Sunday, February 8, 2009

Names Off the List

Once a year Botswana’s secondary schools have “Sports Day” where the kids spend an entire day completing for a place on the school sports teams. I have an NGO meeting in the morning and so I don’t return to campus until 3:00.

When I walk into the yard the first thing I notice is that all the kids are eating. This is unusual and so I think “Wow, that’s nice that they’ve arranged for two tea times… the kids definitely need the extra nutrition after exercising in the sun all day.”

Not so.

As I enter the lobby I’m shocked to see two young girls lying flat on their backs. The girls are crying and heaving. Their friends hover in anxious energy, fanning them with books.

What happened?
This one has been crying for an hour. She says she can’t breathe.
This one fainted. She can’t speak.

I check their pulse and then run to find help. On the benches beyond the lobby ten teachers sitting eating lunch. When I beckon them to come in and help the girls they tell me not to worry. The girls are just tired. They’ll be fine in a few minutes.

I can feel myself begin to panic.

Back in the lobby the students have carried in a third child and the three of them sit together gasping and wheezing and crying.

How long have they been like this?
A while.
Maybe an hour.
Why aren’t they going to the clinic?


I am not trained for this. I don’t understand the severity. I can’t even speculate on the cause. I don’t have a car or a first aid kit or even a bottle of water. But as I watch those girls gasping I know they are in acute pain and thick fear.

I do the only thing I can think of: I make a scene.

I demand that the teachers come and tend to the girls.
I demand that the Head PE teacher brings her car to take them to the clinic.
I express my outrage that this 3:00 meal is LUNCH and reprimand the staff for allowing children to exercise for the entire day without food or water.

The teachers continue to justify and downplay the girls’ condition and I continue to escalate.

Someone brings a bottle and the head PE teacher starts pouring cap-fulls of water between the girl’s lips. It is the first water they have had all day.

Mr. Iteom finally pulls around in the car and we carry out the three girls and place them in the back seat.

The group of teachers munch away on their lunches, watching us leave.

It is a bumpy, five minute ride that feels like eternity. The movement of the car seems to make the girls’ condition worse and they sob against one another’s shoulders, panting and moaning. I lean back and hold onto their fingers and breathe with them.

In and out. Just like this. That’s right. In and out. We’re almost there. Big breath now. Come on—big breath. In and out. Good. We’re almost there.

When we arrive at the clinic I run in to tell the nurses to come quickly. We have an emergency.

The nurses help me carry the girls inside. They give them medicine. They take their temperature. They take their blood pressure. They fill out papers. The girls stop crying.

Mma Dali is the head nurse. A thin old lady with a stern voice and flat demeanor. Perhaps she has seen too much. Perhaps her compassion is spent. These are the things I tell myself so I am able to keep smiling at her. So I am able to still the shaking in my voice.

No, these children are not asthmatic. They are just tired from running.
They’ve been wheezing for over an hour. That’s more than fatigue.
I checked their names on the list. They’re not asthmatic.
So how are the children on the list diagnosed with asthma?
Just by observation.
But don’t you observe a problem with these girls? If it’s not asthma, then what is it?
If I ran up the road I’d be tired too.
But this one’s chest is hurting. She says it’s very painful. What could that be?
It’s not asthma. She’s just tired.

I want to scream. The negligence at school and now this trivializing infuriate me. I smile at Mma Dali and thank her for helping the girls breathe again. She says your welcome and walks away from me.

When Mary comes to check on the girls I sigh. Mary is a soft, rolly polly nurse. She is incredibly kind and genuine. She is my favorite of all the clinic staff.

Mary does not coddle the girls. She listens to my account of the last hour and then looks at the students for a long time. After several moments she addresses the oldest girl:

Did the teachers make you run?
Did you tell them you didn’t want to?

Mr. Iteom jumps in with a monologue about the teams and the timing and the race selection and the competition results and I think he says something ludicrous about needing to win before I cut him off and ask the girl:

Which teacher forced you to run when you didn’t want to?
Mr. Desimochi.
I ask the next girl.
Mr. Desimochi.
And the last.
Mr. Desimochi.

The ride back to school gives me time to cool down which is fortunate and necessary. It is 4:00 when Mr. Iteom gives the girls their lunch. It has been a long, hot day. These girls have had a single piece of bread prior to this meal. They eat with silence and ceremony.

On the way to find the headmaster I vow to keep it short and direct:

Three girls were taken to the clinic this afternoon. They were struggling to breathe and no one helped them for over an hour. They were forced to run. This cannot happen in the future. Teachers must be told not to pressure or force their students into activities that exhaust and weaken them. It is dangerous. We do not have a school nurse. We are not equipped to deal with emergencies like this.

