The shared, blackened pot
A reflection from an encounter with squatters in Botswanaby Jonathan P. Larson
While in quiet conversation with a friend, I learned that her project to build a home in a suburb of our town had suddenly come to an awkward halt. The half-finished building, which had lain quiet for some weeks, had been occupied by a raft of strangers who had taken shelter there when no one was watching.
It seems that well-to-do neighbors had seen the improvised life of the squatters: the nighttime candles, the bundles of firewood, the smoke of cooking fires and the motley coming and going. They had called the owner to say they felt profoundly uneasy, and could she look into things.
With her heart in her throat she went to the site and had all her worst fears confirmed: as many as 20 strangers were camping on her property. Having glimpsed the scene, she fled out of fear for her own safety, not knowing what desperate—and brazen—people might do. It was this conundrum that she recounted as we sat together.
What was she to do now?
I suggested that we go together to initiate contact and seek some understanding with them. But we arrived the next day to find that the local police had swooped on the property early that very morning and had already taken a van load of the squatters to the precinct. There we found them. Men and women, even mothers with small infants on their backs. Some were in handcuffs, and all had the resigned, humiliated look of the wretched of the earth. They were Zimbabweans. Border-jumpers, as they are called here. The children of Robert Mugabe. A tiny eddy of a much larger tide of “les miserables” (the miserable ones) who had fled their homes as a matter of survival and been cast adrift in the neighboring countries by the millions. Here in Botswana, it is estimated by some that nearly one in five people in the country are in flight from what has befallen them at home in Zimbabwe.
This once proud, educated and productive society has been drubbed to its skinned, wobbly knees as the effects of HIV, drought, corruption, inflation and political folly have left the people utterly prostrate. I know of a family outside Bulawayo whose able-bodied breadwinners have been picked off one by one by AIDS. The surviving children of these workers have been left to the only surviving member of the family. Today she has 12 children under the age of 5 living under her shrinking roof and no means even of supporting herself.
Little wonder that a ragged band of these unfortunates should have found its way through the backcountry fences and crept under the eaves of an unfinished house seeking some shelter from life’s blast. As we speak with them at the police station, we assure them that we will not press charges against them. Who could bear to see them taken to prison, or even worse, returned to their shattered country? We only ask that they return the house to its owner.
We accompany them to the construction site. They begin—with astonishing efficiency—to gather their belongings. They have done this many times. And the story of their troubles is far from over. The blackened cooking pots, the plastic jugs, the frayed bags in which they have folded their blankets, and clothes gathered on the unfinished entryway of the house—belongings we would cart away to a dumpster without a moment’s thought. Someone will come with a battered pickup to collect them and their things—to go in search of some other unguarded corner where they will huddle together for a few days, where by the evening fires they will laugh the quiet laugh of those whose hearts are breaking, the dispossessed of the world.
Even now, the great and powerful of these countries and of the world gather at seaside villas, where, turned out in their finery, they laud each other while surrounded by body guards. If only they could sit by those evening fires in the quiet and bitter corners of our countries to hear the truth—the gritty, pitiful truth.
In this part of the world that truth reads this way: at evening, we all eat from the same blackened pot.
Jonathan P. Larson now lives in Atlanta and is author of Making Friends Among the Taliban, upcoming from Herald Press.
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