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.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Life Progressing

I have been an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) for two months, even though I technically haven't returned anywhere.  I am still in Botswana, living in the capital, Gaborone.  The last two months have been busy, to say the least.  Mom and dad visited.  Right after them, a friend of mine from Germany came.  I have been living with friends with bags scattered in a few different houses.  I haven't wanted to sign a lease on a place until I knew for sure that I would be staying here for a while.

Good news is that I got a job that I really enjoy!  I am program assistant for CIEE Gaborone, which stands for the Center for International Educational Exchange.  We organize programs for students and faculty who wish to visit Botswana.  The students come for a semester or summer study abroad session; the faculty for week-long seminars.  It feels good to be personally responsible for something again.  One challenge of Peace Corps is that we are not in control of the success or failure of a project.  We aren't supposed to just call someone up and make it happen.  We are supposed to be building capacity so others can organize events and projects in our absence.  If we do it ourselves, how would things be sustainable?

[Yet, over the course of Peace Corps service many volunteers questioned the notion of building capacity.  A volunteer I really admire said that she taught best by being a good role model.  She worked with partners at her organization, but was responsible for organizing events.  She didn't wait for others to do it.  And sure, perhaps it didn't all continue after she left, but she made an impact in the meantime.  I always liked that and sometimes wished I had done a bit more of that myself.  And as an aside, most of our projects don't continue after we leave, regardless of how many locals we involve.  It's just the reality.]

Lately people have been asking me what was most challenging about PC or what I liked the most.  Luckily I don't have to answer often.  Since I am still in Botswana, I only face these questions with the occasional ex-pat encounter.  It is more difficult to come up with those answers than the questioners realize.  Distilling two years of frustration, small victories, anxiety, pain, tears, learning, growing, and self-realizations into one sentence is almost hurtful.  But it seems like people almost expect that--like we should be rehearsing our answers in the mirror before we go and face the world.  God forbid we're not quite sure what to tell people who have no conception of this experience.  But I digress.

I am 24, almost 25, with a real sense of new opportunities and responsibilities.  I don't yet have the feeling of getting older or time ticking.  Yet, somehow, people have a lot of advice about what I should be doing to "plan for the future" and "build something" as if life is a race that I can win or lose.  I have learned that people have their own idea of what denotes success in life.  That's fine.  And we women are still asserting our right to satisfying careers, attempting to bring home the bacon and mother the kids at the same time.  In the states, the first question we ask someone is "what do you do?" as if someone's job is the sole marker of their worth as a human being.  And once we reach that comfortable point in our career, then what?  We just sit there for 20 years trying to create new goals, new ways to enhance the mind and keep the juices flowing?

I really like that I don't have a goal in mind.  At this point, I can envision no perfect job for myself.  All I know is what brings me joy.  And I have realized that is how I want to live my life.  My universal goal will be to do what makes me happy and fulfilled.  I mean that with humility rather than selfishness.  I want to make enough money to live, that is true.  But I will get there at my own pace.  Life is all about the journey.  It's a waste if it's not enjoyed.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Eat, Pray Love -- Just Don't Join Peace Corps

A lot of Peace Corps volunteers increase our reading habits while in service.  Recently, I picked up "Eat, Pray, Love."  Like many people presumably felt, I thought, "Ooohh...I wanna do that!  I wanna have the money to just go traveling for a year, be immersed in other cultures..."  Many of you may be thinking, "But Amelia...you just did that...you were a Peace Corps volunteer.  You did it for TWO years!  And you really became immersed in the culture because you were living at the village level helping people.  It wasn't like 'Eat, Pray, Love's 4 months here, 4 months there."

I understand the tendency to look at Peace Corps as an escape, another world, freedom from the responsibilities of life in the states.  And in some ways, it is.  You don't have to worry about health insurance, car insurance, car payments, rent or mortgage payments...etc etc.  Peace Corps is many things, all different for different people.  But one thing it is not is personal freedom.  The rules they have in place for safety and security have you calling in every night you sleep away from your site.  Are you the kind of traveler who likes to go somewhere for a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip?  If you were somewhere where the nearest country border was 30 minutes away, would you cross the border for dinner some night?  Well, you can't in Peace Corps...if you wanna follow the rules anyway :)

Even though I have done Peace Corps, that deep desire to flee and just live with bare necessities in some island village is still there.  Peace Corps has not fulfilled that.  As a PCV, you cannot do whatever you want all the time.  You must fill quarterly reports and let PC know how your projects are going.  And in reality, you have to have internet to do that.  The ability to stay in touch with family and friends was admittedly great, but I know that a lot of us perhaps secretly wanted to know what it would be like to be REALLY cut off from the news of the world for long pockets of time.  But that Peace Corps experience doesn't exist in most countries anymore.  And most importantly: you have to do some projects.  You can't just sit around on the beach having drinks with umbrellas in them 24/7.  Peace Corps is not vacation, and it isn't even hard work that you would want to do if you weren't working, like staying home everyday tending your own garden, reading a book and looking out at the Pacific (notice how the ocean is always encompassed in these fantasies of mine).

Peace Corps is something worth doing.  Just know that it's not two years of freedom. It is a lot of being told what to do...by Peace Corps staff, by locals.  And that can be really hard to take.  It's two years of representing the US and being a government employee.  And having that hanging over your head can be challenging.  It can make you feel like you can't be yourself.  It's not New York City.  You are under a microscope and there are consequences for the things that you do, many of them larger than your individual service.  You can't yell "F U" to someone on the street and think it's not going to come back to you in some unforeseen way...or reflect poorly on the PCVs around you.

