June 8, 2010


As I have frequently mentioned, one of the perplexing aspects of Peace Corps service is the way it plays with your sense of time and progress.  I think that for me, at least, this is in part because in order to reach a level of comfort that will allow me to function properly and be effective as a volunteer, I have had to shed many aspects of my America life and identity (not my love of friends and family—you are everything to me!), and reinvent myself here.  So in a strange way, it feels as though I’ve always been here, or at least have been here for a very, very long time, because it is easy (and necessary) to forget what life is like at home.  Yet at the same time it seems as though the time has passed very quickly, and is easy to forget just how far I’ve come—since my baseline for comparison is so skewed.  Because of that, most PCV’s  (or PCT’s, in my case; until Thursday, at least [AHH!!!]) occasionally experience rather jarring moments in which we are suddenly reminded of the progress we’ve made relative to things like cultural acclimation, community integration, work progress, or as with my most recent “Wow, I really AM in Peace Corps Botswana…” moment, language skills.

Botswana is unique (or at least I think it’s unique—I obviously have yet to do a great deal of travel outside of the United States) in that the official language here is English, the national language is Setswana, and there are many other tribal languages spoken throughout the country.  I read this before coming, but couldn’t exactly make sense of it, so let me break it down for you: what this means is that all Batswana are raised speaking their tribal language (which in many cases is Setswana, but especially in the more rural areas, it is often something else—including click languages, for those of you who are curious), then taught in Setswana in early education, with English taught as a second language.  By  about the 4th grade, however, students are expected to be fluent enough in English that all classes are taught entirely in English, and Setswana is offered only as a second language, all the way up to and including at University.  (Off topic, but I can’t help myself, as it's hard to mention this without pointing out the difficulties that this poses for many students, particularly those in more rural areas, where Setswana is their second language—imagine speaking English almost exclusively, then being taught in Spanish until 4th grade, using that Spanish to learn Russian, then being taught solely in Russian from 4th grade on…as you can imagine, this creates some very large hurdles for many students…I have a hunch I’ll be talking about this a lot more in the future, and it’s not relevant here, but it’s difficult to even discuss the topic of language without at least touching on it).  All government workers are to communicate in English, and most signs, advertisements, and food labels/brand names are in English.  Television is primarily in Setswana, except for television shows from the United States, or from South Africa, which are often in Afrikaans.

The result of this, from the perspective of an English-speaking American, is that it is fairly easy to get around using primarily English (though it is always the policy of Peace Corps to communicate as much as possible in the local language, in order to demonstrate respect for the local culture, as well as to facilitate integration into the community, and I would love to become fluent in Setswana while serving).  However, as with each English-speaking country in the world, there is a very different way of speaking English in Botswana, which includes an extremely different accent, very different phrasing and expressions, and is peppered with bits of Setswana. 

Setswana is a very beautiful language, which sounds sort of like an extremely deep, throaty version of Italian ( for istance, o robala jang? [sounds like: oh ro-ball-uh jahng, with a rolled “r”]).  It is spoken very melodically, and native speakers rely heavily on expressive sounds and tones to convey emotions: eish! to express frustration or disapproval; a high-pitched, breathy a-a! (ah-ah!), to express surprise or disbelief; even “yes” aa (a long, drawn-out “ay”—think Fonze from Happy Days—it sounds just like that) or aa-he (a quick “ay-hey,” sort of like “uh-huh,” a casual or enthusiastic “yes”) and “no” nnyaa (n-yah) sound more like expressive tones than structured words when spoken. 

Setswana is also almost entirely a spoken language—it has only been transcribed since the European missionaries have been here.  As such, although there are many grammatical rules, they are often quite difficult to explain to non-native speakers, and also possibly for the same reason, there are a strikingly large number of words have multiple meanings.  Initially, I postulated that words which had more than one meaning primarily because of some similarity between the words’ meaning, or some shared history of their use, but now, after having had two months of intensive lessons and seeing just how many of the words we have already learned have two or more entirely unrelated meanings, I’m beginning to think that it has more to do with pragmatism or something along those lines, than deep symbolism. 

