City

In a matter of a week, my life has completely transformed. I am now a resident of the “big” city, Gaborone. Grocery stores are mere walks away, restaurants and movie theatres abound (sort of), and I can often find access to good internet.

I said my farewells to Rakops a little over a week ago. Some of it was sentimental, and I was surprised to see some misty eyes during my departure. I think that the impact I had in the village will be remembered, and that gives me warm feelings. To be honest, I have been so excited to start the next chapter of my service that I don’t think I have fully processed the end of my village life.

There will always be a lot of struggle associated with that place for me, both environmental and interpersonal, but the end was quite positive. In the last week at my site I learned that the US Embassy Self-Help Fund approved the grant I wrote for my NGO! It is among my greatest accomplishments of Peace Corps. Rightfully so, as the process was grueling beyond any other project – it took my entire 2 years to transfer the land title into my organization’s name, and about a year between our first submission of the grant to the final approval. Luckily I will still be in the country and might get to see some version of the final product.

I also had visitors for my farewell party! I love having people see where I lived in the bush – it’s hard to appreciate that rustic lifestyle unless you live it.

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Enjoying my last weekend in the ‘Kops with friends – my house in the background

Since I have moved, I have been busy settling in. I finally found a place to live – I’ll be sharing a nice-sized flat in the city with my good friend and fellow extendee, Tija. Shared housing is an uncommon practice in PC Botswana, but they see the benefits: saved cost (for us and Peace Corps) and improved safety. Plus we’ll have fun. Hopefully I’ll get to move in this week, because I start work with CDC on Monday!

My weekend will feature a triumphant return to the annual Overthrust Winter Metal Fest in Ghanzi. This is one of the most unique sub-cultural experiences I have had in Botswana, indeed, anywhere. It’s weird. It’s raucous, fun, and there are cowboys. Here’s a picture from last year:

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A gentleman, who made this vest himself, let me wear it for a photo op

Cheers

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Staying

I’m at a strange place in my service now. The point between COS conference and actually leaving site is a matter of wrapping up responsibilities and weaning your community off your assistance. I’m doing my best to hand things off and write reports for my successor, but I find myself in a detached place. My mind and energy is on the next step, ready for my move.

I announced to my friends and family a few weeks ago that I would be extending my service. The decision wasn’t made lightly – on the contrary, I deliberated over it for quite a while. Only when my new position was finalized was I sure about staying. I will be working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offices here in the capital of Botswana. The tuberculosis division will be my new home, and I’ll be working on aspects of their research, data management and analysis, and reporting. Their current studies address the challenges with diagnosis and treatment in Botswana. My new job will have structure and a set of challenges that more closely resemble those of a job in the west, and I’m thrilled.

A few of my friends have closed their services a little early and have already left the country. It’s just the beginning of the mass exodus, in which almost all of my cohort will depart. A handful of us are extending our services for the next year, but the majority will leave in about a month. There’s a tinge of this left behind feeling, though of course I am excited to engage in my new job. Regardless, I think closing the door on my current site is going to feel very good.

At this point, most of the members of my support group understand the reasons for my pulling back and out of their activities. Some things will remain frustrating to me, though now I no longer have the urge or duty to fix them. It’s a relief, because this grassroots development work has drained me. The positive is that the members seem to be reinvigorated to take charge, almost as if my involvement was a bit of a crutch. I guess I never found the perfect balance of helping and allowing people to do things themselves – and I don’t know if there is one.

I can take away some final successes in my last couple months here. My building project for the support group is still moving forward, though of course I won’t be with the NGO to see it to any form of completion. I’m still unsure of whether or not the funding will ever go through, but I consider my contribution to be successful. The word at this point is that the US Embassy would like to fund the project and has, for all intents and purposes, approved the grant application I wrote. But it’s still a matter of policy allowing the funds to be used for such a project. I don’t know when that final decision will come through, but I’ll leave it to the next person with some sense of fulfillment.

The other project I have seen recent success with is a grant application I helped write and edit for the junior secondary school environmental club. They are planning to construct a fruit orchard, and the funding should be coming through soon. After all of my trial-and-error experiences with environmental projects in my village, I’m glad to see one taking root.

