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.”
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.
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?
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?
I ask the next girl.
And the last.
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.