Saturday, March 31, 2012

Segoditshane Scouts Term 1 Excursion

For the last nine weeks, I have been working with the Segoditshane Scouts Troop. The troop is comprised of about 25 core scout members aged 9- to 14-years-old (plus another 55 or so kids that come for the occasional meeting) and is lead by myself and three other troop leaders (another Peace Corps Volunteer and two teachers from Segoditshane Primary School). We have been engaging the kids in a variety of activities, including: environmental awareness and conservation, outdoor education, critical thinking games, and marching (which is a huge hit in Botswana). The kids have grown up and grown together a lot during the term, which has truly been fun to watch. 

For the close of the school term, the other scout troop leaders and I decided to reward the scouts for all their hard work and dedication by taking them on an excursion. We wanted to do something that would be both fun and educational. After a lot of deliberation, we decided to take the kids to the Gaborone Game Reserve so they could see and learn about animals and the environment. This ended up being the right choice if, for no other reason, than most of these kids had never seen any sort of wildlife in their country!

The Gaborone Game Reserve is a game park and conservation center inside the capital city of Gaborone. Its main function is to educate people about the environment and some of the animals commonly found around Botswana. This was the perfect fit for our scouts, who had focused a lot this term on learning about nature and becoming more aware of their surroundings.

We set to meet at 7:00AM to head to the game reserve, knowing that animals are most active in the early morning hours. The excited scouts arrived on time (a rarity in Botswana) and were bouncing off the walls with anticipation, despite the fact that it was POURING RAIN. (Of course it was - it rains a handful of times per year and it had to be on our excursion day. But, fear not, nothing was going to rain on our parade! hehe) On top of the rain, the bus was over an hour-and-a-half late and then, once it did arrive, they sent a coach bus for 25 children to go on a game drive (TIA — this is Africa!). We kept reminding ourselves that scouts are prepared for anything so this was just another thing we would deal with on our way to big fun!
By the time we finally arrived at the game park it had stopped raining. (Hooray!) We started the day by getting told information about the game park, the different animals and foliage we would see, and about the importance of conservation especially in Botswana. The kids were antsy - their eyes darting around hoping to spot their first kudu or zebra - but they listened attentively and participated as much as they could muster in the conversation. This was followed by about an hour and a half game drive which had the kids literally jumping out of their seats! They were running back and forth on the bus, squealing, and pointing out animals that they saw along the way! I have to admit, it was exciting even for me after having been on a number of game drives since coming to Botswana, but the true joy in the whole experience was watching the kids see their first animals ever! Their eyes would become the size of soccer balls and they would smack my leg as they pointed out ostriches and springbok and all sorts of other animals. It was a heartwarming experience and one that made this extra special for me.

After about an hour or so of driving around the park, we stopped to complete a community service project. In exchange for the cost of park fees, we had agreed to help clean up the area around the education center. (In Botswana they make a great effort to clear grass and brush around buildings because of snakes and other creepy critters that could hide out there otherwise!) This was also really important because scouts give back and we wanted to promote that with our troop and hopefully instill in them a sense of civic responsibility. And, let me tell you, I was so proud of those kids! They set to work, sweat dripping down their faces, and didn't stop until every last bit of that area was immaculate! Even the smallest one of the bunch was doing her part by picking up small rocks and using them to create boundaries for the flower beds. It was teamwork at its finest. They worked so hard that they finished the project in half the time and did even more than was expected of them! 

With our project complete we headed to the picnic area to set up our lunch and were greeted by a band of monkeys. It turned out that the monkeys were as interested in our lunch as we were! One of them even stole an apple right out of the hand of one of the scouts when he wasn’t looking! At first the scout was completely freaked out (who wouldn't be?!) but he later said that it was his favorite experience of the day! 

