Sunday, March 31, 2013

Pelegano Village Industries

I love Gabane. I believe it is a very special village and I feel privileged to call it "home". I actually take pride in it. People hear me clamor on and on about all the great things in Gabane and I am constantly inviting people to come and see and experience it all for themselves. Peace Corps Volunteers in Botswana know there is an open invitation to visit me. Among the things I share with all visitors are our community hangout, where people come to braai and relax together, and our artist colony, Pelegano Village Industries.

Pelegano Village Industries (PVI) is a community-based artist colony that houses artists and artisans and showcases their work. Included in the compound is work related to: arts and crafts (pottery, glass art, and fine arts), textiles and embroidery, manufacturing, welding fabrication, and the like. All of the products made are created locally and made by Batswana in the village. Places like this are unique in Botswana, as many of the crafts sold here are brought in from other countries (namely Zimbabwe and Kenya). At PVI, however, you can meet the craftsmen and, if you befriend the right people, try your hand at some pottery or learn a thing or two about textile paints. Watching beautiful creations come to life and chatting freely with those making them is a perfect way to spend an afternoon in Gabane. And, what's more, the proceeds from sales at PVI goes back into local projects like the one at my NGO.

I recently got the opportunity to share this unique experience with a group of fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who came to visit. Some of them were buying souvenirs as they prepare to go home to America after so long living abroad. Others tagged along to see what I had been bragging all about for so long. Regardless of their reason, no one was disappointed in coming.

The PCVs were overwhelmed by the beauty of the crafts and excited to meet the artists. The energy was palpable, both in the PVI compound and among my peers. Getting to come and see all the different crafts and the kind people that make them was exciting for them and seeing their faces light up as they frantically chose items to take home with them was rejuvenating for me.

This is why I rave about Gabane - it is a special place. Now these PCVs get one of the many reasons why I love my village. Those staying in Botswana will be back... with friends (and more pula)!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Medical Clearance #2

At the end of service, Peace Corps Volunteers undergo a rigorous medical examination. This includes routine physical and dental exams but also includes a review of your medical history (especially of changes occurring during service), a complete blood work up, TB test, gynecological exam (for the ladies), and stool samples to check for parasites etc. The whole lot is completed over a series of three days. Peace Corps wants to make sure that volunteers return from their service healthy and that there is a detailed record of anything and everything that came up during the two years abroad.

For those of us with intentions of extending our service, the close of service medical examination also serves as our second workup for medical clearance with the government. Much like the medical portion of our application process, there is some anxiety in the waiting.

Last week I underwent my medical review. I was poked, prodded, and probed. Before coming here, the idea of so many needles and doctor's appointments was terrifying but now I feel stronger and like seasoned veteran. These things no longer worry me. Needles were the least of my fears. More so, I was concerned that my weight gain during service might be a problem or the fact that I have had some sleep issues or occasional diarrhea - I didn't want anything to hold me back from staying in Botswana for another year. And, although my problems are common and therefore shouldn't be of concern, these things are all in my record and I had no way of knowing what would be a red flag.

It turns out there was no need to worry. Today I received word from our Medical Officer (PCMO) that my tests came back and everything is clear! I am happy to say that I have, one again, received medical clearance for service in the US Peace Corps! Three cheers for being healthy!

At this time, I would also like to give a very big round of applause and congratulations to my left eye! It seems that it has gotten stronger during my service. While both my eyes used to reach a perfect 20/20 when wearing my glasses, my left eye now scored a 20/13! I did a happy dance and jumped around when my PCMO told me, sending the entire office into hysterics and causing the PCMO to draw stars all around the (improved) record. Not gonna lie, I am pretty impressed that two years living in the bush has actually improved my overall health!

Another really exciting thing that happens after receiving medical clearance for extension volunteers is that you can official apply for Special Home Leave, or the period of one month when volunteers extending for an entire year can return back to their Home of Record at the Peace Corps' expense.

