Botswana moulded me and gave me great opportunities that I am not sure I would have received in Uganda.
I aspire to be the change agent, motivator, role model, educator, activist, and all those socially correct terms for the voiceless in our society.
GABORONE, Botswana: In late 1980s, Dorothy Okatch’s family of six was forced out of Uganda to seek refuge in Kenya, thereafter they settled in a Botswana’s refugee camp and finally granted full citizenship.
Her HIV positive parents passed away when she was barely a teenager and as a last born, circumstance forced her ‘to grow up quickly’ and at the same time curve her own path.
A self-starter, she has chosen to pursue a career in Social Work to help the most vulnerable in society, and in the process earned the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellow 2015, and BIHL Thomas Tlou.
She is now Botswana’s National Coordinator for Palms for Life Fund, a New York City-based nonprofit with extensive ongoing international projects in Africa.
Through the organisation, her mission is to advocate for and support the creation of infrastructure that provides access to education, food, water and sanitation for vulnerable communities in Botswana and to ultimately give back to the country that has given her family a second chance.
She is also the top female basketball referee in Botswana and two-times Scrabble Champion and secretly wishes to be the first Ugandan refugee Member of Parliament in Botswana.
Well, it’s no secret anymore, as Dorothy who is scheduled to be in Kigali, Rwanda this month as part of the officiating team for the Basketball Africa Leagues, shares her journey with Smart Africa Editor Elvis Mboya:
On your LinkedIn page, you describe yourself, and I quote: ‘A young lady who grew up with a lot of adversities but managed to overcome them, conquer them, and use these as ladders for her to get to where she is, I mean, where I am now’. Please, tell us more about your growing up.
Dorothy: I was born in Kampala, Uganda in 1982 and raised in Gaborone, Botswana since my family fled there in the late 1980s, and attained Botswana citizenship in 2008.
My family had a good job and we were doing quite well. But just like that [due to bad politics], things just changed. In 1987, we had to flee Uganda and took refuge in Kenya.
My father [a former Ugandan politician] then got a job at the University of Botswana and we first moved without our mother and sister.
My mom had been arrested when my dad fled and it was through a charity organisation that she was able to be released to join us in Botswana.
At the age of 7, my dad passed on. My mom was unemployed and had not attained any tertiary qualification.
She was left alone to take care of six children. [Fortunately] we were granted asylum in Botswana and moved to a refugee camp where we lived for about three years.
At age 17, my mother passed away too. My parents were HIV positive at a time when there was no medication to improve their quality of life.
We watched our mother’s health deteriorate and were afraid every single day that she would leave us. [Unfortunately, that fear came to pass].
You are passionate about social work. How has your growing up shaped your thoughts about helping people and at what point in your life was the turning point?
Dorothy: In all my life growing up, I went through a lot of problems. But, I never saw or heard about a social worker or a psychologist to assist.
When my parents passed away, there was no one to come and talk to us and to offer counselling or just to empathize with us.
I remember when I was in high school and some students found that I was a refugee that was the worst time ever in my life.
I was teased and bullied about it. They made fun out of it, called me names, tormented me every single day.
I had no one to talk to. I had to just bottle in everything and hoped that one day I would be okay.
I have since found myself in Social Work and have loved it ever since because I realise that I can be that person who was never there for me.
I am so passionate about work that aims to bring about positive change in people’s life. I guess it was the negative experience in my life which made me realise that I can be there for a child who needs a shoulder.
True. Over the years, you have been very passionate about empowerment of the most vulnerable in society and you have made a career out of it, with a strong academic background: Masters in Social Work and vast practise in Southern African countries. Please, take us through your charity journey.
Dorothy: I got my first degree in Social Work from the University of Namibia. During this time I realised the power that I can possess in terms of bringing about change in a person’s situation.
I did my one-year internship at the University of Namibia Dean of Students office where I initiated group work sessions with students who had been orphaned before the age of 18 and found a way to get them to be assisted with certain provisions such as food and toiletry.
After graduation, I went to work in Ohangwena region in [Northern] Namibia as a Social Worker with the Ministry of Health and Social Services.
This was a life changing experience. I had only applied for two positions in Namibia and they had both been in the rural areas, but I knew that was where my work was needed the most.
I started various projects in the region such as ‘Walk with pride’ – getting the community to contribute to securing schools shoes for the students who needed them.
Another project we initiated was ‘Mud stoves’ – a response to houses burning down, assisting them to build mud stoves in their houses, and initiated the ‘Coalition of Responsible Drinking in Engela’.
I then moved back to Botswana to work with Stepping Stones International – an NGO in Mochudi area that caters for orphans and vulnerable children, where I served as Peer Education Coordinator for an HIV education program in 24 schools in 6 districts.
When the funding for that programme ran out, I was moved to Coordinate the Leadership Programme, a program that assisted unemployed and out of school youth to return to school, find jobs, start their own businesses, identify skills and talents, and to gain knowledge.
In 2015, I was selected for the Mandela Washington Fellowship – the flagship programme of the U.S. Government’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and was in the USA for about three months.
Upon my return, we all realised that I had outgrown my position at Stepping Stones. I left the organisation and moved to Johannesburg in South Africa to take up a three-month internship with the ONE Campaign that marked yet another turning point in my career.
At ONE, a global movement campaigning to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, I was introduced to advocacy. I fell in love with it and learnt how to be able to do it at different levels.
When my internship was done, I moved back to Botswana to take up a job with Young Love Organisation – they design and implement programs in health (HIV) and in basic education – remedial education in numeracy.
