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.

Monday, May 28, 2012


There are some amazing aspects to living with the Mosinyi family.  One of them is conversing with Mosinyi Mosinyi, my brother.  He is intelligent, having studied law at the University of Botswana.  He will become the chief (kgosi, in Setswana) of our ward in Shoshong in August.  He is also a traditional healer.  There is a lot of misinformation out there about traditional healers, so first I want to set the record straight.

There are many kinds of traditional healers in Botswana.  Some "divine" and some do not.  "Divining" is using the ancestors to treat the patients.  Healers who don't divine are like regular doctors, only they use herbs found in nature rather than western medicine.  Diviners like Mosinyi can tell what is really going on with a patient despite what he/she may say.  They aren't fortune-tellers, per se, but they can answer questions you may have, interpret dreams, warn you if someone is after you, etc.  Mosinyi uses bones to divine.  He throws them down onto the ground in his hut.  He can find answers based on the position of the bones when they land.  Other traditional healers use spirits,  tea leaves, etc.  Mosinyi's grandmother used tea leaves.  Unfortunately he was too young to learn that from her.

I have seen him "throw the bones," as we say, many times.  He has taught me many things.  The most interesting is hearing him talk about superstitions as fact.  There are some mentally ill people in our village.  Mosinyi says that they got that way because they were cursed.  One of them was cursed because he used to steal.  The other because he was brilliant in school and others were jealous.  Mental illness isn't understood very well in Botswana.  Other traditional healers, especially witch doctors, (and Mosinyi makes sure to say he is NOT one of these) can put curses on people.

Mosinyi also told me that there are men who can get out of handcuffs without the key.  They can also open doors and gain entry wherever they want.  They have this ability, he says, because of a plant they have found out in the bush.  There is a bird that gathers it.  So you just have to observe the bird for a couple days and take the twigs it has collected.  You rub them on the inside of your wrists and you're good to go.

Shoshong is surrounded by hills and caves.  Some caves are rumored to be cursed.  Usually that means there is a large snake in it.  Sometimes people will walk by the caves and hear voices at night, but find no one there...kind of like the Botswana version of a haunted house.  Some buildings are also abandoned in Shoshong because the tenants claim them to be cursed.

A well-known superstitions it the thokolosi.  You can get a witch doctor to make you's a spirit/hairy little "human" that you can use to hurt people you don't like.  The thokolosi superstition changes depending on the cultural tradition in your village.

There are plenty of superstitions based on childrearing, a lot of which I wrote about previously.  But I learned about a new one when I was recently visiting Zola.  She told me that her daughter's head is leaning to the side a bit.  So her uncle must put an axe on both shoulders of her daughter, almost like knighting her.  And then her neck will be fine.

And my favorite one lately...tattoos.  I learned that tattoos are the work of the devil.  But it's not that I am an agent of the devil because I have tattoos.  Rather, I cannot know what meaning the artist put into my skin.  It was quite interesting to learn this.  Yet, on the other hand, I have started some amazing conversations because of my Serenity Prayer tattoo.  Sometimes you just have to agree to disagree.

I love the superstitions here.  They are so connected to the culture.  I believe in traditional healing.  I believe in Mosinyi's ability to divine and cure patients of their ailments.  He does it everyday.  But I mostly believe in it because they believe in it.  I am not sure that it would work on me necessarily.  Plants are proven to heal, like homeopathy in the states.  I am not sure if those mentally ill people in Shoshong were cursed.  They very well could have been.  It doesn't mean that it explains their condition, but it could be a contributing factor.

You don't have to believe in the superstitions to see how well the local plants can heal.  And that's amazing.  I love that the locals are so connected with the Earth.  Being able to live directly from the Earth is beautiful.  And there will always be things that we don't understand.  Every culture will develop its own explanations for these events.  We have them too...what is the difference between seeing a traditional healer and wearing your "lucky bracelet" to help you for the big game?  What is the difference between reading bones to see if your journey will go safely and praying to God to protect you for the same trip?  They are all different sides of the same coin.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Mini Vacation I: Salt Pans and Planet Baobab

A couple weeks ago, I took a mini vacation with a couple American friends of mine.  Adam attended Brown with me.  He is doing an amazing trip through Africa and Asia before he starts law school in the fall.  Sarah is a chiropractor.  She did a two-month internship in Mahalapye.  We became friends when she came to visit Shoshong Clinic.

