The opinions expressed in this blog are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent the views of the Peace Corps or the United States Government.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas in Botswana

The post office in Shoshong has a mini tree and other Christmas decorations. Otherwise, the village is pretty devoid of Christmas preparations as we think of them in the states. Christmas is celebrated much differently here.

I grew up in an alcohol-free household, so we never had parties focused on drinking. Every Christmas Eve, mom, dad and I hosted an open house/potluck for friends and community members. We cooked turkey, mashed potatoes, etc. I made deviled eggs. We made hot chocolate, sat around the fireplace and sang Christmas carols. Perhaps other families celebrated Christmas with alcohol, but we didn't.

Regardless of your choice of beverage, Christmas in the states is usually about remembering to spend time with family and showing loved ones that you care. And obviously some people attend church to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. However, in Botswana, people do one of two things: get drunk or go to church. People in Shoshong have been getting drunk since last weekend. They celebrate the "festive season" as they call it by drinking with friends. Christmas isn't centered on family like it is for us. Families don't give gifts, for the most part. No one has a Christmas tree or decorations of any kind. I spent Christmas in Hawaii last year so the hot weather doesn't make Christmas feel different. It doesn't feel like Christmas as I know it because that outpouring of family love and support isn't there.

I was thinking about this the other day and came to the conclusion that Batswana don't really need a "Christmas season" to remind them to be giving and call their family members. If someone comes over your house while you are eating, you feed him/her. It is a society based on sharing and looking out for each other. Also, most Batswana live with their family members in villages. They don't need one day to call someone across the country like we do in the states. And in many ways, the fact that they don't need these reminders to be loving human beings is the most beautiful aspect of their culture.

But I am an American. I want my tree. I want my lights. And my AWESOME mom sent me a mini tree in the mail, as well as Christmas lights. Unfortunately they burned out because of voltage problems so I am going to have to go into the nearest larger town to get some lights to hang up tomorrow. I think I may carry on a Plant family tradition and keep the lights on year round...

(Note the New England Patriots santa hat)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sadi's Wedding

I have been very lucky to find three very close Batswana girlfriends since I have been here. I can talk with them about anything I would confide in friends at home about. And since friends at home aren't always accessible, it is amazing to have found such good friends while in Botswana. Their names are Zola, Shosho and Sadi. Zola is the daughter of a local restaurant/bar owner. Shosho came over my house when I first got here to help Mma Mosinyi put up my curtains. And Sadi picked me up when I was hitchhiking to Mahalapye one day. Lasting friendships, for sure.

Nothing replaces missing my best friend from childhood's wedding and the birth of her first child. But watching my close friends here celebrating those milestones almost makes me feel like I am celebrating everything I missed. Zola is supposed to give birth in February. And Sadi just got married this past Saturday.

In Botswana, there are two wedding ceremonies. The first is the traditional wedding. Sadi and TJ (her husband) don't have a marriage certificate yet, but in the eyes of the community, they have been married. They will get the marriage certificate when they do their white wedding in March. Luckily, their white wedding will be catered which means I can just enjoy it and won't have to cook! Very much looking forward to it.

Me and Sadi

I was at the wedding site (Sadi's paternal grandmother's house) until late Friday night helping them prepare. Then Sadi's brother picked me up at my house and brought me back 5 am Saturday morning. We did things like cutting cabbage and carrots to make cole slaw, peeling squash, and carrying large plates of traditional dishes like semp, bogobe, and phaletsche. Other victims of early morning cooking:

The women who were participating in the ceremony arrived around 6:30 am

Meanwhile, we (the single women and some of the married women) were cooking and hanging out. Any event--wedding or funeral--the women do all of the work. The men simply sit and "discuss" or drink tea, or something. And after a while, it gets pretty tiresome for me. That being said, I had a really good time meeting Sadi's family, especially her cousins.

Sadi then arrived around 8 am. But she couldn't come until the families had summoned her. Then the older women dressed Sadi in her traditional Botswana bride outfit. They brought her over to the house where all the women were sitting and paraded her around while singing. After that, she was made to sit down (shown left).

Later, the groom and the uncles greeted all of the women. I didn't take photos because I video taped that part. The women express excitement by "ululating," making a very loud whopping noise that I will NEVER be able to do. This couldn't be captured in a photo.

Then Sadi and the women went to the tent where they men were sitting. Like TJ did, Sadi went around and greeted each of the men. But the men don't make any celebratory noises unfortunately. They all then waited for us to finish cooking the food and serve them.

After everyone ate, the two families negotiated when the white wedding would be. They wanted it to be in July or August, much later than Sadi and TJ want. This hasn't been officially agreed upon yet, but this is one of those situations in which the wishes of the elders and the wishes of the bride and groom are at odds. The elders also wanted the wedding to be in Shoshong, but as I mentioned, TJ and Sadi want it to be in Gabs so that all of their friends can be present and do not have to cook the entire time (like I did for this one).

The happy couple at the end of the wedding. TJ and his family specifically made the dress for Sadi to wear on Saturday. Her shoes and undergarments are also picked out only for that day.

While I was cooking, many women told me that I should get married in Botswana so that they can throw me a party like this one. I politely declined and then explained to them what we do in the states. I told them that I don't mind cooking and I think it is a beautiful tradition, but that I want all of my family and friends to be able to relax, have a good time and be served their food by others.

Another interesting thing: TJ told me that he was not allowed to kiss their wedding! That may happen at the white wedding, but it didn't happen at this one.

