Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lucky in Laughter

I feel bad about writing fewer blogs but, the truth is, nearly 10 months have passed and I suppose things are just becoming “normal”. The sunsets still awe me and the donkey carts still amuse me and the cockroaches still disgust me but, all in all, I suppose things feel relatively routine. Again human resilience impresses me… if you’d ever told me I would one day look FORWARD to a warm bucket bath or an afternoon of handwashing my clothes in the sunshine I would have thought you were crazy. But here I am. Month ten. Living in Africa. And loving it. All of it.

So there has been relatively little drama these days but more pronounced has been the opportunity to develop my humor and, more specifically, the Ability To Laugh At Myself.

It started a month ago when I tripped over my fan chord and skinned my elbow on the cement floor of my living room. I stood up bleeding and laughing and wondering how I would ever survive these blistering days without a fan (ice water and cold showers have been shockingly sufficient). After that I pinched a nerve in my neck and lost the use of my left arm for 3 days (This was solved by a massive steroid shot… I’ll let you guess the part of your body they christen with this blessed cure… Not Fun). Then I went running in the rain and broke my ipod. Irreplaceable. (though Prince Kris still manages to come through with the gift of a “Shuffle” replacement). A few weeks later a synching-mishap erases all my Itunes music. (A collection which has only taken me 2 decades to compile) Somewhere in between all this I manage to break a wineglass, a mirror and a bowl.

This, mind you, is January.

Just January.

And so I learn to laugh. And yes, occasionally scream, but mostly to laugh and accept that a broken arm will heal and lost music will be replaced and, one day, I will charm someone into giving me a ride in their car so I can purchase and deliver a new fan to the village. Patience is the virtue but humor the sedative.

So I thought I’d write about today. One more day of minor mishaps but, mostly, just another day in Botswana.

Today’s hurdle was The Rain.

The rain here creates… er… complications.

This morning I ran around Gabs for 4 hours in the rain to collect rent money. This little ritual must be performed once every 3 months and involves hiking to the Ministry of Education to get a voucher and then across town to the Revenue Department to cash the voucher (always, ALWAYS an hour + wait in the queue) and then back to where the Ministry is to put the cash into my landlady’s account and then, finally, at last, back to the bus rank to return to the village.

Today’s trip took ages because of the rain. I attempted to pass time with a soggy magazine but found myself completely distracted by the task of dodging drips from the combi roofs and window seams. By 9 a.m. I was soaked to the bone. In a vain attempt to keep dry, my combi compatriots shut all the vehicle windows which left us, not only wet, but also swathed in thick humidity and the tang of twenty-five sweaty bodies.

My sixth combi of the day rolled into Kumakwane at 11:35 making me just in time for the 6th Guidance period. Mma Domida and I have agreed to team teach this term and this week is my week. Normally Mma Domida and I watch each other’s lessons to enhance our skills-exchange but today’s she’s had to leave on an errand and I am left alone.

It is rare for me to be rushed or stressed here in Botswana’s warm and relaxed culture but today is an exception. In the 5 minutes before class I change out of my mushy jeans, brush my damp hair, grab the lesson plan and an armful of books and race to class. Two PACT students find me speed walking across campus and stop to help me with the books.

But Mma Charles how will you get there?
What do you mean? The class is in the School Hall…

Tsiamo and Eunice take a minute to consider my appearance and then look towards the Hall with an expression of sincere sympathy. Both girls’ uniforms are completely drenched and they have rolled the cuffs of their pants and are walking around in bare feet. Although on normal days students get beat for not having their shirts tucked in, today I notice that all the students are permitted to be sloppy, damp and shoeless. I follow Tsiamo’s gaze to the Hall and realize that the campus is a swamp of muddy water. Although there are cement walkways between most classrooms, the Hall is an obvious exception.

Eunice takes one last look at my grey dress pants and high heel sandals before beckoning me to follow her (don’t look surprised… did you really think I’d join Peace Corps and then magically turn into a hippie?!)

The swamp between the Hall and the Home Ec lab has 8 waterlogged bricks which the students tell me I must use to cross. The stones are placed at a precarious distance from one another and I become acutely aware of my small stride. In one last futile attempt I scan the grounds for options and realize I am stuck: cross the swamp or skip the class. The 35 students in the Hall have come outside to watch my wobbly moment of decision.

Tsiamo and Eunice start to giggle and this makes me laugh and shrug: If I fall, I fall. I’m sure I could manage to teach the class in muddy pants.

Tsiamo takes an armful of my books and urges me to be brave

“Just try Mma Charles… you can do it!”

Eunice starts out in front of me and reaches back to hold my wobbly fingers and balance me across the pond.

When we reach the other side the students are clapping and I have turned a lovely shade of red but, thankfully, I am still relatively dry.

I pass out the books, teach my class and 40 minutes later I’m back at the edge of the pond contemplating the stress of a return trip.

The students offer to help again but this time I skip the performance and opt for total resignation. In one swift moment I slip off the heels and roll my pant legs up to my knees and wade through the muck to the other side. The students are laughing hysterically and my legs are covered in muck but it feels right for us all to be in muddy feet anyway.

