Tag Archives: Botswana

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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Metal

It’s much easier to understand a culture when we generalize its people and reduce them to norms. This isn’t always a bad thing; it helps us navigate society and integrate. But I’m guilty of doing so in Botswana to the extent that I have been shamefully corrected for certain assumptions, like everyone here is Christian. Just because the majority practice is the loudest and most available, I grasp onto it and use it in my advice and reports. Usually they’re accurate, but once in a while I have to check myself.

Americans value diversity and emphasize our uniqueness to feel special. I know how angry I get when people here make broad generalizations about the United States. Why I haven’t flipped the roles on myself yet, I’m not quite sure. Parts of my identity are totally inapplicable to other Americans and the same is true of people in different parts of the world. In explaining the culture and lifestyle here, I’ve learned to preface with “it depends.” I experienced one version of a sub-culture this past weekend and it was perhaps the weirdest weekend of my life.

I’m told that in many predominately Christian societies, a sub-culture of death metal music emerges. Maybe it’s a balance thing. The culture at the Ghanzi Winter Metal Fest was what I picture shows being like in the US 30 years ago, or whenever that scene emerged. Nearly everyone there was dressed in studded black leather; everywhere I looked I could find chains and animal skulls, accompanied by cowboy boots and hats. It was like Halloween (even the weather reminisced of fall in the Midwest). One man told me about all the horses he owned; he was an actual metal cowboy. At one point I was wearing a leather-studded and fringed vest loaned to me by a man called Taliban Warlord Beast. He made it himself. People were mostly friendly, as they usually are in Botswana, but the atmosphere seemed to promote the release of some repressed wildness in them.

The music was metal in the growling classic sense, echoing old US bands. The event is still in its infancy, with this being the third annual. Maybe the popularity will grow. I don’t know if I’ll make the trip next year, but I’m glad I went once. It was a memorable weekend, if not the least bit premeditated.

Cheers

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Winter

Whenever friends come through my village, their reactions are always the same: “There’s not a lot here, is there?” I live in the middle of nowhere, even by the standards of such a sparsely populated country like Botswana. Rakops has about 7,000 people, but it’s the largest settlement for 2 hours in any direction and as a result is considered a major town on most maps. There’s a certain amount of comfort to be found in such a rural setting. I never feel unsafe in regards to crime, and I have plenty of space to breathe. When I first arrived at this place, I was put off by its geography and my relative isolation, but it has definitely grown on me.

The most startling thing about my corner of the country is the extreme lack of vegetation, especially during the dry season. I live so close to so many pans that the village is basically a dust bowl, and small sand storms are not uncommon. Though greenery and trees can be found near the river, the majority of my life takes place in a desert setting. Close by (45km away) is the entrance to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, where one can find the entire menagerie of wildlife Botswana has to offer. I don’t live in the wild, but animals have migrated past the edge of the village. Also weaving through my village is the Boteti River, which is always the first thing people mention about Rakops. The riverbed had been dry since the ‘70s and began to flow again a couple years ago. Now that winter is setting in, the water levels in the river are rising and I expect a few hippos will start to show up.

It has gotten to the point in winter where bathing decreases from my routine and my body temperature takes precedence over cleanliness. It’s not that terrible, though, since I don’t sweat anywhere near as much as I did during summer. The amazing thing is how much the sun dictates life here; the temperature in the shade and inside my house is generally 15˚ lower than in the sun. I’ve decided to use this to my benefit and I’m finally growing a few vegetables in the support group’s garden. It has been so underutilized since I’ve been here, with only a few orange trees still standing. Hopefully the relentless sun’s weakened winter state will allow some of the young plants to survive.

That’s all I have for now. Keep chugging along.

Cheers

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Return

It’s funny, but I feel at peace being in Botswana. I made it back here last week after a lot of travel to and from the United States. The anxiety of scheduled time in the US (albeit for mostly social appointments) was a little overwhelming. I have simply lost my stamina and the ability to multitask. The alternative experience, however, was waiting for an hour on the tarmac at the Johannesburg airport for no apparent reason. Welcome home.

