Thursday, September 12, 2013

Water Rationing

I have often discussed how Peace Corps Volunteers horde water because of the inevitability of a water outage - stock up while you can, use sparingly when you can't. Water is a perpetual issue. This is even more evident when the "rainy season" just doesn't produce enough rain. Why is this a problem, you ask? Aren't you happy to evade the torrential downpours, you question? I will answer you now.

Water dispersed around Botswana comes from the reservoirs and dams that fill up as a result of rain showers during the months of December through February. If they don't get rain, we don't have water. If there's no water, then the crops die, the animals suffer, and the people go without.

This assaults all facets of life. It goes a lot deeper than washing your clothes more sparingly or not having a bath. For example, people live off of personal gardens and farms in the lands. If the crops die then they go hungry. If the cattle have nothing to eat because the grass has dried up then they get skinny and eventually also die. Without them, there is no chance of additional income for the families. This often leads to an increase in desperation and a rise in crime. Everyone and everything suffers. Botswana has not escaped this trauma.

Botswana is in the midst of a very severe draught. Rainfall in last year's rainy season was exceptionally low. The current projections have the water reserves in the southern part of the country running dry in about two months. That is just before the rains are supposed to come again. If it is like last year, however, we could go months before we see water. This has unleashed a whole slew of problems and very few answers of what to do next. One thing they have instituted though is water rationing.

Water rationing is rolling shut-offs of water to certain areas. When I returned to Botswana from my home leave at the end of June, they had already started this. My area of Gaborone was without water on Saturdays. Inconvenient to have an outage over a weekend but I was grateful to know for a fact when the water would be out so I could plan for it. This, as I saw it, was a blessing. The government then asked people to be diligent and responsible with their water usage the rest of the week, calling for cutbacks (including shutting down car washes, which is a huge independent industry here that supports the livelihoods of so many).

As of yesterday, the water rationing has increased to two water shutoffs a week within Gabs city limits and even more in the villages outside. It is instituted with the hope that they can keep the complete loss of water at bay until the rains come. So it is with cautious optimism that I accept my second day's shutoff. It is a small plan for this big issue but it's something. Rain dances would be appreciated. Anything that might help.

Now if only they could figure out what to do about all the subsidiary problems that are arising...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Pirates Took Our Internet

Last week, the internet went out in Gaborone. I was told that the entire city was without internet because of a glitch in the main system. After word spread to the offices in the complex where I work, people started thinning out for the day. I was among those who decided to venture home.

I began my walk back towards my apartment right around the time when my mom usually logs online and we get a few moments to chat. The majority of our communication is done this way - over instant messenger and email. Without internet, however, I would not be able to log on so I shot her a text message so she wouldn't worry. A few minutes later, my phone rang. Mama Tina! How exciting to get to hear her voice and talk with her on my journey home.

The first thing she asked me when I reiterated that the internet was down across the city was "Does this have anything to do with the pirates?" I paused for a moment, trying to make sense of her question. And then it dawned on me...

During my first year in Botswana, the internet went down for an extended time. I chalked it up to life in Africa and didn't think much more of it. That is, until someone explained the outage to me:
"The pirates dropped their anchor off the coast of Kenya and it hit the undersea internet lines. We won't have internet back until those cables are repaired."
PIRATES?! You have to be kidding me?! We have to deal with pirates here?! This was almost too much for my brain to handle.

To me, pirates were only in movies or rides at Disney World. They weren't real. At least they had never played a role in my life before so I could imagine them as something of fantasy and fiction. And, honestly, it was pretty funny to think that pirates, with peg-legs and hooks (of course), were the ones who "stole my internet". Which is true. PIRATES! And a pirate ship no less! Anchor plop, bye bye internet.

They were not the thieves this time though.

But now pirates are a part of my story. And, it seems, a story that my mama has a great chuckle out of too.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Weekend Away: Savuti Game Reserve

One of the perks of being a pilot is getting to travel and see some beautiful sites. One of the perks of dating a pilot is occasionally getting to tag along. This weekend I got to do just that as we traveled to Savuti Game Reserve, a part of Chobe National Park. (And, yes, before you say anything, this is work for my main squeeze. I'm just happy the very kind clients let me come along this time!)

My skillful boyfriend brought the little Beechcraft airplane down on a dried dirt landing strip in the middle of the bush - fulfilling a classic "TIA moment". From there, we hopped into a safari vehicle for the forty minute ride to the exquisite Ghoha Hills Savuti Lodge, where we would stay for the evening. Along the bumpy sand road, we saw herds of elephants, kudu, and an assortment of other animals. I couldn't wipe the big goofy grin off my face. I was in heaven.

The lodge is nestled up on the hillside amongst the trees, making it one of the most picturesque places I have been. Add to that the fact that it's an eco-friendly lodge and it has my vote for best bush lodge! The rooms are spectacular, with indoor/outdoor rain showers, plush beds, and the most spectacular view to wake up to in the morning. Honestly, I could hardly believe the view as I looked out from the bed of our tent-bungalow window. Amazing! Everywhere I looked was something even more beautiful or exciting (lion tracks by the camp?!). It was one part adventure and another part scenic reverie.

