Dancing, drinking, eating and praying fill the air in Mahalapye. Students have taken their end of year exams and impatiently wait to hear if they passed to the next level. Businesses slow to a crawl and for a moment people forget about their misfortunes. From the beginning of December to two weeks after the New Year, parties and holiday celebrations erupt throughout the county. The people are grateful for what they do have and spend their end of year bonuses not worrying about what the next year will bring. It’s festive season in Mahalapye, Botswana and there’s a quiet stillness the morning Homecoming ends. Homecoming is a twenty-hour rave that starts at 10am on December 26th and continues till 6 am the next morning. It’s the largest festive season party in Botswana and DJ’s from all over the globe come to the small village of Mahalapye to entertain as the dancing and debauchery unfold.
It was 8:30 am, gray clouds and drizzle blanketed the morning’s stillness. Villagers were sleeping off the festivities or attended church. I decided to walk to the main hotel to get a good breakfast and use their fairly reliable Internet. Choosing to cross the dry riverbed and take the footpath that skirts Flowertown I began my journey. This, being the more scenic route, is also a way to avoid the drunk drivers on the road. In Botswana, the accidents that result in a majority of fatalities are caused by a car hitting a pedestrian or loss of vehicle control related to drunk driving.
There were no dams to hold back the water in the Mahalapye river and with the drought it had been dry for over a year. The animals grazed scattered bits of greenery that grew on the sandy river bottom and I followed the river to a place where a path was worn through to the other side. It was a large deep river, at least a couple of football fields wide and maybe 20 feet deep. There were small swampy areas and watering holes that needed to be navigated to avoid parasite infested waters. Villagers placed down trees and wood planks that provided dry passage. The far side of the river had a path that undulated the edge of the river over smooth granite outcroppings and around small trees.
Turning off the river’s edge along the railroad tracks I reached the expanse that was void of houses. I could see the commercial area ahead of me where the agricultural store and the lumber company sat. As I approached the old paved road that crossed the railroad tracks I saw two men glance in my direction, walk past the footpath I was on and continue down the road. A few seconds later they appeared at the end of the path, their dark eyes met mine and they started walking toward me on the path. A brief thought, take the path to my left and veer toward the railroad tracks, drifted through my head, but I was hesitant to turn my back to them. The taller man said, “Give me your money.” I said, “NO!” and continued walking when four hands grabbed my wrists in sudden choreographed syncopation. They squeezed tight cutting off circulation to my wrists. The blood was pulsing quickly through my veins, my face went flush with heat and I said, “Fuck You!” Their grip tightened as I stiffened my arms and tried to pull away. I felt a jolt of adrenaline, anxiety, and fear then pulled back hard forcing the smaller man on my right to release his grip. The man on my left held tight, pulled me closer to him until our eyes met level and I could feel his breath on my face. Staring into his dark eyes I couldn’t distinguish his pupils, my left arm felt weak and he improved his grip. I increased the distance between us and struggled harder to get away. Not able to free myself, my heart started beating faster, pumping harder as my adrenaline gathering more strength. One desperate yank and I broke free from his grip. My feet stumbled beneath me trying to find their place, but the momentum pushed back forcing them into the air as I plunged to the ground landing flat on my back, my backpack breaking the fall. My head snapped over the top of my pack smashing onto the ground. I felt a jolt to my brain and an instant throbbing where my head hit.
For a moment they stared at me silently, then stepped forward. I put my feet up when they advance keeping them at bay. I didn’t think to yell, as we were taught in our Safety and Security class, instead I thought about what a colleague at my office told me regarding a woman who had been robbed at knifepoint just the other day. She said the robber took the woman’s SIM card out of her phone and handed it to her telling her to go buy a new phone.
The thieves hovered over me. I felt vulnerable laying there on the ground as they leaned forward. It was a position I was not unfamiliar with; my brother often showed his power over me by flinging me to the ground and pinning me under his weight I learned to fight him with the strength of my legs, my feet becoming a known line of defense.