Just another day in paradise. Just another reason to laugh.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Fiasco

Last term I initiated a project with a donor in America called “The Africa Library Project” (ALP) in an effort expand Kumakwane’s only library. This library is located inside the junior secondary school where I work. It is the size of a school classroom with 10 scantily clad shelves of books. Although the schools library committee has a staff chairman and 8 student “monitors” who meet regularly, the library resources are too minimal to provide much work for these motivated members. The students complain that books are torn and out of date and that their favorite subjects ( ) are poorly represented among the available texts. Kumakwane’s village residents never visit the library because they know it’s had the same meager collection for nearly 20 years.

Through the ALP, professionals in Botswana and Lesotho may submit a description of their village and 3 letters from community stakeholders requesting and justifying expansion of their library resources. If your application is accepted, ALP will run a book drive where, for 4 months they promote your school’s needs. Interested donors receive copies of the letters, quotes and photos to inspire their contributions. Schools may receive up to 1,000 books from the ALP drive, postage covered in full.

When I learned about the project I was elated. For the past two years our school’s academic rank has been dropping lower and lower. Whereas we were once ranked first in our district, we are now mid-range alongside many of the larger, more rural junior secondary schools. Many teachers and students attribute this drop in our position to the student’s floundering English language skills. Although at first I thought this might be an exaggeration, I was soon convinced after teaching our Form 1 guidance session where nearly all the children were unable to understand me. This poor performance was concerning. How could these children make it through the next 3 years of all-English classes with all-English exams and go on to all-English universities? Without language skills they were sure to underachieve and with Botswana’s limited economy this could lead them into a myriad of professional, personal, financial and even health problems.

One day I managed to ask a Form 1 class why the thought their English skills were so poor. A handful of students blamed their “lazy” English teachers (typical teenager-response) but a number of them also criticized the library. “We’re never even allowed to go in there,” one student told me. “The teachers say we talk too much in the library but there’s nothing to read so what else can we do?”

I presented the ALP project idea to the Library Committee in late September and they pounced on the idea. This was incredibly encouraging as nearly every project
I have initiated in my school has met resistance from teachers who claim they are “too busy to help.” (True in some cases though I’ve been around long enough to know that the majority of them head home for their afternoon siesta at 1:00 and never return). So the response was heartening and I immediately began to romanticize the possibility of finally harnessing their energy for skills transfer and capacity building. With the books as my “carrot” I could get students and staff to learn effective research skills, powerful letter composition and the importance of data collected for inspiring donor support. All this would have to be done in English which would allow for language training at the same time.

I was also excited to think that the success of this project could propel students and teachers to work with me on other, more challenging initiatives that I cannot (and will not) pursue without their participation.

So with all this in mind we launched into the project in early October. For weeks I worked with the student library monitors to write their letters and I taught committee members to interview people in our community as a means to collect quotes that reflect our need. Letters and quotes all needed to be typed which gave me a chance to train them on microsoft word skills. As a finale I had the kids pose in various places around the library to, again, show our donor that we have the need but also (as I explained to the students) to show that we have safe, available, clean facilities where we can safely and responsibly store the books.

By November we were finally done. I sent the application, letters, quotes and pictures to the Africa Library Project in November 12th. Everyone eagerly awaited a response.

When two weeks passed without a reply from the donors I decided to send the files again. But when another month passed I began to worry. I asked my aunt in the States to see if she could contact the Africa Library Project to make sure they had received our application.

A week later my aunt sent me this email:

“After you told me about the African Library Project, I called their office in CA. Maybe you've heard from the woman in charge by now, but if not, she told me she wasn't sure what to write you and so she hadn't responded. Apparently, they have a program for mostly primary schools in Botswana and are working with the Ministry of Education, so she doesn't know when they would be able to do something for your school. My impression is "don't hold your breath." She seemed like a nice person, but I think she should have at least answered your and others application, simply to acknowledge it if nothing more.”

I was devastated.

School was starting again in just a week and the students would be asking about the project. I didn’t know how to tell them that all their efforts had been futile and the books would not be arriving.

But then—out of the blue—my friend Jennifer writes to tell me she’s assembled a box of used books that she’d like to send to our school. Novels, national geographics and other texts were on their way and could I just confirm the right address for her so she can get them on their way?

I was stunned. Jennifer has no idea about our need for books—or about the project—or about the disappointing news I was about to convey.

Jennifer’s books arrived in Gaborone last week. Five days before the start of the new term. Surreal.


Jennifer’s books were a miracle but still only about a 10th of what the students had expected to receive from the Africa Library Project.

I am hoping to contact the ALP again next year and research other book donors in Europe and the States. If you have any information about book donor agencies or would like to get rid of that old box of novels in your basement… please contact me! (

I’ve attached here one of the ALP application letters if you are interested in reading it. This letter was written by Lorato Blanken, the 15 year old student chairwoman of the Kumakane Junior Secondary School Library. Lorato has been a member of the library committee for the past two years and this month will begin her final year at our school.

