Shakespeare in Africa #4. Students, Snakes and Sticky Hands.

Shakespeare in Africa #4. Students, Snakes and Sticky Hands.

My first night in Motopi, I fled my room to wait it out while the lone misquito had it out with Doom. (See last article — “Dooming the room.”) It was worth it. Standing under the night sky like that I saw things I’d never seen. Which brought up thoughts I never had, hatched here under the night sky.

Botswana Thought #1:

Why do we go to the moon when in all truth, we’re already on the greatest spaceship ever. We can breathe, eat, move around rotate the sun and we don’t have to put on a space suit, drink Tang or eat space sticks!

Pinky cleans the entire school.

I don’t remember having that thought before. I direct Shakespeare for a modest living currently — there was so much star gazing going on back then— hence the references in all the plays to the sky, the heavens, the sun, the stars. I never got it until now. Hard to pull myself away, but a hear a rustle in the bushes so I run inside. The misquito is no more. It’s hot in Chicken’s house. I want to jump in the river, but I am warned there are hippos in there at night.

Donkeys and birds wake me on my first full day. But that is a wonderful sound. What isn’t so wonderful is the ongoing fluttering in a corner of the bedroom roof— like a massive bird’s nest inside the ceiling.

My neighbor “Pinky” is a young, very hard working single mother who lives in a two room house next door. She wears a pink dress to work but that is not why she’s called Pinky. Her job is cleaner of the school floors and toilets — Pinky came over last night and showed me how to “work” the house. The shower water is heated by an electric tea kettle — that water is poured into a plastic tub to be mixed with the cold shower water. Somehow. Then there are the breakers, which Pinky demonstrates. If there are too many things going at once, everything turns off everywhere. Including at Pinky’s house. Electricity is paid in advance. When it’s used up — that’s the end. Go pay it forward.

I am getting in a mindset to meet the school teachers and the students today. No lounging, no jet lag recovery time. Brooks arrives and we sip our instant coffee, jump in his truck and head along the dirt road, sometimes blocked by donkeys, goats and cows. In the light of day I can now see the huts of Motopi.

I get my second Botswana Thought:

What about Unlearning? What about UnTeaching? What if we call it UnTeacher. I am a lifelong Unlearner. How else to make room for new ideas? We should unlearn everything. Even this thought.

Sticky Fingers all Day Long

There’s no ownership in “being taught” — less discovery, no real joy in it for that matter. Our players prefer when learning their lines is an accident — like while they’re on their feet engaging with each other. We try and untry things in rehearsal all the time. Fixed ideas are a danger. More of a danger than the nest in the ceiling of my bedroom — which I have been told could be a bat’s nest.

I nearly stepped on this.

The school is a collection of buildings on dirt, overlooking a field. There are classrooms, offices, a kitchen and toilets way off in the field. I hear a rumor that the kids recently killed a python in the schoolyard. I find out later, this is not an uncommon thing. Spiders? The least of our worries.

I meet the school headmistress, Mma Bharata, sitting behind a desk in a tiny dark room. Brooks translates – speaking in Tswana. She does speak English, but this gives us a flow. It’s obvious on Day One, they aren’t sure what I actually do or what to do…with me. I show Mma Bharata what we do at Los Angeles Drama Club by playing videos of our kids on my phone. I know that if I could just have some time with the students, it would become clear. Then all the teachers come in and we meet each other. They’re young and not what I expected. There’s an urban vibe to a lot of them.

Classes start and Mma Bharata brings me around to each classroom. When we enter, the children immediately rise and greet us in English:

“Good mohhning, teachah!”

From pre-school to seventh grade, they’re in uniform and impeccably groomed.

“Good morning, class. How are you?”

“We are fiiiine, Madame.”

In this first 20 seconds, I realize this is very academic English. There was a warning that the English is not fluent and I would have to go slow. But when I audit the classrooms and hear the teachers talk to them, it’s in Tswana. When I proceed to talk to them in English, their faces look blank. Now what? Shakespeare of course.

