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, January 31, 2012

The Chris Brown Question


I am not sure how it is in other countries, but young Batswana have a relatively good grasp on popular music in the states. Chris Brown is a favorite of many. Recently I attended a few baby showers. At one of them, a woman mentioned how she LOOOVEEDD Chris Brown. For the purposes of this story, let's call her Sarah. I told Sarah that I wasn't the biggest fan, that I like his music but I don't respect anyone who hits women. It is just how I feel. I have had this conversation with a few women in Botswana. A couple coworkers of mine at Shoshong Clinic said that they have forgiven him--that it is all in the past. Similarly, Sarah said the same thing. But she went a little further, saying that we don't know his side of the story...that we don't know what Rihanna may have done to deserve to be hit.

This conversation was interesting and illuminating to me in many respects. It first shed light on Botswana culture and pointed to something larger about women and the way we treat each other. Thirdly, it helped solidify my views on violence in general.


In addition to the comment about Rihanna, Sarah briefly spoke about her experience. She said "Well, I've been hit, but then you just move on." I interpret that as her version of "grin and bear it." Maybe it is simply a survival mechanism, a way to keep going on. Maybe it's a source of pride--to be able to say you're strong and can move past hardships. Maybe asking for help is not viewed as being strong, or perhaps it's not really an option.

Although Botswana is a "second world," partially-developed country, relationships between men and women are still very traditional. Wives always serve their husbands. Traditionally, at the wedding ceremony, the married women give the new bride advice. Among the instructions of how to be a good wife, the older women tell their younger counterpart never to ask her husband where he has been or when he is coming home. She should also look the other way if he decides to take other partners. And she is instructed that her role is to serve her husband in any way--she needs to cook what he wants to eat and give him sex whenever he wants, regardless of her desires. Admittedly, some relationships of the youth are more equal, but this marriage advice is still given at most traditional weddings. Young educated women have told me that they just nod and keep their head down, but they have no plan to follow the advice. Personally, I hope that the advice changes when my generation becomes the elder women.

I do believe that a more equal view of women and men as partners decreases violence against women and leads to better economic standing for women, and therefore better economic conditions within the country. When children see their mothers as strong role models, they are empowered to do their best. Empowering women empowers the entire country. I hope for this reality for Botswana. That being said, I do not argue that western countries are perfect at this either.


Although the US and other western countries have made significant strides on economic and social equality for women, are we any better at supporting each other? I am not so sure. Women should be made to feel supported, loved and validated (as should men). And sadly the worst violators of this are oftentimes other women. We see this with women who perform genital mutilation on their daughters, tell them to be subservient to their husbands, claim that other women "deserve" ill treatment because of bad behavior, call other women whores by judging their sexual choices, and oppose a woman's right to family planning and choosing when to have a baby.

When did we lose the ability to support and genuinely love other women? We need to bring that back. When all of our partners die and our children move away, we will only have each other.


This third point may seem obvious, but this whole Chris Brown issue reminds me of something I recently decided: violence is NEVER okay. NEVER. Your girlfriend can scream at you all she wants. Your boyfriend can cheat on you. Your mother can yell at you. Your friend can break your possessions. We should not use violence to "solve" our problems.

As a student of international relations, I always studied wars as failed diplomacy, or even as other means of diplomacy. I never liked it, but I never really thought about war as a crime against humanity in itself. I never considered myself a pacifist. Well, I do now. I have begun to see the Earth and everything/everyone on it as parts of the same living system. We need to be kind to the Earth and kind to each other.

There are a couple quotes from Gandhi that underscore these points:

"However much I may sympathize with and admire worthy motives, I am an uncompromising opponent of violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes."

"Every murder or other injury, no matter for what cause, committed or inflicted on another is a crime against humanity."

Sunday, January 29, 2012

More Pics from South Africa

One of the most beautiful views of Cape Town is said to be from Table Mountain. This was the only day with good visibility--the first day we got there, December 29th. But the lines to the top of the mountain were so long. So Sadi (middle), Thatie (right) and I decided to skip it and go to the mall instead.

On the 30th, a bunch of us went on a wine tour in Stellenbosch, about an hour outside of Cape Town. The views from the wineries were beautiful.

The Bots 10s who came on the wine tour! From left: Kristen, Becca, Jeremy, Tija, Todd, Patrick, Amanda and I

On the 31st (the day of Sadi, Charlie, Susan and my trip to Cape L'Agulhas) we also tried to whale watch. Although we saw no whales, we took lots of pictures. In this one, I am trying to get Sadi to take a photo of my jumping. Needless to say, her timing was a bit off.

To celebrate New Year's Eve, the group of us went to a huge party at the Cape Town Convention Center. This photo shows Sadi and I in our hostel before we left for the Convention Center.

On the morning of January 2nd, Sadi, Thatie and I toured Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela is imprisoned. This is a photo of me on the island. Unfortunately they don't allow you to just explore at your own pace, but they are changing that for future tours. It is such a beautiful place.