Adam stayed at my house for a couple days and we explored Shoshong.  We then met up with Sarah, rented a car from Sarah's organization and drove up North.  Our first stop was Bobonong to visit some volunteers.  Then we drove through Francistown and headed West toward Gweta.  In between Nata and Gweta, there is this great place called Planet Baobab.  If you are coming to Botswana, I recommend it.  We spent one night there camping.  They had a swimming pool which was AMAZING.  As a Rhode Island girl, one of the things I miss most is the ocean.  You can also rent a hut, but we were too cheap to do that.  They have fun outings like hanging out with meerkats (I am sure it is called something else on the website, but that's what I am calling it), tracking the zebra migration, etc.  

Check them out: Planet Baobab Website

First we went on a walking tour of the place.  Our guide was great.  He showed us the vegetation in that part of Botswana, as well as the famous Baobab tree.  And the tour came with a drink, so the four of us sat around, watched the sunset and shared stories.  It was nice and relaxing.

From right to left: Adam, Sarah, our guide, and another traveler who came on the walking tour with us

The Baobab tree in the dry season.  It is quite magnificent.  Our guide told us that the Baobab is a succulent, which means that animals can get water from its trunk.  It also regenerates itself.  Up close we saw pieces taken out of it by elephants.  And if/when a tree dies, there is nothing left of it but little pieces strewn all about the ground.  One can hardly tell there was a tree there at all.

After Planet Baobab, we headed back East toward Nata.  At Nata, there is an entrance to the Sowa Salt Pan, one of the largest salt pans in the world.  During the dry season, you can camp right on the pan.  During the wet season, the pan is covered with a thin layer of water and camping is inadvisable.  I think the pans in Botswana used to be lakes year-round, but I could be wrong about that.

When we first arrived on the pans, we set up our tent, ate some watermelon and took a look around.  Adam also decided to set up the firewood so it would be easier to do later.

At this point, Adam is hopeful about his fire-making abilities.  

After Adam finished setting up the wood, we decided to take a walk and try to find the flamingos.  We could see them way off in the distance.  We had an hour...maybe we could reach them, we thought.

Left to right: Sarah, me and Adam.  Because it is just the beginning of the dry season, parts of the pans are still a bit wet.  We got to walk around in the mud for about a half hour, while we tried to find the flamingos.

Alas, the flamingos were too far so we turned to come back to the car.  We wanted to reach it before dark.  As you can probably tell from the photos, the pans are MASSIVE.  In the dark, it would be pretty easy to lose your way.

They also look like the surface of the moon

Sunset on the pans

When we arrived back at our little campsite, Adam began to try to make the fire.  For about an hour, we thought we would be eating raw potatoes for dinner.  Lucky for us, he succeeded!

How we cooked our yummy beef stew.  We borrowed a pot from the volunteer in Nata, used two bricks and shoveled coals under the pot.  It was validating to know that we could actually do this.

We got to bed early because we wanted to see the sunrise and do some yoga.  It was spectacular.


Before we left to come back to Shoshong, we decided to drive to see the flamingos.  They were a lot farther away than we initially thought, so we figured we'd better drive if we wanted to have enough time to drive back before dark.

I know they are small, but they're there!  Flamingos!

All in all, we had a great trip.  Taking little vacations is amazing.  I came back to Shoshong rejuvenated and happy.  There is a lot more to Botswana than simply elephants, lions, giraffes and rhinos.  It is fun seeing animals, for sure.  But I also love being able to just appreciate the scenery.

I hope you all get a chance to come to Africa.  It is worth it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Life Skills

When I first arrived in Botswana, currently-serving volunteers said that things often don't "click" until a year in.  By that point, people know who you are.  They know you are planning to stay for a while, that you care about the community, and that you are genuinely here to help.  And that's when things get busy and projects really start up.

