Thursday, August 25, 2011

Happy Birthday Daddy!!!

For those of you that don't know, my dad died on December 23, 2005. It's been almost six years since he passed away but not a day goes by that I don't think about him and wish he were here. Today, in particular, my thoughts go to him. Today would have been his 63rd birthday.

This is the first major family event that I am missing while in Africa. For the last few years, we have all gotten together on my dad's birthday to eat a good meal and make a toast to my dad and then share our favorite stories and memories. Even if we were having a hard time dealing with his absence, it was comforting to be around people I love and to be remembering all the things we loved so much about my dad. This year I am joining my family in this tradition in spirit from halfway across the world.

I am also being joined in celebrating my dad by my new Bots 10 family. They have sent me messages of love and support and offered a variety of different gestures all in memory of my dad. I have been so grateful for each and every person that has reached out today.

In fact, today has been a really wonderful day for me. I was a little worried since it had the potential to be very emotional. I am relieved and quite happy to say that it has been one of my better days in Botswana. (This is probably not a coincidence. I am sure my dad has some role in this somehow.)  My day started by waking up ten minutes before my alarm was schedule to go off. I felt rested - a rarity these days. I made myself a big cup of coffee and took a long hot bath. I had a physio appointment scheduled for today in Gaborone so, instead of going into the office, I wandered to the bus stop with all three of my compound dogs following close behind me. I recognized people as I walked down the earthen road and was greeted with big smiles and waves. I had a nice chat with a man at the bus stop and then caught a really wonderful hitch into Gabs. The man I had been talking with ended up paying for my ride without so much as a phone number request. It was just a nice, sincere gesture from a welcoming man. Then I got the front seat on the combi as it was about to pull out of the rank (this is HUGE because the combis get super packed and sometimes you're basically sitting on people's laps, plus the front seat gives you extra space). I got to my physio appointment about 30 minutes early because of all the wins with rides - I was prepared with my book (The Poisonwood Bible) so I was keen to sit and read in the waiting room. But just as I was getting comfortable, the doctor came out and said he could get me in early, which also left me with extra time for my appointment so I had a really long and wonderful massage. Afterwards, I went to one of the malls to get a mango smoothie and look for a pilates ball. Not only did I find one at the first store I went to but it was on sale and it came with a pump! (Those of you who know me, I'm sure you realize how happy this makes me! SALE!) Now I'm sitting in my living room, the smell of fresh baking bread filling my house, and listening to some amazing music. I can hear children laughing in the distance and can see puppies playing in the yard. It's all so pleasant and welcoming and wonderful.

I'm in a good place now. This is incredibly comforting. To think back even a few weeks ago, I don't think I would have fared as well. I am stronger, happier, and more comfortable in where I am, who I am, and what lies before me. And I am grateful. All the bumps and hiccups and heartbreaks along the way have gotten me to this point. If I am honest, I think that was one of the lessons of my dad's life. His life was full of ups and downs, some things that were wonderful and hysterical and sad and difficult, and there definitely wasn't enough time. But he kept at it and tried new things and stopped to watch a sunset or to play with his kids. So that's what I'm going to do to honor him this year. I am going to seize the day, keep on truckin when things are tough, laugh at every juncture, and take time to embrace the moments because you never know when it's going to end.

Happy birthday daddy! We'll keep on rockin in your honor!

Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The past two weeks in Bots...

A lot has happened since my last post... It is time to catch you all up on my happenings in Botswana.

In-Service Training (IST):

For a week and a half I joined my fellow Bots 10ers in a neighboring village, Mogoditshane, for what is called in-service training. Basically what that means is we continue working on our language acquisition, delve deeper into cultural issues, and participate in skills training seminars on topics such as program design and implementation, proposal writing, and monitoring and evaluation. Unofficially, it is also a time when we can reconnect with other volunteers. This second part may have been the most beneficial part of IST for me. I say this because it was an opportunity to talk with my colleagues about their experiences at site. In hearing everyone's stories, I was relieved to learn that many of us are having similar issues and dealing with the same emotions. The difficulty of working in a developing country, even one that is as seemingly progressive as Botswana, is evident in each of our stories. (Having cell phone coverage and electricity does not accurately indicate Botswana's state of development. It is merely a facade. Take this cover out of the equation and the reality is that Botswana is nascent. The challenges are very real and we have a lot to contend with and are being heavily impacted.) It was a time to share coping strategies, to learn from one another, to gain new skills and valuable insight, and then to let go of our worries and have a little fun too.

