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, March 28, 2012

Money (That's What I Want)

Like many of my blog posts, this one stem from journal entries that I think are interesting to share with all of you. Last post, I talked about how nuanced my understanding of the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS has become. This more holistic understanding continues to extend to other cultural aspects as well.

Everyday, multiple people ask me for money. Or perhaps they ask for food, my sunglasses, my shoes, my dress, my skirt...really anything that I have. In the states, beggars are clearly marked in cities, usually sitting with a sign and a cup. You can easily walk by them and they rarely follow you unless they are going to rob you. This is not the case in Botswana. Everyone from poor people with tattered clothing to my fellow clinic workers ask me for money.

It seems like it should be easy to just say no, but it isn't. During training, they taught us to say, "ga ke na madi," which means "I don't have any money." But I do have money. And because I dislike lying, a problem arises. So a couple months ago, I just started telling people that I couldn't give them money. Yet, that was also unsatisfactory. I knew that I shouldn't just give people money, for many reasons. One of them is the old Chinese proverb: if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. I have tried this tactic lately. If I am in the mood to stop and explain it to people, I try to tell them why I can't give everyone money, so I don't think it would be good to pick and choose. And if I give them money today, how does that help them tomorrow? Most of the Batswana seem to understand this point. Or perhaps they don't like confrontation so they just agree and move on.

It is frustrating to be asked for money so often. Not giving makes me feel like a bad person. But it is more than feels like it takes away my ability to be generous. If most people are constantly asking for me to buy them x, y and z, when I decide to do so, it is expected. That being said, when I have brought back things from South Africa and the US, my friends are so happy. And there are times when I have bought students magwinya when they haven't asked for it. And that makes me feel good because I would do that in the states as well. It is a difficult balance, though. One of the hardest situations is when I am already buying something and someone asks me to just get them one. I know that I can easily say that my ability to buy something for myself doesn't mean I can buy for everyone else, but it still makes me feel selfish.

Asking for money is a part of the culture, as is asking for garments. When women ask me for my clothing, they are really just trying to compliment me. Because if I ever compliment a woman on her skirt or earrings, she says that she will try to get one for me. I tell her that's not necessary, that I just wanted her to know I admired it. So there is a bit of a cultural divide there. Yet, I do get asked for money much more than the locals do. The question is...why?

Up until today, I thought the answer was obvious. I am white. Western. American. However you want to describe it...I was able to come to Botswana, which means that I have money to blow because I don't have to be home working to provide for my family. And since I have money to blow, I clearly must be able to spend 150 Pula for a ride that actually costs only 8 Pula (yes a taxi driver wanted to charge me that a couple days ago).

But today I tried a new approach. A young man asked me for 2 Pula, which is the equivalent of a quarter. I asked him why he was asking me for money and not everyone else. He said it is because I have "botho" or empathy and I can understand better than other people. I care more. The answer took me by surprise and broke my heart. I assumed it was about identity and/or race, and that is obviously a part of it (and why most people ask me for money), but with this boy it was deeper than that. He felt like everyone else around him is either in the same situation or really doesn't have much empathy. And saying that he recognizes how much I care is beautiful. Yet, it doesn't change the fact that I shouldn't give him the money. If I start giving it out, when do I stop?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Government Transfers and Contracts

Most mornings I go to the clinic. I arrive by 7:30, in time for the morning meeting. Whenever I am there, I am asked to either sing or pray. Every meeting in Botswana starts this way. If I don't have much to do later in the day, I oftentimes stay for a few hours and help the IT officer, Tumi, input CD4 and viral load results for our HIV-positive patients into the computer. She has taught me how to give infant formula to mothers, interview new ARV patients who are transferring from other facilities, make new files, etc. But I do not want to sit in an office everyday, so I am so glad Tumi is here to do most of it.

...Until Monday. On Monday, Tumi's contract ends. Although she renewed it months ago, she probably won't be reinstated back into work for months. We didn't have our regular doctor for months because of this system. And we haven't had a lay counselor to do HIV testing and counseling for OVER A YEAR. Needless to say, it has affected our ability to provide necessary services to our patients.

