Monday, December 12, 2005

Going home in a casket!

I remember being out for a few drinks one evening with a couple of my Batswana friends. As we chatted over a few beers a commotion broke out nearby. I asked the guys what the fuss was all about. They translated for me....

A few Batswana were teasing their Zambian colleague that he would return to Zed in a box like all of his brothers (Zambian compatriots rather than biological brothers.) They poked fun at him saying that he would certainly not leave Botswana alive because he wouldn't be able to resist the beauty and charms of the local women. I have no idea what happened to the Zambian guy but I know that in thier cruelty the Batswana were not exaggerating too much!

Even more tragic is the fact that many men who are forced to work outside of their own countries and end up in Botswana (South Africa or any other copmparatively rich neighbour) end up infecting their wives with HIV. These men take chances with their own lives by indulging in one night stands or uncommitted sexual relationships but they also pass on the virus to their wives as well as their young or unborn children.

In such circumstances the man will often die first. Ironically he will often die in his own home after months of nursing from his faithful and loving wife. Soon after the widow will fall sick and be nursed by her eldest child (more often than not her eldest daughter - who will drop out of school to support the family.) The cycle of sickness and poverty continues as the eldest child raises her siblings. These children may be fortunate and be cared for by an Aunt or Grandmother but all to often there is no one for them. Or worse they may end up stigmatised and discriminated against due to the fact that their parents died from Aids related illnesses.

The guys who were joking about the Zambian going home in a box might not have laughed so much had they thought about the grief and suffering that HIV/AIDS causes!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Life and death in Botswana

When I was living in Botswana I worked in a College of Education near the City of Francistown. I worked as a lecturer in Religious Education. The students in my classes were primarily between the ages of 18 and 21 although some were slightly older. When I first started lecturing at the college I knew that one in three were likely to be HIV positive. I remember trying to work out which ones might be positive. There was no way of knowing though. Over my two and a half years of working at the college several of my students went off 'sick' - sometimes for weeks or months. Most returned after a time but not all. Many died and many more have subsequently died.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Giving with one hand, taking with the other!

Gordon Brown’s speech was tremendous in terms of his commitment on behalf of the British government to aspire towards universal free education for all primary aged children and to a universal system of health care for the poor of the world. Mr Brown promised that Britain would continue to play a key role in changing the hearts and minds of key allies in order to MAKE POVERTY HISTORY. I, like my students, was inspired by the Chancellor but I did have one question that I was itching to ask him...

I wanted to know how the British government can justify the recruitment of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals, in some case professionals who have trained for up to seven years at the expense of their own people, from the developing world in order to prop up the NHS? Isn’t that immoral? Isn’t it the case that our society gives with one hand and takes away with the other? Unfortunately I did not get to ask the Chancellor my question.

The Christian community and beyond , including our schools & local parishes must play a key role in keeping the pressure on our governments to ensure that Trade Justice, debt relief and better overseas aid remain the focal point of the international community until the time that poverty and injustice is not just reduced but totally eradicated. Jesus made the observation that the ‘poor will always be with us’ but this was not a policy mandate but a challenge to Christians to work tirelessly to MAKE POVERTY HISTORY.’

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Chancellor of the Exchequer - Making Poverty History?

“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.”
Nelson Mandela’s challenge to us at start of this year’s make poverty history campaign.

On Thursday 17th November seven of my A level students and I joined parishioners from a local parish and CAFOD activists to go to Manchester to listen to the Chancellor Gordon Brown speak on the theme of ‘MAKE POVERTY HISTORY.’

One of my students wrote the following for our school newsletter:

‘MAKE POVERTY HISTORY is a campaign I have followed with interest and I looked forward to hearing the opinions of such a major political figure. As a student of A level Politics and Religious Ethics it was a fantastic opportunity to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer speak about one of the major issues of 2005.

I went to the speech expecting to hear a fair few untruths and reasons why actions could not be taken.

However, when listening to Gordon Brown’s speech, he seemed really passionate about the cause and wanted to see action taken to help the world’s poor as much as his audience did. He was pro-active in seeking change for the developing world and urged the current generation to be the generation to make a difference rather than the generation that had the opportunity but missed it.

Overall it was a very impressive speech which inspired me and encouraged me and hundreds of others to continue the fight to MAKE POVERTY HISTORY.'

Whether or not Mr Brown is true to his word I hope and pray that the interest of my students in MAKING POVERTY HISTORY is sustained. They have so much hope for the future and the future is in their hands! They can be the generation that makes the difference!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Why won't you wear a Red Ribbon sir?

Despite the great success of some of my colleagues and I in getting hundreds of our students to wear Red Ribbons last week I was still shocked by the reluctance of some of my colleagues to wear one.