In addition to our classroom sessions, we saw movies, ate good food, drank cocktails, caught up on gossip and stories, sat in the sunshine reading magazines, watched television (mostly Animal Planet), and took long hot showers. It was all the things we had been missing out on for four months. Bonus: we were together. Although it was a little overstimulating (going from two months of solitude to constant interaction), it was so reviving to be among my friends. Along the way we have gotten closer and it truly felt like family as we roamed from room to room to visit one another. The last time we had been at that lodge, we had just arrived in country and were on our best behavior. Now we are just ourselves and that felt pretty perfect.

Also, we had another Language Proficiency Interview (LPI), which is a fancy term for language test. I didn't realize how much Setswana I had learned during lockdown. Being in my village and muddling through with the neighbor kids, the OVCs, and the rest of my community has really rubbed off on me. It felt good to be at a point where I can converse and be comfortable in Setswana. It also gave me some confidence and has encouraged me to push myself to use the language even more. Overall, not too shabby.


Seven puppies were born on my compound about a month and a half ago. They are ridiculously adorable and so so sweet. I've been documenting their growth through pictures and was absolutely shocked to see how big they got while I was gone at IST. They are adventurous and playful and extremely cuddly. (As I type this, there are puppies wandering into my house to explore and to get some quality snuggle time in.) They have been vaccinated and are ready to go to new homes. Three of Bots 10ers and one of the language teachers are adopting puppies so I will still get to watch them grow up over the next two years. So excited, so precious.

Local Artists and their Beautiful Work:

I went with a few friends to the neighboring village of Gabane a few days ago. There are a lot of signs on the main road for arts and crafts, pottery, local fruits, etc. I pass the village whenever I go to buy groceries and have always meant to stop and check it all out but hadn't yet so I was so excited when my visitors wanted to go too. We wandered through Gabane, stopping to greet villagers on our way to find the shops. Once there, we were welcomed by artists and potters and craftsmen alike all working on their particular trade. We got to watch as they threw local clay to make beautiful bowls and pitchers and various other sundries. It was a site to behold watching them create. (If anyone comes to visit, we will certainly be going there and you will undoubtably buy some amazing local art.)

Garden Project:

Yesterday I broke ground on a garden for the village OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) and people infected with HIV. The garden is about the size of a football field, has amazing soil (a rarity in Botswana), and should produce a lot of food to feed all those affected by and infected with HIV. To help me with the project, a rotation of friends from the Bots 10 group are coming to my village and putting in a few days at a time. They are joining me, a few members of my NGO's staff, and a flow of community members and children. We are all getting our hands dirty in an effort to help the Kumakwane community.

These past two days have been designing a plan for the plot, which will have eight 24'X24' plots (inside a covered area) and a small fruit tree orchard beside the enclosed structure. We also spent four painstaking hours digging the initial trench system to route the underground water source and irrigate the garden. By the time we were finished, we were covered in mud, our hands blistered, and thoroughly exhausted. We are also invigorated because we are starting to see the potential come to life. Tomorrow we will plant the trees, continue digging trenches, and (hopefully) get a few beds in one or two of the plots ready for planting.

The garden is going to be a huge undertaking and it will probably take months to get it entirely put together but, in the end, it's something that will last and will sustain those in need. It's something viable, substantial, and impactful.

Evening of Cultural Exchange:

Before last night, I had never been to a bar in my village. (Actually, I'm never out after dark because the Peace Corps scared the bejesus out of us... unnecessarily it seems.) But yesterday I saw a sign on a bar that I've been curious about since I moved to site (it has monkeys painted on the side and picnic tables) that was advertising "Jazz" starting at 4pm. Having four Bots 10ers with my to work on the garden project, we decided we had strength in numbers and would venture out to check out the jazz. Everyone stared at us when we walked into the compound (read: large fenced yard reminiscent of a beer garden) and we made our way to the bar (aka one-room house with a bar and a few fridges). We ordered drinks (in Setswana) and went outside to listen to the DJ playing local music. Everyone was dancing around and sitting at tables talking among their friends. The occasional person would come over and introduce themselves to us and chat for a little while. It was cordial, comfortable, and really really nice (so unlike what we had been told).

