New Internationalist

Letter from Botswana

March 2013

Laughter and tolerance run dry in a land where HIV is still a swear word, says Wame Molefhe.

An argument hots up in the parking lot of a local shopping centre. When one of the combatants shouts, ‘Your mother’s…’ I brace for the last word (bound to be an anatomical reference) and flinch when it is shouted.

‘He insulted your mother?’ ‘Show him his mother.’

Those cries sound like a bell ringing to start a boxing match. The first fist is unleashed. Passers-by are jerked from their normal business; some watch in silence, a few bay for blood; others avert their eyes and walk quickly past. A woman shouts: ‘Stop them. Stop them, please.’ I turn away, thinking that it is a word – a careless, thoughtless word – that precipitated this violence. It is such words that negate my belief in botho. Botho is a principle that Batswana claim to hold dear; it is enshrined in Vision 2016.

The formulation of a national long-term strategy for Botswana, our Vision 2016 began in 1996 during a period of national introspection. The result was an expression of shared aspirations; a collective dream for Botswana that we said would be realized. We said we would cherish democracy, development, self-reliance, unity and botho. Botho encapsulates the spirit of oneness; it says that you will do unto others as you would have them do unto you; botho should breathe in our words, it should live in our deeds.

As a nation, we pledged allegiance to Vision 2016. We said we would become an educated, informed nation that would be prosperous, productive and innovative; we would be compassionate, just and caring; a safe and secure nation; open, democratic and accountable; moral and tolerant; and we would stand united and proud. 

Illustration: Sarah John
Illustration: Sarah John

We had already set off on this journey, before it had been articulated in Vision 2016, when HIV/AIDS arrived in Botswana in 1983. We did not understand it then, but we persevered and, under President Festus Mogae, we established enlightened and sensitive ways to conquer this virus and save our nation. Vision 2016 says we will have access to health facilities located within a reasonable distance from our homes. We will be equipped to deal with unexpected epidemics and natural disasters. Adequate nutrition, quality sanitation and clean drinking water will be for all. We will halt the spread of HIV, and people with AIDS will have access to quality care in health facilities, in their community or workplace.

I believed Botswana was winning the battle against HIV. But the careless, thoughtless words in the parking lot reminded me that HIV is also still a swear word here. At times, I feel it is 1983 again. HIV lurks in the shadows, spoken of in hushed tones. Rumours, innuendo and stigma.

But this is 2013, I think.

We have a healthcare system that is free and available to all, but it is imperfect. When you wait 12 hours in an emergency reception before seeing a doctor, you learn patience. When a heartbeat monitor stops bleeping, you watch deadpan, as the nurse puts on his saddest face, wrings his hands together and offers his condolences. When the ‘dead’ patient, who has been breathing steadily throughout the performance, coughs it is hard not to laugh. It’s the machine that has died – not the person attached to it. Laughter is a good salve.

But laughter and tolerance run dry when you hear step-by-step instructions on how to care for someone who is being admitted to hospital. Bring a bucket to the hospital so you can bathe your patient. Bring sheets. Bring blankets if it is cold. Report to the ward every morning to wash and feed your patient. Doctor knows best. And the patients are reminded to take medicine with prayer – for it is God who heals.

And so, just when I think we are beating HIV, I realize that HIV is not yet ready to surrender. HIV is a swear word, for it is still hurled by those who have learnt nothing in the 30 years it has been in our midst. HIV is a swear word if it can still be used to tar and tarnish during a parliamentary debate on a Public Health Bill. HIV is a swear word still, if testing for HIV carries with it shame and fear. And so until the day that HIV is no longer a swear word, botho will just be a five-letter Setswana word, devoid of meaning.

Wame Molefhe is a writer based in Gaborone, Botswana. Go Tell the Sun is her latest short-story collection.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 460 This column was published in the March 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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