I work in a Catholic school. I am well aware that some of the teachings of the Church are controversial, to say the least, on the issue of artificial contraception and HIV/AIDS (this is atopic for future!) but one of the parts of Catholicism that I love is it's Social Teaching. The Church advocates the principle of Solidarity. Standing up for one's brother or sister, standing shoulder to shoulder with the world's poor and oppressed, not resting until we live in a fair and just world. The analogy of the 'Body of Christ being sick' is one that as a Christian I embrace the cocept of 'The Body of Christ has AIDS' and all members of the Christian community and beyond have an absolute duty to ensure that all parts of his body are respected, receive compassion, are granted justice and are permitted to live in hope!

So why did the Headteacher in my school refuse to wear a Red Ribbon last week? God only knows!!!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Nkosi Johnson - an true inspiration!

When I discussed HIV/AIDS with my younger pupils (11-14 years old) I focussed on the story on Nkosi Johnson. For those who are unaware Nkosi died of an Aids related illness on 1st June 2001 a short time after speaking out to the world at the Durban AIDS Conference in 2000. As a 10 year old Nkosi took to the platform in front of 10000 people, the world's media as well as President Mbeki and former President Mandela. Nkosi tlaked of his story of living with HIV but he was not bitter or angry - he was full of hope. He urged the world to tackle the pandemic and to ensure that children like him would not have to die. His word at the conference moved many to tears:

"Care for us and accept us - we are all human beings. We are normal. We have hands. We have feet. We can walk, we can talk, we have needs just like everyone else. Don't be afraid of us - we are all the same."

I have never been touched as deeply by a politician or world figure as I was touched by Nkosi and my pupils also find him an true inspiration. One of my older students actually commented that 'he would have been my age if he had lived.'

For more information about Nkosi's Haven and Nkosi's story visit The website has an excellent biography of Nkosi and a transcript of his deeply moving speech in Durban.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Worlds Aids Day at school

I made World Aids Day a huge issue at my school last week. I work in a school of over 1500 students between the ages of 11-19 in the north west of England and I reckon half of them were supporting a Red Ribbon over the past week. Not only were the students wearing the Red Ribbons but we put on special PSHE (Personal Social Health Education) lessons to teach them about HIV/AIDS. Many of my students, some of whom aren't the easiest to teach in the world, were hanging on my every word as I told them some of the stories I have retold thus far in my blog. They were truly touched by the plight of those affected by HIV/AIDS and many of them asked what they could do to help. As youngsters they were mostly moved by the stories of babies and infants infected with HIV through mother to child transmission. They were angered when I explained that no child should be born with HIV but due to the injust world we live in millions of mothers are denied access to HAART's.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

How could anyone not know about HIV/AIDS?

The circumstances surrounding Jacob's death were upsetting. I was incredibly touched by his father's story. What shocked me more though was a conversation that took place shortly afterwards.

There were five of us sat around the fire. All men. I was considerably younger than the others though. I'm in my thirties whereas each of the others were at least fifty. The conversation started with one of the men saying ' I don't know what is happening to all our young people in this country. They are all dying.' I was stunned by his words. I knew all about the conspiracy of silence that surrounds HIV/AIDS but this did not seem like a man in denial. The other men nodded in agreement. None of them knew what was happening to their youngsters either. I wanted to scream at them 'They are dying of AIDS for God's sake!!!' but I said nothing.

These men were bright intelligent men. Leaders of their community. Well educated, articulate but...did they not know about HIV? How could they not know? Then again why would a man in his fifties know anything about HIV/AIDS? Where and with whom would he ever discuss it? No wonder these men could not guide their children. Did their grown up children, who certainly knew more of the risks of unprotected sex and promiscuity, need their guidance anyway? They certainly wouldn't have sort it.

I still don't know what to make of the conversation. I still genuinely believe that these men knew nothing of HIV/AIDS though. I don't know how anyone could not know about it but then again was I looking for the messages on the subject? I was. I listened to radio ads, read newspaper ads but I was always an outsider looking in. Did I ever have anything like the same perceptions as a Zimbabwean, Zambian or Motswana? I don't know...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Death without dignity in Zimbabawe

My uncles story of his sons death was touching. As we sat around the fire he told me of his loss and his grief.