If you want to spend a couple years discovering yourself at your own pace, being able to travel where you want and do projects that are fully under your control (not following a government-sanctioned community focus), then do just that.  Travel alone, with friends or other organizations.  But Peace Corps is not the best vehicle by which to do that.  Peace Corps is great because it provides that support and security.  But just understand that it's a two-way street.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Reminiscing

The last weeks of Peace Corps are curious.  Staff says not to start any new projects.  Actually, we shouldn't really be starting any new projects the last three months we are at site.  We should be wrapping things up, saying goodbyes, etc.  But, as most things in life, nothing really goes the way that you planned.  People come up to you asking to help them with this and that.  So that is how I found myself yesterday, finishing up a proposal for a gender-based violence workshop in Shoshong next month.  Am I going to be here for the workshop?  Definitely not as a Peace Corps volunteer, but perhaps I will try to come back, just to see how it turns out.

I haven't packed at all.  I have a whole other week for it.  I think I'm lucky, though.  Since I am just moving to Gaborone, I don't have to fit my entire house into two suitcases like most of us ending service and going back to the states.  Yet, the amount of stuff that I have accumulated and have to transport is quite overwhelming.  Just thinking about taking all the photos off the walls is pretty crazy.  Gonna try to get someone to help me with that so I can focus on shoving clothes into suitcases and books into boxes.

Because I am moving to Gabs, I don't feel a huge sense of loss.  I feel like I'll be coming back to Shoshong (or at least I can if I want to).  I have other friends that are happy to get the hell out of here and some that are really sad.  There are things we are all going to miss, of course.  But surprisingly I haven't tapped into it that much because mentally I am still here.

Yet, all of this is making me reminisce.  I'm not thinking much about my service in its entirety, but rather just the beginning.  I am remembering the moment I got off the plane, thinking that it was pretty hot when I boarded that bus.  Little did I know I hadn't seen nothin' yet!  I remember the first few days at Big Five Lodge, first impressions and trying to learn Setswana, all of us being really nervous for home stay matching ceremony.  I remember how we played a name game with all of the staff.  The number of Batswana was incredible and I thought, "How am I ever going to remember all of these names?!"  But I did.  I remember all of us trying to practice our Setswana with workers at the lodge, stumbling over "tsogile" and "jang."

I remember the smells, the hot air, the lack of humidity that has made my hair a sight to behold these last two years (in a good way).  I remember how little I knew and how I kept progressively thinking I knew more and more as time went on.  But I suppose that is life's trick, right?  The minute you think you have something figured out, another aspect of life smacks you across the face and says, "Oh yeah...well take a look at this!"  I find that absolutely wonderful.

After being here for two years, I am still learning more and more about this culture and the way people relate to each other.  Entering the professional world in Gaborone will be a new step in learning about how to survive here.  New rules.  New procedures.  At least I have been primed for waiting by life in the village.  Now I know the trick: always bring a book.  You'll never be bored!  You could wait for hours!  No big deal!  It's brilliant.

Moving always causes a small amount of anxiety, regardless the circumstances.  But I am happy that I am not returning to the states.  Thinking of going back almost scares me.  The thought of food excites me, REAL italian food and a DECENT martini for once, dairy ice cream instead of vegetable fat...the list goes on.  But the things I miss about America are pleasure-related (food, museums, site-seeing).  I suppose I miss the efficiency, but I don't miss the attitude that goes with it, the frustration, the stress, and the feeling that I AM THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE WORLD SO WHY AREN'T YOU DOING WHAT I WANT.  Reading about American news makes my head spin.  I am away from that world and I still can't stand hearing about it.  How am I going to feel when I am back there again?  No, thank you.  I will take another year or two before I decide I can live in America full time again.

Perhaps I will blog more, perhaps not.  For those of you who have been reading my blog since the beginning, I hope you have enjoyed it and have learned along with me.  All we can do is learn and hope that we make good decisions in our lives that positively affect those around us.

So here's to the next chapter.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Pics of Northern Botswana

During February and March, I did some traveling to the northern parts of Botswana.  I went to Maun, the Okavango Delta and Shakawe.  These are some of the most people parts of Botswana.  Here are some photos:

MAUN


I saw this advertising airtime in a shop window.  It is promoting buying airtime as an act of love for your significant other.  It is quite funny because this is viewed as one way your significant other showcases his/her love, by buying you airtime for your phone.  And it is strongly linked to HIV because it is commonly believed that people (especially women) will stay in unsafe relationships and will consent to not use a condom because their partner is buying them gifts.  Stay in the relationship for the airtime!


This is a sign outside of Bateman's Fine Wine and Liquor.  I have ordered cases of wine from South Africa for friends of mine through this wine distributor.  It's a great store with a great selection.  And I just love this sign.

While in Maun, I took a one-day mokoro ride through the southern part of the Okavango Delta.  Here is my view from my mokoro.


My mokoro had some holes in the back.  So the man driving the boat had this big sponge that he would mop up the water with.  I got to sit on some straw so I never got wet.

This is one of those lily pad stalks in the Delta.  And that little white thing is a frog!  They were so cute!

