Dream of a playground in Botswana near reality
Teen raised funds to honour friend Built in homeland to keep others safe
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.