I have about a month left at this site. After then, I will be moving to Gaborone and starting my new job in June. My lifestyle in the capital will be markedly different from my current one. Village life is something you get accustomed to in a survival sense; it is rarely comfortable or easy, and I don’t think I ever stopped counting the days to when I was done with it. My attitude toward Peace Corps at this point is not that I loved my experience so much that I couldn’t resist staying; this next job opportunity is too good to pass up. Peace Corps made it possible for me and for that I’m grateful.

I’ve heard that a lot of RPCVs romanticize their experiences; sifting out the frustration, discomfort, boredom, and disappointment they endured to portray only the flashes of success. I had both, and while I’m still here, I’d like to acknowledge my complete experience. Talking about these last 2 years will undoubtedly boil down to a few sentences, and over time I hope that I remember the difficulty and joy with some truth.

Cheers

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COS

I’ve made no secret of my itching desire to be done with my assignment here in the rural bush of southern Africa. It has been tough and trying. After 23 months in this place, a summary is impossible. So many things have happened and I feel I’ve lived through so much.

I remember when I created my list of goals back in the beginning of my service. I purposely left them broad so I could accomplish them over time and feel success through my developing perspective. I have seen it and discovered a lot more about myself in the process. There are parts of me that have changed, which is inevitable. Even in a “safe” environment like my home culture I still would experience change. How does adaptation to this place factor in?

Many things in my “job” happen here on a whim. The other day, for instance, I had a small group of peer educators from Debswana drop in on me totally unannounced. They wanted to have a short meeting to discuss the assistance they had provided in the past and lay out a way forward. It wasn’t anything particularly difficult, but the impromptu nature of this way of life has been ingrained in me. I have been asked to present in front of large groups on 10 minutes notice, sometimes on topics I know very little about. Panic doesn’t have time to take over, and I’ve become pretty good at winging it.

Holding a lengthy conversation with a complete stranger is another skill I’ve picked up. Sure, most Batswana pull from a small collection of reused questions: “Where are you from? You speak Setswana? How long have you been here? Where do you stay? Where are you working?” But there’s still a certain comfort in the tempo of knocking out answers to make a fast friend. That’s how you survive here. I think I can read people better, at least well enough to know if someone is going to do the job I ask them to or give me a good hitchhike or to try taking advantage of me.

I arrived here with essentially no network, but now I can say it is pretty wide. Much of it is populated with acquaintances and familiar nameless faces, but that’s life in the village.

Pointing to concrete accomplishments is tough. Not because I don’t have quantifiable evidence to show for my time here, because I do. But I want to be able to boast about my recycling project – that one never got off the ground. Or the times I stepped outside my comfort zone to work with young people in that scouts troop, except it fizzled out. Failure is the most important part of this job and I have learned to embrace it. There’s just no space for it on my résumé; I guess that’s what this blog is for.

I can talk about the large numbers of men I helped get circumcised by mobilizing with my hospital’s team. I can also point to the people in my support group, which have come along over the past two years. The grants I have written, the travels I have taken, the partnerships I have built, the new things I tried, and the friends I have made will not be excluded when I talk about these 2 years.

The scary part of right now is that I still do not know what comes next. There are ideas and scenarios, but nothing is final. Only 72 days until my supposed departure date and I’m still not sure where I’m headed.

Last week, my intake group – Bots 10 – got the chance to reflect on how far we’ve come and to celebrate together. It was our Close of Service conference, affectionately known as COS. There was storytelling and reminiscing about old friends who have left us. I took a few moments to let the sentiment set in and enjoy the company of these people. The group is very diverse, in such a way that makes me think many of us would never have met or interacted in the “real world.” But that is what is part of what is special about them. There really will not be another group like them in my life – one that has experienced the lifestyle we have together for a length of time that requires a high level of endurance… one you don’t get in other volunteer or study abroad trips. We have learned and survived the types of things that make this thing hard: not the power outages, pit latrines, or bugs but the boredom, loneliness, and existential search for purpose. These people provided a sort of sanctuary from the rest of the culture and are my friends. I will miss them and will always appreciate their essential role in this experience. Godspeed, Bots 10.

Cheers

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100

Can you believe fewer than 100 days (only 97) remain of my Peace Corps service? Believe me, I can’t either. It has been a crazy ride and it’s almost finished. This weekend is my Close of Service (COS) conference when I’ll meet with the remaining members of my cohort for the last time. It’s the only proper ceremony to mark all we’ve accomplished before we go our separate ways.

