June 15, 2010

Bucket List

Although I am fortunate enough to have access to a water spigot a few houses away in my compound, like so many people around the world, I do not have any running water in my house.  Oh, what a difference indoor plumbing makes.  I never quite realized just how important a good bucket is, how many different kind of buckets there are, and how the slightest difference can make one bucket invaluable, and another entirely annoying and useless (and what’s worse than a useless bucket?).  I never imagined that I would feel passionately enough about a certain type of bucket that I could walk into a China shop with dozens of different styles of buckets, but not be able to find “the one.”  It’s almost like looking for just the right dress (or so I’ve heard; I’m not good with fashion).  Except if you buy the wrong bucket, instead of just having an embarrassing fashion faux pas, you’ll have to make countless extra trips to the water spigot because your carrying bucket was too small or sloshes too much water with each step (which then creates the secondary problem of muddy feet), or the handle hurts your hand if you fill it all the way; you’ll have to squnch up or contort into bizarre positions while you bathe because your bath bucket’s too small or a weird shape; you’ll waste too much water because your dishwashing bucket is too big; you’ll kill yourself trying to dump the water from your clotheswashing bucket because it’s too deep and you just can’t help yourself from filling it each time in order to maximize the water:dirt ratio (clothes get SO dirty here because it’s so dusty!  But that’s another entry in and of itself-ha!)…you see where I’m going. 

Sometimes you find what you think is the perfect bucket, but it doesn’t have a lid, and it needs one, or the bucket is awesome but the handle sucks, or it’s just more pula than you can justify spending because it is, after all, just a bucket.  Because I think it is impossible to really convey what a big role buckets now play in my life, here is a list (which is not even comprehensive, because I don’t even think I can actually think of all of the buckets that I still need, and may have forgotten some that I have) of the buckets that I currently have or need:

Buckets I Have:
-Large bath bucket (the one I sit in)
-Small bath bucket (for pouring the water on myself while sitting in the large bucket)
-Several LARGE water storage buckets, with lids (water occasionally runs out here…like today, for example)
-Water carrying bucket (for transporting water to and from the large storage buckets—they are too big for me to carry when they are full)
-Bedpan (ok, tried to slip this one in the middle so it would go unnoticed…but as much as I would like to believe that the next two years of my life do not include a bedpan, two months with a pit latrine have taught me that that is entirely improbable, and I must simply accept this reality.  Although it has lead to some good running jokes amongst PCV’s about possible accidental “CRAP, I’m not in Botswana anymore!” moments when we return to the States and crash with friends…hahahahaha, oh Peace Corps humor…oh wait, now none of you are going to let me stay at your houses again, are you?! )
-Dish washing bucket
-Dish rinsing bucket (you’ve all washed dishes by hand at some point, I hope, so I think it’s fairly self-evident why I need both a wash and rinse bucket)
-Clothes washing bucket
-Clothes rinsing bucket (in theory I could also use the clothes washing bucket for rinsing, but if I pour the wash water out and then the rinse water in without first wringing the clothes out, I won’t get enough soap and dirt out, so I must wring them out before rinsing them, and if I used the same bucket, there wouldn’t be any place to put them in between, except the dirty ground, thus reversing all of the effort I just exerted to wash them.  And I can wash more clothes at once with two buckets, too.  It’s just practical, really.)

Bucket Wish-List (Yes, I have a bucket wish-list):
-Food storage buckets (I have NO cabinets/pantries, etc. [I’ll write a blog about my house soon]—my furniture consists of a bed [yay!] a small chest of drawers for clothes [which is full of clothes], a plastic table and two plastic chairs, a large toaster oven w/ 2 burners on top, and a small fridge, which I bought)
-Small bucket for washing my hands (that I can just keep full w/ soapy water so I don’t have to make as much of an effort to wash my hands like 80 times a day) (in theory I could try to multipurpose another bucket, but I use the dish washing buckets for storage/as a dirty dish bin when I’m not washing dishes, I use one of the laundry buckets as a dirty clothes bin when I’m not washing clothes, and they are far too big anyway, and I could use the little bath bucket, but I use it to hold my toiletries when I’m not bathing. Oh, and the water carrying bucket needs to be free for whenever I need to refill water.)
-Compost bucket with lid (I want to garden ASAP…need more veggies!!!!)
-Trash bucket (even though trash just gets thrown outside in a pile and burned, the environmentalist in me needs a trash can so that I can imagine something else will happen to it)
-Mop/cleaning bucket (I could, in theory, use my dish bucket or carrying bucket, but I want to at least pretend that those buckets are semi-clean…)
-Rain collecting buckets (inside and out—it’s not rainy season at the moment, but I have a tin roof and no ceiling, and I am in no way deluded enough to think that I’ll make it through the torrential downpours of the rainy season without at least a few leaky spots).

I feel like I’m missing some, but that’s all that come to mind off the top of my head. 