All in all, it was beautiful to be able to share this day with my close friend and I am so happy for her. Celebrating another culture is wonderful for many reasons. But sometimes the most important reason is that it reaffirms your own identity. Through living in Botswana, I have begun to reclaim my American identity and view it in a more positive light than I have in a long time.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Volunteer Cycle

Some PCVs from Senegal wrote "Critical Periods in the Life of a Peace Corps Volunteer." In it they included a 27-month cycle of the challenges of service. I have had a difficult time at site the past couple of weeks. A volunteer friend of mine in Botswana said that, characteristically, November is a really tough month for us. I decided to look up the Senegalese cycle and see if my feelings are typical. This is what I found for the period of 7-10 months of service:

-slow work progress
-language plateaus
-cross cultural frustration/shock

-comparison to others
-over zealousness
-uncertainties about adaptation abilities
-intolerance with host culture

-cards/letters home to forgotten relationships
-talk with friends about slow starts and failures
-simple projects: cooking, personal crafts, meetings, garden for self
-consolidate friendships

I am currently experiencing all three of the issues listed above. When I was first at site, I spent so much time out in the community meeting people because I didn't really have much else to do. But now that I am finding myself researching and actually writing some proposals, I feel less connected with the community. It is also difficult because so many people know me but I cannot tell if I have met people already and just don't know their names, or if I should be introducing myself. I also used to do a lot of work in the schools but because they are closed, that joy that came from working with students has faded. I was so energized about my work. I miss that feeling.

I used to be very confident in Setswana, but even that is beginning to wane as I am not keeping up with practicing as much as I should. I am becoming complacent. And I am unsure if not being as productive (or not feeling as productive) is natural and perhaps even NECESSARY at this point in my life, or if I am just being lazy.

Cross-cultural frustrations (issue) cause moments of intolerance (reaction), I think. I used to laugh when people asked me if I would get married in Botswana. I didn't mind when 5 men a day tried to convince me to marry them. And a couple months ago, I decided that people weren't being rude when asking me for money, but rather simply thought I had money to give. My perceptions of all of those things have now changed. As I become more comfortable in my community, I feel like people should realize that I am not a sex object nor an ATM. I am a person. But perhaps I am taking all of this more personally because of the other frustrations I am going through.

I am more homesick than ever before, save the first few days I arrived in Shoshong. I am uncertain about my abilities--not just adaptation, but also my ability to actually help people here and be of some use.

I have written more letters home this week and have been spending some quality time with good friends I have here. I am also cooking more for myself. I have joined a gym in Shoshong which I know is helping. Otherwise I don't really know what to do to get out of this slump. A couple months ago, a friend of mine wrote in his blog that PC service is hard because we are left alone with ourselves and must confront all of the issues/questions about ourselves that we were never confronted with before. He is right. I just hope I can get back into the swing of things soon.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The New Yorker in Me

I have always been a reasonably intelligent person, but I was never one to ponder existence or sit under a tree and think about religion. In the states, I attempted to start journals, but they always failed. I would write a few entries and stop. Maybe I was tired before I went to bed, ran out of interesting things to say…who knows. During my Peace Corps service, though, I have become a thinker and a journaler. I think all the time. I think about the culture that I have become a part of; I think about my own character—my attributes and faults; I think about my place in this world and where I belong; I think about my spirituality and things that I want to change about myself. I journal almost everyday. It is, without a doubt, the best therapy I have ever had. I am about to start journal number three since I landed in Botswana.

The other day I was thinking about my time in Berlin a couple years ago. I studied there for 6 months. My friend Aimee visited one weekend and I remember how many astute observations she made about the culture—things that I had overlooked because I was so comfortable in Berlin. I had already lived in New York City by that point. And although there were many cultural differences about Germany, it was still western. Berlin was not a foreign environment to me. And I remember wishing that I were more like Aimee, that I could notice things like she did. Happily, my wish came true.

I notice new things everyday here. There are many differences in this experience that account for the change in my ability to perceive my surroundings. I am older and more aware of myself. I am in a culture much more foreign to me, so I am constantly learning. Regardless of how comfortable I feel and how close I am to people, I will never be able to feel like I understand all of it. And I am changing so much. I realize new things about myself, the way that I think, and how I react to others. As this transformation happens, it can’t help but affect the way I perceive the world. I am so happy that, almost 8 months into this 26-month journey, I feel like I have so much more to learn.

In that vein, two major journeys of mine have emerged. One is my quest (inapt word, but I can’t find a better one) for a spirituality. The other is my aim to be a more patient, compassionate and understanding person. They go hand-in-hand.

I realized that I no longer wanted to believe there was no God when I read Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I was still in the states. Since then, I have been open to different religious traditions, wondering if there is one out there for me. I really wanted there to be one religion that just clicked. I wanted an AH HAH moment, when I could say, “This is the religion for me!”

Unsurprisingly, that hasn’t happened. I like certain things from many religions. I like the idea of a holy spirit from Christianity, but I reject pretty much everything else. I like that the Koran is supposedly directly the word of God as spoken through Mohammed. That makes more sense to me than the Bible. I love many aspects of Buddhism, especially meditation. I like how Buddhism says we should strive to relinquish our attachments to worldly things, like money and status. However, I don’t want to escape the cycles of pain, sickness and death that mark mortality. I want to be sad. I want to hurt. I want to laugh. I want to experience happiness because I love another human being, even if that happiness will inherently be taken from me. I don’t want to achieve some sort of Enlightenment without those experiences. Those are what it means to be human.

But that’s all I’ve got. I decided a few days ago that I want to have a spirituality based solely on compassion. Obviously an important aspect of religions is a system of rules to guide what we should and should not do. But inevitably some individuals will break a rule, and that creates dichotomies of “good” and “bad.” And because we are humans, it leads to judgment. I don’t like judgment. If I could remove one thing from my psyche, it would be negative judgment. I just want to love people. I want to understand the missteps, not to judge them.

Obviously this lends itself to a discussion of the things that I want to change about myself. Anger, frustration and sadness are important emotions and I would never want to remove them from myself. That being said, they can manifest themselves in unhelpful ways. I call it “the New Yorker in me”—the ability to go from zero stress to 10 in just a few seconds. You all know what I am talking about, when the smallest thing can just set you off and make you freak out in a way it never should. You miss a train, you think you will be late for a meeting, you miss a phone call, you lose your car keys. The stuff that doesn’t really matter. But sometimes it does matter, or it could matter. Regardless, going from 0 to f’ing NUTS in a matter of seconds usually does not help the situation, nor our ability to deal with it.

