On Assignment in Botswana

How do you make yourself truly happy and bring your dreams to reality? For me, it was simply by doing a random google search for “photojournalism projects abroad”, well, that’s where it started anyway. On a quiet Sunday morning in my chilly living room in February 2015 I found the answer to my wishes there on my computer screen; Photographers Without Borders “see through a new lens”. After only a few minutes clicking through the website, I knew this was exactly what I was looking for, and I made the decision right then that getting involved would be one of my top priorities. I’d spent the past 15 years starting up and working with some of the best and busiest wedding photography studios in The U.S. but knew at some point I’d want to get back to my true passion of journalistic travel photography, which is what made me fall in love with image making so many years ago. My first project for PWB was in the remote hills of Guatemala and I found out there that I was really on to something that filled my soul, and that it was now or never for me to take hold of what I needed for my future. Most recently, my second project was an amazing adventure; it allowed me to travel to Gaborone, Botswana (and beyond) to meet some of the nicest and most interesting people of my life, while allowing me to photograph the NGO Young 1ove in every aspect: from day to day long hours at their office headquarters, out in the field where they brought their hard and detailed work to life in local schoolhouses, an off-site two-day staff retreat/workshop, and a few personal outings with some of the staff members.

Traveling from Florida to New York, then to South Africa and back to up Botswana, my journey took nearly 30 hours (though every minute was filled with anticipation) until I stepped off the small commuter plane in Sub-Saharan Africa for the first time in my life and finally greeted by two of my hosts from the Young 1ove office, Olerato, and Dot. Their smiles were infectious, and although I was very jet-lagged there was nothing more I wanted to do in that moment than to go to lunch and spend the afternoon getting to know them. We spent the day discussing politics, laughing at humorous things we had in common (and things we didn’t), discussing ideas for my time in Botswana, and getting to know the layout of the capital city Gaborone. We even squeezed in an event at The National Stadium where I was able to get VIP access to photograph some of the country’s top music artists with the local press. When I could no longer hold my eyes open we said goodbye, knowing that I would see them again in a few hours at the Young 1ove office.

On my first full day, it was a little hard getting used to the 6 hour time difference, but the thrill of getting down to work and stepping inside the office to meet the entire staff was more than enough to get me moving that brisk morning. Walking inside, I immediately realized it was not only Olerato and Dot who had that smile, everyone did. Maybe it’s a Botswana thing, maybe it’s a Young 1ove thing, either way, it was something special and it made me feel completely welcome and inspired. The day started with my official welcome, “Young 1ove style”, which was done outside with everyone in a big circle. It was a mix of a little exercise with a concentration game all done to the beat of our snapping fingers led by Thato (a.k.a. Miss Tee) who (I learned later) would become the center of my story. Playing this game first thing in the morning served many purposes, mostly to get our bodies and minds moving, but also to take a moment to bond with each other, laugh, and most of all smile.

I spent the first few days getting to know all of the staff members. One by one I sat with each person on a comfortable couch as if we were on a televised talk show. We discussed each of their job descriptions, where they were from, where I was from, and little bits and pieces about our lives. The staff was very diverse, most from different parts of Botswana, but several people were from England, Canada, and even the U.S. Although each individual was unique in their own way, there was a special quality that made them all seem perfectly placed in Botswana at Young 1ove together, and I felt I was in the right place there as well. The mission of Young 1ove is “connecting youth with life-saving information”. Most of their work is done in the office where they literally cover every single aspect of the organization and begin each discussion by deciding up front what they want the outcome to be, and what success will look like after each meeting or new procedure. I realized right away that this staff led by the founders Naom and Moistephi were the most talented, creative, and hard working group of people I’d ever met. So many moving parts, so many levels, so many narratives. Now I just needed to get to work on my angle as a photographer for telling their story.

On my first project for PWB in Guatemala, I was based at a school being built out of recyclable items like old tires and colorful broken glass bottles, and there were 118 adorable kids already attending, so it was always easy for me to find something to photograph. In Botswana, the majority of my time was spent in the office, so at first, it was challenging for me to find creative things to look for. In the end, I realized that just being present for their meetings, hearing about the statistics of the research they were compiling, being involved in the daily team-bonding sessions, and even spending time with some of the staff outside of the office was an invaluable and much-needed part of my “story”. In fact, on my first Sunday in Gaborone things became much clearer when I spent the morning with Thato at her church outside of the city. Once again, there they were, those smiles, they were everywhere: on the children’s freshly washed faces, throughout the congregation, in the choir, on the minister, but especially within the spirit of my host for the day and new friend Miss Tee. At that time, I still didn’t have much of an idea of her role at Young 1ove, but what I did find out that morning was that she was a genuine, caring, and respected person in her community. I would learn later just how she brought those traits to her work and the impact on people’s lives that she was capable of.

