So, there was a hurricane off the coast of Mozambique this last weekend. More than likely most of you didn’t know that but it consumed most everyone’s thoughts in Botswana these last few days. “Dineo this, Dineo that.” I had to actually ask who Dineo was. I guess being landlocked in Minnesota I don’t quite have a grasp on the whole tropical storm part of nature. Being landlocked in Botswana, my ignorance continued. I failed to see how a tropical storm off the coast of Mozambique could greatly impact my new home in any way. I mean, we’re two countries away. But, on Friday night, the cell providers sent out a novel of a message to warn people to stay indoors, avoid driving during flash floods (great advice) and when they ended with “God save Southern Africa”, I knew were were in trouble. In anticipation of hurricane winds and torrential downpours, we cancelled our mountain biking adventure.
It rained for five minutes on Saturday. (But, the hurricane did do devastating harm to Mozambique–read up on it).
Needless to say, I don’t have some sweet blog post detailing my misadventures of mountain biking in the bush (yet). Instead, I wanted to talk about another storm that’s a-brewin’ in Botswana. The University of Botswana and Botho University were closed indefinitely.
While that may seem like a dream to most students, I can tell you that it’s certainly far from a dream for students (and faculty) here in Botswana. I have to be honest, while this story has dominated news cycles and conversations over the past month, I still don’t quite understand it. My information is based on conversation with colleagues as well as online news sources. Please keep that in mind as I attempt to delve into a serious issue currently plaguing the largest universities in Botswana.
Almost a month ago, I was driving home from Mochudi with Ednah (my more than amazing driver from CDE) when we came to the University of Botswana traffic circle. Dust and debris were still snowing from the sky when she told me there was an accident involving a cement truck. “A cement truck!!?” I asked her. She said yes, students were upset and protesting. They threw rocks which caused an accident which hours later would continue to resonate in dust. When I got home, I received an email from the US Embassy warning us not to go near UB due to the protest and the chaotic scene. Later, when I saw my friend Marie (who teaches English at Botho University), she told me UB students were protesting because they didn’t get their allowance. We were dumbfounded. As Americans we couldn’t understand why students would be protesting when their post-secondary educations are paid for by the government–AND they get an allowance? As someone who has slogged through the mountains of student debt, I can say I thought UB students were being babies.
But, as always, there are assumptions. And then, there is education. I’ve had more than my share of learning moments while abroad and can honestly say I’ve made misjudgments and plenty of mistakes. I may have misjudged the current situation of UB and Botho a bit. Here’s what I know:
-Over 100 students participated in a protest on January 24th. Some began to throw rocks at passing cars, burned the Botswana flag and destroyed school/community property.
-The flag burning was a SERIOUS issue. As the ruling political party, BDP, noted in a news interview:
The most disturbing aspect of all is that untoward behaviour was the burning of the country’s flag, which it described as an obvious act of lack of patriotism and deficiency of understanding of its national symbol.
BDP also stated that it witnessed for the first time since the founding of the country, the worst desecration of the flag. It said the flag represented national pride and mirrored who they are as Batswana. They said the flag embodied their hopes for serenity in the nation.
‘Setting it on fire is equivalent to setting ablaze the whole nation,’ it stated. The BDP statement added that the culprits must be arrested and charged.
-Rioting, looting and vandalism occurred after the protest. And ain’t nobody got time for that. People. were. angry.
-UB cancelled classes for the remainder of the week. When things continued to be chaotic, they shut down indefinitely. This last week, they said they would reopen on March 6th.
-Everyone was forced to leave campus. I’m not entirely sure what that means for the international students from Zimbabwe, Zambia, US, etc. I believe they get to continue living on campus, but anyone from Botswana had to leave and could not go back on campus.
-At first, graduate studies programs were able to continue at UB. But, last week they officially closed the med school and pulled all med students out of hospitals around the country.
-A week after UB’s protest, my friend Marie told me students at Botho began protesting as well. Instead of throwing rocks, they put huge rocks in the roads so people couldn’t drive. What started as a small movement, grew and police were forced to come to campus. Last week, Botho was forced to close campus and cancel classes as well. While she thinks they will begin class on March 6th, she really has no idea either.
-This situation is very complex and has become very political. Some teachers were remarking that it could very well be a catalyst for party change in the next (2019) election. This would be momentous as the same party as ruled in Botswana since its independence 50 years ago.
-One of the history teachers at Molefi tried to explain the system to me. If everything goes well and students pass all of their exams/get accepted, students can go to University for free.*
-*Free means they must go to school full-time (they are not allowed to have jobs) and when they are finished with their degree and begin working, they will automatically have money deducted from their check to pay for their education.
-While universities used to help and even place students in jobs after school, they no longer do that. As unemployment is high in Botswana (nearly 20%), this is problematic. Universities continue to pump out graduates to a country with not enough jobs to sustain them.
-The same history teacher also told me this system is problematic because the government doesn’t always get paid back. Some people will never get jobs (so they don’t have to pay the govt back), some will leave the country (and then they won’t have to pay the govt back) and so on. Sometimes, the government simply can’t track down the student and then boom–they are out that money.
-Many people I talked to felt sympathetic for students as they remarked many students are far from their family, they aren’t financially stable/can’t work and they depend on these allowances to get their education.
-People were angry with the Ministry of Education and the management at UB for failing to take care of their duties in getting the allowances/issues students had raised earlier, taken care of.
-Another issue that continues to be chattered about is accreditation. Apparently, some courses/programs are not accredited with the Botswana Qualifications Authority. I had read one online viewer’s comment regarding this aspect and they remarked that after going to school for 12 years, and then another 3 for undergrad, students are told their program is not credited and have to continue for another four. I’m not sure if that’s the truth but accreditation appears to be a big issue. I talked with a Med School professor at UB and he told me accreditation wasn’t really an issue. UB doesn’t really care about the BQA and so they’ve never really cared if they were accredited or not.
-This isn’t the first strike. In fact, another large strike like this occurred for many of the same reasons in 2009.
-I don’t know what happens next. Many students and professors don’t know what will happen regarding the academic schedule or how to catch up/proceed with their courses. This is an event I’ve never witnessed. Talk about timing–I’m here to study education and the major educational institutes aren’t even open. (I did however, finally get into UB’s beautiful library—obviously, it’s a ghost town!)
-What is the solution to this problem? How does Botswana avoid this in the future? I have so many questions related to this event and a tiny part of me wishes I was a university student once more. (Emphasis on tiny though, because for real–I’m done with the student part for awhile. Thanks a lot, grad school.)
If I have misinterpreted or have been misinformed about these events, please feel free to inform me. If you wish to read more about these educational storms–click any of the following news stories. This story will continue to evolve during my time here, so I’ll try to keep ya’ll posted.
In case you wanted to see a few of my own blips on the storms in Botswana–click: https://goo.gl/photos/LNzMNy3J9eyJ22Pp9