Tag Archives: failure

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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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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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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