Monday, April 29, 2013

And, In The End, There Were Emotions

I have exactly twenty-two days left in my comfortable little village and only thirteen days left working at my NGO and with the ladies that have become my family in Gabane.

This is an emotional time

It just doesn't seem possible that my two years here are up and I am having a hard time wrapping my brain around leaving here. Even though my ticket to America is booked for my home leave and I can see the upcoming date on a calendar, it still doesn't feel real. It is as if my brain has employed a defense mechanism to keep me from feeling the anxiety and heartache of leaving something I love so much. Even if it is just to start something new nearby. I have to consciously remind myself to cherish each moment with the ladies of my NGO, to take the time to do the "secret handshake" with each kid in the pre-school, and to greet each person I meet on the dusty paths around Gabane. In a matter of days it will all be a memory. When I think about how fast two years went, it is overwhelming (even heartbreaking) to think how fast these last few days will likely go.

This is also a time when I am pushing to get projects and things finished but also trying to disconnect from the work in a more meaningful way. This is something I have blogged about a lot - the idea of true sustainable development. Of course, I have things I want to get done and see through here before I go. For example, the house building project is complete but the sanitation component - the pit latrine - is not quite finished yet. Same goes for some aspects of my organizational development project at the NGO. But, at the same time, I need to back away and make sure the ladies can do everything on their own. I need to observe them and support them in their own personal development if the things we have worked so hard on are to be sustainable. And, so far, they are.

I have watched the ladies take ownership of projects and work diligently to get the financial systems in place or to improve the teaching curriculum and our reports. The Board of Governors has finally been elected and they are taking an active role in helping scale up our operation. The members are coming to the office and conducting their own mini trainings and helping the ladies network with local people who can assist them. Local people helping local people to help the local community. This is a huge accomplishment. I have always said that, as a capacity builder and development worker, if I am able to make my job obsolete and unnecessary because the staff and community are able to do it on their own, then I have done my job well. Being able to witness this happening first-hand is bringing me peace and soothing some of the sorrow of leaving as I hesitantly look forward to the end of this chapter.

Saying goodbye is probably one of the hardest things anyone can do. This is a time filled with that - goodbyes to my fellow Bots 10s as they embark on their next adventures (on their own), goodbyes to my village and my work, and goodbyes to a life where I could be anything I wanted on any given day of the week (a farmer, a social worker, a teacher, a consultant, an accountant, a youth leader, an artist, and so on). Goodbyes are made harder when you deeply love all the things you are bidding adieu. And that is where we stand now.

For me, this goodbye is also met with some exciting hellos - to a new life, to a new job, to new challenges, to new faces. There is glory and elation and vitality in moving forward from something achieved and towards the great unknown. It is, after all, how I got to this place in my life that has become so special to me.

I am going to try and take the next twenty-two days to "hug" this world I am in now and shower it with all my love. I want to feel the emotions of it all and embrace them. I want to leave all of who I am right now in the sand of my village and with the people who have helped me grow here so that I can start this next chapter in Botswana anew.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Getting a Head Start: Third Year Assignments

Third year assignments typically start after a PCV finishes their work at site and reaches their original COS date. For many extendees (myself included), this also means they usually take their month-long "special home leave" before starting their new assignment. This allows for significant closure to be reached in their projects before beginning something new (and sometimes wholly different).

As I have mentioned before, I will have two assignments when I start my third year: one with Project Concern International (PCI) as a Technical Advisor for their Tsela Kgopo OVC and Gender Project and the other with Peace Corps as a Volunteer Leader. I will officially begin my new assignments on July 1st. But, as you likely could infer from my ramblings over the past two years, I have never been one for "going with the grain", so to speak. My natural instinct is to gather all the information available and dive head-first into whatever lies before me. This has served me well in the past so it is no surprise that I would do the same again here in Botswana with my third year assignments.

PCVL Head Start

Two weeks ago, my Country Director called and asked me if I would be willing to help plan and host a "Take Your Kid To Work Day" at the Peace Corps office. My role would be to come up with the agenda and activities, coordinate volunteers, and facilitate the day. A chance to play with adorable little kids all day and call it "work"?! Of course I agreed!

