May 20, 2010


It has occurred to me that as a result of my incessant whining about the stresses of PST, I have failed to mention that as our time in training is dwindling—assuming all goes to plan, we will be sworn in as official PCV’s on June 10th, and leave for our sites on June 11th—the most significant part of training is coming up this weekend: Site Placement. On Saturday, in what is traditionally an extremely elaborate reality-TV like ceremony, we will be given all of the details about our assignment—where we will be living, who our counterpart organizations are, how close we will be to other volunteers (and who our nearest volunteers will be), whether we will be the first volunteers in our placements, and have to forge entirely new ground, or will be following someone else, and have to begin in their shadow.

Despite the fact that none of us has any idea or control over where we will be placed—the Peace Corps staff uses training to assess our skillsets and placement preferences and match us to the posts that they feel are the best fit—we can hardly talk about anything else. Who will wind up by themselves at Charles Hill in the middle of nowhere in the desert on the border of Namibia, with the closest volunteers 16 hours away? Who will wind up in Moleps, with other volunteers at every turn of the corner?
Housing isn’t much of a concern for most volunteers—Botswana is a unique country within the Peace Corps, in that it is the only country that pays a portion of the program costs. This means that for almost all of the programs, the Botswana government provides PCV’s with the same standard housing that it provides to it’s government employees, including teachers, District Aids Coordinators, and clinic workers. The volunteers in the government housing will all have electricity, indoor plumbing, and fairly modern cement house construction.
However, there is one program which does not qualify for the government housing (and rightly so), the NGO (non-governmental organization) program. As fate would have it, this is the program to which I am assigned. All in all, it is the best match for me, as I have extensive experience with NGO’s, and I feel it has the most flexibility and opportunity for creative problem solving—which is among the perks of Peace Corps service work. However, I’ll admit that the housing situation makes me nervous. Because there is not standard government housing, it is provided by the NGO’s. Anyone who has worked with NGO’s in America knows that if an NGO is in dire need of a free full-time employee (the PCV) they in all probability lack the funding to pay for a posh place. Therefore, the housing among the NGO volunteers varies greatly—some volunteers have housing even nicer than the government housing. Others have no electricity or water on the premises, or just have a room in someone’s house and a hot plate. Although the latter is rather rare, I can’t help but be a bit nervous—while one does not enter the Peace Corps looking for a life of luxury, it is difficult to live in conditions that are vastly inferior to the standard of living in the surrounding community, and as much as I love to cook and bake, the thought of not having access to a real stove (or even being able to cook over a fire), or of sharing my space with roommates not of my choosing, is rather terrifying (most PCV’s do not share housing, so honestly, this possibility had not occurred to me prior to arriving here). It also is not entirely uncommon for an NGO program not to have secured housing by the time the volunteer arrives at site, which can make for a stressful few months, staying with employees or friends of employees.
I’m obviously concerned about the actual work I’ll be doing, but there is such a range of possibilities that between the type of NGO, personalities of co-workers, and the issue of whether I’ll be following another volunteer, and, if so, what his/her reputation (which I would inevitably inherit) is like, I can’t even begin to articulate my hopes and concerns.
As you can see, I am consumed with anticipation and anxiety along with the other volunteers at the moment. Send good thoughts that I won’t be among the people crying this Saturday! All that being said, it is a well-known mantra among PCV’s and staff that your site is what you make of it, so I’m doing my best to keep an open mind, and be ready for whatever I get…but you still can’t stop me from keeping my fingers crossed!
I’ll try my best to have an update on Sunday or Monday with all of the info—no promises, though, between time constraints and difficulty getting to the ‘net… Love and miss you all so much…and thank you again for the letters/post cards! I’ve finally located envelopes and the post office, so yours are on the way! You are AMAZING—I have THE best family and friends in the world!!!
OH! And DON’T send any more things to the address I had posted before! I should have my new site address soon, and once I move, it’ll be tricky to get things sent to the main Peace Corps Office in Gabs. I’ll post my new address ASAP! (But don’t stop writing…just hang on to them for a bit—your letters truly improve my quality of life exponentially!)

May 17, 2010

History and culture at last!