Everything suddenly came into crisp focus. I said, “you could have my phone and my money, but you can’t have my SIM card. I will take the SIM card out of my phone.” Reaching over my head I tugged at the zipper on the small pocket at the top of my backpack. Each pull opened it just a few centimeters more until there was an opening big enough to put my fingers inside. I scanned the opening with my fingertips not taking my eyes off the thieves. They waited impatiently, leaning forward and stepping back when I lifted up my feet.
I pinched the small flip phone tightly between my thumb and index finger, the opening in the pocket barely wide enough to pull it out. Taking my eyes off the thieves I looked on the back of the phone to find where the SIM card was stored. I slid my nail in the grove of the panel and pulled, my nail slipped on the metal, I tried again to open it and take out the SIM card. The panel fell away and using my thumb I put pressure on the tiny card, slid it out under the brace and placed it on my chest. Just as I snapped the panel back in place, the taller man grabbed the phone from my hand. Reaching into the backpack again my hand scanned the same small pocket searching for my wallet as my eyes remained fixed on the men. The opening was too small to pull out my wallet, so I reached over my head and tugged at the zipper to open it more. They stood watching me as I blindly searched for the phone, their impatience growing more visible. My heart beat faster, stronger, as my fingers fumbled for the smooth leather that identified my wallet. They stood watching me, their faces growing tense. I felt some comfort in lifted my feet persuading them to step back, but now I was distracted by the noise of my heart beating inside my brain. I paused for a second and took a deep breath then slowing methodically moved my fingers until I felt the smooth leather. I pulled the wallet out of the pocket and before I could offer it to them the taller one quickly stepped around me snatching it from my hand. He dug through pulling out IDs, bank cards, cash and a copy of my passport. I told him what each item was as he pulled it out and I told him “Only take the money. I really need my ID’s.”
There’s no black market in Botswana, so stolen credit cards and ID’s were worthless. I thought about rolling over to get up or trying to jump onto my feet, but the backpack was bulky and the last thing I wanted to do was turn my back to them. I watch him as he went through my wallet then dropped it on my stomach. Most of the items fell to the ground when he pocketed the money. The smaller man stepped forward and back reaching out his hand and quickly pulling it back when I looked at him. He reached out again and quickly opened the zipper on the small pouch at the side of the backpack then quickly backed away. I said, “it is just my keys,” as they fell to the ground. The tall one started tugging at my backpack and I turned my attention to him crossing my arms over my chest so he couldn’t pull the backpack off my shoulders. I felt a sharp pain in my left arm as the strap dug into my shoulder and he pulled harder on the backpack. Unable to pull it out from under my weight he backed up, picked up a large rock with both hands and raise it into the air above my head. At that moment I thought I saw someone far down the road and remembered to yell, “Tuso! Ke Kopa Tuso!” (Help! I Need Help!)I covered my head, squinted my eyes and braced for impact.
The sound of shuffling feet faded into the distance and I opened my eyes, something caused the thieves to run toward the dried-up river bed and away from the road. My wallet in one hand I grabbed the SIM card from my chest with the other clenching my fist around it then rolled over on my side. A sharp pain shot through my shoulder halting any movement. Slowly rising, I stumbled before finding my footing then leaned over, grabbing both sides of my head I tucked into a ball to try and stop the world from spinning. I straightened up and staggered toward the paved road. Standing in the middle of the road a wave of nausea came over me and I spread my feet, put my hands on my knees and dropped my head. The fact that I left several items scattered on the ground made its way through the fog. Breathing heavily, I tried to focus as I tentatively made my way back to where I was and picked up the pieces. Everything was covered in dirt and mud, including me.
I don’t remember walking to the hotel or how long it took to get there. Through shallow breath and fractured sentences, I told the desk attendant about the men. “Can I borrow someone’s phone?” I asked. One of the women handed me her phone stating, “I’ll need this back shortly.” People are very sensitive about their phones in Botswana as it’s costly for them to make a call. I said, “I can put my SIM card in your phone and I’ll give them the phone number of the hotel if it’s OK to have them call here? What’s the hotel phone number?” she agreed and gave me a business card. I pried the SIM card from my palm, wiped it off, put it in her phone and dialed Thuso, Peace Corps safety and security officer. The phone bounced between 1 and 2 bars straining to connect. After several tries the phone started ringing, but the sounds were muffled and everything seemed to be in slow motion. There were several rings before Thuso’s voicemail kicked in. “Hi, it’s Michelle Gartner, I was robbed by two men in Mahalapye. I’m at the Cresta Hotel, but I don’t have a phone. Can you call me at this number? 118 811200.” I hung up and called the police. They told me they would come to the hotel and take my statement. I took my SIM card out of the phone and handed it back to the woman behind the desk, “Ke a leboga!” I expressed my gratitude.
