Countdown

Today marks the beginning of my 6-month countdown to Close of Service. I can’t help but wonder where I will be this time next year. November has shaped up to be a crazy busy month, and I’m feeling good about where I will finish my service. It won’t be quite the cakewalk I was expecting, at least not over the next few months. Of course, December and January are essentially periods of inactivity, so there’s a final hurdle to clear before progress can be realized.

Reaching such a point in my service has left me with fewer reasons for reflection. There is no novelty, because I’ve done everything (twice). The hardship factor has lost its luster and instead serves as a tantalizing reminder of how close the comforts of the US are. Toward the end of her service, I remember my predecessor talking with some local colleagues – they asked her why she wasn’t staying longer, moving permanently to Botswana, and she said simply, “I’m tired.” It’s getting to that point for me as well, and I’m counting my days left of life in the bush: shopping a 2 hour bus ride away, carrying water, living on the poverty line, being constantly dirty, killing millions of giant bugs, using the pit latrine. I’m just tired of it. And I’m sure you are tired of hearing about it.

The bright spots are in my projects, which I’ve learned to navigate well. I’ve recently been in contact with an environmental club that has ambitions to start a fruit orchard. My last bout of tree planting had mixed success, but this attempt promises to be grander and better prepared. I’ve also got my hand in another safe male circumcision campaign, and am hoping the departure of my doctor friend won’t hurt our ability too much. My building project is still among the top things on my list, though final confirmation won’t come for a couple months. I did get a site visit this week from a potential donor. It went well, though there’s still a lot to be done before it can materialize.

Looking forward is competing with the stresses of the present. I have travel plans in the works (Moçambique!!) and graduate school applications to complete. Farther in the future are COS travel plans, which are starting to come into focus – though the final stop is Detroit. There are so many things I want to see, and I only hope my budget can meet the needs of my wanderlust.

Cheers

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Advice

I took the GRE last week, which means I have a bulk of the necessary components to complete graduate school applications. The test went well enough, though I was very stressed leading up to it. Studying for only the month preceding the test wasn’t the best idea; I’ve learned you can still procrastinate while living in the bush.

October has been much wetter this year than last. Lately I’ve seen pretty frequent, albeit fleeting rain. There’s nothing I dislike about rain – no, make that water in general. I often find myself standing outside, like I did today, to soak up storms. They’re irresistible.

Yesterday began the district’s annual evidence-based planning meetings. Last year I was the lone volunteer in my district and endured the frustrations of this process on my own. Although there are other volunteers around this year, the data used to construct the local response to HIV/AIDS is still out-of-date or simply bad. Protestations don’t seem to permeate, and the committee pushes forward on the unstable foundation of imprecise information. Inquiries about improving the quality of statistics are met with dead-end finger pointing. This takes me to the root of why I decided to only engage people when asked. Laboring over something so wasteful saps both my energy and willpower.

Frankly, I can no longer consume myself with things I find so pointless. The amount of time I have left places me in a do or die situation. I want to finish certain things and that can only happen by sacrificing the bullshit. It’s very easy to empathize with people who find service unfulfilling (I’ve oscillated across the line). Part of me envisions some sort of grand, ceremonial end to my service, but the reality is that I’ll probably just take a quiet bow.

My favorite piece of advice to give about Peace Corps is this: be selfish. Most volunteers want to make an impact and leave a legacy of positive change, but disregard the fact that this work is about personal development as well. A lot of time is spent training on the proper way to approach development, but it doesn’t always work and we never talk about the backup plan. There comes a point when you have to do what you want to do in order to be happy. Sometimes it isn’t as drastic as constructing a building or planting an orchard. It can be learning how to play the guitar or writing a novel or getting into crazy good physical shape. It can also be about saying “I don’t want to do that.”

Cheers

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Au Revoir

Last week I learned that a close friend in my village received a notice of transfer. In the Botswana government system employees sign short contracts, generally 3-5 years long. Transfers come suddenly and the person leaves quickly afterward.

This person was a doctor at the hospital in my village. We worked together closely for the past few months on circumcision projects. It’s common for volunteers to have a variety of counterparts for different activities – this doctor was one of the best counterparts I have had throughout my service. He is passionate and hardworking, which are not the most common qualities even in the developed world. I’ve written a lot about my involvement with circumcision here, and none of the success I’ve had would have been even remotely possible without his help. Although he will still be in Botswana I am going to miss having him here, both as a counterpart and a friend.

The news of this departure came during the visit from my shadowing trainee. Halfway through pre-service training, Peace Corps trainees in Botswana travel to visit a current volunteer. I enjoy hosting shadows because it offers a chance to pass on some of the wisdom I’ve gained since arriving, plus it’s an interesting gauge of how far I’ve come. The trainee I hosted was an older gentleman; it made for an odd dynamic to be a sort of teacher to someone with so much more life experience than myself. But we have a lot in common and consequently had some really thoughtful conversations. I always like having visitors, and they get the rural village experience in Rakops.