His son, Jacob, had been at the cattle post for about a week but had made his way back to the city due to his ill health. Apparently he had been ill several months earlier but had made a seemingly full recover (it's amazing how often I heard that at funerals!) Upon reaching home he could barely walk or talk so my uncle immediately drove him to the main hospital in Bulawayo. Jacob was obviously seriously ill and his father genuinely believed that the hospital would be able to help him. Afterall this was Zimbabwe - for so long the bread basket of Southern Africa. My uncle knew only of a well resourced highly efficient hospital that served Bulawayo. He was broken hearted to find the hospital in a state of disrepair and filth. With no other option he checked Jacob into the ward. Jacob was taken for examination and was returned to the ward where his father awaited. My uncle was then informed that unfortunately there was no medicine available and that all the hospital could do was place Jacob under observation. My uncle was obviously shocked but said he felt that at least the authorities would be able to look after his son. He then asked the nurses for blankets to cover his shaking and desperately ill son. He was told that there were no blankets available and that patients had to supply their own blankets. My uncle immediately drove home to get blankets but could not fathom how it could be that a hospital could not provide a desperately sick man with something to cover himself. When he arrived back he did his best to keep his son warm until in the early hours of the next morning Jacob passed away.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Bulawayo funeral house

It was my first visit to Betty's uncles place. I had expected a fairly modest dwelling but I found them living in a large farmhouse on the outskirts of Bulawayo. The house was somewhat rundown on the outside byt was very well kept internally. The warmth of the welcome we received was overwhelming especially given the circumstances - they had just lost their son! We arrived on a Saturday afernoon. The family had just returned from their church service (as 7th Day Adventists they worship on Saturday.) Betty remained in the house with the women whilst I greeted the women before venturing outside to join the men around the open fire. It was daylight but there was a nip in the air so the warmth of the fire was welcome. The grounds of the house were immaculately kept. Vegetables were growing and elsewhere the lawn was neatly mowed. If I hadn't had known better I would have thought the family to be quite prosperous. Infact they were well off not long before but Mugabe's tyranny, especially against the Ndebele people in Matabeleland, had made their saving worthless. Betty's uncle worked as an inspector of schools. A good well paid job in normal times but like any other Zimbabweans, outside of the Presidents inner circle, the family were living from hand to mouth.

Betty's uncle is an inspirational man though. Despite the hardships he was suffering, the economic ruin and mostly the loss of his son he refused to be downhearted. His faith in God obviously sustained him and his family - although they had many questions they wanted to ask God!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Death and hardship in Zimbabwe

One day whilst we were living in Francistown we received a phone call to tell us that one of Betty's cousins had died in Bulawayo. The next weekend we crossed the border into Zimbabawe and headed to Betty's uncles home.

We crossed the border at Plumtree countless times. We'd often spend weekends in Bulawayo - either with family memebers or in hotels. Hotels were cheap. You'd change your Botswana Pula into Zim Dolars at the border and for what amounted to enough money for a few groceries in Botswana you could enjoy a great weekend in Bulawayo.

The border crossing was relatively painless. It was as frustrating at times but we were rarely harrassed. To be fair the Zimbabwean officials treated us with great respect, despite my British passport, and we'd often face more needless bureuacracy when crossing back in to Bots - even with residence permits! On the odd occasion we had to pay tax on the groceries we were carrying. The tax was piitance but the delay caused by queuing to pay it was an unnecessary burden.

The groceries we carried were for relatives in the Bulawayo area. Due to the ever worsening plight of the people of Zimbabawe it became increasingy necessary for us to carry groceries including mealie meal, sugar, flour, cooking oil and salt every time we travelled. These commodoties were unavialable in Bulawayo (and I'm talking about nearly three years ago - the stories we hear from over there today are horrorendous!)

After crossing the border one would pull over into a lay-by where one would instantly be surrounded by dozens of young lads offering varying exchange rates for Botswana Pula. After making the trip several times we got to know a few ofthe boys and we always used the same ones when changing money. That way one could be sure to avoid the special branch officers who alledgedly infiltrated the money changers. I'd pick up one of our lads at the border and drive slowly to Plumtree village, a few KM's away. As I drove Betty would sort out the exchange of currrency with the lad. The system worked well and was safe. After the deal was done we'd drop the lad off at Plumtree village so that he could make his way back to the border. Using the parallel market became a perfectly natural thing to do and literally everyone from Botswana travelling into Zims did the same.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Bob plays russian roulette

Whilst in Botswana I worked as a lecturer at a College of Education. Whilst working there I struck up a friendship with an Irishman called Bob. Bob was in his late 40's but was quite youthful in his attitude to life and he kept himself in great shape physically. In fact it was through playing squash that I got to know Bob quite well.

