Protests of Our Own

Last night, while the women of our ACM group were having our inaugural wine and cheese night together, we heard from one of our roommates that a student strike was being planned for the next day (today). Confused, we asked for more information and learned that the students were planning to boycott their classes to address the fact that their government allowances (money the government of Botswana gives to college to pay for food, books, etc.) have still not come in, two weeks into the semester. We were told we should not go to class because students would be coming through the academic buildings to protest, and we could be at risk if we tried to still attend our classes. Most of our group didn’t have any class scheduled after 10am today, the time the protests were set to begin, so they weren’t too concerned, but my African philosophy class was set to meet for the first time at 11am today and I needed to know whether it was actually happening so I could add a different class if not. It was an odd situation to be in. I wanted to be fully supportive of the student strike, it seemed like a powerful direct-action situation, but also I needed to make sure my class was happening, which brought me to an impasse.

This morning after Setswana class I went to the international office to get this all sorted out, and by 10:45 was told that it seemed like the strike wasn’t actually happening and I should be able to attend my class without a hitch. Phew.

Ten minutes into the class period our professor arrived, though only myself and one other American student were present (a Motswana student had left to check something out, but was returning momentarily). Soon, a big group of protesters came into the building, making lots of noise, and I was nervous. I didn’t know what might happen in this situation, it seemed that the “risk” was mainly just the chance of people yelling at you and being angry, but the night before I had been told that if I heard noise I should leave my class right away to avoid a potential conflict. I was about to make a bolt for it, but my professor said, “No, no, stay here, you will be fine. They won’t bother an American, and they won’t bother me cause I am the professor”

Great. Very encouraging.

The large group passed by the doorway, many students peering inside, but then continuing on, chanting and yelling as they went. Our Motswana classmate returned and the professor gave him the option to call the class off, saying “I know the three of us will be fine, but I am worried about them bothering you. If you want us to end the class we can” but that student was unconcerned and told us to keep going.

Great. Easily frightened Hannah is totally chill with this right now.

As the class went on, there were several moments where I could hear the sounds of the protesters rising, their calls drawing closer and then fading away. Every time the sound increased my heartbeat rose, and every time it faded away I calmed down a bit. My professor and the local student said this was fairly common and not much to be concerned about, though, so I stayed through. It was a really interesting lecture, and I am really excited for this philosophy class, even though a class of 6-7 students wasn’t what I was expecting coming to this large university.

Eventually, a security guard came in and told us that we needed to end class and leave the building because they were locking all of the doors, so we began to pack up our things only to discover that we had been accidentally locked inside the room. Our professor called one of his colleagues to come back and unlock the classroom, and we left without a hitch. I was worried it might be chaotic out on campus, but outside it just seemed like any other normal day.

Finally, a note on blogging about studying abroad on the African continent in general, and particularly in relation to this post: There are so many stereotypes and negative perceptions of Africa (usually a quite inaccurate representation of a somehow homogenous continent) that I want to make sure my representation of my experience in Botswana doesn’t feed those stereotypes or confirm prejudices for people back in the states. There is sometimes a horribly inaccurate perception of Africans as being violent and unreasonable in violence, and I don’t want my story about the student protests today to make anyone view Batsawana as a violent group. I was nervous at moments today because I was in an unfamiliar situation and didn’t know what would or could happen in my class, but it was no different or more frightening than a similar situation would be in the U.S. if I didn’t know exactly what was going on. This was a well-organized and structured protest, much like many of the protests in the U.S. these past few weeks have been, and in many ways I was impressed with the effectiveness of their organizing effort, even if I didn’t completely agree with the idea of forcing students out of their classrooms. This morning when I was speaking with the woman in charge of the international office to know how I should respond to the protests, she asked me about what strikes were like at my school, and I felt a bit silly telling her the way Grinnellians make their voices heard for campus issues, because I think often we are less effective than we would like to be at making our voices heard. She was quite surprised that we didn’t have a more invasive system that involved boycotting classes because that is so common for protests here, and it was an interesting conversation to be a part of.

In general, one of the things that has been most apparent, but difficult to relay to folks back at home is how similar my everyday life in Botswana is to life in the U.S. I was talking to my parents one day and realized that from the pictures I had posted on Facebook, they thought that all the streets in Gaborone were unpaved. In actuality, the streets here generally look just like U.S. streets (it’s a capital city and very modern in most respects), but the times I have taken pictures have been when I was either on pedestrian paths that were unpaved, or visiting the nearby village of Gabane, which has dirt streets. I wasn’t trying to create an image of Botswana as primitive, those were just the times when it was easiest to pull out my camera because I wouldn’t as conspicuously look like a tourist as compared to when I was just on a normal street somewhere, surrounded by pedestrian sights you might find in any other part of the world as well.

There are definitely things that are quite different here, and I am constantly reminded by my surroundings that I am not in the U.S., but it’s not dramatic, and I hope above all that this blog and whatever other communication I have with friends and family back home don’t represent my experience here as an exotic, wild thing that should be gawked at or feared.

If you ever have any specific questions about life in Botswana (or the small glimpse of one type of life in Botswana that I am experiencing) please let me know. In the mean time, keep resisting in the U.S., and I will keep witnessing a different type of resistance at the University of Botswana.

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I couldn’t take any pictures related to the strike today, but here are some fun (but blurry) ones from our girls night last night. 

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