In collaboration with the office's Executive Assistant, I planned the agenda for the day. We decided to make it like a real work day for the kids (aged 3- to 10-years-old). They would get "official" nametags with the Peace Corps insignia and the title "Junior Staff" presented at a mock staff meeting in the morning, where they would also take their Oath of Service alongside their parents and other staff. They would go on to receive "medical clearance", complete with watching their heartbeat on a monitor, then go through "security check", which meant learning about basic safety then learning how to use an air horn and put out a real fire with a fire extinguisher! The rest of the day required them to be "Program Support" for the different sectors their parents worked in. Activities included shredding paper (big fun for a little kid!), stamping envelopes, and making friendship bracelets and doing crafts (to help come up with fun activities for PCVs to do with kids in their villages, of course!).

Besides being such a fun day playing with all the kids, it allowed me to see the staff from a more humanist perspective. Yes, we are all a family here - staff and PCVs - but it becomes a more powerful connection when you open up and see these more intimate moments. Knowing that I'm going to be working so closely with them in the upcoming year, I feel this was the perfect opportunity to share something deeper and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity. Also, have I mentioned that I like playing with adorable kids? Because their energy and excitement over it all really makes it worthwhile. Totally.

PCI Head Start

Last week, after submitting my updated resume, one of the staff from PCI called and asked if I would be willing to attend a meeting put on by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). The meeting was being called to review and revise a toolkit for HIV prevention and treatment for adolescents - a facilitator's guide for trainers, a manual for teachers, and three separate workbook for adolescents (ages ranging between 10-years-old and 19-years-old). Essentially, there is a pre-existing toolkit that has been being used in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and other Southern African nations, and they are hoping to implement something similar in Botswana. To do this, they asked a group of experts to assemble and adapt the current documents to something usable here.

The room was literally full of the best minds Botswana has to offer and some of the highest government officials. They ranged from the heads of NACA (Botswana's National AIDS Coordinating Agency), the Ministries of Education and Health, and Baylor Children's Clinic to directors of some of the key national and international NGOs dealing with adolescent health issues in the country. I felt like a very small face in this specialized crowd and wondered why I had been invited to join this meeting. I resolved to try my best to contribute and to learn as much as I could during the meeting, in the hopes of being a valuable resource in the future.

By the end of our first reading of the documents, the representatives in my group were providing me with accolades for my insights and all that I had to offer in terms of contextualizing the document for Batswana youth and for organizational structure and ease of use. It seems that my work on the ground and in the villages has provided me with keen insights often overlooked at this higher level that were extremely useful in revising the toolkit. To the point that the project head from UNESCO asked me if I would be willing to continue my revisions after the meeting because they wanted to get it finalized and begin implementation by June of this year.

All of this gave me confidence in myself and in the skills and knowledge I have developed during my time here. I was overjoyed to be in this company and to be able to contribute meaningfully to the project. I was proud of myself and grateful that PCI felt I was a worthy representative for their organization.

So here I am, with less than a month left in my two year contract, preparing and actually starting some activities for my future extension assignments. I am so content with where things are going and full of excitement about the work ahead of me. I think this is really going to be something great!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The House is BUILT!

Today marks a collosal achievement in this Peace Corps Volunteer's service! Why? Because the project I have been working on to build a house for a destitute family of ten is finally complete! Yes, that's right folks, THE HOUSE IS BUILT!!! It is a little later than we expected but it is finally finished. Getting this family into a home has been such a huge project and required a collaborative effort within my village as well as local and international support. I can tell you that it has all been worth it!

The house has five rooms (which is a mansion compared to the previous one-room structure they were all living in before) and a covered outdoor cooking area. Plus, the mattresses I got donated are all inside the house now so the kids have a cozy place to sleep at night. This family now has a place to call "home" (just in time for winter). What's more, the family is so grateful for and amazed by their new home that they have actually opened their doors and invited other children who didn't have a place to live to stay with them. Generosity certainly does seem to breed generosity.

I am so happy that I could literally cry. This is a tangible achievement and something that I will be forever proud of.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Last Site Visit in Gabane

On Monday I had my last official site visit with Peace Corps staff at my NGO in Gabane. My Program Manager and Training Assistant came out to the village to meet with me and the staff to discuss my work and my contributions to the NGO. Traditionally, this meeting is conducted in three parts: one where I meet with PC staff by myself to discuss issues I have had, another where the NGO staff meet with PC staff alone, and finally all of us as one. We opted, however, to do the entire meeting together because we feel that our relationship allows for openness, honesty, and transparency and didn't need the "secret meetings". I am grateful that we decided this way because it allowed me to hear the sentiments of the women I have been working with for so long.

