Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A few moments with the extraordinary Tutu Lenong…

There is an experience from Tutu Lenong’s past that she often draws inspiration from. It’s the story of an unfulfilled childhood dream. She loved sports, and her ambition was to swim for her country. But circumstances of a world of adults conspired to kill the dream. The public school system offered her no national forum to shine.

That taught her to give others an opportunity to realise their aspirations by removing the little obstacles that stand in the way. In the recent inaugural Five Roses Thari ya Sechaba Women’s Awards, that took the form of gestures such as taking nomination forms to dikgotla, as well as providing for postal voting – all meant to ensure that women in the villages got an equal opportunity to compete. The criteria were also carefully crafted. Broadly, nominees were expected to be women who excel in their fields, with a passion for community service. The finer details included a list of requirements to be satisfied. This meant that while one could garner the most votes, if they did not meet other set standards, then they would fall by the wayside.

The panel was also carefully selected, and deliberately drawn from different generations to avoid bias towards a certain age group. In the end, younger women such as Loatile Seboni (executive secretary of YWCA) and Beata Kasale (publisher of The Voice) sat side by side in the 10-member panel with elder stateswomen such as Marty Legwaila from Women’s Affairs Department and Emang Basadi’s president, Emelda Molokomme. For four weeks, the panel brainstormed, debated and finally agreed on the criteria.

“We spent so much time developing the criteria. Our position was that someone could have the numbers because they have the advantage that they’re always in the newspapers or they live in Gaborone, and are a celebrity, while people in villages are not considered celebrities and [therefore they are] never in newspapers,” says Lenong, Marketing Coordinator for National Brands Limited (NBL), the awards’ sponsors, who was the chief steward of the awards.

The jury is out on the suggestion that the criteria ended up tilting the scale in favour of women in the villages – though the winner of the grand prize, Judith Sefhako, is Gaborone-based. Lenong does not shy away from this assessment, and instead uses it to illustrate attitudinal differences towards community service between Batswana in urban areas and those in villages.

“What we picked up was that a lot of people in urban areas [are not keen on community service]… Mma Sefhako is a rare species for people in towns, who are motivated by money. The criteria ended up favouring those in rural areas because they volunteer. They identify a hole in the village and mobilize the community to plug the hole,” she says.

During the verification stage, Lenong travelled with members of the panel throughout the country to meet the nominees in their own environment, and interview members of their communities. She was bowled over by what she saw and heard. She talks of the sheer intelligence of Theresa Malomo of Maitengwe, a towering figure in the community with a flawless command of languages such as English, Setswana and Ikalanga. In the presence of the panel members, Malomo was paid the ultimate compliment when one man described her as the backbone of the community. In Molalatau, Mphoreng Malema is a national cultural icon and a respected religious leader whose reverence cuts across the entire community. Then there is Banyana Seduke in Mahalapye, who volunteered to teach people about HIV using her own resources, and even went further to open a counselling centre for young women; a community builder so strikingly humble about her work – almost to the point of being self-effacing.

There were many others – and the impression they have all left on Lenong is palpable. Some weeks after the grand ceremony, she still talks in glowing terms of the women. In fact, she talks of the personal pain that there had to be a winner – because in her eyes, they are all worthy champions. As she listened to different people narrate how the women had impacted on their communities, she was forced into moments of self-introspection.

“I said to myself, ‘Look at you; you always complain about being overworked, but Mma Sefhako doesn’t sleep. She goes around the country building people, cultivating culture, and she doesn’t get paid for all this work’,” she confesses. “I work for myself and I am selfish. There’s so much I can give to my nation; I’m a resource but I’m not using it. I could be at an orphanage for an hour. That’s a resource for the nation. But I am not doing it. I know a lot of stuff. I have met a lot of people. I have seen the world. I am always about wanting to know more but what am I giving back to my nation?”

Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to do some assessment. For instance, did the awards reach the objective? Lenong’s appraisal is a modest, “To some extent” and “Relatively so”

Then she elaborates: “We had an idea of what we wanted to do, and when we mark for ourselves we put our achievement at 70 percent. We had wanted it to be bigger. But the feedback we get from people is that we got 100 percent. Next year we want it to be bigger and better.”

But she would not take away anything from the women who entered – and the impression they will leave on young people.

“Children who aspire to be Jill Scott can now look at Mma Sefhako, that ordinary woman from Molepolole, and see that they can make money out of culture. That’s what we wanted to see; real people, not celebrities…because about 50 percent of our celebrities – from radio DJs, to MPs and singers – are not exemplary. People know that so-and-so who is a celebrity has 15 girlfriends. Why should we make such people role models? We had to ensure that we got the right people – and indeed we got the right people,” she says. “Why don’t we recognise these women?…What I learnt is that our elders are all [serious] about building the nation. Emelda Molokomme served in the panel, yet one article said we had stolen Emang Basadi’s awards. It’s people trying to kgaoganya batho, and we did not allow them to succeed. Our successful women are very positive.”

When she talks of the lessons from these awards, the other revelation is that the so much talked about tendency to pull down other people is more of an urban phenomenon. While people in the villages were generous in their appreciation of the efforts of the community builders, the mood changed as the panel reached peri-urban or urbanizing places, such as Mahalapye. She observes that as one races towards the capital, negativity sets in. Her explanation of the attitude is that it is the product of jealousy – a wish to be acknowledged, yet having done nothing to deserve such recognition.

If urban Batswana hate each other, there is another trend she has noticed – xenophobia. She owns up that she used to harbour such anti-foreigners sentiment herself, until she spent four years in Britain – where she studied for a Master’s degree, and later worked. She calls it a humbling experience – and even talks of being saved.

“My experience in the UK taught me that when you are a foreigner it’s not easy. It taught me to protect that [foreign] person from being hurt. Some of them are not here because they want to be here.
“Corporate UK is full of whites.

Sometimes you are the only black face in the office, and many of them don’t know a black person, except those who have been to university, or have travelled the world. Others don’t see you as a person and don’t even think you can compete with them. I saw people who were surprised that I was a fast typist. Some are racist not because they want to be, but because they are na├»ve… I didn’t know I was no longer xenophobic until I came back,” she says.

The countrywide interest that the awards generated continues to follow her. She gives this interview – conducted after hours – as an example. She has also become the contact point for the finalists, who have also attracted media attention.

She says these awards have opened a new chapter – one which represents a complete break with a sad past when people won simply because they were so-and-so with a public profile, while the real heroes and heroines toiled unrecognized in the backyards.
“It’s representative of where our country is moving. You have to be rewarded for what you have done,” she says.

And hopefully, someday children from Botswana’s working class families will swim for their country.

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The Telegraph September 30

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 30, 2020.