In June 2014 we were very excited to welcome 11 young people from Botswana to our homes in Newcastle. With the aim of sharing in fellowship, friendship and hospitality, this marked the start of Diocesan Youth Exchange. When the Batswana youth were here, the joy and liveliness that surrounded them was undeniable. They sang spontaneously in perfect harmony in any location – even the local Weatherspoon’s! While they shared this passion and talent for singing with many churches and schools across the north east, a great melody was not something we were able to offer them during our return visit!

The first thing to acknowledge would be that our activities in each country wouldn’t be comparable, albeit much to the confusion of the organisers in Gaborone. Understandably, it did not seem reasonable for us to spend lots of time visiting local sights while we were there as they had mainly done in Newcastle. Despite at first feeling as though our volunteer work could be construed as patronising – what’s to say we can do things better than the local people? – I soon realised that in our case the HIV hospice simply didn’t have the funds to employ a local workforce. Although this is a sign of the limits to how far we can claim our relationship of ‘mutual support’, what the experience has taught me is that we must accept these attitudes as a consequence of the disparity in our relationship as different cultures.
During our time at the hospice I discovered that the only way we could really help was practically. Our main job was cleaning and painting the exterior wall. This mainly gave us the opportunity to speak with those who worked there; the patients spent the day resting in the courtyard and were offered welfare and counselling service in a private room in the mornings, along with meals. We spent time in this area individually and conversed with the patients alongside a translator, but this proved difficult as they were often too tired so we didn’t want to disturb them. One lady said she liked coming to the hospice for the peace and quiet and rest in the sun. This fairly relaxed way of life seemed very characteristic of Botswana and its people as a whole.
One thing in particular that struck me was the disparity between the children of the hospice day care centre and those of St Peter’s Day Care (where we painted murals and later spent time with the children). At the former the children seemed more reticent and at the latter they were full of energy and happy to play. Whether this was down to the wider range of resources at St Peter’s or the fact that these children were not necessarily affected by HIV, it was a sad realisation that such young lives were already blighted by the disease.
For the past 10 years the hospice has owned a plot of land intended for a new church and children’s day-care centre to be built, but have only had the funds to do so for the past few months. The builders, however, refused to start until the land was cleared. We therefore took away all of the litter and hacked away the overgrown grass. Now all we can do is hope that the building gets started before it all grows back again!
Sometimes getting to grips with the way things are done and the laid-back attitude of the people in Botswana was a challenge. I often questioned why they hadn’t ever thought to do what we were doing, such as keep the land for the new church clean. Despite this, I believe our differences are our greatest gift to give each other; perhaps there is a correlation between how relaxed the Batswana are and their generally high level of contentment. It can be hard for us, as neurotic and organised Westerners, to adapt to this lifestyle. One thing we definitely can say now that the 2014 exchange is over is that the friendships and bonds between our dioceses are stronger than ever and will carry on far into the future as we each hope to be a constant source of mutual support.

This post was written by Sally Hewitt, who received funding and support from Better2Know for her trip to Botswana

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