When entering Bontleng, Gaborone from the south-easternmost road you find yourself passing the tall grass, wrought-iron covers, and headstones of a large cemetery. As the road curves to the left around the nearby Zion Christian Church compound, just before the three bars on the right with their stacks of bottle crates, you find an open, dusty plot of land crisscrossed by a steady stream of pedestrians. On maps it’s marked as a greenspace, although it’s decidedly brown. Industrious entrepreneurs have set up competing carwashes on its perimeter, where you can get your vehicle washed by hand and bucket, and swept and polished, for a reasonable P45 ($5.50), though you need to be careful as you drive out not to kick up dust and sully their work. A middle-aged gentleman sits beside his wheelchair in the far corner of the space under a drooping stretch of shade netting, mending shoes.
A Wait-a-Bit tree nearer the middle of the property finds a shack housing a barber, while local men sit and converse outside in the shade.
Residents in the adjacent and nearby houses have told us that there was recently a stabbing in this park as two men fought behind the bars one night. Many locals have been robbed of their cellphones and money while crossing through the area at night, the darkness hiding their assailants who wait for the inevitable foot traffic. Most troublingly of all, the neighbors claim that the remains of a child was found near there in an abandoned car a few years back, abductions of children for the use of the sangoma (traditional doctors) not being unheard of as certain politicians seek extra good luck during election season.
Day and night, children love to play on the metal playground equipment, placed haphazardly around many decades prior. But every single swing is broken, with a few chains left hanging at awkward lengths, the jungle gym teeters dangerously with some of its legs rusted off near the base, and a few bent from some incautious driver. The slides are rusted out with gaping and jagged holes, and can’t be used except to scramble up and down, which the children do each day, still wearing their blue and grey uniforms as they pause for some fun between school and home.
As the children grow into youths, the playground loses its entertainment appeal and the focus shifts to the bars. The action of the neighborhood occurs there from Thursday night to Sunday night every week, and it draws crowds of all ages. The recent stabbing was not an isolated incident, and neither are the frequent thefts and assaults which happen both to and by patrons of these facilities.
Bontleng, incidentally, is Setswana for ‘Place of Beauty’.
Recently, we began in earnest a project in this greenspace which is almost two years in the making. When we were initially wrestling with the immigration department for our residence permits and were unable to begin our ministry, the two of us spent time daydreaming. One thing which caught our attention was the many overgrown, broken glass and graffiti filled greenspaces such as this one, largely unused save for questionable activities by misled characters. We began to envision ways that these places could be transformed, and the possibilities seemed endless. We measured some areas, wrote up some proposals, made some sketches, got to know some people at Gaborone City Council and City Planning, and officially asked to be able to be granted the use of some land. Soon after, we received our permits and were off and running with our youth and young adults in our Bible studies and community service projects, playing soccer together, sharing meals, and growing as a community of believers from various churches, as well as from outside the walls of the churches. In the meantime, the slow wheels of government were apparently still turning, as almost a year later we received notice that we were welcome to make use of this sketchy park in the middle of the Place of Beauty.
With our youth, we have been spending time learning from Jesus that God’s word is there for us to know and love. And in learning to know and love his word, we’ve been exploring the ways to enact what we’re shown, which is creative, loving, unexpected, un-expecting service of each other. The park in Bontleng has been the latest way in which our group is attempting to do that. Given the love for football (let’s refer to it as football, at the risk of being pretentious) among our group and throughout our churches, as well as among pretty much everyone in Botswana, as well as the lack of facilities for people, especially children and youth, we thought we’d start there. There isn’t really any football development in the country, though on any given day of the week there are people of all ages playing in alleyways, on streets, on hard-packed dirty fields and everywhere in between. So, we thought, why not initiate a project to give children a safe place of focus, which can also be used by youth who might otherwise be drawn towards the bars, as well as giving adults a place to be that doesn’t necessitate drinking to be a part of the action.
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The two of us, along with a group of our young adults from Spiritual Healing Church, as well as some youth from the surrounding area, are building Botswana’s first futsal court. Futsal is 5-a-side football, and is played in many of the best football nations. Fast-paced, skill developing, easy to participate and fun to watch, futsal is played on a surface about the same size as a basketball court (we’re hoping to use a hard synthetic surface which will be safe, but will also last for decades [www.sportcourt.com]). Our team is also rebuilding the children’s beloved playground, recycling, repairing and repainting the pieces which can be salvaged, and building new structures of our own designs (currently, we’ve used a backhoe to rip out all of the broken equipment and have not yet been able to replace it, and the children are not our biggest fans). Beneath a tree beside the court and the playground we’re installing a brick patio and the traditionally-styled semicircular log fencing of a kgotla, a traditional place of meeting for elders, as well as crafting our own homemade Muskoka chairs from the wood recycled from old skids to arrange around it. We’re trying to garner donations of hardy trees to beautify the space and create shade, as well as concrete bus shelters for team benches. Around the fenced-in futsal court (both to keep in the footballs and keep out the vandals), we will be placing stadium lighting (we’re hoping we can get solar panels donated to power them, since we get well over 300 days of intense sun annually), which will also light up the surrounding park at night and make it a safer environment.
There are a number of other concepts which our team has come up with for making the whole place interactive and profitable for the community, including using it as a recycling centre (rare in Gaborone) to generate income for maintenance and security, or attracting local small businesses (carpenters making small furniture of recycled wood, locally made t-shirts and hoodies, food vendors, crafts, etc.) by building little stalls and fixing up the ones already in use by our friends the cobbler, the barber, and the carwashers.
Former English Premier League football player Peter Butler is the new coach of Botswana’s beloved and unsuccessful national football squad, the Diamond Zebras (think Toronto Maple Leafs of international African football). Butler is already a Botswana favorite as he’s helped to reshape the Zebras from a losing defensive-minded squad into a winning, attacking team (at Zebras games, the signs by the fans feature Butler, rather than the players, and when they score the crowd can be heard loudly extolling his virtues: “Eish, what a goal! That Butler…!”). Coach Butler, a huge proponent of community service and grassroots football development, has expressed his support for this project, and gave us his official endorsement to show to the businesses which we are approaching for sponsorships. He’s also stated his intention to bring out the national team for the eventual launching event. Even better, he is interested in helping to provide the football development for the program we intend establish for kids and youth once the court is in place.
If things work well, our hope is that this entire project may be replicated in communities throughout the city, and that we will be able to empower and inspire other youth from the many churches across the country to be able to be a blessing in the name of Jesus in similar ways, or in their own unique and creative ways.
The beauty of a place like Bontleng is reflected in the people who live and meet here, who see and envision more in the land and in the people around them. When Jesus-loving individuals come together as a community to serve their neighbors there is a reality to the words of Jesus: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put in under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16). The darkness of the park that allows weak individuals to target strangers and neighbors alike with violence and fear is no match for the light of Jesus, reflected by God’s people in Gaborone. Please pray that this project would see God’s people coming together in unity to be a blessing to their neighbors, and that others would be inspired to do the same.