Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Holidays in Botswana

Despite the fact that I feel like I'm living on the sun because it is so so hot, it is finally starting to feel like the holidays. This is a mixed blessing but, for the most part, I am happy to be feeling in the spirit.

This year, I am most excited about sharing Hanukkah with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and host country nationals, many of who will be celebrating for their first time. (In fact, when it comes to Batswana, most have never even met a Jewish person before meeting me, so teaching them about Judaism and its traditions has been one of my favorite experiences.) In preparation for the holiday, I decorated my house with a Hanukkah banner and dreidels sent by my friend Jeff and I blew up blue balloons to tack up around my house. Then I wrote up the Hebrew transliterations for the blessings on the menorah so that people could join me in reciting them (and for the shehekianu - this is their first Hanukkah after all!), made posters of the dreidel game rules, and put out the cards made by Jeff's 2nd grade class for people here to wish them a happy first Hanukkah. My house now feels so festive. It made me smile to see my house all decked out for the holiday!

It also made my Kums Kids super excited! They saw the balloons and came running! They weren't sure what to make of everything but kept pointing at the signs with Hebrew written on them and smiling and then picking up my Hanukkah books (also courtesy of Jeff) and giggling as they "read" through them. They were beside themselves with excitement. In super broken Setswana (and with the help of my language teacher from PST who I kept text messaging to ask how to say things), I explained to them what everything was and a little bit about Hanukkah. They were really excited and started spinning dreidels and pointing at me and the things and talking way too fast in Setswana for any foreigner to understand regardless of their Setswana proficiency. It was precious. Afterwards, we lit the menorah together and then I gave them presents.

My sister, in a recent care package, sent me coloring books, stickers, and little stuffed animals for the orphans that I play with. I divided these things up to be gifts for them for Hanukkah. Last night, I gave Bokena and Bofelo little stuffed monkeys. They were ecstatic! They were hugging them and playing with them and the smiles that came across their face could light up the whole world. Bokena ran into my bedroom and grabbed my monkey, Jocko, (who was actually my dad's) and handed him to me and then grabbed my camera so that the three of us could take pictures with our monkeys. After our photo shoot, Bokena sat down to "read" her monkey one of the Hanukkah books and Bofelo set off to teach his monkey how to do word searches. It was one of the happiest moments I have had here - seeing them so full of joy. It filled me with joy too. In truth, it was probably the first time they ever got a present like that. To witness that and to be a part of it was truly magical.

I don't want the magic to end.

Today is the 22nd. That means that tomorrow is the 23rd. That is the anniversary of the day I lost my dad. I have been anxious about what this day would be like since it is the first time I will be away from my family for it. Although I have been having some bad dreams these last few nights, for the most part, I have been okay. I have chosen to focus on the blessings in my life, like time spent with the village kids, and that has made all the difference. I am also grateful because two members of my Bots 10 family are on their way down to be with me tonight and tomorrow so that I won't be alone. Even more, I am grateful that they didn't make me ask them to come. They just knew I needed them. I have a hard time asking for help sometimes so I appreciated not having to. It is comforting to know that I have people here that know me well enough and care about me enough to travel to be with me when I need them. That alone gives me strength and helps me know that tomorrow will be okay. (Not only that, but one of them is bringing a Cohiba for us to smoke in honor of my dad. I think that would put a smile on his face so I'm smiling too.) I would also like to thank all of my friends from home who have taken the time to reach out to me this week. You are so dear to me and your love and support means everything. Thank you.

In the days after, many people from my Bots 10 family will be coming to Kumakwane to celebrate the various holidays. On Christmas day, we will go to the lands to hear the choirs sing and be part of a traditional celebration here. I have been told that this is truly special and something that we cannot miss while living in Botswana. By the 26th, my house will be filled with twenty (or more) friendly faces to celebrate the last two nights of Hanukkah. I have been creating a menu to feed the masses and orchestrating revelry for everyone here to experience the festival of lights. I couldn't be more excited. True, I am also a bit stressed about making this a memorable and positive first Hanukkah for everyone (and also about cooking for so many - especially since my village doesn't have a grocery store so shopping involves planning, traveling, and carrying groceries quite a long distance), but I think it will be such a fun time and the sort of experience that will stay with all of us long after.

To wind up this great holiday, I will be heading to Cape Town, South Africa for a vacation with many of these same faces. Wine tasting, whale watching, Starbucks, good food, pretty clothes, shopping, beaches, Table Mountain, happy hour... the list of things to be excited about goes on. I can't think of a better culmination of this already magical holiday season.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Truly Uplifting Weekend

I am eternally thankful for weekends like the one I just had. It contained all of the elements of something truly special: "family", new friends, good food, comfort, gratitude, smiling children, fun, and more. It was the sort of jam-packed weekend that left everyone that was a part of it feeling uplifted and inspired. It goes without saying that it was exactly what I needed after a series of hard weeks. I would like to share with you all the highlights (you'll have to bear with me because there's a lot to talk about):

"Farewell and Safe Travels" Dinner!

