House of Hope

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

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Flag of Botswana  ,
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

You can travel all around Botswana and visit dozens of development projects--craft making and fine arts; recycling initiatives turning trash into art; land claims launched by Kalahari Bushmen; deaf people making hearing aids--and be inspired and humbled, amused and informed. But rarely might you feel like breaking down and weeping. Until you get to Palapye, and House of Hope's orphan care centre. There's sorrow and joy and hope and laughter, and only the hardest of hearts need leave the tissues in the car.

Crying may not even be your first reaction, but give it a few days, better yet a few weeks, and the feeling sets in. "You have to come here to fall in love with this place," says project officer and WUSC volunteer Catherine Macnab. And once you do it's not easy to leave. The kids would be quite happy if you didn't.

Here's one with a smile that lights up her face so that even her eyebrows twinkle; another, an older boy who was obviously abused, and suffers from a serious learning disability; one who is so small for his age that all the others tower over him, but who's cheerfulness makes him stand out; some with apprehension of outsiders, but others with such openness and need of love that a crowd gathers when one is shown affection. And perhaps the star of the group, one of the brightest, most striking students, immediately recognizable as such and yet is sick, and may never get to grow up. Kleenex, anyone?

Catherine is my host in Palapye, and I can tell immediately that I'm in good hands. She's friendly and engaging, with an obvious sense of humour, and is unabashed about her love for the project. Things are really beginning to go well, she says. She's been here over a year, and has another left.

From the moment I arrive at the centre I feel I'll have to spend more time than the day and a half before the weekend. It's after lunch, and the kids are taking a nap, or supposed to be. Many of the 70 or so sleeping bodies are moving around, stifling in the heat or curious of the company. House of Hope provides basic pre-school education and meals for the kids, and walking into a room with so many 5 to 7-year-olds brings me back to my classroom in Seoul. This was my favourite age to teach, bright, curious and quick to learn.

But these ones are supposed to be sleeping, so Catherine introduces me to the teaching staff--two teacher and an assistant--and while the kids continue their restlessness I speak with Alice, the head teacher, and Catherine. With their input I make a list of story leads. There are 11 items on the list.

As I find out later, Alice's personal story is a tear-jerker on its own. Every work day she wakes up at 4:30 to prepare breakfast and lunch for her children before heading to work. Most days she doesn't have extra money to take the bus, so Alice walks to work, an hour each way. With three kids at home and one in university, her monthly wage is not nearly enough.

Next year Botswana is introducing school fees, so Alice will have to find the money to pay the bill on top of what she already pays for exercise books, uniforms, transportation and food. "What I'm earning at House of Hope is too small, and things at the shops are very expensive," she explains. "Ah, life! Sometimes you feel crazy!" Things became much more difficult for Alice when her husband died recently. Her in-laws invoked what they viewed as their traditional privilege and took everything from Alice, including the house she lives in.

But as difficult as it is, Alice's life is not a sob story. The orphans love and respect her, as do her coworkers. "I love my job," she says. "I want to see these kids achieve something. I want them to learn from me that it's good to help the community."

For the kids at House of Hope, the day is nearly over, and since the centre's one minibus can only accommodate a dozen or so kids at a time, the others must wait their turn for lifts home. Sitting on the carpet with the kids, I watch them watch me, though some are more interested in the cartoon showing on a small TV. Looking around the school buildings, at the toys and uniforms and infrastructure, you might be forgiven for thinking that these kids have it pretty good.

In a way they do. They are fed, educated and cared for at House of Hope. Many of them have at least one guardian that--hopefully--looks after them at home. And the buildings they use, the spacious, bright classrooms, assembly building and dining hall look pretty good, from the outside. It's one of the sad ironies of "development" that, although the centre got funding for the buildings (from the Bill Gates foundation and Merck, the pharmaceutical giant) the money was only for construction, not for staff salaries or even maintenance costs.

Only a few years old, the buildings are beginning to deteriorate, as floors tiles lift, pipes leak, and two of the ablution blocks have been closed down due to plumbing problems. "It's an absurd thing," says Catherine. "Everyone knows about orphans, and donors like to give money to orphans, but only to pay for things, not for staff or programmes."

And while it does endorse the orphan care centre, the Botswana government refuses to pay for salaries. "It's better and easier to have toys and a nice classroom," Catherine admits. "But orphan care is about care, about the people, not about the 'stuff'. You can't feed kids mealie-meal unless it's cooked." Catherine has her fingers crossed that funding will soon come through to cover the costs of salaries and maintenance, but it's a long and nerve-wracking wait.

At her house in Palapye Catherine and I spend pleasant evenings barbequing, gabbing, and trying not to stir too much gossip among the Brazilian Baptist missionaries who've taken up residence next door. The Baptists are in Botswana to spread the good word, in this case from under a giant circus tent in town, and each night the exhausted crew of a dozen or more head back here to eat, pray, and generally make a lot of noise. Some of it, no doubt, directed disapprovingly at us.

Catherine and I have become fast friends, and when a few days into my stay we finally sit for a proper interview, I have to make an effort to put on my journalist's hat. In the end I stayed four days in Palapye, two more than I'd intended. After fixing the training wheels on their bicycles, hamming around, sharing lunch with them, trying--and failing--to instill some decorum at the water tap, and laughing out loud all the way, I was at a loss to say goodbye without emotion. But the sentimentality was all mine. Never has an orphan-care centre been better named. The kids at House of Hope have better things to do than mourn themselves.
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