Botswana is not a “pretty” country….
Unlike the Namib Desert with its spectacular Sand Dunes and warm, exquisite colors, the Kalahari is not a welcoming place.
That’s probably why the British never bothered making Botswana a colony and left in the 60s – just before diamonds were discovered, bringing incredible wealth to the country.
This barren, uninviting – often desolate – part of the continent is where this story unfolds – and it began over 30 years ago.
A Cambridge Man with a Passion for Motorcycles
John Walters is a vibrant, passionate man.
I met him in February of 2016, during my first African journey while passing through the little town of Rakops in the Kalahari Desert. and felt deeply inspired by his life, his faith and all the beautiful things he had done – often under the most challenging of conditions.
His was not an easy life, not by any means.
Every little success was usually met by a multitude of difficulties or took years to come to fruition. And yet, there was lightness and joy about him – a serenity – that was very refreshing in a world of complainers and cynics.
John didn’t start that way. He grew up in England in an unreligious home and never had any contact with Christian teachings – or any spiritual teachings for that matter. Yet, he recalls, being 4 years old and God telling him that he would be a missionary, something he vehemently objected to during his younger years.
I’m not sure how a 4-year old would know what a missionary is or that God is talking to him, but given John’s unpretentious and humble personality, I have no doubt it really happened.
Years passed, occasionally another experience, but overall no interest in religion or spirituality.
John went to Cambridge and got an engineering degree. A passionate motorcyclist, his big dream was to work on motorcycle racing teams – and he was indeed in the pit crew of 2 world champions!
Not typical missionary material….
After college, John decided to take a break and do something helpful for a year. He went to Zambia to do maintenance work at a mission hospital.
A Powerful Change of Direction
Africa wasn’t new to him. He spent part of his childhood in Nigeria where his father managed a cigarette factory, and he passionately loved the continent.
His stay in Zambia unfolded quite differently though from what he had expected…
When he arrived, the missionary ladies invited some of the local church leaders to have tea and meet him. At one point during this formal gathering, one of the elders leaned over and asked John if he wanted to preach the next day!
John was shocked – panicked actually!
He was 22 at the time, a wild kid with a passion for motorcycles who had somehow ended up in the African bush – and he had never read the bible!
Preaching was the last thing he thought he would ever do in his life, and he politely asked for more time to settle in first.
Never one to run from a challenge though and fully intending to honor his promise to preach at some point, he decided to find out more about Christianity and attended the church service the next day.
The sermon went on for 2 1/2 hours and was all in Chibemba, the local language. He didn’t understand a word and instead took up a bible and started reading from Genesis, chapter 1.
He kept on reading, and 3 months later had made it all the way through – beginning to end – and was fascinated!
The moment that would forever change his life though came when one of the missionary ladies asked him to run Sunday school for the older boys (you can probably imagine his reaction….).
During a conversation with a fellow teacher, John 3:16 was mentioned, a verse that seemed to have great importance – or so he guessed. He had no clue what it said and went home to look it up.
In case you are wondering, the verse contains one of the most fundamental passages of Christian teachings:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
The words struck a chord. He read them over and over and something in him shifted. He suddenly understood on a deep, profound level the power of that statement.
It was the moment of his conversion!
Whether you believe in Christian teachings or not, I think anyone can relate to the beauty of this moment and the blissful, deep connection that came with it.
What I especially love about John is his tolerance and openness. In our numerous deep conservations he never once tried to force his faith or convictions – quite the opposite, he was very interested to hear other view points and spiritual paths while never abandoning his own.
A New Mission in Life
After this special day, John knew what his mission in life would be: he wanted to become a missionary and work in Africa.
God had finally followed through on the prediction he made to a 4 year old boy who had wanted nothing to do with it….
Things did not unfold quickly though. John first went back to England for another 7 years getting an advanced degree in “Technology for Developing Countries” and learning more practical skills – plumbing etc.
He travelled extensively through Africa, most notably the Sahara, transporting young missionaries to their assignments and getting valuable hands-on experience for his later mission.
One day, in 1985, in the back of a truck in the middle of the Sahara, John asked God to confirm whether this part of Africa would be his later mission as he had assumed. God, however, named a very different country to John’s great surprise: Botswana.
Surprise, because it was not a country John particularly liked or had any affinity to – quite the opposite! In fact, he asked God why of all the beautiful African countries he loved so much, it had to be Botswana?
I love God’s response…. “If it’s any other country you would always be wondering whether it was my calling or your desire….”
So that was that!
Getting ready for Botswana
John spent a few more years in the academic world and returned to Botswana for a few weeks in 1987, hitch hiking all over the country. In those days, there were only a few dust roads and it could take many hours for a car to come by. Quite an experience, even for someone experienced in the African bush.
