April 25, 2010

PULA! / The longest blog in the world (sorry!!)

In Setswana, many words carry multiple meanings—it seems to be the case even more so than in English.  For instance “Dumela” means “hello” and also “believe.”  “Pula” means rain and is also the word for the Botswana currency—a rather poignant reminder of the importance of rain in a typically arid desert region.  However in spite of the usual scarcity of rain this time of year, Molepole is currently in the midst of what all evidence indicates will be a week-long downpour (thunder and lightening are crashing around me as we speak).  As a devout Northwesterner, rain has a very special meaning for me as well—typically, it brings with it a comforting blanket of cloudcover, a warm cup of coffee, cocoa or tea, and sense of calm as the misty drizzle emanates from the sky.  But just as the out-of-season rain is off-putting for the Batswana [“Batswana” is the word for the people of Botswana; “Motswana” is the singular of “Batswana”], for me, this heavy, thunderous rain is just another jarring reminder of the differences between here and home.

It has been a while since I have last blogged, and so much has happened, I hardly know where to begin.  PST (Pre-Service-Training) is in full swing—it’s 8:00am-5:30-ish Monday-Friday, with classes of varying length on Saturdays.  Training consists of 2-6 hours a day of intensive Setswana lessons in small groups of 4-5 PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteers) each taught by a Motswana teacher, and additional training on HIV/AIDS and health and safety issues.  The Setswana lessons are particularly effective, in my opinion—although I am painfully aware of how little I am able to say relative to how much I want to, I also frequently have to remind myself that I have only been in country for a week and know more than I learned from my 10 weeks of intensive Arabic lessons in college.  Even the Batswana are impressed with how much most volunteers are able to communicate, given how recently we arrived (we’ll see if this trend continues…). 

We have been with our host families for about a week, so unlike in my last post, I am starting to feel like I am in the “real” Africa.  I am embarrassed to admit that I am surprised by how much more developed Botswana (or at least Molepolole, the village where we are training) is than I anticipated.  Almost all homes have electricity, and most have running water, either from a spigot in the yard (as is the case in my house), or even in the home, like in America (quite a lot of homes have indoor plumbing, actually).  Most Batswana have cell phones, and, just as in America, TV seems to be among the favorite pastimes here (Generations and other soaps are very big, along with a Botswana version of American Idol, and other singing/dancing shows).  But again, I am given a jarring reminder that I am not in America when I need to use the restroom during the commercial break and have to use the outhouse instead. 

In many ways, though, Botswana is consistent with the Africa that I expected—the aforementioned outhouses, bucket bathing, dirt/gravel roads and footpaths without signs or corresponding maps, and donkeys, chickens, and goats roaming freely.  The doors are locked with skeleton keys (think the type of key used to lock a toy treasure chest or child’s diary).  People wake at dawn and sleep at dusk (no joke—I’ve been exhausted by 8:00pm and fast asleep no later than 9:00 or so every night!).  It is remarkably quiet without the noises of traffic and excessive electricity—you can hear church choirs singing and children playing in the distance (and at night, revelers frequenting the bars scattered throughout the neighborhoods).  The land seems very vast—even though it is full of vegetation this time of year—and the sky appears huge and spectacularly clear above.  Since Molepolole is a very large village, there are stores and an outdoor mall, however they appear to spring up out of nowhere on dirt roads, surrounded by the bush, with street vendors in the parking lots; it is not uncommon for a heard of goats to come running past the KFC in the mall, or to have chickens pecking around the PEP (an Old Navy-style store that is popular here).  We were very matter-of-fact-ly warned yesterday that after the rain the snakes come, so we need to be careful not to be attacked while walking to and form school.

The traditional architecture here are round cement buildings with thatch roofs, though most homes seem to be rectangular with tin roofs, and there are more and more westernized houses popping up, especially in the wealthier parts of town.  Most of the more traditional houses are fenced in by stone or cement walls and consist of several buildings—typically a main house, kitchen, outhouse, a shed for outdoor tools, and possibly additional buildings with bedrooms/living rooms for extended family.

Another striking contrast between America and Botswana is the acceptance of corporal punishment—both in schools and for citizens, generally.  One of the more jarring moments for me was when we were invited to meet with our local Kgosanas (part of a tradirtional system of governance, similar to tribal chiefs).  We were greeted very cordially with traditional song and dance, and then entered the Kgotla, where the women were to sit on one side and men on the other.  The Kgosana spoke and was very open and honest about our questions about his response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, and our questions about the role of the Kgosana in our ward.  During the course of the discussion, there were two moments that removed any doubts that I am, in fact, “not in Kansas anymore:” the Kgosana told us about caning, and although he said it with a smile, he made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that we will be subject to the same punishment if we violate any local laws (which is, in fact, true—as PCV’s we do not have diplomatic immunity).  The second moment was when he was asked about homosexuality in Botswana.  There was an uncomfortably long pause, and a cautious buzz of whispering among the Batswana attending the meeting, followed by an abrupt response from the Kgosana in which he said something to the effect of “We have heard of that sort of behavior in other countries, but has never happened here, and if it did, we would punish them.”  Even though I am obviously aware of the different views about sexuality here, I must admit that such a blanket statement still surprised me.

