Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Global Youth Service Day

This week marks the 2014 Global Youth Service Day (GYSD), which celebrates and mobilizes the millions of young people who improve their communities each day of the year through service. This special day is celebrated each year in more than 135 countries, with young people working together - alongside schools, youth organizations, civil society organizations, government agencies, national service programs, and more - to address the world's most critical issues and change their communities. Established in 1988, Global Youth Service Day is the largest service event in the world, and the only day of service dedicated to children and youth. While this day has always been near to my heart, it is extra special this year because I am actively participating in it.

Yesterday I was contacted by a press officer from Peace Corps Headquarters inviting me to be teleconferenced in to the Global Youth Service Day Conference being held in Washington DC. Two other PCVs and I will be broadcast live to the National Mall to talk about our service and do a Q&A for viewers. We will represent the 7,209 currently serving Peace Corps and, hopefully, inspire youth to continue giving back to this interconnected global community.  Wow.

I feel very honored and extremely humbled to have been asked and a little bit intimidated by the task. But I am up to the challenge. I am inspired every day by the work we are doing abroad and I believe in the capacity we each have to help. I  have seen the impact in Botswana. This is my chance to share it with a much larger group at home. How very exciting!

If you want to learn more about GYSD, please check out their website at http://www.gysd.org/ and if you're in the Washington DC area on Friday and see my face up on the screen, send me a wave!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

RIP Ashley


Today I received news that my friend and colleague, both from my previous employment in America and also here in Southern Africa, has passed away.

I am saddened and startled to hear that she is no longer with us. I talked to her not long ago about her upcoming COS (she was set to finish her service in the next few days) and about her future plans. We commiserated about service and laughed about all we had overcome. And now she is gone.

I will always have fond memories of her teaching me to play Risk over coffees at Indaba on cold winter lunch breaks in Washington and of the moment we learned that each of us was applying to Peace Corps. And again when we found out we would be neighbors abroad. And once more when we both planned trips to Thailand only a few days apart. Our lives were intertwined and I am so grateful they were because my life was enriched by having her in it. She will be deeply and forever missed.

Rest in Peace Ashley...

Perplexing Botswana Observation #987

There are many things that, even after 1,075 days in Botswana, continue to confound me. For instance, in a country where sunshine prevails approximately 360 days per year, why not turn to solar power to charge the nation?

While this thought has perplexed me for some time, it is at the forefront of my mind these days because the entire country has been without electricity for nearly a week now. Yes, that's right, in darkness.

Why? you might ask. Because Botswana imports its power from South Africa.

South Africa has its own supply issues and has been clamoring to Botswana to address its own needs because they would need to cut back on delivery in favor of addressing its own needs. In other words, get your act together Botswana because we can't provide you power forever.

So, when the darkness came, it wasn't a surprise. We knew power would become more and more scarce and we expected load shedding to become commonplace. But when the power didn't come back for twelve hours and then twenty-four and then longer, we knew something else must have been the problem.

Rumors started circulating but one always sprang to the top: someone at the power plant in South Africa left the coal out in the rain so they can't use it until it dries up.

WHAT?!

Africa is a funny place. It makes me smile that something as simple as "the coal was left out" is reason for an entire nation to be without power. Indefinitely. And few are crying out about it. It is a much simpler place here in Botswana.

I laughed a little and then gathered my things and came to my boyfriend's apartment because he is one of the lucky few (very few) that has a generator. Which is how I am typing this post to you now. Oh life. TIA.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Published: A Toolkit For Better Life Skills Education

Behold! The very first printed draft of the Adolescent Life Skills Toolkit I put together!
After meeting last week with relevant heads of all Botswana's Ministries and other pertinent stakeholders, it has been confirmed that the final draft of my toolkit will be adopted by the Botswana Government and used to strengthen the country's current national strategy for life skills education! Booyah! Now that's a Peace Corps win!

Friday, March 7, 2014

IECD and LS Technical Working Retreat

Much of my work at PCI has been focused on integrated early childhood development (IECD) and life skills (LS). I have been working very hard to improve the lives of young children and adolescents in Botswana by creating better systems and resources and enhancing the access to and understanding of programs for the most rural and vulnerable communities. As part of this effort, I have conducted focus groups on effective facilitation of LS material (LS topics include communication, self-esteem and awareness, critical thinking, and so on), lead workshops for single teenage mothers, met with stakeholders and partners from across the country, providing technical assistance to civil society organizations working in these areas, and drafted and compiled concept notes and resource books set for publication on both IECD and LS.

This last project is of particular note because it was a catalyst for a workshop eleven years in the making. Yes, eleven.