In addition to the contract problem for government workers in Botswana, they are also transferred anywhere and everywhere. A spouse's placement is not really taken into consideration, especially if someone is just starting work as a government employee. And the government is the largest employer in Botswana. So husbands and wives spend years commuting to see each other.

I have heard many Botswana Peace Corps volunteers say that this policy of government transfers contributes greatly to the spread of HIV because it encourages "small houses," or finding secondary partners when your spouse lives so far. I do not disagree with them. After a few months in our communities, we start to see the relationship between culture and HIV. But the longer I stay here, the more nuanced I begin to see the issue of HIV in Botswana.

Although I am sure that being far from one's partner does not promote monogamy, I am not convinced that it negatively impacts HIV any more than the culture of relationships here already does. I have talked about this with many locals and here are some things I have been able to discern:

1. If men spend too much time during the week with their women, they are seen as lazy or somehow in derelict of their duties. In America, we would probably call them "whipped."

2. Adding onto the first point, young men and women do not traditionally openly date each other. Parents only know their children are dating when marriage is proposed. So young couples cannot spend much time together during the day because older family members are usually at home. I am sure parents are aware in many cases, but the relationship isn't discussed or flaunted until marriage.

3. Men are supposed to spend time at the cattle post and the lands, which separates a couple naturally, as the women oftentimes stay in the village where the children are schooling.

4. Some young men have told me that it is better to go to a random woman for sex rather than to demand it from your wife or girlfriend too often and abuse that relationship.

5. Being apart is seen as a positive thing because the couple can miss each other more--and then they will have "a good marriage."

Obviously this is not true across the board. Some couples live together fulltime and are very happy that way. But even educated youth that live in Gaborone (the capital) oftentimes have boyfriends or girlfriends at home or working in other villages. Only getting to see each other on the weekends is very common. And some couples manage to stay monogamous. That absolutely exists here. The culture of relationships in Botswana is simply one piece of the larger puzzle contributing to the second-highest prevalence rate of HIV in the world.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


There are months in which I have little to say on this blog. This month is not one of them. I have learned a lot about myself, culture in Botswana, and my work here. So expect more posts than normal!

During Pre-Service Training last year, we learned all about the state of HIV/AIDS in Botswana, how to live within a Batswana household, and tips for navigating life once we got to site. We had a few sessions with our medical officers about staying healthy. One of them covered mental health concerns. The guest speaker talked about the four parts of life: spiritual, emotional, physical and mental. She likened them each to legs of a chair. With one leg missing, the chair cannot properly stand.

I like that analogy. And for the first time in a while, I feel that my chair is strong. Although I have questions about my life and my work in Botswana, my mind feels strong. I feel like I finally have the ability to deal with anything that comes my way because my mind is clear and healthy. I am emotionally whole and physically (relatively) fit. Need to work out more...but who doesn't?

I am trying to figure out my spiritual place in this world. That will probably be a lifelong process. But I am reading The Bible, The Qur'an and the writings of Richard Dawkins. I hope to read more about Buddhism. I will read Gandhi's autobiography soon. I like to expose myself to as many sides of a debate as I can. But since I am not sure anything comes after this life, it is truly about the journey.

It almost feels like I never left Botswana, as if my time in DC was a distant memory. My friends and colleagues have welcomed me back wholeheartedly. I was able to spend time with a good friend of mine yesterday. She just had a baby. I learned a great deal about Botswana customs related to childbirth and I will write another post about that soon.

In adjusting back to being in Shoshong, one song really reminded me of my strength and helped me stand tall. It is called "So Small" by Carrie Underwood. Here are some of the lyrics I really like:

It's so easy to get lost inside
A Problem that seems so big at the time
It's like a river that's so wide
It swallows you whole
While you sit around thinking about what you can't change
And worrying about all the wrong things
Time's flying by, moving so fast
You better make it count 'cause you can't get it back

Sometimes that mountain you've been climbing
Is just a grain of sand
And what you've been out there searching for forever
Is in your hands
And when you figure out love is all that matters after all
It sure makes everything else
Seem so small

I also like this song because it reminds me that things we think we couldn't live without, like our electronics and other possessions, are really unimportant. Human connections are what bring contentment. Steal everything from me. Take my computer, my camera, my music, my money. Drop me down into the jungle with nothing but the clothes on my back and the people that I love. I'll be just fine.

