It’s been a while…while I’ve come closer to the issues of HIV and AIDS

Francistown Travel Blog

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Entrance to my wooden box office

It’s Thursday night and I am realizing it has been more than a week since I wrote my last update. I’m sitting in an alright hotelroom in Francistown, Botswana’s second largest city with between 90,000 and 150,000 inhabitants (estimates vary largely). It is located some several hundred kilometres up North-East from Gaborone, rather close to the border to Zimbabwe.

 

Quite a bit has happened since my last entry.

View from door
Like some know, I am now able to stay in the guest house of the DED thanks to the intervention by Frieda, the Regional Director of DED with whom I had dinner last Tuesday. I had some strange conversations with the DED secretary who still insisted that I should leave the place, only to acknowledge 5 minutes later that yes, I could stay…she was extremely confused and I will not deal with her any longer. She has no idea what she is doing and there is no sense in discussing with her. Let’s see what happens in the future. If all else fails, I will be able to move into the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s volunteer apartment in June. The disadvantage is that I could no longer walk to the office.

 

Wednesday night, I went out with my fellow Dutch volunteers at DITSHWANELO. We went to the “Bush and Bull” (or “Bull and Bush”; I always confuse the name), a well renowned restaurant, bar, pub in the middle of deserted land in the heart of Gaborone.

My desk
We spent a nice evening in free air over Dutch beer (Heineken • Yes, I was obliging to these ladies! J),  the obligatory steak and good talks. They are nice gals, just having finished their B.A.s in law in the Netherlands and will start tackling the master’s degree when they return.

 

Thursday and Friday were calm days at work. I focused on the compilation of human rights instruments on the international level that Botswana has signed or ratified and which not.

View from my desk
Botswana has only signed roughly half of the instruments available like the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or the rather obscure and older Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. They did not sign the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), a major international treaty that 157 states are parties to that guarantees, among others, a right to food. This was a major surprise to me, although my colleagues were certainly very much aware of that fact. My research is the first step to providing a comprehensive overview as base for a report on the status of human rights in Botswana.

 

Another thing was striking at work. A woman working in the paralegal team and seeing many clients on a daily basis and I had a chat over some Ouma Rusks biscuits.

Lies, me and Marcella (my Dutch co-volunteers)
She is a small lady with a dry sense of humour and I like her. She’s always trying to teach me some Setswana and I try to remember. One of the phrase exchanges is “Oa reng?” • “Ga keresepe!” meaning “What did you say?” • “I said nothing!” J Well, during this chat she disclosed to me her HIV status and that she is positive. It was quite shocking to me. She is the second person at work that I got to know about it. I mean, I know that about 30-40% of Batswana are HIV positive. This naturally makes you wonder once in a while who around you is positive and who is not. With these colleagues HIV is getting a face for me. Botswana provides free ARV treatment for its infected, so they both are in treatment, one of the colleagues has known her status since 1993, very early for Botswana! This society has been hit so incredibly hard with this epidemic, it is hard to grasp.
The big hands...:)
The consequences are very dire, not only for the people infected but for society as a whole. I am only at the beginning of understanding what this causes. I am impressed by the power these colleagues are showing and how they deal with the issue of being infected which still is met with considerable resistance and taboo in Botswana.  

 

I also worked on preparations for the workshops that we are holding here in Francistown now. More on that later. Another focus was purely private: travel preparations! A friend from my hometown, Alex, is coming to visit me next week. She’ll be spending 10 days here in Bots and I was working on a schedule. I booked flights to Kasane up in the Northeast, from where we will cross the border to Zambia on a ferry across Zambezi river and then move on to Livingstone in Zambia, close to Victoria Falls.

Me, the musician and Marcella
We will spend two nights in a hotel at the falls which I hope will be a fascinating experience. Upon return to Kasane, we will board a plane returning to Gabs, where we will spend the night. Air Botswana only offers very limited services and I have heard quite some stories about flying with this airline, not necessarily reassuring ones. Because of their limited services, we need to return to Gabs in the far south only to head on back North, this time to the northwest to Maun, the major tourist town of Botswana as the entry into the Okavango Delta. There, we will stay at a backpackers and take a two day Mokoro tour, that is a tour with indigenous logboats. A boat takes two passengers and we will spend about 4-5 hours on the Okavango and then put up a tent. From there, we will have a 4-5 hour walking safari in the bush where we hope to see a lot of animals. The Okavango Delta is supposed to be extraordinary with its huge mass of untouched land. We’ll also try to fly over the delta to assess its size. Since some of my co-workers will be in Maun for awareness workshops at the same time, we might go out with them one evening as well.
Driving school behind hotel in Francistown
Once we return to Gabs, Alex has another night before she returns to Germany via Joh’burg.