In 2003, the Botswana Government partnered with UNICEF to analyze the IECD and LS programs. They found both to be lacking and called for a technical team to be constructed and a way forward agreed upon. To date, nothing of substance has been done to address this mandate. They have, however, created "frameworks", which essentially are merely outlines, of what the desired outcomes would be for IECD and LS programs for children and adolescents. There were many MANY gaps left to be filled in and the right players had not stepped up to the plate.

Our week-long "technical working retreat", as we called it, brought heads of Government Ministries and stakeholders together to accomplish a handful of very important objectives. Of note: finally addressing the challenges and gaps with IECD and LS in Botswana; determining who is responsible for various components of these programs; reviewing the documents PCI and I proposed (which should act as the "filler" for the frameworks); and making technical, policy, and advocacy recommendations for national program revisions. We wanted people to understand what was going on, to take ownership over the situation and their roles, and to create a plan for what our ideal "model" would be for IECD and LS. This was an invariable who's who of leaders in their fields and they were poised and ready to tackle these hard issues. After eleven years of waiting, we made it happen.

Without going into too much detail about the five days (for fear of boring you with jargon and nitty gritty), I want to say that the retreat was an overwhelming success. The background was given, the studies were read, and a greater understanding was reached. The people became instantly motivated to make a change. We were able to have the conversations with all the right parties present and really hash out the intricacies of what works, what doesn't, and what we would like to see in IECD and LS education, especially for those most marginalized populations. And we did it in front of each other, meaning there should be accountability as we move forward. Basically, the environment was right. We now have task forces set up to deal with smaller issues and we have a larger plan for tackling the entire project. We are on the same page.

In the months before I close my service and finish my time with PCI, I will be packaging the ideas for our model program into something that can be discussed, marketed, and implemented, as well as meeting with all of the task forces to monitor their progress in addressing the key issues agreed upon at the retreat and finalizing the documents I have been working on and beginning to train partners and stakeholders on how to use them. There is still so much to be done but we are on the right track.

And what a beautiful place to be doing this all in...


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

When It Rains, It Pours (Literally)

After nearly a year of intense drought, the country celebrated as the grey clouds rolled in. The skies became dark and the thunder roared in the distance. It was coming.

And come it did!

For five days the rain didn't let up. The fervent drops echoed through homes and the rumbling struck fear into adults and children alike. After all, it had been so long since such a storm had come, people were no longer use to their fierce intensity. And the rains had come with a vengeance.

Before long, rivers flooded, roads closed, and rumors of people drowning were being whispered from under warm blankets. With the ground so saturated, the reservoirs in the south began to fill. The main dam, which had been dried up and neglected, increased by 4% in only a few days. In the north, where the water crisis had subsided in recent months, bridges were being washed away.

Africa is a land of extremes. There is extreme heat, extreme drought, and extreme rains. For someone from the West, who is used to homeostasis, this reality can take some getting used to. Fortunately, Africa, and Botswana in particular, is also met by extreme gratitude and community. So, together, we celebrate the rains, even if they did come in the most extreme way.

PULA!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Africa, Meet Mom: Reunion Edition

In exactly two weeks, mother and daughter will be reunited in the land of zebras and sand!


We will embark on a two week adventure that will take us from around southern Botswana to South Africa and finally to Mozambique. The beaches and wildlife are a perk to the main attraction - we will be together! Talk about lighting up a girl's life! I can't wait!

PC Botswana's First All Volunteer Conference


Peace Corps Botswana held its very first all volunteer conference to commemorate 10 years of HIV/AIDS work in country. This was a monumental time for our post and something worth acknowledging on a grand scale.

For three days, all 134 volunteers from across the country gathered together in one of the capital's nicest hotels to share best practices, to coordinate collaborations, and to be briefed on the scope of key issues facing Botswana to date as a means of developing pragmatic solutions and innovative projects.

I am proud to say that the conference was an overwhelming success. It was met with praise by volunteers and distinguished guests alike, both for the content of the sessions and for the overall event. And this is no small feat when your guests include the American Ambassador to Botswana and the heads of many international organizations like the CDC and Baylor Center for Excellence.

