Serving overseas

Editor’s note: Longtime Montrose resident Amy McBride has spent the last few months in Peace Corps training in Botswana, and was sworn in as a volunteer on Oct. 4. She will spend two years building capacity of nongovernmental organizations in order to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. She is writing a monthly column for the Daily Press. You can follow her blog at www.amyinbotswana.com

In one of my first weeks in Botswana, we had a trivia contest among the trainees, and my team got this question: “What are the 11 words that make up the official name of the president of the Republic of Botswana?”

We knew that “Excellency” and “Lieutenant” were among them, but we couldn’t come up with all eleven words, which are: “His Excellency the President, Lieutenant General Dr. Seretse Khama Ian Khama.”

My interest in President Khama began before I arrived, because Kelvin Kent (whom many of you know and adore, and if you don’t, you should) strode up to me at a Rotary meeting shortly before I left for Botswana, and informed me that he had instructed President Khama at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England and that I should look him up and drop Kelvin’s name.

So, upon my arrival here, I found an email address for President Khama’s spokesperson and sent a message. Alas, I received no reply, nor responses to several phone messages.

Time is running out though, as President Khama leaves office on April 1. (He is term-limited, having served two five-year terms, and his vice-president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, will fill the final year before next year’s elections). Botswana is a parliamentary representative democratic republic, meaning that the people elect members to the National Assembly, and the party with the majority of members gets to elect the president (who appoints the vice president). Botswana has had just four presidents since independence in 1966, and all have come from the Botswana Democratic Party.

Since December, President Khama has been on a “farewell tour,” and two weeks ago, he came to my village! The festivities were held at the Kgotla (which, as I mentioned in a previous column, is the meeting place and traditional law court for tribal government) and my landlady and I arrived at 6:30 a.m. so we could get good seats. By the time the president came at 8:30, hundreds of people packed the Kgotla.

The event began with speeches from local figures, including my village’s remaining Member of Parliament (I reported last month that our other member was allegedly killed by his herd boys at his cattle post), who commended many of President Khama’s accomplishments, but stated an opinion that I’ve heard many times, which is that the Bakgatla, the predominant tribe of my district, aren’t getting their fair share of government support, citing several delayed projects including a new hospital and kgotla offices.

Following the speeches, there was singing from the “basadi ba mophato,” women who attended “bojale,” the Bakgatla’s initiation school for girls (boys went to “bogwera”). I spoke about these in a previous column — the schools taught youth how to become responsible adults and were disbanded in the early 1970s. The basadi ba mophato waved branches from the molooga tree while singing songs from their initiation.

My landlady was a participant, and I asked her what the songs were about. At first, she said, “If you don’t understand them, I can’t explain them,” but then she told me that they were about birth, fetching water, raising children, and other women’s activities.

There also were performances from praise poets, who are (mostly) men who write poems to celebrate people or events. As you might guess, not all the poems were in praise of the president, but they were light-hearted and incited roars of laughter from the audience.

Then, President Khama addressed us and acknowledged that the government owed the Bakgatla several projects, but that a lack of funds had delayed them. He challenged the Bakgatla to ask their chief, Kgosi Kgafela Kgafela II, to return from South Africa where he has been since 2011 after having his chieftainship revoked by the government of Botswana. I live in an exciting district!

President Khama has received many gifts during his farewell tour, and my village added a bull, 10 cows, 11 goats, seven sheep, 30 chickens, four ducks, and 44,000 pula. The last I heard, he had received hundreds of cows and well over one million pula. If I get a chance to bid a personal farewell to President Khama, I will give him a loaf of my homemade banana bread.

I recently updated my blog, www.amyinbotswana.com, with some of my replies to emails I have been receiving from the new batch of Invitees to Peace Corps Botswana (who are scheduled to arrive in late July). They have lots of questions…about spiders, food, hygiene, footwear, Setswan … and I find it hard to believe that a year ago I had many of those questions and that now I am considered a source of information, given that I learn so much every day. Thank you for keeping up with my experiences in Botswana, and please let me know if you have any comments or questions. I can be reached at amylopermcbride@gmail.com.

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