From the Editor

Change of scenery

When a 17-year-old student came to her office in Kagiso Senior Secondary School crying, and saying something about a teacher, and something about sex, and something about problems with her father, Maureen Doran ’71MSN feared the worst—an affair, maybe a pregnancy. But Doran, although she’s a psychiatric nurse practitioner versed in interviewing people in pain, couldn’t understand the student’s accented English well enough. Nor had her two months’ language training for this post in Ramotswa, Botswana, equipped her for this level of complexity. She asked the young woman to go home, write down what troubled her, and come back first thing next morning.

Doran and her husband, psychiatrist Christopher “Kip” Doran ’73MD, are Peace Corps volunteers in their early 60s. They have been given much, says Maureen—their careers, their families, the government stipend that sent her to Yale. They feel much is expected. So they closed their private practices and left their 3,200-square-foot house in Denver for 675 square feet in Ramotswa. They travel on foot or by public transit. They have running water (most days), a solar-powered water heater, and even Internet (most days).

Their sociocultural surroundings have shifted still more seismically. Botswana is in demographic crisis. Its HIV incidence is considered the second highest in the world: 14 percent of all males and 20 percent of all females are infected. A huge swath of the mature adult population has died. One feels, Maureen says, that “a whole generation has been wiped out.”

Both Dorans, and all Peace Corps volunteers in Botswana, are there to help the country save its next generation of adults. But promoting safe sex in Botswana means trying to change a matrix of cultural norms. Botswana was once a polygamous society, and multiple concurrent sexual relationships are still common. Older men often sleep with younger women. Young women have relatively low social status and few reasons not to sleep with a man who offers, say, a cell phone in exchange. And they are vulnerable. Two weeks after Doran started work, a student hanged herself on a tree outside the dormitory.

Peace Corps volunteers swim upstream as hard and fast as they can. Kip works for the District AIDS Coordinator. Maureen teaches life skills classes and helps organize clubs, support groups, library projects—anything that might foster young women’s self-esteem and encourage teenagers to protect themselves.

Maureen knows of no metrics that show they have made a dent. But often she gets a response that tells her she’s working with people who want what she has to offer and are resilient. She started a girls’ book club, to teach girls not only reading skills, but also responsibility for meetings, schedules, group projects. The first meeting was on a drenched, freezing Friday. “I said, ‘No one’s going to come. I wouldn’t come.’” But 11 of the 15 came, and the club has thrived.

The student who had visited Maureen’s office came back. She had a crush on her teacher—but she wasn’t sleeping with him. Her agony was caused by her father, an alcoholic. They talked about the bitter disdain she felt. Finally, the girl looked at Maureen and said she wanted to learn to forgive him. “I’ve had patients in psychotherapy who after years of struggling were never able to reach this level of compassion and maturity,” Maureen wrote. “This Batswana child, and her peers, are remarkable in more ways than can be recounted.”  

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