Sunday, April 24, 2011

Taking it a step further: Multi-Cultural Exchange

I decided about a week ago that if I have to learn a new language so does my host family. So I have started teaching my host siblings Spanish. Yup, that's right, my host family says everything in three languages now - Setswana, English, and Spanish! It's been a lot of fun and we laugh really really hard at ourselves all the time. And then, in a few weeks, I am going to take this multi-cultural exchange a step further and make them some Mexican food and have a fiesta! Ole!

Driving: Botswana's Extreme Sport

Driving is an extreme sport in Botswana. Every time I get in the car I fear for my life and deliberately have to distract myself from the near-death experience that will almost certainly occur. First of all, people drive on the opposite side of the road from what we are used to in the United States. That, in and of itself, is scary because I live in existential fear that we are going to collide with an oncoming car. And, honestly, this fear is somewhat warranted because the Motswana drive wayyyyy too fast and they "overtake" (i.e. pass) cars just for fun. Literally. And the overtaking is frightening in that they will be inches away from the car they're passing and the next oncoming car. Add the donkeys and cows and chickens and goats that line the roads and could jump out at any moment and it is kind of like living in a game of Frogger. I am grateful that Peace Corps doesn't let us drive, wary every time we have to get in a car to go someplace, and excited that we get to see another part of Botswana simultaneously when I see a car. I never thought I could be so scared and so excited about vehicles at one time.


In the home where I am staying, we take bucket baths. What this means is that we warm water over an outside fire, which we bring inside and pour into a basin to bath in. Now, I’m not a very big person so I do actually fit inside the bath basin but I just barely fit and, honestly, the two inches of water to bath with are hardly conducive to achieving any genuine state of cleanliness (perhaps that’s why people bath twice a day here?).  Nevertheless, this is how bathing is done in my home in Kanye (and many homes like mine here) so I am bound and determined to make the most of it.

Bathing is not easy and it has taken a bit of an adjustment. All of us trainees have discussed bathing failures and successes in hopes of shedding light on the most effective ways to bath. Yes, folks, it is kind of like childhood all over again!

The other day I got home from a long and tiring day of sessions and all I wanted was a hot shower, my sweatpants, and a bed. No, this cannot be my reality anymore, so I set out to start a fire to warm water for a bucket bath… definitely not what I wanted to be doing at that moment but oh well. And then, SURPRISE, my bucket bath felt great and was exactly what I needed! Success! (Now, let me re-define “success” as I washed my hair (leaning over the basin and scooping water from my bucket onto my head) and I felt somewhat clean and refreshed.) I was reveling in this success when all of the sudden it dawned on me (mid-drying off) that my back was basically dry meaning that it hadn’t actually gotten washed and my bucket bath wasn’t “successful” after all. For a moment I felt defeated, like my sense of success in bathing meant nothing. Boo! Here I was feeling refreshed and happy about my bath when I wasn’t even all that clean… and then I decided to consider my bathing experience a success anyway. I mean, I feel good, I feel clean, my spirits were lifted, and does it really matter if my back is clean (I can’t see it and it’s covered by a shirt right?)? Why oh why would I take that away from myself just because I realized my back might not actually be clean for the next two years? My legs were shaved after nearly a week’s hiatus, my hair was washed and, I believe, at least most of the shampoo and conditioner was out… Yes, this bath was a success!

As you can see, my view on success is slowly changing but I think that’s ok. I mean, heck, simple pleasures and small victories, right?! Oh Botswana, how I love you!

Friday, April 22, 2011

First Language Proficiency Test on Monday

I have my first language proficiency test on Monday, code name LPI. Basically that means that we get interviewed by one of our Motswana staff members and they assess our Setswana acquisition thus far. Now, let me say that Setswana (the language spoken in Botswana) is a Bantu language and it is not easy (and unlike the romance languages we are used to studying in the US). We are working really hard each day to learn as much Setswana as possible, but, at the same time, we have been having a lot of fun practicing the language with alliteration (i.e. "Baithaupi ba ba botlhales ba a bereka", meaning "The intelligent volunteers are working")! The combination of games, coursework, and dialogue with peers, staff, and community members has really helped us learn the language. Although we are finally able to carry on brief conversations and are starting to use Setswana more comfortably, we had a review during one of our four hour sessions today and I have to admit that I am a bit intimidated... It's time to get down to business and study study study!

