Monday afternoons are always the highlights of my week. Every Monday after I finish work at my main placement with WoMen Against Rape, the other volunteers and I rush over to the bus rank to catch a crowded combi (usually carrying 21+ people in it, the capacity of the minibuses are actually 13-15 people!) across town to Hope Mission in Matlapana.
When we first arrived in Maun, our Skillshare co-ordinator took us to various organisations around the town to show us some of the places where we could volunteer and help out in our spare time. I still remember the first time we went to Hope Mission. Situated right opposite one of the nicest lodges (hotels) in Maun, Hope Mission is a shelter for disadvantaged young girls aged from 13-17 years old. One of the first things that stuck out to me was how bleak this place is. It was the first time I had seen anything like it since I have come to Botswana. The walls are bare and white, reminding me of a run down hospital ward – something straight out of a scene from 1984 almost. The only thing to decorate the walls is a ‘behaviour chart’ with crosses marked for each month of the year, colour coded according to their behaviour. No surprise that most of them were marked with a big fat red cross for bad behaviour, serving as a constant reminder of their labels as ‘bad kids’. Apart from that there isn’t much else. A table in the corner holds together a pile of very old dusty school books. And then squatting in the opposing corner is a comfy old red couch and a TV, the main source of entertainment for the girls unfortunately. As only two of the eleven girls currently attend school, there isn’t much else for them to do. And this is clear as most Monday afternoons when we arrive, they are sat on the couch watching music videos full of the usual messages of patriarchy, misogyny and consumerism. A sight that worries me every time I see it, and wonder what misleading messages are seeping into their brilliant young minds. As we walked in that day, the girls were told to come and sit with us as we introduced ourselves and they listened from behind the couch, hiding behind each other and peeping at us every so often before ducking again quickly whenever one of us made eye contact with them.
Fast forward present day. For the past few weeks we have been going there for a few hours every week to play games with them and do some very light and interactive learning sessions. On the first Monday we just played games with them and had fun. The week after we played some games based on communication, (lead the blind man, chinese whispers) and then talked a little bit about giving clear information and communicating ourselves clearly. Then last week was the best visit so far, we played a game where they had to protect an egg using basic materials (paper, cups, balloons etc) and talked about how we all have eggs in life – our goals and dreams, our friends, our minds – and how we should try and protect these eggs, so that one day they can grow into big chickens, and lay more eggs for us to enjoy. And amidst those very small, very short sessions, the girls have come such a long way. Gone are the shy peeps from behind the couch, and instead there are get well soon cards when we are ill, sneak attacks of glitter and best of all, chasing our combi shouting our names as we go home every week. The change we have seen in such a short space of time is nothing short of miraculous. They really are a bunch of great girls and it is hard enough to leave every week (we almost miss the combi home every time because we stay for as long as we can).
But it has all been cruelly cut short. On Friday we met with the co-ordinator of the shelter, Cowen, and the plan had been to talk to him about how we could continue to help when we got home. Having seen the complete lack of resources and support the girls have, we had already made up our minds to try and raise some funds and do what we could when we go back in 3 weeks time. Before we could even get into that however, Cowen informed us that Hope Mission was going to be shut down all of a sudden because it wasn’t officially registered and the girls were to be sent back to their homes. These are the same homes that they were at the shelter to get away from. And now they were being sent back!? To the same abusive homes where they were mistreated, where they were unloved, where they were raped, bullied and abused?? We couldn’t believe it, and to be honest, a small part of me still can’t. I guess, a small part of me doesn’t want to. But this is the reality that sits before me today as we prepare for our last session and final farewell tomorrow. I can’t even begin to think how I will even say goodbye to the place, and especially to the girls who have forever left an imprint on all our hearts every time we come to visit them.
As things stand right now, Hope Mission will be closed and the girls will have to go home sometime this week. Hope Mission was originally a project run by the church, but when the donors pulled out it was soon dropped and unattached from the organisation (Hope Mission) it became independent and continued to run and provide care for the girls at the shelter. The money and backing might have run dry but the girls were still there. Life for them still continues. Cowen and the other workers at the place have set up a new organisation, in the hopes of starting the place up under a new name, but first they need the necessary permissions, the right accommodation – the current place is not upto standard (but why suddenly pull the plug now? I ask) but that may take time as they wait for the system to give them the green light. Who knows how long that will take.
Yesterday we went to a small farewell party they had for the girls and David and I were asked to say a few words on behalf of our team. Looking at their faces as they watched intently to hear us speak, I decided to tell them a story and a message that has served me well in my life so far, in the hope that it would serve them well too. It was the least I could do I thought, and maybe it would give them some shelter, some inspiration, just as it has for me. I told them the story of the King and his 3 Sons, and told them that though they might experience dark times, when they feel lost and feel like giving up. But they should not grow up to curse the darkness, but to light up the darkness, by being that light and filling themselves with as much of the good things in life as they could. Cowen translated for us so they could understand but when we finished a few of them were quite visibly moved and I think it got through to them, a few of them even came over and hugged us in thanks without saying a word. It was definitely a moment I will remember for a long time.
So tomorrow is our last session with the girls and it is a hard pill to swallow. I knew that it would be hard to leave when we eventually did. But the manner of it all makes it even harder. We had so many great activities and sessions planned that we won’t get to do now. These girls are enthusiastic, bright and really caring at heart and this is clear to see when you get to know them. When we asked them two weeks ago what they wanted us to teach them in our sessions, the top 3 issues they came up with were HIV/AIDS, God and English, Maths and Science. But unfortunately, we won’t be able to teach them all of those things (they were planned for the next three weeks). Hope Mission really has been the best thing about the trip so far and I wish I had been able to go there full-time. There is so many great things we could have helped out with.
As I think about tomorrow, and for whatever happens next. Theres only one thing I know – that no matter what happens, hope may be fading fast and things may go downhill, but the mission will never be over. And speaking to them yesterday, we promised them that whatever happened, we would make sure that we did whatever we could to help their situation.