While I talk about this somewhar jokingly, it is actually a good illustration of just how much more difficult even simple things are here—it’s easy to take for granted after a while, but I am living as a PCV, so though I earn only a small living allowance, I still have the comfort of knowing that I could return to my luxurious lifestyle in the States at any time, and that if I really needed something, I could tap into American resources to get it.  But for the people who don’t have that safety net and have never known any other life, it’s an entirely different experience.  As trivial as something like a good bucket may sound, they are actually not cheap.  My village has few job opportunities (I’ve heard that only about one third of the population here is employed, and that does appear to match what I have seen, though I have yet to corroborate it with anything official), and I have no idea how anyone can afford get by.  Something like a bucket, or lack thereof, actually has the potential to cause a great deal of frustration and stress in day-to-day life, and for so many people, it is just one more of those “little things” that, when combined with so many other “little things” paints an entirely different picture of life, and all that life has to offer.  I can’t imagine how much different my worldview and my life goals and aspirations would be if so many seemingly small things posed such a struggle.

Obviously I expected this sort of thing when I joined the Peace Corps (and, really, relative to so many other places in the world, Shakawe is in good shape—most people have electricity and some access to clean water, and the Botswana government provides a great deal more support than most). But it is one thing to think about and another thing to experience.  It is yet one more reason that I am overcome by gratitude for my life and all of the privileges I have been given, and one more thing that keeps me motivated to make the most of this opportunity and be as effective as possible over the next two years.  It also makes me really appreciate the value of a good bucket.

June 14, 2010

The Net

As much as I adore my cats, there are many instances in which being accustomed to feline friends has gotten me into trouble—exuding poufs of cat fur everywhere I went, regardless of how much I tried to de-fur my clothes, when I was living in the States for instance. 

Even now, though I am incredibly far from my furbabies at the moment, my familiarity with kitty companions is getting me into trouble.  You see, when you are used to sharing your living space with cats, you take it for granted that they make noise—you don’t even think twice when you hear the sound of something walking around or knocking things over while you are sleeping.  It seems only natural, right?

Funny thing about that time when you are almost asleep, or have briefly awakened in the middle of the night: you sometimes forget where you are.  For instance, if you spent your first 26 years in America, in houses and apartments with cats, and suddenly find yourself in the middle of Africa, in a cement room with holes in the wall.  (I trust that at this point you can see where this story is going, but humor me.)

Last night was my first night in my site, in the house where I will be spending the net two years.  I awoke several times to the sound of something scuttling around.  Thinking it was my cat, I was actually slightly comforted (I miss my kitties :o), and  simply fell back asleep.  It was not until the next morning that it occurred to me that seeing as I have no pets here in Botswana, it was, clearly, not my cat.  Now, I have no idea what was scurrying about in my room last night, but, I will not mince words: it was either large or noisy enough to give a well-seasoned cat person the impression that it was a cat.  Incidentally, I’m writing this in the dark, and just heard the noise again.  I could turn on my headlamp to try to see if I could identify the source of this noise, but, you know, I think I’m going to stick to ignorance on this one.  Unless I hear a slithering-sort of sound…then I just might emit a shriek loud enough for even y’all in the states to hear… Ga ke rata dinoga!!

In a related note, I have a new favorite thing: my mosquito net.  It protects me from the army of mosquitoes (and apparently other creatures) that invade my room through the holes in my cement walls every night.  It is covered in some kind of crazy insecticide that creates a toxic shield of doom outside, and a sanctuary of safety and itch-free territory within.  I can’t help but feel a pang of irony when I douse the area immediately surrounding the organic bedsheets (which I painstakingly carted here from the States) with bug spray, and admittedly, it is a bit of a pain to have to keep each and every inch of my mosquito net’s perimeter tucked between my mattress and box spring and slide in and out of my bed through a small opening which much be immediately sealed.  But words cannot express the joy that lies within my slightly toxic, yet totally bug-free enclave.  Plus, the one downside to being in the Delta is that malaria is fairly prevalent here, and even though the Peace Corps requires us to take malaria prophalaxys, the medication does not prevent malaria; it only minimize the symptoms.  And I’ve been in the hospital once already.  I have no intention of returning.  Or of being eaten by bugs or a mysterious creature.  So, toxic mosquito net, welcome to my life…I think we will be very happy together.

Shops in Bots

Yeah, that’s right, “Shops in Bots.”  I stand by that title. As you’ve probably guessed, you’re just going to have to get used to punny, cheesy, pseudo-rhyming blog titles if you’re going to keep reading my blog…which you are, because you love me, and if you don’t, I’ll be sad…or vengeful. Hehe.  At least you don’t have to wear a spelunking light if you have to pee after 6pm, so don’t gripe too much. :oP

Anyway, I still really want to write about my village, my house, and my NGO, but there is just so, so much that I want to say, I’m trying to collect my thoughts.  But for the purposes of a status update, just FYI, I am now an OFFICIAL Peace Corps Volunteer (I’ll write about swearing in/the conclusion of PST later—same as thoughts about my village—too much to describe at the moment!), moved to my site on Friday/Saturday (it’s a two-day trip from Moleps and Gabs), and will start work tomorrow (it’s Sunday the 13th as I’m writing this). 

