Women boiled sorghum porridge over the fire and greeted their neighbors: “Dumela, Mma.” Men drove cattle, their bells tinkling, to the reservoir, while children ran to school along dusty red-dirt roads. Baboons and vervet monkeys scampered in the thorn trees around our lodge, looking for scraps of food.
It was just another ordinary day in Kanye, a town of about 20,000 people in the southern African country of Botswana. And at first glance, it seemed as if little had changed there in 20 years.
My husband and I had called Kanye our home from 1986 to 1988, when we were Peace Corps volunteer teachers in two middle schools. David taught science and biology and coached the softball teams at Ngwaketse school. I taught agriculture at Mathiba school and, as a secondary project, helped my students plant fruit and shade trees on the grounds. We grew to love the friendly, generous people, called Batswana, especially our host family, the Gofamodimos, and the leisurely pace of daily life in Botswana.
After our Peace Corps service and back in Fort Wayne, we resumed our careers, bought a house, had two daughters and kept Botswana alive in our hearts and memories. We shared our stories and photos, spoke random bits of Setswana, the national language, to each other, and read all we could about that part of the world. We always hoped that someday we would be able to return and show our daughters, now 17 and 14, the place that had so influenced our lives.
When our older daughter, Audrey, was selected in 2007 to be a Rotary exchange student near Johannesburg, South Africa, we decided to combine a visit to her with a return trip to Botswana in June, which is the start of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. We spent months planning our itinerary before buying plane tickets for two flights totaling 19 hours that would take us from Detroit through Amsterdam to Johannesburg. From there it was an easy four-hour drive to Kanye.
We knew the HIV-AIDS epidemic had ravaged Botswana. According to the international AIDS charity Avert, Botswana has an infection rate of 24.1 percent, the second-highest in the world after Swaziland. In 2005, there were an estimated 270,000 people living with HIV in a population of about 1.6 million. There are thousands of orphans, and average life expectancy plummeted from 65 in 1995 to less than 40 in 2005. But there are encouraging signs: The government is stable and peaceful, and it has made a huge effort to supply anti-retroviral drugs to those who need them.
Our students would have been the main demographic to be affected, and statistically, we knew many of them would no longer be alive. Also, we hadn't done a good job of staying in touch with our host family or others over the years. So the excitement of our trip was tinged with trepidation.
There is basically one place to stay in Kanye, Motse Lodge, which consists of cozy huts built in a traditional style with thatched roofs. We had discovered when booking online that it is owned by two friends, Tshedi and Lars Hansen, whom we'd met shortly after arriving in Kanye. Tshedi was born in Botswana and later studied, coincidentally, at Owens Technical College in Toledo, Ohio, near my hometown of Defiance. Lars is a Dane who came to Kanye in the '80s as an economic development worker.
We reunited with them over drinks in the lodge's rustic bar and caught up. After I remarked that Kanye seemed busier, with more shops and auto traffic, Lars replied, “Yes, but the spirit of Kanye is still the same.” Meaning, I think, that the people live an uncomplicated, close-to-nature lifestyle where civility and family loyalty are more important than personal ambition and gain.
On a day trip to the capital, Gaborone, we noticed how Botswana has become a place of contrasts. Despite the country's wealth from diamond mines, many people live in extreme poverty. Cars share the recently paved highways with donkey carts, goats, bikers and hitchhikers. Women in the capital dress fashionably and work in offices, while in the countryside, they winnow sorghum, cook over open fires and walk miles to forage for firewood. Computers, cell phones and ATMs are common in larger towns, but electricity is unreliable in rural areas.
Our younger daughter, Annika, had read “The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency” series of mystery novels, which take place in Botswana, and wanted to eat on the veranda of the President Hotel, as Mma Ramotswe does in the books. Mixed in with the nicely prepared salads and other items on the lunch buffet were traditional foods such as maize-meal porridge and stewed goat.
At our schools, we saw the biggest changes, mostly positive ones. On the grounds were posted signs: “AIDS kills,” “Abstinence is the best choice” and “Working together, we can solve AIDS.”
The Mathiba assistant headmistress, Agatha Ferguson, greeted us warmly and gave us a tour. Several new buildings have been erected, sports and art have become part of the curriculum, and mature trees (perhaps planted by my students?) give the campus a shady, more settled look. I was amused to learn that baboons still pillage the students' gardens!
There are more students — but just as playful — and they wear warm fleece jackets now over their uniforms to guard against the Southern Hemisphere's winter chill. The entire teaching staff is Batswana, replacing the Peace Corps volunteers and other expatriates who taught there in the '80s. And two staff members — the secretary and a cook — remembered me.
Our host family was surprised when we showed up announced. Maatla, who was 15 when we last saw him, is now 35 and the proprietor of the family butcher shop/grocery.
“I can't believe it!” he kept repeating as we hugged. He proudly showed us his Ford Explorer (bought from a friend who brought it from the U.S.), meat freezers, postal boxes and other improvements.
His mother, Tebogo, at home watching TV, didn't recognize us at first, then jumped up and embraced us also. She spent hours showing us photos of her family. Then we went next door to Maatla's house and met his 2-year-old daughter, Adelle. The orange, thatched-roof house where we lived on their compound was no more — they tore it down a year after we left and built a nicer one. They also remodeled the main house, paved the driveway and added lush gardens. Next door, a Brahman cow lives in its own enclosure.
Most returned Peace Corps volunteers say they received much more from their service than they gave, and that is true in our case also. Although change over 20 years is inevitable, our visit was proof that the bond of friendship lasts over time and distance.
When we left, Tshedi told us, “Don't wait 20 years until you visit again.”
BotswanaLocation: southern Africa; neighbors are South Africa to the south and east, Zimbabwe to the east, Namibia to the west and Zambia to the north
Size: 231,788 square miles (slightly smaller than Texas)
President: Ian Khama (son of the first president, Sir Seretse Khama)
Currency: Pula (1 pula equals about 15 cents)
Population: 1.6 million (2006)
Languages: Setswana, English
Colonial past: British protectorate
Economy: mining (mostly diamonds), tourism, cattle
Geography: Kalahari Desert in the southwest, Okavango Delta in the northwest, salt pans in the north, farmland to the east