The Skies and Storms of Botswana

I wish I could describe the skies in Botswana in a way that could paint an appropriate picture. The skies are unlike anything I have ever seen before. The colors are vibrant and rich beyond comparison and the stars and clouds alike seem to jump out at you. They are truly beyond words. I have been trying for nearly three weeks to capture a picture worthy to share but have not been able to do it justice. If you ever get the chance to come to Africa, do so if for no other reason than the skies (although the people are so welcoming and wonderful and worthy of meeting on their own too). The only thing that could possibly compare to the skies are the storms.

Since I have been in Botswana it has rained a handful of times. The rains are magnificent. They come out of nowhere and fall heavy on you as if buckets were falling from the clouds.  But when the rains turn into storms, they are deafening and unbelievable. Coupled with the pounding rain (made even louder by the tin roofs that are on the majority of homes here) is the loud crack of thunder. Looking out over Kanye, all you can see is shadows through the rain and then the thunder roars before miles of darkness light up as lightening flashes. For someone who likes storms, this is really a sight to behold. It is intense and truly almost magical. About a week ago, I had the “privilege” of being caught out in one of these storms.

After hearing that one of our fellow trainees was going home to deal with a family emergency, a group of us decided to cheer ourselves up with a tasty dinner and a Botswana brew at our little hang out after the day’s sessions. It gets dark here around 6:30 so we were trying to unwind but also be quick so we could head home when we starting hearing the rumbling in the distance and saw the dark clouds starting to cover the sky. We were about an hour walk away from our ward when the storm started. None of us could see anything until the lightening would strike. Honestly, we were still getting a feel for where the roads and paths led us and in the darkness it was almost impossible to know if we were going in the right direction – but we needed to get home and there was a sense of urgency (and adventure) in the trek. We were somewhat lost, we were drenched, and we needed to be home. One by one our host families started calling us, worried about us being out in the dark and in the storm. After some time, a combi drove by and we hitched a ride back to our ward’s kgotla (traditional meeting place) before making a run for it towards home – knee deep in the water that had already accumulated on our paths and absolutely soaked. When I finally got home, my hair was pin straight from the weight of the rain and I literally had to wring out my clothes into my bathing bucket (which remained wet for days). This was the sort of experience we envisioned in joining the Peace Corps. It was an experience to be remembered and we were so happy to be out in the storm.

The skies and the storms – breathtaking and so much fun!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Conversations with my host brother - cultural exchange and so much more

Like I have mentioned before, my family doesn't have television or radio, which seems to be a rarity for the Bots 10 homestays. Some days I wish I could sit down and watch "Generations" (a South African soap opera) or "My Star" (Botswana's version of American Idol) and just zone out and escape for a while. But then I remember why I'm here and why we do homestays for PST - to learn about Botswana, its culture and its people, before we head out to our permanent sites. In thinking about this, I feel fortunate not to have these things because it means that I have no distractions and can just sit and talk with my host family.

My host family and I have gotten very close in the past few weeks. We talk about a lot, from the cultural differences (and similarities) between America and Botswana to what our interests are. We are constantly learning things and my family has been amazing at teaching me about the culture and traditions of Botswana, so much so that I usually already have talked to my family about topics discussed in our cross-culture sessions beforehand. This dialogue has happened most often with one of my host brothers.

This host brother and I have gotten really close because we spend so much time together. He hangs out with me and my fellow trainees on weekends and we often make dinner together during the week. Because of this, we have had the opportunity to talk about a lot of things, including a lot of things that seem to be somewhat unusual topics in Botswana.