We also went on a game walk.  Game walks are amazing if you are able to see animals because you really feel like you are one with them.  In a car you can easily get away (and can also get a lot closer).  But game walks are special and make you feel like you are part of nature.  Here a zebra is the designated lookout, making sure that we pose no threat.

The Delta





SHAKAWE
A PCV named Dinah organized a half-marathon/5k all-day event to raise money for an ambulance in Shakawe.  Tate and I (pictured above) are getting ready to run the 5k.  Or in my case...more like jog/walk.

After the half-marathon and 5k, there were performances, prizes given out, and many tables with people giving out information about health.  Here, some PCVs are doing face painting.

The Shakawe Clinic health tent.  Here one of the nurses is seated with condoms, informational pamphlets and penis/pelvic models all around her.  Obviously this is where I sat.

A bunch of us stayed with a married couple (volunteers) who live in Shakawe as well.  Since it was around Easter, they organized everything for us to make Easter eggs!  It was really sweet.

The next day, a bunch of us took the trip to Tsodilo Hills.  Tsodilo Hills is actually the birthplace of homosapiens.  It was amazing to be there.  The place is beautiful.  And there are rock paintings from thousands of years ago.  The ones pictured above are dated about 1000 AD by the San peoples.  The guide told us what materials people used to paint the different animals but I forget.  Here Danielle and I are posing at the beginning of the hike (which was really more like mountain climbing).

It got a bit treacherous!

Some of the rock paintings.  I was quite surprised to see a penguin and a whale depicted there.  But these tribes were nomadic and apparently some people had gone down to South Africa.  They painted the animals that they heard about from those South African travelers...or perhaps they even saw them themselves!  There are also white paintings by Bantu-speaking peoples but they aren't pictured here.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Wow...Adulthood


Peace Corps keeps us in a bubble.  It’s almost like middle school.  You can’t drive, you have to tell someone everywhere you go and you have to be home before dark.  Those of us who are younger may have our parents to help us when we get home from Peace Corps.  Many older volunteers don’t even have that.  But parents or not, leaving Peace Corps is daunting.  We’ve had health insurance and a paycheck covered for two years.  We haven’t had to worry about car payments, life insurance, or repayment of student loans.  Coming to Peace Corps wasn’t like moving the next state over.  Many of us sold personal possessions, some even cars and houses.  Some of us aren’t even sure where we are going to spend our first nights after Peace Corps.

Luckily I don’t have that problem.  I know where I will be staying in Gaborone for at least my first few weeks after closing my service.  I don’t have a job yet, but I have been talking with a few companies and organizations.  I am confident that something is going to work out.  And I am shopping for a car.  A lot is still up in the air and probably will be for most of the month of June.  But I feel such a sense of awe and excitement.

Peace Corps volunteers in Botswana will tell you that we watch a lot of movies and television.  It passes the time and it’s nice to catch up on shows you may have missed.  I have spent the last few weeks watching “Boy Meets World,” one of my favorite shows growing up.  At this point, Cory and Topanga have just gotten married.  They hate their apartment.  It’s a dump.  And they go crying to their parents for help, complaining about bad plumbing and bugs.  We have all done that at some point, but I am happy to say that I am doing this on my own.  My parents may still have to help me with some things, like health insurance.  I’m not sure.  But I do know that I am getting my own car, my own job and my own place to stay.  I did this before Peace Corps as well, for the year after college.  But that was in Providence, where I attended Brown.

This is different.  This is new.  No more Peace Corps watching my back.  No more parents an hour’s drive away.  Real life.  Adulthood.  Wow.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Further Thoughts on "The Voice" Article

I have shared the article from "The Voice" mentioned in the previous post with a few friends.  It sparked good conversation.  Most of them felt that few people actually feel the same as the men in the article.  But the topic of sex and its place within a relationship garnered a lot of opinions.

One friend of mine said that he was talking about this with his co-workers, all married men in their 30s and 40s.  They said that he "just doesn't understand" because he isn't married yet.  But they assured him that when he gets married, he will know the frustrations when his wife doesn't want to "give him" sex.  They cited examples of coming home from long trips, missing their wives and having their wives not in the mood day after day.  One day, the excuse would be "I'm tired," the next, "I have a headache," etc.  So the men were asking my friend, "When does it become forcing your partner?  What are we supposed to do if our wives continue to say they don't want to have sex?"

I don't believe these men were saying that they physically rape their wives.  I think they were saying that perhaps they try to verbally cajole their partners into having sex because they are sick of the excuses.  They asked my friend, "Why do our wives keep saying no?  We try to ask them what is wrong and they say 'Nothing.'" 

My friend then asked these men, "Are you sure your wives still love you?"  That made me laugh.  And I think it's a great question.  I am a lover of "Sex and the City."  At one point one of the characters says, "Sex is a barometer for how everything else is going in your relationship."  If one or both of the partners repeatedly does not want to have sex, the problem is probably outside of the bedroom.  And this is what I told my friend he should tell his co-workers.  Perhaps the women get home from work, their husbands ignore them and watch TV all night.  And then when they get into bed, the men turn on the charm and expect lovin.'  But we all need to feel appreciated in life, not just in the bedroom.  So the problem for these men could be that they aren't showing their wives that attention in the way their wives need.

