Letter from Botswana: 'There's a good side to this HIV'

Lorato came over today with her new baby, Stanley. I’ve hardly seen her since her wedding. We used to work together and we became quite close. She’s younger than me and I often thought of her as a daughter. But, as people do, we’ve drifted apart. She’s now a chicken farmer up north and I’m a writer and our busy lives have dwindled down to SMSs on holidays.

She was in Mahalapye with her new baby, Stanley. Such a middle-aged-man sort of name for a tiny baby. I supposed it matched his calm demeanour, fat stomach and the contemplative look he gave me. ‘Is he okay, then?’ I ask Lorato. ‘So far.’

Some years ago Lorato dated a police officer. She loved him at first but then problems arose. She found he’d been cheating on her. Worse still, she found that the woman he’d been cheating on her with was HIV positive. She confronted him; he denied it. She went for a test. She was positive.

The evening she told me, I felt like I’d been hit with a brick. I wanted to find a way to make this man pay for what he’d done to my friend. Her brother had died from AIDS four years previously, just before the government made ARVs (antiretroviral medications) free to all who needed them. She knew about AIDS. She’d been careful. This man did this to her.

Illustration: Sarah John

But time passed and she met a new man and life went on. She got married. They wanted children, and now here was Stanley, the wise little man-baby.

Lorato has been lucky so far and has avoided ARVs. She changed how she ate, eating more vegetables and fruit and drinking lots of water. ‘The biggest thing is, I avoid stress,’ she said. ‘I know stress: it will kill me.’

She told me how during the preparations for her wedding (a striferidden affair in the best cases, but with her mother – whom I know too well – a nightmare) her CD4 count had gone down to 247. The ARV programme in Botswana advises HIV-positive people to start taking ARVs when their CD4 count goes below 250. But Lorato refused. She knew it was the stress of the wedding. She just needed to get through it and she’d be fine. And she was right. Her CD4 count is at 412 now, even after giving birth. She’ll take ARVs when she needs them, but wants to put it off for as long as possible.

She took ARVs during pregnancy, though. Botswana’s Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme is one of the most successful in the world. Ninety-five per cent of HIV-positive mothers in the country are in the programme. Fewer than three per cent of these mothers’ babies are born with HIV. She started taking the ARVs during the 29th week of pregnancy, three pills, twice a day. Once labour started she took the pills every three hours until Stanley was born.

‘He was tested at six weeks; he’s okay,’ she assures me. I look down at Stanley, who seems to want to tell me something important, wagging his fists at me. ‘One more test at a year and a half and we’ll know he’s safe and clear.’

He looks healthy and Lorato says he’s never been sick. The nurses advised her that it’s okay to breastfeed, but she’s taking no chances. She’s bottle feeding. ‘They told me it’s okay, but I don’t think so. Anything could go wrong.’

I hold Stanley, who nods off reluctantly. ‘You know, this is not all bad,’ Lorato says. ‘There’s a good side to this HIV. I’m careful now; I pay attention to things... for him and for me. I don’t let stress get me down any more. I manage it. I have to.’

There is so much doom and gloom around HIV. The scourge. There was a time in the 1990s when it felt like the entire country was in mourning. Every weekend was for funerals. If you didn’t see someone for a while, you didn’t ask. If a woman was pregnant and then never spoke about a baby, you didn’t either. It was during that time that Lorato’s brother died. Sick and sick and then dead, at 22.

I look at Stanley and at Lorato and think about what a difference just a few years has made in Botswana, and I’m very thankful.

Lauri Kubuitsile is the author of numerous books, primarily for children and teens. Her most recent is a collection of stories set in Botswana, In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories (HopeRoad, 2011).

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The hero in all of us

I’m writing this the morning of 1 February. It may not seem like such an ominous day for most people, but for Botswana today is the day we redeem our pride. Every Motswana, football fan or not, is waiting. Tonight our national team will play against Mali in what will in all likelihood be their last match in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and, come 8pm, quiet will descend on the country as we wait to see if we remain the laughing stock of the continent, or walk away with our heads high.

The Botswana Zebras have spent years being the whipping boys of African football. Losing seemed to be all we knew. But then something shifted. A new local coach, Stan Tshoshane, took over the reins after foreign coaches failed to transform a team sourced from a small national population (1.8 million), full of primarily small players compared to their northern counterparts. Stan was a former soldier and football player himself. He grumbled about how the Botswana Football Association (BFA) only hired him because they ran out of funds for the foreign coaches they preferred, but he took the post anyway and got to work.

Illustration: Sarah John

And slowly the Zebras started winning. They travelled to Tunisia in an African Cup qualifier and, against all odds, the Zebras came out on top 1-0. This was followed by two draws with Malawi, a win against Togo and another win against Tunisia in Gaborone. The Zebras, the underdogs of the continent, were through to AFCON 2012!