I think I have said that this Peace Corps journey isn’t just important because we are spending two years doing something most people couldn’t—or wouldn’t. It is most important because of the things we will learn about ourselves. A discussion of the real impact of Peace Corps volunteers is for another post, but I will leave you with an article by a PCV serving in Senegal that I think is particularly apt. We learn how to react better in many situations, including failure.

Here it is:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Photos: End Oct, Beginning Nov

Here are some photos I wasn't able to put up from the last blog post!

The first two below are from the focus group Celia and I did at Mahutagane Junior Secondary School. This was the first school I worked with and these students hold special places in my heart.

The photo below is actually a game called kingdom/knowledge/condom. One of the Bots 9s taught us to us at our Pre-Service Training in May. She taught it to us as kingdom/wisdom/condom but I forgot my notes so I just changed the name and it works all the same. It is like simon says. You have the participants point to the sky when you say kingdom, their head when you say knowledge and their genitals when you say condom. And then you confuse them by doing different signals than you say and they have to make the correct gesture. It has been a really effective icebreaker in all of my activities. Everyone laughs with the condom part, but the point is to break down those embarrassments and make things like condoms easier to talk about.

In the photo below, I am sitting at Shoshong Clinic with Sheila. She is the Chair of the Mosolotshane Youth Health Support Group and initially approached me for my help in assisting them.

This is a group of actors at the cultural day Celia and I saw while she was here. These are volunteers that I work with in my peer education group.

And the last two photos are of my mosquito net, held up with dental floss, of course.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Unfortunately, my internet connection has gotten worse and worse. Pictures claim to be uploaded, but then they don't show up. Sigh. So, I apologize. I know these posts are FAR better with pictures, but you will just have to use your imaginations.

Finally, the rains have started to come. We had a big heat wave beginning of last week, but the start of this past week was relatively cool. Mma Mosinyi (my host mom in Shoshong, the woman who's compound I am staying on, if you all forgot) is a health education assistant at the clinic. One of her main duties is to conduct the child welfare center, which is the growth monitoring for all children in Botswana under 5. Pretty much - we weigh babies. So I was helping her out with that one day. It is in a different building in the clinic, and we were FREEZING. In November. This is SUMMER. We were so cold we had to go home and change into pants. It was the BEST day.

Along with the rains come the mosquitos. So I spent some time a few days ago perfecting my mosquito net. It is expertly attached to rings in the ceiling with dental floss.

I have been busy, but also spending a little bit more time in the afternoons at home so I can wind down and relax. I do want to get out there and check on people more than I have been doing lately, but sometimes taking time for ourselves is really important.

Earlier I mentioned that a Peace Corps trainee came to visit me, and that I would report on that. We had a great week. It was so busy, and I am slightly worried I may have given her the wrong impression that all weeks are like that. But what I have realized is that I can make appointments and things to do every afternoon which make my weeks jam-packed. Or I can just not do that. It all depends on how I am feeling.

It was quite a beautiful week, though. The first night we walked around Shoshong and just met some people. Aunts of mine from next door called us over and made me sing a Christian song in Setswana that I have memorized. So that was funny.

Celia (the trainee) and I conducted a focus group with students from the junior secondary school I have been working at. We asked them about their perception of problems in their community and how youth can solve them. We also asked about how the US can help. The questions were sent over from the US Embassy. We were tasked with doing some investigating from them. What was fun, though, was that the kids also asked us questions about the states. They were surprised that we don't see celebrities all the time, that men don't pay lobola in order to get married (bride price, which is usually 4-9 cows depending on the village customs), and that there are actually poor people in America.

It is interesting to me what aspects of American culture these kids are exposed to. In terms of music, they know Chris Brown, Beyonce, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Lil' Wayne, etc. TV shows that have made it over are The Bold and the Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, Friends, and many other older seasons of shows, such as Leverage and the Good Wife. It really exhibits to me how important Peace Corps volunteers are. We are different than ex-pats in the fact that we (for the most part) really care about becoming a part of the community, learning about the culture, etc. And WE represent America. We have the power to change so many perceptions, such as thinking that every American has a maid and a mansion.

While Celia was here, a woman approached us in the village, asking me to help her with an organization in a nearby village. When I visited them, they had a constitution set up, an executive board, and goals. They are comprised of 8 youth who want to teach others about HIV/AIDS, create awareness, and provide counseling and support. This was one of the most exciting things to happen this month. Finding passionate people to work with is a Peace Corps volunteer's dream.

We also saw a cultural competition in Shoshong. A lot of my local friends were singing, dancing, performing dramas, etc. It was great.

But it is only getting hotter and hotter. This next week is supposed to be a heat wave with some temperatures around my region getting to 41 degrees Celsius. Pretty rough stuff.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Honest Truth About Challenges

On this blog, I think I have always tried to talk about the positives of my life here, even when talking about the challenges. I have written about cultural differences that can be turned into teachable moments. I have mentioned missing great events at home, like births and weddings. I said that service is difficult, but mostly for reasons related to my own personal journey--not mostly due to problems with integration or language learning. And people talk about how hard it must be to leave family, friends, and the life we know for two years. I think that is one of the main reasons why Americans respect those who have completed (or even attempted) Peace Corps service. But I have always said that I love Shoshong, I love my work and I am happy to be away from the United States. But sometimes that is just not true.

In reality, sometimes life is just hard. That is obviously true when you are living in America as well. Problems with your personal life and problems at your workplace are normal regardless of where you are living. Daily struggles are a part of the human condition. But there are times when there are challenges in one's personal life, one's family and one's work. I am lucky enough to be having one of those weeks.