For volunteers like me who haven't gone home during their entire service, this is very exciting (both for the PCV and for family and friends). As you can imagine, within seconds of receiving my clearance, I sent an email to our Director of Management and Operations to request my leave dates. I heard back minutes later that my request is being sent to our travel agent for pricing and review. This means I should know the exact dates I will be in the United States very very soon! While nothing is set yet, those who like to get excited as early as possible (like me) can plan on my arrival some time in late May! Keep this in mind, folks, because I will definitely be hitting you up for welcome home parties, 30th birthday parties, and lots of hang out time! (Also important to note, you should probably start saving your pennies because I'll be surviving on $15/day - which is almost twice what I make now but I'm living in a rural village and not in America - and will need you to either take me out on dates or be keen for deck time on Mama Tina's back porch!)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Tribute to Bots 10

This week marks another milestone for my group - the first of us to make it to our COS Conference is boarding a plane and heading back to the good ol' U-S-of-A. It is hard to believe we have come so far and are now at this point. One thing I know for sure, long after this Peace Corps experience is through, the faces of my Bots 10 family will be clear in my mind. I will recall all of the times we shared together, however long, and that will be what makes it all so special. So, in tribute to the men and women who took the Peace Corps plunge, I say thank you. Here's to always remembering the 40 members of Bots 10!

To the one that made the grand romantic gesture and never got on the plane (congratulations for marrying the woman of your dreams!)...

To those who didn't make it through PST...

To those who left us early...

To those who made it all the way to COS...


And to those who are sticking around for a third year...

As every person in these pictures can attest, it has been one heck of a wild ride. I can't imagine a more wacky, amazing, inspiring, diverse, or thoughtful group to have shared this experience with. While I am sure everyone says it, I really do feel like we have the best group. I am so grateful to each person in it for adding and enhancing this time in Botswana. I love you, Bots 10!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Water and Power and Smiles, Oh My!

I don't want to jinx it so I am knocking on wood as I write this but, after weeks without, my village once again has power and water! This means that schools have re-opened, clothes are being washed and hung out to dry, and people are no longer looking to the skies and praying for rain. (Of course, I am still hoarding water and urging my friends to do the same just in case the pipes dry out again. I've been tricked into a false sense of security before.) But, at least for now, I am happy to report that all of my electronics are fully charged and my water containers (and bathtub) are filled with water. This is one of those Peace Corps victories that can't be quantified on a resume but that feels like a huge triumph when you're living it...

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Almost as if the universe realized my village needed a "pick me up" yesterday, it rained. At about 8pm, I heard the thunder roaring from somewhere in the distance and by 10pm, despite not having power, the village lit up with the lightening strikes. And then, at about 1am, the most incredible thing happened. I was awaken by the sound of people laughing and talking. I reached for my glasses and scurried half asleep to the window to see what the commotion was about. It was still pouring rain so it took a minute for my eyes to adjust but, during a lightening flash, I saw it. Dozens of people were outside, singing and laughing and talking merrily, with buckets in their hands! Just as I have done before, the community allowed nature to help them fix a problem that the government could not. And they were joyous. I picked up my bucket and I joined them for a while - giggling and stomping through puddles like a child. It was one of those Peace Corps moments that you just can't beat! PULA!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Water Problems Continue

In America, having potable drinking water and a constant water supply is never a problem. Almost magically, it is there whenever you need it. If you have followed my story, however, then you know this is not the case in Botswana. I have gone months on end without water and have, on occasion, put buckets outside to catch precious rain water. Some of my peers have to walk up to 5km to fill up buckets to carry home because they don't have running water or a water pump nearby. Water is an issue.