Bob and I would play squash at least twice a week and usually grab a quick drink after the game. Bob didn't drink alcohol and whereas I'd knock back a beer or two Bob would have a coke. As we grew to know one another we began to share experiences. Bob had worked in Botswana for several years and had some very interesting tales to tell. I think Bob thought he was impressing me with his stories of his sexual exploits but that was certainly not the case. In fact it was odd. Bob would tell me about how he'd slept with this woman or another but he didn't seem to be boasting. In fact he was very matter of fact in his story telling. I found Bob's stories fascinating. I was particularly fascinated by the fact that a very intelligent man with a great deal of zest for life was regularly playing Russian Roulette with his life by sleeping with up to five women a week. Some of whom he confessed to sleeping with without using a condom. Bob knew the risks of unprotected sex. He knew that 40% of the women in the age range of those he bedded were statistically likely to be HIV positive. He evidently didn't care. I don't know if Bob was HIV positive himself. I don't know if Bob knew his status. I don't think Bob cared! He didn't care if he caught the virus and he didn't care if he passed on the virus. Funnily enough I liked Bob as much as I despised his attitude. I felt sorry for him as well but I know he didn't deserve my sympathy.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

No fear!

In fact most of the guys I got to know in Botswana worried very little about catching HIV. Now I'm not talking about illiterate guys who knew nothing about the virus or saw it as some form of curse. I'm talking about educated guys who knew exactly how the virus is transmitted but still had little or no fear of it. I'm talking of Batswana friends of mine, Zimbabwean friends, Zambian friends and friends from the UK and Irealnd.

Before I lived in Botswana I assumed that anyone who knew anything about HIV/AIDS would avoid unprotected sex. Of course they would. Afterall it's a potentially fatal virus. It kills you and people want to avoid death at all costs. Certainly that is the attitude I had when I went to live in Botswana. That attitude was to change the longer I lived in Botswana. I didn't actually indulge in risky behaviour myself but I began to understand the mindset of those who did. Some of their stories I will tell in forthcoming posts...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Protecting Oneself from HIV

I suppose I imagined that an undertaker in Sub-Saharan Africa would be incredibly careful in ensuring that he protected himself against the HIV virus. On reflection I'm sure he was very careful - afterall he is still alive! It's one of those perserve things about the HIV virus in Sub-Saharan Africa that even an undertaker would have many sexual partners. My friend is a happily married man but I know that on business trips he would not pass up the opportunity for a one night stand with a beautiful woman. I know that condoms are 93-97% effective in protecting one from HIV and other STI's but my preconceptions led me to believe that if one suspected that a potential sexual partner might be positive then one would pass up the opportunity of sex. This was certainly not the case with my friend the undertaker and neither was it the case with the rest of the guys I knew in his circle of friends.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

My friend the undertaker

Another friend of mine in Botswana is an undertaker. He is a Motswana but has an English father. After spending a few years in the UK he returned to Botswana to start up his own business - as an undertaker. His business grew from fairly humble beginnings to become one of the largest burial services in North East Botswana. He estimated that on average he will oversee at least 15 burials every Saturday. Sometimes he had to pass up business and refer potential clients to another undertaker - such is the demand for undertakers in Sub-Saharan Africa. He, like a handful of others who started up as undertakers in the early to mid 90's, is a rich man.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Reflections on Boipelo's Life

Boipelo's death particularly touched me. I guess part of the reason I felt affected was because she was so young and full of life. She was also one of the first people I knew who died from an Aids related illness. It's not that Boipelo ever told me or Betty that she was HIV positive, afterall very few people will disclose their HIV status to anyone in Botswana (or elsewhere for that matter) but we knew she was 'sick'. All who knew her knew she was 'sick'. No one ever described her as anything other than 'sick'. No one would ever openly say 'I suspect that Boipelo's illness is AIDS related'. I'd know that the other person knew and they'd know that I knew but neither of us could ever say it!

Weeks after Boipelo's death I spoke to a doctor friend of mine. He confirmed that Boipelo had been treated for HIV but that she had not adhered to the strick regime of taking her Anti-retrovirals. Apparently as her health seemingly improved she returned to her party-girl lifestyle and gave up on her treatment. She was young and reckless in that sense but I too was fearless in my youth. I drove my car too fast, I took risks and did things that were potentially life threatening. Most people would say the same. Boipelo took the risk of not taking her pills. She didn't live to tell her story though....

Saturday, October 29, 2005

After the Burial

After the funeral all of the mourners made their way back to Boipelo's family home. As is expected at any funeral the family of the deceased provided food for all. A meal of papa (mealie meal/maize meal), meat and green vegetable was available for all the mourners.

The idea of feeding the mourners is something that is rooted in tradition. Unfortunately because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic the financial burden on some families is overwhelming. The costs of the morgue, undertaker, coffin etc are unavoidable but the custom of feeding the mourners is something that the people of Botswana, and neighbouring countries, perhaps need to address.

One gets the impression that a significant minority of mourners attend funerals in order to ensure that they are well fed. I guess this is understandable in those villages, like Boipelo's, that are blighted by poverty, but there are no winners with the current situation. All families are affected by the pandemic. All families are burying their children. All families are suffering not only with their loss but with the associated financial burden of saying goodbye to their children.