I am even more proud because the planning, logistics, and execution of the entire event was entrusted, in large part, to myself and a fellow PCVL. This meant long hours working alongside staff, making calls to representatives from various international and national organizations, meeting with banquet managers at the site, making session plans and outlining evening activities (complete with a "coffee house"!), and stuffing personalized folders and making name tags for every PCV, among other tasks. It was a tireless effort that paid off in spades. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to support such a significant event for our post - the very first of its kind. And I am so happy that it was deemed "the best training to date" by PCVs. Because, after all, they're who it was all for!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Young Single Mothers Workshop

We all too often take for granted things that shape who we are. Things like upbringing, presence of supportive caregivers and adults, nutrition, and friends. But what if these things didn't exist in our lives? Or if they were offered in fragments and then taken away from you? What if you were an orphan and raised yourself? There are lessons learned in life that naturally happen in so many of our homes and schools that we don't even recognize. What happens when people don't learn how to communicate effectively or care for their basic needs? I am now much more conscious of that reality, as it is the basis for much of the work I have been doing in the past months. This has given me the opportunity to delve deeper into the issues facing the youth of Botswana, in particular, young women.


Twenty-three young single mothers turned up for the two-day workshop run by one of our implementing partners in a nearby village. I was invited to attend to support the partner and assist in facilitating sessions on self-awareness, self-esteem, and communication. I was joined by two other members of the PCI team and some nurses from the local clinic, who were scheduled to discuss sexual reproductive health and topics on caring for young children.

The workshop was designed to be participatory, encouraging the young women to search for their own solutions and to create a sense of community among those in similar circumstance. As such, activities were collaborative, involving a lot of group work and discussions, and the women were challenged to work through differences in order to create viable options for their collective future. This meant focusing on problem solving, planning, and critical thinking - all of which are often neglected in a country that prides its education system on rote memorization.

Overcoming the challenges of the workshop model was met first with argument and then, in time, with laughter. The latter lead to dialogue that brought great results and the girls began to prosper. It wasn't long before the women were opening up and starting to acknowledge some of their commonalities (something we believe will unite them and give them strength). It was empowering to witness.

In the end, the women made great strides in both their approach to examining and addressing issues, as well as in creating a team among one another. They were able to learn from one another and, thereby teaching them lessons long deprived. What's more, the partner organization gained the experience in facilitating a workshop of this nature and have vowed to follow the women and support them as they work towards implementing some of the activities they decided, as a team, to go for. They are no longer orphans, alone, trying to overcome hardship and raise children. They are together.

This is the sort of sustainable development that we always hope for - the kind where people learn how to help themselves and local organizations gain the skills necessary to support those efforts. I am going to be mentoring this organization for the final months of my contract but I am confident in their ability to continue in this manner. I am just proud to be there to witness it.

"Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

“There is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for.”

Even among employees and organizations that are qualified, passionate, and maintain strong values, apathy and atrophy tend to set in from time-to-time. It is a disheartening truth that impacts the quality and amount of work that is able to be done. Sometimes, when these infect a single (but key) person, the ripple effect can be great. These negative attributes, then, can lead to an under-utilization of motivated human resources or a withdrawal of those resources altogether. This is the reality I have been facing.

I have spent the last few months as a stunted version of myself. I have felt somewhat ineffectual in carrying out significant meaningful work within my primary assignment and have struggled to find a way to make a contribution within the confines outlined to me. Simply, I didn't have the freedom to create the change I wanted - and have become accustomed to - and I saw myself falling into professional doldrums.

That is not to say I have been stagnant. Besides my work for Peace Corps (as a Volunteer Leader), I have, in fact, been working on a couple large scale projects that stand to be extremely influential in the future. These include a Life Skills Toolkit and an IECD Resource Pack, both to be published and adopted by the Government of Botswana to strengthen its current National Strategies. Unfortunately, despite my dedication to these efforts, my work was constantly being put on hold in favor of, what seemed to be, waiting around for others to get motivated and involved enough to sign off on my (finished) work. This has caused me great frustration. I hold myself to a certain standard of giving back and helping others and have dedicated myself to that. Not being able to achieve to my full potential is a difficult pill to swallow, especially when you want it so badly.

Something had to be done. And now.

So I had a few conversations - conversations with colleagues that led to conversations with my superiors at Peace Corps that culminated in some very staunch heart-to-hearts with my counterparts and supervisors at my primary assignment. While the conversations were difficult, I am optimistic that positive change is on the way. Why am I so optimistic? Because I am no longer directly tethered to others within my agency so what happens next is up to me.

I am now taking over and managing a number of fairly high profile national projects and have been granted independence to build capacity of implementing partners across the country. This means I can go out in a technical capacity and work directly with the providers in the field to help them integrate and actualize programming, as well as strengthen systems and organizational capacity in order to improve service delivery. Working directly with the implementing partners is a resource and valuable experience both for me and for the organizations I now have the authority to work with. And the quality and level of my involvement is mine alone to determine, with the support of my counterpart, her supervisor, and the agency as a whole. Hallelujah! I am finally free to start making an impact  in a much more meaningful way again! Good news all around!