Volunteers in Botswana are lucky, though, in that our water has been safe to drink. I have been drinking it straight from the tap for nearly two years and have had no problems at all. That was until recently, when a number of random quality tests were conducted and the water failed to meet US Embassy standards. They advised us that water in my region intended for human consumption should be boiled. Before receiving this statement, I had been having some stomach problems (eww) so I started boiling my water and they ceased. Boiling water is laborious, especially during the heat of summer when all you want is something cold to drink. As of last week, after talking with a health specialist who told me the situation had been cleared up, I have stopped boiling my water. Gratefully, my tummy has not been rattled so I believe she was right and the water is fine now. (After all, the best way to find out is to try it out and my body isn't reacting...) Happy day, right? Wrong. As annoying as it is having to boil water, it pales in comparison to the alternative... no water.

Today the Water Utilities Corporation released the following statement: "The Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) would like to inform residents of Gaborone City and surrounding areas (Mochudi, Gabane, Kumakwane, Mogoditshane, Tlokweng, Lobatse and their surrounding areas) that it is currently experiencing water supply challenges. Due to this, they will experience low pressure to no water at all indefinitely. Residents are advised to wisely use the little available water." INDEFINITELY?! We are going to be without water indefinitely?! To my great dismay (but not to my surprise), this public statement came out AFTER the water cuts arrived in my village, meaning that none of us had the time to prepare. We are already without water and now without means of stocking up. While we all live with water challenges every day, this is incredibly difficult to hear. Although Peace Corps Volunteers hoard water like it's our jobs, there is never enough for our "shorter" week-long outages. It is in these moments when I wish I had a pit latrine because at least then I could go to the bathroom in peace without worrying about using 3L of water to flush... The question then becomes: "What happens to us and to the local communities if the water really is out indefinitely?"

I beg all of you back in America, please cherish every time you turn the faucet on and water comes out and that it is clean water to drink. I will never take those things for granted again.

Extension Granted!

Despite incessant (and inconvenient) water and power outages, hairy spiders, ant hordes, insane temperatures, and thorns in my shoes, I love it here. Yes, I said it, I love Botswana. I have fallen in love with the simple life in the village and with international development work. Although I had a hunch before coming here that this might be the case, there really was no way for me to predict how deep my love would be. And, honestly, my trials at the beginning definitely pointed more towards "enmity" than "love". But this love has grown from frustration and disappointment and perseverance and is likely stronger because of it. It is like your favorite romantic comedy movie - girl wants to find love, girl sets out to find it, girl is angry with and/or hates what is set in front of her (usually a guy, in this case the work), girl fights it, girl feels like all hope is lost, girl has a realization or transformation, girl flirts with the thing she once resented, and finally girl realizes it's the only thing for her. I didn't think this sort of romance happened in real life. But, like many people before me, I have been surprised by the way things turn out. This could very well be the tale of my pursuit and my love of international development work.

But I made it! I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, my heart flickered, and I got a warm fuzzy feeling with every person who learned something from me and with every organization that ran a little smoother. And that is why, with a joyous heart and an excited mind, I announce that my application for extension was granted! I have been given the opportunity to continue pursuing this love and see where the next phase in the journey takes me!

For my extension year ("third year"), I am assuming two roles:
In my first role, I will be working with Project Concern International (PCI). PCI is an international non-governmental organization that currently operates in 16 countries to promote sustainable change and community development. I will be working directly with two projects funded by USAID - one for orphans and vulnerable children and the other for integrated childhood and youth development. In this capacity, I will get the opportunity to oversee and manage high level projects that I am passionate about, work alongside leaders in their field, and also continue doing some field work with PCI's 10 implementing partners across Botswana. 
In my second role, I will be acting as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL). The role of a PCVL is multifaceted and includes: working with Peace Corps staff to assess organizations and villages for successful site development; mitigating issues between staff, volunteers, and host country nationals; assisting with regional support issues; designing and conducting trainings for incoming volunteers; liaising for Peace Corps Botswana, connecting staff with volunteers; and informing current PCVs about available resources to better assist their host country agencies. I am passionate about Peace Corps' mission and believe that every volunteer deserves the best chance to make the most of their service. I am thrilled to have the chance to put my magnanimous experience to work in helping serving volunteers.
I am overwhelmed and excited about the potential for personal growth and the opportunity to continue doing good work at an even greater magnitude in these new roles. To me, it is my perfect placement. I have incredible hopes for this country, its people, and the work Peace Corps is doing. I know these hopes are achievable because, time and again, my dreams in this country have come true. I am honored to have the opportunity to stay here one more year to see that continue to happen.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Whoa! We Made It! Bots 10 COS Conference