As I have frequently lamented in this blog, PST often causes PCT’s to feel as though we are living inside of a small bubble which consists only of our host family and school, and not yet really IN Botswana.  However, every so often, our bubble is burst and expanded, and we are allowed a slightly larger glimpse of the country.  First, it was shadowing (though, as my prior blog indicates, my experience wasn’t exactly typical), and then, this weekend, it was our “cultural day.”  During PST, PCT’s are taken to nearby areas that showcase a bit of the history and culture of the region.  In our case, this meant visiting a rock formation with 2,000 year old paintings, a cultural center, where traditional dances and a traditional marriage ceremony, among other things, were demonstrated for us, and finally a pottery shop where we could purchase handmade pottery.  It was an extremely exciting day, but it was also a day in which we all realized just how emotionally and psychologically strained we all are.

After our usual several mile walk through the dusty red dirt roads and paths in our neighborhood, to the tarred road full of cars, malls, street vendors selling candy and fruit, and lots of domesticated animals, and finally to school.  But unlike a typical school day, we were all sporting our casual clothes, and feeling slightly more jovial, as we knew we had a fun day ahead of us (and did not face a 6 hour language session).  We all piled into the combis, (which ranged from a large and comfy one with reclining seats, seatbelts and cup-holders, to one that needed a push to get started, required all passengers to get “up close and personal,” and which ended up breaking down on our way back.  Knowing this, I acted quickly and nabbed a seat in the posh van), and set off. 

For the first time as a group, we took a road outside of Moleps that did not lead to the large city of Gaborone—as nice as Gabs is, it was a very welcome diversion.  Despite the image I had of Botswana prior to arriving here—a flat, sandy barren desert—this region of Bots is actually quite diverse, both with regard to the vegetation and the geology.  As one ventures farther from the village of Molepolole, the thornbushes and trees lining the road became more and more abundant, as do the giant nearly tree-sized termite mounds—red, asymmetrical, and haphazardly shaped, almost reminiscent of modern art.  When taking in the view, I would not describe this region as mountainous, hilly, or flat—although there is a great variance in topography, and there appear to be low-lying red hills in the distance, upon closer inspection, the hills look more like giant piles of boulders, precariously stacked together, as though assembled in a moment, and just as easily disassembled (incidentally, this is not actually the case—as the 2,000 year old paintings on the rocks indicate, they are fairly stable, despite their appearance).  

As a humongoid history nerd, the trip to see the rock paintings should have been life-changing.  We pulled into a small village and up to one of the accumulations of boulders, which happened to be surrounded by a chain-link fence lined with barbed wire, and then parked next to some adjacent rondevals and housing compounds.  I don’t know whether 2,000 year-old rock paintings are common in Bots, but it seemed rather surprising how unceremonious the site was.  More surprising than that, once inside the fence, our tour guide walked us up to the rocks, and there the paintings were, right there on the side of the rock, out in the open—we easily could have touched them (though I don’t believe anyone did, out of respect), fully exposed to the elements.  Despite their accessibility, most of them were fairly easy to see—faint red or yellow marks on the pink rocks, most of which actually resembled the animals that they were intended to depict (see my facebook page in the coming days for photos). 

This portion of our field trip was also a nice excursion, as we were allowed to climb around the rocks a bit—much needed exercise, and soothing for the souls of the hikers among us.  As we were playing around on the rocks, admiring the wildflowers, and taking in the views of the surrounding village, the level of shock that we were all still in became painfully apparent to me.  We were IN Africa, looking at cave paintings that were TWO THOUSAND years old.  Now, for many of you, that might not strike a chord, but as an avid reader of National Geographic, history nerd, and someone who has been literally dreaming of this day in and day out for over a year, the fact that this experience felt entirely matter-of-fact, and I was more excited about frolicking around the rocks (yes, I said “frolick”) and our planned post-class R&R at Lemepe Lodge (anyone reading this who is hoping to be in Bots 10, Lemepe is WHERE it’s at.  For realz.) than actually appreciating the moment was staggering.  I think I literally have still not begun to process all of the events that have transpired in the last 6 weeks—and I don’t think many others have, either, seeing as most of us seemed to be in the same frame of mind.  But perhaps that is good—by the time we realize what we have signed up for, maybe we’ll already be settled and comfortable in our sites.

