Friday, August 28, 2009

Shadow of Whites

In the center of my village lies a shallow dam where water pools in the rainy season. Three gardens surround this little dam selling spinach, onions, and beets. In America we score the shelves for non-pesticide, non-genetically-modified produce. In Africa I find these luxuries at every corner. Not, of course, without the occasional grains making their way into my stirfry… and the notorious Batswana onions that nearly melt my contacts with their potent and juicy vapors. Even so, I’m spoiled on these vegetarian delicacies in my village. Many days I have to remind myself to eat protein. Among the heap of things I’ll miss from Africa, sunsets and produce are high on the list.


Savid is buried inside yellow flowers and spinach blossoms when we first meet. He greets me in English and flashes a white smile that traps the sunlight and wrinkles his face deep with ebony. Savid dons stained trousers and a purple button-up shirt that holds a long tear, exposing his shoulder. These will be the same clothes I see him in every day of our impending friendship. He is the first Zimbabwean I meet in Africa.

In the beginning, Savid gave me giant fans of spinach and refused to accept payment. Over time I came to compensate this generosity with baked goods and photographs from America. One day Savid told me he loved to sing and wished he could record his voice that echoed so well in his empty little house. I loaned Savid a small recorder which he received with such joy and enthusiasm that it almost made me sad.

On Valentine’s Day the village kids were over baking and making cards for their parents when Sivad knocked on my door. I opened it to his whites and a nervous laugh as he handed me a vase filled with plastic flowers. The kids peeked out behind me as I shoveled oatmeal cookies into a plastic bag and thanked him for his visit and the gift.

Last week Sivad sent me a message saying that his wife and son were visiting from Zimbabwe and he’d be very happy if I’d come to meet them. I set to work baking treats and polished off my spinach, knowing Savid would shower me with veggies when I met him at the garden.

The sun was beginning its decent when I arrived at the gate and used the Setswana words for knocking: “Ko ko!” Sivad’ youngest son, Yule, was playing alone beneath the gate. He greeted me shyly before spearing the fence with a long twig. I’d never seen Yule before but he smiled with Savid’s shape and so I asked for his father. Yule paused his fence-assault and pointed the stick to the garden’s edge where Savid waved and headed towards us, whites blazing.

Normally, the process of learning another person stretches between years and events and conversations. Occasionally, however, there are moments when the act of experiencing another person is pressed into a very small space. All at once the blinds raise and the colors cascade and you are left with a profound sense of awe and guilt.

Sivad greets me and introduces Yule before swinging the boy onto his back. It’s late in the day so Sivad locks the garden and we head off to meet his wife.

On the way to Kris’ family gatherings I have him quiz me on names and occupations so I can make polite conversation with his relatives. As we walk to Sivad’ house I slip into this strategy. Sivad obliges and answers my questions with a frown.

Maybe I’ve missed some social taboo, I think while glancing at his clouded face. I become silent and Sivad sighs. That breath breaks off a little piece of him that tumbles out and stands between us. I wait.

“Her name is Rotiat and she is a primary school teacher. We… um… She lives 40 kilometers north of Harare. With our four children. Two boys and two girls.”

I smile and ask the names of his children. Savid sulks out four long and beautiful names. I repeat them to savor the stretched syllables and rhythmic sounds. I tell him that these names are lovely and he nods. In the year I have known Savid, I have never seen him without a smile. It’s his trademark. It’s his charm.

I also have never heard him mention a wife. Or children.

“You know, Jessica.” He sighs, looking away from me. “You know I left them six years ago. In 2003 I left them because of That Man. Since then I have seen them one time in 2005 and one other time: now.”

Yule bounces on Davis’ back and giggles, still swaying his wooden sword.

“I have suffered, Jessica. I cannot return because That Man… he hates refugees. When there is a problem he will kill us first. He will blame us. And these little ones” he squeeze Yule’s legs, “These ones are wiped out. Like nothing. Just destroyed… I cannot put them in that danger. And so I am here.”

