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.

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