A Moral Education

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November 18th 2010
Published: November 18th 2010
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I just have to write this now as it is flailing about in my mind. So many thoughts have passed through so quickly that it may be difficult to sort them. Please know that I am not sharing this with you in order to shock, disgust, or dismay you. I am sharing, first because if you want to know what my experiences here are, I must give an honest account of them. Second, I write this because I hope there is something to be gained by contemplating these recent events.

My work started on my way to school this morning. As I rounded the corner of the newly constructed wall that surrounds the family compound where we stay, I came up behind two female students. One was pulling up her panties and straightening her skirt. It appeared that she had just stopped along the path to urinate, choosing a spot that provided a bit of privacy. They greeted me and waited for me to catch up to them. The symptoms the girls described to me explained the potty stop on the path. It is likely that one of the girls is suffering from a urinary tract infection. I advised that she go to the clinic as soon as possible. As we walked to school together, the girls, who are cousins, told me that for the most part they stay alone at home. One girl lost her mother about three years ago, and other family members work and stay during the week in a town about 50 kilometers away. They told me that because the firewood was wet from the overnight rain, they couldn’t get a fire started this morning and so had nothing to eat. I pulled a PBJ sandwich from my bag and gave them each half. It was all the food I had with me. I wish I’d had more. I sometimes ponder why it is that I still find myself obsessing about my weight in this country. The obvious solution is to give more food away and eat less. Still I know I can’t feed the large number of hungry children that live in the village. I found the saying, ‘live simply so that other may simply live,’ coming to mind this morning.

My counterpart is not here today, so I searched out the Head of Department when I arrived. That is when the decision was made to write a note to allow the girl to use the toilet during exams and postpone her visit to the clinic until afternoon. Just after that two boys arrived at the door of the guidance office. Mma Sejoe, the HOD, tried to get them to speak with me because she had other things on her agenda, but they declined. In the past I’ve felt disappointed when students are reluctant to bring their problems to me. After learning the reason for their visit, I feel only a deep sense of gratitude that I was not the person in whom they chose to confide.

Earlier those boys took a path to school that is just behind the community’s only filling station, a path that is near our home, and one I frequently walk. There in a hollow along the trail, they discovered the lifeless body of a newborn child who had been wrapped in old clothing and abandoned. Hungry village dogs had made this discovery before the boys did. Mma Sejoe and two other teachers went to verify their story before going to the police. One of the officers commented that it is becoming a trend in the village.

My heart went out to Mma Sejoe as she related this story to me. In her wildest imaginings, she could not have predicted spending her birthday morning in such a way. She stayed for some time alone with me in the guidance office, thinking aloud about this unthinkable occurrence. She’d told me earlier about how many children her mother had taken in and how now she is following in her mother’s footsteps, helping to raise children from the extended family. We agreed that the circumstances that led to this horrific incident must be as tragic as the event itself. The speculations are that the mother is a frightened teenager who could take no more berating and possibly beating from her family for the poor choices she’d made. Or, maybe a young Zimbabwean woman who left her country in a desperate attempt to escape the chaos there, could not fathom how she might provide for a child while living alone in a foreign country. For her returning home could very well be impossible. It could have been the despondent adolescent daughter of Ame, a mother of three, whose death came too quickly from HIV and TB for me to manage another visit to her at the hospice in a nearby village.

Not long after hearing of this morning’s gut wrenching tragedy, I was asked to invigilate, a term I’d not heard of before coming to Botswana. Confusion and absconding of invigilators during exam time is not uncommon, and the request seemed genuinely urgent, so I agreed. I strode quickly across the sandy school yard to the main hall to monitor the Form 2 students during their French exam. There were about 60 students seated there. About a quarter of the large hall was occupied with empty, dust laden and dented metal desks that remained behind after the Form 3 students completed their exams a few weeks earilier. Those tests marked the end of junior secondary school and determine which of the Form 3 students continue on to senior secondary. About half of the hall remained empty other than a scattering of stray desks dripping the remains of porridge from tea break. The floor, covered in what I assume to be vinyl asbestos tiles, is filthy with sand, waste paper, bits of food, spilled liquids, insect carcasses, and the never ending trail of ants in search of sustenance. Several window frames dangle from bent and broken hinges. In one, sharp points of broken glass shine menacingly against the desert backdrop beyond the school yard. Two goats came wandering in as I was preparing to leave after the last student turned in her test.

Over the months here, I’ve become accustomed to my surroundings, but the experiences from earlier in the day led me to take a second look at the challenges that face the people, particularly the young people of this community. Many of the youth in that hall this morning were also born of poorly educated teen mothers whose own parents may very well have died as a result of AIDS. How likely is it that one of these adolescents could have been abandoned in their first few hours of life? What remains for many it seems, is psychological and social abandonment. They sit here, many of them undernourished, a number of them far from fluent in English, the official language of the country, struggling through a French exam that was fated to begin late even before it was discovered that there were too few exam papers. By the time the antiquated copy machine groaned out the necessary number of pages and I’d rustled up a stapler, which is as scarce as are intact families here, the students had less than 20 minutes to spend on the test. Heads bent over papers and faces held bewildered expressions as students rushed to complete French and move on to the next exam for a subject titled Moral Education.

