Yesterday during my lunch hour, whilst another one of the volunteers and I were hurrying around to get a few bits and bobs and something to eat, we bumped into a familiar face. It took me a second to realise but eventually I recognised it was one of the girls who had been staying at Hope Mission.
She was dressed in a very dirty green jacket that was littered by a mixture of stains, her trousers were too short for her and were heavily torn at the bottom. As we approached her and greeted her in excitement to see her, she cautiously smiled back, in between taking big, hungry bites from the small orange that she was eating. She was clearly living on the street, and was very hungry. We spoke to her for a few minutes and asked where she was staying now and what she had been upto since she left. The story she told us was jumbled – I’m not sure whether because my Setswana/her English isn’t great – but from what we gathered, it didn’t seem like she had somewhere to live. She struggled to explain, vaguely pointing in a direction saying she was staying with an aunt, or an uncle, somewhere.
I hesitated before pressing further. There were so many questions I wanted to ask, so many things I wanted to know. But we had been in a hurry when we saw her, it was our last day at work and both of us had things we wanted to get finished at work. I also wasn’t sure how or whether we could help. But, I just couldn’t let her walk off, back to her problems without really trying to do something, I thought to myself.
So I before we were about to leave I asked her what her plans were now, how she was going to move forward and what her situation was currently like. As she was answering, she kept looking around and she seemed uncomfortable talking by the road side in public. For what exact reason, I’m still not sure but it worries me. What was making her so uncomfortable? Though I could see that though there was some hesitance in her body language, you could tell she also wanted to tell us something. She asked us to walk down to somewhere a little quieter, so we could talk more. Kenny, the other volunteer who was with me, had seen her before but the girl had avoided her completely on that occasion, so I was weary of that happening again. But I took this as a good sign and we spoke to her for a good half an hour, 45 minutes about her life. When I asked her what she was doing when we bumped into her, she said she was going in search of food. I asked her if she had any money to buy food, she said no, that she was going around asking for money. She was 16 years old and her parents had died when she was young so there was no one to support or provide for her. She said she had heard about a shelter in Francistown and was going to go there. Whilst we were talking, I tried to encourage her to seek help from the social care department, but she said she was afraid to go there. We spent some time trying to convince her why it was a good idea to go and ask for help there and find out why she was afraid, assuring her that they would help her. A local woman who had overheard some of the conversation even joined in, telling her in Setswana we were right and that she should see a social worker. She came round and agreed after I offered to come with her as the office was nearby where we were.
We were at the social welfare office for the next three hours trying to find out who this girl was, and what her story was. It was at times, frustrating and enraging. Seeing some of the attitudes on show from the people who are there meant to be helping these girls, their indifference to their situations (“Oh, I always see that girl around town. She’s always on the street” was one such reaction) was testing my patience. But we needed their help if we were going to get anywhere, so we did our best to challenge them in the right ways where we were met with apathy and excuses (‘I’m too busy to help this case. It’s not my area, find the relevant social worker’) and draw out a solution for the girl, who sat beside me the whole time looking intimidated by their behaviour towards her. Like she was an inconvenience and a bother. They tried to explain that the girls lied about their stories making it difficult to know what her story was that she ended up on the streets, but who cares? She’s still a kid. What do you expect? How do you expect a child to behave when all they have ever really known from our society is constant neglect and abuse and dirty looks? I sat there the whole time biting my tongue, wishing I could be here for longer just to volunteer for longer and simply provide girls like her, the love, care and guidance they need.
I had been to the social welfare office before and the staff were familiar to me as I have been making attempts to create a documentary on vulnerable children – specifically young girls & Hope Mission – in order to fund raise when I arrive home. I pointed out to the social worker office once again (I have made several visits there now to try), that this was why they should pressure the appropriate government officials and help me to seek permission to film an interview with them. After we found out that Hope Mission – the only shelter of it’s kind for young girls – was being closed, I made up in my mind that when I get home, I am going to do everything that I can to help. I want to make a documentary to show people back home the same things I have seen, the same things I am seeing so that they too, can understand the pressing need for a new, fully licensed shelter to be built here. Hope Mission is being closed for running illegally and being unregistered, but the needs are still there. But where are the funds to build this?