Issues with life and work just take some time. As we are eager to become members in our new community, we don't necessarily know who to trust. And sometimes that means that we agree to help people who have bad reputations within the community. Navigating those situations is really difficult. Do we assist someone even if being seen with that person reflects poorly on ourselves? Sometimes we get caught up in village drama simply because we are spectacles; we stand out. And people want things to talk about. But all of these issues within our villages will hopefully pass with time.

The honest truth is that there is one challenge that makes you feel utterly helpless--serious medical issues with loved ones back home. There isn't any way to sugar coat this one. This shit is just hard. It makes us want to jump on the next fight home, even if there is plenty of hope and not all is lost. But sometimes you can't go home. And I suppose this is part of the sacrifice when you join Peace Corps--knowing that you may miss someone's last moments. But unlike most other challenges, this one never gets any easier.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Pictures in London

This is an addition to the blog before it. So if you haven't read the earlier post today, scroll down first!

The Shakespeare Globe Theatre, where we saw Much Ado About Nothing

Me posing in Camden Town

Mom, dad and I in front of Parliament/Big Ben

Uncle John, Uncle Kris, mom, dad and I at the Tower of London

Mom and dad in China Town



I apologize for the lack of posts the last few weeks. Surprisingly, I had less internet access in London than I do in Botswana. Or I would have had to go to a Starbucks or internet cafe to access it. And I wanted to spend time with family instead of going online. Also, this past week I hosted a Peace Corps trainee from the Bots 11 class. We were so busy! It was such a pleasure to be able to share my work with someone else. My trainee was so receptive and supportive. It was a great re-affirmation of my work (something we all need sometimes). I will write another post about some things that I realized this past week. But first, I want to talk about London.

Oh, London. I have only been one time prior, for a weekend while I was studying in Berlin a couple years ago. This trip was lovely. I was able to get a real sense of the city. On the one hand, I really liked it. On the other hand, a trip back to the west was really overwhelming and made me contemplate the real meanings of civilization. I will talk about the beautiful parts of the trip first.

My mom and dad met me in London, where we went to celebrate my uncles' civil ceremony and 20 years together. I celebrated my 23rd birthday there. I got to see some old friends. Mom, dad and I had a jam-packed week. We saw two shows--Much Ado About Nothing at the Shakespeare's Globe and Legally Blonde: The Musical at the Savoy Theatre. Both great. We took pictures in front of Parliament and Big Ben, toured the Tower of London (where many Queens of England and other important people got their heads cut off). We went shopping on Carnaby street and walked through Camden. And probably the most important: we saw Stonehenge.

As usual, pictures are not uploading well. Internet is being slow today. So I will upload my pictures as my next blog post.

Once I got used to it, I did enjoy being in London. However, it was a real cultural shock, which I was not expecting. In my village, everyone greets each other. People know their neighbors. Life really revolves around human interaction. Even stepping into the Johanessburg airport on the way to London was very difficult. I remembered the western life that I had been a part of--the iphone generation, the men with their rolling suitcases walking a mile a minute to get to wherever they need to go. I felt this way especially in the tube in London as well. People would get very annoyed if someone was in their way, as if the world revolved around them. It's not as bad as New York City, but it still made me feel uncomfortable.

I do not mean to criticize anyone living in that world. I was THAT GIRL. I pushed my way onto trains. I walked around with my headphones in. I didn't really give a damn about the people around me, didn't want to talk to them, didn't care about their lives. Not in a mean way. That is just how we are. But I had an immediate visceral reaction to being in that world again. I don't know what that means for my future, or for where I may or may not want to live. I do know one thing: I couldn't wait to get back to my village, where many people know my name and ask me how my day is going.

As I alluded to, the experience made me really think about what we define as civilization. Obviously a large part of it is literacy, existence of the arts, and reaching a certain level of development. But people also talk about civilization in relation to technology. I have heard many people, on numerous occasions, connect going back west to going back to "civilization." But as I sat in Starbucks looking at everyone on their computers, iPads, and iPhones, I really began to question this notion. Is this really civilization--where people do not interact with each other? Or is there a certain level of humanity that is missing in this technology-dependent culture?

Something to think about :)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Heating Up

My life in Shoshong is heating up…literally and figuratively. It still feels a little cool when I am getting dressed around 7 am. But I know better than to wear pants or even leggings. Because when I am walking around in the heat of the day, it is hotter than 80 degrees. Luckily it is pretty windy in Shoshong. Up until today my umbrella was broken, which was a significant disadvantage. I bought one today at a local shop. I am sure the wind will destroy this one as well, but umbrellas are necessary. Even hats don’t provide enough shade, and I have heard that the next 5 months can get pretty brutal.

September is officially my favorite month so far. It is pretty warm, but I can still wear a light sweater (if I am wearing a dress with no sleeves or a tank top) and not feel like I am dying. And there is the perfect amount of wind to make walking around bearable. But the best part is the incessant smell of jasmine EVERYWHERE. Jasmine is my favorite natural scent. When I went to China my senior year of college, I bought jasmine tea. One of my favorite lotions smells like jasmine. So when I walk around Shoshong I am reminded of these memories. It is amazing. I am not sure exactly what makes the scent, but pictured below is one of the culprits.

Wiser volunteers have told me that there is an ebb and flow of service. Sometimes life will be so hectic, we won’t feel like we even have time to stop and say hello to our neighbors. Other times we will be twiddling our thumbs and wish for ANYTHING to do. I am pleasantly in the middle of these two extremes.

I am busy everyday. I have people to meet, things to do and a comfortable amount of work hanging over my head. I rarely feel stressed to get to an appointment, but I do my best to be on time. And I have been involved in exciting and fun things.

#1: I attended a talent show at one of the primary schools. Of course, one of the judges was MIA so I got roped into doing it. The kids are such great dancers. It was so much fun! Of course I forgot my camera, so I don’t have any photos (sorry mom).

