Language used in US book about Botswana highly suspect

27 Aug 2018

When they write about Africa, westerners have a tendency of happily crossing the rigid line between creative writing and stating facts. That is what Dr. Daniel Baxter, an American medical doctor who spent close to a decade in Botswana, appears to have done.

Back home in the United States, Baxter has just written a book titled “One Life at a Time: An American Doctor’s Memoir of AIDS in Botswana” which was published not too long ago. In an excerpt of the book that was published in Salon, a liberal US media outlet, Baxter laments the manner in which the Botswana government treated Zimbabwean immigrants suffering from the disease. Among those was Eunice, a “diminutive, withdrawn lady with rotting front teeth” and “coal-black skin” who was getting her HIV treatment at the Holy Cross Hospice in Gaborone. Eunice needed a residency permit so she could continue her HIV treatment in Botswana and brought immigration application forms to Baxter to fill out.

Baxter writes in the book of this episode: “Several questions dealt with her mental capacity, using quaint terminology held over from the British many decades previously: “Is the applicant an imbecile?,” “Is the applicant a moron?,” and “Is the applicant a cretin?” Probably somewhere in government statutes there was detailed description of what differentiated an imbecile, a moron, or a cretin, but I knew she was none of the above.”

The problem with this account is that while the statutes use “imbecile” (Section 148 of the Penal Code criminalises the “defilement of idiots or imbeciles”), nowhere do they do likewise with “moron” and “cretin.” It is unclear from reading the excerpt when the event in question occurred but three groups of people who should know better (current and former employees of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, medical doctors and Zimbabwean immigrants) disavow knowledge of official use of the suspect words.

As questionable is a claim that “towards the bottom of Eunice’s form was a more serious question, highlighted in bold print and underlined: ‘Has the applicant ever tested positive for the HIV virus?’” For the entire period of time that Baxter was in Botswana, doctors couldn’t be legally compelled to reveal the HIV status of their patients. It was only in 2013 that a controversial provision in the Public Health Act took away the rights of patients. The doctors, immigration officials and Zimbabwean immigrants that Sunday Standard spoke to have no recollection of encountering this intrusive question.

With regard to the last question, Baxter says that he had to either tick a box marked “Yes” or one marked “No” and while meant to conceal his choice, his reticence actually reveals it.

“I refocused on the form, hesitated briefly, and then ticked one of the two boxes. I signed the form with a flourish, adding my cell number and credentials as a Specialist Physician and Lecturer at the School of Medicine. The Batswana, especially the bureaucrats, were impressed by titles, and the University of Botswana was especially respected,” he writes.

The bigger question though is how Baxter could have answered on an official form, a question whose authenticity is itself in question.