I tried to clean myself in the bathroom, but everything seemed futile. Dirt was ground into my clothes and hair, I was exhausted, and the adrenaline was wearing off. I emerged from the bathroom and felt all the dark eyes in the lobby watching me. I wanted to be invisible, hid in a corner or shrink up like Alice in Wonderland.
I waited in the lobby for what seemed like hours. The cops finally arrived and asked me several questions. They spoke with Thuso on the phone, took copious notes, but it was still required of me to go down to the station to finish the police report. I didn’t want to go and wanted so much to be done with all of it, get cleaned up and eat the breakfast I had been looking so forward to, but those two men made sure that wasn’t going to happen, at least not today.
There were already several people in the compact police pickup truck. The female officer said, “You can ride in the back.” And motioned to the covered truck bed. I stared blankly at her then looked at the truck. There was no way I was riding in there and I said, “Isn’t that where they put the criminals?” The two officers who were in the cab got out, walked to the back of the truck, crawling through the small door where there was at least one potential criminal. I got in the front with the female officer and we started our journey. We made at least three stops on the way back to the station. One man’s car had been broken into in his front yard and a house was burglarized while they were out enjoying Homecoming. None of them were required to go to the station to make a statement. We picked up a man on the third stop who joined me in the front of the cab. The stick shift kept hitting my knees as we bumped along the dirt roads. I was suspicious about the man we picked up and I felt uncomfortable with him next to me, touching me.
We arrived at the station and parked under the corrugated overhang meant to keep the hot equatorial sun from melting the insides of the vehicles. Getting out of the car I followed the female officer inside the new police station, no doubt built with funding from the diamond industry. We entered the double doors and walked over to a high counter where there were several officers milling about. “Dumela rra, o tsogile jang?” “Ke tsogile sincle, maa,” the female officer greeted the man behind the counter and he responded. As they spoke I could only understand a few words. Even if I could understand I might not have been able to hear them given the fog that persisted in my head. An older male officer came through the door next to the high counter and introduced himself to me. In broken English he asked me to follow him and I was guided through the door toward the back of the station. Parts of the concrete walls were painted blue and low fluorescent lights concealed any details. Noise quietly echoed from a room on the left as we turned into the doorway. People were slowly scurrying about with only a few soft words spoken. They were overburdened by echoes of shuffling feet and scratching chairs rubbing against the concrete floor. White plastic chairs, the kind you would see on the patio of a cheap Mexican restaurant, were scattered about the room and a few small desks fit between them. The desks seemed to be facing in all different directions, yet they were still square with the walls. The windows and doors were open, but the dank musty air still managed to reach my nostrils. There were people in handcuffs and others freely sitting randomly in chairs and on the floor. We slowly navigated the tight spaces between to arrive next to a young female officer. The older male officer introduced me to the young female officer who asked a man to vacate a white plastic chair in the middle of the room so I could have a seat. She told me, “Wait here until I come to get you.” I felt several dark pairs of eyes curiously watching me. I scanned the room trying not to make eye contact with anyone. My white skin was in stark contrast with the skin tones that surrounded me, it reflecting the light illuminated my figure. I was the only white person in the room, not an uncommon occurrence, but this was the first time I felt uncomfortable conscious about it.
The younger female officer walked over and motioned for me to get up. She guided me to a table where a young male rookie sat and said, “Boipelo will take your statement,” and we greeted each other,“Dumela mma,” he said “Dumela rra,” I replied. He asked, “How are you doing?” “I’m tired, a little shaky,” I replied.
We chatted casually about where he was from, the high crime rate in Mahalapye during festive season and that he didn’t live in Mahalapye. He was sent there to help and to learn about procedures. During festive season Mahalapye has one of the highest crime rates in the country and officers from other villages are sent to help manage the rise in crime. His English was perfect, like most younger people in Botswana who’ve pass through senior secondary school. He took my statement.
