Thursday, November 8, 2012


In June 2012, I officially closed service and returned to America. I spent a few months in New York reconnecting with family and friends, and in September I moved to Sitka, Alaska, where I serve as an AmeriCorps volunteer working with emergency medical services. This will be my final entry in this blog.

 I miss Botswana. There, I said it, and I'm not ashamed. I live in a gorgeous place, surrounded by whales and eagles and ocean and forest, and I still find myself thinking wistfully about the dusty village I complained so much about.

 It's not that I'm longing to go back to weeks without running water, nights filled with boredom and loneliness and ant and cockroach killing, sweaty bus rides with no open windows, daily marriage proposals and harassment, and the frustration of caring passionately about my work and being met with ambivalence and obstinance. I haven't forgotten those things, and I don't think I'm in danger of remembering my time in Africa through a rose colored lens. It's just an occasional twinge- when a good memory surfaces, or when I start to realize how long it may be before I could possibly see any of of my friends there again. Peace Corps is cruel in a way. You spend over two years fighting to accept a new culture and to be accepted by your community and to build relationships there. This doesn't usually happen until your last few months in service, when it's like a key has turned and everything is different. You have local friends, you understand the culture and you've figured out how to work within it, and feel like you actually could fit in and maybe even get something done. Then, almost immediately, your service is over and it's time to leave. This is great in that it ensures that nearly every volunteer leaves feeling positive about his or her service and host country, but it's also deeply unsettling to the volunteer once the excitement of being back in America begins to fade. My friends who still live in Botswana- will I ever see them again? What about other RPCVs? Sure I'm more likely to see other volunteers again, but America is a lot bigger and busier than I'd remembered, and reunions will likely be few and far between. I no longer have daily or even weekly contact with anyone who can relate to the life I lived for 26 months. It's a big loss. If I let a Setswana phrase slip out, no one around me understands. I constantly have to monitor how many times a day I use the phrases "In Africa...." and "This one time in Botswana...." for fear of boring everyone around me and sounding like Peace Corps is all I ever talk about. But Peace Corps was my life for over two years, and probably the most important experience of my adult life so far- of course most of my stories revolve around my time there!

 I haven't experienced any of the anti-American feelings I've heard some returned volunteers describe. If anything, my service made me more patriotic and grateful to be an American than I ever was before. And I don't hold any romantic or idealistic visions of Africa, as it seems so many visitors to Africa carry with them and write about. But Botswana, for better or worse, was my home for over two years. My time there changed me as a person and how I see the world in ways that I'm sure my family and friends can't even see yet, and I don't yet have the words to explain. Somehow Botswana, with its donkeys and goats and acacia trees, and its long lines and early mornings, its bewildering clash of East and West, traditional and modern, and wealth and poverty, and its exotic creatures and landscapes and dry, dusty villages, and of course, its cheerful, occasionally frustrating, often blunt, but always hopeful people, has gotten under my skin and into my heart. While I will probably never miss being called a 'lekgoa' or being told that I am 'growing too old and must have a baby now now', I will certainly miss being able to make a taxi driver chuckle by being able to unexpectedly answer all of his greetings in Setswana, and having him tell me that I am "becoming black" like him. I already miss having friends who will come running to help me whenever I need them, whether it's to change a lightbulb or to spend time with me when I'm grieving. I hope that where ever they are, they know I'd do the same for them if I could. I may still be enjoying my rainy days here, but I know I will miss the blue sky opening wide above my head so close I could almost touch the blueness, and sinking into spectacular sunsets that show off all of the splendor of creation. I may marvel at the Northern Lights here, but I will never forget staring up from the bush at a blanket of stars that made me feel tiny, yet part of something much larger than myself at the same time.

