Friday, February 19, 2010

A Touch of the Tangible

I’ve been here long enough now to have annual nostalgia. I get sentimental when the trees turn purple and romantic when festive season arrives and elated when plowing begins (not only for fresh produce but also for the sense that my poorest students are finally getting enough daily food)

I’m currently entering my third autumn in Botswana. Amazing to think it’s been that long.

But not all my nostalgic moments here are positive. There is, of course, the frustration of the water outage in summer which follows the wonder and horror of spring mating season (wherein farm animals charge one another and make the most ungodly sounds -- terrifying my repressed ‘city girl’)

Still, I’ve learned to cope quite well with living off stored water and ignoring immodest cows. These are easy compared to other annual traditions. Or should I say Another. There is really only one I dread:

Sports Day.

Sports Day is a loved by students and loathed by volunteers. Last year my kids were made to run in the hot sun for hours without water or food. I arrived at the field at 3:00 to find a group of them sobbing and heaving under trees. Their friends told me they had been like that for hours. Teachers lounged under a shaded tent and explained to me that the children were “being dramatic” and “just tired”. When I finally got the worst of them to the clinic the head nurse said the same thing. When I petitioned the Headmaster for an intervention he told me the sick children were “lazy” and “making excuses not to participate.”

That was last January. The only day of my entire service that I have ended in furious tears.

And so Sports Day came again this January. Prior to the event I schemed a million ways to avoid it but all my plans and distractions fell through. In the end, I found myself crawling to school with a pit in my stomach and a distinct sense of fear. Fear that I wasn’t big enough for this. That something could happen and I’d be alone. That I’d make a mistake.

And I prayed. One of those little prayers that you mean deeply but find faith in the granting hard to believe. I prayed for wisdom and the ability to help. And I prayed that my students would be okay.

By 9:00 the kids were on the field running and cheering wildly for their teams. I felt an enormous relief when 10:00 rolled around and there was still a cloud cover blocking the heat.

But at 11:00 the sun won out. A predictable desert pattern but I still felt duped. The kids started sweating and they fell into the shade after their races, encircled by concerned friends and makeshift, paper fans. Twenty-odd “supervising” teachers read books and told jokes and gossiped under the tent.


My house is less than a quarter mile from the track and when Ms. Enawstuk arrived with a car I immediately begged her to take me home. I commissioned two men to ride with us.

At my house I have buckets and buckets of stored water in preparation for the village’s frequent water outages. My kitchen is filled with bottles and my end tables and nightstand are old jam containers from the school kitchen, washed out and used for water storage. Ms. Enawstuk and the men looked at me warily but eventually agreed to assist with the Crazy Lekgoa dragging her end tables and kitchen contents into the car.

Once back at the field I set up a water station out of the back of Ms. Enawstuk’s car. I sent my favorite students out to advertise the water stand and, within an hour, had a line of kids greedily pushing cups and bottles at me, begging for refills.

I went home to re-filled the buckets three times that day. I’m guessing I distributed nearly 500 gallons of water to 340 students in the course of six hours.

These are the comments I remember from those hours:

From a student: We are much better this year, Mma Charles. You have helped us.

From a teacher: So the students are really supposed to drink before the races? I thought that would give them cramps and make them sick…?

From a student: You are a good person to take care of us like this.

From a teacher: You spoil them with this water. It makes them weak.

From a student: But who will do this for us next year? How will we tell them we need this?

From a teacher: It’s too much, Bontle. It’s 4:00. We’re on the last race—they’ll never drink all that.

From a student: You have a good heart, Mma Charles.


HIV prevention work rarely has tangible results. I’ve earned the affection of some students and colleagues but have I really helped them? Are they practicing safer sex? Do they know how to use a condom correctly? Can they differentiate between myths and facts about STDs and HIV? Do understand the risks of multiple concurrent partners? Will they continue to go to traditional healers who claim to heal HIV? Are they going to live past forty?

I don’t know these answers. I won’t ever know these answers. And I have accepted this as part of the deal. Prevention is, at the start, a blind effort. A hope. A wait.

But in the back of that little Toyota, for one minute, things were different. I was educating teachers. I was modeling safe exercise preparation. I was teaching students how to care for their friends. I was watching kids become physically revived from hydration. I was explaining the importance of water.

Just water.


Sports day ended at 6:00 on Friday night. On Saturday I learned that a boy had died at my friend Jen’s school. He had come off the track and complained that his chest hurt. The teachers waited and then took him home and left him there, alone. His parents found him dead.

At Monday’s morning assembly I stood in front of the students for the first time in two years of service. I was shaking from nerves and emotion and praying they didn’t notice. I spoke for 5 minutes about dehydration, heat exhaustion, asthma, heart health, and proper nutrition. I implored them to take care of themselves and of one another as they exercised this season.

It was nothing. It was 5 minutes and water.

But it’s one of those moments that will color my memories of Botswana. Three months from now when this world is tucked inside photo albums and nostalgia Sports Day will be moments where I’ll remember I was really here. Really real. And for a minute—really helping.


Eunice said...

It's great you were pro-active. Hopefully your little talk had its effect, since they had seen the difference hydration makes.

Pajarita Frenetica said...

I don't even have words for what this made me feel. I am frustrated to think that somehow culture has gotten in the way of basic human instincts about quenching thirst. I am frustrated that there seems to be so little indifference to other people's suffering though wonder if it has to do with the fact that they see so much intense suffering from things that SEEM so much more lethal than dehydration that they have no compassion left inside them for day to day discomforts. The comment about the boy dying shocked me. How are you dealing with death these days? Have you become more indifferent over the last 2 years? Does it effect you the same or have you had to build a wall? See you in a couple of months bontle. :)

Linnea said...

Somewhere there lies a teetering balance between preserving culture and simple education. If a culture believes water makes you weak OR on a larger scale sleeping with a virgin will heal your HIV/AIDS, what's the correct response?

LOVE. It's not even an issue of culture or education. It's love that brought water to over 300 kids. And those kids recognized love in its purest form.

Thank you Jess for being the hands and feet of Love.

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