I lost most of my tan in America which disappointed me but seemed to make quite an impression on my students…
“Mma Charles… you have changed! You look so nice now--- so white!”
Color and shades are significant here. Since everyone has black hair and black eyes, skin tone becomes crucial to identity. In my first months people I met kept referring to others as “that black one” which left me completely baffled as I stared into the sea of black faces surrounding me.
Even more confusing was the opposite. One day I was attempting to check out at grocery store when the manager directed me to “that cashier there… the white lady.” I scanned all 8 tills before turning back to him for help. “Right there baby—the white one… you see her there.” I most certainly did not see any white people anywhere. Eventually, he brought me down to the third register and deposited me in the line where I found a female cashier with light brown skin. This, I learned, was African’s “white”.
Ofet is a “black one”. No mistake about that. He might be the darkest boy at our school and this deep complexion makes his teeth and eyes glimmer in the perpetual smile he’s always donning. Ofet flirts with the girls and makes his classmates laugh. He comes to club meetings and sits in the back row cracking jokes with the other boys. When I glance at him he bites his lip and slaps his neighbors quiet. He is one of the few boys who greets teachers with full formality (hands clasped, small bow, “dummella mma” “dumella rra”).
I don’t know Ofet as well as other students but I like him. His energy and charm are impressive. The sweetness he preserves in popularity is rare.
On my first day back someone handed me a program with Ofet’s image on the front page. The photocopier had been broken and left ashy lines across the white and turned Ofet’s face into a shadow. Though too dark to see his features, the shape of that black silhouette was unmistakable. The program trembled slightly in my hands so I put it down on the desk and waited. The others waited too. Eventually someone took the program away.
On the far stretches of the village, beyond the lands there is a large sand pit. Rumor has it that the man with the permit to this land had been meant to use it for agricultural purposes. People were surprised, therefore, when the man began digging up the sand with giant cranes and trucking it out of the village to be sold. Surprise quickly turned to frustration when the massive trucks began polluting the village with dust storms and noise for long hours each day. Over time this frustration became anger when the trucks gained momentum and went tearing through town leaving pedestrian villagers terrified for their lives.
I don’t know what comes after anger but I’m sure, whatever it is, it sits there now and waits to explode.
The week before I returned the rains began. Giant heavy drops in the south and massive balls of hail in the north. In Serowe the village was destroyed by hail storms but in Kumakwane we dealt with the expected: soggy paths and restless cattle and dirty donkey carts and the return of myriad mosquitoes.
On the first day the sand dunes grew damp and hardened. On the second they began to fill. On the third they were deep enough to swim.
And it was the weekend. So the kids went swimming.
In the 18 months since my arrival two of my volunteer colleagues have rescued drowning children from pools.
The vast majority of Batswana children do not know how to swim because a) their country is land locked b) rivers and lakes are thought to be cursed by witchdoctors so no one swims in them and c) the nations pools are usually restricted to expensive hotels and upperclass back yards where Batswana children rarely find themselves.
People don’t talk about the details here. It’s taboo. If I asked they might tell me but I spare them this discomfort. All I know is that Ofet went swimming with a group of children at the sand dunes. When he started drowning no one was a strong enough swimmer to save him. They watched him drown. And on October 6th, they buried him.
Before I left for Peace Corps my advisor asked me if I was ready for all the death I would see in these two years. He was preparing me for this plagued continent. He was referring to HIV and, at the time, it scared me.
HIV doesn’t scare me that way any longer. Now there are bigger ghosts. Negligence. Poverty. Alcoholism. Logistics. Carelessness.
The causes of death here are so casual. So shockingly simple. Sometimes they can be explained and many times they cannot. Accidents without fault. Consequences without cause. People slip away and the grieving comes and goes. Not insincere but also not prolonged. How could they bear to fully mourn them all?
The first time a student told me they’d rather have HIV than TB I looked at her with such horror that I’m sure she was embarrassed. Later she explained to me that tuberculosis kills you quickly and with HIV you can live for years and years.
With the government providing ARV therapy those years have now turned decades. HIV doesn’t look so bad compared with the other options. Most days you can hardly see it at all.
Sometimes I get frustrated over the lack of urgency I see towards the crisis of HIV. I rue the international donors for inspiring Botswana’s dependence. I question my own presence and how it’s limiting local investment. I teach impassioned classes on HIV prevention where the students stare at me blankly.
But how can I blame them? Their classmates and siblings are dying of drownings and asthma and car accidents and all manner of tragic, startling cause. Meanwhile, their mothers and fathers are going to the clinic every month to pick up free medicine and free foodbaskets and living well into their fifties.
It’s more shocking than depressing. The thought that those who make it past HIV have so many other hurdles to cross. And the thought that so many of these hurdles are easily evaded. Preventable.
I am a Lifeskills Peace Corps volunteer. I teach HIV prevention.
But who teaches the rest? The Life-Stuff: swimming, crossing the road, dealing with an emergency…
Maybe we started in the wrong place.
Maybe we’ve been too narrow.
Seven months left of service. Retrospect enlightens. and humbles.