Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas from Botswana!

Another Botswana Christmas spent with the Monks/van Dyk clan!

From all of us to you, stay warm over there in the polar vortex! And we'll try to thwart off heat stroke in this 110 degree weather! Oh the difference 9,000 miles makes...


Wednesday, December 11, 2013


I don't often express feelings of homesickness. Perhaps this is because I have felt so blessed to be in Botswana and to be doing the work I am able to do here so it seemed petty to talk about being homesick. After all, I signed up for this, I even extended my contract to stay, so any longing for home is of my own making. But today I feel like sharing that homesickness does not evade me, even if I rarely mention it.

So why am I choosing to talk about it now? In part for future Peace Corps Volunteers so they know it is normal to feel homesick. Even if you love your life, as I do, there will be days when you miss home and that is okay. In part for posterity. This blog is a documentary of my experience in Botswana and homesickness is part of that tale. And, finally, in part to explain a few things that I have been mulling over these passed months...

During Pre-Service Training (PST), we tell trainees that it's important to live firmly in this world and to avoid trying to straddle two places at once. Basically, we tell them that it will be important to detach somewhat from their lives in America and to start forging strong connections in their host country. This really is an effective method because it helps ground you - you gain strength and independence, you push yourself, and you bond with your cohort. Your cohort will be the people that genuinely understand what you are going through and will be your sounding board, your shoulder to lean on, and your loudest fans since they understand the value of even small successes. Not to mention, your cohort is in the same time zone as you are so it makes talking to them all the easier!

So what happens when your cohort goes home? This is exactly what happens when you extend your service - your biggest support system in country, the people that you grew to love and respect and see as your allies in Peace Corps, are no longer there. That is trying on a psyche. You have to learn how to navigate this experience in a new way. While you remain deeply grateful to everyone that has remained an active part of your extension year, you become increasingly aware of the distance and, surprisingly, to the fact that people are moving forward in their lives. Looking at the photos your cohort uploads is different now since they no longer resemble your own - pictures of small children are replaced with new pets and hiking spots. You are happy for them, just as you were happy for the friends you left before, but there's a new sting to it.

And what happens when you allow yourself to start looking ahead to jobs and returning home because that actual date starts looming ever closer? Well, you stop heeding the advice of fifty-one years of Peace Corps Volunteers before you and start straddling two worlds again. As you're roasting away in over 100 degree weather, you daydream about snowboarding and snowmen and snow days. As you spend quiet nights at home with a book or your favorite new television show (The Newsroom), you also tab through photographs from three and four years ago with friends who don't even live in that town anymore and think about how great those times were (even if you know they wouldn't be the same today). You allow yourself to miss things and you lose focus on all of the greatness of living and working abroad. In a country that you love, no less.

This is where I sit today, pondering all those things as I watch the rains clear from outside my window. The sun is shining and there is beauty all around me.

Somehow even just typing this has been cathartic. It has reminded me that I have a conscious choice about my own happiness and my own thoughts. And this is the cycle of a Peace Corps Volunteer and of a development worker living abroad. It is a constant rededication to the cause and to yourself. It is important not to forget where you come from because that is where you gained the power and strength of conviction to come this far. Being homesick means you had a life that was worth longing for. That is something to be grateful for and to be embraced. What matters most is how you move forward. I have six months left of my extension contract and I intend to focus on Botswana - on the work and on life - so that, one day, when my mind wanders back here, I will be homesick for this country too.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

PULA! (Poo-Lah!)

Finally, after months and months of waiting, the rains have come! They started early in the morning yesterday and continued throughout the night and all day today. As you can see by the picture, taken from my bedroom window, there is even rain water buildup, meaning that the ground is saturated and we are well on our way to filling up the dam! Yes, I do realize that may be an optimistic statement but I am a "glass half full" kind of gal and I am positive that the rains will continue for the days to come... In the meantime, the skinny, hungry, and dilapidated animals are lapping up water from the puddles and we are all watching as the plants turn green before our eyes. This is cause for celebration. It is amazing what a little rain can do! PULA!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Rising To The Occasion: Interview Time

Wednesday night, after watching Eat, Pray, Love for the thousandth time since being in Botswana (which I watched in an effort to be inspired and motivated for my interview with Peace Corps Headquarters), I started getting stomach pains. And not your normal stomach pain either. This was absolutely diabolical. Gut-wrenching, shooting pains that made me keel over. As the pain started making me feel like projectile vomit was inevitable, I started making routine rounds to the bathroom. This continued all through the night and well into the morning...

