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.