I have spent the past two weeks trying as hard as I can, using every bit of will power and determination I have to get the appropriate legal requirements and permits I need to use the film back home, but it has been getting harder and harder with each step. The laws in Botswana mean that you can’t take film footage out of the country without permission from the government – as this has been abused by people in the past. Unfortunately, time is not on my side. We are leaving Maun on Tuesday morning to go back to Gaborone for our mandatory debrief before we fly out on Sunday. And herein lies the problem (and confusion). To get permits, I need to submit a proposal of what I want to do, one of which is interview the social workers. To do this, I submitted a proposal to the SNCD (social welfare office in Maun, where the social workers who dealt with the Hope Mission case – the people I want to interview are). The SNCD need to get permission first before I can interview them from the DSS (dept of social services). So I went to the SNCD and they told me this bit. Then I called the DSS and they said they needed a request to be sent to them from the SNCD. Okay. So I went to SNCD and after finding out how, handed in a proposal early on Thursday morning. But for it to get to them, it has to be sent through the Records department, who give it to the District Secretary (or DACS or something) who has to decide which department to give it to, send it back to Records, who send it to the SNCD who then finally send it to their local SNCD co-ordinator. The co-ordinator sends it to the DSS, the DSS sends it to the Ministry of Local Government. And then they decide and it goes back through the same channels of communication back to me. All for just a signature on a bit of paper…Confused yet?
By some miracle, but mostly through fighting my cause to long and hard to many different officials, yesterday afternoon while I was there, it had reached the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs – MLHA. I had sent in applications to three different departments (MLHA, DSS, SNCD) in the hopes it would be sorted out quicker and kept making phone calls at the same time to follow up the progress throughout Thursday and Friday.
And finally, yesterday after we were on the way back to WAR from the Social welfare office to help the girl we bumped into, I got a phonecall. Bad news.
In a nutshell, they were calling to say I had been unsuccessful. I hadn’t provided the exact assurances they wanted explicitly stating I would protect the legal rights of the children (they are protected as they are under 18) by doing x, y and z. Even if I amend the application, and it is approved (which it probably can – the lady on the phone was very supportive of my cause), theres no time on Monday for it to be assessed (go through all those channels again), and even if it was, I don’t have the time to record the interviews I need by then – I have to get approved before I can even hit that record button.
It has been a crazy few days. Amidst all this, we have been frantically wrapping up our projects at WAR and working well past the end of the day, we had our fundraising event at BONEPWA on Thursday morning (which we’ve been planning since we came, and was our main project in Maun), we had a BBQ (braii) after work yesterday to say our goodbyes to the many friends we have made, and even had some conflicts/issues in the group.
Even so, to be quite honest, it pales in comparison to what I am trying to do. The girl we bumped into, we were told, couldn’t be helped – the social worker working on her case couldn’t be reached and even if he came, where would they send her? There is nowhere to send her to sleep for the night. In the end we were forced to tell her to come back and meet us on Monday (will she turn up though? is another concern), and we can try again to see if there are any developments. And as we watched her walk away, I just wondered where she was headed and what to. Violence Against Women is a big issue in Botswana, and throughout their lives women are not supported, are not empowered, and not helped enough. (The successful conviction rate for example for perpertrators of GBV is less than 1%). There are only 2 women’s shelters in the whole country, and after Hope Mission closes none set up for young girls. These are girls that are abused by their own families, friends, teachers, communities. Girls that are beaten and forced to work like slaves. Girls that are victim to the temptation of sugar daddies and the advances of older men.
I am feeling frustrated, angry and sad. I do not want to leave. I can’t. I need to find more time from somewhere, somehow. And I keep thinking, there MUST be a way. I’ve spent the morning brainstorming, thinking, trying to find a small loophole that will give me even a few days more here.
There is so much work yet to be done but my time here is almost up and my options are limited. How can I leave now?