Thursday, November 29, 2012

Teddy Bear Day

On November 23rd, I held an event at my NGO to honor and show love to 147 orphans in my village. The cornerstone of the event was to give hope to these children and let them know that people care about them. To do this, the event included games and activities for the children, snacks, entertainment put on by former students from my OVC pre-school, speeches by orphans that have gone on to accomplish great things, and a very special teddy bear for each of the kids. This special gift was donated by The Mother Bear Project, a nonprofit organization based in the United States whose mission is to provide "comfort an hope to children affected by HIV/AIDS in emerging nations by giving them a gift of love in the form of a hand-knit or crocheted bear".

I have to say, being able to do this for the children in my village was something that will stay with me for my entire life. They were so thrilled to have something specifically for them and to be put on a pedestal for a day. Popping 5kg of popcorn during a storm and a power outage for hours the evening before makes for a good story but nothing would compare to the look on the children's faces as they watched me unpacking teddy bears onto the table in front of them. They were literally "awwwing" and jumped up and down with giddiness. But the true beauty of this event is in this story:

One of the little girls, who is around four-years-old, that is an orphan at my center and who has a very difficult home life, arrived in the morning thoroughly worn out. I can only imagine that she came to the center without breakfast and likely without much sleep, as this was customary for her. When she was called up to receive her teddy bear, she skipped over with excitement and then hesitantly took the bear from me. I believe her hesitation was because she is rarely given anything to call her own, like I alluded, barely even food. She held on to her teddy bear and hugged it and hugged it all the way back to her seat among the antsy children. A few minutes later, I looked over at her and she was fast asleep sitting up in her chair, clutching tightly to her teddy bear. It gave her such comfort int he moments after receiving it that she was able to sleep, even surrounded by noisy children. It did exactly as it was intended - it soothed her soul. In turn, it instantly put me at ease because I knew she had something that would provide her comfort and love, even when she doesn't get it at home.

I will forever be grateful to The Mother Bear Project for giving me moments like this one. And I will always hold dear all of the exuberance in their sweet faces. What a truly joyous event it was.

Pictures of the rest of the children with their teddy bears:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Six Months Left! Or Is It?

I remember this time last year when my Bots 9 friends were talking about having "only six months left" of their service. They spoke of it with joy and excitement and trepidation. And today, I have reached that same mark. Ladies and gentlemen, I officially have only six months left on my contract. WHOA! As much as I knew this day would come, it has blindsided me.  I remember counting up the days with my group-mates, day by day, and when we reached six months at site we all marveled. I am marveling again at the short time left before us. It is hard for me to believe that, in six short months, my Bots 10 family will scatter and embark on new adventures.

This is also a time for looking ahead. There are so many options that lay before us and so many different paths we could take. My fellow Bots 10s are applying to graduate schools and scouring the internet for job listings that might suit their fancy. And then there are a few of us, myself included, that are looking at extending our contracts for a third year, to remain in Botswana and take on the next challenge.

My decision to apply for an extension is one that I have considered at great length. I have painstakingly gone over the options and scrutinized it from as many angles as possible - looking at options of organizations I could work with and projects I could undertake, weighing my potential impact here against job opportunities back home and/or abroad elsewhere, examining requirements for my "dream jobs" and seeing what experience I might still need and how best to acquire it, and so on. If you know me, then you know many many lists were involved and even more hours contemplating the best choice, not only for me but also for my family, my friends (here and back home), and for the communities I work with. It all comes back to this: I have had the most remarkable experience here and feel like it just keeps getting better. I have been able to influence change in a positive way and have truly helped people. I have met and hobnobbed with some high level officials. I have learned how to navigate successfully at the grassroots level and organize communities for sustainable development. I have gained confidence in myself and my ability to give back. I want the opportunity, now, to put these new skills to use at a higher level and see how else I can assist this country that I have grown to love so much. And, ultimately, there is experience that I can gain in staying here that will be invaluable to my future. Plus, I am happy here. You really can't beat happiness.

For those of you who are worried it will be another year and a half before you see me... think again! Provided my third year extension application goes through, I will for sure be back in the states on home leave for a month (likely in time for my 30th birthday) and I will be expecting to see you (and hopefully you will be willing to take my poor tookus out for a drink or a bagel in celebration of our reunion?!)! Also, for those of you worried that I will fall in love and never come back stateside from Botswana... think again! While you may be right right about the "falling in love" bit, have no fear about the returning home part. The plan is to gain this new experience in Botswana and then bring it all back (the boyfriend too!) and live merrily in the states! So get ready folks because there will be a few big parties in our future!