How do you sum up two years of your life? Even in the best of circumstances, it would be extremely difficult. Throw in the confines of risk, adventure, unknowns, cultures, creepy crawlies, and a life in a far far away place that you ventured to all on your own and a person can be at a loss for words. And, if not lost for words, then definitely overwhelmed by them. Either way, the result is the same. That is where I sit now, at the conclusion of my Close of Service (COS) Conference and in my final months at site. Contemplating everything.

Our COS Conference was a time when my cohort, my Bots 10 family, was able to reconnect. This was invaluable, as I hadn't seen some members since our mid-service training a year ago. I realize it may be hard to understand how these people have remained so integral to my service and how amazing it was to reunite, but they are among the few who actually understand what Peace Corps service in Botswana is like. We can recount our own experiences and have them feel like a joint memory because we "get it" in a way that no one else could. Being afforded the time together to catch up, to share our stories, and to decompress, was probably the most cherished part of our COS Conference. This could very well be our last time in the same room together and will definitely be our last in country together. As you can likely imagine, this reality caused a few tears from more than a few people (myself included).

Tears were also met with laughter as we had dinner on the salt pans in the Nata Bird Sanctuary, recounting humorous tales showcasing each of us and paid homage to those from our group who left us early. Bots 10 has not forgotten anyone - we are all a part of this story, even the one who never made it on the plane in New York. "The Survivors" sitting around the table with the expanse of the pans and the fading sun, regaling everyone with great love and admiration, was one of my favorite moments and one that will stick with me long after this adventure.

While the emotions of our COS Conference are among the highlights, they are not the sole purpose of the week. More seriously, the conference serves as an opportunity to prepare for the goodbyes in our villages and the transition back home. It is a time to construct our "elevator speech", knowing that most people will not want the full account of our two year hiatus, and learning how to quantify our work and cope with the many changes in ourselves and in the world we left behind.

Many of us have some concerns about returning to America, whether it be about reverse culture shock, consumerism, personal growth and change, making sense of our experience and bringing it back with us, rectifying relationships with friends from home, and so on. My fears encompass many of these things. For example, I am nervous that people will expect me and expect things to continue on just as they had before I left but these things won't feel normal to me anymore. There will be a necessary adjustment in the way things once were. I have changed and I am happy with who I am. But I wonder how this will impact my relationships and my life when I return. My experiences in Botswana have been profound and have impacted me in ways that I am sure I can't even imagine yet. How will I react to all of this? Will I be compassionate and patient with those who don't see the world as I do now? Will they show me that same respect when I find things hard to deal with? And who will let me ramble on and on about my service, even after the "acceptable" statute of limitations has passed? These were some of the things we discussed at length throughout the conference. In the end, my group agreed that it will be vital to maintain our friendships with fellows Bots 10s. They will be our lifeline and our connection to this world. We are also grateful for those friends and family who have stuck by us in one way or another because we genuinely believe we will need to lean on them during this period of transition and re-entry.

And, finally, how do you say goodbye? How do you say goodbye to people who have been your main source of support and friendship in an unfamiliar land? How do you thank strangers that took you in as family? How do you leave a village whose paths welcomed you home every day? Most of us won't return to Botswana again. These goodbyes will tear at the heartstrings of even the most jaded of us. And this is our next big challenge and what we will focus on in our final months at site. Just 80 days until departure...