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.

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.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

So What do You DO?

I realized that I have reported a lot of cultural challenges, anecdotes and reflections, but my posts have been dearth of reports about my day-to-day life. I don’t do much by American standards. My life in the states was filled with meetings and research and rushing from one place to another. In Botswana, my main goal is never to rush anywhere. I always want to make sure to have time to stop and talk to people.

I know that helping Shoshong with the problem of HIV/AIDS is important, but that’s only one-third of my job description. The other two-thirds are to promote cross-cultural understanding. I may not have any impact when it comes to HIV. There are many reasons why HIV is so prevalent here, and those will be very difficult to change. We will have to find other ways to feel fulfilled. I plan on doing that by building relationships.

For the first two months at site, all volunteers must complete a community assessment. Ideally, we learn about all of the workers at our primary job, meet people in our village, and begin to understand the socio-cultural, economic and political landscape. Peace Corps gave us questions to help guide our report. To do this analysis, we can do a combination of interviews, focus groups, participatory community assessment tools, research, and appreciative inquiry.

To find out some basic things about Shoshong, I have chosen to interview community members. I ask things like:

Where are you from?

Do you have children? Husband/wife?

Do you like Shoshong?

What do men do in Shoshong everyday?

What do women do?

How do people get money?

Who makes political decisions about Shoshong?

Do you trust the community leaders (chiefs, councilmen, member of Parliament)?

Do you feel like people can give their opinions at the kgotla meetings?

In your opinion, does the leadership listen to peoples’ grievances?

How do you learn about HIV? In churches/clinics/schools/kgotla meetings?

Do you think that HIV is a problem in Shoshong? Why?

Do you think that people know about HIV? Or is more education needed?

What should be done to end HIV in Shoshong?

A typical day looks like this:

7:30 – Arrive at Shoshong Clinic

7:35 – Sit in on the daily health talks given to the patients by nurses or clinic volunteers

8:00 – Do data entry of the blood work (viral load and CD4 counts) of patients on anti-retroviral medications (ARVs)

10:00 – Eat breakfast

10:30 – Interview some clinic staff

12:00 – Either do some planning about who I want to meet that day, or just begin to walk around the village

1:00 until dark – This really varies. Sometimes I go to the post office to mail some letters and hang out with the post office workers for a half hour or so (I love them). Lately I have been doing interviews of general community members, as well as specific stakeholders that I may work with. I have done research about Shoshong at the library, met the socialworkers, planned some programs with one of the councilmen, and gotten to know some really motivated people who have great ideas of things to do in Shoshong. Every meeting gives me another person to meet.

I am also trying to just walk around Shoshong and get to know the different wards. I will sit down with people in their homes and just introduce myself. Because my job doesn’t have specific tasks to do, I have to make a daily plan of things I want to get done. There is a lot of self-motivation. Surprisingly, I am rarely bored. And I usually don’t complete all my self-assigned tasks everyday. Things move a lot slower and I find it more important to sit and talk with someone than try to get to the library before it closes. Most things can wait until tomorrow.