Oasis in the Bush

Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
Trip End Nov 17, 2005

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Flag of Botswana  ,
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Botswana is one of the richest countries in Africa, enjoying a high GDP-second only to South Africa-and a peaceful civil society. Of course it wasn't always like this. A protectorate rather than a colony, with little arable land or resources, Botswana was never developed as much as other British-controlled African countries. When it gained independence there were just 7 kilometres of tarred road in the country. Even after diamonds were discovered it took more than a decade for them to be properly exploited and for the wealth to trickle down.

There's still inequity here as there is everywhere in Africa, just not as obvious. More easy to see are the streetlights, traffic signs, fire stations, and infrastructure that is sorely lacking in other African countries.

I'm soaking all of this in with the little time I have between organizing my schedule and getting started on the work. I've been in Gabs for less than a day before I begin my first story, and have notes for others. At the WUSC office I have a laptop and even my own office to work in. There are projects on recycling--turning trash into art--a hand-made paper cooperative, orphan care projects, and even a workshop in which deaf people make solar-powered hearing aids.

Then there are the projects that involve the San, or Kalahari Bushmen, in north-western Botswana. Just days into my stay this job is quickly shaping up to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I've given myself just three weeks but could probably use three months.

The welcome I get is warm and curious. Kathy has been referring to me as "the journalist", and people are wondering about me. It's flattering, and funny to think of myself as thought of as a professional writer. As a journalist I'm seen as impartial and independent from the organization. I have my work cut out and am determined to make the most of it.

For the first time in years I'm around development workers. Having grown up with one, my mom, it feels familiar and funny at the same time, like speaking a language I'd almost forgotten.

On my second day in town I travel to Motse Wa Badiri, a sprawling kibbutz-like community of people with disabilities. There's a sorghum mill, pottery workshop, furniture factory, café and craft shop, flower garden and nursery, and the Godisa workshop, a separate NGO that produces the solar-powered hearing aids. Almost everyone who works at Motse Wa Badiri is either physically or mentally disabled.

Watching a group of young men tend to a garden path, my host, Howard, a middle-aged man from Montreal who oversees activities at the complex, points out that though they are all challenged in some way they work independently of direct supervision. There's Archie, a marathon runner and Special Olympics gold medallist; Lafand, who saved his salary for two years so that he could travel to England to visit one of the former volunteers.

When Lafand leaves us to return to work an expat volunteer tells Howard that he's just going to pop into town to run some errands. "You see," says Howard. "The disabled workers are more independent than the able-bodied volunteers."

Beside Motse Wa Badiri is a youth community run on similar lines, teaching skills and providing guidance and housing for 12-15 year-olds, and a boarding school for younger kids, each of whom is disabled and come from all over the country. From the school the children "graduate" through the youth program and ideally into Motse Wa Badiri, along the way gaining skills that might one day help them integrate into civil society.

On the patio of Howard's modest house in the compound, we listen to South African jazz and savour a lunch of tinned salmon, ham and potato chips. Howard's been in this house for three and a half years and doesn't want to leave, but after he reaches five years he'll have to. It's not only a contractual restriction but also a healthy and practical way of moving people on. There is a tendency, widely known but hardly confronted, of "empire building" among volunteers. Ideally, foreign development workers work themselves out of their jobs by training and mentoring local talent. That's the theory anyway.

For now I'm enjoying the company and the inspiration, the serenity, and the surreal of the place. I can't shake the feeling that I've landed in some kind of African Oz, where the populace is disabled instead of munchkin. And while my tour guide may not be the Wizard he's certainly well placed to describe the wonders of living in a self-sustaining community of people with disabilities.

After a day's work people often congregate on Howard's porch. "More often than not," he says, "they just want to sit unobtrusively and listen to the music or listen to us talk."

Watching people stroll by on their way to lunch or back to work, the scene is unremarkable until you remember that every one of them is mentally or physically disabled. And that this little oasis is in the heart of Africa.

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