There are some other aspects of Setswana that are hard to grasp for many American-English speakers: for instance there are almost no words for color in Setswana.  There are words for black, white, yellow, green/blue, and red.  That’s it.  No purple, orange, pink, brown, tan…now, obviously in English we may be a little heavy on our color-words (how many colors are in the biggest Crayola box again?), but it is really interesting to think that a culture has gotten around with words for only the primary colors and black and white for thousands of years.  There are also surprisingly few words to express emotion—there is no distinction between like and love, sad and depressed, excited and happy.  Again, as Americans, we are rather touchy-feely, so we may be on the high end of emo-words, but there are hardly any in Setswana.  

Which brings me back to my original point.  These sorts of differences, which do wind up translating into different usage of English, and the very strong difference in accents, even learning to understand and communicate fluently in English with a Motswana is surprisingly challenging.  Re-learning words like “sharp sharp” (pronounced like “shop shop” with a British accent, and used as an alternative for “yes,” or “ok,” or to indicate that something was understood), and using “very nice” or “just ok” to describe everything, “bath” instead of “bathe,” trying to structure sentences as they would be structured in Setswana, all the while trying to speak with a Setswana accent, and mixing in as many Setswana words and expressive sounds possible, is a struggle in and of itself.  I’m sure it sounds silly, but when I first arrived, I felt I couldn’t even really communicate in English—the prospect of ever achieving successful communication was among the many things that, in all honesty, terrified me to my core. 

However, when at site, for the first time surrounded almost exclusively by Batswana, and after having had 8 weeks of Setswana, I found myself nearly fluent in Setswanglish.  After returning to Moleps, the trainees were joking amongst ourselves that this Setswanglish has become so second-nature to us, that we even catch ourselves speaking it with each other; and joke that we will have to re-learn American English when we return home.  I don’t know when or how this shift happened—I have been making considerable efforts to learn Setswana, but didn’t even realize I was modifying my own English.  But somehow, all of a sudden, I find myself more integrated, that much farther, that much more acclimated than I realized, even after only two months.  And it feels good.

I am writing this on Sunday night.  Tuesday is our final PST LPI (language test), Wednesday we go to Gabs to buy supplies for our houses, Thursday we are sworn as official Peace Corps Volunteers, and Friday morning we say goodbye to training (and to each other…for a while, anyway…) and go with our counterparts to our sites, where we will begin our real service as PCV’s.  Needless to say this is among the most exciting, terrifying, sad, thrilling, and overwhelming (I have plenty of descriptive emo-words to choose from; I clearly haven’t lost all of my American English speaking ways) weeks of my life…but ga ke na mathata—no worries; it will be fine... (Yes, Disney people, people here say ga ke na mathata - pronnounced ha kay na ma-ta-ta.  And you're welcome for getting Lion King stuck in your heads...).  As always, I am so, so, so appreciative of all of your support, and for always listening to me and helping me through the good and the bad times.  Missing you all so much!  Wish me luck!

Oh, and I WILL write something about Shakawa ASAP—I just have so very much I want to say about it, I am still collecting my thoughts!

June 6, 2010

The Journey…

I know you are all probably itching to know more details about my site (ok, I’d like to pretend that you’re all itching to know more details about my site, and I’m in Africa, far, far away and missing you all, so just indulge me on this one :o), however my two day journey to Shakawe (“Shaks” for short, for future reference), which involved spending a night in Maun and 16 hours on busses, each way, proved interesting enough (to my extremely un-traveled American sensibilities) to warrant its own entry. 