A recreation of Nelson Mandela's cell

Later on the 2nd, Sadi and I were exploring a bit of the city. There was a parade supposedly celebrating "colored" people (mixed black and white, according to South African history and society). The streets were packed. We wanted to visit the church in the background of this picture, but that unfortunately never happened.

On the 3rd, Susan and I went to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. It was such a beautiful day. I would recommend it to anyone who visits Cape Town.

This plant is very cool. It is called a cycad and it has survived since the time of the dinosaurs!

A general view of a very small part of the garden

I thought this tree was really interesting. Its leaves are silver!

And then we flew back to Botswana on January 4th.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A New Focus

I promised more pictures of my South Africa trip and once my internet at home is fast enough to post them, I will do so. Until then, I figured I would talk about my attitude about my time in Shoshong.

A few posts ago, I talked about difficulties I was having at site--frustrations with my projects, annoyance with the culture, etc. The Botswana government has done so many campaigns about HIV. People know it exists and they know how to prevent it, for the most part. They may not know the biological intracacies of the virus, but mass education on HIV is not what is needed to curb the epidemic here. It is pretty simple. People must change their behavior. And I cannot do that for them.

Ross Szabo, a Peace Corps volunteer who blogs for the Huffington Post, compared changing sexual behavior to dieting in the United States. People know the risks of not doing so, but it doesn't mean it's easy to change their habits. I compare it to alcoholism, because that's something I know better. You cannot tell an alcoholic not to drink. Unless he or she comes to that decision him/herself, there is nothing others can do. I believe sexual behavior in Botswana is the same way. I can tell you to use a condom, reduce your number of partners and get tested all I want. But unless you have a compelling reason to do so, you won't.

With this realization, you may ask: so what can Peace Corps volunteers actually do in Botswana? This was the question I was grappling with the entire month of December. I decided that, if my focus was to impact HIV in Botswana, I would leave feeling unfulfilled. My original motto for my service was to "increase the conversation" surrounding HIV. I think that is still a worthy goal, but the point of the conversation has shifted. I still want to use films to inspire youth to talk about safe sex, effective communication skills, cultural values, violence against women, etc. But I don't want to do this because of HIV in Botswana. I want to do it because positive things happen when people feel more open to talk about these issues. Openness and honesty is an end in itself.

And I am confident that I can begin this dialogue in the secondary schools. The life skills curriculum in Botswana also gives me hope that the students can develop the tools to make good life decisions. An example is its description of rape as "violence expressed through sex. Rape involves a perpetrator and a victim. It can happen to both boys and girls. Nothing that the bictim does warrants this act, regardless of how the victim dresses, speaks or acts. In other words, the victim never deserves it."

After reading that, I was blown away. Many people in the United States do not describe rape in such an all-encompassing way. I feel like I can make an impact helping to develop young peoples' understanding of the world and the opportunities for them within it.

That brings me to my real new focus: supporting people. This is why I didn't do any "work" Monday afternoon. Instead, a visited a friend's mom in the hospital. If all of the projects I want to start--building a playground, holding business skills seminars at the library, beginning health talks at the clinic, writing a comprehensive life skills book for secondary school students--fail, then at least I will have shown love to those around me. And what's better than that?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

South Africa II: Race in the Post-Apartheid Era

We did a lot of other fun things in South Africa, like wine tasting, dancing, shopping, eating great meals, and visiting Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned). I will write another post about all of those things, but now I want to talk about my experience with race while in South Africa.

Last post, I wrote about Susan, Charlie, Sadi and my trip up the western coast of the Cape. Although black South Africans are the vast majority, most of those quaint little towns were full of white people. Occasionally we saw a black person walking around, but rarely were they driving. Other places we often saw them were as service personnel, working in restaurants, gas stations, etc. I know that I grew up in a mostly white town in the US. The only people of color we had in Charlestown were the native Americans. Even so, driving through these towns in South Africa felt like a step out of reality and into Pleasantville.

I have become more conscious of race during my time in Africa, and South Africa expanded that exponentially. As long as I can remember, I have believed strongly in racial equality and have known that racism still exists worldwide, but my activism as a young person always centered around women's rights. What I am coming to understand is that you cannot fight for one without the other.

Although I am well aware of my identity as a white American woman, I don't feel that way while in Shoshong. Because everyone around me is black, I don't see myself as any different. I just see my peers. I am not claiming that I do not see race. I absolutely do. And I have become much more aware of that after traveling to South Africa. But when I work with patients at the clinic or students at the school, I am not helping black people or Batswana--I am just helping friends, my peers.

I cannot give an accurate history of apartheid in South Africa in this post. This will be an over-simplification, but I want to give some context for my story. In South African apartheid history, there are generally three classes of race: white, black and colored. Colored people are mixed between black and white. The political prisoners at Robben Island were even given different rations of food depending on whether they were black or colored. In the post-apartheid era, most of the politicians are black, so power has shifted politically. However, most of the economic power and money in the country still rests in the hands of the whites. Blacks are still living mostly outside of cities, in informal settlements in the townships. Just driving through the townships versus the affluent towns shows the stark difference. The status of the colored people is also precarious, as they are somehow still stuck in the middle.

