Standing Firm – Nteka’s Story

1 Corinthians 16:13 (NIV): Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Do everything in love.

My family went to Botswana to live in 1966, the year the country became independent. At the time it was the 3rd poorest country in the world. My mother was a doctor at the hospital in Serowe, and my dad worked at the secondary school. Although Serowe seemed like a small dusty village, it was actually the tribal headquarters of the Bamangwato tribe, ancestral home of Botswana’s first president, Seretse Khama. It had to be an important village to have a secondary school and a hospital!

Although Botswana was poor, and life on the edge of the Kalahari desert was marginal, this new country sought to provide free education for everyone and free healthcare for all.

One day a young girl was brought to the hospital where my mother worked. This was Nteka. She was eleven, and she and her family had never had the money to send her to school. Yes, school was free, but families still had to provide a school uniform and a few basic supplies. Nteka’s family didn’t have the money to pay.

Nteka was determined to go to school, and she went on a hunger strike. She refused to eat until she could go to school. When her body began to fail, she was brought to the hospital, and my mother was one of her doctors.

My mother was so impressed by Nteka’s determination that she committed to standing firm with her and ensure that Nteka could go to school. It wasn’t as simple as buying the uniform and supplies. The local school in Thabala, Nteka’s village, didn’t have the resources to start an eleven-year old in Standard 1.

My mother, knowing that Nteka’s life was on the line, went looking elsewhere. The secondary school my father taught at was somewhat experimental, and its local primary school was staffed by Peace Corps volunteers, many of them Quakers and Mennonites. A few of the teachers were idealistic and enthusiastic and intrigued by the idea of teaching a child whose desire to learn was that strong. But this school in Serowe was a long way from Nteka’s home village.

My parents decided that we would offer to be a foster family for Nteka during the school year, but they wanted to be careful not to replace her parents or complicate her home family dynamics. When school was not in session, Nteka would be back with her family in Thabala.

After my parents had worked out this proposal, they went to Nteka’s parents, who said, “Thank you, but no.” They explained that Nteka was too old, and besides, she was a girl. “If you are willing to help one of our children go to school, it must be the younger boy, Keletso, who was only seven.”

* * * * *

As my parents told me this story over the years, they explained this as plain sexism. I imagine that was something my mother had experienced as a woman and a doctor in the 1960s.

As I think about this story today, I think it’s probably a little more complicated for this economically deprived family.

The economic reality of Botswana in those days was that a retirement plan consisted of having a son to provide for them in their old age. A woman couldn’t be a provider in the 60s, so it would make more sense to educate their son.

Secondly, unmarried women were a financial asset to their families. Unlike in some countries in South East Asia where families must pay a dowry in order for their daughters to marry, Sub Saharan Africa tended to have the payment go the other way. In Botswana, a groom must pay lobola, or a bride price to the brides’ parents. So Nteka constituted a financial asset to her parents, whom they couldn’t easily afford to send away.

And finally, Nteka would only be an asset as an unmarried and childless daughter. They must have had their concerns about sending an eleven year old girl to live in the home of this white man and woman, about whom they knew nothing. Would she really be safe and respected?

* * * * *

There they were, Nteka’s parents and mine. I don’t know exactly what was said with words or silently, but ultimately my parents looked at each other and said, “If we’re taking in one child, we may as well take two…” And Nteka’s parents agreed that if Keletso also came along, Nteka could come and live with us while she went to school.

Nteka and Keletso came to live with us when I was one, and they were my big sister and big brother.

I want to be sure you know that this isn’t a story of a white family parachuting in to save a young black girl. This is a story about Nteka standing firm to learn to read and write, and she got an education, enough to be independent and have an income. Her persistence changed the trajectory of her life and Keletso’s. Keletso died very young, sadly, and Nteka ended up being the one to provide for her parents in their old age. My sister Nteka changed my life. She was a remarkable woman.

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