I am getting myself ready for my trip back to Botswana. It is an emotional time. I have left my heart there, in so many bits and pieces, strewn about among the people I came to know and love during my 14 months. Living among so many kind and generous people despite their poverty was an awakening. So many of them have such hard lives and will always have a rough time of it. Yet day to day they are happy, they are loved by their family and communities. The comparative simplicity of this sometimes leaves me at a loss to understand how one can possibly get so distracted with things that don’t matter here at home. Yet we do. We do.
Life can get so complicated. We get so caught up in the modern conveniences, the ease with which most of us live our lives in the US. TVs, phones, computers, “I” this and “I” that. I love my new job and the people I am working with. The community I work within is so full of people trying to make things better for people here in Humboldt. It is truly an awesome place to live for so many reasons. I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be.
Yet I still am drawn to something back in Africa. Something hard and cold, despite the constant heat. Something so warm and kind, despite the harshness. Many people are just surviving, day in and day out. Some do it honestly, some don’t. Some give everything to others and some are plotting how to take it from the unsuspecting. Yet even when I felt and feel targeted by this, I know no one is doing it simply because they can. They are doing it because they feel they have to. I get that better, as a bleeding heart liberal, than I get how the multi-millionaires at home seem to be so harsh, just because they have figured out how to do it.
Oh, the children in Africa. Their innocence cradled in their cold, calculating survivalism. The teenaged girls who befriended me, caught between childhood and becoming women. They wanted to play and not worry about anything, but already, as young women they worried about everything. About food, about being able to stay in school, about being attractive to boys. All the normal hormonal stuff, but with the added veil of HIV.
I love how happy my host family was, despite real economic challenges. My four sisters, quiet brother (hell, he had no choice), his beautiful two children and crazy, lovely, fun girlfriend, my 13 year old niece…my mother, just 2 years older than me and so 100% loved and respected by her children and grandchildren. Then there is my uncle, who isn’t really exactly my uncle at all but I think the best friend of the patriarch, who died a few years ago. And cousins…everyone is a cousin. My family in the US could take some serious lessons….
I wrote to my Batswana sisters and told them to pretend I was in charge and “ordered” them not to buy me any Christmas presents….last year they did anyway and I hope this time they listen to their big sister. Money needs to be spent on food, shelter and transportation, not gifts for me. They have already given me more than they will ever be able to replicate, just by welcoming me into their home and helping me with my homesickness and culture shock when I first got there. I owe them forever and I intend to repay them constantly for the rest of my life.
And then there are the people with disabilities who I worked with, trying so hard to help them figure out how to advocate for better lives, how to organize together. I feel like I failed them because their efforts sometimes seemed to fizzle without my constant pushing, but they had to learn to do it for themselves, not because I was pushing….the fine lines in the sand….I am fearful about what I will find within their efforts and lives because I can’t do more for them in any big or meaningful way. And I am so frustrated with the Botswana government that won’t simply grant the one group the access to the well they so desperately need to start growing food and raising life stock.
I am excited and fearful about seeing my young friend Erto, who finished his club foot treatment after I left. I am worried that his mother isn’t sticking with the ongoing treatment, which requires he wear a brace 23 hours a day for 3 to 4 months… The group that helped me organize his treatment is now moving forward working to bring this treatment to other children in Botswana and I hope I can be involved and get Rotary involved. It is such a no brainer to fix this birth defect early, before it intrudes on a child’s life in real and life altering ways. I can’t wait to see this child – who would always wave at me happily when I left his yard, but hide shyly when I would arrive. He was just messing with me. I hope now to see him mess with me by running away from me – laughing hard.
I also had a friend there who I worry about most of all. He is so smart, so kind and so utterly unable to move himself forward in his work life. The young men there often spend their lives holding their breaths and putting on a good hopeful face, until they exhale, finally and exhausted, hopeless and full of alcohol. Stomachs and pockets empty, no future in sight. They can drink cheap booze and find momentary comfort in the arms of an equally fearful young woman, who hopes perhaps her options and life will get better if she finds the right fellow.
No, it is not like this for everyone in Botswana. Don’t get the wrong idea. There are people in college, people working hard, making a difference and all that. But there just doesn’t seem to be room for that many people to rise up above their circumstances. The resources needed to truly help people do this aren’t getting to the right people at the right time.
So, as I prepare for this trip, I know there is no possible hope of returning to Botswana, picking up all the pieces of my broken heart and bringing it back full again. I will have to figure out how to live this side with a heart that is broken. A heart that is broken wide and very permanently open.