I learned many, many things during my Peace Corps service. I learned how to eat steak without a plate or utensils, how to 'braii' without fancy barbeque equipment, how to kill a scorpion without getting stung, and how to cook mophane worms and phaleche. I learned how to do my laundry by hand and how to wash dishes and bathe with no running water. I learned that it takes 9 liters to refill my toilet when the water is out, and that it takes insects about three months to discover that a new tenant has moved in and is storing food in the cabinets. I learned how to take buses and hitchhike around Botswana, and I learned just how many people you can fit in the back of a truck, or even in one seat. I learned that I am impatient and that I am obsessed with schedules and deadlines, and that Botswana does not share my obsession. I learned what it's like to be a minority, and to be stared at because I look different, and to be expected to behave in a certain way because of the color of my skin. I learned never to take my education, my health, and the rights I grew up expecting for granted. I learned what it's like to represent my country and culture with every word and action, and I learned what it's like to be a minor celebrity and to have people I've never met greet me by name. I learned how to be alone and how to be independent, but I also learned what it's like to feel lost and insecure and wholly dependent on strangers for basic needs. I learned to rely on the kindness of others, and was rarely disappointed. I learned what it was like to fail utterly and to be laughed at and not taken seriously, but I also learned what it was like to gain trust and respect by proving myself day after day. I learned that if you remember to see the person in front of you and not just an obstacle, and you can make that person laugh, often the obstacle will melt away. I learned to remember humanity by looking people in the eye, greeting them, and shaking their hands.

 These are lessons I never want to forget. They have become a part of me as Botswana has become a part of me. No matter how far I go or how long I'm gone, I will keep the places I've seen, the people I've met, and the lessons I've learned with me for the rest of my life. I may never know if my service impacted anyone in Botswana, but for better or worse, Botswana has changed me forever, and I don't regret a minute of my time there.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hard Labor and Halloween

I realized this weekend that it is much easier to feel like a real live Peace Corps volunteer when you are hot, sweaty, and exhausted, with blisters on your hands after a day of hard manual labor. Even though we all tried our hardest to enter Peace Corps without expectations, on some level I think most of us envisioned ourselves hard at work building things and working outside in some tropical setting, even after we were told that we were placed in offices and clinics in a mid-income country. It's what most people picture when they think of the Peace Corps, so it was very satisfying to have a day where we were doing exactly that. Mike, one of the Peace Corps volunteers up in Francistown, the second largest city in Botswana, works at a community center that focuses on orphan care in one of the more poverty stricken areas of the city. Usually on Saturdays, orphans from the surrounding area gather at the center to play football (soccer), have fun on the playground, and eat a meal provided by the center, but this week, Mike called on any available Peace Corps volunteers to come down to the center and help with some development projects he had planned. Eight of us were able to make it, and he put us to work tilling the soil for a planned community garden, clearing some land for a basketball court, starting a compost pile, and lining the driveway with tires so cars would avoid running over the football field. We arrived around 8am, and by lunch, we had accomplished more than any of us thought we could accomplish in one morning. The garden plots are ready for planting, the basketball court is about ready for cementing, composting has begun, and no one will be driving over the football field anytime soon. We were an absolute mess, covered in dirt, sweat, bruises, and blisters, but absolutely excited to have done something concrete and visible. Since Botswana is a mid-income country and we are mostly here to work on HIV/AIDS issues, we don't often get to see the results of our work. We discuss, educate, and attempt to work on behavior change, but never know how much of what we teach is taken home and used. Statistics can be helpful in the long run, but we are only here for two years, and it is very likely that we will never know how much of an impact we've really had on people's lives here. It can be very frustrating to work on programs without seeing results, so the occasional physical projects we come across can be very rewarding, and very helpful in boosting morale. And to see the kids get really excited about what we were doing, and wanting to help dig and rake, was just icing on the cake.
Of course, this weekend was Halloween in the States, so we couldn't let the occasion pass when we were already gathered together. We did the best we could to celebrate like we would back home, complete with candy corn, Thriller, and costumes thrown together from china shops or whatever we had at the house (one volunteer was a tree). We had a great time, even if we may have gotten a few extra stares from locals as we walked the streets of Francistown in our costumes.