I have made some great friends here, with whom I’ll always hold a bond. What can you say about a group of people who drop everything to live in rural southern Africa for two years for no money? It’s not normal – some of my friends here have left high-paying jobs, sold their houses, and dealt with long-distance (thousands of miles) relationships. All of it, of course, is done in the name of virtue and service. When I reminisce with my friends over how we’ve adapted and how different our lives are, I realize how much we’ve all changed. We have spent a long time in the village and earned an intimate understanding of grassroots development – one that you can’t get from an office at an international aid agency, venturing into the bush occasionally for fieldwork. It’s evident that the clichés is true: we are biggest product of this experience.

Here I have experienced some crippling lows and questioned my self-worth. I’ve learned that as Westerners, we hold our productivity and success as benchmarks for our happiness. And I’ve learned how dangerous that is here. These two years have been anything but flashy for me – aside from the images of bathing in a bucket and using a pit latrine – I have grinded through my work thanklessly. I was talking with a friend of mine in the village, a fellow Westerner who has been here for more than 20 years, and he asked me how I felt about my service. It’s a loaded question to anyone in the same line of work and I had to be honest: the people and my organization have been very challenging. He followed up and was not surprised to hear that I felt my progress was slow and often invisible. There are few moments that capture me “changing the world” or will fit onto an advertisement for Peace Corps. It just doesn’t work that way. In Botswana it seems common for your praises to be sung after you’ve gone – without being too presumptuous, I think that the Volunteer who follows me will hear some of the good things I’ve done.

A couple weeks ago I got an email from a future volunteer, as I sometimes do, asking some questions and seeking advice. It’s so hard to compress my experiences or generalize them since every volunteer’s life is so different – even people within my district have much different lives. But in answering her inquiry, I realized how much of the story is left out of pictures and stories. This is such a personal experience, that in some ways I don’t want to share the whole thing. Likewise, I don’t think others can understand through asking questions or reading books – the unhappy discoveries you make during these two years, as well as the way you handle them, are your own points of pride, and indispensible to your experience.

February has been good to me so far. I went to Lesotho for some hiking and relaxation (and to use the remainder of my vacation days) – it was picturesque. The mountains and greenery made me envious. I also got into graduate school! Actually, I’ve only heard from a couple schools so far, but I got good news from one of my top choices so I’m excited: Emory University’s School of Public Health in Atlanta. I’ve been so anxious about what comes next, so I’m relieved that my options are starting to materialize. Within the next few weeks I’ll probably be able to start planning my move.

I guess this is the point when times speeds up again. I’m ready for it.

Cheers

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De-stress

I have felt very stressed these last couple weeks, for a lot of obvious reasons: projects coming to head, uncertain of where I’ll be living 6 months from now, and beginning to wrap up some of my other responsibilities. Keeping perspective on how much time I have left has been difficult – 4 months is nothing in comparison. There’s a small part of me that wants to sprint toward the end and stay busy. But that’s not how this process works and I know I have to pull back.

I told my organization I would be reducing my role with them over the next few months, starting next week. Of course, if this last project gets approved it means I’ll still have a lot to do in the way of physical labor and organizing. But I’m leaving the other grunt work to my members. This is the point when I remember that I never was the executive director (although I often was) and someone else must take responsibility for this organization. If it crumbles, then it is not my job to glue it back together.

I’m still here, and I have other things to occupy my time. I started a computer class last week, which should be kind of fun because the students are enthusiastic. So far it seems like my class will consist mostly of older women – it seems to be the demographic I’m destined to serve here.

After this week my service will change as I enter detach mode. I’m taking the stress off and preparing everything for my departure. In a few weeks I have my close of service (COS) conference and that will really start the countdown.

Cheers

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Last

It’s hard to believe that I have only about 4 months left in Botswana, and that I’ve completed 22. Saying that my time here has flown by would be a flat lie – parts of my service have been agonizingly frustrating and slow.

This post is born out of some of those difficulties in the final (and biggest) project of my service. I’ve written loosely about it before and have avoided definitive terms because it has always been shrouded in uncertainty. The project is a building for my NGO, and it represents the largest amount of funding the organization has applied for to date. “Logistical nightmare” doesn’t accurately describe the pangs we have endured in the journey to this point, a week before the board makes a final decision about our application.

