Thursday, April 30, 2009

To Be Heard

I recently submitted this piece for a Peace Corps story contest…

In the first three months of service my sole responsibility was to perform a community needs assessment. This involved holding interviews, administering surveys and organization hours of observation. At the end of the third month I had a 100 page site report and an enormous heart ache.

Botswana is not like other African countries. In my village there are satellite dishes and painted houses and well-fed dogs. Of course there are also shanty houses and roudeval huts and poor children. The difference is that even the poor families are taken care of by the federal government. Destitute families receive food baskets, OVCs have their school fees paid and when drought assaults this dessert, there’s a job relief program for the country’s many farmers.

Botswana takes care of its people. Still, the nation’s rate of HIV is 2nd highest in the world with nearly 33% of the population infected. 1 in 3.

And so this is the reality I thought I had stepped into: politically stable Botswana with an economic safety net and a wealth of diamond revenue. Perfect storm for my mission: to build the local capacity towards achieving effective HIV prevention work.

But even before my second foot had landed, things began to change.

It started with the student’s needs assessment at the school where I’ve been stationed. Just a simple survey with 21 quantitative questions and three qualitative questions. Clean language. Straightforward themes. Easy work.

Or so I thought.

When I had finally collected the surveys from all 340 students I began to tabulate the data. What I found were a plethora of disturbing facts that characterized these children’s reality.

The data confirmed that children were not being fed enough food. That teachers were being physically abusive under the guise of legal corporal punishment. Young girls were involved in relationships with staff members. Teachers were insulting and embarrassing their students publicly. Many classes were missed regularly by teachers and, as a result, the student’s academic scores were dropping.

When I distributed these survey results to the teaching staff they immediately began flipping through the pages and mocking the student’s complaints. Later, in their private interviews, many teachers explained to me that they could not be “open” to their student’s personal needs. They didn’t have time. They didn’t have energy. With hundreds of students, monthly exams, and extra curricular obligations… how could the personal be met without sacrificing the academic?

The teacher support-system was clearly absent. So where did these children get mentorship, supervision and care? I began to ask questions about other areas of their lives.

The great majority of Batswana citizens subsist off small scale agricultural work. While this makes many families self-sustainable it also keeps parents away from their children for months at a time. As the parents leave the village to plow, weed and later harvest the family land, children stay behind to care for the home and attend school. Many children are left alone in their homes for nearly half of every year.

Closed teachers and absent parents. In my first month of service it became abundantly clear to me that the children in my village had little to no support system outside of their peers. This had enormous implications for their emotional health but further ramifications for HIV prevention and risk reduction. No role models, no adult supervision, no personal accountability and no one to listen. If these children weren’t given a platform to voice their physical need for food or their legal concerns about abuse… what else was not being said? What other needs were being neglected?

When I was finally able to tackle some of what I’d recorded in the needs assessment, I first went to the school’s PACT Club. PACT stands for Peer Approach to Counseling Teens and the group of students meets twice each week. The PACT group in my village, however, had been inactive for nearly two years. The problem? Enormous student interest but no teacher facilitator.

At our first meeting we talked about what it means to “Counsel Teens” and how we, as a group, might do more to help our peers. Students suggested recruiting more PACT members, presenting on health themes at morning assembly and referring troubled students to the guidance and counseling teacher. We wrote these ideas on the board and made a plan for each strategy. Once we had flushed out their ideas I suggested something that a fellow PCV had started in her village: A Student Question Box.

The PACT members seemed intrigued by this idea and over the next few months we established a system for the Question Box. First, the idea was presented and approved by the administration, then it was announced to the student body and, finally, the box was placed in the school lobby. In the first week we received nearly 50 questions and the PACT students worked together to answer each inquiry. Questions and answers were then reviewed by the school’s headmaster and posted in the court yard for the student body to read.

The system worked well but was not developed without difficulty. In the first week, for example, teachers protested the box for fear that a complaint would come in about their class or their teaching style. In response we announced that all personalized questions and complaints would be given to the school administration and not posted publicly.

Then there was the issue of position. Where could we place the poster so students could read it without being chased away by teachers? And who would monitor the posters so they weren’t damaged by other students. The PACT club brainstormed solutions to these questions and eventually created a rotating system of poster-monitoring at lunch and tea times.

Finally there were the questions themselves. Some weeks there were too many to answer. Other weeks the questions were too difficult to answer. Some weeks the administration got upset because there were too many questions about dating and not enough about academics.

We dealt with each hurdle as it came. A Question Box Committee was formed. A peer-support training session was held for PACT members. A deal was struck with the administration so that theme that appeared more frequently (such as dating) would be reported to the guidance teacher so she could arrange special classes and guest presentations on these “hot topics”.

The question box has been in place for nearly 8 months. It is, by no means, a solution to our student’s problems but it is a start. And it has given them a voice.

In 8 months we have helped students cope with a number of issues arising from problems such as bullying, gossip, homosexuality, physical abuse, pregnancy, sex, hygiene, corporal punishment, teacher respect, family pressures, academic challenges, self esteem, etc.

The students concerns have helped to inform the establishment of new school rules and teacher accountability as well as the topics for the school’s weekly health themes. A number of students have come to the guidance office for help with issues they had voiced anonymously through the Question Box. The village social worker was contacted and asked to set up a weekly meeting with our school’s guidance office so she can meet privately and regularly with students who needed her services.

The school’s staff is still suspicious of our “dangerous” little box but the accountability it has laid upon teachers and the voice it has given students is invaluable. We will deal with suspicion and fear if it means that more students will be helped and more PACT members will be trained on peer counseling.

HIV prevention work involves, foremost, risk reduction. I cannot be certain that my students are protecting themselves from HIV but I do know they have started to talk about a number of their life risks and receive advice and strategies for coping with those risks.

Each week our little box fills up with deeper questions and more urgent needs. I can only hope that one day the pain and need inside this box will subside. Until then, we collect on Mondays, answer on Tuesday and post on Wednesdays. One week at a time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've just stumbled upon your blog...and it has been wonderful to read. I was a PCV in Mabutsane from 2005 to 2007. In fact, this month is my 2 year anniversary of COS. It has not been easy integrating my 2 years in Botswana with my life in the U.S. And it saddens me to know that so many of my Bots memories have faded. It is harder and harder to conjure up in my mind the smells, sounds, and feelings that I experienced there. It is nice to read your blog and to be instantly transported back to the life of a PCV - dealing with the joys and the sorrows of life in rural Botswana. I truly know what you are going through. Thank you for writing about your experiences!