This morning I participated in running an event for the Kagisano Women’s Shelter. I’ve been part of a team of volunteers working with this organization for over a year. Last year we helped secure a grant to open a second branch of the center. Now Botswana has two shelters for women and children survivors of gender based violence—the original in Gaborone and the new one in the country’s largest village: Molepolole.
In addition to opening the new center, the grant also allowed us to hold a number of community awareness events. Today’s event was a Kweneng District poster contest and debate. Ten schools participated in the event and two in the debate. We had guest speakers, snacks, brochures, media coverage, prizes, a trophy -- all arranged through our ambitious team of Batswana counselors and American volunteers.
Such a powerful day. Somehow it ended up that all the poster finalists were male students and all the debate participants were female. We interviewed the men standing by their graphic, disturbing, enlightening posters. They told us how the images reflected violence they’ve seen in their villages and theories they have on ways to reverse the trends of gender based violence in Botswana. They spoke in soft and articulate English. Humble and strong.
The women were equally powerful but far less reserved. The women debaters stood at the podium shouting at one another and quoting the Bible and shaking their fists. I’ve seen about a hundred passionate student dramas in this country but nothing quite as evocative or poignant as ten teenage women debating the moral and cultural implications of domestic violence reporting. The topic they’d spent two months preparing for read:
“Women who do not speak out about their partner’s abuse and infidelity are showing respect and integrity.”
If I had the time or space I’d go into the points these girls made. The way one side argued that perpetrators of violence deserve love and forgiveness. The way the other side retorted that the GBV is linked to the spread of HIV and teaches children to use violence for problem solving and conflict management. I do not have space. But I have videos. And memories. Ask.
It’s difficult to do the event justice but, suffice to say that this was one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve participated in in two years of service. Not simply because the students and community were so engaged, but also for what happened after:
Sweeping. Stacking chairs. Moving tables. Removing the posters. Emptying the trash. People keep coming up to say good-bye and thank you and what an event and then Lesego comes and I hug her and she says:
“You know, we’ve secured funding to do this again next year. We want it to be an annual event. Can you send us all the templates you used for planning, invitations, judging, scoring and the agenda?”
This is one of those rare and spectacular moments in an international pubic health career where Things Actually Work. Not for me. Not for the participants. But for the FUTURE.
This is, dare I say it: Sustainable!
And oh irony of ironies: I literally had sat in an the Peace Corps Country Director’s office five days ago, blabbering through my close of service interview and I’d actually said: “Yes, well, I’ve learned quite a lot about capacity building and skills training but I still feel somewhat mystified by sustainability…”
And not that this day revealed any epiphanies about the how-to of sustainability but it DID give me renewed confidence in the idea that it is p o s s i b l e to make changes and advances that continue.
Lesego is a gem. Kagisano is an absolute god-send for this country. I’m sure it is everything about the people and the organization and nothing about me -- but to have p a r t i c i p a t e d. To have been there. To have had something to contribute. Templates. How simple. How trite. How phenomenally reassuring.
In ten days I close my service and return to the U.S. as an international public health professional. I have a Master’s degree, a two year Peace Corps service, an armful of doubt and a pinch of hope. There are so many systematic, bureaucratic, financial, logistical, sustainable problems I see in development work. And then there is a silver lining: when a project works. when people learn. when someone says – “we want to do this again… this time without you.”
How nice to have been needed. And to be unnecessary.