I met a girl that was orphaned at six-years-old and who utilized services at my NGO as a child. We talked about what it's like to lose a parent, about her goal to visit another country some day, and her fears about the future. She is raising her young cousins who were orphaned. She's only 20. She has a dream of starting a small support group for youth to provide them with clothes and toiletries and help them come of age as an orphan. I am going to help her get started.

We met a handful of other people and then we got to watch traditional dance and listen to local music. It was a really fun time.

On our way home, we were walking down my earthen road when a truck suddenly went off the road and rolled into a ditch and onto its side. We ran over to see if the driver was okay and to help him get out of the vehicle. Within minutes there were four cars shining their headlights onto the rolled car and two dozen people all clambering to help. It didn't take long before the driver was out of the car, completely unharmed, and we started to work at getting the truck out of the ditch and back on the road. Everyone was calm as we brainstormed ways to move the truck, knowing that we could do it if we all worked together. And it did take all of us pulling and pushing and wrenching to get the truck back on the road but, about 45 minutes later, the man was heading home.

What inspired me most was how everyone came together, literally crawling out of the woodwork, to help. I have rarely seen such collectivism and community. It was a testament to the type of people the Batswana are. I felt pretty proud to be a part of this community last night. It's wonderful to be a part of something that is so unified, resourceful, and charitable.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Next Major Milestone: IST

Tomorrow I reach my next landmark on the Peace Corps Volunteer's journey: In-Service Training (IST). Tomorrow I will head to a nearby village to start two more weeks of training with Peace Corps. There I will be reunited with my Bots 10 family - we will share stories, impart our collective knowledge, and gain new skills through intensive training. We will be together for the first time in two months (which seems like an eternity when you went through something as bonding as PST together). And at the end of IST, we will officially be off of "lockdown". This means that we made it! We made it through our assessment phase and our period of relative isolation and now we can go explore this new world together. We accomplished something monumental and we can rejoice!

I am grateful to have gotten to this point. Of course, it wasn't without hardship but I believe it made me even more appreciative of where I am now. T minus 24 hours until the celebration begins!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Lost Art of Solitude

I am a social person. I like to be around people and I take great pride in my ability to make friends. I believe this to be an attribute of those who genuinely care. And I do. As such, I have seldom cherished solitude, preferring to surround myself with people and laughter and to-do lists of events. Being alone for an extended amount of time has seemed daunting. Silence, almost forbidden.

I have found silence to be a perfectly normal thing in Botswana. Despite the occasional (and acceptable) interruption or shout out requests for money or marriage, the Batswana are completely comfortable sitting in silence. They do not find it to be awkward or uncomfortable when they sit alone for hours on a Saturday or when there's complete silence in a jam-packed combi. When tasked with the same assignment, I have not fared as well. Sure, in brief stints I could handle it but definitely not prolonged "isolation", as it seemed to be. There has certainly been a learning curve.

I have mentioned that I have had "too much time to think" since coming to site. And that remains true - I have had ample time on my hands. But now that I am also busying myself with different projects at my site and having a sense of purpose, I am able to take a step back and examine this expanse of time more thoroughly and come to terms with it. It was not until recently that I became comfortable with solitude and, in fact, have really started to cherish my alone time. (Actually, I hardly feel alone anymore. I am my own company.) It hasn't been easy - it is in these moments that I have had to confront myself, make peace with myself, and truly become content - but I am grateful. I wanted to share with you all some of the blessings that I have received from my solitude:

  • time for thought
  • in being alone, I have gotten to know myself better
  • I have had to face my demons and deal with them
  • space and time to unwind
  • time to reflect on what I have done and learn from it
  • isolation from the influences of others, clarity of my own voice
  • appreciation of the small things that have gotten lost in the roar

Maybe I never knew what solitude could do for the soul or maybe I was afraid to sit long enough with myself to muddle through all the difficult stuff but I am fortunate to be where I am now. I had no idea that I needed this so much.

Congratulations and Best Wishes

I realized the other day that I am missing nearly 20 weddings this year. Since I can't be there to share in those special days with the people that I hold dear, I wanted to send my heartfelt congratulations and best wishes. I am sorry that I am missing your vows but I am grateful that I will be there to witness your beautiful marriages. There is a lifetime ahead of us and this is just the beginning. I can't wait to be there for your next chapter...

"In a time when nothing is more certain than change, 
the commitment of two people to one another has become difficult and rare.
Yet, by its scarcity, the beauty and value of this exchange have only been enhanced." 
-Robert Sexton

I love you all... Mazel tov!