While a day excursion might not seem like much, it represents a milestone for our group. To make it happen required the cooperation from the school and parents as well as coordinating with government agencies for transport and fee waivers. It was also the first time the teachers had organized such an event for a school club. They did a great job and were proud of the outcome. Plus, any time you can show children what is out there in the world and help motivate them to reach for more, I consider that I pretty good day! It was the perfect inaugural outing for our little troop and I couldn't be happier!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Project Updates

As we approach the one year mark (2 days away!), I thought I would share a short update on a few of the main things that I am working on:

Computer Basics Classes: I continue to teach computer classes to people from my community. So far, classes consist mostly of staff from my NGO and the Clinic. Classes are held once per week and I am offering review sessions two afternoons per week. In an attempt to help make the classes more applicable to their jobs (and so they can better understand the importance of learning how to use the computer), I use these review sessions (and independently scheduled time as requested) as a time to give the computer lessons a practical application. What this means is that I invite the class participants to bring their handwritten reports and/or paperwork in and we convert them into digital files together. Often this means I show them how and then they repeat the effort or, in some instances, I create a framework and they fill in the details. We are lucky enough to have enough computers so that each participant has "their own" computer in the computer lab that they can save their files to so they can continue to modify/work on them as they get more comfortable and gain more skills. For one student who has been exceptionally dedicated to learning, this means she is starting to be taught the very basics in Excel. Among the biggest accomplishments of this class, in my opinion, is that every single person who signed up for the class continues to come each week. They are getting comfortable with typing and with doing basic things in Word. They are motivated and so happy to learn. Success!

Segoditshane Scouts Troop: The Scout troop that I lead, along with another Peace Corps Volunteer and two teachers from Segoditshane Primary School, is going very well. We have approximately fifty scouts aged 9 to 14 that meet once per week to learn a variety of skills, including: practical outdoor activities (camping, hiking, backpacking, sports), environmental conservation, morals/ethics, community service, etc.

Renetswee Happy Home Care Center: I have been rewriting a Constitution for an NGO in a nearby village and helping the Coordinator come up with strategies for programming and recolonization of the new facility once all of the pertinent documents are filed and approved.

Gabane Community Home-Based Care: This is my primary project, so the majority of the work I am doing right now is here. Briefly, I am working in a variety of functions.
  • Pre-School Program Curriculum Development: I have been observing classroom activities and teaching styles to help the teachers develop new ways of imparting knowledge onto the children and revise current curricula and/or activities to do with the children (ages 3 to 6). This includes examining end-of-term and year-end exams for the primary schools (where the children will graduate to) and designing projects that help achieve the necessary results for the children's success in accordance with those requirements. The hope is that by providing better curriculums the children will flourish and have a better chance of being successful. Research shows that a child's success in school directly correlates with the dropout rate and therefore their HIV status later in life. If we can get these children, the most vulnerable in our community, to enjoy school and become dedicated to their success while they are young, then we have a better chance of keeping them that way into junior school and beyond.
  • Organizational Development: For the first few months at this new site, I have been conducting an analysis of staffing and organizational needs. In doing this, I have put together documents such as job descriptions, forecasting of staffing needs, designing current and forecasted organizational charts, an organizational profile, program leaflets, and a marketing kit.
  • Financial Systems/Planning and Budgeting: I have been discussing and training staff on the importance of budgets, record keeping/monitoring expenses and income (payments), and balancing the books. This has included creating a very simple payment database for immediate use by staff while creating and implementing a thorough financial system. I have trained the Administrative Officer on how to use this program and she is getting comfortable using it. In the meantime, I have worked to design and digitize financial systems by creating frameworks and a database to track profit and loss and by putting together program and organizational budgets. (No expenses have ever been tracked at the NGO before so this means researching numbers, gathering receipts, and finding out real costs.) 
Sadly, I also have to report a death of someone I have blogged about. Remember a few weeks ago when I told of my home visits? I discussed a mother who was devastatingly sick with AIDS and in the final stages of her life. I also told that her daughter had recently tested positive for HIV. Well, the daughter has passed away. Immediately after her test, my NGO helped get her admitted to the hospital in Gaborone for treatment. Within a week, she developed TB. On Tuesday the hospital released her to go home because there was nothing else to be done. My NGO planned to visit her yesterday but she died during the night, only hours after returning home. In discussing the loss with the Clinic and NGO staff, it seems the young girl waited too long to test and the virus was too far along. This is a very sad loss of someone far too young. I will continue going on home visits and encouraging people in my community to test early and often.