In 1989, 7 years after his initial decision to become a missionary, John finally moved to Botswana full time and stayed at a mission in Francistown for 3 years.
One day, an older missionary told John about a place named Rakops that was so remote and inaccessible that the mission couldn’t find anyone to send there – certainly not a married couple – and it definitely had to be someone experienced with life in the African bush.
Back in those days, there were no roads, running water or any kind of Western comforts in that part of the country, deep in the Kalahari desert. – But for John it was a challenge he relished!
It was the one he had been waiting for….
The Challenge of a Lifetime
John moved to Rakops soon after and started living in a mud hut.
For the first few years, he mostly listened, learned the language, helped out where needed and got involved in the life of the village.
People didn’t know much about Christianity and mostly followed traditional African beliefs, led by Sagomas – medicine men/women.
They knew a few parts of the old testament, mostly those about sacrificial offerings which they could relate to, but not much else.
Progress wasn’t easy, but John was patient. It took 6 years to get a tiny congregation going of about 10-15 – out of 7000….
Ever the pragmatist, John didn’t believe in just caring for people’s souls when their physical needs weren’t met.
People were very poor, especially women. Bride prices had been soaring making it impossible for many men to marry, and the percentage of unmarried women with children was enormous – many of them forced into sexual dependency just to survive and feed their children.
John thought of ways to help.
He started little projects to provide employment and income for people. In particular, a bakery and a leather crafts shop.
Did he know any of those skills?
No. – He tought himself, often through correspondence courses or simple instruction sheets and made sure he stayed one step ahread of those he tought.
Both ventures were soon thriving and provided much needed income to the local people.
HIV and a Call to Action
In the mid 90s, the HIV epidemic took a dramatic toll on the population of Botswana, and Rakops in particular.
More than 54% were infected and antiviral drugs weren’t available yet. People were dying left and right, often as many as 5 per week!
This created another tragic disaster of epic proportions – a huge number of orphans who were suddenly left unattended.
John saw a need for urgent action and decided to put plans underway for a pre-school for needy and destitute children to give them a start in life.
The school was to provide day care with early learning activities to stimulate the young minds and awaken a love of learning in a playful way – as well as 2 meals a day.
Botswana doesn’t support homes for orphans instead trying to place them with relatives and extended family who get government subsidies. This works quite well apparently and allows children to grow up in a family environment, rather than an orphanage.
Many of those families, however, could not afford school tuition or properly care for and feed the children. A pre-school provided solutions to all of those problems – as well as a way out of poverty through a good education.
Negotiations began to buy a plot of land in Rakops to build a pre-school. It was a difficult and time consuming task and would take 10 years (!) to finalize.
In the meantime, John made preparations to start pre-school in the leather crafts building – but he needed a teacher….
From Country Girl to School Mistress
Enter another inspiring person, a young woman by the name of Lesenkamang. John had known her as a congregation member since her early teens, and he saw potential in her. A special quality.
Lesenkamang – 18 at the time – shared John’s vision of building a pre-school to help the neediest. She agreed to become the first teacher and started attending a correspondence course to get the necessary qualifications – while still watching her parents’ cattle by the river.
A year later, in 2001, the pre-school opened with Lesenkamang as teacher (and head mistress), one untrained assistant and a cook. The pre-school provided 2 meals a day (more than the government supported schools who only gave one) and had a class of 12.
While the pre-school was founded to help orphans, it was open to all children to not obstracize any group. If the parents had a good income, usually as government employees, they paid a small monthly tuition, everyone else joined free.
Initially, the school faced a lot of opposition in Rakops. People didn’t understand why a pre-school was needed or what benefit it would bring and refused to send their children.
A year later though, everyone could see how great the pre-school children were doing and attendance rose to over 80 children per year.
More teachers began training and things were going well. So well in fact, that for 7 straight years alumni from the pre-school became valectorians at the primary and secondary school – at every single level!
Even more wonderful – the first students have now entered university!
What a difference one man’s vision and determination made in their lives!
A Miracle for 1 Million Pula
In the meantime, negotiations for the plot of land to build a school were continuing. It was a plot alloted by the government and permission to buy was delayed again and again – it took a staggering 10 years!
Once again, I marvel at the patience John displayed throughout those years, never giving up, never loosing hope, plowing away with all his other projects and most of all – not loosing the joy in it!
I find this part of John’s personality the most inspiring as we all get so easily discouraged with much lesser problems. Only someone with a larger purpose could go on under such conditions, and for so many years. Again and again and again.
John has a brilliant mind. A Cambridge trained academic who loves beautiful discourses on deep subjects – yet, he rarely gets those in Rakops. Or any kind of Western comforts.