I asked “Do you want fingerprints from my wallet?” he said “No.” After I recounted what happened, telling Boipelo what the robbers stole, what they were wearing and what they looked like he said, “I promise we will catch the thieves.” It was about 2pm and I asked to be taken back to the hotel so I could get a good meal and relax by the pool. This time we took a new comfortable small SUV and two male officers were in the front. There was a girl about 16, or 17 that joined me in the back and we talked softly as they drove to the hospital nearby. Quickly I realized that she had been raped, or sexually assaulted, and was going for a screening. I felt her shame and wounded spirit as she got out of the vehicle. She was alone and as we drove off I thought that maybe I should have offered to stay with her.
It was about 3pm when we arrived back at the hotel. I hadn’t eaten anything all day, but I wasn’t hungry I just knew I should eat. I sat down in the hotel restaurant and having never eaten anything but the breakfast buffet I perused the menu. Everything was expensive, way over my Peace Corps budget. I ordered a bottle of water while I tried to decide what to eat. There were some small plates and a couple of salads that I thought I could manage, so I ordered. I sat out by the pool for a bit after I ate and put my feet in the water. It was cloudy and the unheated water felt cold on my feet. I couldn’t imagine walking home or taking the combe, a minibus that drops off about 1km from my house. I asked the front desk to call a taxi to take me home, another luxury for a Peace Corps Volunteer.
It was early evening when I arrived home. I called Teetee, a local friend, and told her what happened. She said she’s coming over. It was just getting dark when her boyfriend dropped her off, we drank a bottle of wine, nibbled on some food she brought and talked. She told me, “my cell phone was snatched right out of my hand as I was using it and I held on so tight my wrist hurt for days.” She lingered, “and my house has been burglarized, twice.” It was nearly midnight when her boyfriend came to pick her up.
The most difficult time for me came over the next few days. I was restless, couldn’t sleep and my shoulder, neck, and wrists ached. It was difficult to leave the house and I didn’t want to walk anywhere. I hadn’t informed the Peace Corps about everything I was feeling, honestly, I don’t think I knew what I was feeling. I wanted to wait it out, see how I did over the next couple of days and I didn’t want to miss a New Year’s celebration with new friends.
Four days later I texted Teetee, “how do I get to the party?” She wrote, “I will send my boyfriend to come and get you.” I waited and it was starting to get dark. I texted, “What time is he coming?” the response, “Soon.” A couple of hours went by and no one came. I called, stating “I don’t want to come alone or take the bus.” Her boyfriend, who was already at the party drinking, was finally on his way.
Teetee lived in Flowertown in a small one-bedroom house. I was told that she was the daughter of one of the kings, a tribal leader, or chieftain. She never talked about it, so I didn’t ask any questions, but I think somehow her family was directly connected to the then president of Botswana and her father was very influential. When we got to the party I was able to dance, chat with new friends and relax a little during the celebration, but it was only temporary. The next day I couldn’t leave my house.
On January 2nd I spoke to Dr. Shava, the Peace Corps doctor, about my shoulder, “The pain is getting worse and the bruising was spreading.” He said, “I’ll see you at the capital, Gaborone (Gabs) when the office opens.” There was still well over a week left of festive season and nothing was open, including the Peace Corps offices. I told him, “I’m not sleeping and the nighttime sounds startle me. I feel like a prisoner in my house.” I called One my program manager and said, “I’m still in a lot of pain and I don’t have the courage to leave the house.” It’s up to our program manager to decide if you can leave your village during “lockdown,” what Peace Corps Volunteers called the first 3 months of service. We’re supposed to get to know our village and learn the culture. One said, “You can’t leave.”