Anyone who has worked in development knows that disorganization comes with the territory. In Botswana, the residue of the British protectorate years manifests itself in bureaucracy unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the US. Furthermore, no one – no one – knows how to navigate it. I have dealt with this for quite a while, but I am still astonished by how many barriers there are to progress. Without intention to generalize, aspects of this project seem to center around me willing people to learn how to do their jobs or overcome their laziness. There are good partners in my life here, and some of them have fallen victim to the ineptitude of people around them. Orchestrating people in time here has been horrible.

At this point, I am unsure of this project’s potential for success. After all, I am leaving in about 4 months and even if the building is funded, it won’t be complete until long after I close my service. I can hope to get a foundation of the work done before June and push the people of my NGO to take charge of it, setting up some semblance of sustainability. First, however, is the matter of securing funding. My organization received a site visit from the donor in November, and has since been working hard to position itself to be eligible. I honestly don’t know that we will be ready in time.

I have spent a large part of my service being frustrated, but this is the last time I will do so. By this time next month I should know whether or not my NGO was successful in its application for funding. If, we succeed, I will have a very busy 3 months. If we fail, then we fail – but I will not hold any regret about my end of the project.

Failure is obviously not something I enjoy, but I recognize that it’s essential to the Peace Corps experience. We learn most from our missteps, whether we are to blame or not (in many of my failures here I was to blame). Some things are not within our control and I guess that’s an important lesson, too. Either way, it is emotionally draining and I am almost through.

With or without this project, I am satisfied with what I have done here. I may not be in the right mood to convey that sentiment, and I can reminisce later, but I know that I have experienced moments of fulfilment. I’m ready to get back to an environment that doesn’t oppose me at every turn the way this one does. The first world has its problems too, sure, but at least I don’t feel singularly defeated there. After this project I am done failing in my service, and that feels pretty damn good.

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You Again

Leaving the United States has been a reprieve from a lifestyle. I don’t mean to place negativity on America, because it hasn’t all been an intentional effort to disconnect (though admittedly some of it has). People are stressed there, and our culture has a much different set of values than this place does. I’m more relaxed here and free from some past baggage. My network has changed drastically. Living thousands of miles away from your former life creates an inevitable schism in your relationships.

I’m now facing the impending, uneasy reacquaintance with that life. There’s so much of it I’m looking forward to, though: I can easily call my family and close friends again, visit and travel with them, eat and drink with them… There’s comfort in that and a lot of love to be shared. People with whom I’ve kept in touch from this side have an idea of what my life has been like these past two years and have kept me updated on theirs. It will be seamless and easy to renew our bonds.

However, there’s a certain amount of awkwardness and guilt associated with others. I did seek a sort of “reset button” when I left, and I have felt relief in closing some chapters of my US life. But I didn’t necessarily prepare for that with others. The world is small and I wonder how some encounters will play out. The US is fast-paced and busy (that’s part of the reason I left), but I have been so fortunate with relentless support from some people. Friends and family have kept in email contact and some even buy Skype credit to call me regularly. It has been an incredible display of commitment and encouragement, which has been a crucial grounding throughout this experience. Comparing that with the relative indifference I’ve felt from others is the challenge.

What should I expect from people who were formerly central to my social life and identity? Living in the bush is like a get out of jail free card: my relative lack of access to internet and resources (I’m a poor volunteer) removes some guilt from my end. But how much time does it take to send an email? Or put a post card in the mail? I can ask these questions of myself, for I certainly haven’t been the best at this. This severed (or weakened) tie was not deliberate. Was our relationship one of convenience and proximity? Maybe the line isn’t so finite – I didn’t exactly ask everyone to maintain a long-distance friendship with me, I just thrust it upon them. Neglect was made on both ends. Shall we just call it even?

Homecoming should be absent begrudging hostility. I’m excited to go home, after all, because America is a place of wonderful people, infrastructure, food, productivity, live music, showers, big cities, central air conditioning… the list goes on. Before I get to all that, I need to reconcile that imbalance, and leave behind any bitterness. Readjustment is going to be hard enough.

Cheers

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