It is wonderful to be back. I haven't felt happier.

World War III: Amelia Versus the Ants

I have been rather thoughtful in my posts of late, realizing that I may have been neglecting stories about my day-to-day life. Many of you joining this blog in the last few months may have missed entries about my house, what I eat, what Shoshong is like, etc.

So, for a quick recap: I live in a mainly two-room house completely made out of cinderblocks and cement (ie a freezer in the winter and a sauna in the summer). I have electricity, a refrigerator, gas stove, flush toilet, etc. I have running water by means of a couple bathroom sinks and a bathtub. I have no kitchen per se and must wash my dishes in a bucket. The running water is cold. In order to get hot water, I must use an electric kettle or heat water on the stove. Other volunteers in Botswana have more meager amenities. Some must use pit latrines outside, don’t have electricity and must get water from an outside spigot.

I eat normal things from the states like granola and yogurt, fried egg sandwiches and French toast. But I also eat local staples like phaletsche (maize meal), motogo (soft porridge), merogo wa dinawa (greens from bean leaves), etc.

Shoshong is beautiful and HUGE. It is 5 kilometers from the main part of the village to the police station. The junior and senior secondary schools are even farther than that. Everyone is very spread out. Shoshong supports a population of roughly 12,000 people. June and July are FREEZING…no joke. Sometimes I wake up and see frost on the ground. November – February are hot as hell, approaching 40 degrees Celcius (over 100 Fahrenheit). The other months are pretty nice and windy (at least in Shoshong they are).

When I got back to my house, I was worried it would be a bit dirty and spider-infested. I was not disappointed. I used to leave the spiders high in the corners alone while killing the wall spiders. I have changed my tactic, choosing to let them all be. Spiders are friends in the fight against more annoying pests.

The ones I have been in constant battle with since I arrived are ANTS, specifically the tiny black ones. In Setswana they are called “bonyonyo.” I initially put down this terrible toxic stuff called Blue Death in order to prevent the ants from coming back. It has mostly done the trick, especially keeping them away from my food. When I came back from DC, I found this to no longer be true. I was able to salvage everything, but couldn’t figure out the ants’ entry point. So I put down more blue death and recovered the area with paper and tape. Let’s hope this keeps them at bay, at least until the next rainstorm.

Monday, March 12, 2012

My Favorite Things

Around 8 pm tonight I arrived in Gaborone, Botswana. I couldn't stop smiling as I got off the plane. The hair was hot and dry. It really did feel like I was coming home.

As I drove to the lodge I'll be staying in before I return to Shoshong, I began to text message friends and colleagues, letting them know I'm back. I felt an outpouring of support. People said they missed me, they were happy to have me back, and they couldn't wait to see me. It was so comforting. It made me think about what I love most about Botswana.

Here are some of my favorite things:

1. How happy the people are when you attempt to speak Setswana, and the perks that come with any knowledge of the language. Latest example: customs at the airport. As every foreigner was asked to open his or her bags for the Botswana customs officials, I did not. I explained, in Setswana, that I bought some clothes and postcards for friends totaling a few hundred pula. I mentioned that I live in Shoshong. They let me pass straight through. Score!

2. The food here. Many volunteers would disagree with me, but I love the traditional food. I have missed magwinya (fat cakes), madombe (steamed bread), mogorogorwane (a really yummy fruit), dikgobe (stew with a local grain and beans), and seswaa (pounded meat), among other things

3. How giving the people can be. Before I left, a friend in my village came over and gave me this beautiful, old woven basket that I hope I'll be able to take back to the states. People here really know how to show they care when they want to

4. The fact that I can talk with random people on the street and it is totally normal

5. No one will look at my strangely when I bow a little when shaking their hand

6. The sun and the beauty of Africa

7. Good South African wine is available in the capital

8. The kids...they follow you, they ask for candy...regardless, you can't help but smile and laugh while they're around

And that's what I plan on doing a lot of lately....smiling.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Return to Botswana!

It is official: I am leaving Washington, DC this weekend! I am so excited!

In many ways, I tried to view this "break" as a vacation, but that is a mis-representation of my time here. It was not stress-free. I had to get to a mental place where I felt like I could return to my site and be an effective volunteer. I am happy to report that has happened. I cannot wait to see my Batswana and Peace Corps friends again.