...into the morning of my big on camera interview for Peace Corps' new recruitment and marketing videos. Of course.

In the hours before the interview, I was so exhausted and in so much pain that I couldn't help but cry. Why now? I have been sick only a handful of times since moving to Botswana and, even then, nothing compared to this - the stomach flu. It may very well be the worst of the icky-sicknesses. My body's timing was wretched. But my will-power was going to have to win out this time. It had to.

I somehow managed to rip myself away from my spot next to the toilet bowl long enough to take a shower and put on some makeup (being sure to apply a little extra blush to offset the whiteness in my face). I talked to my mom and my sister one last time on instant messenger and gave myself a pep-talk that included "DO NOT PUKE ON THE INTERVIEWERS" and "you can do this" before collecting my things and making my way (very slowly) towards the combi stop.

Despite waiting for a combi with an open front seat so I could sit by a window, the ride to where we were meeting seemed to drag on. Deep breaths. I arrived about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule - enough time, I reasoned, to make one last dash to the bathroom (in case I became a pukey face again) then to fix my makeup, change my shoes, and be ready to impress. Deep breath.

I was miserable. But I was there.

And, to my surprise, people were complimenting me on how great I looked! It's amazing how much a little makeup, a good outfit, and a fake smile can do!

I sat and meditated while I waited for the communications team from headquarters to arrive. I mentally went over the interview questions they sent a few days prior and I told myself over and over and over again that I could get through this. Deep breaths were my friend and an active mind was my distraction from the shooting pain in my stomach.

Before long, we were making our way to a conference room, where the interview would be held. I made small talk with the communications team, who were two of the most lovely people I have met in a long time. I instantly took a liking to them. So, of course, I over-shared about my stomach flu and they, in turn, shared their mineral water. This proved to be a gift in the hour ahead. As they finished setting up the camera, they told me about the goals for this filming and the ways in which the footage would be used. And then we were off! Lights, camera, ACTION!

I am not entirely sure of everything I said over the course of the next hour and a half but the communications team assured me that I did a great job and that they got a lot of usable material from my interview. The lead interviewer went so far as to say I gave them the exact responses they had hoped for when they set out for Southern Africa. And, to be honest, they seemed genuinely interested in everything I had to share (to the point of continuing the conversation well after the camera stopped rolling).

I had done it. I beat the stomach flu and successfully made it to my interview! (I toppled over shortly after.)

Someone on the Peace Corps staff took pity on my poor aching self and drove me home after the interview. For the next twenty-four hours, all I did was sleep and drink rehydration salts.

Rise to the occasion. Mind over matter. Make it happen. Lessons that played out for this interview - and in life.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Headquarters Makes A New Recruitment Video

In September, before the United States government shutdown, I was approached by our post's Country Director asking if I would be willing to be interviewed on camera by Peace Corps Headquarters. They were coming to Botswana (and Lesotho and South Africa) to film volunteers for a new recruitment video and he had recommended me as a person that exemplifies the ideals of Peace Corps service. I was honored and accepted the invitation. But, due to the shutdown, the media team from HQ was unable to travel to Southern Africa and the project was suspended indefinitely.

While having my morning coffee today, I opened up my email to see one entitled "Communications Video, Photo Asset Collection Trip". As I looked closer and began reading through the message's content, I realized the new recruitment video project was being rekindled and the team was still interested in interviewing me for it. I responded to the email to inquire further about details of the trip, as they were not expressly mentioned. I received a quick response: The team will arrive on Wednesday, December 4th (tomorrow) and would like to film me on the 5th as I lead a training session and then do my interview directly afterwards. That is in two days - talk about short notice!

