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.