 

I really cannot wait for her to arrive so we can start the travels!

 

The weekend started with bad news: Regina had been visiting a friend in Gaborone Friday night. While they were watching videos in the living room, someone entered the kitchen and stole her handbag that was lying there. This happened despite an electric fence that was turned on.

Driving school II
It seems this has been the third time robbers entered her property! Regina lost all her papers (Ids, drivers licence) and credit cards (which she was able to block that same night), but the worst is the loss of the key to her new car (the one with the diplomatic licence plate). It was the only key she had for that car! They are now trying to work out how long it will take to replace the key. Regina was very frustrated because her family has arrived Tuesday and she wanted to do some drives with them. Also, it is not a very appealing thought for a mother who will be staying alone in a house with her two teenage daughters for the next two years in Gaborone. It was quite disturbing to me as well, since I never felt insecure so far. But this is strange to imagine that it might happen anytime…plus the fact that the robbers now have keys to the guest house…I hope they will exchange locks quickly!

 

Nonetheless, I tried to relax and enjoy the sun as much as I could. It is extremely warm here, doesn’t feel at all like “fall” or even “winter”. I listened to music and started reading “Botswana: The Road to Independence” the memoirs of the Britain’s last resident commissioner in the protectorate of Bechuanaland from 1959 to independence. It’s a bit academic but also contains quite a wealth of information on how independence was achieved and why it was so peaceful.

 

On Sunday, I met with my colleagues Florah, Dipuo and Mma Mtunzi to begin our trip to Francistown, or F-town, or Tough Town, as it is called here. We had rented a VW polo for us four (three mid- to large-size ladies and me) and started out at noon. Florah had brought a bunch of CDs, but it turned out we only listened to two CDs the whole 6 hour ride…it was challenging! I did what I normally don car rides: I feel asleep quickly after we had left Gabs. When I woke up we were en route on the A1, the connection between Gabs and F-town. It is a two-lane road, one for each direction. At first I was amazed, then I remembered quite what an achievement this is: On the date of independence in 1966, Botswana had one strip of paved road in the city of Lobatse, which was built for a British king when he was visiting from the train-station to the hotel. And now, the country has road connections between all bigger cities and villages in the country! The countryside itself is very nice. The sky seems very high and arching widely. We were driving while the sun was setting and the whole sky was having these incredible colours. Unfortunately my camera was stuck in the trunk…but hey, I couldn’t have captured it on photo anyway.

 

Time to tell you what we went here for: DITSHWANELO first published “The Botswana Charter on HIV/AIDS and human rights” in 1995 in cooperation with the Red Cross Society. It was devised in cooperation with people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHAs) in Kasane at the upper North of Botswana. The meetings were held in secret because at the time, there was still enormous stigma connected with infected. The charter reflects in 13 articles what PLWHAs deemed necessary in order to better their standing, from employment issues to matters of confidentiality. The charter stresses rights and responsibilities of PLWHAs as well as the society. At the time, the charter was the first document to step up on these issues.

The charter was revised in 2002 to reflect developments. In 2002, BONELA (Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS), advocacy group was founded to deal with issues relating to HIV and AIDS in Botswana. Ever since, DITSHWANELO had retreated from that field and focused on the more general questions of human rights. Recently, calls for DITSH to step up and be more vocal were directed to our office so it was decided that the Paralegal & Research Programme should draft a newly revised version of the charter. We decided to hold 3 workshops in Gabs and 3 in Francistown to get input from different stakeholders in the process: PLWHAs, NGOs and government officials. That is why we came here for a week to hold the Francistown workshops.

 

Organization is different here from what we know in Europe. The last days at the office had been chaotic, a lot of the invitations were only sent out Friday • or not even that. Once we got here, we spent Monday driving to all sorts of government offices and NGOs delivering invitations. The workshops were to be held two respectively three days later. From my experiences with government offices in Germany, this would have been impossible. I was extremely curious how this was going to work out.