#2: My peer education group is going really well. I am not yet sure how we will actually teach peer education (how it will be organized in the village and how we will ensure that the same people come so we can do sequential classes), but I know that the people I am teaching are learning something. And they are learning it from each other, not from me. So if it doesn’t come to fruition, at least 30 people are bettering their HIV knowledge and public speaking skills. Not bad.

#3: I have continued teaching study skills to some classes at the junior secondary. I have become close to a couple of students, one of whom actually told me she wanted me to be her role model. Let’s hope I don’t screw this one up.

#4: I think I am reasonably well-liked in the village. Second thing I hope not to screw up.

#5: A couple weeks ago I attended a training to be able to facilitate films about HIV/AIDS. One of my favorite Motswana, Keoagile Ralepape, attended with me. He used to work at my clinic in the PMTCT (prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV) program until his funding ran out. He is now my counterpart for showing these videos and leading discussions. We just watched an AMAZING video called Mother to Child (pictured below) that we hope to show to women both at Shoshong Clinic and at health posts in surrounding areas.

If you want to purchase this 45-minute video, or see what these are all about, go to

Life is good.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gettin' My Hair Done!

As I was walking around Shoshong meeting people my first couple of months at site, I met numerous women who owned hair salons. Apparently there are 6 in Shoshong. One of them, Bakadzi, asked if she could braid my hair. I said sure, with no intention of going through with it. A few days ago, I changed my mind. I decided it would be a great idea. I would experience what many Batswana women experience every month. And if it turned out terribly and ruined my hair, I am going to London in about a week and a half so I can get a hair cut and fix any damage then. Good plan!

All in all, it took about 5 hours over two sittings to finish my hair. And even after it was done, a few hours later, some of the braids came out. So I had to go back and Bakadzi tied the ends of my braids with string. She said she would "know better for next time."

Bakadzi and I

Top view

Side view

Also, as you can see from these last couple of shots, Bakadzi didn't just use my hair. She also added wool into it (at least I think that's what they use). It is helping to keep the braids together and strengthen the hold, especially on the top. But it makes my hair a lot stiffer than usual.

So many Batswana women get their hair done--either by braiding it (this is actually called plaiting--when you add in the wool) or adding in actual hair pieces. One young Motswana man told me that women do this because they are trying to look like white women. I will have to investigate to find out if that is true so I can't comment on that now. Regardless, it was fun (and pretty painful actually) to experience this part of Botswana female culture.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


A couple weeks ago, rakgadi (my aunt) died. By aunt, I really mean my host mom’s late husband’s aunt. She was 99 years old. Rakgadi lived right next door so this was my first time experiencing all of the rituals leading up to the funeral. Funerals are held Saturday mornings. For the week before, they held prayers at 7 am and 5 pm. Family and other community members stayed on the compound round the clock. Women and men mostly sat separately. They set up this fence (pictured below) around a part of the compound. The men sat behind this around a fire. After prayer everyone was served tea and bread.

The prayers were held in a small house surrounded by

a tent.

The women in white are the churchgoers.

At the 5 pm prayer service on Friday, the funeral home brings the corpse in.

When that is over, the women begin to prepare food that will be cooked around 9 pm. The cooks must prepare enough food for the hundreds of people who will inevitably come to the funeral. You do not need to be invited to a funeral in Botswana, so there is no real way to know exactly how many people to prepare for. Note: Mma Mosinyi (my host mom) is in front with the red dress on.

The cooking is such a huge undertaking. Some people stay at the funeral headquarters cooking until around 4 am Saturday morning. I was not much help cooking, although I did stay around until about midnight.

While the cooking preparations are happening Friday afternoon/evening, a few men are digging the grave at the cemetery.

Everyone comes back to the compound at 5:30 am if they want to view the corpse (their version of the wake). I returned at about 6:30. Pallbearers brought the corpse out from inside the house and set it in front of all of us under the tent. It was pretty cold that morning. I wore a traditional Setswana skirt (pictured below).

Then rakgadi was eulogized until about 7:30. We then all went over to the cemetery to bury her.

One thing about Botswana funerals that is different than those in the states, is that attendees usually do not show much emotion. Not many Batswana cry at funerals. In this case, rakgadi’s granddaughters were both visibly upset. It was almost beautiful to see the outpouring of emotion that isn’t always shown. Another difference is that everyone stays at the cemetery while men shovel dirt onto the grave and actually bury the deceased. And everyone sings church songs while this is happening. It is quite moving.

Then we eat! It is quite a site to behold with everyone on the compound. I helped the young women wash hands and serve food. It feels good to be useful.

All in all, the experience was amazing. It was interesting to see the cultural differences between Botswana and the US. I am always in awe with the number of people who help during events in Botswana. It is because the entire community feels responsible for things like weddings, funerals, and the rearing of children. It is a beautiful aspect of the culture here that I admire very much.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Teachable Moments

Over the course of your work anywhere, people will say things that upset you. It's inevitable--in the workplace, in your family, in life. You are not going to like everyone. And even if you like most people, you are definitely not going to like everything they say. Cultural misunderstandings amplify the already-complicated process of day-to-day interactions.

Here is the pertinent example from my life in Botswana: being called fat.

It happens pretty much everyday, almost exclusively with people that I know--nurses from the clinic, women in the community, etc. I have learned that men are also saying that I am getting fat, but they won't say it to my face--mostly because they are saying it in a context of "wanting to get with me."

If I were sitting in the United States reading this, I may be outraged. "How rude!" I may think. "Fat" is an insult in American culture. But, in Botswana, that is actually not the case. These women are complimenting me.

Traditionally, the ideal woman in Botswana is bigger. She has large hips, large breasts and a prominent stomach. It may have something to do with needing strong women to work the lands. Portion sizes are also HUGE here. I came to the conclusion that it is because most traditional Botswana foods are not made to be re-heated. Perhaps this is also a remnant of life without refrigerators. Many families still live without electricity, but not as many as olden times. They pretty much cook every meal from scratch. And everything can be cooked over an open fire, if necessary. So all of the food must be eaten at once. And Batswana men like women that have some meat on them. Needless to say, this is a welcoming society to actually become fat in.