Friday, October 28, 2005

At the cemetry

A large crowd had gathered at the graveside when we arrived. Over the shoulders of my fellow mourners I could see the canopy that covered Boipelo's grave. Next to the canopy was a large pile of earth and the hole of about two metres deep where Boipelo was to be buried. The undertakers had positioned the coffin into a hoist that would lower Boipelo's body into her grave at the appropriate moment. More prayers were said at the graveside but my overwhelming memory is of the wailing that grew more and more intense as the time approached where Boipelo would be lowered into the ground. Several women at the graveside collapsed and had to be escorted away. As Boipelo's body was lowered to into the grave the wailing incresed in volume as grief overwhelmed so many of the mourners.

Once Boipelo was in her grave the family members shovelled the first earth onto her coffin. The noise of the earth impacting on the wood of the casket led to further outpourings of grief. Soon the process of burying Boipelo intensified. The male memebers of the funeral party took it in turns to shovel the earth into the grave - I was quite surprised to see that the mourners buried the body themselves as in my own county it is a task that is usually left to the undertakers. The process of shifting earth onto the grave continued until a mound of at least a metre in height was above the grave.

The burial ended with the family placing flowers on the grave before all filed away in silence.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The journey to the graveside

Following the body viewing a few more prayers were said before Boipelo's body was carried to the funeral car. The hearse then led a convoy of perhaps 50 vehicles to the village cemetry. I was driving my 'bakkie'. I had about 20 people in it or hanging off it. It was expected tha tanyone with a vehicle would carry as many passengers as was physically possible. The elderly sat inside the vehicle or whilst the young clung to whichever part of the truck they could. I found it most un-nerving the first few times I carried so many passengers but I soon realised that no one ever fell off (and even if they had there didn't exist a culture of litigation!)

At the cemetry I noticed at least 2 other burials taking place. This was an unsurprising sight even in a relatively small village. Burials never always took place on Saturday in Botswana and there would always be many taking place at the same time. As we walked to the place where Boipelo's grave had been dug I couldn't help ntice the countless white crosses that stood mute in the ground. Each cross would have a name and a date on it. The vast majority of the crosses were for young people who had died in their late teens or early years of adulthood. It was quite rare to see the grave of an elderly person.

This is the legacy of HIV/AIDS. Parents and grandparents burying their children. And this was not just the case in this cemetry but all over Botswana ... and Zimbabwe... and Zambia... and South Africa ... in fact all over Sub-Saharan Africa. The implications of this is something I will return to in a later post.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Burial Service

The first sunlight to rise above the village stirred everyone into action.Mourners from across the village began to approach Boipelo's home and those of us asleep in the cars awaoke bleary eyed. A couple of hundred people or so made their way into the yard and as the final arrangements were bing made for the burial service. To gasps Boipelo's coffin was brought from the room where she had been at rest overnight to a position just outside the entrance to her home. The elderly mourners had seats whilst the rest of us stood motionless in the background. The haunting silence was broken only by the sweet songs of the birds in the trees oblivious to goings on beneath them.

The burial service began when a few elderly gentlemen, dressed in suits that used to only see the light of day for one or two funerals a year, took up a position next to the coffin. I'm unsure which church the men were from - there are so many different churches across Southern Africa. I barely understood a word of Setswana but I had the impression that the service was on the African traditional side of Christianity. The Bible was certainly used but in the context of traditional beliefs. There are many churches across Botswana that have modified the Christianity imposed upon Africans by the white missionaries to ensure that the traditions and customs of the community are integrated into Christianity.

After some prayers a few friends and family members of Boipelo came forward to say a few words about the deceased. I rember a tearful Audrey speaking in a most touching way about her employee - but she had evidently not just lost an employee and a colleague but a beloved friend. The service at the homestead ended with body viewing. Mourners walked slowly passed Boipelo's coffin gazing upon her as she lay in peace. Some mourners were barely able to contain their grief, some women even had to be carried away to a place in the shade. Boipelo looked beautiful. Her unblemished complexion and immaculately tidy hair in place. There was even a faint smile upon her lips. As Sonny siad she looked too well to have died!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The overnight vigil