I have now audited the classes and it’s Nutrition break. Mma Bharata tells me some of the kids come to school hungry and this is their first meal. It’s not a complaint, just a piece of information. Everyone dips their hands into pails, scooping out what looks like hominy. Sticky fingers everywhere. One grabs my hand – the goo spreads. Great. I assume that this gluey substance just…stays on our hands…until it’s forgotten. I’m right.

I go look for a towel to wipe it off, but I’m physically trapped inside a mob of First Graders huddling for a photo. (the kids crowd in; they have gobs of space, but they love to clump together like one flailing octopus). In the middle of this clump of bodies under the Acacia tree, Botswana Idea #3 comes to me.

Teach them Hamlet. They will get it.

First graders stare up at me. I speak, they repeat. Now they do it on their own. In five minutes, the first words of Shakespeare are officially spoken in Motopi — by a group of six year olds.

This group uttered the first words of Shakespeare today

To be or not to be. My favorite teacher, Miss Hayes, was an archaeologist, and she was always coming back from a dig or some kind of adventure. I remember her because of her storytelling. It was about what she had JUST DISCOVERED. It felt so alive. Everything felt like it was happening now. The teachers in Motopi are required to teach out of books. But when they break the pattern of that and speak from their passion or experience, everyone wakes up. I feel so lucky – this is ALL I get to do – tell stories, speak from my passion and wake everyone up. The women teachers in Motopi are nurturers but they also have fire. The first one that catches my attention is Teacher Gertrude. And she knows about Hamlet’s Gertrude. Could Shakespeare have known that 400 years down the road, a woman in Botswana will be talking about her given name being a one of his characters? She invites me to her classroom after Nutrition. A bell is rung and the children run into the buildings. The yard is quiet.

Iamic Pentameter strikes in Gertrude’s Class!

Note the eyes. We are quite present.

I walk into Miss Gertrude’s 4th Grade class. They all stand and greet me. Then they sing a song. I try to learn some Tswana from them. This group is up for anything. I decide to start with zero words. Everyone understands a heartbeat. I tap out: dee DUMB/dee DUMB/dee DUMB/dee DUMB/dee DUMB… on my chest. I invite them to join.

This is the language of the heart and the iambic feet matches a heartbeat. Could Shakespeare have been walking through hills while he thought up the speeches — was his heart pounding louder than usual? This is really a theory.Once they got the 5 Feet (dee-dumbs), Gertrude’s class receives their first Iambic Pentameter line: the one we like to start with at L.A. Drama Club:

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Playing the Mirror Game, Day One

No writing! We are up on our feet. Every word conveyed through tone and gesture. UNEASY is not the opposite of “easy,” so we look for a synonym. Uncomfortable…not quite….unsafe. They know this word. They get UNSAFE.

We stand together, acting out what “unsafe” looks like in our bodies and faces. I ask, “Who is a person who wears a crown?” No blank stares. A tiny voice calls out: The Queen. I thought it interesting Queen was thought of before King. Now we talk about POWER.

Why should a queen feel unsafe? Castles, mansions, fame and money…why unsafe? Can a Queen ever rest? What if somebody wants to take her crown? Maybe she worries all the time! Invaders, Heretics, Cousins….

Botswana president, Ian Khama*, is a conservationist. Brooks tells me how he has re-purposed the Botswana army to shoot only poachers. Also, in this country, no cammoflauge allowed! It’s no“fashion statement” over here. So in this case, this Botswana “head that wears a crown” might feel uneasy over concern about the elephants being shot for tusks in the Kalahari. They understand that analogy. They get it. Miss Gertrude translates just in case. Hands go up. Every single one of them now wants the opportunity to to chant it alone, in front of their peers.

It’s been twenty minutes and Gertrude’s Fourth Grade class shows a visceral, personal understanding of this one Shakespeare line from Henry IV. They also get to ponder how getting to the top of the Power Food Chain has a price.Then my favorite thing happened:

They ask for another line of iambic pentameter.