Still, he is a joyful man and seems happy – at peace with where he felt God placed him and fulfilled by the work he regards as his mission in life.
So rare to see that kind of serenity in our deeply restless world……
When permission to buy the land was finally granted, the next seemingly insurmountable hurdle began to loom….
Asked by the villagers how much it would cost to build the school, John gave a rough estimate of about 1 Million Pula – about $100,000!
More than any of them had ever seen, even remotely – including John.
So how did he resolve this issue?
He did what he does best – pray – and inspire those around him to pray with him.
The group started every morning before school with a prayer for 1 Million pula. Day after Day…
Nothing happened, months went by, eventually 2 years.
In the meantime, negotiations with officials continued for the final building permissions to be issued (another 2 years).
Then, something extraordinary happened.
John received a phone call from Holland. The caller was Louis Kruger from the Build on a Rock Foundation. The Group already supported schools in Cambodia and the Philippines and were looking for a project in Africa to add to their roster.
How did they know about John – and even have his phone number (not exactly information one could just google in those days…..)?
As “fate” would have it, another Dutchman had visited the area two years before – around the time they had started to pray…
He was a retired school teacher staying at a nearby lodge and had wanted to see bushman settlements. It was a hot day, he was an elderly gentlemen with failing health and soon was close to collapsing. His driver didn’t know what to do and brought him over to the leather crafts building to meet John.
He stayed awhile, looked around and observed the pre-school. They exchanged phone numbers and then he left – never to be heard from again.
This very Dutchman happened to be good friends with Louis Kruger and the Build a Rock Foundation, and when they were looking for a school to add in Africa – he remembered…..
Just when they were finally granted permission to build the school and urgently needed a million pula for the construction, this man called out of the blue and offered to help!
John was stunned and, of course, happily agreed. Then another amazing thing happened:
Kruger asked him to prepare a full comprehensive report on the need of orphans, AIDS, nutrition, pre-schools, early child development etc. – a huge amount of work normally….
But as it happened….John had just a completed such a report a month ago for the permanent secretary of the ministry of health. However, when he went there to deliver it, the official told him that he was about to resign and no longer needed the report. All that work for nothing – or so it seemed…..
John was now able to turn over that very report to the Dutchman who was impressed and came back soon after with an offer to raise €125,000 – almost the exact amount they needed and had been praying for the last 2 years! And – without John ever mentioning such an amount – or any amount at all!
Even John was amazed, and it was a beautiful testament to his faith and those around him, most notably young Lesenkamang who was still holding the fort at the school and had blossomed into an effective and much loved school mistress and administrator.
Building a School – The Female Construction Crew
Then the work began. One of the requirements for receiving the money had been to employ only local workers to strengthen the village economy. Of course, noone was experienced in this type of construction, but as a Cambridge trained engineer and after many years of hands-on training, John took the challenge in stride, playing architect, foreman, engineer, brick layer, plumber, and many other roles and training everyone else.
The building provided welcome job opportunities for many in the village, including many women who were working side by side with the men. They were ecstatic about the income and new ability to feed their children.
In fact, they often brought their babies along to work and it was not an uncommon sight to see a woman pushing a wheel barrel with a baby strapped to her back!
The work progressed nicely and the pre-school finally opened in 2009.
These are photos I took during my visit in 2016 – 7 years later:
A Pre-School for the San Bushmen
Never one to rest for long, John soon focused to add another project – a pre-school for the San Bushmen who had a settlement outside the village boundaries.
The San are the original inhabitants of Southern Africa – all other tribes came much later through large scale migrations all over the continent.
Their features and appearance are distinctly different. Much lighter skin, more delicate in stature and build – gentler in personality.
I had already met a few San at Naankuse in Namibia and knew a little about them and their plight.
Removed from their nomadic life in the Kalahari and forced into settlements, their future looked bleak and depression was high.
They were treated badly and taken advantage off by other tribes (same in Namibia), but held out hope that their children would have a better future.
The local San in Rakops relished the chance of a pre-school for their children. They wanted them to grow up speaking English and Sitsuana (Botswana’s main language) and get a good education – to have a chance in life and make something of themselves.
John had cultivated cordial relations with the San for years and speaks their beautiful language fluently.
It was his dream to provide them with a pre-school of their own – and building work began in 2010.
Once again, women were actively involved in the work, the whole village was, and a beautiful school was soon to emerge…..
Roadblocks and Setbacks
Things didn’t continue as smoothly and in the coming years, two major calamities would almost destroy the work.
For one, the government suddenly decided to open pre-schools of their own and rather than training their own teachers, started poaching the private schools all over the country, offering 4 times their salary.
Understandably, many left and started working for the government, putting considerable strain on John’s school.
