On my birthday, I received a telephone call from my Country Director (while in a very busy workshop for a SADC project that I am overseeing at my NGO) asking me if I would be interested in planning an event and hosting for a "high level visitor". Inquiring further, I learned that it would be the former president and his wife. I replied in the affirmative, as this was the type of opportunity that I could not pass up. (Lack of specificity as to who and when at the beginning was for security reasons. I was told straight away that I could not discuss who was coming or any potential for my center to host. This secrecy proved difficult during all the long hours of planning and immense excitement.) He then told me that it would require an application, which would include information on my center, a proposed agenda of what the event might look like if we were to receive the privilege of hosting, and rationale behind our application. The caveat to this request being that it had to be submitted to the US Embassy within 24 hours. It being my birthday, I had plans for that evening but I quickly amended them and set to work planning out the proposal. This involved a number of phone calls with my Country Director as we finalized the plan and numerous revisions.
A week went by and I received another phone call from my Country Director. His tone was excited when I answered the phone and he informed me that they liked the proposal and were entertaining the idea of having us be the event chosen. We had to meet with staff from the US Embassy first, however, to walk through the agenda, look at the center, and discuss a number of other things. Later that same week, the visitors came to assess me, my center, and what we had in mind for the event. The Embassy staff that came to discuss everything told us, as they were packing up their things, that they loved the ideas we proposed and were excited about what we had to offer. They were sending us through to Bush's Advance Team!
No more than a few days later, I received the phone call that we were selected by the Advance Team and we were going to host the event! This was a huge deal for my center and for Peace Corps in that we beat out many high level international organizations. We were all extremely proud and excited.
From there came the tireless hours and seemingly endless weeks of preparing for the event. The staff rallied together and we made the preparations as fun as possible. This meant doing arts and crafts projects with the kids (we made USA and Botswana flags and also handprints to go on the wall in the room the children would be in during the event), organizing our children's caregivers to help clean up the grounds, having sing-a-longs and teaching the children the "happy birthday song" and others to perform, and singing and dancing as we accomplished even the smallest of tasks. There were also many meetings with the Bush Advance Team and Secret Service, both of whom were so warm and welcoming and instilled confidence in us that our event would be a success. They were such a joy to meet and to work with.
Here are some of the highlights of the event preparation:
The morning of the actual event, I woke up extra early to do finishing touches. This also meant fetching water since I am at week fourteen without and I wanted to look as good as I could (at least bathed) for the event since a lot of media was scheduled to be there. Other last minute details that needed to be done included setting up the tables, bringing the ten dozen baked goods I had made the day before to the center, going over talking points with the staff, telling the traditional dancers we hired about their formation and what we needed from them, preparing snacks for the children and guests who would be arriving two hours before the event, talking to media, prepping the Kgosi for his welcome address, and sorting out any final things. Phew!
The event's itinerary would go as follows: President and Mrs. Bush would arrive at our center and exit their vehicles outside the gate. They would be greeted upon entering by Peace Corps' Country Director, the Co-Founder of my NGO, and the Village Kgosi/Chief. They would then enter the center's compound to traditional dancers performing (thank you to the Nare tsa Pina dance group for donating their time). After posing for pictures, they would be escorted to meet me in the center of the compound, where I would introduce the visitors to Mma Leburu, our Head Teacher and Co-Founder, and to Sebina Koti, our Administrative Manager. We would then take a tour and I would share with them about HIV programs in Botswana, in particular my center and the community we work with. From there, we would go meet with other Peace Corps Volunteers to discuss our work, President Bush's new efforts in Botswana, and how we could work together towards a better future here. Then, finally, we would go and be with the 41 OVC from my preschool. There, they would sing a few songs that they had been practicing, President Bush would read them a story, and then we would surprise him with the "Happy Birthday Song" and handmade treats. The President and Mrs. Bush would then leave the same way they came in - walking through traditional dancers that would bid them a farewell through song and dance. The whole program would take just over one hour. This, I learned, is A LOT when referring to time spent with people of this level.
Now that the nitty gritty of the event has been explained, I want to share some of the more intimate moments that really touched me and I will carry with me forever...
First, when President and Mrs. Bush started walking towards me, I felt as if I was in a movie (or a dream at the very least). It was so surreal to see such figures before me. And then to know that they were there because of me filled me with such a sense of pride (and also terrified me - because I wanted to present myself, my center, and Peace Corps so well - to the point that sweat dripped down the back of my legs despite it being somewhat cold). I took a deep breath and braced myself for the next 70 minutes, holding onto the hope that Bush's Advance Team was sincere when they said that "President Bush is going to love you" and "He is so easy to talk to and you will immediately feel at ease". So I straightened myself out and took three streps forward to shake his hand and introduce myself. And now I am happy to report that they were, in fact, true to their word.