One last "congrats" to my Bots 10 survivors! Only six months left together! Lets make the most of it!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mutli-Cultural Exchange

The other day, I was sitting around talking with a bunch of friends. We were having a staunch debate on religion and politics and sharing our individual insights. During this conversation, it dawned on us that no two people in the room were the same. Now, this may seem obvious but I mean this on a much more deliberate level. When we looked around the room, no two of us were from the same country or of the same faith or shared nearly the same skin-tone (harhar). We had all been raised and lived very different lives and now were sitting together and peacefully discussing some very controversial issues. We were, quite literally, an international group by every sense of the term - multi-cultural, multi-religious, and so on. We had representatives from America, Botswana, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Ireland, and more. We had Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Catholics, and Athiests. We had a hodge-podge combination of folks that honestly sounded like it should be the start of a joke - "A Motswana, an Indian, and an Irish girl walk into a bar...". I mention this because I think it is interesting and because I never thought that, when I came to Peace Corps, I would be surrounded by people from so many walks of life. I expected to meet locals and learn their culture and gain some sort of African experience that was different from my own. And, of course, this has happened and I have made some amazing friends in my local community along the way. But I have also made friends with fellow do-gooders and with ex-pats and with others who have chosen to settle in Botswana. These relationships have made my experience even more rich and complex and educational. I have truly had some remarkable and eye-opening conversations with this group that have broadened my worldview and taught me so much about myself, my beliefs, and about the global community. I am extremely grateful for my random and wonderful group of friends.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

House Building Project

Many months ago, I wrote about an extremely destitute family that my NGO works with through its home-based care program. The matriarch of the family is HIV+ and her health has deteriorated to a level where she is now bed-bound and unable to do basic tasks for herself (like get up to relieve herself). She has six young children living with her and no one in the home to assist with child-rearing (i.e. the father has passed and there is no known family otherwise). There are also two teenaged daughters, unfortunately both have now died of HIV in the months since I have known them. One of the daughters left an infant baby to, essentially, be reared by her younger siblings, making seven children in total living in the home.

In my posts about this family, you may also remember that I said this family is living in a one-room house without water or electricity (in the house or on the compound). The family curls up together day-in and day-out, with the mother sleeping on the only bed that fits inside the home. The other children pile onto blankets on the floor and the infant baby sleeps next to the sick mother. Food is scarce. The family is endowed with a support check from the government in the total of P150 per month (US$21) that they use to buy food. This is not enough but they make due with the supplemental food my NGO is able to give them through our feeding program. This, much to our dismay, is nominal as well but every bit helps. Finally, the family also doesn't have a toilet or a pit latrine on their compound so they defecate into a bucket and bring it to the neighbor's house to dispose of it. This is a hard process, especially for a sick mother whose children are attempting to stay in school, rear themselves, and care for the family simultaneously. This family is, far and away, the hardest situation and most impoverished that I have encountered since coming here. Theirs is a life of hardship to say the least.

A project that I have taken on has been to help build the family a home. I am proud to say that, to date, we have completed the foundation, built support for the walls, and put a ceiling on the basic structure. All of this has been done with donations of time, money, and materials by community members that have recognized the desperate need. We are in the final push right now to mobilize resources and are engaging in a fundraising campaign with a number of individuals and communities. As the days pass, it looks more and more promising that we will raise the necessary funds to finish this house and give the family a home to call their own.

A quick note on the toilet situation because it is a necessary side-project of the "house building project" and is something we all feel is very important (as hygiene plays a significant role in health), and therefore something we have been working diligently on. I am pleased to say that we believe this project will also come to fruition in the upcoming months. I have been working with a Church group in Botswana that has been spearheading the fundraising effort to dig a pit latrine on the compound. They are hopeful that the funding will come through by the end of the year and that we can start digging in the first months of 2013. This will make a huge difference for the family and I am exceedingly grateful for their continued efforts.

I am beside myself with appreciation for the love and support of so many communities in making this project a reality. If you are reading this and have participated in this project on some level, please know the depth of my gratitute - I will never forget your kindness and generosity and neither will the family. This house will belong to these children when they truly become orphaned. They will not be homeless and they will have something to call their own. And, until that day, they will have a safe place to live. This will relieve their stress and their burden and, I believe, bring them comfort both in actuality and in knowing that so many people care about them and their well-being.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Thank You: Inspiring Words to Keep Pushing On

In the past, I have posted letters and messages from friends who offered kind words of encouragement when I was going through harder times. I posted them because they inspired me and because they were words I hoped I would internalize and thereby become a catalyst for change. I am fortunate to say that things took a very positive turn for me in February when I was reassigned to a new site and a new primary project. From that point on, I have had the kind of service that I could only have dreamed of. It was the most perfect change for me and has provided me with opportunities I couldn't have imagined. All of that being said, it struck me as odd that I haven't shared any of the letters and messages offered to me since everything turned around. These words are every bit as special and encouraging to me and bring tears to my eyes when I read them. They are so meaningful, especially in light of how far my service has come. So I want to share one such letter with you now. This letter is written by a long-time and very dear friend of mine - someone who has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, having been a close friend of my father's since their youth. Since I first received this, I have re-read his words and they have encouraged me to keep pushing on and keep trying to do more. So I have to say, Tommy, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are kind in a way that makes my heart smile. You are inspiring me and making my service even more special because of the faith you have in me. It means the world. Here is what he had to say:

Hi Tija,
Sweetie, you don't ever have to apologize to me for something that I barely acknowledge anymore. Especially now, as I get older, birthdays are becoming less and less important. What you are doing, what you have done, what you are GOING to do...those things are important. VERY important. You are building a legacy that I am proud to be able to watch, learn from and be a part of, even if it's just as an observer from afar.
More envious I could not be of your family travelling all that way to see you and your 'other' family as well as all your co-workers and friends and having the experience of a lifetime. Your Mom's and Jena's blogs were inspiring, to say the least and the pictures were amazing.
I read that there is talk of you staying there for another that correct? Whatever your decision, I can't imagine anyone not understanding and wishing you the best. We are all so proud of you and what you have accomplished so far, you have no idea. I believe that this is just the beginning of a career that even you can't fully imagine, a 'tip of the iceberg' thing. And I want nothing more than to watch it grow, flourish and bloom, just as the work you are doing now is growing in the same sort of way, thanks to you. I believe that these dignitaries, whether they come from Africa or the US, are being routed to where you are working for a reason and of course, in my mind, the reason is you. Maybe I'm wrong but even if I am, I still find what you do to be compelling and deeply rooted in passion, a passion for people in need, a passion for change and an amazing passion for a better life for everyone.
I have said this to you in the past but I'll say it again...lots of people 'talk-the-talk' and throw money at things, sometimes for the right reasons but oftentimes it's done just to make themselves feel better about themselves. Very few people 'walk-the-walk' and sweetie, you are one of those 'very few'. And the 'walk' you are taking is affecting so many people in such a positive way that it's almost impossible to imagine you NOT doing something for the good of the planet and its' people, wherever they may be, whatever their needs. You truly are an amazing and unique woman and I don't believe I have ever known anyone in my life who inspires ME more than you.
I still look forward to reading your blog, 'hearing' the pride in your 'voice' just from your writings. I know what you are doing is difficult, very difficult. I have 'heard' you at times when you seemed like you might crumble, given in to the loneliness or the pain or the fear or the absolute frustration that arises in all things worth doing. But you have risen above it each and every time and again, you have shown the strength of character that you possess and that, to me, as well as everyone who knows you and is following your journey, 
is awe-inspiring and I absolutely could not mean that more!
Kudos, kid---kudos...and continued success!
Thank you again for the birthday wishes and I hope that when your birthday comes around and you don't hear anything from me, it will not be because I don't will be because I am a scatter-brain who is unable to remember ANYTHING!!!!
With love and a deep sense of pride,

Monday, November 5, 2012

How To Build Community

An old friend of mine posted this on Facebook the other day. It speaks perfectly to what being a Peace Corps Volunteer is all about. And, I believe, states the basic principles that we all should live by.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Weight and Happiness

Today, while eating dikgobe in the kitchen with the NGO's cooks, one of them asked me if I was happy. I responded in the affirmative, citing the fact that I was among charming people, eating one of my favorite dishes, and that great things have abound as of late. I then inquired as to why she asked. She responded that I have lost some weight and it has caused her to worry that it might mean I am no longer happy in Gabane. (Insert a confused look then a chuckle from me.) I explained to her that my happiness and my weight are not connected (thank goodness) and that I am exceedingly happy and, at the same time, trying to get myself back in shape. (Insert a bemused look from her.)

Now let me explain: In Botswana, they believe that the heavier you are, the happier you are. They expect people to gain significant weight when great things happen in their lives, like a marriage or a promotion. It is a good thing. Batswana have often commented on my rise to pudginess as a positive thing and would clamor about how beautiful I had become while living here. (Oh Kamogelo, you are getting fat! You are so happy and beautiful! You love Botswana! and then they would smile and cheer.)

Being raised in America, however, I have thought the opposite (that is, when I think about weight at all - Having only one mirror in my house and having that mirror be only big enough to see my face has really eliminated my concern over appearance.) I was raised in a culture where slim and slendor is desirable. I have turned up my nose at this sentiment throughout my life because I feel like you only live once so you should have that mac and cheese if it makes you smile. I think there's probably a better compromise between the American view, my own, and that of the Batswana.

All of this being said, I recently started a physical fitness routine (because that is what it is for - fitness). I hadn't personally noticed much change in my physique but apparently the cooks at the NGO have! This was something that I had to explain to them - the separation of weight and happiness. They seemed to understand, but with trepidation, and only after I hugged them and danced around with the kids and showed them how genuinely happy I am. I have a feeling that there will be another teaching moment in this when I get back to America...