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, June 29, 2011

Marital Woes

Every day, someone asks me if I am married. It may seem like it’s just men wanting to convince me to come to the cattle post with them. But it’s equally women enquiring about my marital status. Some old women want to marry off their sons to an American. Others are just curious about my personal life. Examples of conversations go as such (in Setswana usually):

Man: Are you married?

Me: No.

Man: Why?

Me: I don’t need a husband. I am still young. In the future, I want a family, but not now.

Man: So next year I will ask you?

Me: Probably not. Sorry.

Woman: Do you have children?

Me: No.

Woman: Are you married?

Me: No.

Woman: Do you want to get married in Botswana?

Me: No, but I would date if I met someone I liked.

Woman: Why come to Botswana if you don’t want to get married here?

And so on. I know why they ask. I am new, they want to get to know me, and family is very important in Botswana. The measure of your womanhood is based on your marital status and number of children. I was talking about this with workers at my clinic. One of the cleaners told me that I am still a girl because I am unmarried and have no children. Because she has children but is unmarried (which is VERY common in Botswana and is more culturally acceptable than it is in the states), she is “ngwanyana” which means girlfriend. Women who are married are “basadi,” or women. And rarely is a woman married without children. Also, historically, extended families in Botswana all take care of each other. So the more children you have, the higher the likelihood that you would be supported in old age.

Every time I tell people I am an only child, they don’t believe it. They often ask why my parents didn’t want more children. Sometimes the question upsets me, as if it is a judgment that my parents are somehow not worth as much because they only had me. But most of the time I realize that people in Botswana, for the most part, don’t make decisions about having kids based on the ability to provide for them. You’re not a real woman if you don’t have children, and the more the better. This is especially a problem with HIV-positive women in my village, many of whom continue to get pregnant multiple times. People know about condoms, but they are used mostly for prevention of diseases and not prevention of childbirth (if they are used at all). Other contraceptive methods like the female condom, depo provera and the pill are available, but don’t seem to be widely discussed. Abortion is also illegal here. I don’t know the statistics of women who have illegal terminations, but it doesn’t seem like there is much of a dialogue about being unhappy with unplanned pregnancy. When I told one woman that I knew women in the states who had unplanned pregnancies, but were unsure whether or not to terminate, she said, “But they [pregnancies] are always unplanned.” And women here don’t have a legal choice to terminate, even if they wanted to.

Most of the time when people scoff after my “ke na fela” statement (I am an only child), I take it as an opportunity to teach, a time for cultural exchange. I tell people that sometimes families only want one child in the states, or women don’t want children at all. And that’s okay. But I also say that some families have trouble having children, and some women even have miscarriages after conceiving. People seem to understand.

I believe having a family is a beautiful thing, and I look forward to that time in my life. But I also think that there is more to life than that. I hope to have a career and work that I’m proud of. Some women here, especially of the younger generation who venture into the city, definitely understand that. Even though I appreciate their perspective and know that talking about family is a way to make conversation, it sometimes wears on me. The part I especially don’t like is that there seems to be no talk of love in these questions. I know that couples love each other here, but when these men say that they will marry me, there isn’t any question of my willingness to do so. It’s treated more as a contract, like when I am ready, I just get married or have children, but loving the man in question isn’t necessary.

I brought this up to some people in Shoshong. Mosinyi told me that men say that just to “test the depth of the water.” My next door neighbor, an amazing woman, told me that the marriage question is the Batswana men’s version of a pick-up line. It finally made sense. The men don’t really want to marry me. Apparently I am just supposed to be flattered and agree to sleep with them.

Obviously every man in Botswana does not ask me to marry him, and there are amazing people who want to get to know me regardless of my marital status. I have met truly awesome men and women that I hope will be lifelong friends of mine. The lesson from all of this is such: I will never be Motswana. The Batswana joke about it, saying I will be fluent in Setswana when I leave and I will be a real Motswana. But that’s not true. I will always be an American, and with that comes a specific outlook on the world and my place in it—right or wrong. In the effort to integrate, respecting and understanding differences is important. But so is setting one’s boundaries. And that means being honest about not living like they do in some ways. And that’s okay.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Real Home...Almost

I finally got my furniture! So now I feel like I am finally at home, except for the fact that I don't have gas tanks so I can't use my stove yet. But they should be coming next week. Here are some pictures of my home:

My bedroom, along with the collage of photos from home on the wall. I have a dressing table with mirror, night table, bed and loveseat.

Another one of my bedroom

Stove and closet where I keep all my food

My kitchen/living room, with refrigerator, dining room table and couch

On another note, I had to give Tsatsi (my cat) away. I was developing allergies and couldn't risk my asthma acting up. She has a good home and although I am sad, it's for the best.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Great Expectations

A lot of things have happened this week. I have developed a reputation in my clinic as a typist extraordinaire. I have been typing up a lot of these performance reviews for the nurses, drivers, nurse auxiliaries, etc. I won’t do this forever, though. At the beginning it is great because I show that I am useful and it gives me something to do. But, the point isn’t for me to do things. It is for me to teach others to do things. That is actually the crux of Peace Corps service. If I take the lead role in all of my projects, they die when I leave. But if I train interested others to do the work, I am building capacity. I will be empowering local counterparts to develop, retain and share their skills. Or that’s the hope anyway.

