Sunday, January 31, 2010

Another Lesson in Collectivist Cultures

One of the other volunteers asked me to lead a staff development session at her school today on young learner lesson planning. I taught this session to three groups of volunteers last year so I readily agreed to present to a Batswana class as well.

The thing about taking on tasks in Botswana is that the preparation and stress and detail put into planning can be shockingly successful for one event and infuriatingly futile for the next.

For example, I once was in a state of panic because I desperately needed to return a pair of trousers and had lost the receipt. My fellow volunteer listened to me moan about this for two hours before saying, “Listen, this is either going to be the most difficult process you can image or the easiest thing in the world—it’s a total fluke here how things turn out.”


I walked into the shop and the manager took one look at the trousers and immediately handed me cash (and I had paid with credit!)

Okay, so back to the workshop.

Well, it DID actually turn out to be successful but the details of Getting There were just maddening. And amusing. Well, amusing in retrospect.

Here’s how the day went...

This morning I double checked the transportation log and saw that, yes, I had indeed booked the van two weeks ago for this event and, yes, the driver was aware of the trip. But then at 9:00 Mr. Eltneolep received a fax inviting him to a workshop this same afternoon, at the same time as my workshop.

So, Bontle, we’ll have to find a way for me to get to the workshop.
Well, can you drive your car?
No, it must be the school van.
But I booked the van first.
But I need it too.
But we can’t both have it.
But I need it.
But I booked it first.
But I need it too.


I finally manage to get someone from the other school to agree to drive me home at the end of my presentation which will allow Mr. Eltneolep to be transported to his workshop as well.

But when that fire goes out I suddenly realize that the van is gone from the school parking lot. The driver remembers that he has to take me at 1:00, right? I call him. He doesn’t understand my Setswana over the phone. I ask a colleague to call him. He doesn’t answer. I call the person he’s with. She answers and tells me the driver has left her and he’s off getting petrol. She doesn’t know when he’ll be back to pick her up but, yes, she’ll remind him he’s taking me to Thamaga at 1:00.


At 12:20 I step into my final class of the day and try to be discrete about peeking out at the school gate to see if the van has returned. At 12:50 the transport has still not arrived and now it’s started to downpour. The bell rings for lunch at 1:00 and the kids are shrieking from the rain and I’m hurdling puddles to make it back to the office to grab my things because the van has FINALLY arrived. I leap over the hallway of children and clear the guidance office queue and make it to the van, sloppy and exhausted by 1:05. Mr. Gnegonom looks back from the driver’s seat, chewing lazily on his plate of paleche.

Mr. Gnegonom we have to go—I’m going to be late and there are 50 teachers waiting for me!
It’s raining.
Yes, I know but I’m late.
But it’s raining.
Yes, I know but…

This continues for a while and eventually I give up. When Gnegonom finishes his lunch we drive around the back of the school to pick up Mr. Eltneoloep who stands laughing in the doorway of the kitchen and refusing to walk the two feet to the van in the rain. I beckon him urgently from the window but he will only consent once I’ve opened the door and cleared a path so he can make a running leap and slide into the vehicle. ARG!!!

Finally we are driving towards the school exit and I am a starting to feel relief when I’m besieged by a floury of Setswana which brings the van to a halt again. This time for 15 minutes. I ask what we’re waiting for and get ambiguous replies and resolve to practice deep breathing in the back seat until the vehicle moves again. Eventually, 5 teachers pile into the van.

Where are you going?
But why are you coming with us?
Because it’s raining.


So it’s this point that I “get it” and I feel so humbled by it. The thing is—my American values have been blinding me all day. My need to be well-planned and detail-orientated and profession and punctual has made me totally self absorbed. I’ve been trying to be responsible and get where I promised to be when I promised to be there but the priorities motivating my Batswana colleagues have been much different. For the Batswana, the important thing today was to help one another and sacrifice for the greater good and put other people’s needs before their own (and definitely before the clock!). If things didn’t work out perfectly it would be okay because at least everyone was helped by the van. A collective, community based culture and ethos.