I should begin by pointing out that the transportation system in Botswana is far superior to that in many countries, in that it is actually fairly reliable, most major roads are tarred (paved), busses generally keep to their schedules, and public transport is actually quite easy to navigate (as it should be, considering the sparse population is—about 2 million living in a country the size of Texas)—so my observations are just observations, not complaints about Bots or its infrastructure.  Having said that, here are a few things I learned:

16 hours on a crowded buses in 90+ degree weather with no air conditioner or open windows (Batswana do not like windows open on the bus, and in the event that you are fortunate enough to have access to one to open it, it will almost immediately be shut by a nearby Motswana), while sitting amongst a group of people who have scarce access to deodorant is a very, very long time.

Cattle, goats, and donkeys are EVERYWHERE in Botswana (there are more donkeys than there are people in this country—actually).  Drivers do not slow down for animals.  Animals do not respond to honking.  By the end of an 11 hour trip, one is certain to develop an alarmingly high tolerance for near-death-experiences.

The busses in Botswana vary dramatically.  One of the busses I rode had plush reclining seats, overhead storage, and a few TV screens (still old and in rather dubious working condition—broke down twice—but overall, much nicer than I’d have expected before arriving in Bots).  Another was a slightly glorified combi, almost entirely rusted out (there were actually small holes under my feet where I could see through to the ground), with the doors barely hinged on, and kept closed with the same sort of lock used in a bathroom stall, the windshield full of cracks, and no casing over the steering wheel or dashboard (both of which frequently began smoking…which was still not enough to convince my fellow travelers to open a window). When a Motswana tells you not to take the 10:30 bus, it means you should NOT take the 10:30 bus.

There are almost a half-dozen check-points on the road between Gaborone and Shakawe.  Checkpoints for what, I’m not sure—there is no border crossing and (as mentioned before) an extremely low population.  However nearly 6 times all of the passengers were required to disembark, carry our large bags outside, and wait in line as a police officer shuffled through our luggage and checked our IDs.  The truly bizarre thing about the whole process was that passengers were only required to have their large luggage sorted through—purses, shopping bags, etc., were not even required to be presented at the check point.  It is at this point that I will remind you that as a PCV I am prevented from making any sort of political or controversial comments.  I can’t, however, prevent those of you who know me to make inferences about my opinions…

As an American, I am still astonished by the level of trust that exists in Setswana culture.  There are several instances when the bus makes some small loops in order to stop in villages slightly off the main road.  If a passenger has to go to the bathroom, s/he gets off at a stop before the loop, and the bus will pick the passenger back up—you get off the bus, leave all of your belongings, and just assume that the driver will come back for you, and even wait for you…and they do, and when you get back on, they don’t even check your ticket.  Moreover, if you don’t have exact change for your ticket, change is given at the end of the ride—you just remind the conductor that you are owed change, tell them how much change you are owed, and they give it to you, without any sort of documentation…and we’re talking LONG bus rides—11 hours with people getting on and off all along the way.  It would be incredibly easy to manipulate the system and ask for change when you weren’t owed any, or ask for more than what you were due…but this culture relies very heavily on trust and community, so it does not seem that this system is manipulated frequently.

Kgalagadi Batswana know their stuff.  Though Botswana is a beautiful country, and a portion of the ride was through the Delta region, the majority of the views on the trip are just bush—and to me, at least, 16 hours of bush, well, it pretty much looks the same.  However, to my great astonishment, there were several occasions in which elderly Batswana men signaled to the driver that they wanted to get off in what appeared to be literally the middle of nowhere—no paths, no sneakily-placed landmark like a stick in the road or flag, no houses or rondevals anywhere near.  But the men were all well-dressed, and seemed to know where they were going when they got off (and, indeed, there were men waiting in similar spots to be picked up throughout the trip as well), so I am quite confident that they did, in fact, know where they were going.  But it is truly astounding—on an hour or so trip, I can imagine how one might be able to recognize a certain bush or a certain tree, but we are talking about hours and hours at a time, hundreds of miles, with no clear landmarks.  It is truly evidence of how well some Batswana really know their country…or maybe how little we Americans really know ours…