As I predicted, I am having little difficulty adapting to the big things—dirt roads, walking to school, no indoor plumbing—and more difficulty with the little things—different rain, different food (traditional fare is sorghum or maize cooked in a manner similar to polenta or cream of wheat and covered with meat in an un-seasoned stew/gravy sauce…which translates to either the plain grain, or a PB&J sandwich [typically the latter] for me and the other vegan/veggies in my group.  Tea is also very big here, and is served several times a day.  Locally grown roobious, imagine that! ;oP). 

Admittedly, though, the hardest thing for me is how differently animals, in particular dogs, are treated.  The concept of companion animals is not at all a part of the Batswana’s culture, and so only a handful of dogs have lives similar to those in homes in the US.  Most that I have seen live outside and have little or no shelter from this intense rain (and the impending cold—it gets into the low 20’s at night here during the winter) and are extremely emaciated, as they are only fed scraps, along with whatever they are able to scavenge from the garbage (which is strewn about; just as in America, there is a surprising amount of litter, although it is arguably more justifiable here, as the infrastructure for garbage collection is very different from that in America).  I have made several small strides with the dogs in my life, which I will not elaborate on here, but it is definitely something that is more difficult to cope with than I anticipated. 

As upsetting as this is for me, though, it seems easier to understand when faced with the reason for our presence here in Botswana: the HIV/AIDS crisis.  Even though I had heard some of the statistics before I came here, when you are actually here, walking amongst the Batswana, exchanging greetings and smiles, it is almost impossible to comprehend that every third person I speak to (at least in my age group; every fifth person overall) is HIV+.  I honestly don’t even have words to express how it makes me feel.  But I will say that I am very proud of how hard the Batswana and the Peace Corps are working to try to get it under control.

So, here I sit, writing this, listening to the rain pouring down on the tin roof above me, and daydreaming of a latte and some Bamboo Garden (102!!!  Sweet and sour chicken!! ZOMG!!!!!!), and slowly coming to the terms with the fact that it is not rain pouring down on me, it is pula, and I will not be drinking a latte, but powdered coffee or roobios tea, and I will not eat Bamboo Garden for dinner, instead ke ja morojo wa dinawa le dipathatha. 

And on that note, I say goodnight!  I’m sorry this was long and disjointed, and thanks to anyone who managed to make it through!   Also feel free to send me dark chocolate.  I like chocolate. Hehehe. :oP  (Chelsea Chilcoat, Peace Corps Volunteer, US Peace Corps, Private Bag 00243, Gaborone, Botswana ;o)  Miss you all SO much.  Also, I have a LOT of pictures posted on Facebook--the bandwith here is WAY too slow to post to multiple sites, and I want the pictures to be available to other vol's on FB, so if you want to see them (they are awesome, you should see them), you need to go to: www.facebook.com/chels1440.  Yes, Laura, Denny, and Mom, that means you need to get FB accounts.  I'm sorry, but I just don't have the resources to post a million photos here.  I promise you don't have to use it other than for my pictures, but I want you to see them!!


  1. Hey superstar! I miss you so much, but it sounds like your transition into Africa is going remarkably well. I loved the pics that you uploaded...for all of us in America, it gives us a better sense of your new world.

    Thanks for taking the time to update us on your adventures! Can't wait for the next entry. Much love!!!

  2. Hey Chels
    I love you and miss you. You are a fantastic writer! I feel like I right there with you. Gus sat on my shoulder as I read your blog to him. I love the updates. Write when you can, and know that you are really making a huge difference in the world and I love you and I'm proud of you!

  3. it's great you take the time to blog about your experience in such detail and it's a delight to read your thoughts :) thank you and keep it up as time and busy-ness allows, plz!


  4. Hey Chelsea! I'm glad to hear you are adjusting to life over there. :) I'm sad to hear that people who are different, and animals are not treated very well, but I hope you are able to keep your spirit through this experience and bring back much wisdom and knowledge.

    Currently it is 8 AM in Botswana, and it is 11 PM hear in oregon. I just wanted to give you something relatable, to remember home. :) It was sunny today, and a little cloudy. I hope we hear more from you as the weeks go by!

  5. Hi Chelsea, Have goosebumps to think you are actually there and excited that you are in the thick of things, so to speak. So far, your comments have made the Ladies Detective Agency books seem even more real. They drink a lot of "bush" tea and eating a pumpkin is a great event in the books. I lost your blog address and am so thankful Steve sent it - now I will keep up! Love you lots, Aunt Judy


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