“These orphans are our property…let them be on the streets”

In my last blog post I talked about the difficulties I’d been having making my documentary – focusing on how young girls in Botswana were being subjected to violence (sexual, physical and emotional) – and the support they needed. Despite bringing a girl from the street to their office, the social workers in Maun were unable to do anything to help her situation and she was sent back to the streets empty handed. My motivation for filming was to bring home the stories and experiences I had encountered, share them, and raise funds to build a new shelter.

I managed to persuade Skillshare to let me stay in Maun a few extra days (the other volunteers had left for our debrief) and  it seemed I’d found a way through. The necessary paperwork I needed from higher ups had arrived, but it needed to be signed by the Senior Assistant Council Secretary. Not knowing I needed permission to film anything, I had already filmed interviews with two girls at Hope Mission – the centre was going to be closed down and we were leaving soon, so I’d begun filming already. This however, proved to be a point of contention for them. The conditional permit I was given stated that I had to re shoot these interviews but with a social worker present – to ensure it was not under duress and the ‘children’s rights were upheld’. But how hard would it be for them to re-live their experience of abuse a 2nd time round? I asked the stand in official that was there to look over the footage I already had to see if there was any way it could be used. Perhaps they could verify that if they were appropriately filmed (the centre co-ordinator was present during filming) then we could maybe still use that footage. I spent the morning going through all the videos I had filmed and they seemed okay to them.

Things were going well, or so they seemed – until the SACS arrived, and alongside, a tornado of accusations, inquisition and suspicion. Immediately on entering, he sat down in his executive leather chair, leaned back, and threw his angry look across the table. I was still wandering who this person was, that had suddenly appeared. This is the S.A.C.S, I was told. After filling him on what I was trying to do, expecting a helping word of advice, his expression remained unchanged. A flurry of remarks flew towards me:  “What you have done is try to put the cart before the horse, you are trying to take short cuts, to bend my arm and short cut the system and I will not allow it.” Any attempt at even responding was quite futile – there was no room for a defence. And it didn’t stop there, “You are not to leave Botswana with that video footage.”, “You’re going to leave. I don’t know what you will do with the footage. We will be the ones left here to deal with the fallout from this, this film of yours”, “I want you to delete all of it, everything. Right now, or I will have to call the police here.”  I was lost for words… and despite my attempts to explain, I reluctantly co-operated and deleted the footage as his mind was set. At the end of it all, he offered to allow me to re-shoot (as the conditional permit stated) as long as “a social worker of MY choosing will be present”. I declined his offer however, my emotions overwhelming me, struggling to hold back my tears and anger, stating that the girls welfare had to come first. I didn’t want to make them go through those experiences twice.

A co worker at WAR (Women Against Rape) convinced me to rethink my decision when I went back to work, and stressed the importance of the issues I would be highlighting. Somebody needed to break the silence & bring attention to the issue. He was right. I decided to re-shoot the interviews, only if the girls were okay with doing so. We collected them from school (they agreed, but wanted to be back in time for a school talent show their friends were in) and I informed the SACS office we were coming. They said it was okay with them and directed us to the main council house across the road.

As we stepped into the building, I was taken aback by the it’s grandeur. Botswana is a well off country in comparison to many African countries, but this – I felt like I was back in London, somewhere nearer to Downing Street than in Maun. It was sickening to think, these girls were living in poverty, yet a few miles away (like in many places around the world) people who were supposed to be helping them were sitting in grand air conditioned offices with expensive furniture and such needless luxuries. It might be the way things are, but it’s not how they should be. Whilst we were waiting, I could hear  that there were people sitting inside the office having a lengthy discussion about my documentary. Something clearly wasn’t right. They seemed on edge, what were they so afraid of? Finally, we were invited in. Assembled before me as I sat down, was the SACS, the chief social worker of the district, the assistant chief social worker and a pile of all the paperwork I had submitted over the past few weeks. And so began the second inquest. I explained the reasons for changing my mind, and with my camera ready in my hand, expected to start filming the new interviews as promised. How wrong I was. “Since our conversation this morning,  we went away and thought over our decisions too.” Maybe they were going to apologise, I thought. “We’ve decided that, we cannot allow you to go any further – You can’t make this film”. They went on to reel out a list of farcical reasons why I had to be stopped. And each time I rebuffed them, explaining the fallacies of what they were contending but their minds were made up. I was gobsmacked.

