Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Confession

Tomorrow, I'm beginning my Christmas vacation. I'll be spending a week in Cape Town, South Africa, followed by Christmas in my friend's village of Mahalapye, then about a week in Mozambique. My roommates and I have decided that for our Christmas break, we're going to be "tourists," but I keep having the feeling that we've essentially been tourists all along.

Sure, I've been working at an AIDS organization, and I've been to rural villages and seen things that not many North Americans see. At the same time, my vision of Botswana has been skewed. Not every person living with HIV/AIDS becomes a motivational speaker, not every rural community has programs designed to raise education and alleviate poverty, and not everyone you meet is only interested in you as a person. I know that Botswana isn't a nation of disease-ridden people gasping for their last breath, but that doesn't make the way I saw things any less wrong.

I can write about the thousands of people who are living in poverty, but the fact is that up until recently, I haven't really seen them. The villages I had seen earlier were mainly agrarian. While the community members didn't have much, they survived from the crops and livestock they kept. On Sunday, I made a trip to Old Neledi, a small village within Gaborone, to attend a concert. I had been there once before for an album launch, but I wasn't as affected by the place as I was on Sunday.

The transition from Gaborone to Old Neledi is like driving into a wall. One minute, we're riding through an industrial zone, with car repair and other shops lining the highway. The next minute, we're on a twisting, sand-covered road, driving past 8'x10' houses with half-buried tires used as fences. Freedom Square, the venue for the concert, also acts as a soccer field and playground. The playground consists of a couple of broken swing sets, a merry-go-round, and a seesaw. The ground is littered in broken glass from the patrons of local bars, but it doesn't deter the kids from playing barefoot and shirtless. While this would almost constitute abuse at home, there is seemingly nothing wrong with this scene. The children are happy, and the downtrodden feeling that you would expect is thoroughly lacking. Old Neledi isn't a World Vision commercial, it's a group of very impoverished people living their lives as well as they can.

I've written before that I've felt like I fit in very well here. I've realized that while I may do a better job than some Canadians, I still fit in as a Canadian. By "virtue" of that, I will never understand what it's like to live in an area like Old Neledi, where poverty, HIV/AIDS, and crime are rampant. Old Neledi isn't an exception to any rule; it is one of many similar communities found throughout the country. I can sympathize with, but I cannot empathize with a child who has had both parents die from AIDS, is living with an aging grandmother, and does not go to school. The situation is just too dire for me to have any clue how I would deal with it, nor how the many people in Botswana deal with it every day.

I haven't written this piece to make anyone feel guilty, it's more an admission of my own mistakes. I've tried too hard to see Botswana as a nation flourishing in the face of HIV/AIDS that I've ignored the reality. When I finally began to see things as they truly are, as a complex web of wealth and poverty, sickness and health, and joy and grief, I hid behind the faceless statistics of places I had never seen. I'm just relieved that I'm starting to see the big picture before it's too late.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Recently, the UN released its 2006 Human Development Report (HDR).  Of the 177 countries surveyed, Botswana ranked 131st overall, by factoring its respective ranks in life expectancy, literacy rate, school enrolment, and gross domestic product per capita.  For Botswana, the life expectancy is 34.9 years (176th), the literacy rate is 81.2% (79th), school enrolment is 70.7 (96th), and the GDP per capita is US$9,945 (58th).  It was also announced that 50.1% of Batswana (people from Botswana) live on about US$2.00 per day. 
It is clear that HIV/AIDS is one of the main contributing factors to Botswana's low ranking.  Its affect on life expectancy leaves Botswana at the bottom of the list, just barely beating out Swaziland, another country that is being decimated by HIV.  The two numbers that stick out in my mind, though, are the GDP and the amount of people living in poverty.  Botswana's GDP per capita beats out both the Russian Federation and Mexico, but over half of the people here live on about $730 per year.  In a country of only 1.7 million people, that equals staggering disparity.
The fight against AIDS is so multi-faceted that it's sometimes easy to ignore something as prevalent as poverty, especially in a country like Botswana.  With free testing and ARVs available, and cross-country awareness and prevention programs in place, it seems as if everything is being tackled.  These initiatives are necessary,  but poverty is an issue that cannot be swept under the rug.  There is no straight-line strategy for beating HIV; one must look at the situation from all angles. 
Botswana is a nation obsessed with status.  Last week, President Festus Mogae bought an ad in one of the local papers, urging Batswana to stop spending their money on expensive cars.  While this is true, with many Batswana neglecting their own nutrition and safety to pay for high-end vehicles, Mogae failed to see the big picture.  Government officials demand to be treated with so much reverence that they promote themselves to god-like status.  When these people expect lavish meals and special treatment to attend a poverty awareness even, like October's Stand Up campaign, it is inevitable that they will be emulated.
To the untrained eye, the parking lot of the Ministry of Health building can be mistaken for a Mercedes-Benz parking lot, with the occasional BMW thrown in.  Ironically, the Ministry building can be found across the street from the Immigration Office, where every day, hundreds of immigrants from Zimbabwe, Zambia, and other surrounding countries attempt to extend their stay in hopes of finding a job in Botswana.  
HIV may not stem from poverty, but it would be foolish to ignore poverty's effect on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana.  With poverty comes a lack of education, poor nutrition, and an increase in the desperation with which people try to make ends meet.  Botswana is not a superpower, but it is one of the wealthier countries in Africa.  It has the resources to mitigate poverty and, hopefully, drastically decrease the rate of HIV infection.  First, we'll just have to convince the president that maybe it's time for a round of government pay cuts, and that Toyota makes a pretty decent car.   

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