We have all made great friends with a man from Zimbabwe named Tendai. He has been "our taxi guy" around Gaborone for many Peace Corps groups and has proven to be an honest and wonderful man. We have always been able to rely on him when we need a ride someplace and when we need a warm smile and a friend. He is one of the most genuine people I have ever met.

After nearly a decade of living in Botswana, he and his family are moving back home to Zimbabwe. We are so sad to see him go but are also excited for him and his family to be going home. (Peace Corps Volunteers, more than most, understand how wonderful it is to go home.) We wanted to send Tendai and his family off with a bit of the kindness that has been shown to us so a few of us decided to take them out for dinner. We gave them the choice and they decided to have Indian food at Chutney in Gaborone. They had never eaten it before and were extremely excited to try. We ordered an assortment of paneer and masala dishes and gorged on delicious naan. It was a feast! It was also a very special evening for all of us. It gave us time to talk more about our lives and to say thank you to our friend. Tendai, Monica, and Ashley, you will be so missed in Botswana. Your warmth has touched us all. I know I speak for all of us PCVs when I say that we are looking forward to the day when we can come and visit you and see your home. 17 months and counting!

Holiday Parties for Orphans!

I had the opportunity to go to two parties for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) this weekend. Both were amazing, if for no other reason than to see the huge smiles on the kids' faces! Precious!

The first one was in my village and was hosted by my NGO. The day started bright and early with copping vegetables for the meal that would be served to the OVC, caregivers, and guests and then preparing the facility for the event. About an hour before the party was scheduled to start, children started lining up outside the NGO - their excitement was impenetrable. By 9:30am, hundred of children were playing on the toys, laughing, and enjoying each other's company. (It has been a long time since the kids have been at the NGO for services so they were beyond excited to have equipment to play on and time to just play and be kids.) The day included music and a dance party, a cultural exhibition, lunch, and gift giving. Gifts for the OVC included things like clothes and toiletries. The guest of honor for the event, who helped distribute the toys, was Miss Universe Botswana 2011. She is a remarkable woman, who genuinely wants to help counsel the OVC and work with the youth in Kumakwane. She took time to play games with the kids and to speak with caregivers and community members.

The other OVC party that I was able to attend was for the Botswana Red Cross Society in Moshupa, a nearby village. This holiday party very much like the previous in that it involved a lot of preparation in terms of cooking and that the event made a whole lot of kids ridiculously happy! I would estimate that this party had over fifty children in attendance, all running around playing on the jungle gym, hoolah hooping, and kicking a football around. The children played for hours, working up an appetite for the late afternoon lunch that was prepared by the Red Cross staff volunteers. During lunch, presentations were given on the history of Red Cross, OVC programming, and the way forward. Songs and skits were also done by youth from UCCSA and then gifts were given out to the children. Like the party at my NGO, gifts for the kids included clothing and toiletries. The Minister of Parliament and the Kgosi (chief) came to support the event and to spend some time with the children.

Care Packages Galore!

Nothing warms a Peace Corps Volunteer's heart quite like a care package from home! I was lucky enough to get TWO over the weekend! Both contained presents for the Kums Kids, including toys, stuffed animals, coloring books, stickers, and Hanukkah cards/blessings. I was literally moved to tears by the generosity and love shown in both of these packages. All I can say is THANK YOU SO MUCH for all of the wonderful presents, snacks, and goodies! I am SO GRATEFUL!

Kind Words and a Great Reminder!

After coming to my village for the first time, a friend and fellow Bots 10 emailed me. Her words touched me and really brought me back to what matters here. I have gotten so caught up in my primary project's success that everything else was somewhat devalued, despite my knowing it is important too. Among the things she said to me that reminded me of the validity and significance of my "after-school program" with the Kums Kids were:

“…What I wanted to say was that I was really affected by the relationships you have with those children in your village who come over to your house. I was very touched to see how comfortably and intimately you interacted with them. I think that type of interaction, those types of relationships, are so amazing, and it's something that I've struggled with a lot here…The way you effortlessly engaged and directed those children, that was really nice. I like that you can have children over to your house, and that boundaries do work… your situation there is wonderful. It was refreshing to see that you invite them into your life, that you've provided them with activities. In knowing what goes on in the emotional life of most PCVs, I think what you're doing is the epitome of loving-kindness towards those children.

My specific reason for telling this to you is that I've heard/understand that you're going through a rough patch right now in your service. All I really want you to know is that the relationships you've cultivated with those children is what I thinking PC is all about. And so, obviously your issues with your work will negatively affect your feelings of self-efficacy, but you're independently doing exactly what is right.  You're having real relationships with real people. You have no idea what an effect you're having on those children, but I can assure it is wholly positive. Don't forget that on the bad days. That's something that's real, that's the type of things you should take away with you when you go…”

Her words were the reminder I needed. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kind words and encouragement.

Meeting RPCVs!

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a professor from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who had done his Peace Corps service in Botswana in 1990-91. He was coming to Botswana for the first time since he finished his service and wanted to meet Peace Corps Volunteers in the area. He would be traveling with two friends, one who was a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Rwanda and the other who is working for USAID in Pretoria. Of course I wanted to meet them and a number of other PCVs in the area joined me in the excitement.