The next day I called the program director and called Dr. Shava. After several days, many phone calls and much deliberation, they all agreed that I could come to Gabs and seek refuge at a secure hotel. I couldn’t imagine taking the bus or hiking, hiking is hitching a car ride from a bus stop and paying the driver instead of the bus. It’s a common and safe practice in Botswana. Most of the cars have air conditioning, you’re guaranteed a seat and a woman isn’t going to ask you to hold their bag or their baby. Luckily, I was able to secure a ride with a friend that was coming through Mahalapye from another village the next day. His father owned the pharmacy the Peace Corp used during training. All of this needed to be approved and was heavily scrutinized. I was asked a lot of questions even though my friend’s father owned the pharmacy the Peace Corps used during training. It was all finally settled, I would leave for Gabs the next day and I was exhausted.
I spent the weekend in Gabs anticipating my appointment. There were a couple of other Peace Corps Volunteers who came and went from the hotel. One woman told me, “I was confronted in front of my house by a man that I knew from the village. I stood in the entry with my bags of groceries and he wanted my money and my groceries. He also wanted me to open the door to my house. I gave him everything, but I refused to open my door.” I asked, “Did he hurt you?” “No, but I was left paralyzed sobbing in front of my door. I thought he was going to rape me.” Another volunteer who I knew pretty well was at the hotel. I knocked on the door to his room, “Hi Jamie, how are you?” he opened the door barely enough to peek out at me, “not so good. I have an infection.” Jamie pitifully gave me the details of his infection but he tells it best on his blog. https://fastlane601.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/scars-are-stories/
At that point Jamie didn’t know the extent of the scars his Peace Corps experience would inflict. Jamie was not one of the statistics, one of the Peace Corps volunteers that had an incident that would be counted as a robbery. He tells his story of being robbed on his blog next, just after he was in the hospital, but his incident was considered provoked. He was wearing a backpack.
Dr. Shava couldn’t see me that first Monday after festive season and moved my appointment to Tuesday because of other pressing issues. During my visit with the doctor, he told me he wanted me to wait until after In-Service Training (IST) to see an orthopedic, IST was two weeks long and didn’t start until the next Monday.
January 19th, IST began and I discovered we aren’t counted as Peace Corps Volunteers until after IST. It’s important for every post to have a high number of people to make it through IST and become sworn in as volunteers. Well, I didn’t make to the end of IST. The pain in my neck and back were so bad that I couldn’t sit for more than a few minutes and ended up flat on my back in my room. Pain radiated down my right arm ending sharply at a vague area around my right elbow. It was as if a constant large needle was continually being thrust in where the muscle meets the bone. I couldn’t tell if the pain began there and radiated up between my bicep and triceps to just below my shoulder, or it started with the constant sharp stabbing pain at my shoulder. Sleeping became even more difficult. My left shoulder and wrist hadn’t improved much, but the pain in my back, neck, and arm was now overwhelming the other pains. They allowed me to go to the hospital and see an orthopedic who took x-rays and he found some disks that showed narrow spacing in my neck but did nothing. The next day I asked to see a neurologist and they agreed. The neurologist found significant neuropathy in my right arm and admitted me to the hospital that day. My experience with the Peace Corps medical support made me realize you have to vie for yourself every step of the way. I felt like I was educating them on what needed to be done.
During my time in Gabs (the capital) I found great solace in meeting with a psychotherapist, she asked me, “How are you feeling?” I told her, “I wasn’t sleeping well and I still have significant pain in my shoulder and neck.” She continued to ask me questions and we talked openly about the crime in Africa. She wanted me to tell her what happened and I shared my story. In the end, I said, “I didn’t immediately yell for help, or give them everything.”
She told me, “You have very good cognitive intelligence. That’s not an easy thing you did. You took control of the situation and were able to recognize and comprehend what was happening. You prevented more violence from happening.” I stared at her blankly. She asked, “What are you feeling?”
Softly, firmly I said, “I feel like I did something wrong. I didn’t do what the Peace Corps asked us to do. I fought back.”
She stared into my eyes and calmly stated, “You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not wrong to fight back. Taking control of the situation tends to reduce the potential for violence.”
I took a deep breath and looked down struggling for words, “During my childhood, I had to learn how to deflect my mother’s mania.” I paused… it was the end of our session, I was relieved.
The next time we got together we talked more about what it meant to have cognitive intelligence. This is when I told her about my mother. “I had a childhood where I needed to navigate mood swings, delusions, erratic behavior, and role reversals. I probably learned cognitive intelligence then.”