This ideal is changing with the younger generation, especially the students and young professionals who venture to the cities. They do not like being called "fat" and consider it an insult. Perhaps it is the influence of American culture. I am not quite sure.

Anyway...back to life in Shoshong...there are two ways that I can take being called fat. On the one hand, I have gained a little bit of weight, especially in my hips. So I can get self-conscious and feel guilty and start the whole self-loathing process that inevitably leads us all to unhealthy patterns and thoughts. Or I can turn it into a teachable moment.

Teachable moments. They are GLORIOUS. There are many other examples of them, like when people ask me if everyone in America has a maid, or claim that there are no poor people in America. Or when people ask my brunette friends why they have darker hair if they are American. You can either believe people are racist and/or ignorant, or you can understand that they simply do not know. And this is the beauty of teachable moments.

I do not claim to always follow the teachable moments philosophy. Sometimes people do not want to listen and I give up. Sometimes I do get upset, especially if I am having a bad day. But most of the time, this is how the "fat" conversation goes:

Woman: Nnete! You are getting very fat, you know!
Me: Haha
Woman: You are! You are gaining weight!
Me: Ee, mma. Mma, just to let you know, saying that in America is an insult. It is not nice.
Woman: Ao! Sori mma!
Me: It's okay. I know that you mean I am montle (beautiful) thata. I am getting African wings! (What they call the fat part of your legs where your thighs and butt come together)
Woman: Haha! (And this usually coincides with some touching of my stomach or hips)

I love having these conversations. Surprisingly enough, it makes me feel good. I have embraced my "wings" and whatever body I will develop while I am here. I will eat the best that I can. I will go running. But some things cannot be helped, and that is okay. A healthy combination of understanding that they are trying to compliment me and teaching them about American culture is the way to go.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

In-Service Training

I apologize for the lack of updates these last three weeks. I have been in Gaborone (Botswana’s capital) at In-Service Training. This is the two-month mark for all of us. The Bots 10 volunteers came together for the first time since we left Kanye for our sites in June. It was really nice to see everybody. Unfortunately no pictures were taken of all of us together. I will try to find some and put them up here so you all get an idea of my fellow volunteers.

As is expected, IST had some useful sessions and some pointless ones. A few exciting things did happen, though. I picked up some good materials on life skills and peer education at the Peace Corps library. We finally have a new country director. His name is Tim Hartman and he seems great. He is serious about building a team between staff and volunteers. We are all looking forward to the positive direction he is going to take Peace Corps Botswana. I was also elected to a leadership position within Peace Corps. Each year, one member of each program (Community Capacity Builder/Life Skills/District Community Liaison/Non-Governmental Organization Capacity Builder) is elected to the Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC). I was elected as the Bots 10 CCB representative! I am really happy to help solve CCB-related issues and to give input on policy-making at the highest level. It is definitely an honor.

Some of us also attended a STEPS training, which stands for Social Transformation and Empowerment Projects. Its mission is to help end HIV/AIDS in southern Africa through film. Southern African filmmakers have made almost 50 films, mostly documentaries about different topics having to do with HIV/AIDS. The idea is to get audiences to reflect on the film, contextualize it within their own lives, and come away from the screening with some sort of motivation to act. It is a great program. I attended the training with a counterpart of mine from Shoshong. His name is Keoagile. Keoagile has spent the last few years working to educate people about HIV/AIDS, especially encouraging males to support their girlfriends/wives in going through PMTCT. I am looking forward to doing screenings in Shoshong because I think we will make a great team. Having a gender balance is always great as well.

Now I am back in Shoshong and I am so happy to be home. It is great having sit-down dinners with friends, going dancing, taking showers, and eating food prepared by other people. But it also gets tiring. And I have a lot of projects I am working on here. I am also still trying to get to know people and integrate more into the community. Remembering names and faces gets difficult, especially with these constantly changing hairstyles. Batswana women change their hairstyles every month, and some even more frequently. They use extra hair pieces, wigs and different braided styles. Some have dread locks, some have fake dreads. And oftentimes I will associate a face with a place, such as: Sadi works at x shop. But when I see Sadi outside of the shop, I may not recognize her because it is taken out of context. It is definitely challenging.

A while ago, someone told me that I should blog about how I wash my clothes, bathe, etc. I don’t know if I went over this before, but why not? I wash my clothes by hand in the bathtub. I try to do it every Sunday, but sometimes I get lazy and it’s every other Sunday. Most people allow the clothes to soak in the soapy water for a half hour, but I don’t have that kind of time. So I let them soak for 5 or 10 minutes, scrub them by hand, wring them out and put them to the side. Then I fill the tub up with clean water and rinse them. I hang them out on the line inside out so that the sun does not fade them. Undergarments must be done separately, though. Apparently it’s improper to wash those with the rest of the clothes, even if your own house. So I follow the custom on that one.

I have truly learned how little water you need to bathe, especially when we don’t have any running water in Shoshong (like now). Normally, I will heat up a couple liters of hot water in the electric kettle, pour them into the bathtub and then put as much cold water as I need to balance it out. When there is no water, I crouch in the tub and pour water over myself to bath. Then I use the bath water as toilet water. I don’t waste any water here when we are out of running water. If I wash dishes, I put that water in the back of the toilet as well.

That’s all for now. Please let me know if you have any other questions about my lifestyle that I have not answered. I love sharing this experience with everyone so thank you for following along! It is always nice to hear that people are reading it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Saying Goodbye

When we met in Philadelphia before any of us knew each other, Peace Corps workers told us that a good number of us would not be at the close of service conference in Botswana in 2013. Looking around the room of 40, it was hard to imagine who wouldn’t make it. People leave for many reasons. Some must return to the United States to get medical problems taken care of. Some realize that they aren’t happy and decide they would rather be home. And then there are those who have family emergencies.

