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Building a better Botswana

Through July’s cool winter winds, and the papyrus grasses of the Okavango River, marimba melodies drift.  Hand made by the students and staff, the earthen, xylophone styled instruments are the constant pulse of Bana Ba Metsi School, as the fish eagles’ cry is to the region.  Today, there is a new player creating a mellow cacophony across the vegetable garden.  This arouses the interest of the Founder and Director of Bana Ba Metsi School, Steven Harpt as he happily listens to a student self-willingly teaching another boy how to play.

When I first heard of Bana Ba Metsi I imagined that it was an orphanage for young children.  I further misunderstood that it was a remote primary school for children who had been expelled from school.  Wrong again.  Rather, here in the far north west of Botswana, close to the African Nations of Angola and Namibia, I found a unique alternative education project unlike anything I have encountered before.  Remote, yes; Orphans, some; Expelled, a handful, but at risk of self harm and exhibiting delinquent behavior is most common amongst the eleven to nineteen year old boys, before they have attended the School.

Bana Ba Metsi School with the support of the Moremogolo Trust started out in March 2000.  Back then twenty-one students, led by Steven, moved onto a remote plot of land and set up their tents; far away from the problems that had sent them there.  Today, the school has grown to a capacity of fifty boys who are still sleeping in tents (by choice), but who have constructed their own facilities such as a dining and eating area; staff houses; classrooms; and an impressive boundary fence, amongst other things. The recipe to the school’s successful development has been no easy feat, but has involved a concerned and caring group of people – dedicated to the school’s mission.

“To develop (the boys) understanding, skills, attitudes and personal qualities through the dignity of learning and work, in order to reenter the formal education system and become productive members of the community” (Steven Harpt, 2006).

For most boys, life at Bana Ba Metsi gives them a chance again at life.

Today is Sunday and outside of the marimbas a whistle blows.  The standard sevens (Grade 6) are at heads with standard five (Grade 4) on the football field.  The sandy ground, beyond the school fence, is alive with student led competition.  A flag boy is diligently running up and down the thorny sideline.  One young boy has a pair of football boots on and is half the size of the other bare footed boys, he is new this year and was yesterday making bricks with his group on their weekly work rotation.   Other boys have chosen to sleep, do their washing or put their feet up around the television during this, their one day of rest.

At the commencement of the school week the seven o’clock breakfast crowd warms their water for a wash, and their toes, by the smoky kitchen fire.  Half the boys are shuddering away the cold with bare chests.  Breakfast is porridge with mayonnaise, or else a bread roll, and a carton of milk.  After devouring this a transformation of sorts occurs when the students change into their uniforms, some more groomed than others, giving the bush camp an academic atmosphere, of which there are eight periods of study in the morning. 

Preceding classes is assembly.  Gathering before the altar, behind an arc of small stones, and in front of the recreation room, the boys sing a hymn together in low chorus.  Some are still waking, others coughing.  It has been a tough time recently with many students and staff falling sick.  However, the absence of malaria is not missed during the winter season.  Only five weeks earlier seven students had been struck down with the illness; a common occurrence in the rainy summer season.

The teaching resources are basic at the School. Although, recently the old computers have been repaired and outstanding students are being rewarded with computer lessons, an activity unavailable to most Primary School students in the country.  A further challenge for academic study is language since the curriculum is taught in Botswana’s official language, English.  For all of the boys English is their second or third language, and for most of the students Setswana is their first spoken language.  .

When classes are over for the day at Bana Ba Metsi there’s a break for lunch and digestion of the “Papa” or maize meal porridge, a local staple, often served here with a pink soup mix.   One class was treated the other day.   Awarded ‘class of the week’, their prize was goat for dinner, a rare luxury.

Just before three o’clock the cow bell will ring out from under the kitchen tree and the boys will soon be making bricks, building their new classroom and welding an original window frame, amongst other afternoon tasks such as baking bread tending to the vegetable garden, slaughtering chickens and collecting firewood.  Through its multi-skilled labor and facilities, the school also provides voluntary services for the community.  During my stay two boys helped repair a local villager’s tire.  The students further learn about business, since the chickens and vegetables they grow, if in excess, are sold to a nearby community shop.  It could almost be a subsistence society, if it weren’t for the copious amounts of cement, diesel and maize meal imported to keep all human and non-human engines flowing and the walls standing.

During the meeting before afternoon work begins, one of the boys is called forward for his feedback and reflection session.  He stands with his head down and one hand held limply behind his back.  In turn the staff tell the boy, in front of all other students, what they think his behavior has been like over the past term.  Some comments are good, but it seems this particular boy has been slipping over the last two weeks, and has run away several times also.  Following the teachers’ feedback the students are invited to share their thoughts.  This type of review is done for all the students over the term and appears to create an open atmosphere of honesty and group monitoring for the well being of the School community. 

One of the more unusual buildings on site is the barber’s shop.  Here you can go for a variety of three different styles, the shaved head being the most popular option.  A further novelty for newcomers, such as myself, is the swimming pool.  This facility is used for teaching the boys to swim, which most Botswana’s cannot, and making the almost unbearable summer heat bearable.  Further still, the pool has provided an effective means to help cool down students that are burning up with malaria fever. 

Holidays, excursions and fun play an integral role in life at Bana Ba Metsi.  Sometimes on weekends the group will venture out camping along the Okavango River.  One can encounter all sorts of wildlife on these expeditions from re-hydrating elephant herds, to surprised grazing hippos and the more subdued crocodiles.  It is a bird watcher’s paradise.  The water is crystal clear, fresh from the Angolan highlands and a plentiful resource for the school, which pumps it to the campsite for drinking, and all other purposes.

What type of person comes to work in such a remote and challenging setting?  The staff is mostly local with some international volunteer support, and comprises teachers, social workers, and engineers.  They have an immense task, which matches the size of their hearts and dedication to the boys.  Their success is obvious when you meet the students and further seen if you follow the graduates of the three-year program, whereby around eighty percent have continued on with their secondary education.  Presently, a past student is working full time as a building supervisor for the School, further exemplifying the importance and success of Bana Ba Metsi in achieving its mission.

So, why aren’t there any girls here?  This is certainly not related to there being no issues amongst young girls in Botswana, but rather Steven’s foresight into inevitable complexities of mixing girls and boys for such a project.  Although he is not considering starting a similar school for girls himself, Bana Ba Metsi is a unique model and inspiration supporting vulnerable and at risk children, if someone else wanted to take on the challenge.

Georgi Marshall
Visiting Teacher at Bana Ba Metsi July, 2006.

For further information or those wishing to make a donation to the school please contact:
Bana Ba Metsi School
Moremogolo Trust
PO Box 60945
Gabarone, Botswana.

Or else email the Director, Steven Harpt: [email protected] (please no attachments) 

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