At AFCON, they stood out. A team with a local coach is rare. A local textile company, All Kasi, designed and produced the Zebras’ kit for AFCON. No Puma, Nike or Adidas for our boys. And, unlike most of the teams, every player on the squad held a single passport – Botswana. It was a homegrown team, with a home-grown coach, wearing a home-grown kit, and the entire nation accompanied them, if in spirit only.

The first game against Ghana looked impossible. Ghana: the giants of the continent. But the Zebras stood up and Ghana had a hard-fought victory, 1-0. President Ian Khama was proud. We held our breath and at the back of our minds we let hope bloom – maybe we could do this.

The next game, Saturday, and the entire country buzzed. Cars were decorated with blue, black and white flags. I dropped blue food colouring into our celebratory wine. And when the match started, the streets emptied and the country was nearly silent.

We were happy Stan was taking a new offensive approach and our Dipsy Seolwane and Pontsho ‘Harry Potter’ Moloi were starting. But then all the wheels fell off. Depression descended as Guinea pummelled in goal after goal and when the whistle blew the scoreline read 6-1, matching the worst defeat in AFCON history.

On the radio, on Facebook, in pubs, in the mall – people at first were stunned. What happened? people speculated. Stan had lost the plan. But then, as people around the continent started ganging up on our boys, the country rallied. As South Africans started calling a half-dozen eggs ‘a Zebra’, we pulled together.

Are the Zebras not heroes? They showed us that no-one is without a chance; no-one is exempt from success

Were the Zebras really out? we asked. They still had the game against Mali, and if we managed to win with seven goals we could still go through, we said. The Zebras had never scored seven goals in a match – ever – but still the nation rallied. Still we had hope.

So I write this the morning of the Mali game, our last in the group stages. I’ve returned from my morning walk with the dogs and passed a woman driving a donkey cart wearing her Zebras shirt. I think no matter what happens tonight, on the day the Zebras come back to Botswana, I imagine she’ll be wearing her shirt again. For what is a hero, really? Is a hero the one who wins everything? The one always at the top? Is that even what heroes are about?

No, a hero is an inspiration, an aspiration of what each of us could be. Are the Zebras not heroes? They showed us that no-one is without a chance; no-one is exempt from success. Whatever happens tonight, I know for sure, our Zebras are heroes.

Lauri Kubuitsile is the author of numerous books, primarily for children and teens. Her most recent is a collection of stories set in Botswana, In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories (HopeRoad, 2011).

The score was Mali 2 Botswana 1.

When a winning smile is not enough

When I first moved to Mahalapye in 1989, most Saturday nights, especially at the end of the month when everyone got paid, you would find a beauty contest at our community hall. It might be Miss Mahalapye or Miss Madiba (our local secondary school) or even something commemorating an event: Miss Independence Day or Miss Mahalapye Agriculture Show. It didn’t matter. These contests consisted of local young women putting on their best dresses, getting their hair done, and then parading around on stage to music at eardrum-splitting levels. The height and weight of the contestants were not important. The clincher was always the smile. If you had a good smile, you had a good chance. Judges were picked from local VIPs: people like ward chiefs, a councillor’s wife, or teachers. The winner won a blanket or an iron. After the formalities of the beauty contest were over, the night turned into what everyone had pitched up for – a disco.

But all of this changed in 1999. For the first time in history, Botswana sent a young woman, 20-year-old Mpule Kwelegobe, to the international Miss Universe contest. She got to the finalist stage and then was asked the question that sealed the deal – ‘Should Miss Universe step down if she should become pregnant during her reign?’

Illustration: Sarah John

This was just about the best question to ask a young Motswana woman from a country that views all births, no matter inside or outside of marriage, as a blessing, and where it is estimated more than half of households are headed by women.

Her answer? ‘I think it should not in any way interrupt her duties; she should celebrate her femininity. Having children is a celebration of womanhood for all females, including beauty queens.’

And with that Botswana erupted into cheers of joy as Mpule was crowned Miss Universe 1999, and beauty contests in Botswana were given an adrenaline kick they haven’t yet recovered from.

Where they used to be casual affairs organized the afternoon before the event, they now became serious, with marketing budgets and big prizes. Miss Botswana winners nowadays win a car and a flat in Gaborone. The standards of beauty have changed too. Tall and thin is in and, though a smile is important, sadly, it isn’t going to win you a Mercedes Benz unless you have the other requirements.

In 2006, I was asked to be a beauty contest judge. We were living in the tiny village of Lecheng, where my husband was the head of the secondary school, and as his wife I was a prime candidate for the position of beauty-contest judge. I accepted reluctantly. It was for Miss Lecheng 40th Anniversary of Independence. It was a post-Mpule beauty contest so I expected the regular kind of thing, but as soon as the contestants walked on the stage, I knew something else was going on – at least, I hoped so.