Next, after introducing myself and the team of ladies that I work with, I started in on my monologue. But first, I wanted to welcome our visitors to the center and let them know how truly humbled we were to have them there. In saying this, I also thanked President Bush for his dedication to HIV/AIDS work in Africa and told him that I was eternally grateful for him because, without his efforts and without PEPFAR, I would not be in Botswana and not doing the work that I am able to do today. I also told him that I work with patients that are HIV+ and his work in this vein has improved their lives and, in turn, mine. My Peace Corps service - my time in Botswana - has been one of the biggest blessings in my life and I was so grateful that I could thank him personally for this opportunity. And then, on top of that, to be able to share with him my center and the fruit of his labor was something that only happens once in a lifetime. I then noticed that tears were literally welling up in his eyes and starting to run down his face. He gave me a huge hug and a kiss on the forehead and thanked me for my kind words and for sharing them with him. Seeing how much my words meant to him, and genuinely feeling so blessed myself, I also teared up. It was a very special moment that we were able to share. Mutual admiration and appreciation.
After I thanked him, I went on to share the facts about the center: 41 OVC, 26 HIV+ patients enrolled in our home-based care program, over 18000 meals served annually, and my hopes to revive the Kids Club to help fill a void for care in transitioning children. He discussed all of these things compassionately and looked me straight in the eye, responding with rumination and concern and questions about resources and so on. He genuinely cared about the work we are doing and what can be done and he thanked the staff individually for their continued efforts.
When we met with the other Peace Corps Volunteers, President and Mrs. Bush joked casually and listened thoughtfully to the work we are doing across the country. They wanted to know personal information about each of us - who we are, where we come from, our background, and our primary projects. They then shared about the work they are doing here now. President Bush spoke. He said that he is out of politics and that he went into politics hoping to do policy work like what he is finally able to do now that he is out of office. He told us that helping people in this capacity has always been his goal. (In fact, the week prior he had spent in Zambia building a clinic alongside community members from that village.) He explained that HIV has been a pandemic in this country for years but that, now, it is under control with the ARV program and people are living longer lives, only to die of cervical cancer that is preventable. He challenged us to go into the clinics and help people learn technology and to enhance their capacity to address these other issues. He asked us how we can work together to achieve better health and a better life for the people we live amongst. He was so passionate as he discussed the issues and genuinely cared about these global health issues. For me, it was amazing to see this side of him and to know there is a development worker in him and that his aspirations are in line with my own.
After, I was able to bring the visitors in to interact with our 41 orphans and vulnerable children that are enrolled in the preschool program. This was among the most precious moments. Before the event, the Advance Team had told me that Mrs. Bush would be reading a story to the children and that President Bush would likely go back to converse with the Peace Corps Volunteers and other guests during that time. But, after seeing the children waving their flags at his arrival, he decided that he needed to read the story himself. So he pulled his chair really close to the children and read to them "From Head to Toe". He interacted with the children and literally acted out all the motions depicted in the book. And afterwards, the children sang him "Happy Birthday". I watched as tears filled up his eyes again. He was moved by their little rendition of the song and thanked them by personally handing out cookies, hugs, and high fives to all of the children. One of the kids even got a frosting-covered hand on President Bush's pants. I was mortified. President Bush, however, was not even phased and, as I rushed for a napkin, told me not to worry and that he had children and didn't care if his pants had a few handprints on them for the Ambassador's dinner (which was where he was headed after the event) because they would only make him smile every time he saw them. It was such a real moment.
Finally, as the event was coming to a close, President Bush put his arm around me and we got another few minutes to talk as we walked towards the vehicles. He thanked me again for putting the event together, for my work in Botswana, and for the things I had shared with him that day. I was able to thank him again for this opportunity.
To me, that final thank you was about so many things - about the event, about PEPFAR and being able to serve in Botswana, and about showing me the kind of person that he is. Actually experiencing all of this and realizing the disparity between Bush the politician I knew and Bush the person, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders that was there for many years. He is a great man and someone that I now admire.
Here are some highlights from the event:
This event was not only something that my NGO and the Gabane community can be proud of, but also became the sort of experience that opened us all up to new realities. It gave us the opportunity to meet President Bush and learn the type of man (not politician) that he is. He is passionate and compassionate and deeply motivated to help people around the world. It was so good for me (and for those volunteers that were able to attend) to see that in him and to be touched by it.
This has been the most remarkable experience. All of it - from applying to host to meeting the Advance Team and Secret Service Staff to preparing with the children and then the actual event. It has been a dream come true in so many ways, including getting my soul rocked. I am so blessed to have experienced it and am so grateful that I can share it with you. This Peace Corps life has been so full of glorious ups and downs and this has been the culminating effort and something I can be eternally and deeply proud of for the rest of my life.
Pictures courtesy of myself, Virginia Fall, and members of the Bush Advance Team, and Shealah Craighead/The Bush Center.