Monday, September 28, 2020

Molefi Secondary School Alumni pays tribute to former teacher

Some people’s newsworthiness is never noticed or is accidentally detected. Gary Whisler whose remains were cremated on Wednesday was one of those whose newsworthiness went unnoticed by many in the media circles. He arrived in Botswana shortly after independence to teach at Molefi Secondary School under the United States Peace Corps Volunteer Service programme. He became one of the best if not the best netball coaches in the country. Around that time, the media in Botswana was at its infant stage and can be pardoned for failing to notice Whisler’s exploits in the game of netball.

He was an obscure newsmaker. I knew him as one who was too eager to obey or serve. He always showed excessive respect. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his best stories concerns his marriage to Baba Mabena in Mochudi in1969. This is the story Gary related to me during a visit to their home in Baltimore, US in June 1989. I was in the US accompanying President Masire on an official trip at the time when animal rights groups in the US started making noise about the intended culling of elephants in Botswana and the Netherlands based Green Peace was also opposed to the dragging of water from the Okavango Delta. The elephant population was 75 000 at that time. The Whislers were among Batswana invited to a reception at the Botswana Embassy in Washington DC hosted by the President. That was two days after a hectic programme of events which included the president addressing a meeting of African Ambassadors, held talks at the State Department and the Pentagon culminating with a tete-a-tete between Masire and President George Bush at the White House.

The next  day was a rest day which was to be followed by several meetings at Ohio University in Athens, Cleveland and Columbus before flying off to Chicago and New York. The Whislers used that rest day to pick me up to spend the night at their Baltimore home. It was at Baltimore that I got to know more about how the couple got married. I was no longer Garry’s student. I was becoming a seasoned journalist. That made Garry relate to me part of his life story. He repeated this story last July when he celebrated his 75th birthday. I am not sure if he was aware that he had related it to me before. But I was impressed by the consistency that I noticed. It made me understand that the story was not exaggerated or made up.

The two met at the Dutch Reformed Church where Baba was an active member of the church’s youth. Gary was just a churchgoer. They acquainted to each other following which they decided to marry. Gary, strongly convinced that Baba was the right choice for him, was worried about seeing history repeating itself. The history he was referring to was that characterized Seretse Khama’s marriage to Ruth Williams. He was not sure what international reaction to their marriage would be in view of the fact that the marriage concerned people of different colours. Gary was white and Baba was black. Gary had read about the marriage of Seretse Khama to Ruth Williams and was scared to go ahead with his plans fearing that the marriage would make negative headlines in apartheid South Africa like it did with Seretse/Ruth’s marriage.

At that time, Gary/Baba’s marriage was the first known such marriage since that of Seretse and Ruth. Gary looked at several options that were available to him to avoid being ridiculed by apartheid system which was close to Mochudi. One of the options was to delay his marriage until the end of his contract when he would ask Baba to join him as he would be returning home in the United States where they would be married without any problem. As he kept pondering and weighing his options, the thought of seeking advices came to his senses. He approached the school’s headmaster, David Maine, not as his supervisor. He regarded Maine as his father figure. Maine turned out to be highly supportive and advised Gary to go ahead with his marital plans explaining that there was nothing apartheid South Africa could do because Botswana was a sovereign state.

With that advice, Gary sobered and proceeded with his plans. He and wife to be visited the district commissioner’s office in Mochudi for documentation processes. They were given a bundle of documents to complete. When they were done, an officer had all the documents stamped. Gary, unaware of the processes involved, thought by merely completing those documents and having them stamped, it was the end of the road and was therefore no longer a bachelor. He was mistaken. A few days later, he and Baba found out that in fact they had not married yet. They returned to district commissioner’s office for further clarification. They were told that Mochudi did not have a marriage officer and were therefore expected to travel to Gaborone for their wedding to be solemnized.

None of them owned transport. Gary went to a friend at the local community centre where he was borrowed an old yellow car. The occupants being himself, Shalton Praizer who was a volunteer teacher at Isang Primary School, Baba, her mother and younger sister. They were called into the district commissioner’s office with high hopes. The DC was a white man. He carefully examined the documents following which he pinned his eyes on the couple for a while without uttering a word. To Gary’s surprise, the DC told them that he would not be able to marry them because he was “too busy” and was going to be “too busy for the next six months”. Their dreams and hopes were shuttered. They left that office terribly disappointed.  It was very clear to him that the White DC found it unacceptable for him to conduct the marriage of people of different colours.

        There he was. The story of Seretse and Ruth was replaying itself in Gary’s mind. The next step the couple took was a visit to the Trinity Church where the priest was willing to marry them, but advised that they should start the process at the DC’s office in Gaborone. Gary informed the pries that they had been there  but they were not assisted. The priest offered to mediate because he was too close to the DC. However, they finally married but more hidden disappointments were yet to come. As an American citizen, Gary needed visa to enter South Africa but his wife, Baba did not because citizens of Botswana did not need visa to visit the apartheid country unless otherwise specified. Gary made several visa applications but received no response. But his colleagues’ visa applications were granted. It was then easy and proper to concluded that the problem emanated from his marriage.

This is one event in a chain of events about the Whislers. Another episode is about their relationship with the Obamas. When Barrack Obama first entered the race for the White House, the Whislers were in his campaign team which saw Barrack Obama becoming the first Black president of the United States.  The campaign team was so much in need of publicity throughout the world that Baba contacted me in Gaborone for help. She introduced me to Michelle Obama by e-mails and I reciprocated by having some of their campaign stories published in the Daily News. Again when Kgosi Linchwe II died in 2007, Baba Whisler telephoned me offering their condolences and informing me that they were planning to hold a memorial service in Washington DC where the Kgosi stayed for three years as ambassador for Botswana.

Gary has been unwell for some time. Even when he celebrated his 75th birthday on July 11th, he was still showing signs of illness. He had just been to the US for a procedure. He returned hurriedly to Botswana when countries began introducing lockdowns because of the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving behind a very important medication that had been prescribed for him. That medication was not available in Botswana and it took several weeks for it to be availed from South Africa because of the lockdowns. The US was just about to go on lockdown. He arrived in Doha, Qatar when the lockdown in that country was left with an hour to begin. When he arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa was left with a few hours before the lockdown came into effect. He arrived in Botswana before the lockdown was announced and he was happy to be back home. He had chosen to settle in Botswana although still being an American citizen. He had also chosen to be buried in Botswana. However, had he chosen to be buried in the US, the family would have no problems despite lockdowns. I am informed that, as a citizen of the US, the embassy would repatriate his remains by a DHL plane home and it would arrive within a reasonable time.

The Molefi Secondary School Alumni Association paid tribute to him. Its chairman, Isaac Mabiletsa who is a former member of parliament recalled that the Whislers were generous couple. He said that the family hosted a delegation of Botswana MPs for dinner at their home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1996. The MPs were Mabiletsa himself, Michael Dingake, Thebe Mogami and the late Robbie Modibedi. Their trip was sponsored by USAID to allow the MPs to study the US legislative institutions and governance systems. Mabiletsa says the Whislers are as a family, sociable, interactive and welcoming with open hands to any of their acquaintances. Indeed that is how they are.  

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.