This is when I say to Gertrude, “I think we can put on a show.” Gertrude is ahead of me. “You’ll have your show.” I am heartened that there are curious teachers here — teaching curious children. And I have hope that Motopi School — in the middle of nowhere — will soon be the “Youngest Shakespeare Troupe in Africa.”

The hominy stuck on my hand has dried. And for the rest of the day … it goes unnoticed and forgotten.

The walk to school. I am closer to Shakespeare’s era here.
Not kidding about the sticky hands.

Shakespeare in Africa #3: Becoming a Different Person.

Shakespeare in Africa #3: Becoming a Different Person.

Shakespeare in Africa #3: Becoming a Different Person.

I am still headed to a rural African village called Motopi where I will live by myself and work in a local school teaching Shakespeare (what I do at home). I’ve done many daring and rash things in my life. And a lot of very strange and difficult things have happened to me. I survived my childhood and adulthood and it was rarely easy. I don’t do things because they’re easy. Easy never interested me. Well…it’s starting to. But for now, I am programmed to do hard things and to teach others to do them too.

L. A. Drama Club: Our Theatre Company makes Hard look Easy.

I am on my second Luftansa flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg with one more German woman sitting next to me (German seat partner: mandatory for all international flights). We left off where the German seat partner was balking at my decision to book two African flights within 40 mintues of each other. I don’t have the mental bandwidth to explain — not my decision to book the two flights — yes, my decision to trust an online booking agency. I am realizing that there is no way to “check in” online to Air Botswana, but in person. Old school. I have half an hour to transfer in J-Burg and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m stuck here for 8 more hours and can do nothing but…

Start making a list of what is emerging as The African Way for Westerners.

AW#1: You Think You “Got This.” You don’t.

“I got this.” A popular phrase. So American. Being a rugged individualist, totally self contained, on my own…gets prasied and rewarded, even though it’s an illusion. We urban dwellers are deluded. We believe we’re independent but one strike of an earthquake or hurricane would prove otherwise. I start to consider, “I don’t Got This at all.” Interdependence seems more the African Way. Tribal thinking makes more sense! I know that am going to need help over there. I don’t like the feeling. It means putting others out, being dependent, and trusting. A thought occurs to me: Not Trusting is a sign of privilege. The luxury of not trusting….

Johannesburg Airport. I am walking off the plane and am hit with a blast of hot air — “Welcome to the Land of the Protea.”

A preview of what is to come. Motopi School.

All the self help, 12-step, therapy and bone-crushing life lessons I’ve learned did not bring me the kind of catharsis as did stepping foot on African Soil and allowing that blast of hot air to hit my face. Easy and swift. A new voice. Not the Troubleshooter, not the Naysayer, not the Imposter. This is a wise voice.

You are different. You will never be the same person who fussed all the way here. You have done the work to be ready for this moment. And you get to have it.

After that sets in, I am told to go get my suitcase in baggage claim. I look around in wonder. When last suitcase tumbles onto the carousel, it isn’t mine. I show a woman who works here. She says, no. Your bag has gone to Botswana. A young airport worker looks at my ticket, then at me.

AW #2 : Sometimes things change, and you need to run.

She runs, I run…so fast and so far, I get a side-ache. J-burg is a massive airport. We finally make it to the Air Botswana gate. I could never have found this on my own. She was the only way. Now she is talking to the Check In Lady. There is a problem. A big problem. I am told….

“The flight is closed. You are too late. Come back tomorrow.”

Like making it to Oz …and having the little window open and slam. But this isn’t Oz, it’s Johannesburg. I do not know what I’m doing here. I have a man waiting, a place, a school. I can barely form words.

“There’s a man waiting …he is my only chance. There’s a school the expects me…I’ve been traveling 24 hours…I don’t know what to…”

This is not like me. I always know what to do. I’m the I Know What to Do Girl when it comes to traveling. “I got this.” The Check in Lady looks at me…I’m crying. To make it this far and then…fall apart.

AW #3: If You Fall Apart, Sometimes the Rules are Bended.

“Okay. Go. Just go.”