 

Once in Francistown, things were not all that easy because the main office in Gabs was not able to provide us with any funds. The bank account had been depleted and it took them until Tuesday evening to send at least some money to cover the expenses. For us it was okay albeit awkward. I had to lend my colleagues some cash because I was the only one who had brought some. Another group of colleagues from the Information Programme that was due to hold information workshops on youth and children’s rights in remote communities here in the north were stuck here in Francistown because without money they could not go there. They all said it was the first time this has happened but they are all quite frustrated, especially since there only came dilatory answers the whole of Sunday and Monday…

 

Anyway, on Tuesdaywe met with 31 PLWHAs. I was quite impressed. It was a vocal group and they knew very well what they wanted and what not. After introductions to DITSH and us, we divided them in four groups and asked them to work on specific articles of the charter. The output was fantastic! They had all sorts of suggestions, ranging from changing the language in the document and adapting to new common phrases in the field of HIV and AIDS to whether condoms should be provided in prisons (which currently is not the case because Botswana penalizes same-sex sexual intercourse and therefore, in order not to condone it, doesn’t provide condoms to inmates leading to high infection rates among inmates). Many were open about their status and appreciated that we had come to listen to them. This session was in Setswana mainly, so it was sometimes difficult to follow for me but my colleagues provided me with translations.

 

Wednesday was spent with 12 people working for NGOs in Francistown. It was a very different set up, especially since this group focused on treating PLWHAs with no difference to other groups. There was a concern that because so much funding is going into treatment and HIV related matters, other groups like disabled or minorities did not get the attention they needed. Quite a different perspective, but on many of the actual articles in the charter there was noticeable consent with the first group. My colleagues were very open and let me take part in the chairing of sessions. I felt fully accepted, also because this workshop was held mostly in English.

 

In the evening I met with the Pagenstecher family from the guest house in Gabs that has now finally moved to Francistown. They are still living in a hotel because there is trouble with their new home (seems the previous renter’s electricity bill has been paid but the electricity company lost the receipt…that is Botswana). It was nice to see them all and another German joined us that evening: Tina, an advisor on HIV and AIDS matters in Botswana’s tertiary education system. She has a lot of contact with locals, especially in remote areas. It was really interesting to hear her critical remarks regarding what is going on and the role of DITSHWANELO. It was a nice evening.

 

Today we met with 12 government officials from all sorts of departments. Most of Botswana’s ministries and offices now have an HIV and AIDS contact/advisor who is responsible for addressing the specific needs in the department. The group was different: They were much more formal, always standing when they were talking the first two hours. The main difference came out when we discussed condoms in prisons. The group was split half-half on that issue, the main argument of opponents being that the law prohibited it. They did not want to consider that we might want the law to change. Still, they made different suggestions like providing single cells (which is quite unlikely since Botswana’s prisons are chronically overstretched) or special cells where spouses can meet regularly in privacy to reduce tension and pressure in prisons.

 

All in all I believe the level of awareness is rather high by now, at least in the cities. The critical areas are the villages and remote areas as well as minorities that practice polygamy and refuse safer-sex.

 

We gathered many recommendations and I will compile those over the next week and draft a new version of the charter for further discussion. We will meet with stakeholders in early June and hope to have it finished by end of June so that later in the year we can present the new charter to decision makers and lobby for implementation of and respect for the charter. I’d like to get to see this meeting as well. All groups did accept me, I was not treated like a rare bird. This might stem from the fact that there are many white people involved in this kind of work. Botswana is like a big laboratory for the study of how a whole society deals with the spread of the virus and what measures can be taken. The whole world seems to be coming here to gather information and try to find solutions and draw conclusions. At first thought I was quite shocked by this. But on second thought I do believe that it is not only “us” profiting from the research being done but also Botswana. At least that is my hope…

 

It has been very intense three workshops and sometimes I felt quite overburdened by what I heard: So many new things, so many aspects to take into consideration. I had never really looked very much into these issues before so it was sometimes challenging. But I tried to learn as much as I could and I do believe I have come to better understand the crisis that this country is going through.

 

Tomorrow we will head back to Gabs. I’m fine with that. I haven’t seen much of Francistown but I guess there is not so much to be seen anyway. I bought a couple of clothes because clothing stores seemed to have a better variety here than in Gabs…and I guess that is about it.

 

I cannot post pictures right now, but I will make sure to post them soon, so check back on this post!

 

Observation of the day: Don’t window-shop in Botswana. The items displayed in the windows are hardly ever be found in the shops. It’s incredible. As a man you will also have to get used to tiny sections in department stores with a very limited selection…sigh. ;) (I did get cargo pants for the upcoming trip, a polo and shirt nonetheless) Oh, and also, all you big people: This is paradise for you. There are shirts labelled 5XXL!! I bought a shirt size M. It was hard to find…

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Entrance to my wooden box office
Entrance to my wooden box office
View from door
View from door
My desk
My desk
View from my desk
View from my desk
Lies, me and Marcella (my Dutch co…
Lies, me and Marcella (my Dutch c…
The big hands...:)
The big hands...:)
Me, the musician and Marcella
Me, the musician and Marcella
Driving school behind hotel in Fra…
Driving school behind hotel in Fr…
Driving school II
Driving school II
Francistown
photo by: clouds2008