“The orphans of this country, of Botswana are our property. We would rather them in the streets – living under a tree! – than in unlicensed shelter, or in your film. Let them be without shelter, without food, without proper provision, but we would rather that”, the chief social worker explained to me, “We’re done here.” I was simply lost for words.

Of course, it didn’t end there. The two girls I had brought with me were cross examined to check my story out. Had I told them what I was filming? Had I been honest with them or deceived them too? Who knows what else they were asked. And to round it off, as we made to leave thinking it was all over, we were called back in. Abrupt and straight to the point, the chief social worker picked up the phone, made to dial, pointed to the laptop and camera in my hand and simply said – “Delete everything. Or you’re going to be arrested. I’m calling the police”. Me:”Why?… Even my own personal photos of my volunteering experience? For my personal use – for my memories when I go home?” Him: “Delete everything”. At this point, I was beyond tired with dealing with this broken system. Clearly, they didn’t want my film to ever see any light of day, and they were out to make sure of that. After calling Skillshare for advice, I co-operated. And to top it off, they called two IT specialists to watch me delete everything to make sure I was doing what I said I was. And going further, the SACS  threw one last barb my way – “It’s criminal behaviour, what you’ve done…” Me: “Are you accusing me of being a criminal? This isn’t a courtroom. You’re not a judge and jury..” Him (custom chuckle included): “Well, that is what you would call someone who engages in criminal behaviour the last time I checked”.

The girls missed their talent show and burst into tears when we arrived back at their school only to find their friends making their way home with beaming smiles on their faces. After fetching water for them from the local jojo tank, we went back to Hope Mission one last time. I felt heartbroken at seeing their distraught faces and then having to say my goodbyes.

At least two more of the Hope Mission girls are now living on the streets with nowhere to live. The girl I brought to their office the previous week is still there. It’s suspected she’s abusing drugs, and has been seen openly engaging in sexual activities with much older men on the side of a busy road. I’m not sure about the other girls whereabouts/situations. Hope Mission has been shut, so there is currently no shelter for young girls who have been abused in the country. I wanted to raise money, but without an organisation to raise money for there is not much more I can do right now.

While we were there, I made an anonymous question box for them to ask any questions they had on bits of paper.

I’m still trying to find the answers to those questions…

“I have nowhere to live. What am I supposed to do? Plz help me.”

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6 responses to ““These orphans are our property…let them be on the streets”

  1. I admire you very much, Keshav. I have not found political solutions for societal problems to be effective in my own life, but perhaps you will in yours. You’ve had your eyes opened to the truth of suffering, and to the depth of corruption operating in governments. You can’t win by trying to play their game – this time. It’s rigged. You must choose your battles carefully to be able to continue fighting for change, because you may not be able to save any except one at a time, person to person. Ghandi had decades of failed attempts before succeeding, and he learned and grew all along the way. You’re just beginning. Keep trying. Keep writing. Figure out a new way.

  2. this really hurts, very deep. well written, so proud of you, keep going if you dont, and if people dont cooperate there questions will never be answered and there life will remain the same. ❤

  3. This is just sad…and so wrong..I have worked with young women voluntering in a couple of foundations..if you do need help voluntering to assist these poor souls I’m offering my time..and anything that I am able to do…stay blessed

  4. Its so sad and so annoying to think that this is happening rite here in my country, to think that all these people who refused you all this their kids have a roof over their heads, warm blankets, have meals everyday and stands a better chances in life.

    All this is the act of a man, who has no heart for a child but money in his wallet, May anyone who can help us and help these kids please do so, they still can have a better future with you help

  5. Pingback: 7 reasons why 2012 absolutely rocked | Keshav's blog·

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