The headmaster scowls and takes me outside.

Mma Charles the students want badly to win. They pressure themselves into to these extremes.
Sir, they were crying and gasping. They did not want to run those races.
Children say things to make you believe they were wronged. But these same children are the ones misbehaving in class and refusing to participate in PE classes. They must participate.
I agree sir, I think it’s very important for them to participate in gym class but I also think there need to be limits so that students who are weak or malnourished or unhealthy do not become sick from excessive exercise.
Mma Charles I tell them they must report their health problems but they ignore me. Last month a Form 3 student came to tell me he couldn’t play the recorder for his music exam because of asthma. Form 3! Three years at this school and he didn’t ever report this to us. Now suddenly he can’t play for the exam.
Sir, this is different.
Their parents don’t even take them to the clinic. Do you know most parents have never even picked up their children’s birth certificates?!
But sir, that’s my point—if the parents are negligent we have to be even more careful so that children don’t get sick or hurt at school.
These children need disciple. They need to keep active. Do you know there is still theft happening every day in our school? If children are not kept active they begin to steal from one another…

This goes on for another 30 minutes or so. The headmaster tells me story after story of naughty, disrespectful students. When he dismisses me I say
“I appreciate your concern for the safety and health of our students.”
And he says “Yes.” and walks away from me.


I will speak to Mr. Desimochi. I will visit the girl’s parents. I will speak to the PE teachers and to the students in the guidance classes. I will research and print facts about healthy, safe exercise that highlight the importance of food, hydration, stretching, and rest. I will distribute these facts. It is possible that these gestures will raise resentments.

And so this is where responsibility and relationships collide. Compelled to address this blatant neglect but with enough tact and respect to preserve the politics that are so essential to the sustainability of everything I do.

A daunting exercise in balance. And yet essential.

Last July we teachers sat on folding chairs in our student’s yard. We sang songs and said prayers and then walked to the cemetery to say goodbye to her. She also could not catch her breath. She also was not on the list. She also had a pain deep inside her chest that would not go away. And did not.

That was six months ago. Just half a year.

There are things we repress.
And things we forget.

And then there are things we ignore.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The North Widows

My house is a little cement block lodged between The Haves and the Have-Nots.

When I first came to Kumakwane I only saw the Haves. I had been living in a desperately poor part of Molepolole that made Kumakwane look like Rodeo Drive in comparison. People had houses… real houses. With colored paint on the outside and even TV satellite dishes. There were rose bushes and doorbells. Some of the kids had bicycles and all of the neighborhood dogs looked like they were being fed (in Molepolole the dogs were emaciated and frail).

I remember thinking how tragic it was that I had been sent to such an affluent village when there were hundreds of impoverished communities all over this country. At one point I even asked the Peace Corps Country Director about this and, although she assured me that need was a factor for placement, I still had my doubts.

Over time the color on those houses began to fade. If you weren’t looking for it you’d never have noticed. But it was happening. And as those colors faded I started to see the shape and size of things I could not see before.

The first thing I noticed was the size of the neighborhood kids.

My landlady lives in an enormous pink house and has her daughter’s hair plaited in a different style each week. Every Saturday Arebile’s hair gets her 100-pula-updo. Her brother, Soma, is six years old but to look at him you’d guess ten. Soma’s shoes have lights in them that flash when he races his bicycle around the house. I have timed him once in a running contest and it took him 1 minute and 13 seconds to round the house. Quite a circumference.

Omosa and Arebile’s house can be seen out of my bedroom windows. My livingroom windows look to a very different scene.

If I look out my north windows I see a tiny roudeval hut. The hut is made of mud and straw and inside that hut there is a mother and her five children: Tebogo (17), Thato (13), Aleboga (11), Enob (6) and Meba (5). This family has no electricity and no pit latrine. They get their water from a pump on the edge of their property. They cook their meals on an outside fire.

Arebile is 9 years old and stands 7 inches taller than Thato at 13. Soma is 6 and stands a full foot taller than Meba at 5. Arebile’s name means “Praise the Lord” and Omosa’s name means “Gift”. Aleboga has two lazy eyes, one of which was half closed at birth. Her name means, simply, “She sees.”

There are other neighborhood kids that live in roudeval huts and come into the landlady’s yard to play after school. Tsiamo is nine years old. Her arms and legs are bone and her school uniform hangs off her tiny waist—three sizes too big. Tsiamo has the most beautiful smile I have ever seen—even with both eyes full of conjunctivitis. Every afternoon Tsiamo’s caretaker goes to work and leaves her in charge of watching her two sisters: Loratile (3) and Bakanya (2).