Yet, I felt really busy from months 3-6, oftentimes termed the "honeymoon" phase.  Since then, it has been a rollercoaster of highs, lows, weeks in which I felt like I had no time for me and days in which I sat in my house just reading and journaling.  But lately, I feel like I am always busy.  I define "busy" as having something to do every morning and every meeting, one project, one something.  Two things per day: busy in Botswana.  I love it.

One difficult thing about service is balancing our own initiatives with the idea that we should be building capacity with the locals to do things themselves.  I am happy to say that most of the time I am helping people write proposals to start their own clubs and businesses.  They approached me and I can help.  Although these are not the stories you will read about on the news, they matter.  The individual connections are beautiful.

We have some volunteers placed directly in schools as Life Skills volunteers.  They do things like starting PACT clubs, comprised of groups of students they train to be peer counselors.  Some of the LS volunteers actually teach the students life skills--like decision-making, self-esteem and relationship skills.  They also teach about abuse (physical/sexual/emotional), sexually transmitted infections and HIV, depending on the age group.  Sometimes they can work with the guidance and counseling teachers to train them to teach the LS classes.  However, oftentimes the kids open up to the volunteers precisely because they are outsiders.

From the beginning, I was interested in teaching LS.  And now I am doing it!  There is a school in Shoshong called the Study Group.  It is for students who failed their Form 3 exams.  Form 3 would be like the last grade in junior high, if high school were only 2 years.  So Form 3 kids are usually 16 years old.  They can rewrite the exams and try to enter Form 4, the first grade of Senior Secondary School.  After senior secondary, they can go on to tertiary, university, etc.  There are about 20 students enrolled in the Study Group, from the ages of 16-20.  A few weeks ago, I went in and talked with the teachers.  I agreed to teach for an hour and a half every Monday.  The afternoon is study time which the kids need to understand the material so I didn't want to take too much of it.  One day per week sounds perfect.

I have had two classes and it is going really well.  The kids are quiet and it is hard to get them to open up, but I think it is going to be a great project.  Watching them perform dramas about alcohol abuse and teenage pregnancy makes me smile.  This is one of the best parts of my job.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The United States of America

Over the past month, I have had a couple of wonderful mini vacations.  There is nothing better than going somewhere for a weekend and feeling rejuvenated.  I want to write about these, but I can't do them justice without photos and my internet is too slow today to upload them.  So look out for posts in the future about the Salt Pans and Machaneng.

On my way back to Shoshong today, a man asked me how I was liking Botswana.  I told him I liked it, liked my work and liked Shoshong.  He asked me if I was going to stay in Botswana.  Before now, my answer to that question was always, "I don't know."  But I now know the answer is "no."  I will not spend the rest of my life here.  And I told him so.

He looked at me and said, "But you should stay and get married in Botswana."  This is not new sentiment.  I hear this multiple times per week--usually everyday at least once.  All volunteers hear this, regardless of their level of Setswana ability.  However, I think some Batswana see my interest in and acquisition of the language as indicative of a love of their culture and way of life.  They aren't necessarily wrong.  I do enjoy aspects of the culture here.  But I have learned the language to have a better experience while here (and to be better able to do my job), not so that I can marry a Motswana.

I responded, "No.  I miss my culture and my people.  I will return to the United States."  He said, "Ahh, you just need to adapt.  You'll learn."  The fact that this man wants me to stay in his country is flattering, I suppose.  And I know he means well, but there is no better to way to put this: I am sick of having this conversation with locals.  ABSOLUTELY sick of it.

Some Peace Corps volunteers never leave.  Of course that happens in every country.  But I am sick of locals telling me that I am Motswana.  In Shoshong, they tell me that every day, simply because I speak the language.  Again, I understand that they mean no harm but I dislike it.  I am an American woman.  And I have never felt prouder in saying that.  Being away from somewhere makes you notice things you never did before.  For all of its problems, the United States of America is an unbelievable country.  I love it.  And it is my home, for better or worse.  It's where my family is.  It's where my childhood, high school and college friends are from.  It's where people understand how to treat me the way that I need.  They don't always do it right, but at least we have a common denominator.  We understand each other.  I am fortunate to have amazing friends in Botswana.  But there is nothing like spending time with the people who watched you grow up.