And this brought up a larger issue: communication within the relationship.  We both agreed that these couples need to work on it.  I also didn't like the way they talked about sex...saying that the women "give it."  Sex should be something that two people decide on and talk about.  It is not that one is giving and one is receiving.  It is a partnership.  And that notion seems to be lacking within the discourse on sex in general.

Although articles like the one in "The Voice" may represent extreme views, they reveal things about us within relationships and how we can improve the dialogue.  And isn't that what good journalism is supposed to do?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cultural Values of Sexual Dynamics Within Marriage


Yesterday I was reading a local newspaper, "The Voice," when I came upon this short article.  It was apparently a conversation between two men and a woman overheard in a combi.  Combis are 15-passenger vans that carry people around in larger towns.  They have set routes like buses and you only have to pay a set price.  Here is the article, called "The Worth of a Woman."  Any notes in brackets were added by me to aid in understanding.

"Two weeks ago this publication reported on a woman who was stabbed by her boyfriend for refusing to satisfy his sexual desires because she was tired.
Voice reporter happened to join the company of two men discussing  what could have possibly upset the lover so much that he assaulted his girlfriend and nearly killed her.
Checkered Shirt: There’s more to this issue than meets the eye. He did not stab her because he was denied sex; there is a deeper root cause.
Light blue shirt:  As an African man lobola [bride price] empowers me to get  whatever I want any time I want it from my wife. Of course not in an aggressive manner, but when I say I want sex I should get it from the woman I have paid for.
Checkered shirt: African women are even taught how to treat  their husbands. You are told never to tell your husband that you are tired! Whichever or whatever the circumstances you should just abide by the rules or the demands of your partner.
Lady in glasses: Guys!  Guys!  Are you saying a woman is not supposed to get tired? She is a human being  too just like you, remember!
Light blue shirt:  Yes!  Even if she has spent the whole day at the fields she has to try by all means to honour the request and submit to her man’s sexual advances.
Lady in specs: So all you men expect from us is to give it you??(Looks puzzled)
Checkered Shirt: Yes! (Nodding his head) because if she doesn’t it might leads to there questions like  who made you tired and why are you tired?  Which you may not have answers for.  (Laughter).
Lady in Glasses: So this man’s action is justified according to you?
Checkered Shirt: What he did as a punishment is not okay, he overacted actually.
Light blue shirt: But his over action is based on an African context. In our culture he is justified.
Lady in specs:  If your wife were to say she is tired what would you do?
Checkered shirt: Aah! My wife cannot say she is tired simply because she is  coming from work? I would ask her who is coming from home because I would also be from work! But the problem arises when I knock off go home and she arrives home maybe two hours after me and when I want sex she tells me she is tired!
Light blue shirt: I start having many questions as to who could have made her tired and what made her tired?
Lady in specs: From your views women are horses that just keep on going even when they feel they have no strength. So what should they do?
Both men in unison:  They just have to submit!
Checkered shirt: They must submit and then maybe afterward say I did it but I was tired and that is why my performance was not so good.
Lady in specs: How dare you? You even have an evaluation after she has submitted? (Laughter)
Checkered Shirt: An African woman even when she is ill, she has not been well for a week she must still give me what is my right. But obviously It would be my prerogative to be reasonable enough to establish whether her type of illness is the one which wouldn’t be able to render me the benefits I deserve. (Burst into laughter).
Checkered shirt: You can say that again!
Lady in specs: But the lady in the story is not married. He was just a boyfriend.
Checkered  shirt:  But they were staying together. Cohabiting. People who cohabit are enjoying the benefits just like any married couple. In Zimbabwe where am from if a man and a woman stay together for six or seven months they are automatically declared husband and wife.
Lady in specs (Looking very concerned): Seriously would it not be best  to rest for a few hours when one is tired and then get up later and get on with the business?
Checkered Shirt: tjo tjo! You can’t because we are dealing with feelings here (interrupted)
Lady in specs: Tiredness is also a feeling. Is it not reasonable?
Checkered  shirt: But you have to understand who has a stronger feeling. The two feelings have to be weighed. And the man’s feeling is stronger and…….
Lady in specs:  (Interrupting) It has to be satisfied immediately. (Shakes her head).
Checkered  Shirt:  There’s something you people do not understand when a man says to a woman I want to stay with you, this statement is very meaningful. It becomes very expensive to stay with a woman. But a man says I have decided to stay with you and to cater for your even if its expensive, because I now want you full time. Now if you are saying today you are tired, tomorrow you are tired it’s no longer full time. Do you then allow me, when you are tired to go outside and get someone who is not tired?
(Lady in specs laughs)
Lady in specs: Of course not. No woman in her right senses would allow such craziness!
Checkered Shirt: So you better provide!
Lady in specs: Don’t you men get tired?
Shirt: We do get tired but if you say that’s what you want I will perform my duty as a man. This couple’s fight was because they no longer had the same feelings for each other. The woman no longer felt like having the man everyday while he still wanted her daily. She deserves nothing better than this (pointing to the picture in the newspaper)
Lady in specs: (Alarmed) but this is domestic violence.  Do you want to tell us that some acts of violence are warranted?
Checkered Shirt:  No, but don’t forget domestic violence is not only when people start to fight. It begins with the person who provokes the act. If this lady had allowed the man to do what he wanted to do. There wasn’t going to be a fight and she was not going to lose anything. Are you saying the man was the first to be subjected to domestic violence?
Shirt : Yes! The man was the first to be subjected to domestic violence. He had been suffering from it much longer
Lady in specs (Stands up and walks away): This conversation will not take us anyway. The sun will set and no conclusion will be reached"

This is a widespread attitude in Botswana, by men and women alike.  Obviously there are Batswana who think this is abhorrent, but many would agree with the men in this combi.  And the law supports it.  After you are married, the law says that a woman must give her husband sex when he wants it (and vice-versa, I think).  There are circumstances in which she is excused, like if she is suffering a severe illness or a family member has just died.  But the prevailing attitude is spoken by the men in the combi--if my wife is tired, she must be having sex with someone else.  And if she will not give me sex, I have the right to go out and find it elsewhere.

