Roger Blake worked in Botswana, first as an IVS-recruited UN Volunteer then as an IVS volunteer, including a period as IVS in-country coordinator, between August 1974 and July 1981. Previously he had been on an IVS winter workcamp in London in 1968, he was Chair of Chester IVS local group 1972-74 and coordinated an IVS summer workcamp in Runcorn in 1973. On return from Africa, he coordinated an IVS workcamp at London’s Africa Centre with the Namibia Solidarity Campaign and was a member and then Chair of the former IVS Overseas sub-committee from 1982-86.
My first post was a rather unfulfilling UN technical assistance role in the expatriate-dominated Government Department of Town and Regional Planning. However, I saw much of northern Botswana. With a UN living allowance and leave, I was able to visit all the southern African ‘frontline states’ except Angola and learned much through other volunteers and agencies. At least in those first two years I was party to a Canadian volunteer’s efforts to make the most lasting contribution to town and regional planning, not by doing it, but by working with the Directorate of Personnel and the University to establish a training and career path for Batswana to move into the department as professionals. The first Motswana to do so, a student who came in for work experience while I was there, later became Department Head and was then seconded to another agency. Back in the UK, I was shattered to read his name in the Deaths column of our Institute journal – he had been killed in a car crash while his English wife was in the UK, amidst widespread suspicions that his elevated position may have taken him too close to vested interests threatened by his integrity.
Meanwhile, those first two years saw my developing contacts with the self-help church school in Old Naledi, the capital’s squatter area, which was to become the basis of my next and infinitely more fulfilling five-year project, a Development Trust based on the model of Botswana’s Brigades.
Botswana changed me more than I did it, or more than the UK changed in my absence. This came not so much through my formal roles but primarily through personal interactions: with Batswana; with other southern Africans, especially refugees from South African apartheid and Rhodesia’s UDI including those in the IVS programme; with other volunteers and expats; and critically through political developments in the region – Soweto erupted with student-led protest as I took my first ‘home’ leave for my sister’s wedding, a poignant contrast.
It was indeed a privilege to play a tiny part in that shared history. I had asked the Schoons (who became IVS Country Officers soon after I finished) what we as outsiders could do to support the liberation struggle. In the fullness of time, the response filtered through; using a suspicious-avoiding RSA-registered car lent for the occasion, I simply delivered papers in a plain envelope into a PO box at a city-suburb post office – Amandla!
My last substantial (six-week) visit to the region was in 1993. In the run-up to the election the following year, Jan Smuts (now Johannesburg International) Airport was bombed by white extremists the day after we flew home from it, challenging, even reversing conventional notions of who were terrorists. There had been huge physical developments in the urban centres of Botswana in particular, but not in the rural areas. Society remained as stratified as ever, conspicuous consumption and inequality growing hand in hand. Personally, I was gratified to see the project I helped start but which had floundered, revived with my secretary now a trustee and the former Ward Councillor now Chairman.
With thanks to Emma Judge for her book “To Whom It May Concern” where this article was taken from.