On Saturday morning the kids in the pink house get up early to play in the yard. Arebile cries when Soma won’t play with her. Soma gets bored with his bike and knocks on my door for sweets. Sometimes they go inside the big house to watch TV.

On Saturday mornings the kids in the roudeval hut get up to do chores. Their mother goes to work as a cleaner in Gaborone and the kids spend the day tending their garden and washing dishes and sweeping the hut. As they work they sing. Quite loudly. So loudly, in fact, that sometimes it gives me a headache. One time I stood up with my book clenched in a fist and prepared to slam my window With Significance… but Meba was playing in the dirt and Thato was scrubbing clothes and Enob was patting the dog and I suddenly looked ridiculous in my angry defense of sustained silence.

There are other shapes and sizes I have begun to see in my village. Some of the most profound have come on my 5:00 runs… that black and white hour of dusk. That prelude to the waking of a world. Just the outlines. But vivid now. So shockingly apparent that’s its hard to remember a time when they didn’t move me. When the village was all color and I was just barely awake.

- From a string of huts I hear a woman shouting to her children. Within seconds of her summoning a barefoot, half naked child comes tearing out into the road. The child chases a single goat across the shrubs and thorns and up and down a muddy hill. I marvel at his ambition and the goat eventually succumbs and trots off to join the rest of his herd. The boy stumbles down the hill and passes me. His eyes are still half shut with sleep. He is smiling.

- Beyond the damn there is a long road. Up and down makes one mile—perfect detour when you need to extend a run. At the end of this road there are a cluster of shanty houses with torn roofs and rusty water pumps. I have only run there once because the scent of human waste was enough to make me desperately nauseous. There were people everywhere. Living and breathing That. Maybe hundreds of them.

- A little girl drops the weight of her wheelbarrow and stops to watch me run by. She cannot be more than 7 and is wearing bare feet and a white dress, ripped at the sleeve. I don’t know how far she is going but she looks incredibly tired already. She is carting two enormous barrels of water. It is 5:30 in the morning. It is still quite cold.

- The man corrals 30+ cows into a pen made of tree branches. The cows bellow and trot fretfully. They know long before I do. The shot startles me as the beast drops and two young boys approach to start the cleaning.

- Lovers walk home in the last drops of 5:00 dark. Perhaps lover is the wrong word. The girls look tiny. Like babies. Or dolls.

Vision is such an illusion. Those things I saw in June. Those things I see now. What will I see in a year? What shapes would appear in a decade? What lines in a lifetime?

It’s pitch dark at 5:00. Grey at 5:30. But I can hardly see a thing by 6:00.

Monday, February 2, 2009


So I am philosophically torn on the issue of grants. Grants are, after all, GIVING money to people instead of training them on how to raise the funds themselves (teach a man to fish… blah blah). B u t grants are also a way to work with local leaders and educate them about the importance of development planning, project design, budget projections, timeline forecasting, success indicators, monitoring and evaluation, etc. (most grant applications require detailed descriptions of all this and more to even be considered for funding).

As I make my way to the clinic I considering all this as the ghosts of my graduate school professors haunt me with the hailed international aid mantras: “Sustainability! Capacity building! Community mobilization!”

It’s the third time I have met with the Home Based Care Volunteers about the Peace Corps Partnership Grant and it is the third time I have felt sincerely conflicted about this project.

What inspired the project in the first place were some 20+ interviews I held with community stakeholders in my first months at site. I closed each of these interviews with the question:

“How would you like to see Kumakwane improved in the coming years?”

Nearly all of my interviewees… policemen, nurses, teachers, the kgosi… all of them had the same answer:

“More clinic vehicles so pregnant women and those with health emergencies can make it to Thamaga in time.”

Thamaga Hospital is nearly a 30 minutes drive from Kumakwane. While the distance is its own hurdle, the lack of an emergency vehicle and on-call driver is even more of a challenge. Last July a teenage girl died of asthma in the middle of the night. Each year women go into labor and die before they make it to the hospital.

These things are avoidable.

And so I began working with the clinic’s 14 Homebased Care volunteers to draft a letter to the Village Development Committee outlining our project goals and proposal (nothing starts in Botswana without the approval of the kgosi, his counselor and his 6 headmen; i.e. the VCD). Ms. Sebabi has agreed to attend the monthly VDC meeting with me and present the letter.

Today I have come to the clinic to meet with the 14 ladies and brainstorm how we will raise 25% of the vehicle funds which are required before the PC grant committee will commit to raising the remainder of funds.

We crowd into a tiny room with no windows, a single desk and three chairs. This is the where the volunteers meet each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning for meetings. The translator gets one chair, the secretary another and Ms. Sebabi the third. The other twelve volunteers sit on the floor. I stand on the left side of the room looking down at this sea of broad skirts and colorful headscarves.