And so, yeah, I booked the transport first. And it wasn’t “fair” that I was 30 minutes late to a presentation in front of 50 colleagues. And it wasn’t “fair” that I was embarrassed and felt unprofessional. That was annoying.

But, in the mean time, a giant van carried one woman to Gabs and back, two teachers to their workshops and five staff to their homes—all without getting anyone soaked in the rain.

Oh, and we saved petrol.

Two years and still Such An American. But at least the epiphanies come now. Slow and reluctant. But they come.

The Things We Love

I live on a family compound in a little pink house next to the landlords’ larger pink house. The landlords have two kids and a dog and a cat and a million chickens. The dog is my favorite. I love to come home after a long day and sit in the sand, rubbing Molly’s belly. She’s started to anticipate it and will chase after me and lie down in front of my feet until I consent. She has giant sad eyes which I find soothing and compassionate in a way I can’t explain.

Molly has had three litters since I arrived. 23 puppies all together. In this last litter the puppies lived for three months and then one by one began dying. Earlier this week the last one died.

Molly died today.

The landlord came over to check on me tonight. I stood in my doorframe (as I always do) and he stood on my stoop facing the horizon (as he always does) and we chit chatted about work and the weather. And I said “What happened to all the dogs?” and he said “Well, we don’t really know.” And I said “But it was so sudden—all at once like that.” And he said, “They may have been poisoned. But did you see the chicks? My God we are so fortunate with all these new chickens!”

My best friend in the village can’t understand Americans and pets. She talks about it all the time—genuinely fascinated by our attachment to animals and confused at how we can build such fondness for dirty cats that exist to catch mice and mangy dogs that exist to protect the house.

Sometimes I theorize that it’s our individualistic culture that tends towards solitude and yet finds that privacy can be enhanced by a connection with a silent, soft and affectionate being. Sometimes I think it’s evolution past the strict hierarchical culture that sees animals as merely functional and disposable. Sometimes I just think it’s excess money and time that has made us develop new interests and hobbies beyond survival tasks. Sometimes I think we’ve got it all wrong and we’d be better off ignoring them like the Batswana.


Molly crawled under the banana tree at the edge of our yard and died there today. The kids told me but I wouldn’t look. She laid there for seven long hours before the landlord finally removed her.

There have been moments here that I’ve wanted desperately to be invisible. There have been days I’ve nearly begged my skin to turn black.

But I’ve never so badly wanted to be Motswana, as I did today.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Savid and I meet at the village bus stop which may have been a mistake. We are quite visible there and the things he tells me are too painful to hide. I spend a lot of time blinking over and over to keep the water out of my eyes. I concentrate on ignoring the stares of neighbors and from bus windows, patterened with gawking eyes. Savid is oblivious—or perhaps too indignant to care. He has had enough of this country. He is leaving from rage and fear and betrayal.


Ian Khama’s presidential campaign promised social improvements through heightened discipline. He has not failed in administering this discipline. It is impressive and a bit daunting. Many Batswana are not pleased with the 70% tax increase on alcohol or the early closing of public bars. People also complain about the skyrocketing traffic violation fines which, for some offenses, soared from P50 to P1000.

When Khama took office, he meant business. He wanted a sober nation. A safe nation. He also wanted a fair nation. One where only legal Zimbabwean refugees resided. Where citizens could live without the fear of being robbed or assaulted by desperately the poor who had fled their country. And so we began to see more and more deportation vehicles-- stuffed to the brim and heading back to the border. For many Batswana, this was a relief. But for those on the inside, the process seemed haphazard and unjust. One minute they were working, tending the same garden that had employed them for six years, and the next, the police had come and swept them up. Papers and pleas were ignored. Reasons withheld. It was a rapid and merciless process. In the final week of November, Botswana deported 4,000 Zimbabwean refugees. A great cleanse. Though not flawless.


When they came for him there was the natural shock, but Savid had been through this before. He was polite and compliant—calmly unfolding his UN refugee documents and waiting for the expected pardon.