Halloween is a fun holiday, and it was nice to be able to celebrate it, but it was a reminder that the real holidays will arrive quickly and that for the first time, I'll be thousands of miles from home and family and tradition. I'm a real sucker for the holidays, especially the tradition part, so I'm not expecting this to be easy. Luckily, our Peace Corps group has formed its own little family, and while I'm sure I'll still miss my real family like crazy, I think I'll survive. We already have our Thanksgiving menu planned out (although if anyone wants to send over anything to help make our feast more home-like, we would really appreciate it), and we're planning a big vacation to Victoria Falls and Zambia for Christmas. Even if I know I'll miss home, I can't help feeling like this will probably be one the more exciting holiday seasons I'll ever have!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Life in a Picture

Sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that I am actually living inside a child's drawing. You all know the kind I mean. The drawing with the straight line through the middle of it, with nothing below it, and bright blue skies above it. Puffy white marshmallow clouds often make an appearance. Green bushes and trees and maybe a large pink flower populate the horizon, and perhaps there is a small house with two windows and a triangular roof. And of course, the yellow sun smiles down from a corner, its rays reaching straight down to earth. Sometimes I walk out my door and it is all there before me, in bright Crayola colors. The rocky red-brown dirt stretches out before my feet like a carpet until it meets with a green line of acacia trees and bushes and perhaps a small hut with a cone shaped roof. From the roofs and tops of trees, the sky expands out, a blanket of impossible blueness above me, with the sun beating down its greetings overhead, daring me to be unhappy for even a moment. Really, sometimes the blue of the sky is so bold as to be impertinent, especially when one is trying to enjoy a bad mood. Sometimes the sky tries so hard to be blue that it actually reaches into purple, and then the lavender blossoms of the October trees fade into the sky at the horizon.
Other times, I find myself walking home in quite a different child's picture, this time dampened with the sprinklings of a little black rain cloud following high above me. Blue skies can be seen on all sides as I walk under its shadow, and the sun peeks in from a corner, smiling in amusement at the efforts of the small renegade cloud before quickly reasserting its dominance over the skies.
And now my little black rain cloud has followed me home, and I don't care if my neighbors all think I'm slightly deranged for standing under its showers, determined to get at wet as possible before it goes away. This is my first rain since May.
It's remarkably difficult to take things seriously when you suspect that you live in a child's drawing, but as a Peace Corps volunteer, I am obligated to serve where ever I am placed, imaginary or not, and to be serious on occasion, or I'd never get anything done. It is with great pride then, that I announce that I have managed to be serious long enough to get my first Peace Corps project off the ground and running. Yes, our first baby care class at Madiba Health Post was held this morning. The head nurse and I taught three pregnant women and one breastfeeding mother about the ins and outs of having a healthy pregnancy, from fetal development to nutrition to infection prevention. Our small class didn't have a lot to say, but they answered questions when asked, laughed in all the right places, and even showed special interest in exercise during pregnancy. I'm hoping to figure out a way to incorporate some appropriate stretches and exercises into one of the future classes, so if anyone has any expertise, be sure to let me know. Our turnout wasn't exactly what we'd expected, but it's a good starting place. As people keep telling me, there's a lot to be said for the education of even one person.
When I am not busy being serious, I am often living in dreamland, reading books upon books, which may account for the flights of fancy my imagination has been taking lately. The Peace Corps office has a small library, and volunteers are constantly exchanging books, but even that is not enough to keep up my appetite. I am forced to break my principles and read electronic books on my laptop, downloaded for free through Project Gutenberg, a wonderful site devoted to making all the old classics whose copyrights have expired available to the public at no cost. It has allowed me to read books like Jane Eyre, Peter Pan, and A Tale of Two Cities, and to reread favorites such as the Anne of Green Gables series and Romeo and Juliet. I never will like reading on a screen, though. There's something so satisfying about curling up with an actual book and turning real pages that a computer could never replace it.
And now it is time to be serious again- only this time I am serious about making dinner, since I have brought home boneless chicken breasts, a rare treat in these parts. Living in this culture that can't live without its precious meat, I am somehow becoming more and more of a vegetarian every day, and can't figure out why. I'm in no danger of becoming a real vegetarian though- my current excitement at the idea chicken cutlets is too great for that!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Preparation isn't Everything

I was prepared. I'd made signs and invitations in English and Setswana. I'd given a presentation to my clinic staff. I'd spent hours on a friend's computer doing research, and knew all of the effects and side effects of pregnancy and all the possible complications and warning signs. I had handouts on nutrition and the do's and do not's of pregnancy, and had 20 copies of each made (no small feat in Botswana). I had information on gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and fetal alcohol syndrome, and knew all of my stages of fetal development. I had a notebook, a binder, a sign in sheet, and name tags. I knew women who were very excited about the class, and some who wanted to come even though they already had kids. The clinic staff was enthusiastic and telling everyone who came in about the class, and I was slightly worried that we would have more attendees than would be manageable.
I should have known.