One such conversation centered around relationships - what it's like to come of age in a very traditional Botswana, what dating is like, broken hearts, and the ominous HIV/AIDS discussion. By the end of our multi-hour conversation, we had both learned a lot about the other person's perspective. We were open, honest, and surprisingly comfortable having this discussion. What really struck me by the whole conversation, though, was that my host brother thanked me at the end of it. He clarified his "thanks" by letting me know that he has wanted to talk to someone about all these things for a very long time but that he never felt he could because societal and cultural norms say it's "taboo" to openly discuss such things. He said he was relieved to have someone in his life that he could talk to and trust and who could understand what he was talking about without having to say everything or feel awkward.

This conversation is why I came to Africa. I came to create relationships with people and have conversations like this one. I want to show people that there are other ways of doing things and that it is okay to talk to people about things like this. It is normal and acceptable and not something to be feared. It is important to face these conversations and issues in order to create change, especially when dealing with HIV/AIDS. Maybe this one conversation can change a statistic or save a life. Maybe it just changes a perspective or spurs another conversation and causes a ripple effect. I know it inspired me to remain open, honest, and willing to keep sharing.

Insight from my youngest host brother

One of the first things that trainees were taught in coming  to Botswana is that everyone greets people. Literally everyone exchanges hellos and smiles when passing. I think it's great because you are interacting with people, getting to know your neighbors, and becoming part of the community. Part of what makes this so great for all of us during PST is that we get to practice our Setswana. Common greetings is to say "Dumela Rra/Mma" and then ask how they are doing ("O tsogile jang? or "O kae?" or some variation). When we say these things, the Batswana laugh and laugh and smile and laugh! Normally this would seem to be a deterrent and we wouldn't want to keep trying for fear of saying things incorrectly or being embarrassed. I told this to my youngest host brother the other night and he laughed and laughed and smiled and laughed at me... again. And then he gave me this insight: "You can't laugh if you're not happy!" Basically, he said, the Batswana are just so happy that we're trying and that we're learning. Sooooo ke leka Setswana!

A Quick Rundown on Homestay in Kanye

If I were to write a blog post about staging and orientation, it would go something like this: “I woke up early on March 31st to go to Philly, was given a lot of information, got some shots, and met my group of fellow trainees. We didn’t sleep much during the two days of staging and we slept even less during the nearly 30 hours it took us to get to Botswana, and possibly even less during orientation in Gaborone. It was an exciting time for each of us and I can hardly describe the emotions of it all. We all cheered nervously when we landed in Africa and immediately leaned on each other for support. (And, yes, everyone’s baggage was delayed for a few days!)” Because that is somewhat dry, a bit vague, and (frankly) not as interesting as the life I’m leading right now during pre-service training (PST), I have decided to forego talking about those things and get down to the nitty gritty about my life in Kanye, Botswana.

Our classes consist primarily of Setswana language training, cultural awareness programs, safety and security sessions, and HIV/AIDS education. I’m learning a lot! But, honestly, the real training and adjustment is coming outside of the classroom and in the reality of living in Botswana. This is most prominent in my homestay.

What is homestay? Well, homestay is the period of time during PST where you live with a local family and become completely immersed in the language, culture, and life of a Motswana. For many of us, it is a fairly trying time because we are still getting our bearings and figuring out our place here, which complicates things. It's different than traveling or studying abroad or any other experience I have had because we are living here. The biggest, and probably the most immediately trying, difference is in the actual physical structures of our homes.