The police glanced at the documents and told Savid to put them away. It was not their job to determine his status, but merely to take him as instructed. Savid protested, insisting that he had a right to know his offense but the officers merely grunted and began attaching handcuffs to his wrists.

“This is unnecessary. I will go with you freely. I merely ask to know my offense.”
“It’s a protocol. I’m sorry—we are required to use these.”

Savid’s hands were fastened behind his back and he was led from the garden to the police vehicle. Friends and coworkers and garden customers stood gaping at this abrupt display. Some called out to ask what had happened. Some ran to the police, demanding an explanation. But Savid couldn’t answer and neither could his escorts. He was Zimbabwean. That’s all the justification they had and needed. He would have to wait for more answers.


Savid was taken to his home and told to pack a bag. He did this reluctantly, still pleading for reason and urgently displaying his passports and papers. The policemen had waning patience and gruffly zipped his bag and reapplied the cuffs. They then drove him 50 kilometers to Molepolole where Savid found himself penned inside a vast cage. There were over 1,000 of them—men on one side and women and children on the other. All Zimbabwean. There were tents but no roof. Someone took Savid’s bag and he would not see it again for four days.

And then the rains started. Cold, hard rains.

Botswana’s rains tend to come staggered—a few hours of downpour and then blazes of sunshine before the next spell. A cloudy day here and there. A brief quenching followed by thick humidity.

There are 340 days of sunshine and blue skies in Botswana each year.

Savid watched the sky cloud over and the wind rise. He hugged his t-shirt against his skin and found his way into a damp tent. From there he watched the rain fall for three days straight. No one came for him. No one responded to his pleas for clarification or his belongings or even a single warm garment. He and the thousand other refugees huddled in confusion and a mounting rage. Waiting and shivering.

It is hard to deal with such mayhem in these uncomfortable weather conditions. It must have overwhelmed the officers, for no one appeared during those days. Rain does much to impede the work flow here in Botswana.

Savid ate three small meals of undercooked porridge each day. He would not step into the showers and when I asked him why he looked away with such disgust it turned my stomach.

“The prison was a pen for animals and I believed I would die there.” He said to me, shaking his head back and forth. “I thought I was finished.”

“And I was angry.” He has stopped looking at me now. “Not at them but me—to die this way. I could have been home—fighting for a cause! Dying for our freedom. But instead I was dying here—in the arms of my protector. And for what…? For what…?”

And I am blinking water
Locked on his sunken eyes and blinking blinking

On the fourth day the rains finally stopped. By noon prison operations had resumed and Savid spotted the Police Chief walking just beyond the chain link fence. He called to her, begging for a moment. Just a word.

The Chief responded to this emotional plea and told Savid there was a protocol he must follow before speaking with her.

But he had taken these steps many times, he insisted. He had asked for a meeting and been ignored time and time again.

The Chief look sideways at Savid. His wrinkled forehead and hollow cheeks. His refugee documents pressed against the fence. There were mountains of others behind him. A list of pleas that preceded him. A protocol that was meant to be followed.

Maybe the Chief knew there had been a mistake. Maybe she merely liked the shape of Savid’s eyes. We call them miracles because the explanations elude us.

And so they did, when Savid was called to her office that afternoon. And when Savid was discharged.

“Maybe God put you here to meet good people,” said the Chief upon Savid’s release.
Savid stared at this good woman and felt gratitude and vulnerability and danger.

Outside the prison gate things had changed.
Savid’s space and God and “good” had been revised.
The Chief’s theory seemed possible. And unconsoling.


The sun is in my eyes now and I’m squinting up to see him. To read the lines on his face at the end of this nightmare story.

I will go now.
Home. To Harare.
Will it be dangerous?
Yes, but perhaps no more dangerous than here.
What has your wife said?
She’s coming for festive season. Her and three of my children. We will plan then.
And what will become of your refugee status?
I will lose it. The UN does not approve of my return. They will make me write a document, saying I voluntarily return to Zimbabwe, fully aware of the risks to my life and safety.
And you are?
I am.

And I am blinking blinking blinking