I knew that no one would be there exactly at 2pm. Nothing starts on time in Botswana, so I waited patiently and without concern as the time passed and 2:30 came and went. By 3pm, however, I was slightly concerned. By 3:15, I had given up, and had put everything away and was chatting with one of the nurses about the heat and telling her stories about snow in New York, when a young woman showed up at the door, asking where the 'workshop' was. And that was it. One person. Weeks of preparation for an project that everyone thought was needed and useful, from my clinic staff to Peace Corps staff to local people on the street, and only one person turned up.
I could be disappointed. I could be negative and let this color my whole Peace Corps experience, and let myself spin back down into feeling useless and homesick. I could give up the whole project. In fact, if I thought that the lack of attendance showed that there was no interest or need for the project, the only responsible thing to do would be to give up the project. I can't teach something that people don't feel the need to know. But I honestly don't think that's the case here. My counterpart has been a nurse in Botswana for years, and she saw the need to teach new mothers how to have healthy pregnancies and births and how to care for their newborns before I even brought up the project idea. And I've never been met with anything less than enthusiasm when discussing the class with local women. Clearly, I will not be giving up on this so easily.
But why didn't anyone show up, if people seemed so enthusiastic? I was a little stumped at first, but after talking to my clinic staff and the one woman who did show up, I'm kicking myself for not seeing the obvious. We wanted to hold the class in the afternoon because that is when the clinic is the least busy, and we could put all our focus into the class. This makes sense until you realize that there must be a reason that people come to the clinics in the mornings and not the afternoons. Botswana is a morning oriented country. Work starts at 7:30am here. Everything opens at 7:30am. People are up with the sun, and generally have the majority of their chores for the day finished by noon. Afternoons are for relaxing, even at work. Lunch hour ends at 2pm, but not a lot gets done between then end of lunch and the end of the work day. I didn't really understand this before, and I still don't really understand it now, but that's the way life is here, and I'm not going to change it. If you want to do something serious in Botswana, the afternoon is not the time to do it. The most obvious reason however, is one that I should have seen immediately. We were asking pregnant women to walk to the clinic in the midday sun of the African summer! Walking around at 2pm in the full sun is uncomfortable enough, and I try to avoid doing it- I can't imagine doing it while pregnant. I wouldn't have come, either.
Every meeting in Botswana ends with a 'way forward', so I'll wrap up this entry with our 'way forward'. Our new strategy: captive audience. Our first class has been rescheduled for next Tuesday at 7:30am, when the clinic opens to long lines and crowds of people. All pregnant women who are waiting to be seen for regular checkups will be redirected to the class before being seen. This would never, ever fly in the US, and in fact would probably cause considerable outrage by ladies waiting to be seen who have other things to do with their day, but here in Botswana, this plan has serious potential. People here are used to waiting, and I have yet to see an outraged Motswana. And this is not my plan, but the plan of the midwife, who is co-teaching the class and who is responsible for seeing all pre-natal visits. Let's hope it works!
In other news, I had a fantastic time camping out in the salt pans at the beginning of the month, and will try to post some pictures. It's so liberating to finally be able to travel and see the rest of Botswana (and other Peace Corps volunteers)! It definitely makes sticking it out at site easier when you have something to look forward to. Although right now, my most anticipated events tend to be the times of day when I have running water. Now that it's summer and every day is over 90 degrees, my water seems to be on vacation. Since coming back from the pans, I haven't had an entire day with running water yet. It's especially fun when you've walked at least 6 or 7 miles, have been working and running errands all day, you have no clean clothes left, and you walk in your door in desperate need of a bath due to smelliness and sweatiness, turn on the water, and......nothing. It's my favorite part of the Peace Corps. My new favorite hobbies include collecting water in containers of all shapes and sizes, and turning the faucet on and off, whether the water is on or not. Either I turn it on and off in the pathetic hope that this will somehow make the water flow, or I am turning it on and off to admire the gush of water on the rare occasion that it's on. I am picturing my return to America being very much like the scene in Castaway when Tom Hanks spends his first night in civilization turning the lights on and off. Only I will be standing at the kitchen sink, joyfully splashing in the overabundance of running water. And showering. I anticipate setting a full week aside for showering.