She just single-handedly changed the rules based on…heartstrings? The woman who ran me over there says, “Hurry! We have to run again.” And we do: down the escalator and out the doors to the outside. To a van! My face still wet from crying, I am now laughing. I’m being gaslit by the universe and it’s funny. My drops of tears, I’ll turn into sparks of fire. And I will.

I hug the airport worker who changed the fate of this journey. Years holding onto the idea that abandoment was the norm for me…she somehow erased it. Gone in one final act. I’m feeling quite alive. My first half hour in Africa included a sprinting marathon, a nervous breakdown and two serious plot twists.

Boarding Air Botswana tram, I now meet my fellow passengers on this flight to Maun. Australian and British tourists in crisp Safari costumes…er, outfits. They look like they’re playing the part of wealthy tourists on Safari for a movie shoot, when I realize…. they are wealthy toursits on Safari. We board the plane and I am next to a bickering British couple. “This is the tiniest plane on the planet.” I might not have her money, but I grin, just glad I’m not her.

AW #4: There are Bugs in this World. If you forgot, we will remind you.

When the Attendant announces that insecticide — ‘with no adverse side effects’ — will now be sprayed up and down the aisles, the women bury their heads, horrified. I grin again. My bionic ear records more conversations. They are excited they can be in Botswana versus Kenya — for the exclusivity and the Okavango Delta. They will go on game drives. I wonder will I even see an elephant? I am relieved to hear there is no hunting allowed in Botswana. I look down the entire time. Africa from the sky.

Botswana from the sky.

Long, needle-thin roads and a windy river….I feel peaceful. I drift to sleep.

We land on the tarmac and are guided to customs where everything goes HAYWIRE! Forms filled wrong, glasses lost, luggage missing, passport snagged…I am asked to “give an address where I’m staying”! It occurs to me, I have no idea where I’m staying. It’s all up to Brooks. The “two email” man. But they won’t let me go out to find him.

I’m in a Shakespeare comedy: epic problems — hilarious only to spectators. Then, just like at the ticket gate in J-burg, they change their minds and let me go look for Brooks.

I turn a corner and there he is, holding a sign with my name. Instantly, he is pulled into my mini drama. We get right into action. Brooks puts a search out for my lost luggage. But I still can’t put the address where I’m staying. Why? Brooks tells me:

AW #5: Sometimes there won’t be an address.

We sort of…make one up. I think to myself no addresses in Motopi but if all goes well, perhaps the address of the youngest Shakespeare troupe in Africa.

Brooks and Machine save the day!

We leave the Maun airport and cross the street to an open air Indian place Tandurei. Instantly, cousins, nephews, brothers of Brooks…pass by or sit wth us. I meet “Machine” — brother of Brooks. He is a teacher and he is curious about his students learning Shakespeare. They want their kids to speak more English. It gives them an edge. Swana is only spoken in Botswana, so if they want to leave, they better know English.

AW #6: Sometimes you won’t have your clothes. And it’s actually fun.

I have no clothes because my suitcase is missing. Brooks takes me to a store and I now get to re-invent my entire African wardrobe that I so painstakingly chose before leaving. For 26$ I had plenty. Food is next. I will need food for the village. At the grocery store I notice most items are imported from South Africa. Nothing local. Granola, milk in a box, potatoes, carrots, bottled water and tea biscuits. Brooks looks skeptical. “Not enough. There is nothing where you are going.” Nothing?

AW #7: Know that you are dependent on protein bars unless you’re one of those rich Safari guests.

Lunch, brought from home. #Bison

I remember my friend telling me to pack beef jerky and protein bars. I think, really? I packed 5 “buffalo bars” which ended up being my lunch every day. Brooks was right. There was no food unless I knew how to kill an animal and cook it.

We drive away and Brooks cuts up a small road and weaves through some sporadic homes. We check on a house Brooks is building so he can rent it out and retire as a Game Drive guide. This is where I first encounter the Botswana House Spider: the size of my hand. I really really dislike spiders. This is a challenge. He lets me know, they are in all the houses. They are part of the walls… He tells me about this American teenager whining, “OMG, Mom, I wanna go home, like right now!” I vow to face my arachnophobia and overcome it. I mean… do I have a choice?