She wrote this letter in October:

Dear American Donors

My name is Lorato Blanken from Kumakwane Junior Secondary School and I’m writing this letter to request books from you as the American donors to help us by supplying us with some books like novels, textbooks and other books as this will help the students in their studies. It is hard for us students to use the books available because its either they are outdated or one needs the book being used by another students. The books can only be used whilst in the library as there are few of them because some of the books we have got worn out. The government is not able to supply the school with books as it has to help other schools with the same problem.

There are two schools in our village but this is the only place with a library. However it is so unfortunate that this library is small and has a high shortage of books. The books available are either of an old version or look old. Students normally prefer to study in the classroom because a large number of students at the library lead to inability to share the books as they would be looking for the same information. The books can only be used whist in the library as there are a few of them because some of them have gotten worn out.

If we had the books we could borrow the books from the library to use at home, in class and for extended study (daily from 2:00 – 3:30). We could use the books for improving our English as it is our second language and we can even use the books in our leisure time. Other pupils from the primary school can come and borrow the books from our library and this would help them improve in their studies.

Thanks for considering our request and we look for to hearing back from you. It will be a pleasure to receive books from you as this will help us greatly.

Yours Sincerely,

Lorato Blanken, Student Library Chairwoman

Sunday, January 4, 2009

System and Size

The sun is setting when I arrive in Thamaga tonight… rain cloud grey and sun orange smudge against mountains and stretches of horizon. I am toting umbrella and groceries when the sky begins to dribble in prelude to tonight’s storm. It has stormed through the last three nights and walking down the street I swear I can pick out the farmers – those faces vibrant with relief.

But there are no farmers on the street tonight. Just barefoot children and package-balancing women and this sun burnt lekgoa waiting to get home. I approach the bus stop and prepare my “dumellas” but before I can start the greetings I am distracted by a floury of movement.

The couple stands close to one another and I cannot hear their words. His back is to me but as I approach I can see her face change suddenly from anger to terror. There are three slaps before the first punch. Chin, eye, stomach stomach stomach

I am running.

And then I am screaming.

The man stops hitting her and turns to stare at me, perplexed. The bus stop crowd inches closer. Three police men cross the road. The woman begins to cry.

Physical abuse happens in every country on the planet but the fact that it can occur on the street in Botswana infuriates me. I saw the same scene in China five years ago and it turned my stomach to knots. This time I explode.

I am certain that my anger surprises the man because he stand there staring at me as I berate him and continues staring when I petition the police to drag him away to jail.

But even in my torrent I know it is not that easy.

The police talk to the couple for a long time. A combi comes and the bus stop empties of pedestrians. The rain continues. I grind my teeth and watch as the woman shakes her head and the man rubs her shoulder and the police tap their feet, impatient.

Eventually a policeman turns and explains to me that the woman has agreed to come to the station and make a report. I sigh prematurely and watch, in dismay, as the man ushers his girlfriend to the side and talks quietly against her cheek. This scene lasts and we know. Me and the entourage of policemen. We know he is winning.

Before they translate for me I know she has decided not to report.
She tells the policemen this and they may as well have shrugged.
This indifference seems to bury her.
She lowers her body to the ground and sits there crying.

I do not have the Setswana but I crouch in front of her and touch her arms. She has not and will not look at me. She weeps into the tails of her head scarf.

I say those things that we’ve designed for moments like these: You are beautiful. You are strong. You do not deserve to be hit. No man should hit you. No one should hit you. You must protect yourself.

I believe she understands me but I ask a police officer to translate anyway. He does. And she cries and cries and will not look at any of us.

Time passes and it is getting dark. I call the Thamaga volunteer for advice and she tells me that the woman can report to the health clinic at the hospital if she feels uncomfortable going to the police. This also is translated but the woman stares into the sand and I know it means nothing. She is silent. And there are reasons.

These women allow this to happen to them because they refuse to report.
I glare at the police officer.
And what happens if she reports?
We interview her and the man. We record her account of their history.
And then?
Well, we can only prosecute him for the current episode, not the past history. Sometimes we give a fine. Sometimes jail time.
How much jail time?
A maximum of 6 months.
And when he gets out? How is she protected when he is released?
The police officer looks at woman and sighs.
I wouldn’t report either. I tell him.
He nods and continues staring at the woman.

You know my friend works in Thamaga and last month a teacher at her school tied up his girlfriend and set her on fire. He nearly killed her.
This gets the officers attention again and he looks at me and shakes his head in sympathy.
Two weeks after the episode he was back teaching at the school. The other teachers shook his hand when he returned.
You see. Says the police officer. No one will report. This is the problem.
So can I report this situation? Can you take me to the station as a witness?
No. Sigh. No, miss. The report has to come from the victim.
So how does a burn victim who is barely alive report?
I’m sorry miss, that is our system.

When the woman stands I petition her one last time to report but I know the attempt is futile. I give the officers my information and I know they will not call me to testify.

They three leave and the woman leaves with the man in tow. I watch them walk down the street and I watch them cross and I watch them get into a cab and I watch them leave.

The bus stop has filled again and there are two rainbows arching through the clouds. They are enormous, those rainbows. They are the biggest rainbows I have ever seen. Vast beams. Immense arches.

And I



am a speck.