On that happy thought, I'll end this entry, and hope for water when I get home!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fitting In

Despite the arrival of summer in Botswana, bureaucratic confusion and lack of resources holding up my projects, and the fact that I am still owed large amounts of money by the runaway t-shirt man and a neighbor who doesn't like to pay for his electricity, I am having a good week. I can't explain it. There's no reason for it. The fact of the matter is that as I was staring out of the combi window, squished in the back as usual, watching the everyday chaos that is the Mahalapye mall at the close of business hours, the thought came to me: I like it here. I didn't mean to think this, and I never expected to think it. The thought floated up from nowhere and popped into my head, and surprised as I was to find it there, I discovered that I agreed, and allowed the thought to stay. I have no idea how long this thought will stay with me. It's quite possible, and even probable, that it will disappear as quickly as it came. For now, though, it is here. Maybe it's the bright yellow flowers that have sprung up everywhere in the last week. Maybe I'm still riding a post-IST wave of positive thinking, although I don't remember thinking this positively at IST. More likely, I think it is that I'm allowing myself to feel more open here. For a long time, I was on my guard all time, preventing harassment, unwanted attention, and even possible crime by refusing to speak to anyone. For a while, it seemed that even saying 'hello' to man was an invitation for a proposal, and that every conversation with any local was a stressful lesson in cultural differences. I looked the other way when passing people, and cringed when I heard someone call out “Lesh!!” (my Setswana name is Lesego, and Lesh is the nickname). I still have days like that, but lately I have been better about ignoring rude people and being friendly to everyone else. I even smile at people now! While I have been better about being open and treating people like neighbors instead of enemies to be avoided, I have also begun to feel more accepted in my community. I'm not sure which came first, but I think they may go hand in hand. I feel like I belong, so I am treated like I belong.

Some hints that I am starting to fit in:
-Most of the combi drivers know me and know exactly where to drop me off. None of them have called me 'baby' in weeks, and instead, some have started to call me 'sister'.
-The bus callers no longer yell “Gabs! Gabs!” in my face when I pass them (since all white people are assumed to be going to Gabs), and the taxi drivers no longer fall over themselves to bring me to the nearest lodge.
-I no longer quite know what to do with myself in crowds of non-Peace Corps white people. When I see a tour bus stopped in front of the grocery store, my instinct is to turn around and walk away to avoid the awkwardness. This should be fun when I get back to New York.
-When someone yells “Lesh!!” from across the street, I no longer cringe and pretend I didn't hear. I turn around, smile, and greet the other person- and lately, I have even started recognizing some of these people who seem to know me so well! This one is a patient at the clinic, this one is a student at the school, this one sells oranges at the bus rank....someday, I may even know their names.
-In taxis and on combis, people no longer stare at me as I get in. I have no idea if I've really met all these people or if they're just used to seeing the white girl in town, but I appreciate the lack of attention.
-I know exactly when to avoid the grocery stores and the atms (late afternoons at the end of the month when everyone gets paid, in case you're wondering), but I'm no longer afraid of the chaos and the long lines. Over thirty minutes in line to use the outdoor atm? No problem. There's a curb to sit on, and I'm sure I'll find someone interesting to talk to.
-I know three different ways to get to my clinic from my house, and the positives and negatives of each route (Is it too windy for the sandy path? Do I mind pushing through throngs of schoolchildren today?).
-In the two weeks since IST, I have only been proposed to once. This may be a record.
-I know which store to go to for every item I want, and where the best prices are- even though I'll still end up just going to Spar to get everything so I don't have to wander around town and check all of my bags at each store.
-I know better than the post office workers how much a stamp costs.
-My Motswana accent is close to being perfected. I now communicate mostly through various forms of “Ah!”, which can be used to express any emotion, I no longer use contractions, and I begin almost every sentence with “Ga ke re...” (“isn't it”), even when speaking to other Americans. This may also be fun when I go back to New York.
-My favorite 'fitting in' moment so far: I enter the internet cafe, and to my surprise, there are two very non-Motswana teenagers talking to the lady at the desk, who is by now a friend of mine. It's obvious that they're American, and when the leave, they struggle with the Setswana words for 'thank you', and end up asking the lady how to say it. She looks at me in shared amusement, and we both start to laugh as she tells them to ask me. I am a mess, even by Peace Corps standards, with my hair in braids, wearing an outfit I wouldn't be caught dead in if I were in America, and these blonde haired, wide eyed kids look at me in confusion as I tell them:
“Ke a leboga!”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Apologies and Updates

To be perfectly honest, I am slightly afraid to begin this entry. It's been so long since I wrote an entry, that I am afraid that either I will find that I have forgotten how to write and everyone will be disappointed, or that I will find that I have too much to write about and won't finish until morning. I'll try to keep a good pace without leaving anything out.
