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Last Updated
Tuesday 03 August 2021, 12:07 pm.
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Gasennelwe A life spent in service of society

It is a rather chilly Friday morning as I sit down in the study of the home of Dr Kegalale Jocelyn Gasennelwe for our interview.
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Mmegi Online :: Gasennelwe A life spent in service of society








The touch of flu that she says she's been fighting for the past week hasn't dampened my interviewee's good spirits in the slightest.

She is the picture of joviality as she often switches topic during the interview to relate an anecdote from her past before letting out a hearty laugh. Though advanced in years, Dr Gasennelwe has the vibe of a young person and no doubt her wonderful sense of humour has played a major role in keeping her youthful.

At first glance it seems as though Gasennelwe fell into health work by accident as she explains that in her day, the government chose what course aspiring students would study on their behalf.  However, upon closer inspection it turns out that this esteemed woman has always gravitated towards work that involved improving quality of life for the people around her.

Gasennelwe has had a versatile career, rising through the ranks at the National Health Institute (Now the Institute of Health Sciences) to become the Principal tutor (1985-1989) before going on to become the Director of Manpower Development (1989-1996). She served as the Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health (1996-2000) and then as the Secretary General of the Botswana Red Cross Society (2001-2003).

When questioned about which part of her illustrious career she felt had made the most significant impact, Gasennelwe barely pauses before she responds. She cites her time as the Chairman of the National Council on Population and Development (2003-2008), along with her Health work, as being the most important contributions she made to the nation.

She justifies her choice by explaining that her work in the Council focused on assessing whether the different government departments were making the most of their resources and meeting their targets. The emphasis was on disadvantaged communities and their job was to go and see whether the services that government had pledged to provide were really reaching the target populations.

She points out that it was more or less like the volunteer work that she is currently doing with her Church.

Gasennelwe is emphatic when she abruptly changes the topic to talk about the work of a certain Philip Yancey - a journalist and editor-at-large for Christian Today magazine. She insists on lending me two of his books, Disappointment with God and The Jesus I Never Knew; both faith-reaffirming books that take a practical approach to Christianity.

Gasennelwe is adamant when she pauses and leans over to look me straight in the eye before she begins, "If we say Botswana is a Christian country, then there should be nobody suffering because if we were all truly Christians, we would not allow the suffering of others to occur.  We ought to be more sympathetic to the needs of other people and respond to their challenges." 1966, the year of Botswana's political independence also marked the year of Gasennelwe's spiritual independence as it was then that she was baptised into the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

She discovered it through "The voice of prophecy" pamphlets that she had received from a fellow student while attending Moeng College. It was also at Moeng College that she met a fellow student whom would eventually become her husband.

Benjamin Iponeng Gasennelwe was also a student at Moeng College and in 1970 the two would marry to form a union that would span 33 years and produce five children until his untimely demise in 2003.  Mr Gasennelwe had an illustrious career of his own, being appointed the Assistant Secretary (Budget) in the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (1969-1970) before becoming the first Motswana to hold the post of Budget Administrator in 1974 and then being promoted to the post of Director of Financial affairs in 1978.  He held this position until he was seconded to become the General Manager of the National Development Bank in 1979, another first for a Motswana citizen.

The five children they had together consist of four girls and only one boy, who unfortunately, passed away at the tender age of 33 in 2009.  Mandu Jeffery, Gasennelwe's eldest daughter, is an electrical engineering lecturer at the University of Botswana.  Potlako, the second born, is an interior designer in South Africa who contributed to the design of the current Parliament building in Botswana.

Puna, the middle child, works at the Ministry of Health.  Her late son, Mathata, was the Managing Director of Horizon Ogilvy, the youngest Motswana to head a leading advertising agency.  Her youngest daughter, Tsholofelo, is best-known for winning the Survivor Africa: Panama competition in 2006.

Gasennelwe returns to talking

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about her favourite writer and tells me about how he once wrote, "There are no Christians; there are only church-goers.  If there were Christians, this world could have long been turned upside down. Only one person - Christ - changed the whole world and there are billions of people who claim to be Christian, but the impact is very minimal." She discovered this author when she went for a workshop in the United States, organised by the Kellogg foundation.  She recalls that it was her birthday and her handbag had gone missing.

When she went to look for a new handbag she walked into a shop and saw the title Disappointment with God. As soon as she saw it, she decided to buy it and remarked to the organiser of the workshop, who had escorted her to the store, "This is exactly how I feel."  Gasennelwe explains that the book helped her to realise that we become disappointed with God when God is disappointed with us. She has been an avid reader of Yancey's work since that day.

Gasennelwe remarks that she is happy that opportunities are really opening up for students as there are more and more tertiary institutions at which they can study within the country. Now, unlike when she attended university, students have more freedom to pursue the career that they actually want to pursue. When questioned about whether all these tertiary institutions are operating at the same level of quality, she says that this is what the Tertiary Education Council (TEC) was established to monitor.

She, however, reminds me that since she only became the Deputy Chairperson of the TEC in 2009, she is still trying to find her way in the education sector.  Her experience, she reminds me, is more in health than in education, but she does concede that there is an overlap in that she was involved in teaching during her days of health work, which is the core of the TEC's mandate.

As someone who has studied and received honours from respected institutions across the globe; The University of South Africa; The University of Nairobi in Kenya; The University of Manchester in the United Kingdom and; The University of Washington in the United States - Gasennelwe brings first-hand knowledge to her new position.

When questioned about what tertiary institutions in Botswana could do to match the standards of their counterparts in the industrialised world, she remarks, "What I really appreciate is the American educational system, where you don't have to repeat but rather you challenge what you have learned as you progress."

That was the model she adopted when she lead the upgrade of the nursing certificate at the then Nursing Health Institute to a diploma.

The previous system was one in which the nurses would earn their junior certificate, write their Cambridge exams and then have to start all over again with general nursing in the first year of their tertiary education. The new approach stopped the repetition of material and focused on helping the nurses apply their knowledge as well as expand it.

"You challenge what you now feel you are capable of doing and that makes more sense to me than the old system," Gasennelwe says. The final thought that Gasennelwe leaves before concluding the interview is, "I think the thing that is really a challenge is our contribution to the less advantaged communities within our set up.

I believe that the government is doing its part but I feel if the majority of us could, within our own communities, reach out to disadvantaged people, we could improve our life situation a whole lot more."

Dr Gasennelwe now spends much of her time working with the Williams family of her Church as they go out to remote settlements such as Kanaku and Kutuku to distribute donations that they receive from members of the public. When she is not doing humanitarian work, she is tending to her farm, 55km West of Jwaneng, or spending time with her mischievous grandchildren at her home in Gaborone.

She turned 70 years of age in February of this year yet shows no sign of having lost her love for life. In August she will travel to Kanye to unveil the memorial statues of her late husband and son. However she may choose to spend the coming years, nothing can rob her of her status as an exemplary citizen of Botswana who has contributed immensely to the nation's development. Mmegi salutes Dr Gasennelwe for a life well spent.

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