By Cora Lewis
Dear Mrs. Obama,
Please think of me as an unofficial member of your advance team (I know I did).
I have been living and working at a private school in Gaborone now for just over two weeks: a twenty-year-old, female, American college student test balloon released into Botswana’s early winter skies. The air is fine, the view majestic. But there are a few troubling clouds casting shadows on the horizon.
Economic uncertainty and the slow-changing role of women here have stood out to me as worrisome aspects of the local climate. And, while I am nowhere near as well equipped to brief you as any native citizen, and I am still getting my bearings, I hope my fresh eyes might still offer a valuable perspective.
To quickly run through my bare-bones understanding of recent events: Since the global economic recession three years ago, the dip in international demand for diamonds sent a clear message to Botswana that the nation must diversify its sources of revenue if it hopes to maintain economic stability and growth.
Cattle and tourism make up the country’s other two main sources of wealth, but diamonds alone still contribute more than 40 percent of Botswana’s GDP. Furthermore, in 2008, the government took the austerity measure of freezing public workers’ salaries, and the subsequent lack of any wage increases recently culminated in civil unrest and a six-week strike by public workers.
Approximately one third of the country lives in poverty, evidenced in part by the ramshackle state of cinderblock homes in Old Naledi, Gaborone’s poorest neighborhood.
None of this is lost on the high school students with whom I’ve spoken. In addition to constantly checking the latest updates on their Facebook newsfeeds and dancing to Beyonc├® in down time, they are understandably preoccupied with eventually entering careers and the world of professionalism.
When pressed, many offer up future plans in medicine and engineering, or in fields related to technology. Exams, SAT’s, and college preparation, seen as stepping-stones to well-paying work and security, fill their days.
To be clear, I am mainly working with kids who are aiming for scholarships to schools in the United States and abroad, but even so, preferences for math and science over other subjects at the school are marked.
As teaching assistants, we were urged on arrival to set up tutoring sessions in the library and to make frequent book suggestions, to encourage reading and writing, since English and related subjects get short shrift. Critical reading scores on standardized tests significantly lag behind math and science evaluations.
When I asked one student why it seems few kids are interested in the humanities, the answer came quickly and rhetorically: “What kind of a job can you get with those subjects?” Of course, the same fear – that a degree in English won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on – persists back home, but the trend in both countries is regrettable.
To the best of my (still-limited) knowledge, Botswana has a healthy culture of freedom of the press that would benefit from new generations of journalists asking questions and investigating the issues of their day. Botswana often receives praise from the international community for its relative lack of corruption, compared with other African countries, but minority voices claim that it is simply the most effective at brushing its moderate share of wrongdoing under the rug. Writers and lawyers, social scientists and political activists will be needed to inherit, scrutinize, and improve on past successes and remedy past shortcomings.
The school where I’m staying was also founded with a mission of training students to go into public service in 1972. The afternoons are still partially devoted to community outreach programs, but in recent years, more students seem to be choosing to go into the private sector.
Good corporate and business citizens – not to mention doctors and engineers – undeniably also serve their communities and aid with development, but I hope the spirit of service and social justice remains strong and deeply-felt throughout Botswana, even now that the hell that was apartheid in South Africa no longer offers quite so vivid a picture of what can befall a country that fails to support these values.
Which brings me to the women.
First, the good news: Well-off and well-educated women seem to be doing quite (to use the predictable adjective) well. For the most part (and I’m certain I’m still too green to pick up on the nuances), they seem to receive respect and enjoy roughly the same rights and autonomy as men within society, at least in the urban context of Gaborone. But hurdles and obstacles remain – especially for less-educated women from lower socioeconomic rungs or more traditional backgrounds.
Tribal chiefs, who still play a large role in rural communities and in deciding cases in customary courts, are almost exclusively male. Outside of the city centers, equal representation and clout within both the familial and political structures has a ways to go.
When the female high school students here who have been awarded scholarships to study in the U.S. tell friends and family the news, often the first response they hear is: “Be sure to marry a rich man.”
The girls assured me that they laugh off the advice for the most part, and that they plan to marry for love and other things you can’t store in a bank account – shared beliefs, mutual respect, a sense of humour. But the assumption that women will be financially reliant on men persists to a significant degree, and there remains a striking culture of young women seeking out “sugar daddies,” who can be identified by the “four C’s” (that would be cash, clothes, cell-phone, and car).
Aside from problematic gender roles related to financial independence, Botswana also grapples with teen pregnancies.
To wit: One student told me recently about a conversation with a friend of hers at a government school who said that this year, one of her classes had 45 students in it. When the private school student said 45 seemed like a large number, her friend answered that seven or eight girls would likely drop out due to pregnancy during the year, so the number wasn’t so high after all.
When students in high school or at university get pregnant in Botswana, they are required by law to leave school for a period of time to have the child and take care of him or her. As a result, many don’t return to complete their education, said my student.
Financial independence, reproductive independence, and education are inextricably linked, and until these are dealt with fairly, complete equality for women in Botswana will remain a goal and an important, worthwhile cause c├®l├¿bre for visiting first ladies. That said, the school where I work and the attitudes of the girls I’ve met so far certainly give me hope for the future, – as does the highly positive way the news of your visit has so far been received, by men and women.
I wish you all the best on your trip.