A group of PCVs came to my house on Friday afternoon in hopes of meeting them, unfortunately a bout of stomach sickness kept them from meeting up with us then. We were disappointed, obviously, but understood - stomach issues are not to be messed with around here! The following morning, however, we received a phone call that all were well again and that they had a few hours before they had to head back to Pretoria and we could meet! Much of the group from the day before had gone back to their villages, but Kristen and I had ventured to Moshupa for the Red Cross Society's OVC party so we were able to coordinate! 

Over a delicious Pakistani feast made by our friend Azmat,  Kristen, Virginia, and I got the opportunity to meet with Stephen (RPCV Botswana), Andy (RPCV Rwanda), and Joe (USAID). It was one of the most uplifting and exciting things that has happened to us (and we all agreed that it was among our favorite experiences since coming to Botswana). Hearing their stories, seeing photographs, and getting advice about service and life after was really inspiring. Not only that, they all looked back on their Peace Corps experience fondly and believed it to be something that positively impacted their lives. They were kind and thoughtful and just meeting them made all three of us feel more settled about our time here. I feel very blessed for having that time with them.

And, of course, FRIENDS!

Even more than usual, my Bots 10 family has gone above and beyond to be there for me (and each other). I am so grateful for them. They have reached out to help me with issues at my site, to show their support, to have a little fun, and to plan even more great adventures. I love you all more than words can say. "Blame it on Bots 10"... because we really are that awesome.

Nothing beats time spent with good friends... and the Kgosi of Moshupa. Ridiculous.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Beyond Acceptance To Action

I had a seemingly rough day yesterday. I was processing. And processing is almost always hard. There were a lot of things to mull through about my life, my work (or lack of work) in Botswana, my (idealistic) beliefs and hopes for the next 18 months, and what I'm going to do about it. How does a person make sense of all of that? I mean, it's a lot and, to be honest, it's a lot more than any one person can have jurisdiction over.

When I need to deal with this mass of issues, no amount of talking will suffice. This is a lesson I learned after my dad died. I learned that I deal with the difficult things best when I'm left alone and given time to think. So, yesterday, I did just that. I meditated, I did yoga, I sat, I read old sermons by Rabbi Will Berkovitz (like this one: "Notebooks"), I watched Almost Famous, I read quotes, and then I pieced it all together.

Victor E. Frankl said that "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." I believe those words. I need to embody them. I needed to have yesterday. I needed a day to process and to decompress and to get to the point where Frankl's words were not only beautiful but applicable to me. Because they are.

I am not sure that any great change will come from my counterpart but that is okay. I did not come to Botswana with the intention to help him run an organization better, but rather with the passion and the drive to help orphans and vulnerable children live a better life. They are my reason for being here. I want to help those kids thrive in whatever way I can. I can get creative and do just that. True, the situation I'm in outright stinks. There really is no other way to put it. I shouldn't have been put in an organization that was crumbling fast but I was and I can't change that. The only thing I can change is my attitude and my response to the situation. (Plus, do I really want this dream of mine to diminish because a couple of people can't get their act together? No way! This is my dream to live out!) So here I go. I am going to dig down deep, take the love and support of my friends and colleagues, and try to "build something from nothing". I am committed to helping these kids every bit as much today as I was on the day I left. I need to rid myself of the confines holding me back and see what I can do on my own here. The kids deserve that much. And, you know what? So do I.

My Simple Joys

In light of my post yesterday, which aptly proclaimed my lack of happiness, I thought I should also show the other side. For me, it's very simple. My essence of happiness in Botswana are Bofelo, Bokena, and Bolt. Time spent with them are among my happiest moments here.

I just spent almost an hour hugging the three of them. I think they could tell that I have been upset because they literally grabbed on and didn't let go until I had finished shedding some tears and a smile crept back on my face. Bless them and their great big hearts.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Towards Acceptance? An Analysis of My Happiness

As a general rule, I am a happy person. Unfortunately, I am not happy. That does not mean that I am unhappy but rather that I am not living in a state of happiness. That is not to say that I don't have happiness in my life right now because I do. Every time the kids come over to play or I get a message from home or I go on a uniquely African adventure, I feel joy. But it is no secret that I have been unfulfilled in many aspects of my work here. I have been searching for meaning, knowing full well that I may never realize the full impact of things I am doing and that if I am able to help one person that should be enough. Even still, with a closed NGO, a counterpart that isn't interested in putting forth the effort to reopen, and the knowledge that hundreds of orphans and vulnerable children in my village are going without the care and services they need, I have had great difficulty finding comfort.

I have spent more than my fair share of days confined to my house trying to work through all of my thoughts and find some semblance of resolution. Recently, I have become rededicated to my own yoga and meditation practice, which has helped me let go of myself and examine this experience more clearly with the hope of finding comfort here. In this quest, I have realized many things. Among them: I know that I have little control over situations and that I must be patient. I have realized that sometimes even my passion and steadfastness cannot bring change and that it requires dedication of the masses (and not everyone truly cares). I have discovered failure and frustration and resignation and hope and disappointment and small victories. I also know that, despite everything, I am one of the lucky ones.