I knew that this post-colonial racial situation in South Africa still existed, but I didn't know that I would feel it so acutely. On January 2nd, Sadi and I decided to venture out and have a late lunch. Many restaurants were closed. There was a huge parade shutting down many of the main streets around our hostel. We ended up finding a little square in Cape Town that had two restaurants on it. We went to the first--a gourmet pizza place of some kind. It was pretty busy, but there were open tables both outside and inside. We walked in and the waiter said that he wasn't sure if he would be able to serve us. We were confused because we did see open tables. The manager came over, telling us the same thing. She also said that the restaurant was closed "until further notice."

As we left, a white woman was ordering drinks with a waiter outside. As we walked across the square to try our luck at the other restaurant, Sadi and I looked at each other and said, "Was that racism?" because it didn't really feel right. But I like to believe the best in people, so I thought that perhaps the restaurant really was closing because it was so busy. So, from our table across the square (where we had a beautiful meal, by the way), I watched to see if others were turned away. From what I could tell, many groups of people sat down, were brought menus and served. All of the patrons were white and all of the wait staff was either black or colored.

I decided not to confront the management, mostly because we had a lovely lunch and I didn't want to ruin it by getting into an argument. But looking back, I am sorry that I didn't say something. It was pretty obvious to Sadi and me that we weren't served because she is black. The color of my skin didn't matter. I was with a black person, so I wasn't served either. It was a terrible feeling--not because I was discriminated against, but because I began to understand how people of color feel all over the world. I got a little taste of the feeling of being treated as lesser because of the color of your skin. And it's awful.

When Sadi and I were talking about it a couple days ago, she said that it was okay that I didn't go back and confront the manager. She said it wasn't my fight. I disagreed, saying that ending injustice is everyone's fight. I don't think I would ever be comfortable living in an all-white town, or being served in a place where all of the customers are white and all of the servers are black. I notice race more than ever before. Rather than being upset that I had that experience, I am so thankful for it. There are a lot of freedoms to fight for in this world. Women's equality is surely one of them, but I can no longer ignore that racial equality IS my fight.

Nobody's free till everybody's free.

And it only takes one voice to change an opinion, to open up a mind, to begin to raise awareness. We all have that power inside of us. And it's not an option--it is a responsibility.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

South Africa I: Penguins and L'Agulhas

I spent seven days in Cape Town, South Africa with a big group comprising of Peace Corps Volunteers, friends and family. I brought along two Batswana friends of mine, Sadi and Thatie. Jeremy (another PCV) also brought his sister, Jamie. We truly had a blast.

My favorite day was when Susan, Charlie, Sadi and I drove down the western coast of South Africa. We went to Cape L'Agulhas, which is the southernmost tip of Africa. It is where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans come together. The town is quaint and the views are spectacular. We rented a car and drove for hours to get there. Of course there were issues with the rental car (and still are, as I am disputing a transaction on my credit card, but that's international travel sometimes...) so we weren't able to leave Cape Town until about 11 am. We arrived in L'Agulhas around 1:30 pm.

We explored and took a bunch of pictures. Some are below.

Driving along the coast

Cape L'Agulhas

Sadi and I

Susan, Sadi and I

Of course, I also took some sea shells and rocks as souvenirs.

We ate fish and chips for lunch at about 3:30 and began our trek back to Cape Town. We tried to stop and do some whale watching, but there were no whales to be seen that day. Luckily, we did get to see penguins at a town called Betty's Bay. It was Susan's goal for that day, so we didn't want to disappoint her.

Betty's Bay has restaurants, things to do, and a town full of inhabitants. We thought there was no way that there could be a penguin colony in such a populated area. But we were wrong. There must have been hundreds of penguins enjoying the water and sitting on the rocks.

The penguin park was closed when we got there, so naturally we snuck in. I did get a video of the penguins, but it unfortunately will not upload so I will just have to share a couple of photos.

Susan, Charlie, Sadi and I at the Penguin Colony at Betty's Bay

We didn't leave Betty's Bay until almost dark and didn't get back to Cape Town until almost 11 pm. We navigated the whole trip old school--no phones, no computers; just a map and common sense. It was nice and reminded me of trips I had taken cross-country with my dad when I was 12.

Blog Changes

I haven't posted in a while because I just got back from vacationing in South Africa. I will write about that experience in a few posts after this one.

I wanted to let you all know about some changes to the blog. The background is a new picture--of the Sowa salt pans. They are absolutely unbelievable. If you want to know more information about this natural wonder in Botswana, here are some sites:

I plan on changing my blog background every once in a while. Whenever I do so, I will let you all know info about the new photo.

On the left, I have added a couple pages and I will continue to add more as need be. They list the books I have read since I have been here and things I want to accomplish during my service.

On the right, I have listed other Peace Corps Botswana blogs, in case you all want to read about others' experiences.