Flirting.  Ahh, this could (and might well soon) have an entry all its own.  But suffice to say that gender roles in Botswana are very different from those in modern-day America.  Very different.  Being a white person (lakgoa), and particularly a white girl, and particular a white girl all alone, means not only that I stick out like a sore thumb in every possible context, but also that literally at least every other man that I encounter—and I use “encounter” in the loosest possible manner, meaning pass on a street, see in a grocery store, walk near, etc—will immediately propose, tell me he loves me, ask me to have his American baby, ask me to take him to America, demand that I give him my phone number, etc. Not only are these the chosen opening lines, but of the men that decide to approach me with this tactic, only about half stop when I decline their requests.  The other half will pursue me, try to grab my arm to kiss it, etc.  This is absolutely not an exaggeration—it is a cultural difference that is extremely exhausting for me, and, frankly, there are days when it takes every fiber of my being to hold my tongue even just on a walk to the store.  It even happened when I was in the hospital—I was barely conscious, and a nurse told me that he needed my phone number in case of an emergency (which, of course, does not make sense, but when you’re barely conscious and in a hospital in another country, 15,000 miles away from home, you aren’t exactly thinking clearly), so I gave it to him, and he proceeded to call about every hour for two days after I left the hospital—the normal tactic when a man here gets your number.  So, you can imagine how much fun it is to sit alone on a bus full of men for 18 hours/2 days each way.

I’m not sure exactly how useful this collection of observations is, but I’ve feel compelled to document them while they still seem unusual—it is hard to believe how quickly I’m finding myself adapting; the first month or so was nearly unbearable, but now it seems as though many of the obstacles that I thought I would not ever be able to overcome are things that don’t even cross my mind any more.  I have several other posts in the works, to be posted as soon as they are finished…but, honestly, I want all of this here for me as much as for you all…so it’s just coming out a bit at a time!  Love you all, miss you all, and please keep the letters coming!!!!  Seriously, they are my favorite things in the world!

Outta Site!

The Peace Corps is an institution notorious for seemingly trite clich├ęs—“your service is what you make of it,” time moves incredibly fast and incredibly slow all at once, etc.—(all of which, as much as I hate to admit it, seem to hold true) and wrought with tradition.  As is the case with most traditions, those in the Peace Corps always appear to be rather frivolous and are prone to causing a great deal of griping among participants, yet they also succeed in creating a sense of unity, and prove a source of comfort—even if only from the shared act of griping about them.  Among the more notorious of the Peace Corps traditions, is Site Announcement, the ceremony in which PCT’s are formally given our assignment for the next two years.  Though each country does it differently, and there are always small variances to “keep things fresh,” tradition dictates that the Site Announcement must be painstakingly long, drawn-out, and elaborate.  Frustrating though it may be in the moment, this pomp and circumstance is not (entirely) without reason. remember reading a blog about site placement before arriving in Bots and thinking “What’s the big deal? You go where they send you…finding out takes one day…”  But let me say, it IS a big deal—up until now we have been powering through training based only on some abstract idea of what our service would be like, clinging to the still slightly romanticized ideals associated with Peace Corps service.  Site announcement is the defining moment for PCT’s, when that ideal suddenly drops out from underneath us, and we are smacked with the reality of what our actual service, our actual next two years will be like.  We are no longer just volunteering somewhere in Botswana for something having to do with HIV.  We have real sites, with real jobs and real counterparts.  Though I have not yet sworn in, I actually have something tangible to identify what I’ll be doing for the next two years of my life.  Site announcements are a sea change day—the difference between 8am and 10am that day is immeasurable.  So despite our collective excitement and anxiety, it is somewhat nice that the Peace Corps has a slightly cooler head, and forces us to savor the moment, rather than simply posting a list.