The age range of the women was about 18 to 60. The weight and height range was just as varied. I realized then that these were the women from Ditshephe, a local traditional dance troupe. I’d seen them dance many times before and I had my favourite in the group, Thatayaone. She was about 30, with large breasts and an equally large bum, who, when not dancing, you might not even notice in her doek and letaise (headscarf and traditional dress with printed pattern). But once she began, you saw noone else. Her feet stamped across the dusty ground as if possessed; the entire time she smiled and she was transformed.

I hadn’t noticed her at first, not in the fancy dresses, mostly satin, in colours not seen outside of weddings. It was only when she put on her traditional dance uniform and she came stamping across the floor, her magical smile in place, that I knew my judging was done. She would be my winner, and across the form I gave her 10, 10, 10. We were back to those early days when the smile was everything. I was sure of it.

Sadly, in the end, my co-judges clung to the more Western standards of beauty, à la Mpule, and Thatayaone came third despite my best effort. Things had changed irrevocably and they weren’t going back.

Lauri Kubuitsile is the author of numerous books, primarily for children and teens. Her most recent is a collection of stories set in Botswana, In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories (HopeRoad, 2011).

Letter from Botswana: ET is not an alien

In 1989, when I learned I would be going to a country in Africa to teach science for two years, I was like most Americans. I could point to the continent of Africa on a map. I could probably find South Africa. But if you held a gun to my head and asked me to list five out of the 50 odd countries on the continent, I’m afraid you’d have had to shoot me. When I was told I’d be going to Botswana, I said, ‘Where?’

Before leaving, I read everything I could find, which wasn’t much. I found out it was a small country the size of Texas located in southern Africa, bordered by South Africa to the south and east, Namibia to the west and Zimbabwe and a smidgeon of Zambia to the north. It was rich in diamonds and wildlife, and poor in rainfall. The colonial name was Bechuanaland.

Illustration: Sarah John

So I boarded a plane heading south. I’d never travelled before. I come from a sub-working class family who were the recipients of the canned goods and the frozen turkey the church collected at Christmas time. Travelling was so far down the list of priorities it fell off the page, never to be seen again.

When I went for my interview with the volunteer organization that sent me to Botswana, the man told a defeated me: ‘I doubt they’ll choose you.’ ‘Why?’ I asked desperately. ‘Most people who have never travelled before tend to ET.’ ‘ET?’ ‘Early termination,’ he said, nodding his head.

Nevertheless, they let me through and I arrived in Botswana in July 1989, very tired and blurry-eyed, but as excited as a 25-year-old woman could be. After a few weeks in the south, I was posted to Mahalapye, a large village in the Central District halfway up the main road, on the eastern side of the country, where the majority of the people live.

I was posted to a brand-new junior secondary school. In 1989, schools in the country were popping up like dandelions. At independence in 1966, there had been only three secondary schools in the entire country; when I arrived there were about 200 – that’s about nine secondary schools built every year. The government had loads of diamond money and was using it to educate its citizens and to keep them healthy (clinics were also being built at the same astounding rate). I was surprised at how modern my new school was. The laboratory was well equipped with everything a science teacher might need. We didn’t have electricity yet, as there was often a lag in the implementation of the stages in a particular development, but we managed.

When I was told I‘d be going to Botswana, I said, ‘Where?’

Mahalapye is named after the almost always dry river that runs through the village, the Mahalatswe River (Mahalapye being the British way of pronouncing it). It started as a stop for the South African Railways trains heading north. People living in the village in those early days used to call it Ko Diponeng, the place of lights, because the railway station was the only place outside of Lobatse, a town in the south nearly on the border with South Africa, which had electric lights. A friend of mine, who has lived in Mahalapye all his life, told me that when they were young they thought those lights had special qualities. They used to go to the railway station to watch their shirts change colours under the lights which were fitted with bulbs of different colours.

The Mahalapye I live in now is quite modern. We have two sets of traffic lights. The headquarters of the national Botswana Railways, a three-storey building with an old train engine out in front, is now in Mahalapye. We have three banks, quite a few shopping malls with modern grocery stores. And we have plenty of electricity; young boys no longer go searching for lights to laugh at how they change the colour of their shirts.

Initially when I was brought to Mahalapye, I was supposed to stay for two years; 22 years later and I still haven’t succumbed to the pull of an ET. Perhaps I’m stubborn. More likely there was something about this place – this dry, dusty place – that suited me.

Lauri Kubuitsile is the author of 15 books, primarily for children and teens; the most recent is Signed, Hopelessly in Love (Tafelberg 2011).