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, 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.