In Botswana, it is also against the law to have any "sex contrary to nature," which basically means that any sex that does not have the possibility of producing a child is prohibited.  That probably means masturbation, but definitely includes sex between people of the same gender, which is mentioned alongside beastiality in the statute.

Botswana is changing.  There are openly gay people here.  This same newspaper, "The Voice," featured an article about a motswana who is marrying another man from Namibia.  So Botswana is becoming more progressive in some ways.  Yet, the traditional views about the place of a woman within the marriage still hold a lot of power.  And then we wonder why rapes are happening more and more frequently...when men are taught that it is okay to take whatever they want from their wife, how are they able to respect the bodily integrity of women in general?

After I read this article, I engaged in a conversation about it with a man.  He is about 40 years old, I'd say.  We were in the home of a neighbor of mine, a woman.  He was questioning us as to why the wife would ever deny sex.  If a couple is married, they must always be on the same page about those things.  I asked him, "So if I go to a movie with my husband, we must both like it because we are married?  No...we are two different people with two different feelings.  I may want to do something and he does not, and vice-versa."  This man responded that a husband and wife should always have love and understanding for each other, so I should have sex with my husband even if I don't want to.  I followed with, "Why must I, as the woman, understand my husband's needs yet he does not need to understand mine?"  It is as if the wife's role within a marriage is seen only as a sex partner.  That if she is not engaging in sex with her husband, she is not fulfilling her role...as the men in the combi stated, the husband is not having her "full time."  The man continued by saying, "Well, if you say you are tired, then it becomes a habit.  You just always say you are tired."  And he mentioned the law in Botswana, that it supports submitting to your husband if he wants it.  I said, "In America, slavery and segregation were legal at times.  Just because something is legal, doesn't make it right."

There is no way to sugar-coat this.  I could be balanced and anthropological and say that we cannot impose our own moral values on other cultures.  But there is no way around this one for me.  I think it is awful that people think this.  And it's not just in Botswana.  It is all over the world.  It is happening in America when boys put up photos and videos online of girls they have sexually assaulted.  It is forced marriages of 13 year old girls.  It is female genital mutilation.  I understand that there is sexual assault between men, between women, and perpetrated by women against men.  But here I am focusing on the most common--perpetrated by men against women.  

Women are humans, just like men.  No one--man or woman--should be forced to have sex if he or she doesn't want to.  What happened to enthusiastic consent?  What happened to not wanting to have sex if my partner doesn't want it?  I think we need to reframe the conversation about sexuality so that it is not women having to fight to say no.  Shouldn't the men make sure that their women really want it?  The man I was talking with said that there needs to be love within a marriage.  I completely agree.  But his definition of that is the woman understanding the man's needs and giving him what he wants.  To me, love means that each of you must take into account the other's needs.  There is compromise in general, of course.  Sometimes you probably will do it when you are tired, but it doesn't mean you should be forced to if you don't want to.

No matter where you are from, don't settle for someone who doesn't treat you the way you want within your relationship.  And if you are a Peace Corps volunteer, don't be afraid to get into these conversations with locals around you.  I am not saying we can change the culture, nor that we necessarily should.  But we can be the catalyst to get people thinking about what is right and wrong in the world.  And that's always the beginning of change.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What We Don't Realize We Know

Sorry for the delay in blog posts.  I have gone on a couple trips within Botswana and will post those pictures shortly.  But now I am in Shoshong for the last 7 months of my Peace Corps service.  I will cease being a Peace Corps volunteer after May 28th.  Pretty exciting!  I am still looking to stay in Botswana but it won't be as a PCV.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but mostly it just isn't the right path for me.  So I am trying to find a job or paid volunteer position that will satisfy my immigration requirements to stay in the country.  It is a challenge but I am looking into many options and hope that I will have a favorable update on this soon!

I have seven weeks left.  Feels like a short amount of time, but it is also a bit awkward.  I can't quite start packing up my house and giving things away because I am still using them.  This is made more complicated by the fact that I don't yet know where I will be going after the seven weeks.  There is no time to start new projects and old projects are wrapping up.  So I am spending most of my time with people I love...hanging out, playing cards, chatting, and going on hikes around Shoshong.  I want to spend the time I have left being happy and engaged with the people around me.

Earlier this week I went into Mahalapye and passed out some cards to district offices that have supported the Peace Corps volunteers in our region.  It is important to say goodbye to the local leadership.  I will be doing that process continually over the next weeks.

