Alise from May 2015 Team tells us what she learnt about the day-to-day reality of life in Botswana. In the 3 months of Project Period that she spent in the Kalahari Desert, she discovered things that are difficult to understand, and also, things that are impossible to accept.
So, what have you heard about Africa? a colleague asked me one morning. We were watching the slow wake of our neighborhood in a reddish-gray, minimalist landscape. My new home was Mabutsane, a village in the Kalahari desert, and the country of Botswana.
I could see only sand: sandy roads, sandy yards and a wilderness sprinkled with some things that were not yet sand – stick and wire fences, few houses, roaming baby donkeys and cows, and a low, thorny bush. A cold wind blew clouds of sand in our direction, and my colleague said, grinning widely, I bet everyone told you that Africa is hot.
Friends in Europe were undressing for sunny June. Meanwhile, I and the people of Mabutsane slept under layers of woolly blankets and with hats on. The cold, dry season had just began; likewise, my introduction to the African reality. In retrospection, climate was the lightest of surprises.
Three of our team had chosen to work for Humana People to People in Botswana during our Project Period – me, Ika and Ivan. We stayed in Gaborone for a week to prepare for the projects. All of us were sent to remote and rural areas. Ika and Ivan chose project Child Aid in a northern mining town. I was very interested in HOPE, another project focused on communities plagued by HIV/AIDS.
Although Botswana is a middle-income country with free education and healthcare for all citizens,the HIV prevalence rate is estimated 20% – one of the highest in the world. The government provides free testing and ARV treatment. In 2016, WHO’s new Test and Treat policy came into force, granting anyone diagnosed HIV+ immediate treatment.
On top of that, HOPE and other internationally sponsored projects do community mobilization and education across the country. I was impressed, yet puzzled: how does the epidemic endure when so many players and programs are fighting it?
On my first day of HOPE, I joined field officers to mobilize villagers before a free HIV testing event. We shuffled past houses and greeted some women. The field officers chatted with them in Setswana, Botswana’s first official language, and I had some exchanges in English, the official second. My colleagues wanted to return to our office soon and told me they are “knocking off” at noon, because, quote, People know about the event.
I often heard “people know” statements during my stay in Mabutsane, including one from the project leader of HOPE: People know all about HIV. They do not care. The young people think it’s easy to go to the clinic, get the drugs, prolong your life, live forever… Their only concern is pregnancy – that is inconvenient, you see.
I began to wonder if HIV is the core problem here, and visited a local clinic to interview three knowledgeable ladies: a nurse, a midwife and an HIV counselor. They confirmed that “people know”: the clinic was the main condom station in Mabutsane, its walls covered with posters about sexual health and family planning. A youth clinic was under construction; meanwhile, the staff gave health talks in schools. They facilitated a support group for HIV+ teenagers. As for pregnancies, testing and treatment were mandatory.
Teenage pregnancies were statistically rare, but a subject to hypocrisy: a pregnant student was a scandal, whereas pregnant unschooled girls of the same age were quietly taken care of by their families. Note: families in Botswana are often made of a single woman with three or more children, each fathered by a different man. Often unemployed or self-employed, they stay at home, and I was meeting them during the walks with HOPE officers.
The picture of Mabutsane’s social structure darkened every day. During my visit to the District Health Management Team, a friend told me about an emergency they need to attend to. A child rape ring had been exposed in a nearby village.
I assumed the police is working on the case. No, the policemen are friends with the abusers. I also assumed that the families want justice. No, the abusers are probably paying them and keeping them above the poverty line. I asked then what DHMT is going to do. We can inform the families about sexually transmitted diseases…
The shock was one of the biggest in my life, but temporary, unlike the traps that the people of Mabutsane were stuck in. Ignorance may be battled with information, but what can break the cycles of poverty, apathy and violence?
Unfortunately, I did not find a solution in project HOPE or Mabutsane. My time in Botswana was limited to 3 months due to visa and project issues. Ika and I moved to Zambia and worked for the remaining 3 months of our Project Period in a boarding school called DAPP Children’s Town. That was a welcome change and a completely different community experience. We left Africa (to be precise, Tanzania, where we spent the last weeks after DAPP Children’s Town closed for winter break) in November 2016.
I keep returning to memories of standing under the Southern constellations in the Kalahari desert at night, freezing, but in love; of working with kindergartners in a pre-school in Mabutsane; the wilderness of Botswana; the warmth of Zambians; the nature of Tanzania. There is no statement I would apply to Africa as a whole. For each country and developmental project, we have different stories – attempts to embrace and navigate our common, complex reality.
Alise Miluna – Team May 2015