This is what I am receiving again and again in my experience here, a moral education. There are too many occasions where I am quick to find fault and to judge, if only silently, circumstances that I have no inkling of, let alone the capacity to understand in 26 short months. My moral education is to discover within me a deep empathy for those born into circumstances I can barely imagine. How can I so quickly assess this place when I cannot comprehend the paltry options that some of my neighbors struggle to choose from by the weak light of a paraffin lamp, while they gaze across their fence to see the glow of their neighbor’s flat screen TV reflected in the windshield of a BMW?

I can’t even put a name to what I’m witnessing here. Is it modernization, democratization, exploitation, wholesale exportation of greed from the corporate world? I truly do not know. I only know that what I am able do when I am mindful enough to do it, is to exercise my God given and underutilized capacities for empathy and acceptance. My only means of being of service here and possibly anywhere is to be fully present with those whose paths I cross. We learn from one another. We are reminded again and again that of all gifts, the greatest is love, the gift that teaches us to live simply, so that others may simply live.


18th November 2010

no comment
To reflect silently on your words seems like my best choice. May we all learn to be more empathetic with those that cross our paths.
18th November 2010

Sending You Love
Hi Mom....This is quite a post. You did a good job writing about tough things. It also seems like you are navigating tough circumstances as best you can. I really liked hearing your insights and reminders about being fully present with those you are with and living simply. We love you.
19th November 2010

Thank You
Being with Life As It Is ahh not so easy. Growing our hearts as wide as the world ahh not so easy Learning about how our mind works ahh not so easy This is how I experience movement in my ethical framework, patiently walking through and sometimes plodding through the not so easy as well as the experience of ease and grace. It's that daily being with Life As It Is. Some days it is easy to say yes and thanks. Some days ah not so easy. Thank you for sharing your practice with us Blessings on your journey
19th November 2010

Your words speak to my heart
From your words I have learned that the tears and rage in my memory and wittness from my own travels abroad are not the only ones on the path I have walked in this life. The wieght of feeling helpless to making worthy positive change to the injustices I've seen are great and the helpless feeling makes me feel so inisgnificant. Sometims I even try to run from them but they stay with me like my shadow. You have indeed seen what I have seen and much more. I have learned that their is a point where measuring others suffering has no scale with which to measure and thus no purpose of measuring. I read "...your poor will always be with you..." asking "Why" goes unanswered. Still--I see and still I ask why...I have learned this in my journey: "...what I have seen brings feeling ranging from joy to tears to rage..." words go into memory and can get lost...memory of my Feelings are triggered often by what I see, hear, smell and get renewed often. The recall of past experiences gives me empathy and an ability to compare presant day experiences to past. This keep me very humble. My humility is a source of my faith in my God with whome I have had many talks (child-to-Parent I think) regarding the cause of many of these renewing feelings and their origin. He has shown me mush and someday I hope to understand a lot better and more. I may be older now but I am still a child in my understanding of pains purpose in life. My God knows how I feel and tells me often: "...yes I know...." Sometimes I dare wonder/ask "...why have I been spared...." Thank You Shannon...maybe I'm not the only one affected by all the negative I have seen. And like you, I find myself thinking out loud to try and make sence of it all. Paul
20th November 2010

HI Shannon, Thank you for communicating the events and insights of your service! It is shocking to have hunger, lack of health services education ,and desperation all packed into one morning. I wonder how your afternoon went? Love and good thoughts to you and Steve Keep us abreast of your return date.
30th November 2010

African trip
Dear Shannon, I returned from TZ on Tues. night. After seeing the roads in TZ I can't imagine how you could have come to meet me there! They are trying to complete tarmack on a 500 mile road which is the only one from Dar es Salaam to the Rwanda border. The rainy season washes away large sections each year, so hopefully the tarred road will remain intact. I was touched by your blog. Truly there is much injustice in the world and in Africa you can really see how many are victims of their environment. My sister's work with HIV/AIDS pts. was very interesting to view, but frustrating to see the obstacles to winning the war against this disease because of cultural mores. The people of TZ are a beautiful people but the politicians are corrupt for the most part. Ming will be coming to the US about the time Vash said you will be coming home, so maybe we can all visit! Edna had a stroke today, but Dad just called me to tell me the Dr. had called him at home and she is speaking in sentences now! It is a miraculous recovery, so we are very thankful! Vash is planning to call you, but she didn't know this last piece of info. God bless you, Love, Rita
1st December 2010

Blog Review
Shannon and Steve, We are having a snow day here; soft, glistening and like a cocoon from the world. I treated myself with a read through all our blogs. My heart is full of your generously honest, vivid images of your expeiences. I am grateful to know both of you. Comfy here in Boise, I am humbled by your spirits and know many are richer for knowing you. Know you are loved. THANK-YOU for sharing. Kyle
6th December 2010

Your post reminded me (as it often does) that no day, not even one, should be taken for granted. I think it is so easy at times to "hide" under the "ignorance is bliss" shelter. When we do not know or learn of these conditions you describe, life seems so great. My thoughts and prayers continue to be with you and Steve. Thank you for your service.

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