AW #8: See AW #4 !

Weaving Spiders, come not Near!

We pick up a woman called “Chicken” who owns the house where I will stay. She is riding along to let me in the house. Chicken explains that she is a widow and she left her home in the village and moved here to Maun after her husband died. So now I will live in her empty house in the village.

The road to Motopi is filled with potholes: cars swerve and it’s a comical sight. We stop at a Checkpoint where we get out of the car and step into a wet box of dirty water and bicarbonate of soda which — magically wards off Hoof & Mouth disease at the county border. The virus wiped out Botswana’s beef industry years back. The thing is….the water is contaminated with the bottom of everyone’s shoes. But it wasn’t my place to start pointing things out.

AW #9: If you step in a box of water and bicarbonate of soda before crossing the border, you are magically sterilized.

The trees are epic and line both sides of the road. The sky is wide and filled with animated clouds, all telling stories. Magic is not hard to find in this African sky.

It’s my first of many drives with Brooks, where we talk about many many things. I am being taken to the school of his childhood. These are the kids he wants to help. He comes to talk to them about Why We don’t Shoot Elephants.

We pull up to Chicken’s house, where I will stay. And here I am. This spot— in this village — is about everything I’ve done in my life up to this point. It all has come together for this moment. I meet my neighbor Pinky, a mother who also cleans the local school. We all visit but I am showing obvious tand the electical system. After they leave, I accidentally shut off the breakers and Pinky must come to the rescue. Silly American…. “I don’t got this. “

I will report to the school 8:30am tomorrow, meet the teachers, the principal and the kids and get to work.

12pm — Everyone gone. Just me and one misquito terrorizing in my bedroom. I’m under the sheet, totally, but he will burrow through, I know it. Brooks had taught me to Doom the Room. I really resisted the thought of spraying chemicals above my pillow….but at 1am, sleep deprived in this hot bedroom, all bets are off. I “Doom the Room” and run outside.

I stop and look at the sky. Two stars fall within 10 minutes. I haven’t seen a falling star in decades. I go back to my bedroom. The pesty misquito is apparently….doomed.

I go to sleep… a different person than who I was at LAX. At Frankfurt. At J-Burg, and drifting off, I wonder who will I be tomorrow?

Next. Shakespeare in Africa #4: If You Come, They will Build it.

I never expected this.



*At the time this was written, Ian Khama was President. On April 1, his term ended.

“Shakespeare in Africa? What Do You Think You’re Doing?”

“Shakespeare in Africa? What Do You Think You’re Doing?”

From the Journal of Miss Blaire.  LAX.  March 18, 2018. 3 pm.

I’m headed to Africa based on two emails. Two. Emails. That’s what no one else really knows.

The final performances of our ’18 Season (King Lear and my own play, Illspoken: The People vs. William Shakespeare), are actually happening right this very friggin’ minute. I feel strange. I’ve never missed a performance in 13 years of running the Shakespeare Youth Fest! It’s weird not being backstage right now. Like I’ve lost a toddler that’s made a mad dash into the crowd. Aren’t I supposed to be shushing the players or teasing hair or getting Zane’s bloody eyepatch to look red not pink. Making sure Aaron doesn’t touch the set so it falls on ‘Mma again (pictured left). It’s closing night, why am I sitting here at Bradley Terminal waiting to board a three-pronged flight from L.A. to the bottom of Africa? By myself. Why am I crying? Why am I so sad?  Am I scared?  Why am I doing this? I’ve been sick for weeks and I can’t seem to recover. I cough and get weak and lose energy. I was told to cancel this trip (by people who cancel things). But I don’t. I’d sooner die than back down. I was supposed to go with two other women who have been here before. One is my oldest friend. But they had serious things happen and they couldn’t go. How much caffeine was I spinning on when I asked to go to Botswana by myself? And not on Safari, but to launch a performing arts program from scratch at a rural primary school?  No Safari. The voice of multiple people are in my head, now.  “Excuse me.  Shakespeare in Africa? I mean culturally, that makes no sense. More Western thought? And who cares about Shakespeare when they have to deal with clean water and food scarcity? Plus…you’re not James Shapiro, you’re not the RSC or OSF or  The Globe. What do you think you’re doing?”