First, I feel that I should provide some reason for not writing for almost two months. Sadly, I have no good reason, but I'll try to explain anyway. I would love to say that I was too busy, but that's certainly not the case at all, although hopefully someday it will be. The truth of the matter is that I simply didn't have anything to say, at least not anything that I wanted to put onto a public website. I said in my last entry that I was starting to feel at home here and that life was beginning to feel ordinary. If I was living an ordinary life and nothing seemed momentous and important, then what could I possibly write about? I know it's hard to fathom that living in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer can be boring and mundane, but I assure you that it can be, and often is. I went to the clinic in the mornings, puttered around, helping in various small ways, went home for lunch, and spent my afternoons and weekends getting to know my community resources, grocery shopping, and doing laundry. I was still on lockdown, so travel and adventure were out of the question, and being settled and comfortable in my house and community, nothing seemed extraordinary to me. Nothing to write home about, so to speak.
Let me also explain that while my living situation was becoming so settled, my emotions were still anything but. Yes, I got used to life here, but I'm still getting used to living so far from home. I've never been one to be homesick (well, at least not in the last 10 or 15 years, in case anyone who knew me back then is reading and wants to call me out on this). I'd go off on my adventures without looking back, and although I'd be happy to see my friends and family again, I was usually sorry to come home and would miss the place I'd left for weeks afterward. I still miss some of those places today. I think if you'd have asked some of my friends and family about their concerns regarding me joining the Peace Corps, at least a few would have said that there was a good chance I'd fall in love with my assigned country and never want to come home. I can say now with great confidence that they should no longer be concerned about that. I like Botswana, I like most of the people I've met, and I think I'm going to like my work here very much, but I have not fallen in love with it, and I don't think I ever will. That's been hard for me to accept, and I didn't know how to express that without the negativity. I also have been more homesick here than I ever expected to be, and that's difficult for me to say too, akin to admitting weakness. My family has gone through a lot of major changes since I left, and it's been tough to sit it out here without participating and with minimal communication. My family might be challenging sometimes, but they're probably what I miss the most. I have great friends here, but I've also found it tough to not be able to talk to my old friends whenever I want to- and even harder to miss their weddings! I miss being able to drive, I miss going to church, I miss being a youth minister at AYM, I miss being the Girls 4 cabin counselor at Camp Adventure, I miss mountains and lakes and the ocean, I miss real trees, and I miss speaking fluent, fast English and being understood. And daily hot showers. And having a kitchen table. And knowing what the heck is going on in the rest of the world.
Anyway, the point is that following my birthday, I had over a month where I walked the balance between not having anything to say and following the old rule: “if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.” Hence the lack of blog-writing.
You might be adding up the time, and realizing that I haven't accounted for the last few weeks. Don't worry, I'm getting there. From August 25th to September 9th, I was in Gaborone for in-service training, along with all the volunteers in the Bots 9 group. We lived at a lodge for two weeks, spending our weekdays at lengthy training sessions on such topics as project management and volunteerism, and our nights and weekends generally re-living the college dorm experience, complete with 80's night and karaoke. Gaborone is a relatively small but modern city, with government buildings, large churches, many lodges, and several mall areas. Our lodge was walking distance from the Riverwalk Mall, which could be compared to just about any mall on Long Island. It has clothing stores, home goods stores, a book store, a few overpriced specialty shops, a movie theater, two enormous American-style grocery stores, and restaurants and a coffee shop- you can even get pizza there (which we did, of course, on the first day). We spent a lot of our time there, but I'll highlight some non-Riverwalk IST experiences. One night our lodge was overrun by poets of every southern African nationality, and we were invited to attend their poetry slam/open mic in the conference room. I'm not especially into poetry, especially spoken poetry, but having nothing better to do, I went with a few other volunteers. I am so glad I did. Although spoken poetry still feels a little awkward to me, these people were amazing performers, and they incorporated so much passion and music into their work that I felt lucky to be in the audience. A very talented Bots 8 volunteer performed an song, and at some point, she must have mentioned me to them, because before I knew it, I was up on the stage. I didn't have anything prepared (certainly nothing original) and I know it wasn't my best performance, but everyone was very supportive, and it felt great to be included in the group.
