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...

Friday, November 4, 2011

Khama Rhino Sanctuary

Last weekend a group of fellow Bots 10'ers and I took a mini-vacation to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in the northern part of Botswana, approximately 25km passed Serowe. It was quite the adventure from the start (with storms on the horizon and a slew of transportation issues) but it proved to be well worth it!

The Khama Rhino Sanctuary is exactly like it sounds - an oasis where you can truly escape and feel immersed in all that is quintessentially Africa. The chalets and campsites are nestled in the bush and animals literally come up to your door. We made friends with a red-billed hornbill that we affectionately called Zazu and we sat watch for Naughty, a hand-fed black rhino who ventures around to welcome visitors. Although torrential downpours and roaring thunder and lightening threatened to ruin our trip, they only added to our excitement as the storms cleared for both of our game drives (we did two) and livened up our evenings. It was one of my favorite weekends in Botswana so far.

It has taken me an entire week to upload photos but I am happy to provide you with this slide show of some of the highlights from our game drives! Enjoy!

Transportation in Botswana

I have been asked to share a bit more about the intricacies of my every day life. I must oblige. Some things, I'm sure, will seem strange and different (as they did to me too when I first arrived), while others will seem so mundane and normal that you might be surprised I'm living in Africa. I think it will be a pretty interesting cultural exchange with people from home so that you can learn a bit more about life here! So I am going to start to post information about the simple things that make up my life. First up: transportation!

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you are not allowed to drive during service (or ride a bicycle without a helmet). Doing so is grounds for administrative separation. Yikes! As such, PCVs have to utilize public transportation to get around the country. Here are some of the many ways we get around:

Walking! We walk everywhere! It is the easiest and cheapest mode of transportation available. Plus, many of us live in rural villages where no form of motorized transportation exists. For example, my village is tiny. It takes about twenty minutes to walk from end-to-end and very few roads exist. (It's kind of like a nature walk every time I go anywhere! Que fun!) And, in truth, this is one way we stay somewhat active. Host country nationals, however, do not prefer this mode of transportation. (Although, as you can see, walking inside the village can be quite the chore for host country nationals!)

Hitchhiking! This is not officially condoned by Peace Corps but it is often the only way to get into or out of certain places around the country. It's also proven to be a really great way to get to know people. In the times that I have had to "hike" (as it's called in Botswana), I have met some of the most interesting people. I have met kgosis (chiefs) and people that used to work for Peace Corps and government officials and more! I've also found it to be a cheap alternative for getting around. Although you're supposed to pay the same fee as for the buses, if you chat up the driver and/or ask "Do I owe you anything for this ride?" instead of "How much do I owe you?" then you usually get the ride for free! Woot woot! On a Peace Corps budget that is a serious win!

Buses! This is the main way that Peace Corps Volunteers get between villages and across the country. There are bus stops along the three main roads in the country. (These three roads are the only way to get from point-to-point. Smaller sub-roads connect to these main roads at certain places but are often going only to a specific village or taper off into an earthen road. This means that you often have to travel well out of the way to get to a connection point or to reach your destination.) The buses are usually very very packed. People stand in the center aisle and, on more than one occasion, I've had people or their things sitting on me during the ride. In the summertime, the buses may reach excrutiating temperatures, as Batswana don't like to travel with windows open for fear of catching "flu" (yes, "flu", not "the flu" or "a cold"). I no longer think anything of traveling for 6 or more hours each way to go someplace for the weekend. Having a sweaty butt is kind of normal and no one even notices if your dress is stuck to you when you get off. It's just the way it goes now. For me, specifically, getting back to my village from the capital city (where I do my grocery shopping, banking, etc. since my village is too small to have these conveniences) can often be a chore. My village is a speck on the map (actually, it's not even on the map since it's so tiny) so buses don't always like to stop there. I have to bat my lekgoa eyelashes if the Kumakwane bus isn't at the bus rank! But, have no fear, I have yet to not make it home! :)

Combis! Combis essentially are what would happen if a mini-bus and a van had a baby. They are how you get across larger villages and towns or, if you're lucky, to a neighboring village. They are cheap (equivalent to about US 50 cents), convenient, and super fast! I kid you not, the drivers are crazy! They drive very fast and often weave in and out of cars. The reason the drivers go so fast is because they get to keep everything they make during the day above and beyond the fee they have to pay the owner of the combi. This is usually about BWP 200. That means that if they make BWP 500 during the day that they pay the owner the BWP 200 fee and they get to keep 300. It's a pretty good deal for them, a great deal for us, and it ensures we get where we need to go with expediency!

Taxis! I only take taxis when I am in Gaborone, the capital city, and I only take them if I need to get to the bus rank before the combis start running (for instance when I went to Namibia) or if I'm out with other PCVs and the combis have stopped running for the evening (which is around dark). Taxis, in general, are much more expensive and therefore a less desirable option for the Peace Corps Volunteer. But we do have a taxi driver that we call specifically when we need a ride. His name is Tendai. He's from Zimbabwe and one of the nicest people I have met since coming to Botswana. If you're ever in the area and need someone to fetch you from the airport or grab you from Linga Langa after pizza and a beer, let me know and I'll send you his number!

And my favorite... Donkey carts! After the initial shock of seeing this mode of transport when I first arrived in country, the trusty donkey cart has earned its way into my heart! The donkey cart is common among people in small villages or people who travel to "the lands". The lands are basically farming plots where people raise cattle and grow crops. The donkey cart is a cheap and convenient way for villagers to get around and to carry their harvest (or wood for the fire to warm water and cook) from the lands to their homes. It is my goal to take a ride on a donkey cart (and then feed the donkeys apples) at some point during my service!

And that concludes today's lesson on life in Botswana. I hope you've learned a thing or two about what transportation is like for Peace Corps Volunteers!