These are the projects that are currently filling my days and that will carry me into this second year in Botswana.

Holy Weather of Craziness

For months, temperatures have risen to a balmy 117 degrees Fahrenheit around Botswana. Sweat has become the norm and constantly craving salty foods as you fill up your water bottle for the hundredth time is completely expected. To say that it has been hot would be an understatement. We are longing for the cool days (but not the frigid nights) that will come in the upcoming months.

Fortunately, the days feel less formidable and the evenings are starting to cool off to the point where snuggling up to frozen water bottles is no longer necessary and, in fact, lights blankets and long pants are almost required. This has been a welcomed change after months and months of mugginess. Realizing we might actually be getting some relief from the heat after a few weeks of slow and steady temperature decline (and reaching for my jacket on the way out the door), I became overjoyed and decided to check the forecast for the upcoming weeks with the hope that it would continue. What did I discover? These "cool nights" that have me shivering unless I'm under my fleece throw blanket and sheets is still in the upper-60s. And the days that seem comfortable, if not cool, now are in the low-90s. My body is adjusting to the temperatures of Botswana.

It's hard to believe that almost exactly a year ago, when I first stepped off the plane in Botswana, I felt the hot sun scorching my skin and thought the Batswana were crazy to be wearing their jackets and exclaiming "go serame" ("too cold"). I understand now. It is getting cold. Who would have ever thought that I would say this is too cold? But, after months of weather reaching above the 100 degree mark, it is. I am now fearful of the winter, both here and at home. Bless.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


In Peace Corps, there is a lot of flexibility with the work you do. After a rigorous and stringent Pre-Service Training, where they equip you with many of the skills you will need in the field, Peace Corps Volunteers are essentially let loose in their villages to come up with their own projects. Some of these projects have to do with their primary assignments and the rest are ones that the volunteers create on their own, "secondary projects". Basically, you can do as much or as little as you set your mind to. You have the choice each day to wake up and do nothing or to go out into your community and engage in as many projects as you can. As such, we talk a lot about our "work plan", which is written, revised, and submitted each year of service and evaluated each quarter. This work plan is a way for us to stay focused and dedicated to our projects, to assess our own impact in the community, for our host country counterparts to understand what we are doing, and for Peace Corps to examine the work being done by volunteers across the country.

This process has been interesting for me. My first year of services has meant two different sites with a variety of new and different primary and secondary projects. It has forced me to continually reexamine the work I am doing and make a concerted effort to have an impact. (Recognizing that much of our impact cannot necessarily be quantified but is still every bit as important.) This means taking joy in small projects, like teaching the village kids geography and yoga, to taking on big tasks, like helping start an NGO for orphans and vulnerable children in a neighboring village. This is exactly how varied the projects I have done are. In fact, those are two examples of things I have been doing here.

So, why am I mentioning all of this? Is it so you know what I am working on too and have a clear understanding of my work plan? No, not exactly. If you're curious then you can just look here: My Projects and you will know. The real reason is because I have been here nearly a year and am getting very introspective as I reflect on my service, my expectations, and my contribution here.

As Peace Corps Volunteers, we get so caught up in the actual work we do and the end product. We want to start clubs and projects and do more more more. Generally speaking, it is in our nature as go-getters. I think it's one of the best things about us. This is compounded, however, by having to file things like work plans with Peace Corps and fill out very detailed reports each quarter with quantifiable data. We often forget about our own personal growth and our own needs/wants/desires. Therefore, what I want to focus on right now goes back to the very beginning of this journey when we were first trying to express our hopes for our service... the Aspiration Statement.