The night before the burial a group of us drove from Francistown to Boipelo's home village. We arrived at Boipelo's home at around 11pm and found a prayer vigil in progress. The prayer vigil was primarily attended by the more elderly members of Boipelo's family and their friends from the village. Seats had been laid out in the yard to accommodate mourners. I recognised the chairs as the one's I had transported from Unique only a few days previously. The majority of those at prayer were elderly women. The men sat not far away around a large fire; sitting under the clear night sky under the moon and stars. The men didn't talk much. Mostly they starred into the fire with only their thoughts for company. It was common at any funeral to see the men and women sat separately. Whenever Betty and I attended a funeral we immediately separated. - Betty joining the women inside the funeral house whilst I joined the men around the fire.
Outside the compound their were many younger people hanging around next to where the mourners had parked their cars. A group of guys were at drinking a few beers and chatting using the back of one of the 'bakkies' as a bar. It struck me that the younger Batswana did not participate in the traditional funeral practices as much as their parents and grandparents but still considered it important to be at the funeral house the night before the burial to pay their respects to their departed friend who lay at peace inside her family home.
After greeting Boipelo's parents and the elders of the family I took my leave and joined some of the guys outside the compound. It seemed irreverent to drink alcohol in the eyesight of those at prayer but no one around the cars appeared to be too concerned. Betty briefly joined those at prayer before also joining me outside the compound. Gradually over the next few hours more people arrived at the funeral house. The staff and several clients of the Salon arrived and soon joined us in a beer or two. 'It's what Boipelo would have wanted!' That amused me as I knew that back in England people would say exactly the same thing!
After chatting and passing the time for a few hours the younger crowd began to wane and we all took the chance to rest our eyes in our cars for a short time before the burial service would begin.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

At peace and at rest

The preperations for Boipelo's funeral went on for about a week. I went to her home on two occasions. Both times I carried as much as the vehicle would carry. At Boipelo's house Betty and the other girls from the Salon mucked in and prepared the yard so that it was ready to host the crowds who were to attend the burial. Audrey and Betty also had another task to carry out and it was one that I didn't envy them. They went to the undertakers and helped prepare Boipelo's body for 'body-viewing.' Their job was to make sure that Boipelo looked her best in her coffin. They did this by styling her hair and applying her make up. I have to say that they did an incredible job. When I viewed Boipelo in her coffin she looked like an innocent child sleeping. I guess that was indeed what she was – asleep and at rest.
I vividly remember that after the body viewing a guy I knew quite well (Sonny, a South African guy, who had travelled more than 1000km's to pay his respects and to offer the funeral party the use of his 'combie' for transport to and from the cemetry) commented that she looked so 'healthy' in her coffin. He was right as well. Boipelo looked immacualte. Her beauty not tarnished even though she had breathed her last breath in this world.
The most striking thing about Sonny's comment was that Sonny himself was HIV positive (he had confided in Betty and Audrey). I remember thinking that he off all people must have suspected that Boipelo had died of an AIDS related illness but his comment suggested otherwise. On reflection I'm sure that most people at the funeral knew exactly what had taken the life of this beautiful twenty one year old but all were content in the conspiracy of silence that haunts HIV/AIDS affected Africa.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Boipelo's Home

I visited Boipelo's village within a couple of days of her passing away. I took my 'bakkie' (Toyota Hilux 4x4) full of things that were deemed to be useful at the funeral house. The items I carried included several chairs from the salon and many bags of mealie meal. Mealie Meal (or Maize Meal) is the staple diet of most people in Southern Africa and once cooked it would be served to the mourners visting the funeral house with a green vegetable and some sort of meat (probably goat.)

I was quite shocked when I first saw Boipelo's home. It was a very basic structure. Her family home was barely two rooms and this housed her parents and her siblings. Within the yard there was evidence of a small building project. The foundations had been laid for what I later found out was to be an extra couple of rooms for the family. One of the great tragedies of Boipelo's death was that this project would never be completed. Her parents and her siblings lived in desparate poverty but Boipelo would send money to her family from her earnings at the Salon. With this money the family were trying to improve their living conditions. Unfortunately Boipelo's elder siblings were not working and what little money they ever had they squandered on alcohol. Boipelo gave hope to her parents as she could ensure that her two younger siblings would at least grow up in a better physical environment than she did. That hope more or less died with Boipelo.

From that time onwards I noticed many examples of unfinished housing structures around Botswana. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has killed so many young people like Boipelo. Young people, who had a sense of responsibility and wanted to ensure that their families were provided for, cut short in the prime of life.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Funeral House

Over the next few days the girls from the Salon continued to be busy with organising Boipelo's burial. As I had generally finshed lecturing by midday or early afternoon I was able to assist in transporting food, furniture, fire wood and people to Boipelo's home. Boipelo's colleagues and clients collected a substantial sum of money in order to buy many of the essentials for the funeral.

When I talk of the 'funeral' and the 'burial' I am refering to two overlapping but seperate things. The funeral in Botswana refers to the whole period of mourning that comes with someone's death. From the time someone passes away friends and family will gather at the 'funeral house' in order to support each other in a time of sorrow. This period of time does not end with the burial of the deceased either. The 'late' are mourned for a period of time that is partly dependant upon their age. The more elderly the deceased is then the longer period of time they are mourned. I was quite surprised at first to learn that infants are not mourned for nearly as long a period as the elderly. I am informed that this is because they have died in innocent and thus will be received instantly by God upon their death.