Los Angeles Drama Club is anything but cute.

With Imposter Syndrome now fully set in as I sit in the terminal. I’m trying to remember, did anyone actually say this to me? No. But I’m sure it’s what all the WhiteSplainers are thinking.  Then, “Oh yeah. No one is thinking about you. Get over it.”  I think I’m taking on shades of Lear himself….”Who am I to my kids?”  The insanity is interrupted by a text from Regan (actually our player, Julia E). “Lear’s going amazing. Best ever.”

Great show. As always.

Yay. Now I can add FOMO on top of Imposter Syndrome. Why can’t I be content, let alone happy? 

It is because I’m a jaded grouch or is it because “no artist is pleased”? I am actually very happy for our Players and I am wise enough to know all the crazy monkey mind talk is fear. I feel like Gloucester at the edge of the cliff. (Even my eye is messed up today). I started this entire “thing” – whatever it is, and even back then I didn’t know what the “plan” was except to get two 5 year-olds to speak Shakespeare. It was an experiment that suddenly  mushroomed into hundreds of kids and 27 plays in the Canon already performed… thirty minutes until boarding….okay. I want this nagging voice to leave me the !$*%!! alone before I walk onto that plane.  I have thirty minutes to write a push back and purge it forever.  Setting alarm with Siri for 4:15pm.  Go:

Why do anything? Why try? If I were nine and a visitor was coming to my school from as far away as southern Africa to share customs, teach a dance, impart the language of Swana, tell stories and legends of their ancestors, act out their folk lore – how would I feel? (….excited, honored, ignited. curious, open, grateful).  So why wouldn’t they feel the same? This is about universal stories. New stimulation. Theatre games bringing connection. Self discovery. Play. I am allowed to show up and play. I am not a colonizer. I am not a celebrity going into a village for photo ops. I am not a tourist on safari. I am an artist who loves young people and theatre and Shakespeare. And I don’t need to be in the Royal Shakespeare to be a champion of the Underdogs, the Forgotten, the Ignored, the Abandoned and the Other 99% of the world.  I am the person to do this. If we fail, we fail. But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail!  Thanks, Lady M.  And thanks for your concern Imposter Syndrome, but I don’t need you on this trip.  You’re staying home. I’m sure you’ll pick me up at the airport…

Jesse, Marieke, Vivian, Sebastian in King Lear

That push back took 9 minutes to write.  With 21 minutes to spare, I’m off to get my last Starbucks. Maybe ever.

6pm. Over Detroit.

Or thereabouts. I left “Who do you think you are?” back at the airport but Nature abhors a vacuum so a new personality has surfaced. The Troubleshooter. The Troubleshooter has accepted that it’s a done deal. The Troubleshooter (my Mother from the grave I’m sure) has caught on to my little secret which no one knows… This trip to the bottom of Africa  hinges on two emails between me and Mr. Brooks Kamanakao: who I don’t know.  Why am I not panicking? Brooks was referred to me via my friend Dee Dee. I trust Dee Dee and Dee Dee trusts Brooks. His last email: “See you at the airport.”

At this point I am ready to arrive in Maun and have no one be there and deal with it. But right now I’m trapped in a tiny seat in Coach with my mother’s voice. An onslaught of: “Where are you staying?… Find a hospital … What if he isn’t at the airport? … You didn’t learn one word of Swana … Did you forget the malaria pills? … Have your passport around your neck.”

I can’t. I won’t. Yap all you want, Troubleshooter.  We’re going to just sit here in coach and stare at the seat in front of us that’s practically rammed into our knees…with all these unanswered questions.  For the next 9 hours.


Next installment: Getting to Motopi, Botswana