Savid’s pace grows slower and more labored with each sentence. I “tsk” and shake my head from side to side and reach up to smooth the back of Yule’s shirt. Savid swallows.

“Last month my wife sent me a message and told me our oldest daughter is pregnant. My baby girl. I did not believe her until she came here and told me in person. You have not seen me this past week, Jessica. But I have been bad. So bad.”

As we approach the compound I see three very small stone houses, turned into one another to form a square. The fourth edge is a rusty bar-front with the windows boarded up. Teenage girls stand in the house’s doorframes, holding their brooms and staring out at me. I greet them and they watch me in silence. Blinking and blank. My presence confusing them.

Savid’s house is one very small, dark cement room. It is smaller than my parent’s bathroom in America. In the corner there sit two small pots and a shelf that holds tea and flour and a jar of peanut butter. The single window drops light onto a chair and a thin sofa where Rotiart sits folding blankets and beckoning me to come inside.

As Yule crawls onto her lap Rotiart and I begin to make small talk and become comfortable with one another. When we have discussed the children and her job and my family and the weather I ask her how she and the children are doing with the situation in Zimbabwe. I ask her I she feels safe.

Rotiart sighs and exchanges a glance with Savid.

“We are not very safe there, you know. We hear things. They are close to us… even now. And we have heard that He wants to reintroduce the Zimbabwean currency, can you imagine? How can we live? There is no economy.”

“The Rand,” says Savid. “The Rand is strong. That should be where we move but That Man is just terrible. He will give us nothing.”

Rotiart’s eyes sparkle with rage and fear. “You see that there?” she says pointing to the peanut butter jar. “How much do you think that costs there?... two dollars!” she exclaims holding up her fingers, “Can you imagine!? For one jar.”

I look at my bag from the garden overflowing with spinach and onions and carrots. I have spent 8 Pula or $1.10 to buy enough vegetables for an entire week. Half a jar of peanut butter in neighboring Zimbabwe.

“That’s all they know is dollars,” says Savid. “There are no coins so everything is a dollar… a piece of fruit… a loaf of bread… all one dollar.”

We continue to discuss Zimbabwe’s shattered economy and political leadership. Savid and Rotiart swing from enraged to despondent and back again. When the conversation lulls, Rotiart offers me paleche which I know I should accept to be polite. But I look at that peanut butter jar and shake my head and apologize.

“Next time, Rotiart. I should be going. It’s getting dark.”

Out on the road Savid and I walk in silence and I look at him out of the corner of my eye. The last arc of orange has slipped behind the treeline and the twilight turns him grey. Whites stay hidden behind his lips.

“They go on Sunday, can you believe it? She tells me Yule has school starting on Tuesday and they must go.”

Savid’s visit with his wife and son will be 9 days long. One and a half days for each year he’s been away from them.

“I am thinking this must change. They must come to me or we all must go or…” his voice trails off in the narrowness of options.

When we reach the road’s end I persuade him to leave me and return to them. He nods and touches my arm lightly. Before turning he flashes his whites and I see a glimmer of the man I knew before, inside the darkness of the person I know now.

It is hard to touch people here. It is harder to be touched. Language and culture and wealth form walls that I climb but cannot cross.

Until today, Savid was the garden-guy. The Valentine smile. The bloke singing himself to sleep.

Those whites are distracting.

Produce and sunsets. And Savid. I’ll miss Savid. The outside he always donning and the inside he opened today.

On my walk home I pass nurses from the clinic and students from my school and the tuck shop owner and the neighborhood kids and my landlady. I know their names and their jobs and the way their eyes sparkle when they smile. I know their houses and their hair-dos and their voices.

I know nothing.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Botswana’s national government pays school fees and funds uniforms for orphans who register with the village social worker. The program assists nearly a fifth of the students at my school and over a quarter at the Kumakwane primary school. In general, children’s educational needs are met.

But as with all social welfare programs, there are exceptions. The exception at my school are those children who have not been orphaned. The poor without excuse. These ones are left.