Although things are slowing down, there are always new things to do.  World Spine Care opened a clinic in Shoshong last year.  A PhD student named Maria just arrived in Shoshong to do a research study in conjunction with the clinic.  She aims to ascertain the impact of muscular skeletal conditions on people in Shoshong.  How does it affect their ability to do everyday things?  If they are taking care of someone with muscular skeletal issues, what are their challenges?  I sat down with Maria today.  We discussed many things pertaining to her study--everything from who's who in Shoshong to simplifying interview questions.  It was a great discussion.

Before we spoke, Maria sat in on the morning meeting at the clinic.  Before every meeting, the clinic workers sing and pray.  That's just the way it is.  Maria found it beautiful and asked to know what they had been singing.  It made me smile and made me realize something: none of these things are new to me, nor particularly interesting.  Things people do are not cultural or quaint to me.  It's just people being people.  It's life here.  Sometimes I love it and sometimes I find it irksome, the same way I would feel dealing with people anywhere.  But Maria was soaking everything up, clearly engaged and interested in understanding all that she could.

Maria said that she wanted to see a funeral and a wedding.  I invited her to a funeral taking place this Saturday.  Luckily, she asked me what to wear.  I had completely forgotten to tell her the important things, that you have to wear a skirt or dress and cover your head with a hat or scarf.  I forgot to tell her because it didn't occur to me that she didn't know.  The knowledge is innate to me now.

It is impossible to imagine a world in which I didn't know the things that I know.  And it is hard to sometimes remember that other people don't have the same knowledge.  But it was nice to realize how integrated I have become in Shoshong; how much I am just used to the way life is here.  That doesn't mean that I never get impatient or annoyed, but it means that I know the customs.  I know what is right and wrong here and I feel comfortable in this place.  It's a bit remarkable, isn't it?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Being Young in the Peace Corps

My Peace Corps service is coming to a close.  Three months...and not necessarily counting.  I would like to say I have changed in so many ways--but that's not quite right.  I think my values have deepened and my understanding of the world has broadened.  I am the same person I was when I left the United States, with the ability to view things with different perspectives.  I am sure that a lot of changes within me will be more apparent when I get back to the states.

There is one thing I have been able to reflect upon lately--how this experience has uniquely affected me because of my age.  I finished my time at Brown when I was 21 and came to Botswana at 22.  I had about 11 months while I was working in between college and Peace Corps.  Some young volunteers have even less time than that.  And then there are volunteers who have PhDs already.  In our group, we had a volunteer who was even in his 80s.

Peace Corps is a growing experience for all of us--young and old.  But I think there is something particularly special about being young in the Peace Corps.  Although we have values and opinions galore, they haven't yet been solidified with years of work and life experience.  We are "green" as they say.  Botswana will always be a part of all of us, don't get me wrong.  But what I am beginning to see is that this culture will always be a part of me because I am forming who I am and what I believe within this country. I am becoming an adult in Botswana.  It will alter my life in ways that I can't even foresee yet.

For example, Bots 10 just attended our Close of Service conference.  In one session, we began to process what it may be like adjusting to life back in the states.  The country director (who was a volunteer in Cameroon in the 80s) talked about how people may want to call us to go places and do things, whereas we may find ourselves just wanting to stay home and read on a Saturday.  I am definitely identifying with that.  I can see myself telling friends I am busy...at home just hanging out.  That was never something I did before Peace Corps.

I like slowing down and am not quite sure what a conventional job would be like for me.  Sooner or later I'll probably get one and I'll cross that bridge when I get there.  But I am not too worried about the future.  I enjoy living in the present, focusing on a great book or a superb glass of wine.  I never want to walk passed a sunset without admiring it.  I want to savor things in my life, not rush through it trying to get to some unknown point in which I will have x amount of money and x status that will supposedly bring me some kind of happiness.  We can find happiness in every day.  Frustration, too, of course.  But focusing on the happiness is much more fun.

Being a Peace Corps volunteer has bettered me.  I am so glad I did it as a young woman.  I am looking forward to how my life will unfold from here on out.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Valentine's Day in Shoshong

I have been working with a handful of dedicated youth about starting a youth body in Shoshong.  The idea behind the youth body is to better advocate for youth in Shoshong.  They are dependent upon government handouts.  One of the goals of the youth body is to spearhead programs that will help the youth to become more economically independent and self-confident.  We decided to hold a meeting to form this youth body, calling all youth in Shoshong to attend.  We planned to have it on Valentine's Day.  In addition to introducing the youth meeting, we thought it would be a good idea to have a theme to the meeting.  So, we decided to hold a candle lighting ceremony to commemorate victims of passion killings in Shoshong.  Unfortunately, there have been a handful of those in the last few months.

We invited a pastor from Mahalapye, Pastor Kenny, to come and address everyone on the subject of passion killings.  He talked about respect in relationships and how to have a good one.  He is the one standing in this photo.  To his left is Moitshepi Ramotshudi, a member of the Bokaa Village Development Committee.  To his right is Masego (don't know her last name) and Raite Gobopaone.  They are volunteers at the Youth Office.

Some youth in Shoshong listening to Pastor Kenny

The small crowd in Community Hall

Raite describing the purpose of the youth body

February is a difficult time in Botswana because so many people are out at the lands plowing.  So getting people to help with publicizing events poses a challenge.  The people we asked to announce the event around Shoshong with a loudspeaker let us down.  So unfortunately the turnout was pretty low.  But we made the best of it and had a good time.  And some youth heard about the project so hopefully it will travel well through word of mouth.  