My home is located in the Mafikana ward of Kanye (wards are kind of like districts or areas within the village - in Kanye there are four). It is nice but very modest. I live in the main house on a compound with three houses. The two other houses are occupied by renters, one is a student in Kanye and the other is a man from Zimbabwe. The houses are made of concrete and, at least in my case, does not have individual ceilings on the rooms (which is fine but it also means that when someone in the house wakes up then everyone in the house is waking up because sounds and light take over the whole house). We also have an outdoor pit latrine, which is reminiscent of an outhouse that goes into a hole in the ground. Our pit latrine is very clean and I haven't minded it much. We have electricity but we do not have running water in our house. Instead, we have a water pump in the back of the property where we get water (unless the water turns off, which seems to happen during storms, as does the electricity). To warm the water, we make an outdoor fire, kind of like a camp fire, and boil the water over that. (If someone wants to send me smores stuff then I would love it because my family has never heard of such a thing and we're basically sitting around a camp fire every night!) We use this water for washing clothes by hand, for cooking, and to bathe. Since we don't have running water, we take bucket baths (which they call "bathing", like "bath"-"ing"). The Batswana bath twice a day, which I initially thought was odd (and something I would never do because I don't bath that often at home) but now I understand because it's hard to get clean bathing like that and you may as well bath again if you're fetching water to brush your teeth and wash your face anyway. Like I said, it's very modest living. We do not have television or radio in my home but I have heard from fellow trainees that those who have them always have them turned on and very very very loud! Although sometimes it would be nice to have a break and just veg out in front of the television, I am very grateful not to have it be a constant thing in my life and to have time to sit and talk with my family. (I'm learning so much from conversations with my host family so I consider myself lucky. More on this later.)

My homestay family consists of a mom, a dad, and four siblings (three brothers and one sister). My brothers are 24, 20, and 15 and my host sister is 11. My host dad works in the kgotla, where our ward's chief is. My eldest host brother lives in a nearby city where he's going to university for accounting. I have gotten very close with my 20-year-old host brother and have a blast with my other siblings. I am really lucky to have such a wonderful family. Of course it is hard learning to live with a new family, with its own ways of doing things (especially since these ways are completely different culturally), but we get along really well and are getting a lot from one another. (Including dance parties!)

Animals are EVERYWHERE and they are not penned up or confined. Literally it's donkeys and cows and chickens and goats and baboons and monkeys roaming all over the place. They say that donkeys crossing the road are one of the main causes of accidents in Botswana and I really wouldn't doubt it. Like I said, they just go where they want. I kind of like it to be honest. It's different and took some getting used to because, hey, it's weird to have to wait for donkeys to cross the street but I think it's really great. The dogs just bark and the roosters wake you up at 4:30 every morning. Kind of primitive, but mostly just amazing to see the freedom of it all.
I am constantly amazed by how much I am learning and seeing. My homestay, although it is not without challenges, is really wonderful. The people and the country of Botswana is beyond beautiful. I am so so happy to be here and, at the end of the day, feel very blessed.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ke bidiwa Kamogelo

At our homestay matching ceremony, we were each given a Setswana name. The names were carefully picked for us by our individual host families and, if we choose, will be what we are called throughout our service. My family named me "Kamogelo" (pronounced: Ka-mo-hay-lo, but with the deep throat sound on the front end of "hay", think the ch sound in Hebrew). My name means "You are welcome (here)". All names in Botswana mean something and are usually given to be a reflection of the addition to the family or as a message to the community. I am especially pleased with the meaning of my name, especially since coming to a new country can feel daunting at times. My name is reassurance that I am welcome in Botswana by my host family and, hopefully, the country. I am proud to don the name "Kamogelo" for the next two years.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ke rata Botswana thata!

I realize it has been a while since I have updated my blog and there is a lot that needs to be said and updated about in my nearly two weeks in Africa. Unfortunately, I don't really have the words to express everything just yet. I am learning a lot and trying so many new things and am trying to process what I'm seeing, doing, and experiencing. All I can say right now is that I know, without a doubt, that I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now. I am surrounded by inspiring and wonderful people (both my fellow trainees and the Batswana community), I feel empowered and challenged, and I am truly content right now.  I will try to expand on this over the weekend and post more specifics about where I am, what I am doing, and how it is all impacting me. I love you all and am so grateful for your emails, messages, and support. Sala sentle.