I was asked to attend a 10 day Youth Forum funded by the World Bank and the U.N. The Forum has gone on for 15 years. Its purpose was to help orphan and vulnerable children deal with emotional and economic issues facing the youth today, specifically as it relates to HIV/AIDS.
Five students from my school were selected to attend. Everyone agreed I would go as the teacher from my school with responsibility for the children.
The Ministry holds the Forum at a middle school that boards students. This year the school was in a very small village about 2 hours from my house. Many of Botswana’s middle schools and high schools are boarding schools because the population is very sparse in rural areas. The boarding schools make for great accommodations for Forums or camps when schools are on break. It isn’t luxury or even comfortable – but it is how half of the teen population lives during the school year.
It was a rough start as it took the Ministry of Education (MoE) 14 hours to deliver me and the students to a village 2 hours away. We mostly sat on a school parking lot waiting for MoE to find buses to take us. The original buses had canceled when they learned the last hour of the trip was on a gravel road that many thought to be impassable.
After that, the first 8 days were pretty good, with the standard Botswana hiccups (they always say hiccups instead of problems) including being way behind schedule, running low on food except porridge, and lack of structure and oversight.
However, the facilitators were good, and the content of what the children were being taught was well-developed. Two or three dance parties a day would break out. Entertainment included two talent shows, traditional dancing, and movies every night. There was a mobile dental office and each child got a chance to have his/her teeth cleaned and cavities filled. They also received free toiletries including roll on deodorant.
Many kids popped the ball off the deodorant, and used the little ball to play soccer. It is amazing the types of things these kids can turn into toys and amusement.
However – day 8 started an unforeseeable nightmare. Several children, including a student I was responsible for watching, became “possessed by a demon”. One of the formerly “normal” facilitators became possessed also and we learned another facilitator believed she was a messenger from God and could help cut the connections to the demons. While that concept is bizarre beyond words, what was even more inexplicable is how the teachers, conference leadership, and trained psychologist all went along with the whole demon scene. Children were screaming “The Prince of Darkness is here and people will die”. They were flailing, and inconsolable. Other children were terrified they too were going to be initiated to Satan.
I was with 3 other PCVs and we were all somewhere between utter disbelieve, fear for our own safety, and complete helplessness. We called or reached out to other PCV friends, work acquaintances, and PC Staff. Needless to say – the incidents were not really explainable on the phone and most people were making a joke of the incident or simply didn’t realize how bad it was. Imagine being a character in the Crucible by Arthur Miller (about the Salem witch trials). In retrospect I can see that I was in a Group-Think situation.
I found this definition of Group-Think on the internet: Group-Think is a term to describe a group unwilling to think outside of the overall consensus of the herd, many times it is out of a lack of drive or ambition to ask original questions to arrive at genuine answers. But more importantly – and dangerously – it is also an occurrence that spawns from the fear of looking foolish in front of peers.
Religion and Politics are forms of Group-Think. Words such as “Faith” and “Patriotism” are also words for “blind submission”.
The other PCV’s left at various points though out the day when they could no longer tolerate the irrational behaviour that looked very very harmful to the children. But I didn’t think I could leave because I was the parental authority for one of the afflicted children.
The administers and teachers called a pastor to “deliver” the children. While this process occurred the manager of the Youth Forum called a meeting with the adults (teachers, facilitators, psychiatrist, and Ministry of Education Administrators). The manager was speaking about demons being everywhere. I asked everyone (30 adults, many with advanced education) in the room if they all had the same beliefs and the only people who answered said they did. One Ministry official did remind the group it was against policies to be engaging in these types of “delivery” actions, and he didn’t think the group was adequately trained to deal with this. He was ignored and later people talked of him asking us all to turn a blind eye.
When he had finished, the pastor reported to the group that all students had been “delivered.” Later the teachers called the possessed children into our meeting and asked them to confess that they were Satanist, explain how they were initiated, if they had initiated anyone else, and confirm that they were delivered.
The manager brought in the students to ask the students to confess that had been possessed, to tell us how they got initiated, if anyone else was initiated, and to assure us that they were delivered.
Three of the four students confessed. My student was crying that she was not a Satanist and refused to confess. But the crowd just got more and more angry with her refusal. I asked many many times if I could take her home, but I needed them to give transport. I was never allowed to take her home. I also could not get a hold of the girl’s mother. Eventually I told the girl she needed to confess to leave the room. I told her it was ok – she and I would both know the truth and the confession wouldn’t really matter.
After all 4 had finally confessed, all the adults were relieved and they went back to their rooms to pray late into the night. The next day everyone assured me the child had accepted Jesus Christ, prayed, read the bible and now everything was absolutely fine. But it wasn’t.
It started over again near evening the next day.
The accusations, delivery, and confessions went on for two days and nights. The students were completely irrational, accusing other students of being Satanist and saying things like “a sacrifice was going to made – a child would have to be sacrificed”. No one could make sense of any of their stories.
It went on and on and on. Finally, the teachers took the students somewhere where we PCVs could not follow. We talked with Peace Corps staff again and we agreed that there was nothing more the we could do to help, protect or document the incidence and we should go home. We sat together stupefied for hours.
I wrote a 10 page report that I handed in to the school. If anyone I know should read this report you would laugh (or cry hysterically) at the ridiculousness and not believe that any of this happened. I can barely believe it happened myself.
A great deal of the time the adults there were telling me and other PCV’s that white people and America’s simply cannot understand the African culture. They said America was built entirely on Christian principles and doesn’t have the history of spirits that existed before Christianity came to Africa. (I guess the Native American religions don’t count. This concept also does not acknowledge that many founding fathers were Deist and Freemasons and other similar non-Christians. But I am digressing.)
After I wrote my report I met with PC staff and they assured me this was abnormal, especially for a government sponsored and internationally funded activity, and they said they would try to address these issues with the manager of the Forum and her boss.
I also met with the School Head – who often disappoints me – but he did not disappoint me this time.
He took my report to the Regional Education Office and is working through the system to get this issue addressed. He also assured me the behavior is not something all African people believe and those that do believe these things are not allowed to impose their beliefs at school activities. My counterpart and other school management at my school affirmed the School Heads assertions.
This was one of the very worst moments in my life when I could see utter and complete injustice and ignorance be pushed on vulnerable children. I felt so very very helpless.
I find that new and different cultures get harder and harder to understand the more you are immersed. Before I came to Africa I read everything I could about the culture and one of the constant struggles is convincing people they have HIV/AIDS instead of a curse. There are many widespread believes in witch craft, spells, and curses. I was so relieved to find Botswana far advanced of this issue shortly after I got in my village.
I have now learned that while Botswana is advanced, it has not detached itself entirely from the issues of evil spirits, demons, witches, and curses yet. Being an outsider, (a “protected” American) has kept this issue from my life here until now.
Now, I am trying to focus primarily on the sizable number of people who have encouraged me to file my report, become educated to the issue and help the students and teachers at my school to fight this type of socialization, rather than the bizarre events that occurred at the Forum. I am very happy there is written policy forbidding this type of action that many officials know about and think should be enforced. I truly hope the Ministry of Education employees who allowed and encouraged these Satanic events will be re-educated or re-directed in their work (no one ever gets fired here). If I can play any role in that I will feel purposeful in my work here.
In summary: We are rarely out after dark, but I now see that there are other things besides drunks and criminals that need to be negotiated during the darkness.