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.