My Community: One of my favourite things about living here is the sense of community, which is encompassing.
In America, I remember parents and grandparents telling of neighbourhoods where everyone knew everyone. Children played without play dates and cell phones, chips or bracelets indicating diabetes, because everyone knew who had diabetes and which kid lived where and every parent could manage the children at their house. Parents never knew exactly where their kids were, but could find them quickly if they didn’t come home when the street lights came on.
If a stranger came into the neighbourhood everyone knew that person didn’t belong, and people followed up about why he/she was there and it was difficult for a stranger to engage in mayhem.
If you needed eggs, sugar, or a drill you could easily borrow one. Gardens, pets and one’s home were always watched for free when you were gone over the weekend, vacation, or just for an evening.
It is like that in Botswana. Even more so. Everyone is strongly encouraged to report bad behaviour for the good of the community. Both children and adults are always telling me if people were drunk around my house or who came and knocked on my door when I was gone or who threw a stone at my dogs. There is no thought of “I don’t want to get involved” or “It isn’t my business”.
Everyone knows everyone else’s business and that information is generally used to help take care of everyone, although it is sometimes used to try to control people and make them stay in the “community norm”.
As you can imagine there are good and there are stifling bad things about this sort of community. But, as a stranger in a strange land, I have enjoyed being in the bosom of this kind of a community. However, this weekend I realized one the biggest benefits that I have taken for granite. It is so safe to live in a place like this.
How I found out: About a year ago a man who looked fairly poor came to our house and asked for piece work which is like the jobs illegal immigrants do in America. Piece workers work for very cheap asking for P100 ($15) for a days work.
They usually don’t work hard and almost never finish the job, but “piece jobs” work is how the poor survive. When we hire someone I also provide food and drink all day and transport money to get home, which almost doubles the pay. They are living on far less then my meager allowance.
This one man had a story about his six kids and no food. He was very skinny but clean. We hired him and he worked hard and was grateful for the lunch, drink and transport money. We told him he could come once a month to weed our yard. Sometimes he would bring a small child with him and he would tend to the child while he worked too –he looked like a good dad.
At the beginning of the school year he brought his daughter, who was starting junior school, and introduced us telling his daughter she should consider me to be her mother at school. This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary – but he did say it about 10 times, trying to make the point stick.
The child was one of 850 kids for the first several months. Then she started failing and getting into some trouble with teachers. One of the teachers brought her to me while he was lecturing her about her bad behaviour. He told me she was my daughter and I better do something about her.
Since two people had now told me she was my daughter, I started taking some responsibility for her school life.
Over the next few months I learned she was being severely abused by her father. Since the school and I have a different idea about what abuse is, I usually can’t get help from the school and there simply are not government structures to protect children as there are in America. I could not make school officials take legal actions, I could not convince the child to report the abuse, and the Peace Corps regularly told me I was not to be involved as my safety could be compromised and it was the school responsibility to deal with this. But after he started to threaten school officials as well as his child they started to become very concerned.
Eventually I got the school to authorize me to report the incidences to the Social Worker’s office. It took the social workers about 10 days to get to the girls home and do interviews. They found she was being cruelly abused (their words). They warned all officials at the school that the man was angry and unstable and we best all be careful until they could get him in jail or remove the child.
I contemplated how safe I was and how safe I could keep myself.
It was then I realized how nice this kind of neighbourhood is. If the bad man should come into the school grounds, (which is also where I live) everyone would know he shouldn’t be here. There are neighbours literally 4 feet from my house and up and down the street that would never let me be hurt. I think the man would be pummelled before he got to my porch.
He made some tiny threat to my counterpart, who is a small sized man. By nature, Botswana are peaceable and my counterpart is one of the most peaceable. But he was outraged by the threat and has spent the last several days saying how he isn’t scared and he will beat on that man until he is silly. At first I thought it was an amusing bravado – but I came to see my counterpart is so angry that the father is threatening many people’s safety and it pushes him to a place he would never go on his own.
I know I am as safe as a person can be. If I was in America I can’t imagine the whole neighbourhood being on the lookout for this guy, and if people did see him menacing me or hurting me the majority would believe it wasn’t their business and would choose not to be involved.
In Summary – I have found one more good thing about Botswana: I have the strength of a whole community to help me, care about me and want to keep me safe.
Post Script: 1 month after I reported the abuse this girl and her little sister were removed from the home and relocated 12 hours away with a grandmother that was so very happy to have her two granddaughters safe with her. Her family elders are meeting to find a way to get the mother, who is believed to be abused too, and her other four children back home this weekend. Everyone at school is amazed how quickly this family got emotional and logistical support to be safe. I was out raged every day that nothing happened, but now feel as though I was part of something good that could change a girl and a families life – and the amount of time it took seems irrelevant. We are both soooo very happy now now.