A friend of mine from the states came on the Salt Pan trip.  His name is Adam.  There were so many moments when I would look at him and know exactly what he was thinking.  I felt so at home just to be around someone who really knows me.  That's what I miss...calling my friends and having them know what's wrong simply by the tone of my voice.  I miss my mom insisting on tucking me in or sending me Easter baskets, regardless of my age.  I miss my dad waking me in the morning to go to school and listening to the Beatles on the radio with him at 6 am.  I miss being able to just call someone, not to worry about airtime or network problems.

I don't often write about these things.  I write about cross-cultural hardships or moments of joy when I completed a project.  But there are these moments--the moments where we miss home more than anything.  And it doesn't mean we will come home early.  It just means we miss it, plain and simple.

All of this reminds me of the ending of "The Alchemist," which I just finished reading.  (SPOILER ALERT)  When the main character reaches the pyramids of Egypt where he thinks he will find his treasure, he discovers that the treasure is actually back home.  In the book it isn't a metaphor.  He goes to his hometown and actually finds a hidden box of gold.  But it clearly is a metaphor for life.

Because I studied International Relations, most people around me in college traveled.  I never questioned the fact that my future would be full of learning about new places.  But we forget that most people in the world have either no ability or no desire to travel to other countries.  And out of the small percentage that travel, very few actually live somewhere new like PCVs do.  We are fortunate--that's for sure.  Seeing the world is a beautiful gift.  Yet, it is perfectly okay to just want to stay home.  And it is perfectly okay to say, "I will complete my two years, but then I am coming home."

These feelings come and go, obviously.  Next week I may want to stay here forever.  But it's also okay not to.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Remembering the Individual

When we talk about HIV/AIDS, we do so rather epidemiologically and demographically.  We talk about percentages, about incentives, about behavior change on a larger scale.  These are all important and they are the basics of public health.  If one is going to really impact an epidemic or a pandemic, looking at statistics and general trends is important.  I just worry the individual is getting lost sometimes.

Working on HIV/AIDS anywhere is a challenge.  Trying to get people to change their eating habits is difficult--forget their sexual habits!  As we aren't fluent in Setswana, Peace Corps volunteers try to do what they can.  We show videos in schools to have kids discuss HIV-related topics, we organize educational events for the community, help organizations write proposals and request money...the list goes on.  What we don't do a lot of is counseling people.  We simply don't have the language to do it, and most of us don't have the necessary skills.  So even though we support HIV-positive people and see the lines of people waiting for their ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs) at the clinic, we don't always know if the people we are working with are HIV-positive or not.

Because HIV is talked about everywhere, is widespread in Botswana and it is obvious who is getting ARVs at the clinic, we oftentimes think that HIV is accepted, or somehow not a big deal to locals here.  I have heard some locals who dispense ARVs in clinics and hospitals say things like:

"Well, they just don't even care.  They flush the pills down the toilet.  They come late for their refills.  These people just don't care."

It is true that ARVs are an issue here.  They are given relatively free of charge to everyone who needs them.  These drugs cost thousands of dollars per month and the government is just giving them out.  So, looking at it in terms of incentivizing, as we often do, brings about conclusions that somehow the drugs aren't valued...or gives people the liberty to be careless with them.

But all of this ignores one thing: the human aspect.  When that woman comes in from the cattle post and pays money to hitch a ride to the clinic to refill her ARVs, she deserves to be treated with respect.  If she missed some pills, she may not want to tell you why.  Perhaps her husband wouldn't let her come back early enough to get them.  Perhaps her child was sick at home.  Assuming that people "just don't care" is hurtful.

HIV-positive people in Botswana are our friends and co-workers.  But what if one were your mother?  Your father?  Your husband or wife?  Your sister?  Your brother?  Would you feel differently about the woman waiting in line to get her ARVs?

What if it were you?  Would you feel that you have the right to have kids, even if you are HIV-positive?  And if you didn't have money for artificial insemination and sperm washing?  Would you have sex with the person you loved, risking spreading the virus, simply because you wanted a child?  Maybe you wouldn't.  But maybe you would.

And that's what I want us to remember.