My boyfriend and I spent the hours watching animals come to and from a nearby watering hole, listening to animal calls (leopards, hyenas, and a pel's owl!!), playing board games, sitting by a fire, and reading our books snuggled up together. Without television and internet, it gave us some much-needed quiet time away from the city and an opportunity to relax and reconnect. Getting to see some game and eat delicious food (for free) was a nice added touch. After all, a night like this would normally set you back upwards of $900! Peaceful and serene, totally worth it, but outside of our normal price range. So this was a treat beyond compare. And, at least for him, it's all in a day's work!

After twenty-eight hours of pure bliss, we boarded the plane, avoiding about a dozen elephants hanging out at the end of the runway, and began our journey home to Gaborone. But first we had to make a pitstop in Maun to fill up the plane with fuel. This gave me an opportunity to see elephants wading through water and ducking for shade-cover under a nearby tree from above as we ascended and then to gawk at the glory of the Okavango Delta from thousands of feet up. It was a sight unlike any other. I have to say, the delta is truly impressive and magnificent and I am proud to be living in a place that has maintained such a natural wonder.

In all, this was a remarkable weekend getaway. I got to see my boyfriend in action, take a couple of really fun flights with him from the front seat (a view that is really amazing), see African wildlife, and relax in the beauty of the bush. All with a smile and my favorite guy. How did I get so lucky?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Educating Towards A Better Tomorrow

In 2006, Botswana's Ministry of Education and Skills Development (MoESD) set about developing a National Life Skills Framework that would guide the creation and implementation of the Life Skills program. The underlying belief inherent in this program is that children are the most important national resources and that they will become the leaders of tomorrow. The Life Skills program, therefore, aims to help children develop the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to avoid risky behaviors, overcome challenges, and live positive and health lives. What they developed was a strong framework that outlines learning outcomes and indicators in a number of subject areas that are meant to guide the Life Skills curriculum. What they did not create was a guideline for how to teach the material. This is where I come in.

In my role with PCI, I am entrusted with putting together a Life Skills Toolkit. The vision for the project is to create a guidebook to assist life skills facilitators with imparting knowledge onto learners by providing them with clear information and, essentially, a packet of hands-on activities and lesson plans aligned to the framework. It is the hope of PCI that this toolkit will enhance the Life Skills program and make it even more effective. As such, they intend to publish it and roll it out on a national level. This is a huge project to be involved with.

As such, I have been conducting focus groups with Batswana and have called on the experience of my colleagues who have been working within the youth development sector in Botswana - they are the experts in the field and can offer insight into best practices within the Life Skills program. It is my belief that the most rich product will be one that incorporates real-world experience with technical theory.

I am happy to report that development of the toolkit is moving along smoothly and we already have 170 pages stocked with descriptions of topics and key terms, as well as lesson plans on topics ranging from how to effectively facilitate sessions for children and young adults to compulsory content like: sexual and reproductive health, STIs, and HIV/AIDS; life skills (communication, critical thinking, goal setting, decision making, managing stress/grief/pressures, etc); values; health and safety; human rights; and finally how to monitor and evaluate your program. By November, the toolkit should be ready to go to print and hopefully there will be a national campaign by the first of the new year.

Here's hoping that 2014 brings about a more complete Life Skills program as a result of this project.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Finishing Up: Gabane Community Home-Based Care

Yesterday was a truly epic day. It was a day when I got to witness the end-game of my work at Gabane Community Home-Based Care (GCHBC). And, what makes it even more memorable and exciting, is that I got to do it in the form of an amazing event, alongside all the people who were part of those efforts from the community at large. My heart will be overflowing with joy, pride, and gratitude when I think about this day for the rest of my life. What was supposed to be a small event became something so much more.

A few days ago, the coordinator from GCHBC called to let me know there was going to be an event to hand over and unveil a brand new playground at the center. This had been a last-minute project that I pursued, mere weeks before I finished my time in Gabane and went for home leave. Although PCVs are encouraged not to start anything new at the end of their service, I believe that when opportunities present themselves it is important to grab them, so we made the effort. Getting the playground would offer a safe place for the children to hang out and have fun, as our previous one was dilapidated and in great need of repair. Two days before I left, I received word that our proposal was accepted and representatives from a local bank branch would be sponsoring the playground. Over the past two months, this effort came to fruition. And yesterday, I got to see the labor of love and watch the children's eyes light up when they saw their new play area.

I was so overwhelmed with love when I arrived at the center. I had been gone for two months and hadn't seen my Botswana family in as long. Hugs were the first thing on the agenda. But, not long after our familial embraces, I was sneaking around the event tents, media, and special guests, towards the new playground. I couldn't wait until the unveiling. I had to see it now!

When I saw the new playground, I could hardly believe my eyes! The new playground has swings, a climbing wall, teeter-totters, a bridge, slides, and an in-ground trampoline! And it was all new! And beautiful! I nearly burst into tears imagining the kids seeing it - how was I going to react when that time actually came?! I mean, who actually has an in-ground trampoline at their preschool center? It seemed impossible. This was just too magnificent to behold.