My two weeks at home were great, but exhausting. I was able to reconnect with so many of my friends and family, and was reminded how wide my network is in that country. I have some really great people in my life there. Running around and going out at night got to me – it really doesn’t reflect my lifestyle anymore and I was struggling to keep up. There are a lot of things about the US that I missed: showers, people, food, and endless sensory and social stimulation are on that list. I don’t know how I was ever bored in that country because there’s so much to do!

I found myself analyzing culture in the states. I didn’t get much mention of ways that I’ve changed, but I noticed that I perceive things differently now. Technology has really invaded every aspect of life in the developed world. I was walking around, shopping with a couple friends and they wanted to use their smart phones to find a store – I was mildly appalled that the iPhone effectively eliminated the simple task of asking for directions and, in effect, human interaction. Being “plugged in” to life on the grid again was the hardest adjustment for me. I am used to talking to people face-to-face, being stared at, and being called by name… but not having unlimited texting and 3G technology. The idea of being anonymous again was comforting to an extent, but I felt surprised that our culture has evolved beyond talking to one another. Surely things haven’t changed completely in one year; it’s me that has changed.

Everyone has the same questions about my life in Botswana and I found myself trying to summarize the past year for my friends and family… which is impossible. In another year it won’t be any easier to relate or to explain the slow process involved with this form of development.

It took me a few days (and a lot of sleep) to settle back in to my routine here. Of course, the week I got back I simultaneously lost water and electricity, which is only another part of the routine. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that most things stayed in tact while I was gone, and my projects were able to proceed in my absence. I had set tasks for my partners to take on while I was gone and they followed through. If this is a reflection on my progress here, I’ll gladly take it.

I have more to write, but not the time. Thank you again to everyone in the US who made my trip the excellent visit that it was.

Cheers

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America

Being home feels slightly surreal, but mostly normal. I have just a few reflections at this point. I’ll start at a couple weeks ago since it has been a long time since my last update.

I participated in Pre-Service Training for the new group of Peace Corps trainees. Like most of my favorite organizations, PC offers a chance for current volunteers to grandfather information and best practices down to newer people. I found myself reliving my time in Botswana, particularly the earliest moments and adjustments. The questions were endless and seemed almost rote, coming in constant rapid succession. Being some of the first faces that newcomers see was a fun experience, but it also highlighted the fact that every person’s Peace Corps experience is different, even within the same country. My role was to answer those basic questions about life and work, and I hope I helped ease some anxiety along the way.

I made my way home earlier this week, spending a couple days in Atlanta. I’ve been having a great time, with only a few readjustment culture shock moments (particularly in large grocery stores and shopping areas). My sister hosted me, and I was able to meet up with a couple friends; they were sure to tend to my food cravings. I also have begun to think about life after Peace Corps, namely graduate school and my career. My old boss and some Peace Corps connections guided me to a couple of one-on-one meetings at Emory. The interactions I had were really positive, and it started to get me excited about restarting academic life.

Home is where your family is, and that’s where I am now. I think that there is a certain idea Peace Corps volunteers have about traveling home and what it could mean in the context of one’s service. My friend put it best when she described our service as a bubble that we’re afraid to pop; why must we maintain an impenetrable barrier between our lives in the developed world and our lives in rural Africa? After all, this is where our original support systems still reside, and we will return to them when the 27 months is finished. Perhaps the mechanisms we use to cope and adjust to that new lifestyle include embracing the feeling of being marooned and isolated. This is something I’ve struggled with since deciding to take that trip to the US – my volunteer friends and I joke about not returning to Botswana if we go home because everything is just too wonderful. By processing this experience, and recognizing where I am in my service I know I will be able to return to finish my service. The concept is funny, though.

The few days I’ve been in Detroit have been a great reminder of my great friends and family. A lot of them have made time to see and visit with me. I’ve also finally been able to share some images of where I live and work, as well as a lot of people involved in my life in Botswana. Part of PC goals are to share what you’re learning about our respective cultures, and I feel that I’m doing a lot of that this trip. Fast and unlimited internet, food, and hot water have all been comforting – I machine washed my clothes and they are literally a different color (with the removal of the sand and dirt). I’ve only scratched the surface, and there are a lot more people I get to see and talk to in the next week. I better hop to it.

