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.

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