Apparently, even going away parties operate on "African Time" in Botswana so it is a darn good thing that I stuck around for a third year or they would have needed to have it without me! Nearly six months to the day since I moved out of Gabane, I was honored with a very special "Farewell Kamogelo" event at Gabane Community Home-Based Care.
Let me set the stage...
The event, which was held at the center, was attended by the GCHBC staff and board, the home-based care volunteers, the District AIDS Coordinator, district counsellors, the village chief (Kgosi), clinic and health post staff, community members, and a number of people I worked with on various projects. While everyone showed up on time (a huge feat), the event still started nearly two hours late. Conversation filled the time, though, so it went by as if only a moment passed. The room was overflowing with smiles, laughter, song, and dance. The smell of my favorite Setswana dishes traveled out of the kitchen (with happy cooks exclaiming that the vegetables were from the garden we built, a fact they knew would make me exceedingly happy). And the tables were covered with shiny linens in white and purple, expertly ruffled so it looked like flower blossoms adorned them. The atmosphere was stunning and the energy nearly took my breath away.
The event had a formal component, where I sat at the head table and heart-felt speeches were given. Among them was a speech given by the center's coordinator, Mma Leburu. She spoke first in Setswana and then repeated in English, making sure I heard her words. Her oration brought tears to my eyes. She talked about the challenges we overcame, the work we did, and the skills they now have. She had people from the audience stand in acknowledgement as she told stories about projects I had worked on. For instance, the family we built the home for, children and all, stood as she talked about that effort and the School Heads from the primary schools when we discussed my ongoing caregiver training and support project. As they stood, they blew kisses and bowed in my direction. I couldn't help but tear up at this gesture. Compliments were paid to me that humbled me beyond compare. And then, perhaps the best compliment was made to me as Mma Leburu said:
"Kamogelo, you never judged us or looked down on us for our lack of education or experience. You just held our hand and believed in us. Because of you, because of your kindess, and because of your love, we now see in ourselves everything that you always told us we were. You were our gift. We love you."And, with that, ululations exploded from the crowd, I burst into tears, and I lept out of my chair and ran over to Mma Leburu and hugged her a half dozen times before walking throughout the room to give hugs to everyone there.
While I finished handing out my hugs, everyone began to sing and wave and point at me. The lyrics to the song, which were exceptionally poignant, were (translated from Setswana): "Go well my lady, go well, but don't every forget us!" As they sang, I kept thinking, How could I ever forget these people?!
During their song, Sebina (my counterpart and one of the staff from the center) slowly brought a giant wrapped present over to me. The moment she laid it on the table, she began to unwrap it, too excited to wait on me. As the hand-decorated brown paper fell to the side, pottery was revealed! It was an entire tea set made by my friends at the Pelegano pottery place! A tea pot, six cups and saucers, a sugar pot, and a milk pitcher! As I gasp with surprise and awe (since this was a set that I had looked at purchasing for some time), Sebina whispered "I know you love this. It matches the big coffee mugs you already have. I remembered!" And then she smiled ear-to-ear as I jumped around thanking everyone for their generosity.
Moments later, Sebina was handing me another gift, which was just from her with a note attached to it. While the gift was beautiful (a red vase), the note was exponentially more special. I hugged her again to let her know how much it meant to me and, as I did, she said "I will never forget your hugs." So I hugged her again.
The entire day was a reminder about all the things that made my Peace Corps service so special - these ladies, this community, and our relationship. This was what my service was about and no one can ever take that away from us. It is something I will never forget. And now it is something that I know they will never forget either. It brought so much joy to me to have that closure with them and the acknowledgement of everything we shared. I kept thinking about how lucky I was to still be in the country to have this time together and this experience, and I wondered how many volunteers never get the chance for this. After all, I "should have" been gone six months ago... So, to those who left without a party or without hearing these words, I hope you know that your service mattered and you inevitably touched people beyond recognition. Sometimes it just takes them a little while to sort through it all and find the words. Two years just isn't enough.