I went to run over to the ladies to gush about the playground but was intercepted by the donor, who I immediately hugged. She laughed and laughed because my excitement and my gratitude was so palpable. I hadn't seen the plans for the playground before I left so it was a complete surprise to me. It exceeded all of my hopes and expectations. I knew the children's reaction would be even more amazing.

Finally, after a few words with the donor, I went in search of the ladies from the center. As I rounded the corner of the event tent, I saw it. There, parked in front of me, was the combi we had written a proposal for many months prior! SURPRISE!

No one knew it was coming. FNB Foundation, who we were awarded the combi through, had talked to the bank branch weeks before and asked to surprise us with the combi at the handing over ceremony. And surprised we were! I honestly couldn't believe my eyes! Everyone must have been waiting for my reaction because, as I squealed with joy and shock, I turned around to see all the staff and donors laughing and smiling. IT WAS HERE!!! THE COMBI WAS HERE!!! And it, too, was beautiful!!! Goodbye old combi! Goodbye spending 47% of our funds on vehicle repairs! HELLLLOOOOOO riding in personalized style! WE HAVE A BRAND NEW COMBI! The combi was the last out-standing award I was waiting for to complete my time at Gabane Community Home-Based Care. I needn't wait any longer!

And all of this happened BEFORE the actual event and handing over ceremony!

The event was well attended. Our Kgosi and Minister of Parliament were there, as were the heads of the donor agencies and our entire board. The community came out in hordes. Every major village organization was represented - the clinic, health post, support group, school heads, and the other NGO in the village. Everyone who had been a part of my service in Gabane was there. And, over and above, the media came out to photograph and televise the event. It was truly spectacular. I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to be in attendance. The represented everyone that was part of time in Gabane.

On a very personal note, during his speech, the board chairperson made a very special "thank you" address to me for my efforts with the center. His words were kind beyond compare. He then asked me to stand. Everyone applauded me and the children came rushing over and hugged me. I was overwhelmed to the point that tears welled up in my eyes. To me, the only reason I was able to achieve so much was because I had a great team alongside me. They worked so hard and absorbed all I had to share with them. It was a joint effort. But I was so grateful for the acknowledgement and pleased they spoke so highly of me. I, of course, think the world of him and the ladies at the center.

As an added surprise, the donors also presented fleece blankets and small mattresses for each and every child in the center (54 of them!!!). The children clung to these blankets (which were a great gift, especially with how cold it was yesterday), even as they saw the playground for the first time. It was adorable watching them try to run to the playground and jump on the trampoline and climb the ramp with their blankets in tow. But they were just too excited to part with anything. Precious.

(Side note: When I went into the classroom to greet the children before the event started, they came running over shouting "Kamogelo! Kamogelo" and all wanted to do our "secret handshake". It warmed my heart that they still remembered everything because it was so special to me. And, I know you're likely thinking "But, Tija, it's only been two months, how could they forget?" Well, humans are incredibly resilient. Now apply that to 3-year-old orphans. I left them and was worried they would have blocked it all out in the name of self preservation. I am happy to report that they haven't. Smiles all around!)

After the event, I took some time to walk around the center and check out a number of projects we had done during my service, including the garden. Nearly a year later, the garden is thriving. The center feeds only from there now and it is still producing enough for income generation. It was amazing to see the plants flourishing. I was proud that the staff at the center were keeping up with it and, if anything, had improved the already gorgeous garden. It also a relief to see that nutrition is now taking a front stage in the efforts of the center's work towards helping the children and the home-based care patients.

The same goes for the new fruit tree orchard. This was a slower effort, but potentially more sustainable in the long-term. We grew these from tiny saplings that had been donated by a local greenhouse. There are now nearly twenty fruit trees - papaya, mango, and orange - that accompany our bustling garden. Small buds are beginning to flower on the trees, as the first signs that fruit will come. This is a joyous sight. And, if I may get sentimental for a moment, these trees are representative of our joint efforts at the center. They started out small and we weren't sure what would come of them. But then they were planted and nourished and strong roots began to take hold - a foundation for growth. Now they are strong and the potential limitless. How wonderful to witness.

As I walked into the office after witnessing the event, our awards, and the progress made in the fields around the center, the coordinator impressed me yet another time. She pulled out a new financial report they had made, unassisted, in preparation for an upcoming audit. The report was beautiful. They had learned everything I had shown them and were able to do it all on their own. There were QuickBooks reports and breakdowns and everything was substantiated with perfectly organized ledgers and more. I knew they could do it but it took my breath away to see the end result.

Lastly, the ladies announced that they refurbished a proposal I had written months ago and submitted it to a local foundation. They are meeting with a foundation representative next week about being awarded sponsorship for the next three years. If this happens, the center stands to receive upwards of P1.2 million to support its programs. That would give them the resources to grow the preschool, implement the Kids Club, and expand its reach to help even more people. I am so proud of the ladies for taking the initiative to pursue this opportunity. They are stronger than ever and ready to push forward to a new level. I am blessed to have been a part of their journey to now.

In the words of the coordinator, "All that's left to do is sing and dance and celebrate!"