Sunday, January 29, 2023

On the tracks of “The missing children”

The first thing that strikes you is the battered road sign welcoming you to Lefhoko. The ravages of time have reduced the letters on the small metal plate to, “efhok.” Our cellular phone handsets say: “No service.” This is cellphonese for, “you have been cut off from the rest of the world.”

Lefhoko is nowheresville. Very few have ever heard of it. Even fewer can point out this craggy corner of forgotten Botswana on the country’s map. Yet only thirty minutes from Jwaneng takes you down a road that suddenly turns to a washboard surface with holes big enough to swallow a whole tyre, into a small settlement of mud huts.

At first, Lefhoko seems deserted, except for a few playing children and old man or woman sitting in the dark entrance of a mud hut. The first person we asked directed us down a single lane dirt road. Within minutes we were parked in front of a cluster of run down huts which have been earmarked for the wrecking ball as soon as new classrooms can be erected. The sun is out in full force and the huts are packed like slave ships. Young children are crouching over text books on rickety desks with little or no ventilation. Before the end of the harvest season, most of them will only be red crosses on the school attendance register, and statistics on the Ministry of Education’s records of “missing children.”

The school head teacher, Tiny Motswagae immediately gives us a detailed account of the gauntlet pupils have to run between enrolling for standard one to sitting for standard seven school leaving examinations. It all sounds like a horror list. She does not mean to scare us. It is just difficult for her to talk about the school without mentioning the everyday dangers which have become as much part of the school as the cracking walls and wasting thatch.

A brush with death and an accident in class that almost amputated a student’s finger has left her anxious about the pupils’ safety. The school has been invaded by a swarm of killer wasps. Motswagae pulls back her shirt sleeve to show a scar on her wrist where she was stung. All she remembers is the numbing pain and waking up in a hospital bed. Then there was another incident when a student almost cut off his finger from the crowded desks.

There was blood all over. Motswagae was out of her office in a flash, all of a dither as she tried to think of what to do. The nearest clinic is eight kilometres away. The nurse took one look at the severed finger and referred the pupil to Jwaneng hospital. The clinic had no ambulance, and the head teacher had to device means to get the student to Jwaneng. We soon learn that in Lefhoko, a minor accident like a severed finger or a wasp sting can kill.

For a woman who has had all the necessary amenities at previous postings, the social exclusion of Lefhoko is insufferable.

Her comforts in the settlement are few. There is the school Parents Teachers’ Association (PTA) chairperson, Baipaledi Nthomang, who Motswagae says has been very supportive and helped make her stay here bearable.

Nthomang is unemployed and has never seen the inside of a classroom. She however is something of a village champion for social inclusion. Two years ago, she led a group of villagers against government’s decision to close down the school. After weeks of bickering and negotiations, government finally agreed to take over the school. When Nthomang describes her role in the settlement, she uses phrases like “circles of support” and “the missing children.”

For a long time, Lefhoko has suffered from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, low incomes, poor housing, bad health and lack of amenities. The settlement has more children growing up in unemployed households than most parts of Botswana.

“Students here are mostly orphans or destitute. Keeping them in school is very difficult. Our children are those referred to as the missing children in the Ministry of Education documents”, explains Nthomang. For sometime the school was neither a government school nor classified under Remote Areas Development (RAD) schools. It fell through the bureaucratic cracks and missed out on government support. The school does not even have a bank account. Social workers are thus unable to help the school with the welfare of destitute and orphan students.
Then there are farmers in the surrounding areas who see the school as a source of cheap child labour.

Nthomang has had to scour cattle posts and farms for children who have been lured out of school by farmers. She remembers walking through one farm once, during harvesting season where she found scores of children crawling on their knees through the undergrowth, like field mice. “Those are the missing children and we have to track them down and bring them back into the school register”, she says.

Government has since decided to take over the school, but developments have been very slow in coming. “Our Member of Parliament, Mephato Reatile told us that our settlement is not big enough to qualify for most amenities.”

By Reatile’s account, the problem at Lefhoko has more to do with political differences in the corridors of power than anything. This however has not dampened the residents’ spirit.

Last year, through the drought relief programme, they hacked two face brick classroom blocks from a thicket of bushes. The classrooms can not accommodate all the students who have to fight for space with leopards, hyenas and snakes ÔÇô the first inhabitants of the area.

The school staff regaled us with the terrors of some of their choice snake and leopard stories ÔÇô and gleefully so for they had survived. Yet their underlying message of caution hadn’t been lost on us as we were ready for any danger that could spring from the thicket of bushes surrounding us.
Every eye, wary of the snake sunning itself on the footpath or a leopard lounging on the tree above, we half listened to a cleaning lady relating a story of how once she bolted out of the school pit latrine half naked after disrupting the sleep of a huge snake that had sought refuge in the latrine from the scotching sun.

“And the head! She said, her hand gesturing to something the size of a tennis ball.” Another related how they have to sweep the spoors of leopards and hyenas from the school yard every morning.

Member of Parliament for Ngwaketse West, Mephato Reatile told Sunday Standard that, “when I came to parliament in 2004, both Lefhoko and Betesankwe Primary Schools were on the verge of being closed down. I personally went to the president who then was the Vice President and lobbied him against the planned closure of the two schools. President Khama supported me.”

Reatile blamed the crisis at Lefhoko Primary School on the poor working relations between him and the Southern District council. “Even up to now, nothing is being done to help the situation at Lefhoko primary school. I am very bitter and disturbed by the conditions at those schools”. Reatile says he is wondering if the council is waiting for students to start dying first before they did anything.
President of Botswana Teachers Union Radibe told Sunday Standard that “conditions in some of our primary schools are undesirable and pathetic”.

He lamented that after 43 years of independence there are still students who are being taught under trees and in dilapidated classrooms Principal Education officer Enemile Lethosa said “the situation at Lefoko primary school is pathetic. No one would like to learn under those conditions.


Read this week's paper