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.
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