During pre-service training, we all get close. We really do become a family. Losing anyone is difficult, especially when the decision is outside of his or her control. We knew, in coming to Peace Corps, that we would miss graduations, births, engagements, weddings, new jobs, important moves, and all other milestones of life. But thinking that we would come to Botswana, only to be pulled back because of a family member’s illness, is heartbreaking.

In our group (Bots 10), one of us decided not to come to Botswana after staging. Since then, seven of us have gone home. We are now 32. That is a roughly 20% attrition rate. Based on past groups, some more will leave after our upcoming in-service training, and even more around the one-year mark. Regardless if the volunteer that decides to leave makes the right decision, it is still really sad to see anyone leave.

This experience is teaching me many things. One of them is that humans are humans underneath cultural differences, external features, and other identities. Similarly, group dynamics do not vanish just because we are Peace Corps volunteers. Some people feel like they aren’t doing as much work as others, which therefore makes them lesser volunteers. We compare ourselves to one another, even if we try not to. It’s just human nature. But the most important thing is to support each other, especially when the person next to you could be desperately trying to search for meaning in his or her service.

The latest person to leave Peace Corps Botswana is from the group before us. She had been here for a little over a year. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer some time ago, but this volunteer had decided to wait to go home until she had to. Last week, her father asked her if she could get on a flight home—that day. Her mother’s condition had taken a turn for the worst. She had to say goodbye to her village and pack all of her belongings in a few hours. I am not sure if she will be able to return to Botswana.

I was very close to this particular volunteer. She was a good chunk of my support system during these first two months. We share similar attitudes about service, relationships, and just life in general. I am 100% positive that my transition would not have been as positive without her. I can already feel the lack of her presence in my life and it has saddened me greatly. Obviously we aren’t all best friends, and some departures are more devastating than others, but it is never easy saying goodbye, especially when the actual conversation rarely occurs.

So this is for her, and the rest of the volunteers who have left. If you chose to leave, I hope you are fulfilled back in the United States. If you were forced to go and hope to return to Botswana, I pray that comes to fruition. For the 32, we should never forget that being there for each other emotionally, as well as for the people in our village, is the best thing we can do here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

You Get What You Put In

Today, I was a super volunteer. I shy away from that label but sometimes we just deserve a big pat on the back. The day started badly, as most of these days do. I was in a bad mental place. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I struggled through the morning. I would have gone home except that I had afternoon commitments at the police station and junior secondary school.

I had made a plan with one of the police officers to go to the station, hang out and have lunch. When I arrived, there were 20 people (non-officers) sitting in a room expecting a health talk, which was news to me. Perhaps the officer explained this to me, but I often pretend to understand everything someone says even if I only know a couple words. Maybe I shouldn’t do that as much.

Anyway, I did what any of us would do. I made it up as I went along. I explained (in Setswana) who I am, the basic outline of what a Peace Corps volunteer does, where I live, what I am doing in Shoshong, etc. I asked them what sorts of things they think I should work on. This turned into a conversation about alcohol abuse and HIV. I explained why drinking alcohol while on ARVs is so dangerous. We then talked about male circumcision and I told them why it can lessen a man’s chance of getting HIV.

When I asked what we can do about HIV in Shoshong, one man said that we need more peer educators. So I asked them if anyone would want to work with me in Shoshong to peer educate. I collected about 15 names and phone numbers. Even if only half of them end up meeting me, I figure that I can create a great peer education system that they can continue after I leave.

After the police debacle that turned into a total win for my service, I went to the junior secondary school (called Mahutagane) I am working at. Yesterday the guidance counselor and I planned some great things for the rest of the year. Over the next 2 weeks, I am going to do some study skills classes with the kids who have to take a big exam at the end of the year. Later, I will be pairing with some nurses from the clinic and we will facilitate health discussions on healthy relationships, teenage pregnancy, abstinence and negotiating condom use. I also talked to the kids about helping out with the garden at the clinic and hosting an HIV/health-themed talent show. Lots of plans. Very exciting.

I befriended a student that I met at the clinic. He needs some extra help studying, so I intended to accompany him to the library after leaving the school. We were about ready to head out when there was commotion behind me. Someone was saying that a chair fell from the upper level of the school. The guidance counselor and I went to look, and apparently the chair fell on a student. All I could see was her crouching on the ground, sobbing, her hands full of blood.

The students were all standing around, most were laughing. No one was comforting her, not even the teachers. Maybe they were all astonished and didn’t know what to do. So I ran over, put my arms around her and rubbed her back. I was careful not to touch her blood. Then I noticed that the blood was coming from her head and I got really concerned. Head wounds are no laughing matter. One of the teachers said she would drive the student to the clinic if we could put on something to stop the bleeding. There was no first aid kit to be found, so I wrapped my cardigan around her head.

Someone finally brought over the first aid kit. I put on gloves and put some gauze on her head, then rewrapped my cardigan to apply some pressure (RIP cardigan). As all of this was happening, no one was really doing anything. We drove to the clinic and I stayed with her as the nurses cleaned and dressed the wound. No one was able to drive us home, so I decided to walk with her. The clinic is over 6 kilometers away from Mahutagane and it was already 5 pm, so I was nervous about getting home after dark but I called everyone I knew with a car and no one would pick us up.

So we began to walk. I was worried about the impending darkness, but I figured it would work out. And I discovered that if you are doing good things, sometimes the universe helps you out a little bit. A teacher at the school saw us and picked us up. He dropped us off at the school and I walked the student home. She didn’t say thank you, but she didn’t have to. Later, the guidance counselor called me and said, “You really helped us out today.” In Botswana, that is probably the most gratitude you will hear. I’ll take it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

So This is Happiness

I usually don’t write consecutive blog posts, but I didn’t want to delay this one. I had an amazing day today. It started out rather ordinarily. I went to the clinic by 7:30. I helped the nurses with some filing. I was going to do some work on the computer but the power went out. At 9:45 I left the clinic. I was going to visit one of my favorite old ladies (mosadimogolo) in the village. We had planned to make a traditional dish and eat together.