In any event, the next portion of our outing brought us to a cultural center—similar to visiting Colonial Williamsburg—for the most part not representative of modern Setswana culture (though there may be pockets of the country which are more similar to the center than others), but provided an interesting glimpse into the country’s history.  We were greeted by several women in modern-traditional dresses (westernized short-sleeved dresses in blue, brown, and sometimes red, with small patterns—obviously not pre-imperial Setswana garb, but these dresses are commonly seen in formal or traditional settings, and are also frequently worn when doing chores around the house), and many children in loincloths and beads, all ululating and dancing.  They proceeded to teach us a bit more about the history of the Kgotla and Kgosi—the tribal governmental system which still exists, in conjunction with the more western/modern government—and gave the children the chance to show off their extremely impressive dancing and singing skills.  The traditional songs here are typically very upbeat, rhythmic, and repetitive—the sort that even the extremely tone-deaf among us can quickly pick up—but which are incredibly beautiful and hypnotic, and are truly communal—they somehow sound better the more people that join in, even if each individual singer may not quite measure up on his or her own.  Based on my (extremely) limited experience, it seems that traditional dancing and singing is rarely done nowadays in most of the country, or at least the bigger cities, outside of schools, at the Kgotla, and special events, however most of the Batswana I have met seem to be well-versed in their tribe’s dances and songs—something I hope continues, as the pina le bina (song and dance) in Botswana is too rich to fade away.

We were then shown a traditional wedding, using two members of our group as the bride and groom, as well as several of the senior citizen Bots 9ers to join the elders.  Traditional weddings are still fairly common here, though it seems (again, through my extremely limited experience) that “white”weddings (almost exactly resembling American weddings) are more the norm.  One notable contrast between weddings in Botswana—whether traditional or “white”—and weddings in America is that in Botswana, the bride, groom, and immediate family are all expected to act extremely solemn and unaffectionate.  This is partly because PDA between romantic partners is not culturally acceptable, but mostly because even though marriages now are voluntary, historically in Botswana, marriages were arranged, and the bride and groom were genuinely petrified throughout the wedding, because they literally had no idea who they were about to marry.  I think I’d look quite stern as well.

We did also learn a few less, shall we say…pleasant traditions.  Now, let me remind you, this is not, not, not representative of modern culture; each culture has a few less than desirable practices; what I am about to tell you is actually not all that uncommon, and supposedly still done in parts of the world, including India.  So with no further ado, we were taught how Batswana historically kept their floors “clean.”  Cow dung.  Yes, cow dung.  A woman got on her hands and knees and poured a large pile of what was described to us as “fresh, warm” dung onto the floor, and used her hands to spread it around.  But it goes farther.  The warm dung was apparently also used medicinally: when a member of the tribe was sick, the traditional healer would arrive at the ailing Motswana’s house just before dawn, pour a pile of that fresh dung in front of the doorway, wake the sick person up, and make him/her stand barefoot in the dung and watch the sunrise.  After the sun was up, the patient was allowed to return to bed, but could not wash his/her feet until s/he was healed, and this treatment regimen would be repeated each morning until the patient had recovered.  I must say, I left feeling much, much better about my hospital stay after witnessing this.  It probably was an excellent deterrent for children opting to stay at home sick instead of attending initiation school, though. 

We were then served a bit of traditional food (because the aforementioned demonstration was so appetizing!) which was similar to what we cooked in training: morojo wa dinawe, boiled leaves of beans, medi, maize, a less-sweet, slightly coarser sort of corn, and diphaphata, bread cooked over the fire, sort of like a cross between regular white bread and thick naan.  In traditional fashion, the men were all served before the women were permitted to eat.

Following our visit to the cultural center on our return home, we visited a pottery shop, which was fun, and a nice way to support the local artisian community.  Traditional pottery in Botswana is made of read clay without a glaze, but the shop we visited had mostly pottery similar to what is seen in America—apparently it is the only city in the country where this type of pottery is made.  I purchased a teacup and saucer, which I then proceeded to lose…did I mention our current stress level?!

All-in-all, it was a pretty excellent day, and felt great to burst through another bubble…even if, admittedly, our down-time and bonding at Lemepe Lodge afterwards was the most needed portion of the day.