I long for something more because I have felt happiness and love and security and abundance. I know that the world is great and that more exists. I am surrounded by people, however, that have not realized these things. (And, even for those who know, they cannot imagine themselves in that world.) I have befriended orphans that never knew what a hug was or that snow exists. They cannot fathom the world as I know it. My happiness has been born of things that are foreign to them. I am grateful for my experiences and for my life.

If my end goal is solely to find comfort, then I can accept this new state of consciousness and recognize that I have been blessed and that I will get the chance to return to all those things that embody my happiness. I have the opportunity for this when others may never get it. This, in and of itself, is something that I struggle with every day. I often ask myself "Would I be happier right now if I never knew everything that existed and the great potential in the world?" I don't know. Maybe I would be more content in the nothingness. I doubt it though.

What it all boils down to is this: I would happily give up all of the comforts of home for the opportunitiy to help others, which is why I embarked on this journey to begin with. And, while it's true that I am grateful for the joyful moments here, I will forever doubt that I could be truly happy when I know there is something more I could be doing to help people. That desire comes from something within me that I cannot silence. But how can I help if I am in a place and in a situation that cripples me? I have a lot to offer and I want to give of myself to the cause here - I am constantly trying and being unable to do anything. I feel trapped and as if my efforts are fruitless and unwanted. How can I find happiness, or even contentment, in an existence like that? And therein lies my problem.

After the fact thoughts: The problem with being in this state is that "the smile" is gone. It's as if my sense of balance has dissipated and the little joys aren't enough to bring me back to center. You can't have happiness without sadness or work without play. My universe right now is very one-dimensional. And, unfortunately, it's primarily in the realm of dissatisfaction. I hope to find my equilibrium again.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Kums Kids: Bofelo

Introducing... Bofelo!

Bofelo is Bokena's brother. He is a few years older than Bokena (maybe around 10). When I first met Bofelo, I thought he was very shy. He didn't try to talk to me and didn't engage very much with the other children. I attributed this to the fact that many of the other children picked on him and his sister because they are very poor orphans. After some time, I learned that it is because Bofelo is deaf.

Acknowledgement of disabilities is new in Botswana. People are finally recognizing them and making allowances for that. As such, schools, programs, and organizations have started to spring up to assist people with disabilities. Thanks to the hard work of a diligent missionary in the village and efforts made by my NGO in years past, Bofelo is able to attend one of these schools.

Bofelo goes to the nearby village of Ramotswa (about 50km away from Kumakwane) to go to a special school that will cater to his being deaf. The school, as I understand it, is being paid for by the Botswana government, which is how Bofelo is able to attend. I have not had a chance to go to the school to find out more about his life there, the education program, or to learn about Tswana Sign Language (or maybe they use ASL?!) but I am grateful that programs exist to help kids like Bofelo.

Sadly, because the other kids are not exposed to sign language or to many other deaf children, I have noticed that when Bofelo returns to the village during school breaks, he has to deal with the same bullying and lack of communication. He is so sweet though and goes into the world with a great big smile. His positive attitude is one of the things I love most about him.

Bofelo has learned to adapt. The more time I spend around him, the more I see how he is growing. He is no longer the shy kid around me. We have developed our own way of communicating and we understand one another. I am trying to model that behavior for the other children with the hope that they will follow suit. I think it may be working. He plays games with the other kids, not just his siblings, and is so excited when they all interact together. I truly believe that the kids are starting to understand him, respect him, and appreciate him as much as I do.

Monday, December 5, 2011

We Remember... I Will Try To Fix You ♥

Loss is hard. Anyone who has lost someone important to them knows the pain, the longing, and the confusion that accompanies it. I, for one, know it all too well.

Today my family had to say goodbye to someone we love. Being half a world away makes it hard to mourn and to share the burden of the loss. I am so sad that I cannot be there to hug my mom, my aunt and uncle, and my cousins. On days like today, being far from home is ever the more difficult. I wish I could be with my family. I wish I could look them in the eyes and express my deepest sympathy and sorrow. I wish they could see that I hurt too and they are not alone. When there is a loss of this magnitude, when the world says goodbye to such a wonderful soul, a hole is left in our hearts. There is definitely one in mine.

In honor of this loss and the many others that resonate with us, I want to impart the following passage, which I hope will bring some comfort...

"We remember now, 
those with whom we shared, 
those that gave us strength, 
those we cherished, 
those we loved...

In the rising of the sun, and in its going down, we remember them. 
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them. 
In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them. 
In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them. 
In the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them. 
In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them. 
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them. 
When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them. 
When we have joys we yearn to share, we remember them. 
So long as we live, they, too, shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them."

May those who we have lost rest in eternal peace and may we find the strength to carry on and bring a piece of them with us... everywhere.

Until that day, I am here for you... ♥

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Baby Blessings!!!