Another night, we heard that a local cafe/bar was having a salsa night, and since one of our volunteers had done a previous term of service in Mexico, and it happened to be his birthday, we decided to go. We spent an hour learning and practicing salsa in someone's hotel room, and were eager to get to the bar to try it for real. However, when we got there, they were cleaning up, and there was no music playing! Salsa night was canceled, but we were a determined group of people without a backup plan. After many rounds of negotiations, the bar was re-opened, another volunteer sped over with some salsa music, drinks were provided at a discounted price, and the dancing began. We were practically the only ones there, but we can make our own party, and it ended up being a pretty good night. Who'd have thought I'd learn to salsa in Botswana?
The best experience by far, though, was our day at Mokgolodi Game Reserve. About a half an hour outside of Gaborone, Mokgolodi contains all kinds of animals that are allowed to roam the reserve, including leopards, giraffes, rhinos, and wildebeest. Unfortunately, we arrived around midday, which is apparently naptime for most of the wild animals of Botswana. We did, however, get to see kudu, hippos, warthogs, baboons, and many, many impala. Not very impressive, you might think. We thought the same. Until we got to the hyenas and cheetahs, of course. The hyenas are kept in an enclosure, but they were lounging near the fence. There are some hyenas on the reserve that are allowed to roam freely, but these spotted hyenas were raised as pets until their owner got nervous when they appeared large enough to eat his small children. I don't blame him- hyenas are much larger in person than I'd imagined them to be! The cheetahs are also kept in an enclosure, but having paid extra and signed the required waiver, we were allowed inside with them. We had no idea what to expect as we went through the double gate in our safari jeep- it felt a little like being in Jurassic Park. We were told that these cheetahs were twin brothers, orphaned at a young age and rescued and kept by the reserve. They are now 14 years old, old men in the cheetah world, although still pretty active around feeding time or when taunted by impalas hanging around outside the enclosure. When we met the first one, though, he was napping on the side of the dirt path. Our guide got out first, walked over slowly, and then stooped down and began stroking the cheetah's head and rubbing and tussling it as if it were an oversized house cat. We held our breaths- until the purring started. Powerful purring, loud enough to be heard by everyone and to be picked up by the weak microphone on my camera's video recorder. Each of us took our turn, careful to follow the guides instructions to touch only the cheetah's head and to approach from behind him. The fur on his head was matted and a bit rough, but he leaned into each touch and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience. I longed to touch the rest of his fur, which looked much softer and shinier, but as I enjoy the use of both my arms, I didn't dare. We stayed with the first one for a long time, getting more and more comfortable with the idea that we were petting a cheetah, even through a scary but thrilling moment when the cheetah rolled over as a volunteer was petting him, and reached out his arm so that his paw was resting on the volunteer's arm. Eventually, though, it was time to move on and meet the other cat. This one, too, was napping, and barely noticed our arrival and consequent petting and photo-taking. He was darker in color than the other, with more prominent markings, and stretched out sleeping in the sun, he reminded me of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip. As we took turns petting, I looked back through the brush to the other cheetah, and to my shock, he was no longer lounging, but walking straight toward us! Jealous of our attention to his brother, he sauntered past us and meaningfully plopped down next to his brother and stretched out lazily. Of course we set out petting and photographing both cats immediately until it was finally time to leave and finish our game drive. We met up with the rest of our group at the reserve's restaurant, where we learned never to order calamari in the desert, and then piled into the combi and headed back to the hotel and Riverwalk, where a bunch of us went out for Indian food. All in all, I would say that it was a very successful day. How many people can say that they have petted a live cheetah?