One thing I knew I wanted to do in Botswana is to work with teenagers. I loved counseling women on their reproductive choices in the states. I like feeling like people can confide in me; that I have some knowledge and support to offer them. Like most of my opportunities in Shoshong, my connection to one of the junior secondary schools came randomly. I met a teacher outside of the post office who later gave my phone number to the guidance counselor. I am going to meet the headmistress and student leaders later today. The age group is 13-15. It will be great to have them start thinking about HIV and other STIs, healthy relationships, gender violence, and correct and consistent condom use before many are sexually active. This is a project I am really excited about. It will take a while to get the sessions off the ground. I want to have other teachers, nurses and student leaders help me lesson plan and facilitate. I also want to have office hours in which students can just come and talk to me if they need to.

Big news: my furniture should be arriving on Tuesday or Wednesday. This is a big improvement from four days ago, when no one knew where it was. Yay for places to sit and cook! Yay for being able to welcome visitors! As with most things in Botswana, if you keep pressing for something to happen, it will. Victory #1 of my service.

I haven’t been watching American movies and TV as much as I thought I would. When I come home during the late afternoon, I try to study Setswana, read for pleasure or work on Peace Corps stuff. I am listening to a good deal of American music, which I don’t think I will ever give up. As I was listening a few days ago, some lyrics really resonated with me:

If you go looking for the darker side of anything,
You know you’re gonna find it.
You can hold on until it takes you under
Or you can let it go.

That short line reminded me to live in the NOW and focus on the POSITIVE. This applies to our work, our surroundings, and ourselves. As humans, we often think about what we are missing or what we need, instead of what we are gaining and the amazing gifts that we have. If we want to convince ourselves we don’t like something, our minds will become self-fulfilling prophecies. The opposite is also true. I can focus on missing friends, births, weddings, and martinis in New York City. It’s healthy to miss those things, but not so much that we don’t live in the present. So I have decided that I want to be motivated. I want to start conversations. I want to meet Batswana. I want to fall in love with this country and its people. There will be days when I am devastated that I am missing friends, births, weddings, and martinis. But not today.

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Beginnings

I am officially a Peace Corps volunteer! We had a ceremony to commemorate the end of training on the 7th. The US Ambassador to Botswana swore us in as volunteers. Four of us got the privilege of speaking at the ceremony. I read a poem that I wrote in Setswana and English. It was really great. All of the host parents that were there loved it. It felt good to be able to put some of my Setswana skills to use. I can’t put the video up now, but hopefully I will be able to figure out how to do it once I have internet at my place.

On the 8th, I left Kanye for Shoshong. It was sad leaving my Kanye family, but I know I will come back and visit them. I can’t see leave for at least two months, though, because we are on “lockdown.” We can’t leave our villages other than buying food, if we need to go elsewhere for that. We have this big assignment to do, which is pretty much a “how-to” in terms of getting integrated into our community. The idea is to do it slowly, meeting with all the important people and just getting to know people in the village.

I took Thursday the 9th and Friday the 10th completely off from the clinic. I didn’t even leave my house. I needed to clean, unpack and start to make it feel like home. Sometimes I am my mother’s daughter and those days were no exception. I actually scrubbed the walls. I am still waiting for my furniture, which should arrive early next week. One thing I did to make it feel like home was to make a collage of photos on the wall. I brought a bunch of photos with me from home. I am also putting up cards and photos people send me while I’m here. On a separate wall, I am starting a Botswana collage so I can put up pictures of fun memories from training and service.

The other big news is that I am a mother to a kitten that I named Tsatsi. Letsatsi means “sun” in Setswana so it is a nickname from that. She is adorable. I will put up pictures of Tsatsi as well as my photo collage next blog post. The internet at the library is just loading too slowly for me to do it now.

Although it doesn’t seem like it, there is a lot of change going on in my life right now. The last couple days have been pretty emotionally challenging, but not for any reason in particular. I haven’t been upset about anything, but I have spontaneously broken down in tears multiple times. When I tell some people that, the reaction is concern. But I don’t think that crying is necessarily a bad thing. It is just the way my body is expressing the stress and uncertainty of this new time in my life. And I think that’s okay. All the volunteers that have been here for a while have told me that the first couple months at site can be rough, but it will continue to get better.

This had led me to conclude that Peace Corps service is difficult. That seems obvious, but it’s hard for reasons I didn’t expect it to be. I expected difficulty acclimating to the culture, getting to know the people and adjusting to the lifestyle, ie external factors. But those have been the least challenging parts about being in Botswana so far. I think what it’s really about—and what it will continue to be about—is learning how to understand and love ourselves…to identify our faults, confront our issues, challenge our beliefs and solidify our values. We spend so much time pushing ourselves to change, to adjust, to be more flexible. Rarely do we allow ourselves to validate our own feelings and just let them be.

I know that Peace Corps service is not just about helping others, but that it is also about self-discovery. For me that means being as kind to, and understanding of ourselves, as we are of the people we are trying to help. That’s a lot more daunting and overwhelming than I thought it would be. But that’s the whole point, right?

On Saturday afternoon I met an older woman who told me that I had to come “check” her Sunday afternoon once she heard that I was working on HIV/AIDS in Shoshong. “Checking” is the Batswana way of saying “come over.” So Sunday around 4 pm I walked to her place. Of course I didn’t really know how to get there but I stumbled upon some other nice people who showed me the way. I sat down with her and her husband, who is HIV-positive. He asked me questions about whether or not he should be drinking and smoking while on ARVs. I then explained to him what CD4 count and viral load are, and why they are important to monitor. I spent about 45 minutes there.

After I left, I realized how cool it was. I explained some of it in Setswana, some in English. You make a difference even with those conversations. And I had the first inkling of thinking that I really could be happy here. We want to stay isolated because it’s “easy,” but the more we go out into the community and meet people, the happier we become. We just have to push ourselves to do it.