As the 'funeral' lasts for at least a few weeks it is an incredibly costly time for many families. All those who visit a 'funeral house' will expect to be fed. This is the case as, especially before the burial, many mourners will stay overnight at the funeral house in order to pray with and support the immeadiate family of the deceased.

The 'burial itself is also a costly business. A family does not only have to cover the costs of the morgue, coffin and undertaker but also is expected to feed all the mourners who have attended the burial. These numbers are often large as a whole village will attend a burial. In the past when funerals were much less frequent this did not cause families such financial burden but in these times of HIV/AIDS the whole process of the funeral and burial can causea massive financial burden for the family.

Boipelo's family were particually poor and thus the financial support provided by her workmates and especially her boss, Audrey, were invaluable.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Funeral Arrangements

Without wasting any time Betty was up, showered and out of the house to meet with the girls from the Salon to begin planning for Boipelo's funeral. Boipelo's family lived in a small village not far from Selibwe Pikwe which was about 100km's from Francistown. Hence Betty, Trinnah and Audrey - the owner of the Salon - took control of the funeral arrangements. I was struck by how Boipelo's work colleagues pulled together to help her family. Despite their obvious greif and sorrow they were determined to ensure that Boipelo's family would not have to worry about the logistics of arranging the funeral. Betty and Trinnah went to the hospital to ensure that the death certificate would be ready when Boipelo's mother came to collect her daughter's body and the undertaker was contacted to begin preparations for the burial.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Goodbye Boipelo

Betty visited Boipelo a couple of times in the hospital and told me that although she was being fed through a drip she was relatively strong within herself and looking forward to getting out of hospital. Boipelo had developed mouth sore which had spread into her throat making it impossible for her to take food orally. Betty has told me that she was in discomfort but the situation certainly didn’t appear to be life-threatening. When Betty and her friend Trinnah visited Boipelo at the end of November Boipelo had asked them to make sure that as many people as possible visited her on 2nd December as that would be her 21st birthday. She was excited about her birthday and although disappointed to be bed ridden in hospital she still wanted to make the best of things. Betty and Trinnah put the word around the Salon and a plan was made for all her colleagues and friend to visit her on her birthday.
2nd December happens to be my birthday as well as Boipelo’s so when the phone rang at the crack of dawn I thought little of it believing it to be one of my parents or my brother calling to wish me a Happy Birthday. In fact I was ready to tell them off for calling me at such an ungodly hour. However, when I answered the phone all I heard was Trinnah’s sobbing. She didn’t need to tell me what I’d already realised – that Boipelo had died – in the early hours of the morning on the day of her 21st birthday.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Boipelo's Story - continued II

Once she was back at work I have to admit it wasn’t long before I’d forgotten all about her illness. She was back to her usual self; full of the joys of life and living life to the full. In retrospect she probably was a little more subdued at times and she wasn’t going out after work as often as previously but at the time I, like most others in the Salon environment, didn’t think much about it. She had been sick, she had undergone a period of convalescence and she was in the process of regaining her full strength. At least that was the way it seemed. Within a few months of her returning to work though Boipelo was once again taking time off work. In fact she stopped going into work altogether. We heard through the grapevine that she was having a break from work and that she planned to return to work after a few months. I have to admit that I never questioned this scenario. After all Boipelo was a twenty year old girl who wanted a break from work and a time to relax. It didn’t seem that unusual to me. Furthermore, the girls in the Salon had heard that Boipelo had been partying at the Orapa Beer Festival and was back enjoying her social life. Good luck to her I thought.
Nevertheless the reality of the situation was somewhat different. By November 2002 Boipelo was admitted to Nyambgabwe Hospital in Francistown. Nyambgabwe Hospital isn’t like any other hospital I’d ever visited before. Having been born and raised in the UK I think of hospitals as places where sick people go by and large to get better. The situation at Nyambgabwe is somewhat different though. It is a place where many people go to die. Betty has bitter memories of her time in Nyambgabwe from the time when she gave birth to our son Bongani in June 2000. Bongani, whose name means Thank you God, was born by Caesarean. Millions of women every year have Caesareans without complication in the North but in the developing world the situation couldn’t be more different. Betty lost so much blood that she nearly died. It was only by the grace of God that she lived to raise her son. Thus understandably a visit to Nyambgabwe was never a pleasant experience for Betty.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Boipelo's Story - continued