Cheers

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HIV Solutions

To some extent, I think Volunteers all over the world have similar experiences. Location obviously plays a big role in dictating the work you do and the culture in which you immerse yourself, but we all share an uphill climb to enact change and a hope that what we do will be sustained after we’re gone. I’ve been corresponding with a PCV friend in Kyrgyzstan and I’m surprised by how many little commonalities have popped up. It’s a small world.

Botswana is a unique Peace Corps country – it graduated from the program in the ‘90s as the country raised itself up to middle-income status, but Volunteers returned when the government asked for help with the HIV epidemic. All Volunteers in Botswana are given an HIV focus as their primary assignments.

After the dust settled from my existential crisis a couple weeks ago, I decided to get busy. In the interest of doing something, my members and I have started planning to restart our STEPS films project at all of the schools in Rakops. The STEPS Films series was shot all over southern Africa and is constructed in a way that compels discussion. The strength of the STEPS films lies in their non-patronizing tone. They encourage thought about those issues and the message is for the audience to decide.

In the business of behavior change as a method of HIV prevention, a lot of ethical questions arise about which cultural norms should change and which should survive as African values. For example, the practice of multiple concurrent partnerships, or having many overlapping sexual partners, is seen as a big problem. In the states, we would like to say that we practice serial monogamy, and further, that it’s better. This is a complex issue that spans gender equality, human rights, and health. But in the end, there are scientific sure-fire prevention methods: wear a condom, get circumcised. These things have a data backing. Is it our place to tell men and women here which relationships are bad and which are good? Maybe we should encourage them to be honest with everyone at risk, and in the mean time give them condoms. There are no tangible ways to track the success of behavior change initiatives, aside from watching HIV infection rates over time.

As someone who believes in science, I see more promise in increased circumcision programs for men. Data supports this – there is a significant drop in the likelihood that one will contract HIV if he is circumcised. There are also cultural barriers and ethical questions surrounding this route: should children have the right to decide if they keep their foreskins? I think this venture has a better chance of succeeding, but it will mean changing some minds. That may have been more than you wanted to know about HIV for today, but these are the projects that will consume most of my time in February.

There are still a lot of other unfinished crusades on which I have embarked and I may discuss them at a later date. It remains to be seen which ones will come to fruition, so keep your fingers crossed that the ones I care about most gain some traction. At least for now I’m occupied.

Cheers

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Back in the Kops

I offer to you, dear readers, my sincerest apologies for leaving my blog so vacant these past few weeks. Everything here seems to have changed for the better, if only in my outlook. Our In-Service Training conference provided the rejuvenation that I needed in every way.

Allow me first to declare my renewed love of showers. To me, they are the most glorious and sorely missed luxury about life in the developed world. I am now back to bathing in a bucket, but those 2 weeks of hot water from above left my body beyond pleased. The city also treated me well, and I got to experience nightlife for the first time in a long time! It felt great to be around friends and to be able to go out for food and drinks again (though not great on my diminutive bank account). Financially, it is better to be in the Kops; socially, Gabs.

The technical aspect of our IST was helpful in shaping my plans for service. I have to say that being thrust into a strange village for 2 months with little direction beyond “get to know your community” was scary and, at times, altogether miserable. I was certainly left in an existential crisis, and lacked the tools to dig myself out. After receiving a bit of guidance, I feel ready to handle the many challenges before me. My NGO has some cleaning up to do, but we’ll soon be on our way to exciting projects. First on the list is getting our vegetable garden up and running!

It seems that my departure from the north resulted in the disappearance of winter. Gone are the days of mild to cold weather, and I am facing a long and very hot summer. The river here is rising as well, and I see potential environmental challenges in my future. Thankfully, my new demeanor has me in a state of no worries – ga go no mathata (yes, just like hakuna matata).

Cheers

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