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, 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 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 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.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Ngwaga o Mosha!

Ngwaga o mosha or Happy new year!

2012 has been an amazing year...the "long stretch" of Peace Corps service.  Volunteers have said that when you begin the January to December part of service, it can seem like it will never end.  But as most things do, it feels like it has gone by in a flash.  I can't believe I will be ending my time in Shoshong in less than 5 months.  But I don't want my adventure in Botswana to be done quite yet.

I do hope to extend my service in Botswana another full year.  There are a few options when one decides to do this.  One may apply to stay in one's village or go elsewhere.  One may work in the same kind of organization/job or choose a different path.  One may work in one organization or split time between a couple.  I am applying to work outside of Shoshong.  I am not exactly sure what kind of organization I would work for.  It all depends on how many other volunteers are applying and what they would like to do.  I won't find out if I have been accepted for a couple months.

Reflections will become stronger after the two years, I am sure.  But there are a few things I have been thinking about lately.  The first is if I would ever do Peace Corps service again.  An NGO called World Spine Care opened up a clinic in Shoshong.  It is very exciting.  There have been many American and Canadian volunteers over the past 8 months.  The most recent one asked me where my next Peace Corps post is.  I laughed and said that I go home after Peace Corps Botswana.  And then I said I will never do Peace Corps service again.  She looked a bit surprised, as if I meant that my experience had been so bad that I could never dream of doing it again.

However, it is just the opposite.  Peace Corps service is different than getting a great job in which you travel to London, Cairo, Berlin, etc.  Peace Corps service isn't just seeing the world.  It is becoming a part of a community.  For me, it meant learning a language.  Although we will never fully integrate into our communities or become fluent in the local language, we can become very close with people around us.  And that is very different than living in a big city.  It is an amazingly special experience.  And it is also very difficult at times.  I have had a beautiful experience in Shoshong and I wouldn't trade it for the world.  Similarly, I wouldn't want to try to do this again.  I am now a child of America and a child of Botswana.  Splitting my heart between the two is enough.

It is difficult for someone to understand what I mean when they only do a summer abroad or spend a month volunteering somewhere.  Spending two years of your life is a real committment.  And once is enough for me, I think.  Things can always change, of I shall never say never.  But at this point, I am satisfied with one tour of Peace Corps.

The other thought I have had of late is about Botswana culture.  I have written extensively about it in this blog, trying to point out similarities and differences to life in America.  That process has merit and I understand it.  When we experience something new, we inherently categorize it with what we already know.  It's how our brains work as humans.  We try to understand the world around us based on the framework that we know.  But there are moments in which I think, "This aspect of Botswana culture is a contradiction."  One example is how community-focused they are in general.  Food is shared within the family.  There is a lot of community support, especially at funerals.  That being said, families can often be a source of real hardship.  Many people I have worked with feel a lack of understanding, and even strong judgments from their family members.  Why does it seem like there is so much love on the one hand, but a lack of trust and empathy on the other?  It seems to not make sense.

And then I realize that it doesn't make sense because I am trying to interpret peoples' behavior within my understanding of "normal" behavior in the United States.  Cultures cannot be compared to one another because they evolve separately.  Each is unique and must be understood in that context.  Nothing is weird or a's just the way it is.