Although the ladies and I are not shy about sharing our feelings and often compliment each other on jobs well done, they said some of the nicest things to the Peace Corps staff about me - things that I hadn't even realized I had helped them with. For example, our Center Coordinator told Peace Corps that, before I came, they had never worked off of a plan and just did things day-to-day. She said that, when discussing the work that we have to do, I am always saying "lets make a plan" so now they know how important it is to do that and they feel they are able to accomplish more because of it. (I didn't even realize I say "lets make a plan" so much, let alone that it had a positive impact on them!) She also said that I am the best teacher they have ever had. This is a huge compliment as she's a teacher herself with over thirty years experience in the field! She went on to justify this statement by saying that I explain things in a way that highlights their strengths so they feel confident and like they can succeed, that they can always feel my love for them, and that they feel encouraged to try harder and accomplish more on their own than they ever thought possible before because of this.

Hearing their kind words made me feel so great about my service in a way that I cannot yet articulate clearly. All I can say is this: when asked by Peace Corps staff at the onset of the meeting, before the ladies were even asked anything yet, what I felt has been my greatest accomplishment of my service, I told them that "...There are many tangible projects and things I can point to that define my service but what I feel most proud of is the confidence and skills developed by the ladies I work with. Their passion and dedication to the organization was always evident but they are also strong and capable and are finally seeing it for themselves and putting their knowledge to use to help so many people. If I helped them get to this point in some way then I feel that is my biggest accomplishment. They are more than colleagues - they are my family and friends here - and watching them succeed has been more meaningful than I could have ever hoped for."

The things they said that followed my statement bring more profundity, depth, and value to my service. For the first time in my professional career, I genuinely feel like I have made a difference. And that difference goes deeper than in the workplace because it is about the people. It is a change that is profound in me, in the lives of those I have worked with, and in this whole experience. I will carry this with me forever.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

My Left Eye: Insights And Analysis

A friend of mine emailed me in regard to my post about my close of service medical, specifically about the part where I congratulated my left eye for getting stronger. This is what he said:
So, Tija, I was reading your blog and I wanted to not only congratulate your left eye, but suggest that its resilience may actually be indicative of something much more insightful. :)
In high school, my English teacher taught me about a Sufi tradition: that you can see ones soul through their left eye. This really stuck with me. In fact, I find that even today, when I look at people in the eyes, I tend to focus in on their left eye.
What this has to do with you, I believe, is that your refurbished retina may be the result of a much greater transformation you've undergone since being in Botswana. If anything in your writing has pointed out in the last two years is that your service has lifted you to higher and happier heights than where you have ever been! You have been enriched by your life and your work. Your soul has been filled with so much life and love that it has, too, transformed and been uplifted.
Now literally, metaphorically, pragmatically, spiritually even perhaps, you can see the world more clearly. See the problems that need to be fixed, how to help solve them, and the path on which you should walk, skip, and dance on through life!
Wow.  Could this be true? His words certainly make me smile and I am honored by them. I definitely feel the transformation that has gone on inside of me and in the way I view the world and my place in it. I feel grateful with my entire being, my entire soul. I humbly thank my friend for believing in me like this and for sharing this tradition with me.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

I'm Coming Home!!!

This is the announcement we have all been waiting for with bated breath! This is when I announce to the world the dates I will be back in the United States of America for home leave! This is it! I'm coming home folks! Are you ready to find out when? Drumroll please.... Maybe a little bit more drumroll cuz this is big news... Wait for it... Ok, here you go... I, Tija Leigh Danzig, will arrive stateside on May 22nd and depart on June 27th! That means I will be back in the land of Starbucks, Nordstrom, foodies, live music, and outdoor adventures for five weeks! It also means that I will be home over my thirtieth birthday (June 5th) so get ready to party! I'll be dividing my time between Washington, California, and New York so stay tuned for dates when I will be in your neck of the woods! Holy cow, America... I'm coming for you. Wow. T minus 47 days!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Two Years "In The Field"

Today I went through the 3,031 pictures from my family's visit to Botswana. It was such a remarkable trip - my heart will always smile when I think about it. Besides being one of the best memories of my time here, though, looking back through their pictures allows me to see Botswana through their eyes and reminds me of how unique and wonderful this whole experience is. It's easy to forget how special it is when it becomes your daily life. I have been incredibly blessed to be here.

Two years ago today I set foot in Botswana... And what an incredibly eye-opening, earth-shattering, crazy, beautiful two years it has been.