Roughly 35 years ago I enlisted in the U.S Air Force and endured their basic training which lasted only eight weeks (but seemed much longer). As I write this we have been in Peace Corps Pre-Service training for abut eight weeks, and we still have about three weeks to go. The Peace Corps doesn’t make you cut off your hair, wear a uniform , stand at attention, or scream at you a lot which happens in USAF basic training; but there are some things in common. In the Air Force you have to adjust to a change in culture that is probably equal to moving to a foreign country; another thing they have in common is that eight weeks into it you can’t wait to graduate and move on to the next phase of your service.
In pre-service training we learn to speak Setswana, and learn about the culture of Botswana. We learn practical lessons about our safety and security, coping skills, cooking, public transportation, etc. We also sit through classes teaching us how to come into a community, become integrated into the community, assess their needs, and design projects that would be sustainable. To this end, for the ten weeks, Monday through Friday, 8 am until 4:30 pm, plus half a day on Saturday, trainees cover a lot of topics; many of which are interesting and presented well. There are also many topics which are not interesting or are not presented well. Some topics are just plain boring and there are not enough group activities, PowerPoint slides, tea breaks, or jokes thrown in to make them interesting.
The weeks go by with a steady increase in workload, tension and fatigue. There are breaks during the training. We enjoyed one of those breaks a few weeks ago when we shadowed Peace Corps Volunteers Chuck and Mary Mcgee in Selebi-Phikewi. The other break is supposed to occur after your site is selected when you make a five day visit to the site, seeing where you will be living and meeting your Batswana counterpart. We were supposed to leave for our site visit on Wednesday, May 18th.
We met our counterparts during a workshop on the beginning of that week on Monday and Tuesday, May 16-17. “Counterparts” are the people we will work closely with during our two years of service. Mine was a young man named Watota, the Project Officer from the DAC office in Mochudi. Tish’s was named Tiny and was one of the women running an NGO in Mochudi. We were looking forward to traveling with our counterparts to Mochudi the followng morning, when we received word from on high, at the very end of Tuesday’s session, that the next day’s trip was postponed due to the strike of government workers that was going on in Botswana. Consequently none of the trainees would get their promised and much needed site visit break. We were all frustrated, mad, and felt like having a strike of our own.
The following morning, instead of leaving for our site visit we came to the training center instead, not in the mood for another tedious day of training. Morale was very low. The unlucky first presenter was Margaret, one of the Peace Corps Medical Officers giving the obligatory session on alcohol (some PC Volunteers in the past had abused alcohol). She couldn’t have drawn a more sullen, uncooperative crowd. No one felt like participating, some people showed up late.
We broke for lunch and people filed out to eat the lunches they had made, or go to buy something. A handful of people opened up their laptops to check their email using the Wi-Fi that was available at the center. Conversation was muted. I did not hear any laughter. People were still down.
Some of the Peace Corps staff left to grab lunch at the nearby Motse Lodge. While at the Lodge, Ron and some other Peace Corps staff met an American couple named Frank and Roxanne. It turned out that Frank and Roxanne were both returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). Roxanne had served in Brazil about 35 years before, and Frank had served in Botswana 43 years before, in 1968. Botswana had obtained their independence only four years before Frank started his service in the village of Kanye. He had always wanted to return to see the village where he had spent three years in Peace Corps service, and had chosen this week to make that trip. When Frank heard that PC Volunteers were being trained about 2 miles from where they were eating lunch, he could not believe it. Ron invited them to come back to the training center and meet us.
I had just finished my lunch when Ron, drove up with Frank and Roxanne. A small crowd gathered and we talked with them both, but mostly we talked with Frank about Kanye and Botswana. Frank agreed to speak to our group, so when we reconvened, they asked Frank to speak first.
Frank is probably in his late 60’s, but looks younger. He had no prepared speech; he just spoke from his heart. He started by explaining who he was and why he happened to be there. When he began to tell what he had done while in the Peace Corps he paused, his mouth trembled a bit and he apologized saying, “Please forgive me, I am feeling a little bit emotional right now.” He quickly pulled himself together and continued with his story, and what a story it was.
He had just graduated from Law School when he entered the Peace Corps. Back then they trained volunteers in the states and then sent you in-country. His group arrived in Botswana and after a few more weeks learning Setswana Frank moved to Kanye for his service. In Kanye they had a number of projects including building school classrooms. At that time, Kanye had more students than they had classrooms to hold them, and it was not uncommon to see groups of children being taught under the shade of a tree. Frank built over 40 school classrooms in Kanye. They also built houses for the teachers. He had a local architect draw up a plan for the classroom and the houses and arranged for the materials to be provided locally, then he would get a lorry to take the materials out to the site and he, along with the help of Batswana and a few other volunteers would build the structure. He did other things while he was here including making use of his law degree and advising the local council. When his two years were up he extended for a third year to see some projects to their conclusion, then he returned to the US.
Frank’s Peace Corps service shaped the way the rest of his life would be lived. He continued to do development work in the US, helping small communities get schools and other civic buildings funded and built. He met his wife a few years after his return to the states, and the fact that she also had served in the Peace Corps certainly attracted his attention. Frank made the statement that the three years he served in the Peace Corps were the most significant and meaningful three years of his life.
The coincidence and the timing of Frank’s visit was astonishing, and his talk was inspiring. Frank took some questions from the crowd. Someone asked him how his Setswana was. He replied, “I still remember, ‘O tsogile jang’” (how are you), saying it perfectly. We all clapped enthusiastically. He went on, “and ‘Ke tsogile sentle’” (I am fine), to more applause and laughter. Frank continued, “I also said, ‘Mosadi o montle’ (beautiful woman) probably more times that I care to admit.”
During the telling of Frank’s story, from time to time we could see him struggle to control his emotions, but he positively glowed as he spoke. He wasn’t the only one who had tears in their eyes. Frank didn’t know that he had performed a service right there in that room, serving to re-motivate the group of trainees, who badly needed a reminder of why they were there.
Thanks Frank, we needed that.