A few hours ago I heard scrambling outside and a dog crying. Now, dog cries are not really unusual here but, for some reason, the sound concerned me ("maternal instincts" perhaps) and I had the thought in the back of my mind that "my" dog, Puppy, might be having her babies (her pregnant tummy had really ballooned over the last few days but I wasn't sure when her "due date" was so I didn't necessarily have cause for concern but that was where my mind wandered). I looked out the window to see what was going on and I saw Puppy trying to get to something behind a pile of bins and buckets and poles that are by the work shed on my compound. She looked frantic so I grabbed my flip flops and ran out there. As I approached the rubbish, I heard the faint sound of baby puppies. (Holy smokes, could I be right?!) Climbing over paint cans and a variety of other things, I saw a pile of newborns. I started moving everything out of the way and Puppy went running to their side. A few of them looked as though they weren't breathing and I reached for them, half expecting Puppy to get upset and growl at me but not knowing what else to do. She didn't get upset, in fact she looked really relieved I was there. I started cleaning them off and gently stroking them, hoping they would start to make some sort of sound to indicate they were alive, as a few of the others were doing. One by one they started making noises. I cleared some more things out of the way and Puppy nestled next to them and the puppies began moving towards her to feed. I found more puppies underneath things and lodged between cans - they were everywhere. I counted eight in total.

After being sure that they were all collected, alive, and feeding, I went to check on mama dog. She was starting to settle down from the fright and began to lick her babies and also my hand as I gave her and her babies pets on the head. No one was around and I wasn't sure what to do but everyone seemed okay so I was feeling pretty good at this point. After some time, I began to make them a shelter in a safer place on the compound in between the shed and the house. I moved a little dog house in and covered the ground with blankets and sheets. (Bye bye spare set of sheets!) I brought in a dish of water and two huge handfuls of dog treats for Puppy to munch on. When everything was ready, I put the eight little ones into a basket and carried them carefully into the new shelter area, mama dog right behind me. The whole clan nestled into their new home and seemed very comfortable. Phew!

Mama and babies are now happy and resting and oh so precious. Everyone seems to have made it! I have been going outside to check on them every half hour or so... Will I continue running back and forth to check on them for the next who knows how long? Yes, yes I probably will. Am I okay with that? ABSOLUTELY! I am such a proud mama right now! :)

A Message from a Friend

I get my fair share of really great letters and emails from friends. Most have messages of encouragement, support, and love. I have a special file that I store them in so I can go back and reread them when I need to hear those words again. They are among the most special things to me these days. I received one yesterday that I wanted to share because it really resonated with me and because I think it will help shed some light as to what it's like to work in global development. She articulated it so well. (Note: I have omitted the personal things and left only those that are pertinent so the following email has been modified from the original.) Here is her message:

So I want to say a resounding THANK YOU to the giver of this letter and to all of my friends who are keeping in touch. I truly am grateful. Your support and your love mean more than you could possibly imagine.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Kums Kids: Bokena

Meet Bokena! She is my favorite of the village kids (but shhhhhh don't tell the others)! She was one of the first kids I met in Kumakwane and she stole my heart on our very first meeting. A little about her: Bokena is an orphan. She lives in a shanty hut with her brother, Bofelo, and her cousins, Goitsemodimo and Auntie. This group of kids is probably the most picked on in the village, primarily because they are among the poorest. I think Bokena is also picked on a lot because she is so sweet and doesn't stick up for herself. When I asked her how old she is she didn't know but I have learned that she's in standard one (kind of like first grade) so I can only assume she is around 7 or 8-years-old. Among her favorite things to do are color pictures, eat bread, watch Rainbow Bright, and do yoga. She also loves hugs. When I first met her, however, she didn't even know what a hug was. The first time I tried to give her one she stood stiff as a board and literally just stared at me with a look of confusion. Now when I put my arms out she comes running over and embraces me like she never wants to let go (which is alright by me because I absolutely adore her!). I think she was starved for affection before. One day while we were snuggling on the couch and watching Planet Earth, she saw snow and got really excited. In broken Setswana I learned that she wants to see snow some day. She is very inquisitive and always a joy to be around.

Introducing... The Kums Kids!

I have decided that I'm going to start a new group of posts that I'm calling "Kums Kids". Basically, I'm going to "introduce" you all to the Kumakwane village kids that I have befriended and who fill my days with arts and crafts, games of frisbee and catch, and cartoon hour. They are the breath of fresh air in this country and the ones who brighten my days. Each child has a story that will break your heart, warm your heart, and that you will carry in your heart forever.

This picture is of my "Kums Kids wall". It's the main wall in my house and it dons the pictures the kids have colored me. It started out as a way for me to learn their names - I would ask them to write their name on their picture before I would hang it up and then every time they would come over I would ask them to point out their picture and VOILA I would be reminded of their name! Now that I know them all and they spend almost every afternoon with me, the picture wall has turned into a gallery that they are proud of. The kids will come in and stare at it, they invite their friends to look at their art, and they will labor over their next great piece to go up. It's precious. (What will I do when those last two spots fill up?!)