After the prayer I begin my brief presentation about grant logistics and budgeting. The interpreter translates and the ladies listen politely. At the end I outline the role and responsibility of the Home Based Care team:

- Ms. Sebabi will present the plan to the VDC in the first week of February.
- Three volunteers and the translator will meet with me for an hour each week to work on the application.
- All volunteers will meet for two hours on Wednesday mornings to plan and implement fundraising activities for the required 25%.

The ladies nod at me but begin whispering to one another as soon as I’ve finished. I can feel their reluctance and struggle to understand the Setswana as they murmur to one another. I’ve sensed this hesitation in the first two meetings and I do not understand it. Today I’ve intentionally outlined strict expectations so as to inspire their commitment and perhaps uncover some of their reservations.

On the way to the clinic that morning I promised to abandon the entire project if the reluctance continued without explanation.

As I sat there watching the ladies converse and shake their heads I felt my frustration surface. What was I missing? Why was there this lack of enthusiasm? T h e y had suggested this project to me. They had agreed to this in previous meetings. Was it a mistake to even suggest this? Did they think it was a handout and lost interest when they realized they’d have to contribute? Maybe grants are all wrong. Maybe those professors were right. Maybe I’m just giving fishes.

I finally ask the translator for an explanation.

“It’s the 25%.” She says. “They don’t see how they can do it.”

This question came up at the last meeting and I respond in the same way: “We are 15 people with a number of skills. We can hold bake sales, organize a walk-a-thon, make jewelry, or coordinate a fundraising event like a soccer game or talent show. I will help you. We can do it together.”

This is translated as it was last week but the murmurs continue and the uneasiness in the room grows. After several more minutes of mumbling I turn to the translator again.

“Please tell them that I understand if this feels like too much work for them. Please tell them I can try to help in other ways if the grant work is too intimidating.”

Mma Sebabi likes to pretend that she can’t speak English as a way to inspire my motivation to learn Setswana. She is normally very convincing but this time lets her guard down and turns to me:

“Bontle, we want a car but this is so expensive. We are old ladies. How can we raise these big monies? We want you will help us with a garden.”

The other ladies seem to hold their breath and look at me apologetically. Somehow they have come to believe that I will be disappointed with a smaller project and so have been hesitant to tell me their concerns.

The translator fills in the gaps.

“You see a clinic vehicle would cost nearly 50,000 pula and it would take the ladies years to raise a quarter of that. But for a long time they’ve been trying to start a garden to grow food for their poor and ill patients who are unable to maintain their own lands. The VDC has given them a plot of land but they don’t have money to buy the seeds, fencing, or farm tools. They’d like to work with you on this project instead of the vehicle.”

I am so relieved that I start laughing and the ladies faces turn from concerned to confused. I use my broken Setswana to assure them…

“Eee, bo mma! Ke batla go thusa. Re tlaa dira tshingwana ya morogo. Go siame… go sentle!”
(“Yes, ladies! I want to help. We will do the garden. It’s ok… this is good!”)

The ladies look sincerely relieved and the tension drains out of the room. We discuss logistics once more and this time they agree whole heartedly to the time and fundraising commitments.

When I turn to leave one of the ladies pieces together a broken English sentence:

“Bontle, you are beautiful.”

And I know this has nothing to do with my appearance and everything to do with the hurdle we have just conquered.

“Ke a le bo ga, mma. Wena… o a montle thata!”
(Thank you, mma! You are also very beautiful.)


In pre-service training Peace Corps told us if we initiated 20 projects we might see just a third of these actually develop. They also told us to budget our time according to our expectations but then double it to match the reality of working at the pace of this culture.

I remember thinking this had to be an exaggeration meant to scare us and keep us humble. I’ve managed projects before… I can organize and inspire people. I can make things happen.

But, again, I am learning.

Project design in this culture is not about simply performing a needs assessment and writing a project proposal. It is not confined to paperwork and meetings.

Projects here require trust. And relationships. They require patience and dedication. They require cultural sensitivity and humility. They require a translator and a kgosi and a sea of head scarves nodding “yes” because they Truly Believe In It... not because the lekgoa is standing at the front of the room looking keen.

I still have a heart for the vehicle project. I still want children to stop dying of asthma and mothers make it through their labors. But buying a vehicle is not my role here. My role is to listen and to empower. Maybe in 2 years all I’ve have to show for my efforts is a garden. But there is so much worth growing there. There is so much potential for more.

Seeds and a fence and some tools.
And the energy of 14 ladies who care.
And can.
And do.