Before coming to Botswana, each Peace Corps Volunteer is asked to write an Aspiration Statement, which is basically an essay that answers five very important questions. Among these questions is the title one: what do you aspire for your service? Simply, what do you want out of your time here? I recently reread what I wrote and was pleasantly surprised. Without even trying, it seems that my aspirations are being accomplished. Granted, many of my pre-departure aspirations were broad, but these were the things I hoped to get out of my service, my aspirations, and I meant every word. These are the things I set out to do twelve months ago, copied directly from my Aspiration Statement:

Click Image to Enlarge
The moral of the story is that I have accomplished all those things that I had set out to do during my first year. My "aspirations" are being realized. And, like I said, it happened without making the conscious effort. Exciting? I think so. The rest of my service is smooth sailing, accomplishing even bigger things. Kind of makes this second year seem even more promising!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Holding Onto The Moments: Approaching One Year in Bots

In less than two weeks, I will have been on this crazy beautiful adventure for a year. I can hardly believe it. It seems like only yesterday I was shoving things into my hiking pack and kissing my mom goodbye at the airport. When I look back on everything that has been experienced and how much growth has truly happened, it takes my breath away. I have come so far (pardon the pun).

Now, it hasn't always been easy. There have been days when merely opening the curtains to greet the day has seemed like the hardest thing to do. But there have also been life-changing moments - times when I was completely awe-struck (watching a herd of giraffe ascend the watering hole), bewildered (by "lack of logic"), out of my element (as I struggled to communicate or make sense of something), proud (of the children and staff I worked with), and when I overcame things beyond my wildest imagination.

They say that Peace Corps service is "the hardest job you'll ever love". In looking back over this past year, I can say whole-heartedly that it is true. Peace Corps really is hard and it pushes you to your highest highs and your lowest lows. This job requires a whole new level of determination, grit, perseverance, tenacity, humor, flexibility, and faith in yourself. This is especially true when your projects fail and your (only) friends are deciding to go home early. But, if you are able to stick it out and make the most of each day and each success and each smile from a village kid, then the rewards can be great. If you make the most of it, the only limits are those to your imagination and what you have the guts to try and do (while, of course, feeling watched like a zoo animal by your communities, which seems ironic since we live amongst the animals we consider "zoo animals" in America).

What I am saying is this: this first year of service has been everything and nothing that I expected. I count this as a blessing because it has been so much more than I could have imagined. Despite the hard times, I have really loved this experience and am so happy here. Botswana feels like home now and my Bots 10 group like family. I am so grateful to be at this point now. And I can hardly believe that it has been a year already... just doesn't seem possible.

I want to leave you with this song from my all-time favorite band, Counting Crows, because it sums up a lot of what I am feeling right now. And, while I know this song is entitled "A Long December" (and I do realize that it's March right now), I think the sentiments are congruent with mine as we approach this one year mark. This is the end of our first year and the beginning of the final year for my group of Peace Corps Volunteers. It's time for us "to hold on to these moments as they pass" and really cherish all the greatness that this experience has to offer. Because, lets face it, the days really do go by so fast...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Water Outages: A Fact of Life

In America, we often take having constant access to water for granted. Something I learned very early on after moving to Botswana is that water is a precious commodity. We often go for a few days without water and this may stretch to a week or more. In preparation, most Peace Corps Volunteers store water - we never throw out a bottle because water could be kept there and we each have a few buckets that are used solely for stored water. It is a way of life that we have adjusted to. "Ga go na mathata", as we would say, "no problem".

This week has been particularly hot for the time of year. Temperatures have been about 40C/104F. This means that water is even more valued. Unfortunately for us, the water in my village has been out since Monday evening. We were told that the outage is due to a pipe bursting in the main water line in Mogoditshane (our neighboring village, between Gabane and Gaborone). There is no telling when the pipe will be fixed and water restored. The government is set to bring big tanks to Gabane for people to queue at to get water. To me, this seems like a fruitless endeavor since the village has nearly 13,000 people and a queue of that magnitude is sure to have more than a few snafus.

So what is a lowly Peace Corps Volunteer to do in a time like this? Cower in fear? Shrivel up in thirst? Pack a bag and get the heck outta dodge? No way Jose! Seeing the storm clouds roll in last night, I grabbed all the buckets in my house and stuck them in my yard to catch the rain water! I now have roughly 20L of water at my disposal! Peace Corps ingenuity win? I think so!