I love my Kums Kids!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Peace Corps Botswana Time Continuum

Time does not make sense anymore. My fellow PCVs and I have discussed this ad nauseam and we all feel the same way. Basically, time is extremely peculiar here and seems to not exist in any sort of recognizable form. It feels like time goes on forever but, simultaneously, never changes. I truly don't feel like I have been here for eight months already (WHOA!) but I also feel like I have been away from home a very long time. It just feels like time is stagnant and we are stuck in this weird time continuum. Perhaps this is because our seasons are switched around so it feels backwards or because we don't have the usual markers of holidays and seasons (it's sunny about 360 days a year). Or, maybe, time really does stop in Peace Corps.

Rest In Peace Dex

Dex, named after the mischievous little monkey from Night at the Museum, passed away on December 1, 2011. Dex was only six months old. The cause of death is unknown but she was found in her home compound surrounded by her family. She was known best by those who loved her as a goofy little thing, the runt of the family, and sweet beyond comparison. She loved sitting on the couch, eating popcorn, and playing with her brother Bolt. Her happiest days were when she could go on adventures to the bus stop with her lekgoa. She is survived by her father, mother, and siblings. She will be missed by all. Rest in peace Dex.

Saying Goodbye to Another Friend

I have discovered that when I'm feeling overly emotional or introspective that I tend not to blog. This is probably to all of your benefit because I can only imagine that my thoughts would be chaotic and somewhat impulsive otherwise. So it is with that in mind that I am writing now.

It has been a long and arduous couple of weeks. I have gone back and forth between villages helping friends with their varying situations. For instance, I had one friend whose house was broken into. The culprit, an 18-year-old boy, had climbed onto the roof and entered her house through a hole he made in her ceiling. SCARY. And then I spent time helping another friend pack her things so she could go home.

Whenever we lose a member of our Bots 10 family, it is really hard. This loss was especially hard for me because it was one of my closest and dearest friends here. Her decision to leave is one that I support and I know it is the right choice for her. She had issues at her site, trouble with her counterpart, and a general feeling of being unfulfilled. To put it bluntly, she was unhappy. This sentiment is common among volunteers here and has played a roll in many of the 10 (soon to be 11) early terminations of service by my group mates. Peace Corps service is hard. Peace Corps service is made even harder when you have irreparable issues. And I truly believe that no one should live unhappily if they can do something about it. I am pleased that my friend is able to make a change that will hopefully bring her happiness. But, even though I support her and completely understand her reasons for going, it's hard to say goodbye to a support system and to someone so close to me. So it was with a sad heart that I helped her get ready to go.

Before she left, we talked a lot about the transition back to America and what that might look like. We both agreed that it would be hard. (I mean, we literally cried the first time we walked through a super market in the capital city together that had an international section with things like Captain Crunch and barbecue sauce!) And we agreed it would be overwhelming. Things like paved roads, options, temperature control, technology and appliances, and social interaction are not necessarily common to us anymore. Our Country Director told her in her exit interview that two of the hardest parts of returning home are (1) things and people haven't changed at all and (2) observing the sheer amount of consumerism that exists in the states. Over breakfast the morning she left, we discussed these things and what they mean. Things we pondered included: What happens to our relationships when we come back? Will we be put off or frustrated by our friends and family who don't understand what we have been through and seen/experienced? Will there be a rift in those relationships when we are faced with "unnecessary" or excess spending? Will we look at people differently? Will we be more or less tolerant? Will the frivolity of America make us uneasy or angry? What happens now? Soon she will be able to answer these questions.

My friend landed in America yesterday. We have had a few email exchanges already and so far she's overwhelmed. She said that things like artificial heat is messing with her body and that she's trying to get her bearings back. I'm excited to hear more about her transition back home. And I'm anxious about what life is going to be like here without her...

Miss you already tsala ya me!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

World AIDS Day 2011

Today is World AIDS Day. This is an important day around the world and one that is especially important to Peace Corps Volunteers in Botswana. Botswana has the second highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the world, with an estimated one-third of the population being infected. As such, each of us has been brought to this country to work on HIV/AIDS issues at a grassroots level in an effort to get to "zero new infections" by 2016. It is an issue that we have become passionate about and one that plagues our thoughts and motivates our actions. For me, that means working most directly with orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and in helping design programs to work with this demographic.

To learn more about HIV/AIDS in Botswana or the work that PCVs are doing, please click on the following links:

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

The holidays have a very different feel in Botswana. Mainly because they don't seem like they are happening at all. This reality has been met with mixed emotions for me (and many of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers) in that I am relieved since I don't actually feel as though I am missing the holidays at all and also sad because they are among my favorite times.

What is unique about the holiday experience here, however, is that we are able to share our traditions with host country nationals and celebrate in our own unique ways. For Thanksgiving, Peace Corps Volunteers around Botswana are having celebrations ranging from big elaborate potluck dinners to cleaning out the fridge and cooking whatever random assortment of foods happen to be there to putting on plays and hosting Batswana to teach them about American Thanksgiving. My holiday this year falls somewhere in the middle of all these options - I am having a low-key day of eating and drinking with two of my best friends here and all week I have been sharing about the holiday and why it is special (both historically and to me) with my counterpart and others from my village.