Having this Peace Corps neophyte in my midst showed me the unique place I’ve reached in my service and some of the challenges to which I have adapted. The reality is that I’m on the downward slope of my 2 years. It’s an accomplishment to be sure, but also indicates a change in attitude toward my organization. Most important is the need to instill some sustainability and wean the NGO off of my help. And of course, that means saying more good-byes. Will we either of us be ready? This won’t be quite as abrupt as my doctor friend’s departure, so I can hope.

Cheers

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Next

Thoughts of what comes next have been dominating my mind lately. The danger in this is that I’m starting to detach from the present, though it is good preparation for my organizations and their respective projects. I have enough time left in my service that I can still accomplish things, but the pressure (and excitement) of the developed world is approaching.

I’ve finally taken a break from travel and can settle back in to village life. Constant disorganization has marred the past couple of months because I have spent so much of it in flux. Staying put will help me focus and give my bank account a break. Independence day is coming up Monday, and country will take a couple days off to celebrate. A large number of government workers are employed away from their families, so holidays in Botswana represent opportunities for them to head back to their home villages. Rakops will probably empty out today, but I’ll welcome the quiet.

It’s strange that I find comfort in solitude now. I suppose it means I’ve truly achieved some of my original goals, because the isolation of my site was once my biggest fear. I do have a good reason for appreciating the alone time: I’m studying for the GRE. Like many other things, I’ve procrastinated in my preparation so I’m left with about a month to buckle down. The whole graduate school application process has stirred up uncertainty about what I will do after May. Living in the African bush has revealed to me that I can live almost anywhere and do basically anything. Though I will say that the next place I live will allow me access to better food, and hopefully a shower. That’s still leaves me with too many options.

The rains came yesterday for the first time in about 7 months. Incidentally, it was a planting day at our garden. The same sort of thing happened last year when my group received our orange saplings. The weather gods smile on my village once in a while. With all the difficulties the garden project has faced in the past, I think it now has what it needs to find some success.

My projects are coming along, and I’m working more on the circumcision campaign over the next few weeks. Having done this project before provides a little more confidence for me, and I know I can do more with it than last time. I’ve also started to prepare my counterparts at my support group for my departure by teaching some of the more basic things I do, like typing letters and networking. After I leave, the organization will be without a Peace Corps Volunteer for almost 6 months, so they need to gain a little more self-sufficiency. I’ve written before about my predecessor and how I’m compared to her – in this way I’ve had to separate. I can no longer fill the commanding role, so I’ve started to delegate more and more. This kind of growth is difficult, but it’s more important than most other things. Hopefully it will translate in sustainability.

Cheers

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Long

I think this may be the longest I’ve gone between posts since my service began last April. The short explanation is that I’ve been traveling a lot – too much, to be honest. In the past couple of months, I have really been all over the place both for business and pleasure. Travel is an indispensible part of Peace Corps, and I’ve learned how to do it very well. Now that summer is back, I can pack very light by ditching my sleeping bag and heavy winter clothes, and long journeys don’t faze me any more (although 8 hours to Gaborone is a doozey). I have adapted to this lifestyle of constant movement.

I went to Namibia last month on vacation and had a great time. A not-so-secret key to travel is to do so with people that share your attitudes. The days I spent abroad were laid back and enjoyable, thanks to my companions. We couch-surfed, which introduced us to some interesting people; it also saved us a big chunk of money. Windhoek is a nice city with more happening than anywhere in Botswana (although that bar is pretty low). Swakopmund is situated on the coast, and it was wonderful to be near the ocean again. If you’ve seen Planet Earth, then you might remember a segment on the dunes. We went there and they’re awesome. Food access is usually my favorite part about getting away from Botswana and this was no exception. It was a quick but refreshing trip.

A couple weeks after that I spent some time in Maun for a grant-writing workshop. A handful of Volunteers were assembled to write proposals with organizations in the Okavango Delta catchment that focused on biodiversity, environmental conservation, and/or the delta as a source of livelihood. Our host was the Southern Africa Regional Environmental Program under USAID. I learned some of the finer details of federal grants and got to work with a small fishery in the northern part of the region. The departure from HIV/AIDS work was stimulating enough, and I felt successful relative to the short amount of time contributed.

The stress level in Rakops hasn’t diminished from being away so much, rather the opposite has happened. I’ve reached a breaking point in my time here that forces me to see the bigger picture. Will I leave my organization and village better off than when I arrived? There are some intangibles that I know have impacted, and I’ve certainly developed worthwhile relationships. However, I’ve put pressure on myself to take my organization to a higher level and secure some basic operating tools for them. My emotional health has been tested in these past few weeks with regard to a certain large project I’ve been working on. I won’t go into detail, but at one point I felt I had wasted about 3 months of my service on this project, which was derailed by a technicality. There’s a chance now that the funding will come through, so the final product remains to be seen. I have relegated myself to a “come what may” attitude in order to safeguard against a repeat of the huge disappointment I felt. The truth is, failure is the most important part of Peace Corps. It has taught me the most about myself and I’ve learned what it takes to make shit happen. But, I wasn’t prepared for it at this stage, or for the subsequent despondence. Success is just harder to achieve here. I’ve already started to bounce back, though, and as I said, it could still happen.

