A Letter from Botswana

    This “Letter Home” was written by Allison (Alice) Flynn Fitzpartrick (Botswana 1987–89) for her college class reunion.

    IT WAS 1987. I WAS LIVING IN LOS ANGELES and was beginning to panic because my youngest child was applying to colleges and the balance she provided in my life in LaLa Land was disappearing. I would probably turn into just another workaholic in my high-tech world of LEXIS/NEXIS sales management. Or worse, they’d promote me to headquarters in Dayton, Ohio! A few unsolicited job offers forced me to think about what I wanted to do differently now that my family was no longer my prime consideration. How important was money with two in college? Could I be satisfied just continuing to make a lot of lawyers richer? Wasn’t there a way to do something important in a completely different environment? Could I push my need level down a bit?
         An ad on TV captivated my imagination — “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” I applied to the Peace Corps and when I was accepted they asked if I had a preference for an area of the world and type of assignment. I said I’d like to run a handicrafts cooperative in Chile. My assignment was a brickyard in Botswana! Go figure.
         I went with a group of 10 mostly mid-career business types and most of us worked with “Bridages” throughout the country. The Brigades had been established to teach useful trades in remote villages and were supposed to be self-sustaining. Most were financial disasters so we were to advise them on sound business practices.
         So I was a glorified business consultant, fortified with an MBA and 10 years of fast track experience, in the bush preaching efficiency to a very eager and puzzled audience. In Botswana there had never been the presence of money or the absence of time. Neither had any particular value. My message turned out to be irrelevant in the people’s lives, but their lessons had a profound impact on mine. Imagine living your life with no consideration of time or money. It’s very seductive.

    LATER I HELPED the First Lady of Botswana — a progressive woman with peasant roots — get her community center “running like a business.” We offered a pre-school (unheard of), women’s programs, community discussions and some very basic business courses. I worked very closely with six warm and wonderful women who called me “mosadi mogolo” (old woman).
         The community center even accepted some handicapped children into the program — instead of assigning them to a cattle post, and the staff decided I should be a teacher, too. But, to their horror, I refused to beat the children to discipline them, especially one five-year-old child who had cerebral palsy and very limited self-control. One morning as I was changing her outfit for the third time and washing her down after another “accident,” one of the other teachers came into the bathroom to help me with the mess. She said, very tenderly, “In our country people like you don’t do jobs like this.”
         “Why not?” I barked.
         “Because you’re too high.”
         I was shocked and told her that in my country, people take responsibility for their own messes, and this was clearly my responsibility. She took the dirty clothes from me and as we stood together at the sink she said: “At least let me help you.” From then on we were sisters and the Peace Corps really made sense to me.

    RE-ENTRY TO THE U.S. was difficult. I no longer fit the upwardly mobile, yuppified world. I longed for the easy, the communality of my life in Africa — life without pressure, virtually no stress. A life with accepting, kindly people, with spontaneous singing and joyful dancing, even when the batteries died.
         I eventually secured a job in the kinder, gentler world of non-profits and even found the courage to move “home” to Connecticut after 25 years away. Family and roots and comfortable connective tissue were what Africa taught me to value. And though it sounds corny, that’s the background music of my life now, with four generations closely interwoven, like the beautiful baskets made by the women of Botswana. Simple ingredients, highly functional, with a natural primitive sense of cohesiveness and purpose. I had to go to Africa to recognize these gifts that I was born to. I had to come home again to appreciate their worth.