Summer Journeys: Botswanan Ties

For nearly two decades, Taft History and Global Studies and Service Teacher Andrew Taylor ’72 served as a teacher and principal of Maru-a-Pula School (MaP) in Gaborone, Botswana, one of Africa’s premier secondary schools. And while Taft and MaP are nearly 8,000 miles apart, they are, in many ways, philosophically close: both were founded with missions to “educate the whole person”; service to the community is central to student life; and academic excellence is paramount. It seemed natural, then, that the connection between the two schools should not only continue but strengthen. Ronald Ceesay ’23, Jack Old ’24, and Harry Revenaugh ’24 traveled to Botswana last summer to help advance that process.

“I was speaking with Mr. Taylor, my squash coach, about the time he spent in Africa as an 18-year-old and how it led him to eventually work in Botswana for more than 20 years,” recalls Jack. “After a practice one day, Mr. Taylor proposed the idea of going out to Botswana to work as a teacher's assistant at Maru-a-Pula in Gaborone. I was initially hesitant, but quickly realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and I needed to take advantage of it.”

Taylor also encouraged his advisee, Harry, to consider travel to Botswana. After spending a semester in his classroom, Ronald received a similar offer.

“Before I could even think about it, I was on a plane, heading toward this unique and wonderful opportunity,” says Ronald.

The three spent five weeks working at Maru-a-Pula School and serving the local community. Mornings were spent in the classroom with students close in age to the Taft volunteers.

“Classes ran from 7 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. on the weekdays,” Harry explains. “We would help in whatever way was needed. I did a couple of presentations on American history in their equivalent of AP World History.”

Jack notes that “whatever way was needed” changed each day, and ranged from academic support and setting up for exams, to running lights for the school play.

Afternoons in Gaborone were dedicated to service.

“Most days after school we went to a church in Old Naledi, a much poorer part of the city,” Jack explains. “The church runs a program called Happy Homes, which provides after school programming for local children. Our role was to help students with their homework, and to practice math, science, geography, and English.”

The children at Happy Homes ranged in age from 5 to 13; most were in the equivalent of grades three through five. And while the work Ronald, Jack, and Harry did at Happy Homes was perhaps the most important and rewarding of their time in Botswana, it also proved to be the most challenging: unlike the MaP students, many of the children at Happy Homes spoke little or no English. The trio found creative ways to engage with the children despite the language barrier; student translators also helped during academic lessons.

“Despite the challenges, we felt the children benefited greatly from the daily practices, as we were able to see measurable individual improvement in our five weeks there,” Jack notes.

When Ronald, Jack, and Harry returned to the MaP campus after their time in the community, life felt a bit like life at Taft. There were sports practices, rugby games, and just relaxing in dorm rooms and common spaces, where they compared notes about life in the US and Botswana. And, like Taft, there were even “long weekends” on the calendar. The three spent a long weekend with a boarding student and his family on their farm outside of the city.

“There was one night when we spent an hour running around trying to herd two cows into their pen,” Harry recalls. “We were using flashlights and had about 10 people attempting to herd them. Eventually, we realized we didn't need to herd them, they would go to their pens on their own!”

Jack also has fond memories of his time on the farm.

“Seeing how close the host student was with his two younger brothers reminded me of my brothers. While we live more than 8,000 miles apart, our family mannerisms largely match, which gave me a feeling of being at home. I won’t forget the time I spent sitting around a fire on a cool night, sharing my experiences as an American, while living the experience of Botswana.”

Harry, Ronald, and Jack traveled north of Gaborone to Chobe National Park, where they took in the stunning views of Victoria Falls. They experienced a game drive and joined a fishing trip. Experiences, Jack says, that allowed them to see “the beauty and sheer vastness of Botswana and Zimbabwe.”

The name “Maru-a-Pula” means “clouds of rain” or “promises of blessings” in Setswana. For Ronald, Jack, and Harry the promise they imagined Botswana might hold was more than fulfilled.

“I would love to return to work at Maru-A-Pula,” says Ronald. “Everyone was extremely kind and I think we can learn in our culture to emulate the relaxation and ease present within their society. Often, in America today, it's easy to get swept up in chaos, but my experience showed me the importance of appreciating the smaller things.  It was hard to leave because it was such a joyful encounter.”

Travel in Botswana was funded in part by Robert Keyes Poole ’50 Fellowships.

Established in memory of Robert Keyes Poole '50, Taft teacher from 1956 to 1962, Poole Fellowships are awarded each year to enable Taft students to engage in travel or in projects consistent with Mr. Poole's lifetime interest in wildlife and the environment.