In my opinion, the most important part of Thanksgiving is the tradition of "giving thanks". In my home, we would go around the table and everyone would say something they were thankful for. I have reflected a lot lately on what I am thankful for. Among those things include: my health, new opportunities, media, perpetual optimism, smiles from the village kids, letters and packages from home, having internet access, booming thunder and three-dimensional skies, martinis, emails from friends, the dogs on my compound, coffee, learning to cook from scratch, and creating new friendships. These things have made this year so wonderful. This year, however, I am especially grateful for my family and friends. You have supported me, encouraged me, and loved me even from a half a world away. Your faith in me has helped me to see it myself and has given me the strength to keep going. Although I wish I could be with you this holiday season, I am content in knowing that we are there for one another and we are just a phone call or an email away. I love you so much!


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

American Pennies and Hellos

The magnitude of this post may not resonate with everyone that reads it but, for my family, it will have a lot of meaning so I will spare everyone the backstory and just say what happened...

I designated today "washing day", meaning I was going to run through the process of hand washing and line drying all of my clothes, towels, etc. This is an all day event that is normally painstaking, monotonous, and decidedly unappealing. But today was different. Why? Because every time I went back to the clothes in my bathtub I saw a penny - an American penny heads up. 

The first one was in my load of underwear. It was just sitting there in the water. I was perplexed by the discovery but didn't think much of it and just moved the penny to the windowsill. After finishing that load, I started in on my second. After the shirts had been soaking for some time, I went back to rinse them and found the second penny heads up sitting on the side of the bathtub. On the side of the tub! I looked to see if the first penny had somehow fallen but no it was still on the windowsill. I picked up the second penny and put it next to the first. And just now, when I went to take the last load of laundry out to dry on the line, a third American penny was sitting in the middle of the tub heads up! Whoa!

Obviously American pennies are not common here. Why would they be? This is Botswana. I don't even have any pennies of my own anymore because I gave all of my American coins to my little host sister at the end of homestay. So where did these come from? All I have to say is HI DADDY!

Constant Rededication

I have to confess that there were a few hours last night when the thought of going home seemed like a pretty good idea. These moments are few and far between for me but, when they happen, they are usually brought on by hard news from home, learning that another fellow PCV is going home, or a close examination of all the difficulties here. Even my perpetual optimism and idealistic outlook about life cannot always keep the hard times at bay. Last night's episode was brought on by all of these scenarios.

Every day here is different. Some days feel like they are dragging on for years and others seem to fly by. One day can feel absolutely hopeless and then be followed up by a day when everything is in your favor. And one moment you're playing happily with the village kids and the next you're hiding under a table because you just want one moment of silence. It can feel like being a yo-yo. 

The unfamiliarity of being so far from home and cut off from people and things and outlets is hard. And then not being able to get away at a moment's notice because you have to wait an hour for a bus that may or may not stop or calculate the time it takes to get from one point to another and back home before dark makes things even harder. And then there's the deep unspoken but always looming questions about what would you do if something happens to a loved one at home or if what you are doing will make any impact at all or why you are going through all of this? It's a challenge sometimes. Your head can get clouded and your heart can pull you in a thousand different directions. It makes you question things.

I wanted to share this with you because it is not all wonderful and jealous-worthy (although some of it truly is!). I have my doubts about the process, Peace Corps, my role, all of it. I am not always sure what the right thing to do is and it's hard to know if it is better to stay here or to go home. But this thought process is part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer and we all go through it. It requires constant rededication to ourselves and to our work. And, in the end, I have a very profound belief that there is potential for good and that I can make something positive come of my service. (Maybe I already have?) "To save one life is to have saved the world." So, at least for now, I'm staying put and staying (re)dedicated.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Skeletor: Creature from Hades

I have told you all before about the creepily large (six inches or more) spiders that adorn my walls here in Botswana. They are fast, they are flat, they are hairy, they are a wee be scary looking, but most importantly they are harmless. So ga go na mathata, right? Right! Well, my friends and fellow followers, they are not the only creature that lurks our homesteads. No siree. The creature I'm about to tell you about is real and trolling the sandy paths of Botswana...

What you see before you is a "camel spider." We have not-so-affectionately started calling him SKELETOR due to its villainous appearance and satan-like ways! There is no way around it, this guy is terrifying! I was told about the "devil's pet" by the guy that I replaced from Bots 8 and then I had the horrifying story validated by my village mate, Mary, from Bots 9. I didn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. How could something like this actually exist?! So what did I do? I did research. Oh boy do I wish I hadn't because what I learned was worse than I could have imagined... The skeletor is this: a half spider and half scorpion that has a running speed of approximately 10mph, "screaming" when it reaches that maximum speed, and literally munches (not bites) its prey (which are said to be small rodents). They come in all sizes, from just a few inches long to larger than a hand (like the one pictured here). I kid you not, these creatures from the underworld are goons! 