The PACT club can name these kids and want to donate the funds they raised at the beauty contest towards buying school uniforms for them. At first I find this unsettling. What if we miss someone? What if it becomes a popularity contest? What if the kids feel embarrassed by being singled out?

My concerns are listened to and promptly ignored. The PACT kids make a list and the guidance counselor narrows it down. By Friday I have a paper with 5 names.

The students are called to see me during tea break. As they enter the guidance office I am hit with a thick and pungent odor of sour sweat. I beckon them to sit, but they stand-- nervously staring at me.

The school has just ended two weeks of exams and this week the students are being punished for the tests they failed. Most teachers administer a beating for wrong answers. Since Botswana’s Ministry of Education only allows 5 strokes for each punishment, the teachers go question by question. A student with 10 incorrect answers could receive 50 strokes in one class. I had spent most of the week consoling the kids and passing out bandaids.

“Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.”

Ten eyes move back and forth across my face. The tallest boy relaxes his shoulders. I look at him and smile.

“Thapelo. I need you to translate for the others, okay?”

He nods and looks at his feet and laughs: this is novel.

The students line up to show me their uniforms. One girl’s jersey is ripped at the elbows and tattered around the sleeves. Another boy’s trousers reach only to his shins and are deeply stained. Several of them don’t have button-up shirts or sweaters at all.

I write the sizes and their requests. Thapelo translates clumsily.

“Ask them which item is most important. If I only have enough money for one, which do they need the most.”

After a few minutes I finish the list and look up to dismiss them. They stare back at me with deep and serious eyes. Five of the smallest children at our school. Tiny from malnutrition and manual labor and stress. They wait for me. I take too long. I stall. For no reason. Or maybe for guilt. Or maybe for hope. As though there were anything I could do in that square room and pinch of proximity.

When the door closes after the last, I sit there in something of a residue. The paper in my hand feels light. Like air.

After a few minutes I smooth out the paper and wipe my face. I walk into the hall where the space is white and stable. Where 340 bodies dilute the scent of a few and all my senses dull.

Beauties, Contests and Chaos

In America kids fund raise with bake sales and car washes and Girl Scout cookies.

In Botswana kids raise funds with beauty contests.

You’d be shocked how many beauty contests I’ve seen in this country. One at school, one at the mall in Gaborone, one at the preschool… I’ve been invited to about 20 others. At some point I started declining because I couldn’t bear the blatant superficiality. Plus, the outfits are just offensive. Truly, no 14 year old girl should be prancing down a runway in a mini-skirt and halter top. And if you think that’s a conservative view, consider the cultural dynamics.

How to explain youth and sexuality in Botswana…?

Maybe the clearest example of this tension was demonstrated by the host family I lived with during training. If you remember, my family had 7 kids who all loved to sing and dance. Every day I’d come home from training to find the group of them jumping and shaking and spinning around the living room to African music videos on tv (yes, they had a tv but no running water).

One day I arrived to find the kids particularly enamored by a South African video where the super star sang a 30 second chorus and spent the rest of the time thrusting her body around in a green half-shirt and tight go-go shorts. As the video played, my four sisters shrieked and giggled and talked excitedly to one another. At some point I found myself watching 15-year-old Naillil. When she noticed my attention she replied with a guilty glance and said: “Ah - these girls are beauty. But they bring shame to their families in those clothes.”

So entertainment culture poses an interesting juxtaposition here in Botswana. On the one hand people are fascinated by the flashy media images and sexy modern entertainment but on the other hand there remains this very conservative, traditional undercurrent that makes the whole scene risqué and controversial. Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in the beauty contest.

And so this is the dilemma that comes crashing towards me in the first PACT meeting of last term.

“Mma Charles can we please, pleeeeeeeease have a beauty contest this time…?!”

I’ve heard the same plea for three terms and each time managed to dodge the request by suggesting other fundraising ideas. Last summer we had a cinema and drama event and the term after that we made and sold jewelry out of magazines.