After I’d been dating Betty for a few months and visiting the Salon on a daily basis throughout this time – I was love-struck what can I say – I noticed that Boipelo was increasingly having time of work. The word was that she had a flu and was resting. Now although Botswana has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world and although the highest risk group for infection are young people between the ages of 14 and 35 I only had a slight concern for Boipelo. After all the is a great danger in concluding that anyone who falls sick in any way in Botswana is HIV positive and of course like anywhere else in the world people catch the flu and are bedridden with curable ailments. Anyway, after Boipelo had been of work for a couple of weeks Betty suggested that we pay her a visit. As it turned out Boipelo only stayed round the corner from where Betty lived. We found her living in servant’s quarters which was accessible by making one’s way around the back of the main property on the plot. Servant’s quarters are very common across Botswana and Southern Africa. Most large houses will include at least one small building for the purpose of housing a maid. It is commonplace across the region to find people on modest income employing a maid. The maid will carry out all the household chores and quite often doubles up as a nanny. It’s not just families who employ maids. Many single mothers – and there are many – employ maids particularly to look after children and thus enable them to work themselves. On average in 2002 one would estimate that a maid in Botswana would have been paid between BWP300 and BWP350 a month. This would probably work out as about a third of the income earned by a woman working in a service industry such as hairdressing, shop work or a restaurant. In Francistown many of the maids, as well as house-boys and gardeners, were Zimbabweans, particularly from Matabeleland, who had fled from desperate poverty into Botswana. The modest sums they could earn in Botswana would at least allow them to feed their families back home. Many of these migrant workers would make trips home at the end of a month laden with Mealie Meal (the staple foodstuff), sugar, flour, salt and cooking oil – commodities that were not available in their local shops.
Boipelo was living a very small dwelling consisting of a modest bedroom, the smallest kitchen and bathroom imaginable. Boipelo stayed in the most modest of places because she wanted to save the bulk of her wages in order to support her family who lived in a small village about 100KM’s south of Francistown. When we visited her the first time we found her sister with her looking after her. Boipelo was weak and certainly looked frail but was still full of hope. She talked about returning to work and about how bored she was stuck in the house all day. The second time we visited we found her alone but she reassured us that she was okay and was being well looked after by family members and friends. She was rather weak but still optimistic. As the weeks passed by Boipelo began to regain her strength and it wasn’t that long before she was back at work.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Boipelo's Story

I first met Boipelo at a Hairdressing Salon and Boutique in Francistown, Botswana. I was a frequent visitor to the Salon during my time in Francistown as it was the place of work of my girlfriend, and later wife, Betty. During our courtship I would head to the Salon every day after I finished work at Tonota College of Education. I spent many hours hanging out there and I got to know all of the hairdressers very well. The Salon was in downtown Francistown and was always a hub of activity. The turnover of clients was impressive – partly due to the fact that most men in Botswana keep their hair very short and visit a Salon at least fortnightly and partly because many of the women change their hairstyles frequently.
This tendency of women changing their hairstyles so regularly led to me having great difficulties in placing people I’d previously met. When I started lecturing at TCE I used hairstyle as one way of memorising the names of my students and colleagues. The strategy was doomed from the first week as a student who had closed cropped hair on a Monday might have flowing locks by the weekend. Someone in Southern Africa makes a very good living in selling hair extensions I can tell you.
The Salon had great warmth about it and I was very happy to be part of the scene. I quickly became acquainted with many new people who visited the Salon for a haircut, styling or to visit the Boutique which was integrated into the Salon. It was in this context that I got to know Boipelo. She was the youngest of the stylists and a beautiful and vibrant young woman. When I met her first she was only twenty years old but was already an experienced and talented hairdresser. Boipelo was very popular with all the clients in the Salon. She was one of the girls; always happy go lucky and enjoying the atmosphere of a workplace full of friends. She was also very popular with the men. I’m sure that this was partly because of her physical beauty but also was due to her warmth and sense of fun. Boipelo had a figure that women all over the world would envy and an unblemished complexion. She had one modelling competitions and this would not surprise anyone who met her as she moved with grace and elegance. Boipelo also dressed immaculately and took great pride in her appearance. She had a real zest for life. Boipelo was very well mannered and would always greet me ‘Hello Uncle, how are you?’ whenever I turned up at the Salon. One would always notice if she wasn’t at work on a given day as although the place would still be busy and the atmosphere lively a certain sparkle would be missing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Nothing can prepare you for the reality of HIV/AIDS

In the six month period between accepting the job in Botswana and my leaving to take up the post I did much reading about Botswana and Southern Africa in general, but nothing prepared me for the reality. I was aware of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has blighted Southern Africa but nothing could prepare me for the reality. In the coming days I will focus on the stories of some of the people that I met during my two years living in Botswana and when visiting the neighbouring countries of South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.