Fortunately, to date, I have not had one come into my house (knock on wood) but I have encountered them in various other locations, specifically at Mary's house which is only five doors down. The site of them careening across the room usually sends us screaming and running in all directions. If you can hear me scream all the way in America, I am probably being gobbled up by a skeletor. Please send help.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Surreal Moments

Peace Corps service is full of surreal moments. We often say to ourselves "Holy smokes I live in Africa!" or "That is a real live giraffe walking in front of me!". They usually come on as ah-ha moments and are followed by a wave of emotion. These are the times when we feel so grateful and so excited and so bewildered about being in Botswana.

When I woke up this morning, I was overcome by one of those moments. It wasn't what I expected though. It was about a surreal moment I had about seven and a half months ago... 

It was 5:30am on March 31st at the Spokane International Airport when I was saying my "see you laters" to my mom and walking up the ramp towards security. I remember feeling so many things that seemed in contest with one another. Looking back at my mom's face full of tears and not wanting to walk away from her but also being so excited about what was ahead of me that I wanted to run and get it. Having to fight back my own tears of both sadness and happiness at what I was about to do. The desire to stay locked in that moment forever but also the urge to push forward. It was the start of this adventure - an adventure that has brought me here, to have so many more emotion-filled and surreal moments. It's something I will never forget.

The surreal moments are what make Peace Corps service so special. They are the memories that we will always hold dear. They are the smiles, the tears, the wonder, and the exhilaration that carries us through. They are a reminder of the risks we have taken. And they are the moments that remind us what really matters.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Towards A Bright New Future

Good news folks! It seems as though the staff at the NGO (in particular the Center Coordinator) has finally realized the severity of the situation we are facing (i.e. the organization is closed) and is trying to do something about it! After all my calls and text messages and guilt-ridden pleas, I received a visit from my counterpart yesterday afternoon to discuss and start working on a proposal (that he identified)! Not only that, but he stayed and worked on it with me for an hour! He was motivated, took initiative, and seems poised to keep the momentum going!

After he left, I spent another couple hours doing all that I could on the proposal and getting it ready to be submitted early next week. All that I need now is for my counterpart to verify a couple statistics (which he has informed me he will do over the weekend) and we are good to go!

Could this be the start of a bright new future for the NGO? Dare I do a happy dance? Yes, I do. Three cheers for small victories and glimmers of hope!

Friday, November 11, 2011

On My Way to 100!

As a general rule, Peace Corps Volunteers read a lot. I would guess that we read, on average, about a book per week. We share books, we discuss our favorites, we try to get host country nationals to read, we start and participate in book drives and the international book project, we read to kids, and so on.

I recently shared about the book club I started in my village. I am pleased to announce that since our first meeting, the group has grown to include more PCVs and Batswana. Our book for the month is going to be Kathryn Stockett's The Help, which I am sure will elicit captivating conversation and new perspectives as we each share our insights from a variety of different backgrounds. I couldn't be happier that the book club is growing in interest and becoming something that people are excited about.

Peace Corps Volunteers around the world have also issued a challenge to read 100 books during their service. A number of volunteers, myself included, have decided to take this challenge a step further and say that the 100 books must be from Dr. Peter Boxall's 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list. (Thank you to a friend of mine for providing me with media files of all of these books, which I have transferred to my Kindle!) This means that we will read an assortment of the books from the list in addition to the books that we read about Africa and the impact of HIV/AIDS here (which are invaluable to our understanding of the issues and to the success of our service). If you feel so inclined (and I hope that you are), you are invited to join me from your respective corner of the world in this reading challenge!

Happy reading!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Project Ups and Downs

Things at my NGO are relatively stagnant right now, despite having received that grant a week ago. There have been no preparations made yet towards re-opening the preschool or the OVC center, even though we now have funding for petrol and food for the kids. (In fact, I have written an entire volunteer policy and contract using Botswana's employment law policies so we would be ready for when we opened back up but no one in the agency has reviewed it yet, let alone started implementing it. Things here take far too long for my liking sometimes.) Not only that but for the last few weeks, even months, I have been having trouble getting the Center Coordinator to sit down and strategize for proposals with me, thus making it even more difficult to get back to full programming. We have a lot of opportunities, however, in the way of potential funding from UNICEF, the Embassy of Japan, and a number of other foundations and domestic organizations. We should be going after them now (now now) but there has been little movement in that direction. What does this mean for me and my idealistic pursuit to help the kids of Kumakwane? Well, I have decided that I am going to push on and get it while the gettin's good (or so they say)! What I mean is that I'm going to start designing programs that I believe will be beneficial for the orphans, vulnerable children, and youth in the village and then write proposals to fund those programs and then implement them with fellow PCVs and community members who also believe in the programs (and hopefully with the support of the NGO staff). For example, I have a vision to put on an OVC retreat and a youth leadership workshop. I am also starting to work with another PCV to get a playground built for the orphans and other kids that stay in my ward in the village so they have someplace to go and to play. There is a lot that we can do here if people are motivated to see things through. And I am motivated. So it seems that when one door closes (in this instance the doors to the NGO) another one opens (opportunities to do even more). Just another example of the extreme highs and lows and frustrations and potential of Peace Corps service...