“But you said we could this time. Can’t we? We’ll do all the work. We’ll work Really Hard! We can raise money for the poor people.”

Sigh. I’m doomed by my affection for all those pretty black eyes and big smiles.

I agree to help them put it together and they cheer and I say:

“No shorts! And No Mini-skirts!”

And they scowl but get over it and run off to find CDs so they can start practicing the parades.

Two months later I’m sitting in the music room and the kids are blasting American hip hop songs from our one radio attached to our one working socket.

The 10 contestants have been perfected their parades but are frantic over the outfits. The older and wealthier students have torn apart their houses to find jeans and dresses and shoes to fit the poorer girls. As always, I am impressed by the sense of community and the willingness to contribute that is such an integral part of this culture.

I’ve follow their lead and done my part by donating three pairs of high heeled shoes to the event. The girls wobble around in them and practice kicks and twirls while I sit in the back and silently pray that no one falls over and breaks their ankle.

When the day of the contest rolls around all the ankles are still in tact but just about everything else has gone wrong.

- Three of our 10 contestant are an hour late due to mothers, aunts and neighbors fretting over the quality of their hair-dos
- The local radio station has come to MC the show but just told us there will be no guest musician (as we advertised to the village for the past 3 months)
- Parents are protesting that the candy sales prices are too high
- There’s a broken door in the back of the school hall where children slip into the performance without paying
- The traditional dance group and three of our sports teams have made it to the nationals and are away for competitions this weekend—depleting out audience by hundreds.
- One girl has started crying because she’s decided she’s simply too shy to answer the social welfare questions that will be posed to the contestants after the final parade (but not, apparently, too shy to parade around in a dress in front of 400 audience member…?)
- Of the five student performers who have agreed to dance and sing between parades only two of them have CDs that work in the radio station’s equipment
- Two teachers have arrived to help with the show but I get call after call from the others expressing their regrets.
- Each time the student MC announces a parade the girls shriek from the dressing room and complain that they need more time (this is due, in large part, to the one mother who’s managed to sneak into the back and is giving meticulous attention to the task of sticking feathers and beads into her daughters hair)
- Oh, and I’m sick. Sicker than I’ve been in years. Sore throat and fever and chills. I’m popping cough drops and pain killers and stomping out all these fires and kicking myself a million times for agreeing to this.

Still, we survive. The contest runs from 2:00 – 6:00. The feather-girl wins and the smallest contestant comes in second and the girl with a learning disability comes in third. My friend from Gabs (my favorite taxi driver) rescues us by arriving in MC-Hammer garb and lip synching to songs between parades. The radio station finds a guest speaker to present about drug and alcohol abuse. The girls all manage to answer the health questions at the end of the show. We raise 600 pula.

This event took place back in June but I was so sincerely traumatized by the accompanying mayhem that I’ve been hesitant to write about it. Since then I’ve sworn off helping to organize big events and to ever attend another beauty contest in my life.

But then yesterday we had our last PACT meeting of the term and I brought in photos from the contest. The kids circled me, squealing and shrieking and laughing at the images.

“You are so beautiful in this one!”
“See, in this one she looks like an princess!”
“Oh her body is so nice—So Nice!”
“Those shoes matched the dress perfectly!”
“Your answer there was great… see how you’re moving your hands!”
“Ah—that one… that one is just lovely!”

And so I go the Half-Full route and decide that, despite my attachment to perfection, the day was not a complete wash.

For one, the contestants felt pretty-- that in itself is an achievement for a teenage girl. And they did get practice thinking through questions like “Why did you join PACT?” and “How can you help to improve the health of your community?” and “What is the biggest challenge to Botswana’s social welfare?” Plus, we raised money and the kids who weren’t competing got experience with leadership and event-planning.

“Mma Charles! Next term we should do a Beauty Contest with girls AND boys!”

She flashes me a giant smile and runs her fingers through my hair and says


Oh, and they also learned how to be desperately charming and dangerous convincing. I’ve recorded it all here in case I’m tempted to succumb again.