The second week came quickly and we were finally scheduled to go into “the field” so I could see how they bring all of the detailed behind-the-scenes work to being. Six of the staff members and I gathered all of their needed materials and my camera equipment for our 3-hour drive in a combi outside the city. The drive through small villages along the way was a great way for me to see more of this wonderful country. I enjoyed watching locals selling goods on the side of the streets, men walking their livestock, and children laughing as they walked home from school. I hadn’t noticed most of my travel-mates were pretty quiet on the drive because I rode in the front seat with the driver and was so taken by everything happening outside the bus. I didn’t realize until later in the drive they were all spending their time either reading/studying the material to present or just kind of quietly meditating to prepare themselves to give 110% that afternoon.

Once we were at the school in a small village on a rust-colored dirt road we were greeted by the headmaster who walked us to the classrooms. Miss Tee would be leading one class, while Lorato for the first time ever would be leading another. Sarah, Gaby, and Shayla from the curriculum department would quietly evaluate some of the new teaching techniques they were incorporating that day and compare the seasoned Miss Tee’s class to the newly promoted Lorato’s class. Olerato assisted me on what to look for and to make sure I was in the right place during the simultaneous sessions.

Young 1ove’s goal is to provide life-saving information to youth throughout Botswana. There is a high rate of teenage pregnancy and HIV-infected young people in the country. The instructors they use in the classes are usually young as well, making them more relatable to the students. The sessions begin with the kids clearing out the middle of the classroom and moving their heavy much-used desks and chairs to the sides of the room. It was a lot like my welcoming on the first day, where the instructor gets the kids in a circle around the classroom and lead them through a series of fun exercises and memory games to get them relaxed and engaged. It was so fun watching Miss Tee and Lorato in front of the groups of beaming exuberant children. At first, I thought it was ad-libbed but later realized that every word and move was carefully selected and choreographed to maximize the process in a short amount of time.

Once the kids were comfortable, the instructors gave out a little information about why they were there and the importance of the message. Along with HIV and teenage pregnancy, another serious issue in Botswana is younger girls dating older men. One of the goals of the process is to let the students know that the HIV rate is higher in older people than in younger people and to explain that dating an age-mate is a lot safer than dating someone outside their age range. The main exercise in each session was to separate the kids into 4 groups and give them tools to work together making a graph by arranging age groups in order of who they collectively thought would be riskier as a partner.

When the groups finish their graphs, one or two students from each group are asked to come to the front of the classroom to explain their reasoning. Most, if not all of the students think that younger people from age 15-20 are the least-safe group, and think older people over 40 are the less likely group to be infected with HIV. After each group makes their presentation, the instructor eventually presents the “big reveal” exhibiting the actual statistical chart showing the truth is the complete opposite of what they originally thought.

It was eye-opening to see the students go from being tired after a long day at school, to being up and dancing with excitement, then to be brought back down a notch and discussing life-saving information. The entire process is carefully performed and you can see right then and there that the students were being introduced to something that could change their lives. The day wrapped up by playing more games to reinforce the safe and unsafe age groups and exercises which highlight their classmates “coolness”. By the end of the sessions, all of the kids looked at the instructors with pride and gratitude as they fill out questionnaires about what they had learned. Lorato did an amazing job on her first day, but for me watching Miss Tee in her element while thinking back to that morning I spent with her in church was awe inspiring. The drive back to the city was not wasted but used wisely by the staff to read the questionnaires and immediately discuss the effectiveness of the day’s work. We only went out in the field one more time on my trip, but those days were my favorite.

After a few more days back at headquarters and sitting in on a few meetings with the various teams, we headed out of town again for a two-day workshop where the group discussed every aspect of the organization, creatively decided what success looked like for each of them, and spent quality time together. I was presented with the most special gift from the staff upon my departure, an African basket filled with hand-written notes from each staff member. Tears filled my eyes as I eagerly read each note one by one; they were full of cute sayings, well wishes, special memories, and kind words about me and my visit. I feel like a thief to have taken so many great things away from Botswana with me and only hope that somehow I left a little bit of myself behind.

My time in Botswana ended in much the same way it had begun two weeks prior, being involved in group circles laughing to the beat of snapping fingers, and without a doubt….. lots of smiles!

Dreams come true.