In projects like the youth body, it is imperative for a small group to organize it and then invite others in later.  People like joining something that is already established.  With any luck we'll have more chances to announce the group and get better buy-in as time goes on.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Welcoming the Form Fours

In Botswana, schools are divided into three categories: primary, junior secondary and senior secondary.    Primary consists of standards 1-7 (like grades 1-7).  Junior is forms 1-3 (like grades 8-10) and senior has form 4 and 5 (like grades 11-12).  There are exit examinations at standard 7, form 3 and form 5.  The form fours just arrived at Shoshong Senior Secondary School this past week.  The senior teacher in Guidance and Counseling, Mma Jabane, invited me to come address the students on life skills and peer education.  We have been trying to work together for a year with little success because of the busy schedule of the students.  So this was a great opportunity for us to present to all of the 705 form fours.

I worked with my friend Boitumelo to plan the presentation.  We were going to do a drama involving alcohol, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy...a lot of the issues facing the students.  Then we would try to elicit feedback from them and start a discussion, albeit a bit difficult with the large group.  Boitumelo's friend Keagile was also involved.  We thought we were going to have a few more people to do the drama.  But two hours before we were supposed to be at the school, they weren't showing up.  So we had to change our game plan.

We decided that I would begin the day by talking about life skills and peer education.  I would explain that no answer is wrong and that we want to hear what they have to say.  I would introduce the concepts, giving examples of life skills, like decision-making and self-esteem.  In terms of peer education, I would stres the importance of listening in a non-judgmental way.

Then, Boitumelo and Keagile would do mini dramas or conversations between the two of them.  They would act out scenarios between friends that are common in the school--like skipping class because you didn't do your homework, stealing from fellow students, being rude to teachers, getting involved in relationships, etc.  I am happy to say that the day went really well!

Here are some photos:

Boitumelo and Keagile have just finished one of the dramas and are asking for questions/comments from the crowd


A student from the back coming onto the stage to give her opinion


Mma Jabane was also active in adding onto the discussion (pictured left)

From left to right: Boitumelo, me and Keagile...outside of Shoshong Senior Secondary School

Mma Jabane loved our presentation.  She wants us to do it for the form fives as well.  The dramas sparked some interesting discussion.  One thing that students often say is that they want to wait to start relationships until after school.  One girl got up on stage and said that she wanted to be in love, but that love doesn't mean that you have to have sex.  All of the kids were cheering.  It was a great moment, challenging notions of when one should begin to have sex and the importance of sex in a relationship.

The best part for me was that I was on the sideline for most of the time.  I am confident that Boitumelo and Keagile can go into classrooms and lead discussions with students, if I am able to give them some tools to do so before I leave Shoshong end of May.  The best part of our role as PCVs is bringing people together who otherwise wouldn't know about the opportunities to work together.  Now Mma Jabane and these ladies can meet and plan events without me.  That is really encouraging to me.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Seen and Not Seen

At some point, we may begin to wonder how we will be remembered in our villages.  Will people say good or bad things about me?  Will they tell the next volunteer that I did a bunch of projects I didn't do?  In many ways, thinking about this is futile.  We'll never know and it can only make our heads spin.

On the one hand, it would be nice to be remembered in conjunction with projects.  On the other hand, having locals forget about me and view all of the work as their own would be amazing.  The "official" point of all of this...Peace Corps I mean...is to empower locals to do things themselves.  So if they look back and think, "Hey I organized a great event!," they will feel a lot better than thinking, "Hey that Peace Corps volunteer put on a great event!"

I began thinking about these things because of a conversation I had with someone in Shoshong.  I had worked with him on some community projects early on in my service.  Although I have invited him to more recent meetings, he has been unable to attend.  This was our conversation over text messaging:

Him: U once had an idea to mobilise funds for a youth center.  Any progress?
Me: No.  It's not right for me to embark on things alone and no one else has shown interest this past year.
Him: Sorry about that.  Which means you gonna leave without at least one project.
Me: What do you mean by that?  I have done many things and assisted many people.  Not everything I do is visible to people.  You can do projects that aren't about buildings...
Him: It's okay.  I was not aware of those projects.  Thanks.

It was pretty discouraging.  This is a man who has known about a lot of my projects.  He is a leader in the village.  And he thinks that I have not had any projects?

Part of me thinks: should any of this matter?  So what if this guy thinks I haven't been doing anything?  I know he is wrong.  My co-workers at the clinic and my other partners in the community know he is wrong.  Regardless of what I tell myself, it struck a chord.  Is this what people generally think?  That I am just taking up space?  After two years of community work, it was hurtful to hear that.

But perhaps his view of Peace Corps is the view of many...that we are here to build infrastructure and do very public projects.  Some volunteers have done that...they have built pit latrines, houses for poor people in their villages, held races and other large events.  We did a large event in Shoshong for Month of Youth Against HIV/AIDS last year.  Those events are great, but most of what we do is behind-the-scenes...teaching at schools, advising someone on a business proposal, etc.  The real sustainable change often comes from one-on-one interactions.  And most people in our villages won't see our daily work.  At the end of the day, that has to be okay because it is the reality.

