Dream of a play­ground in Botswana near re­al­ity

Teen raised funds to hon­our friend Built in home­land to keep oth­ers safe

Toronto Star - - Life - NI­CHOLAS KE­UNG IM­MI­GRA­TION/DI­VER­SITY RE­PORTER

Ever since a child­hood friend was buried alive dig­ging a tun­nel for fun in a sand hill in 1995, So­hum Me­hta has wanted to build a safe play­ground park for kids in his na­tive Botswana. He hasn’t forgotten that dream, even though he’s now far away in Toronto.

Last month, the 16-year-old laid the foun­da­tion stone of the park in his na­tive Maun, in a cer­e­mony that drew dig­ni­taries in­clud­ing the head of this small south­ern African state, Pres­i­dent Fes­tus Mo­gae.

“Grow­ing up in Maun, I al­ways saw chil­dren play­ing in scorch­ing heat in the sand with noth­ing to play with. Since my friend’s death, I’d promised my­self that I will build the park or die try­ing to build one,” ex­plained Me­hta. “It has been my mis­sion since that day.”

Born to par­ents of In­dian her­itage, own­ers of a chain of hard­ware stores in Botswana, Me­hta could have asked his fam­ily to do­nate money for the park. But the Grade 12 stu­dent at Toronto’s Bayview Glenn private school chose to do it in a more dif­fi­cult and re­ward­ing way, try­ing to get the lo­cal com­mu­nity in­volved.

First, Me­hta con­tacted Maun’s dis­trict com­mis­sion­aire, Ma Malala, who, on be­half of the city of 50,000 res­i­dents, do­nated a va­cant 8.5 hectares to the project.

Next was the tough part: rais­ing, in Botswanan pu­las, the equiv­a­lent of $90,000 to build a park with safe equip­ment: swings, slides, see-saws, mon­key bars, a wa­ter foun­tain and an out­door theatre. Here’s where the lo­cal busi­ness and com­mu­nity con­tacts of his par­ents, Ru­palee and Sub­hash, came in handy.

In Fe­bru­ary, Me­hta spear­headed a soc­cer game be­tween Botswana’s na­tional Ze­bra team and Maun’s lo­cal all-stars, pulling in al­most $8,000.

A fundrais­ing gala at­tended by the city’s big­wigs suc­cess­fully raised $54,000.

“It’s an ex­pen­sive project, be­cause Botswana, even though it’s one of the safest African coun­tries, is still a de­vel­op­ing coun­try. There’s lit­tle in­fra­struc­ture and we have to build the road and get wa­ter and elec­tric­ity to the park,” noted Me­hta. He was born in Eng­land and moved to Africa with his par­ents as a baby.

“My par­ents could’ve put up with some of the re­sources, but it’s im­por­tant to get ev­ery­one in­volved. I’m glad that they saw the value of the park.”

Me­hta’s mother, who is liv­ing in Toronto with her son while he at­tends school, said Me­hta has had a pas­sion to help the needy since he was a young boy, when he would do bike rides and walkathons to raise money for lo­cal hos­pi­tals and other com­mu­nity groups.

“We were in In­dia once and all th­ese poor kids came up and asked for money. So­hum then asked me to give money to ev­ery one of them out of his own pocket money,” re­called Ru­palee, a na­tive from Gu­jarat.

“He knew as a kid that there’s no free lunch and he had to work for it. I’m proud of him.”

Me­hta, who plans to study fi­nance and busi­ness at univer­sity, hopes the park will be com­pleted by June.

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