Letters from Botswana

    Barbara Knowles (Botswana 1981–83) is 90-years old today. When she was 70-years old, she joined the Peace Corps and taught English as a second language in Ramotswa, Botswana. She kept a journal during those years, as well as wrote letters home, and also, with a felt tip pen, did sketches of what she saw in Africa. Recently, she sent us It’s Never Too Late, a bound collection of her letters and journal entries, and copies of her “Grandma Moses” African sketches.
         Here are some brief excerpts from her wonderful book of letters and a few reproductions of her sketches.

Ramotswa Secondary School
Ramotswa, Botswana, Africa
September 10, 1981

This was it and I did it! This morning I taught my first class, terrified and sweating like a bull. When the proctor rang his wooden-handled hand bell, I gathered up my books and papers and left the teachers’ lounge — a windowless room little bigger than a broom closet — and marched down the aisle of my classroom. Forty-two pupils rose from their seats and all chatter ceased. I put my books, notebook and duster (blackboard eraser) on the metal table, which served as a desk, and said, “You may be seated.” Metal chairs screeched on the concrete floor as they sat down.
     “Good morning,” I said, “my name is Mma Knowles and I am to be your English teacher.” I wrote Mma Knowles on the blackboard in my very best handwriting, and said, “It is pronounced ‘Nol’.” I went on to say that I was an American Peace Corps worker (pronounced locally Piss Cops — which I didn’t say) and that their government had asked my government to send fifty teachers of English to Botswana and that I was one of the fifty. I explained that in America we spoke English, as do the people of England, but perhaps with a different accent.
     I told them that I had two children and five grandchildren and said that I would bring pictures of Maine where I lived and of my family.
     I asked if there was anyone who didn’t understand what I said and if so, to please raise his hand. I tried not to talk too fast because I was aware of how difficult it was for me when local people spoke Setswana rapidly.
     I drew America, the Atlantic ocean and Africa on the board, as best I could, to explain how far I had come and told them of the plane I came in, which could hold all the students of Ramotswa Secondary School at once. I’m not sure they believed me.
     I asked them to stand, one at a time, and say their names, which I tried desperately to repeat correctly. I didn’t do very well. Katometse Baleseng, Gorata Moikabinyana, Batlhalefeng Maisie and Tsheofastso Sesweo were possible, but Kgotlaetsile Phetwe defeated me utterly. They giggled when I mispronounced their difficult names, but corrected me nicely. I was delighted when every once in a while Dorcas or Lillian or Robert turned up.
     The young people were eighth graders (Form 1) and seemed to range from twelve upwards. The girls wore dark green shirtmaker-type knee-length dresses and the boys, chino short-sleeves shirts and long chino pants. Everyone had short hair and it was hard to tell girls from boys — girls in green; boys in tan.
     I made a chart and had each pupil write his name in the space for his seat. Four rows of tables (desks) across, five rows deep, filled the room with two students to each table, boys with boys, girls with girls. The high-ceilinged room had windows on both sides, one side overlooking the school garden, the other, the courtyard. Gray walls, gray concrete floor, and gray metal tables and chairs made for very drab classroom.
     The bell rang. The period ended much sooner than I had expected. I’m sure I didn’t teach them much, but I was still in one piece — hot, tense and scared, but I made it!

    November 22, 1981

    I am very pleased with my 1A and 1 D classes. Only five got under 50 and three got over 90 in their final exams. I do have the bright group — Mrs. Bergman’s 1B and 1C didn’t do as well. I am relieved that I haven’t fallen flat on my face as a teacher. I do hope that I can have at least one Form II class next year and a Form III the following years. I’d like to guide some of these children I have this year right through to Junior Certificate exams in 1983. I wish Mr. Motsumi liked me better. I think he resents my being a woman and having a college degree. I hesitate to approach him with the request for advanced classes, but shall do so this week. He is stuck with me as I am a free teachers.

Sunday, Oct 19, 1982

Darling Sandy,
I am so sorry you are being hassled by that stinker. Isn’t a landlord supposed to do some repairs on his property? What’s this guff about your not keeping it up? And after how long? 8-10 years? *!X$XX! I wonder if you got me a piece of his hair and I gave it to a local witch doctor, he could put a hex on him. It might be worth a try. You don’t need this trouble, especially as you are going through a bad “withdrawal” period with Amy gone.
     How I wish I could be with you just so you could have someone to talk to. I feel from time to time that I have been very selfish to be away for so long, that I am needed more at home than here, but what’s done is done and there is no changing it now. Another year and two months and we’ll be together again. My tour of duty is more than half over.
     Last night it rained for fifteen minutes hard and today it rained a lot. It is cool and wet and I am thrilled. It seems to me that this year perhaps we will have a rainy season. We need one so badly — PULA! PULA! (rain, rain) They had dances and prayers for rain at the kgotla yesterday and got results today — how about that? With no electricity the classrooms have been so dark that we could hardly see this morning.
    I think I will go to Malawi at Christmas. I don’t know who with — possibly alone. There is a lovely lake there, hills and green grass and trees and this appeals to me very much. I shall go by train to Harare (it was Salisbury last year) in Zaimbabwe and take a plane to Blantyre as Americans are not allowed in Tanzania, so I have to fly over it. I know a girl in Malawi from CAST and may stay with her for a bit then go to Monkey Bay on the lake and take a boat trip — I’ll see.
     My dearest love to the children — the only thing I can think of for you is to read escape literature and get lots of sleep. You know you have to cut the strings to Amy no matter how hard it is. Write often and I’ll write right back. I’m here, dear, tho’ I’m far away. I’m available to listen and help if I possibly can.

I love you very much,

Sept 4, 1983

Dearest Rob,
I found your best white shirt and will mail it to you early next week. Otherwise you didn’t leave a trace except for lovely memories of your visit. I felt as if I were with you in Jo’burg Airport all day Tuesday, I thought of you so often. Hope it wasn’t too bad but expect it was a very long day.
     Philip, Mike and I went for beers at the Gabarone Club, dinner at the Cattle Post, then home. Tuesday we went to town. They dropped me at the Oasis Motel, then Mike turned in the car. I had three pleasant nights with TV, hot water, electric lights, etc. at my Conclusion of Service Conference. We had lectures on how to write a resume and how to get a job when we get back, what to expect from people, etc. On this last subject — evidently little interest. It was nice to be back with the people I came here with two years ago. We’ve been scattered all over Botswana.
     Friday night there was a huge party for the new Volunteers at which I drank a lot of gin and tonic and danced up a storm. Saturday I was tired and felt a little “delicate”— no headache or pain, just delicate!
     Your visit was all I had hoped for.

I love you very much,