On the morning of Site Announcement, we were presented with a large map of Bots with dots for each site, with a different color of dot for each program (NGO, DAC, CCB, and Life Skills).  As we filed into the room, we all closely examined the map to evaluate the sites, and try to deduce who would wind up in which spot.  Because the program I am in—NGO Development—is unusually small (only 10 out of the 56 Bots 9-ers), and 6 of the 10 people in our program are married (meaning their dots would be right next to another dot for their spouses—the rest of us are placed in each village by ourselves, so have only one dot), I was in the unusual position of being able to narrow my prospective sites down to only five possibilities.  One was in Francistown, a large city in the northeast, highly desirable for its amenities, and it’s proximity to other volunteers (it’s one of the PCV “hubs” in Bots) but a bit “posh” for somone looking for the “Peace Corps” experience.  Another site was southeast of Francistown, which had the perk of being close enough to the city and to other volunteers, but also without being too “big-city.”  Finally, there were two spots in the Okavanga Delta region, in the Northwest—the hub of Botswana’s tourism district because of the region’s beauty, remoteness, and amazing flora and fauna.  One of the sites was slightly outside of the actual delta, but very close to Maun—one of the biggest tourist destinations, which has a great deal of amenities, access to game reserves, etc.  The other was among the farthest sites from other vol’s, right on the northern border, directly adjacent to the river that feeds the delta. 

Now, I must say, this list alone was comforting—frankly, ALL of the possible sites were quite desirable and had perks of their own.  That said, I am human, so of course, as soon as I saw that there was a possibility of being in the Delta—something so amazing, I hadn’t even allowed myself to consider it prior to that point (think, like…living in a National Park)—I immediately became preoccupied with the possibility, and became THAT much more wrought with anxiety and excitement.

After a few moments to examine the map, we were instructed to take our seats and look under them for a number which would determine the order in which we would be invited to the front of the room, individually, to receive our site information.  Once our numbers were called, we were to locate an envelope with our name on it, open it and read a quote contained inside, then pull out another number which corresponded to a number on the map, thereby revealing our sites…did I mention that site announcements are elaborate?

I reached under my chair.  My number was 10.  How awesome is that, right?!  Out of 56, I would be the 10th to find out!  Or not.  In keeping with the “surprises” they decided to give site information in reverse-order.  Reverse order out of 56, and I was 10.  To make matters worse, of the three other people vying for my potential sites (the other single NGO vol’s), one of them was number 11, and the other was number 6.  Meaning that even using the process of elimination, I would be the 10th to last person to know my site.  Now, bear in mind that as a result of the lengthy process through which our sites were identified, the entire ceremony takes nearly 2 hours.  If you have ever spent more than 5 minutes in a room with me, then you know that I am quite possibly THE least patient person that has ever set foot on this earth—literally.  So you can imagine how the next two hours went.

So.  Sitting in my chair, fidgeting relentlessly with my pink notecard labeled “10” and watching others’ emotional reactions, unable to control my own impatience, I received another hint.  Daniel, the 4th single NGO received his site placement first: Francistown.  So it was down to the two spots in the Delta, and the one southeast of Francistown.  It was an eternity before number 11 came up.   Kelly, the 3rd single NGO was elated to find out that she received the site in the Delta just southwest of Maun…and I was elated for her…but my turn was next and it was down to the site south of Francistown or the site way up north in the Delta.  Again, I can’t emphasize enough that each site has perks and disadvantages…but I really, really, really, really wanted to be in the Delta.  A lot. 

I opened my letter, and I don’t even remember what my quote pertained to, let alone the quote itself.  I hurried through it and pulled out my site number: 17.  I didn’t even look at the site in the Delta, because I couldn’t bear the possibility that I would look at it and see that it didn’t match…so I looked at the dot near Francistown…and the number didn’t match! Which means…I AM GOING TO SPEND THE NEXT TWO YEARS IN THE OKAVANGA DELTA!!!!!!!!! AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!