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.

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.