Sister Molefe lived in a hut near the main road in the Botswana village of Mogoditshane. She had four children under the age of twelve. She made beautiful tapestries for sale by interweaving yarn with the plastic fibres of feed sacks. Like most women of that place she could happily walk along, chatting to friends, with a baby slung papoose-style on her back, knitting as she went, meanwhile balancing a watermelon on her head.
One day I stopped in for a visit and found her lying on some sheets of cardboard in her yard. She had slung a piece of cloth between four sticks driven into the ground for shade. When I greeted her in the usual way, she didn’t respond. She lay with closed eyes in the posture of a corpse. Her son Nsimane told me that she had been that way for two days, drinking water, but refusing to eat. I said we needed to get her to a doctor as soon as possible.“She’s not sick,” he said. “She’s angry.”
We went over to Sister’s prone form together. “Ask her what’s the matter,” I told Nsimane. He spoke a few words in Setswana and she replied curtly.“She says she wants rice,” he said. “She says she won’t eat any more mabele (sorghum), and she won’t eat mealy meal.”
I prevented myself from pointing out that maize and sorghum were the staple crops of southern Africa. I enjoyed eating both, occasionally. Rice is a wetlands crop, not grown at all in Botswana, and therefore expensive.
“Tell her that if she does not eat she will get sick and maybe die,” I told Nsimane.“She knows,” he said.
Sister opened her eyes and looked at me “I want rice,” she said.Later that afternoon my wife and I went into the capital and bought a fifty-pound sack of white rice from the cash and carry. I felt foolish doing it. As development workers, we were supposed to encourage local people and help them find solutions, if any, to their own poverty. Not buy them bags of rice. I said as much to my wife, who just said, “Art, don’t be stupid.”
We delivered the rice. Sister Molefe didn’t comment. I admired her for that. She was simply receiving her due. There was no sign of the grateful native receiving bounty from foreign philanthropists.A month or so later, I dropped by the rondavel. Sister was entertaining a clutch of women and their babies. They were all laughing and healthy looking. I noticed that they had been sharing a pot of mabele porridge. I spoke to Nsimane.
“What happened to the rice?” I asked.Nsimane shrugged. “She’s tired of rice. She just eats mabele now.”