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to make mental notes of all of the things that struck me when I first arrived but were too numerous to process, let alone write about at the time, so that I can write about them now, while I’m still somewhat “fresh” in Bots.  It’s really amazing how quickly you become accustomed to all of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences (although it does not FEEL as though it is happening quickly—again with the PC timewarp!), and there’s still so much that I want to make note of!  So, today’s topic is shopping!  (Because I just LOVE shopping SO much—haha!)

Prior to arriving in Botswana, I imagined the primary food sources would be open-air markets with locally-grown produce and freshly-made food; I envisioned other locally-made goods sold in small craft and shop booths or shanty stores.  Why I imagined this would be the case, I don’t know—perhaps one too many National Geographic’s—but I could not have been more off-target if I tried. 

Now, I cannot speak to the situation in extremely small villages, as I have only spent time in or passed through large or mid-sized villages (my site, Shakawe, is small-to-mid-sized, with a population of about 5,000, but it is on a main road, so it has more amenities than some other villages of its size).  However, I have seen a great portion of the country while traveling to and from my site, so I feel reasonably confident that my reflections are fairly representative. 

The primary sources for food in each of the villages that I have visited or passed though are not farmers markets or locally-owned stores, but large chain stores—Choppies, (Super) Spar, Shoprite, and SupaSave, to name a few.  They stand out amongst the local architecture about as much as I stand out among a crowd of Batswana—they look just like grocery stores in the states, except that they suddenly emerge out of mazes of dirt roads, or a single tarred road, surrounded by rondevals and cement houses; their parking lots are dominated by goats, donkeys, chickens, and packs of stray dogs (there are plenty of cars too, of course, but the animals, dipologolo, seem to have the upper hand…here in Botswana, all the good parking spots are either taken, or occupied by a donkey).  These stores are almost exactly like American grocery stores on the inside as well—full of brand-name packaged and processed products—including food, toiletries, basic household needs, etc.—mostly from South Africa or the United States; all of the labels and pricing information is even written in English.  The biggest differences that I have noticed between grocery stores in America and Botswana is a slightly different product selection and different produce protocol—you must have your produce weighed and a barcode printed while still in the produce section, rather than at the cash register.  Other than that, trips inside the grocery store are somewhat like little mini-mind-cations to the States.

Non-food or household items—clothes, furniture, etc.—are also sold in large chain stores, like PEP, Game, or Mr. Price, FurnMart.  The experience of shopping in these stores is really no difference than shopping at  an Old Navy, Bed, Bath, and Beyond, or Target in the states; just slightly different merchandise, catered to local needs.

As surprising as all of that was for me, the real shocker, based on my expectations and knowledge prior to arriving in Bots, has been the China shops (as an American, I cringe every time I refer to them this way, and it feels even more uncomfortable typing it; but this is what they are called here, and the individuals who own the shops are actually Chinese, not just Asian…still feels uncomfortable, though…).  Even more common than the large Target-like stores are shops owned by Chinese immigrants (who stick out as much as I do; Batswana are almost exclusively of African descent), which sell everything from buckets, to stereos and TV’s, to clothes, shoes, and tea kettles—literally just about anything you can think of other than food—at extremely low prices. They are typically in brick or cement buildings, but do not have any frills or decorations inside like a PEP or grocery store.  They’re almost like a Ross or TJ Maxx—you never quite know what you might find, and you sort of feel like you’re on a treasure-hunt when you’re there.  They are everywhere, and there seem to be about 3-5 China shops for every PEP-like store, and they seem to do quite well.

I have yet to encounter any large locally-owned and operated non-chain stores.  Most non-chain, non-China shops are restaurants, butcheries, salons, tailors, car repair shops, and bars.  These are typically in concrete or brick buildings with minimal extra furnishings, scattered throughout neighborhoods, or next to the chain stores and China shops, in strip-mall fashion.

There are also an overwhelming number of individual street vendors everywhere—including in front of China shops and chain stores.  However, the street vendors do not typically sell their own crafts or food.  They are almost exclusively women, sitting behind fold-up card tables, wearing bright aprons advertising various cell phone networks, and they primarily sell pieces of individually-wrapped candy (which they purchased in bulk inside the large chain stores; frequently the same stores that they are stationed in front of), and cell phone airtime (cell phones here are pay-as-you go, and in order to recharge your phone, you must purchase a card with a scratch-off code, sort of like a lottery ticket, and enter that number into your phone; the street vendors sell the cards).  Occasionally, they will have some produce, like oranges (in an unrelated note, good lord, the citrus fruit here is amazing!!!) or homemade fat cakes, but they almost exclusively sell candy and airtime.

In addition to the street vendors, there are occasional hairdressers who have set up shop in impromptu tent-like structures, or people selling home-made metal buckets and tubs on the roadside.  There are places where one can go to purchase locally-made art or other items—co-ops or the Main Mall in Gaborone, for instance—but these seem to be fairly hard to come by, and shopping is done almost exclusively at chain stores and China shops.

The shopping situation here is so far from anything I anticipated, and it was quite disconcerting when I first arrived, but even after only two months, it seems almost natural.  I once again find myself feeling rather limited in my ability to express an opinion in such a public forum, but I hope I at least painted a word-picture for you…amazing how simultaneously different and similar Botswana and America are…