands me minutes from the last meeting with flowers and vines lining the page borders. You’re awfully creative, Feri. She smiles and says “I know” before prancing off to tease the boys in the back row.

Otarolo smiles rarely but when she does you want in on the joke. She’s got deep, serious features and a calm intelligence that makes people get quiet when she talks. In guidance class last week we were making “Trees of Life” where the branches represent your support-system and the roots your family and the fruit your values and the rocks your challenges and the birds your dreams. Otarolo bites on the end of her pencil and looks up from her symbolic branches: “Ms Charles, do you support me?” Yes, Otarolo always. She flashes me a giant smile and I remember there is still a child inside all that maturity and poise. Olorato writes incredibly profound responses to the question box inquiries and has the ability to solve all PACT club disputes with a single, authoritative sentence. When we were drafting letters for a library grant Otarolo submitted hers and I nearly ran home to giver her all my books. If Omuketsile is a lightning storm Otarolo is an eclipse.

Gabta is 4 feet tall with giant ears and the kind of humor that no one understands but which we find ourselves laughing to anyway. Gabta works very hard to convince the club that “R” rated movies are appropriate for the cinema-fundraising-project and loses in a unanimous vote. Last May he wore a cow-print blazer to compete in the school beauty contest and still managed looked debonair. He flirts relentlessly and successfully. Some kids have the kind of confidence that transcends societal-beauty-norms. Gabta is the prince dressed up like the jester. He plans to own a pharmaceutical business when he grows up and I have every confidence that he will be wealthy and successful.

Neo pronounced Nay-Oh has giant sad eyes and whispers when she speaks. We sit around a long table writing question box answers that Neo plows through with the compassion and intelligence of a trained psychologist. Other kids get stuck on questions or write incomplete answers but Neo gives the kind of advice that people pay for and yet never seems to exceed three lines in her reply. After they’ve been approved for the board Neo takes her penciled notes and re-writes them in bright green marker and litters the background with pink hearts. This reminds me that Neo is still a little girl and not a wise old sage. I feel a twinge of impatience for her to grow up so we can be friends.

Latoro was the mother in the primary school drama on sexual abuse. I didn’t understand a word of her Setswana lines but I was terrified every time she got on stage. When she yelled at the pedophile her eyes got big and her fists went up and the construction men working beyond the school courtyard stopped to watch her.

Mopo has been out-ed for having his heart-broken today. Since Batswana children are not allowed to date he denies this vehemently but then begs for an aspirin. I deny him the aspirin and he sits down without protest. His name means “gift” in Setswana and I believe it. He attends every meeting and writes question responses and smiles at me shyly. I am eager for him to open.

Tursy should be the cover page in a beauty magazine. Super tall and super thin with the prettiest black eyes I’ve ever seen. (Sans mascara, of course) Last Tuesday I told the PACT group they had been invited to perform 2 dramas at the primary school. The kids had exactly 6 days to prepare. By the weekend Tursy had written both performances and was energetically directing the practice sessions. She also starred in the sexual abuse skit as a molested child. In one scene she paces the stage singing “My sugardaddy how could you do this to me?” Her lament is beautiful and thick with grief. It stays with me afterwards and I find myself sadly singing her lyrics in my kitchen, three days later. I am confident that Tursy has reached her audience with this profound and haunting performance.

When Kris meets Oteng he cant stop saying “My god, she’s beautiful… she’s so beautiful.” Oteng doesn’t have Tursy’s super-model-splendor but her eyes are the kind you trust instantly and they make you want to know her. She opts to be a backup singer in the drama performances and doesn’t speak a word during PACT meetings. If you ask for her assistance on a project she nods and shows up on time and works hard. I catch her smiling from time to time and this embarrasses her. She is all quiet soft and subtle charm. And she has no idea.

I didn’t understand sustainability until I met the PACT kids. Capacity building was the theme of every MPH paper I wrote and the goal of every project I’ve begun in this village. Still, I didn’t get it. How do you initiate without controlling? How do you motivate without inspiring a dependence? How do you do without being?

About a month ago I was tearing out my hair trying to crush sustainability into the PACT group. I had 4 teacher-facilitators who never showed up for meetings and a headmaster who wouldn’t allow the club to function without staff representation. On Tuesdays and Thursdays 30 kids piled into the PACT classroom for their meeting and time and time again I was the only teacher who showed up.

I was furious and frustrated. This group is so powerful but without teacher support it’s not sustainable.

And then, one day, the Chairman stood to start his meeting and everything clicked.

I looked around the room:

Bangtha was opening the meeting.
Feri was taking minutes.
Oteng was collecting late fees.
Latoro was passing out the agenda.
Neo was saying the opening prayer.
Omuketsile was reading over the items she’d present.

And I

I was doing absolutely nothing.

I couldn’t even understand the Setswana.
These kids where running this group. All of it. And they were doing it well.

Yes, it’s true. We still need teacher leadership and, yes, I’m on the hunt to find someone who is willing to take the reigns.

In the mean time I am working to harness all the energy emanating from these kids. All their ambition and commitment and effort and perseverance.

Who says sustainability has to start at the top? or at the bottom for that matter?

It starts in the cracks … where the energy pools and potential waits to explode.

For 5 months I had been face to face with a wall and had never seen those cracks. They spidered and split in every direction but all I could see was the thick cement.

There is so much light pouring through these days. It’s blinding me and I can finally see.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Our Kennedy

brent shakes me.

get up. get up. he won. hes about to make his speech.

I shuffle into the living room where the survivors are still drunk and going strong while the rest of us are rubbing our eyes and easing into our hangovers. people clear themselves a spot between the chili bowls and beer bottles and obama t-shirts littering the floor. I lean on leah’s legs to watch mccain’s speech while someone starts pouring champagne.

it’s 7:30am when obama finally walks on stage. the room stills.

I always envied my parents for living through the Kennedy years. I always wanted to know what it felt like to love a president that much. to believe and trust a leader that way. someone once told me it wasn’t possible with today’s notorious media and the general lack of celebrity privacy. I believed them then. how do we maintain heroes when the paparazzi get rich off highlighting their vices and underlining their failures? I’ve felt this pessimism for years.

but there was obama.

obama with his smart suit and his tidy family and his honest smile. obama saying he was here to help us. admitting that he wasn’t perfect. praising us for believing in change. challenging us to trust him and to trust this country as he works to close a war and repair a recession. obama young and fresh and powerful and believable.

obama making us feel safe.

by 8:00 he had finished. I looked around the room at people crying and clinking their champagne glasses. someone said

this makes me want to be back home

and we all agreed as a wave of homesickness swept through the room.

where were you when kennedy was assassinated?
where were you when the twin towers fell?
where were you when obama won?

I was on a sofa in Gaborone, sipping cheap champagne and wiping my eyes and understanding patriotism for the first time in my life.