On my way out of the clinic, one of the patients called me over. She and the women around her asked what I was doing in Shoshong and how long I would be here. When I told her that I was going to be working on HIV/AIDS in Shoshong, she said that she wanted to go around the village with me and teach people. SCORE. If you ask other volunteers, they will let you know how difficult it can be to find motivated people who want to work with you. And here was someone just offering herself up. I was psyched. I got her number, gave her mine, and left.

I then had coffee and magwinya (fat cakes – fried balls of dough, pretty much) with one of the PMTCT volunteers at the clinic. And when I say coffee, I mean instant fake coffee. Not the best, but it will do. When I arrived at mosadimogolo’s house, her husband told me that she had to attend a ceremony on the other side of the village and that I should come back around 1:30.

So I decided to go home and do my laundry. They are doing some work in the village and there is a rumor that we may not have water for a week. We have water storage at home, but I figured I should clean my clothes while we still have running water. My mosadimogolo friend still couldn’t make food with me, so I decided to go visit people who were rebuilding a church.

I only know about this church project because an Afrikaner (white South African) named Charles showed up at my house last night. He just decided to walk across Africa preaching God’s word. He came to my host mom’s house. She called me over and we all talked. He told us about his sinful past and how he was saved my God. He decided that we all needed to pray. Very surreal. He is only staying in Shoshong for a few days, but he had a dream from God, he said, to rebuild this church. So he is seeing that to completion.

Anyway, I visited the church. Charles wasn’t there but I stayed for a while and hung out with the Batswana who were working. And I ate more magwinya. In Botswana, it is generally rude to refuse food given to you, even if you aren’t that hungry. Or maybe I just love fat cakes. One or the other.

I went back to the clinic to pick up a package that was delivered for me. On my way, I walked through the community and talked to some people. I stopped at one house and met a couple of 17 and 18 year old girls that go to Shoshong Senior Secondary School. I told them how I wanted to talk to the principal and guidance counselor about working at Shoshong Senior. They seemed to think that was a good idea.

I went to one of the nurse’s house at the clinic because she was holding onto the package for me. I haven’t been able to interview many of the nurses yet because they are always so busy so I took the opportunity to do so today. This particular nurse is 23 years old so she really understands how important it is to work with youth. She is really motivated to have a youth counselor at the clinic and involve youth in the community. We devised a whole plan about how she is going to be my counterpart for my work in the schools. SCORE NUMBER 2. Very excited. I didn’t know that any of the nurses were particularly passionate about doing community work because most of them stick to their clinical duties. So I was really pumped out to find out that a medical professional was serious about getting involved.

Finally, I headed home. I passed by the teenage girls again, who asked if they could walk me part of the way home. I agreed. As we were walking, I asked what sorts of things the youth do in Shoshong, to which they replied that there is nothing to do. I then asked what sorts of activities they would like to see created. They told me that they would like to organize groups to go around and peer educate about HIV. SCORE NUMBER 3. Teenagers wanting to help each other and openly talk about sex? WHAT? AWESOME. They said that they would ask around and see who else would be interested. We exchanged numbers, parted ways and I came home. This is exactly why we shouldn’t ignore our neighbors. We could meet potential community partners just by walking around and being friendly.

I can’t put into words what amazing things happened today. Especially during these first two months in Shoshong, it is sometimes hard for me to see how I will help or empower anyone. We are all so new at our sites. I constantly feel like I am being empowered by the things I am learning from people in Shoshong, not the other way around. This was the first day I finally realized that I could actually do some good here, that I can really capacitate these people to talk about HIV openly within the community. And those are lifelong skills. My role is really just to catalyze things that others want to do. And today I had three different sets of people telling me that they want to partner with me. This is, without a doubt, the happiest day of my three and a half months in Botswana.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Romanticism and Reality

The goal of the first two months of our service is to truly understand our village—its strengths, weaknesses, winners, losers, resources, people, history, shops, geography, etc. I had a meeting with the Member of Parliament from Shoshong who informed me that Shoshong’s population was double what I thought it was, closer to 14,000. That made me feel better about my inability to reach an entire section of the village. Even the police station is 4 kilometers away from the center of town (and the clinic). To work at the schools, I either need to organize transport, hitchhike or walk almost 2 hours. Defining my “target area” has been difficult. So I have focused on trying to walk around the areas accessible to me—my ward, the center of town, and the area around the clinic.

In some ways, I am still in the romantic stage of service. Although I am beginning to feel comfortable, many things are still new. There are shops I have yet to visit, people I have yet to meet. And I can’t remember most of the names of the people I have met anyway. I have formed some relationships with students who attend the schools I am working in. Two of these students, Ntebogang and Godiraone, showed me the beautiful Shoshong hills last Saturday. I put my hiking boots to good use and climbed up the hills. It was really nice. We took a lot of pictures, including many “model” shots.

Godiraone and I

Ntebogang and I

Me eating local berries…

Which you spit out

Ntebogang showing her newly acquired American hand gesture

On the other hand, I am beginning to see the harsh realities of life in Shoshong, especially in relation to HIV. In a past blog post, I talked about the woman whose house I visited. I spoke with her and her husband about his ARV regimen, explaining that he shouldn’t drink or smoke. I returned to their house and realized that she makes and sells traditional beer. It is impossible not to walk by there without 10 drunk people calling me over to chat. One woman brought me to her house and showed me her HIV medical records. People tend to do that with me. She then got in a drunken verbal argument with her husband, calling him a thief among other things. I will expand more upon the challenges of HIV work in Shoshong (and Botswana as a whole) in a later post. But this was one of the first times that I really began to feel like I was getting into the thick of the problem.