I left the organisation in 2021 as the Advocacy and Communications Manager.
I went back to ONE Campaign for another three months as a Campaigns Assistant. In 2021, I moved to Palms For Life Fund in Botswana where I am now as the National Coordinator.
As Botswana’s National Coordinator for Palms for Life Fund, a New York City-based nonprofit with extensive ongoing international projects in Africa. Please, get us inside its operations there and share its achievements so far.
The Palms For Life Fund [PFLF] is an organisation that does work close to my heart mostly in marginalised communities.
I have lived and grown up in a refugee camp and know how it feels to be part of those who fall in that category.
The work with PFLF is quite meaningful and gives me a sense of purpose bring programs that have impact to the community.
You keep on impacting people’s lives through impressive social work, right from University student days up to now, thrusting into national and international level and bagging several prizes of recognition. Looking back how far you have come, it must be very fulfilling at a personal level?
Where I have reached now, I feel so fulfilled with what I have achieved so far.
Back at the University I started a program called Guardian Angel – it had elements of mentorship.
In retrospect, I see that it was me creating that element of someone being there for another cause no one was there for me.
I trained university students to be big brothers and sisters to children at a Children’s home.
The day that programme was launched, I cried knowing that I had managed to do something that would have a lasting impression to other children.
I recently organised a session called Kick Start for young women, a session that included vision boarding and setting goals for the year.
I have always wanted to do a group session and it proved to be amazing feeling.
I also once ran a mentoring program called Accelerate Her. I mentored five young women and I have learnt so much from them.
My work has always been fulfilling knowing what I have done for young women and children.
Being selected for the MWF [Mandela Washington Fellowship] in 2015, was a clear validation that I was doing something right.
It kept me on track and propelled me forward by allowing me to meet amazing people who have continued to shape me.
Back to your LinkedIn page again, you penned, and I quote: ‘I aspire to be the change agent, motivator, role model, educator, activist, and all those socially correct terms for the voiceless in our society’. Have you ever thought of running for a higher office to be able to have a front row seat where you can influence policy and legislation at a national level to achieve your desired goals much easier?
Oh yes. When I was young, I swore never to do politics. I saw what it had done to my father and how we ended up living as refugees.
I was so sure that I would never ever have any interest in it. Fast forward to today, I secretly harbour ambitions of being in the Parliament.
I would love to take my thoughts, critiques and ideas to a higher office and influence policy and legislation with all that I have learnt and experienced from the different levels I have worked in.
The aspiration is there, the timelines have not been set. For now though, I would love to be an advisor to those who make decisions that affect the citizens of my country, especially marginalised communities.
You also love sports. You have been a basketball player, Technical Director of the Botswana Basketball Association, volunteered for Special Olympics and female referee. It must be demanding both physical and emotional discipline. How do you juggle sports and social work?
Sport is my escape, my rest, my calm, and my peace. It has always been and will always be doing sports for as long as I am [alive and healthy]. Sports got me through hard times and cheered me up when I was down.
I spent every single free minute I had at university on the basketball court. I never imagined that I would give up playing to focus on officiating but here I am now.
Last year I received the Referee of the Year Award at the Botswana Sport Awards. I have officiated at Africa’s biggest basketball competitions and did the finals in 2019 of the biggest women’s competition in Africa.
Not only am I the first International Basketball Referee in Botswana. I am now also the first International Referee for 3×3 in Botswana and in the Zone.
I don’t think I would perform so well at work if I am denied to do sports.
As Technical Director, it was a great learning experience but also realised that I should put aside administration of the sport aside when being a referee.
I find it hard to juggle being in administration and also being on the court. I opted not to stand for re-election in 2020 and just continue to focus on being a referee.
Your parents migrated from Uganda to Botswana, you schooled in both Botswana and Namibia, and also worked in South Africa. Would your current success story be possible if your parents stayed in Uganda?
I am not so sure [giggles]. My father was doing so well in Uganda that I just might have lived a life of privilege. I had everything I needed to excel.
I do at times think about it a lot, if at all I would be who I am today [if we remained in Uganda].
I am grateful that I have been able to go through a tough life but come out of it smiling and securing a better childhood and life for my daughter.
Growing up, I missed the element of having a village to go to for holidays, extending family to spend time with, people who looked like me and accepted me for who I am regardless of my [dark] complexion.
Uganda would have offered me that. However, Botswana moulded me and gave me great opportunities that I am not sure I would have received in Uganda.
Who knows, had we stayed in Uganda, maybe politics would have gotten the whole family killed.
Coronavirus pandemic has affected many sporting activities, as other social events elsewhere. How are you personally coping and where do you divert that immense energy?
I am not coping at all. Aside from it being my hobby, sport brings in additional income to my household.
I am a single mother and would use the money from sport to pay for school fees. It was sufficient for that and I would even have enough left over for other things.
When Coronavirus forced authorities to shut down sports last year, sport business has slowed down significantly.
I am scheduled to be in Kigali Rwanda this month as part of the officiating team for the Basketball Africa League. I am one of three ladies selected to join the team for the inaugural games.
I am hoping the tide changes and I get nominated for more games, or rather, so that the sport can get into full action again and competitions come back.
Away from day to day pressure and pleasure that comes with work, how do you spend your free time?
Scrabble. I play scrabble. I am addicted to it. I am actually a two-time Scrabble Champion in Botswana.
Started playing as a child and have always found it hard to find people willing to play with me. That is what I normally do – play online games all day.
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