I wondered how I would feel leaving the United States...if I would be a little sad or be completely ready to get back into volunteer work. During the last 5 weeks, I was able to meet my godson for the first time and visit with family and friends. Being reminded of the people I am leaving behind makes it more difficult to go. Yet, sometimes things happen to point us in the right direction. One of those moments happened today.

I was in the post office mailing something to a friend. A woman came up to the window, asking if she could just mail her package. She simply had to hand it to the post office worker. She had already paid for it. The postal worker told this woman that she had to wait at the end of the line. I told her to just go in front of me. This woman's transaction took perhaps 20 seconds.

Then, my stamp-buying and box-mailing transaction took a couple of minutes, as I was taping up the box to mail to my friend. As I left the post office, a woman approached me. She said:

"Congratulations for the longest transaction with 17 people in line. You let that woman go ahead of you and didn't even ask."

I was so surprised at her rudeness. I didn't say anything, just smiled. After the woman left, an older woman standing in line said: "Don't worry. That wasn't about you. And your reaction said it all. Bless you."

In one minute, I had been reminded of the worst and best of America. And as I left the post office, I yearned to return to the land of long lines in which no one hassles you for taking more than your allotted 2 minutes.

So, in case any of you are wondering, I am VERY ready to return to Botswana. Year two? Bring it on.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Supporting Each Other

Peace Corps is a journey of many things. It is partly about the work that we do. It is also about the relationships that we form, both with locals and other volunteers. And I can't say enough for what it does to bolster our self-knowledge.

Peace Corps has three goals:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women;
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served;
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

When most Americans think of Peace Corps, they think of Goal 1. They think we are all out there teaching host country nationals about preventing HIV, helping them to plant gardens and assisting them to write grants and business proposals. Some of that definitely does happen, to some extent. And I can't speak for the experience of volunteers who served during other eras. But, at this point, to say that Peace Corps is successful in some kind of sustainable development would be overstating the truth.

The most important contributions of Peace Corps are really Goals 2 and 3, although they are oftentimes overlooked. Our ability to create friendships with locals that transcend time and distance is beautiful. We represent the United States in a (hopefully) more positive way than they see on television. We hope to show them that we are not all Rihanna and Justin Bieber. We do not all have mansions and we do not see superstars everyday. We are regular people who care about the world. Showing that side of Americans is a joy.

There are a few phrases you will often hear about Peace Corps:

"You get a lot more than you give."

"It's the toughest job you'll ever love."

Those are definitely true and they mean different things to different volunteers. People also say that the other volunteers in your country become similar to your family. There is a certain level of understanding that people at home can never truly grasp because they don't know the hardships and frustrations that are part of the reality of service. And that's not talked about much, or it's spun in a "I learned a lot so it was great" kind of way. People don't want to say: "Well this was just awful. XYZ was terrible." But sometimes that's true. And the people who will always have your back on this is your group of volunteers in country.

I was recently talking about this with my roommate in DC. We were commenting on how much Peace Corps service has changed us as human beings, all in positive ways. And one of the things we noticed is how no volunteers judge each other for leaving Peace Corps service. We all understand that it's not an endurance contest. But, to some people in the states, leaving may seem like a failure. Perhaps that person wasn't "tough enough" to "pull through" the two years. And this attitude permeates throughout our culture, I think. We are competitive people. We wish for good things for our friends, but sometimes feel that it reflects badly on us if they surpass us in income or career stature. My roommate and I both remarked that we felt those senses of jealousy and competitiveness fading from our consciousnesses.

For example, some people in my group just hosted a GLOW Camp, which stands for Girls Leading Our World. It is a great program and I am so proud of them for putting it together. Instead of wondering why I wasn't organized enough to do one first, all I felt was admiration for them. And instead of trying to pump myself up and reassuring myself that I am doing worthwhile things, I recognized that I now have a group of peers that can assist me with their expertise. If I decide to host a GLOW camp, mine will be better because of their knowledge. And if I decide not to because of other obligations, then I am not a worse volunteer. My service is just different. And that's totally okay.

This is not life knowledge that stops after PC service. It continues into future jobs, future relationships, future endeavors. I am excited to see how I will grow even more in the coming year.