Saturday, March 6, 2010

Another Case of Pace

I hear them coming and freeze. Terrified. Niwde drops Ohpm onto a chair in the office and people begin crowding the door. He is hysterical and sobbing—and he can’t catch his breath.

Things move so slowly in Botswana. Most days I try to deep-breathe the impatient Bostonian out of me but then there are moments when the pace is unacceptable. When speed and time and urgency are essential.


The story has been told to me and by me a million times:

Last year’s Sports Day where 3 children were left in this state for 2 hours.
The student who died of asthma just two months after I arrived.
The boy who drown in the pool of rain water.
Jen’s student who complained of a heart pain and died an hour later.

The Head of Department is calm. Disturbingly so. She saunters out to the school combi and we are told they can’t take us to the clinic—they are on their way to Gabs. I’m asking everyone to use their car and everyone is staring at me blankly. His head is on my shoulder and he is hyperventilating and coughing and terrified. I say it’s okay—we’re going now, we’re going soon, it’s okay

in part to reassure myself.

Maybe it didn’t take a 5 full minutes for the Head of Department to get her car. Maybe it was my fear or impatience. Maybe it was her age. I said is she here yet? She’s coming. Now—is she here now? She’s coming. What is taking so long? Doesn’t anyone else have a car?

She arrives and I have to commission two male teachers to help me carry him to the vehicle.

Ohpm is one of the tallest boys at school. Athletic and handsome and popular. I hold the shell of this in my arms as we drive to the clinic. He looks exactly like a baby. And he’s turning blue. He looks exactly like he is dying.


The clinic is empty. Not one person in sight as we pull up. I race out of the car screaming “Ko ko!” (the Batswana sound for knocking) “Re batle thuso ja nong!” (We need help now!) No one comes so I begin opening doors and calling louder.

Eventually, I come across one of the cleaners and a family welfare educator. They stare at me, tsking my audacious behavior. I stare back furious at their complacent response.

Both ladies stroll out to the car and look at the boy and there is so much silence surrounding his gasps and sobs.

The head nurse patters across the yard to us—clicking her pen and surveying the scene.

At this point I stop speaking. My voice is very small and my insistence irritating. This is not how they do things. I may be making it worse.

Mma Idalt finally asks for the boy to be taken into the clinic. I watch as the nurses turn him. I wait and wait as they call his name and shift him around the table. Eventually I walk outside.

On the broken bench I am praying and counting minutes. At 4 Mma Idalt presses him against the wall and pours medicine down his throat. I can hear his breathing subside and mine return.


Ophm’s father is called. He tells us he is working at the primary school, just behind the clinic. Still, he takes 30 minutes to arrive.

Ophm’s asthma occurred in Mma Gnasid’s science class. She was performing an experiment. As she poured the ethanol Ophm immediately began gasping.

Mma Gnasid asks Ophm’s father why he didn’t tell the school about his son’s asthma so she could take proper precautions. The father shrugs and claims not to have known. The mother left him 10 years ago -- that was really more her sort of thing to deal with.


Back at school the teachers approach to ask if Ophm is okay. The track and field coach says Ophm often had asthmatic problems during training.

You didn’t tell anyone?
The parents are supposed to come with a note from the doctor.
But you could have told us.
He always recovered.


The Head of Department and I sit in the office. She’s staring at her notebook. I’m staring at my desk.

That was scary.
I never waste time with these things. I’ve seen it too many times.

I look at her. Trying to hide my awe and outrage.

I lost a nephew that way. 12 years old. By the time he got to the clinic they had already pronounced him dead.

Yes, time is so important. It determines everything in these cases.

And then my husband. A diabetic. No one knew. When the stroke came, again, we were too slow.

She tells me story after story and I’m clutching the arms of my chair and I’m teetering between compassion and fury.


Teacher blames father.
Father blames mother.
Coach blames parents.

And I blame a culture where emergencies do not elicit urgency.

Still, he survives. This time.

I spend the afternoon talking to the classes about safety. I write down allergies and take the names of the asthmatic children and plead with them to bring medicine, inhalers and doctor’s notes to the guidance office.

The nod at me. They say “Yes, Mma” in unison.


My walking pace has slowed in Botswana. I am adept at waiting in queues for hours. Meetings that cover two items and run for 4 hours no longer phase me. A 10 mile trip in a friend’s car requires no less than an hour and five stops. Events start, religiously, 2 hours after the program states. Sermons and ceremonies can run all day and all night.

I am better. Not perfect, but better. I still tap my foot and doodle in the margins and day dream with abandon. But I am better.

Every once in a while you get to stop being “culturally sensitive” and “adapting”. Every once in a while that American-ism makes sense and you get to say that out loud.


And here I thought I’d be relieved.

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