So, ladies and gentlemen, I am now frantically answering pages and pages of questions they have forwarded me and mentally going through my closet for the perfect "on camera outfit"... This girl is going to be on the official Peace Corps recruitment video!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Officially Saying Goodbye To GCHBC (Protocol Observed)

Apparently, even going away parties operate on "African Time" in Botswana so it is a darn good thing that I stuck around for a third year or they would have needed to have it without me! Nearly six months to the day since I moved out of Gabane, I was honored with a very special "Farewell Kamogelo" event at Gabane Community Home-Based Care.

Let me set the stage...

The event, which was held at the center, was attended by the GCHBC staff and board, the home-based care volunteers, the District AIDS Coordinator, district counsellors, the village chief (Kgosi), clinic and health post staff, community members, and a number of people I worked with on various projects. While everyone showed up on time (a huge feat), the event still started nearly two hours late. Conversation filled the time, though, so it went by as if only a moment passed. The room was overflowing with smiles, laughter, song, and dance. The smell of my favorite Setswana dishes traveled out of the kitchen (with happy cooks exclaiming that the vegetables were from the garden we built, a fact they knew would make me exceedingly happy). And the tables were covered with shiny linens in white and purple, expertly ruffled so it looked like flower blossoms adorned them. The atmosphere was stunning and the energy nearly took my breath away.

The event had a formal component, where I sat at the head table and heart-felt speeches were given. Among them was a speech given by the center's coordinator, Mma Leburu. She spoke first in Setswana and then repeated in English, making sure I heard her words. Her oration brought tears to my eyes. She talked about the challenges we overcame, the work we did, and the skills they now have. She had people from the audience stand in acknowledgement as she told stories about projects I had worked on. For instance, the family we built the home for, children and all, stood as she talked about that effort and the School Heads from the primary schools when we discussed my ongoing caregiver training and support project. As they stood, they blew kisses and bowed in my direction. I couldn't help but tear up at this gesture. Compliments were paid to me that humbled me beyond compare. And then, perhaps the best compliment was made to me as Mma Leburu said:
"Kamogelo, you never judged us or looked down on us for our lack of education or experience. You just held our hand and believed in us. Because of you, because of your kindess, and because of your love, we now see in ourselves everything that you always told us we were. You were our gift. We love you."
And, with that, ululations exploded from the crowd, I burst into tears, and I lept out of my chair and ran over to Mma Leburu and hugged her a half dozen times before walking throughout the room to give hugs to everyone there.

While I finished handing out my hugs, everyone began to sing and wave and point at me. The lyrics to the song, which were exceptionally poignant, were (translated from Setswana): "Go well my lady, go well, but don't every forget us!" As they sang, I kept thinking, How could I ever forget these people?!

During their song, Sebina (my counterpart and one of the staff from the center) slowly brought a giant wrapped present over to me. The moment she laid it on the table, she began to unwrap it, too excited to wait on me. As the hand-decorated brown paper fell to the side, pottery was revealed! It was an entire tea set made by my friends at the Pelegano pottery place! A tea pot, six cups and saucers, a sugar pot, and a milk pitcher! As I gasp with surprise and awe (since this was a set that I had looked at purchasing for some time), Sebina whispered "I know you love this. It matches the big coffee mugs you already have. I remembered!" And then she smiled ear-to-ear as I jumped around thanking everyone for their generosity.

Moments later, Sebina was handing me another gift, which was just from her with a note attached to it. While the gift was beautiful (a red vase), the note was exponentially more special. I hugged her again to let her know how much it meant to me and, as I did, she said "I will never forget your hugs." So I hugged her again.

The entire day was a reminder about all the things that made my Peace Corps service so special - these ladies, this community, and our relationship. This was what my service was about and no one can ever take that away from us. It is something I will never forget. And now it is something that I know they will never forget either. It brought so much joy to me to have that closure with them and the acknowledgement of everything we shared. I kept thinking about how lucky I was to still be in the country to have this time together and this experience, and I wondered how many volunteers never get the chance for this. After all, I "should have" been gone six months ago... So, to those who left without a party or without hearing these words, I hope you know that your service mattered and you inevitably touched people beyond recognition. Sometimes it just takes them a little while to sort through it all and find the words. Two years just isn't enough.