It was difficult enough to keep the school running with only some of the wealthier children paying tuition, barely enough to cover the meals, supplies and half the salaries.
Raising paychecks was out of the question and training and keeping teachers became a continuous struggle.
The other major challenge was keeping the school financially viable.
A Bakery for a School
From the outset, John had set up the bakery and pre-school as a joint venture. Revenue from the bakery was to subsidize the school so it would be self-sufficient.
A good plan and it was working for a while.
The bakery was thriving, providing much needed income for a number of local residents while generating enough revenue to offset the school’s expenses.
The bakery even landed a government contract with the local secondary school providing solid income streams for several years.
Then – two things happened:
1) Botswana’s economy had become more integrated making it much easier to transport goods. As a result, supermarkets began having their own bakeries and started price wars to put the smaller bakeries out of business, so underpricing their products that the smaller outfits could no longer compete – though their quality was much higher.
Local shop keepers would buy cheap supermarket bread 100km away that they could upsell at a 100%, rather than stocking bread from the local bakeries.
Prices became so low that most local shops had to shut down.
The Rakops bakery also struggled, but was still able to keep going thanks to the government contract with the secondary school.
2) regulations for bakeries changed. Western standards were required now and village level technology was no longer eligible to get a manufacturing license.
The result: the bakery lost the much needed government contract and had to shut down. The pre-school had lost its main source of income.
This happened a year ago and has made it increasingly difficult to keep the school running – though it never closed its doors.
A School without Teachers
A particularly sad result was in store for the San School. Just when they were about to open last year, the government poached away all their teachers with 4 times the salary.
This time, it was not possible to fill the gap and the school remained closed.
This beautiful building and playground in the middle of the San village:
Empty. Closed up!
John took me to visit, and it was sad to see. He hasn’t given up, of course, and still fully intends to open the school next year.
Settling down with a Family
On a positive note, another part of John’s life developed beautifully. He had taken a liking to a particular young lady – the woman who had shared his mission and dreams from the very beginning: Lesenkamang.
They married in 2012 and have an adorable little daughter named Joanna.
Lesenkamang is a quiet woman. Unpretentious, doesn’t make many words, but firm in her beliefs and pursuit of her mission, skillfully performing a position that had to endure a lot of hostility and intrigues over the years.
They are a lovely couple, and I cherish the few days I stayed with them back in February.
One more Challenge…..
As if John and Lesenkamang didn’t have enough challenges already, recent years have seen John’s health failing. At first subtle, then more dramatically a year ago, with chronic fatigue syndrom as a destructive side effect.
When I met him, John was already quite weak and easily exhausted – very hard to accept for such a dynamic go-getter. Over the past few months, his health deteriorated further, now requiring specialized medical care in England where he is getting ready for treatment at the time of this writing.
He will, of course, return to Rakops and continue his work – and once again, his drive and enthusiasm are unbroken.
He actually has even bigger plans…..
John’s great vision is to add primary and secondary school levels to the pre-school. A full comprehensive school system leading up to university.
Why? I asked. – Isn’t the government providing those?
Yes, but apparently, support is mostly given to the few gifted students in each class while the rest are neglected and never enabled to fulfill their potential. Many don’t finish school and only a small fraction ever make it to university.
John wants to change that and give every child in Botswana a fair chance at a good future.
Education is the most effective tool to erase poverty, and it is this mission that still drives his life.
Meeting John was a great inspiration. I actually met him through Couchsurfing if you can believe it!
I often couchsurf on my travels, not so much for financial savings, but for the amazing cultural exchange that can happen when you get to know a country in the company of a local. It is an entirely different experience than staying at a hotel, and I have met some of the most amazing people that way – many of whom became lifelong friends.
I was looking for a host in the middle of Botswana and John replied right away. In fact, he was the only host in that part of the country…..
I knew it would be an interesting experience, but I never expected to hear this extraordinary story and witness first hand what one man’s vision and faith can achieve and how many lives can be transformed through dedication, selflessness – and love…..
I’m grateful I can share this story here – with you. May it inspire you as it has inspired me, and if you want to pray for John, he would love that. You are also welcome to contact him with questions or just to share a response. John doesn’t run fundraising campaigns and instead trusts God to provide. It always seems to work, even if sometimes last minute, and if you feel inspired to offer some assistance – financially or otherwise – just write to him. John will be happy to hear from you and you can reach him either through the Pre-School Facebook Page or via Email.
“It is not how much we give, but how much love we put into the giving.” – Mother Teresa
To spread this amazing story, please feel free to share this article and leave a comment below. All will be read and replied to.
Thanks to John for providing so many wonderful pictures – some are from my visit in February, but most come from his large collection that he kindly allowed me to use.