IST ended with a language exam (my score was intermediate high) and a counterpart workshop, where our counterparts and supervisors were invited to spend two days working with us to shape our plans for the rest of our service. Luckily, I have a wonderful counterpart, and we had already taken time to discuss all of these things, so everything went smoothly. Now I am back in Mahalapye, and slowly starting to figure out how to turn these plans into a reality. I have two major projects at the clinic that should be implemented within the month, and I'm pretty excited to have something concrete to do. The first is a baby care class, inspired by the events described in previous entries, which showed the difficulty of caring for a newborn with little education or support. The class will be held every Tuesday afternoon, and it will cover subjects such as nutrition for the pregnant or breastfeeding mother, forming a birth plan, caring for the newborn at home, and emergency care. It will be a 10 week course, and parents who attend each class will receive a certificate at the end. My counterpart is a midwife, and while I have been working on the structure and curriculum for the classes, she will be teaching the bulk of the material. She's as excited as I am, and is even talking about expanding the class to other clinics if it's successful at ours. The other project is not quite as far along yet, but I don't think it will be too difficult to plan and implement. Our clinic is a youth friendly clinic, but currently, it is youth friendly in name only. The nurses are trained to be sensitive to youth, but no special effort is made to reach out to that population. This new project will require that every Thursday afternoon will be reserved for youth only, giving young people the chance to utilize the clinic without being surrounded by crying babies and potentially critical older relatives and neighbors. We will have educational material available, extra efforts will be made to ensure privacy, HIV testing and counseling will be available, and we will hold games and activities to draw the youth in. I'm a little concerned that the hours (2-4:30pm) will be too restrictive for youth attending school, but we have a number of out of school youth in the area, and in Botswana, the definition of youth extends to 29 years, far past school age. We'll see how it works out and how well attended youth hours will actually be.
I'll try to update more frequently than once every couple months, but don't hold it against me if I don't. Maybe it will mean that I'm finally busy and doing something meaningful with my time here!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Quick Birthday Update

Today is my birthday, and I have absolutely no plans. I thought I would be depressed by this, but it's actually a bit freeing. Usually I set up all kinds of plans and expectations only to be disappointed when they fall through- I don't have a very good track record when it comes to birthdays. This year, however, there is no way I will be disappointed. After being woken up at 6am by my family calling from New York to wish me a happy birthday, I went back to bed, and at noon, I am still there. In a few minutes, I will head out to town to use the internet and pick up some groceries, and that will be the extent of my birthday activities.
I did celebrate a little yesterday, with a birthday lunch at Mike and Geri's. Actually, it was more like a birthday feast, easily the best meal I've had since moving to Botswana. They grilled three enormous T-bone steaks and served them with chard, carrots, and potatoes, topped off with homemade carrot cake and Oreos for dessert. We sat for hours, feasting and discussing various issues surrounding our work here and sharing experiences. I am very lucky to share my site with such amazing, generous people.
As a quick follow-up to the previous entry, the baby is home and doing well. She spent four days in the hospital on IV antibiotics, having been diagnosed with an infection probably acquired during birth, and came home on Thursday afternoon. I've been over almost every day since, and have found some great new friends in Shana and Wilton. Shana knows me well enough to understand that I have a weakness for babies, and hands her baby over to me almost immediately upon my arrival. The baby is still tiny, but she is growing some extremely pudgy cheeks, and is the most alert newborn I have ever seen. She looks around at everything with her enormous eyes, trying her hardest to focus on things she couldn't possibly see clearly yet so that she often looks cross-eyed. Wilton and I discuss differences in culture and politics in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and the United States, and while we all share a collective homesickness, we also share an appreciation for where we are. I have been lending them movies, and Shana is now among the throngs of young women who have fallen under the spell of 'The Notebook.”
At some point between the MosadiMogolo match and this four day weekend, something changed for me. I can't quite figure out when or how it happened, but somehow I feel different. All of a sudden, life here isn't such a daily struggle. Small tasks and chores are no longer exhausting events, but mindless activities. Evenings are still long and boring, but I don't spend them listening for strange sounds and wishing to be home. The bus rank no longer feels overwhelming and chaotic, and crowded combi rides are routine. Even the small kids shouting 'lekgoa' at me as I pass have become just part of the scenery. Everything feels, well, ordinary. I get still get mental flashes reminding me that I am living thousands of miles away from home in Africa, but they don't get to me the way they used to. Of course I still miss my family and friends, but it's tolerable now. I don't spend every day in an active struggle not to call the country director to ask for a plane ticket home. I'm not saying that this is the end of my homesickness and that everything will be easy from here on out. In fact, I'm sure that's not the case at all. But this crazy Peace Corps experience is now my life, for better or for worse, and maybe I'm finally beginning to accept it.