One thing I’m glad I’ve done throughout my 17 months here is serving on the Volunteer Advisory Committee. The position affords me opportunities to talk with my fellow PCVs about our lives here and the policies that affect them. It acts a little bit like a student government, and we work with the Country Director to tackle systemic problems. Peace Corps Volunteers love to complain (myself included), and this is an outlet for solutions. Perhaps one of my favorite things VAC gets to do is greet a new intake group at the airport and spend time with trainees in their first few days in country. Over meals and icebreaker games, we get opportunities to meet the newest additions to Peace Corps Botswana. Conversation between a fresh-off-the plane trainee and a seasoned Volunteer invariably cover the universally inclusive laundry list of worries. Everyone asks the same questions; in hindsight, the concerns are ridiculous. I absolutely had the same fears, but the cyclical nature of it all is fun… so are the deer-in-headlights looks on the faces of new arrivals.

I think that’s enough for now – until next time,

Cheers

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Habits

I think the biggest fault of my blog is that I gloss over everyday life. It hasn’t really been a conscious exclusion, though now I feel like it’s an important missing piece. My friend Marjorie’s tumblr has a lot in the way of observation, and it offers a more complete picture of our lives here. Go check it out!

Despite all of the positive changes I can see in myself through this experience (16 months and counting), I know there are a fair few bad habits I’ve picked up or enhanced. Most of it comes with the territory and stress that this work brings, and I’m not above unhealthy outlets once in a while, though I wouldn’t say they’re my usual go-to. Actually, I am more of a binge eater than anything else, but trying to curb that.

I would venture that it’s more common for Peace Corps Volunteers here to pick up bad habits than improve their lifestyles. Stress does that. Some of my friends have picked up smoking, and alcohol finds its way into most social gatherings. I’m definitely not alone in my departure from vegetarianism, and I would say that I am more sedentary now than I was in the US (though I do walk everywhere). I find myself bargaining or letting some things slide because many other aspects of my life aren’t as convenient.

Part of it might be cultural though; for instance, I would guess that 95% of toilets I encounter are unaccompanied by a sink with soap, so I am really only washing my hands in the bath or while doing dishes. Interestingly enough I have only been sick here once or twice, notwithstanding the natural inclination many Batswana have to casually pick their noses during conversation (of course tissues are even less common than soap). Few hygiene practices are maintained for me: I go a ridiculously long time between washing clothing items and often reuse dishes and water. Let’s look on the bright side and say I’m just environmentally aware.

On a deeper level, I find myself being much more candid and outspoken with Batswana now that I’m comfortable with the culture. It’s ironic that this was borne out of my higher level of integration because the culture is overtly passive and non-confrontational. My filter of blithe politeness eludes me. It isn’t to say that I’m rude, I just feel compelled to tell people when they do something wrong. It has almost gotten me into trouble a few times (like the time I talked back to a cop at a border gate). I sort of feel justified when I shake things up and I’ve even got some pats on the back for speaking up. Maybe these are the first stones in a rockslide of revolution and rebellion! Or maybe it’s wishful thinking.

Cheers

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Satisfaction

I was a little down in my last post. It’s part of life here, even though it’s not my preference to share low vibes. The capricious and fragile state of my mood is inherent with this experience – read any Peace Corps blog for proof. It’s often difficult to pinpoint the dominant emotion since so many thoughts and stressors are at play, though it’s clear to me that I was in a quarter-century funk last week.

That said, thank you for the birthday wishes from across the world. It was a low-key celebration kind of year, but I’m fortunate to have great friends in Bots who joined me. Next year I’ll be in a totally different place and can have a developed-world celebration.

In terms of work, I had a good last week. A high-volume safe male circumcision team from ACHAP visited Rakops and my region. A couple doctors, a few nurses, and some community mobilizing members all contributed to get more than 120 males circumcised in the week. It represents a huge spike in prevention interventions performed in my district. I feel satisfied with the help I offered them, which came in the form of extra hands in the surgery room and recruiting and mobilizing men to get circumcised. Since Peace Corps Volunteers are intimately aware of their communities’ needs, they often offer the best knowledge to visitors. I think I filled that role well.

More importantly, circumcision displays a real intervention being put into place, which makes me more satisfied than anything else. Our prerogative in this role is to alter behavior as a method of prevention. It’s hard work to get someone to change his or her actions, despite the number of times you recite the ways to protect yourself from infection. What’s more frustrating for me is the invisibility of it all. There is virtually no way to track the number of times a person does or does not use a condom during sex or the amount of sexual partners a person has. Circumcision is real and after a 20-minute operation and 6 weeks of recovery a man is drastically less prone to infection. This is my soapbox, and will be until I leave Botswana. It should be implemented in endemic countries until a cure is found.

To shift my tone, I’m planning to travel a bit in the next couple weeks and possibly entertain another visitor! I’m looking forward to it since I’m now acutely aware of how little time I have left to see all I want to see in this part of the world. I’ll share more later – have a great weekend!

Cheers

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