The recent death of an eight year old Mosarwa (Bushman/San) girl living in the north of Botswana is haunting me. I keep seeing the image of this little girl lost in the bush infested with lions and elephants and leopards. For seven days walking, hoping that she'd find her way home, hoping that someone might be out looking for her. And finally laying down in the grass and dying all alone. Why was she out in the bush in the first place? Because she could not bear to stay another day in the boarding school where she had been left.
According to The Telegraph newspaper, the little girl, Kelapile Kayawe, was left at her school Xakao Primary School, by her elder brother. Because many Basarwa live in tiny informal settlements the government cannot afford to build primary schools near them. Instead the primary schools are boarding schools called Remote Area Dweller (RAD) Schools. The schools have received a lot of bad press, citing abuse of the young children who attend them. In Botswana, though few like to say it outright, there is racism against Basarwa, the first people of Southern Africa. Since staff in RAD schools are appointed by central government, in most cases they are not Basarwa but rather people from Setswana speaking tribes, many of which arrive with their burden of prejudice. Even if there is no prejudice the staff do not speak the children's home language nor do they know the traditions of people in that area. For children new to school, this is a problem.
After dropping Kelapile at the school her brother turned to head back home, but what he didn't know was that Kelapile decided to follow him. In a short time she was hopelessly lost. This was on the 21st of October. According to the article, no one at the school reported the girl missing. On the 25th of October, Kelapile's elder sister was given permission to go home and tell her parents that Kelapile had left the school. Once home, her parents became alarmed and organised a search for the little girl.
Meanwhile Kelapile's older sister returned back to school on the 26th. The article says it was only upon her arrival, when she alerted them that Kelapile was not at home, that the school began to take notice of the situation.
On the 28th of October Kelapile's already decaying body was found. She had walked 155 km in the hot summer sun. She died alone. No post mortem on her body was done since it was too decomposed and she was buried the next day. Inside the paper, Kelapile's father Shushu Kasanga says, "I doubt Kelapile would have died if she was not a Mosarwa."
This issue is a very tricky one in Botswana. The recent skirmishes between the government and the radical and often ill-informed, UK based Survival International over the issue of Basarwa scares people into silence. Because Survival International tried to link the problem incorrectly with diamonds, Batswana circled the wagons. At the same time, Batswana wonder why outsiders feel they can meddle in our problems.
The government is trying its best. They want Basarwa integrated into mainstream Botswana society, that seems the only way toward development. But the racism issue needs to be addressed. If it is the case that Basarwa have the same rights and opportunities as all other Batswana then where are the Basarwa nurses, the Basarwa police officers, the Basarwa teachers? There is a problem and continued denial is not helping to find a way to the solution.
I wonder if Kelapile's death will finally get people speaking about the unspeakable.