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.

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