Because our "work" might not always be visible, the best thing we can do is be good members of the community...we can be respectful to people in a culturally-sensitive way and try our best to attend important events.  And we are making a difference.  I know the friends I have made and the people I have helped will remember me.  That's what has to sustain you.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I am a "Lekgoa"

In the past I have written about acceptance of how things work in this culture.  If we get angry everytime we must wait in a government office for a form to be filled out, it will be a loooooong two years.  As I have said previously, there are some days in which these things bother us more than others.  Bringing a book is key in those situations.  Waiting is an easy one...we just need to get used to it.  We need to relax, learn what time we really need to arrive somewhere, and let go of the stress.  I have found that meditation can help a lot with this.

But there are ways in which we are treated that are difficult to accept.  I have written a lot about how hard it is for me when people ask me for money.  One thing I haven't talked much about is being called "lekgoa."  If I never mentioned it, "lekgoa" technically means "vomit from the sea."  It goes back to when the missionaries first arrived in Botswana in the 1700 and 1800s.  Originally the word referred to the British, but now it is a blanket name for all Caucasian-looking people (whether they identify that way or not).

At the bus ranks in Botswana, people constantly call me "English" or "Lekgoa."  For a long time, this bothered me...even that is an understatement.  I hated it.  I would engage in conversations with strangers, telling them that I have a name and not to call me "lekgoa."  It had a very negative connotation for me.  I didn't like being addressed based on the color of my skin.  I'm a person!  The color of my skin is just one aspect of who I am and it frustrated me that it is all people saw when they looked at me.

But those confrontations weren't doing me any good.  It just made my blood boil everytime I tried to take public transport.  I would get so frustrated that Batswana weren't understanding how offensive that word was to me.  Then I realized that I needed to change my attitude.  As much as I believe you shouldn't look at someone and only see the color of their skin, Batswana don't mean it that way.  They call me "lekgoa" in the same way we could call someone a New Yorker in the states.  It is just a recognition of where you come from--your "tribe" of sorts.  Similarly, in Shoshong some people call me "mokaa," or member of the Bakaa tribe.  They mean "lekgoa" in the same way.

Yet, I couldn't figure out how to release myself from the discrimination I felt everytime someone said that to me.  It doesn't happen much in Shoshong...much more in the capital, Gaborone.  I am hoping to live in Gaborone next year, so I realized that I need to change my attitude in order to make it possible for me to happily exist there.

So I decided to talk with a friend of mine about both being being asked for money and being called "lekgoa."  He was saying that I should tell people that I do not have money to give them.  That doesn't mean I have no cash in my wallet, but it means that I cannot give it to them for whatever reason.  That made a lot of sense to me and although I thought of that before, it made me feel better hearing him say it.

Then I told him that I know Batswana don't mean to insult me by calling me "lekgoa," but it does anyway and I didn't know how to change my perception of that.  I asked him how he would feel if he went to the states and they were calling him a name because he is black.  He said that it wouldn't bother him because he is proud to be black and wouldn't care if people assume things about him based on the color of his skin.  He and everyone who knows him would understand that those assumptions are false.  And that is all that matters.  I liked that.

And then it started clicking in my mind...to be content, I need to live within their reality.  I was projecting my understanding of "lekgoa" onto Batswana.  I could only see my understanding of its meaning, not theirs.  But with the recognition that they mean no harm must come my acceptance of that reality.  The only way to live within another culture is to accept that they are going to treat you like they will treat their countrymen.  And sometimes that can be really difficult to integrate into.  Obviously you can tell people when you like to be treated a certain way.  But at the end of the day, accepting their communication styles will result in a less stressful existence.  And who doesn't want that?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Youth Boot Camp Dec 27-28

In the first few meetings of trying to start a campaign on gender-based violence in Shoshong, one of the police officers suggested doing a youth boot camp.  In this boot camp, youth would learn about life skills and gender-based violence.  They would also do some exercising.  The police officer, Sebetlela, had the idea to have the camp overnight.  That way the youth would be a bit uncomfortable and it would challenge them.

During the holidays, many youth come back to Shoshong if they live away.  Even if they stay in Shoshong full-time, they are out of school and normally just loitering around.  Sebetlela thought this would be a great time to engage the youth and empower them to understand these issues better.  We hoped that the youth that attended the boot camp could then lead the village in the gender-based violence awareness campaign.

Unfortunately, it was a bit difficult to organize everything on time for the camp on December 27th.  It ended up okay in the end, but Sebetlela was running around the afternoon before the camp to try to secure food and other donations.  We didn't have much time to plan, which made the camp not as effective as it could have been.  But we have fun and learned a lot so we can do a better job planning next time.


Setting up the camp before everyone got there

While waiting for more people to arrive, I showed Boitumelo (one of the participants) how to use a male condom...no need to sit around when you have spare condoms and water bottles!

Gotta eat first!  Here we are cooking magwinya (fried dough...aka fat cakes)

Before the sessions started, the participants and some of the facilitators played games to get everyone excited about the boot camp

One of the first sessions.  Before we get into the specifics of life skills, we thought that the participants needed to do some self-exploration.  These were the questions the facilitator, Rebecca Kowa from the clinic, asked the participants to answer.

Two of the organizers (Sebetlela, the police officer and Boetelo, a councilman in Shoshong) participating in the first exercise.

Most of the participants

More fun in between sessions!

We tried to keep everyone up throughout the night.  The participants talked about self-awareness and self-esteem, spitting your time between social life and work, the difference between violence and abuse, etc.  The youth learned a lot and it brought them closer as a group.  The camp ended at about noon on December 28th.