Peace Corps In Service Training (IST)

When we first considered joining the Peace Corps and did our research, we learned that the commitment was usually three months of Pre-Service Training (PST) plus 24 months in service as a volunteer, for a total of 27 months in-country.

In Peace Corps Botswana, things are done a little differently.  PST lasts about 10 weeks (less than the expected three months).   After PST you are sworn in as volunteers and sent on to your site.  For the next two months you are in “lock-down” and are forbidden from leaving your site.  You are expected to stay in the community, meeting your neighbors, meeting your co-workers, integrating into the community, speaking the language, and assessing your community.  Then after the two month “lock-down” period they call us back for the final two weeks of training, called In-Service training (IST).  IST is held at the Big Five Lodge in Gaborone, which was the same lodge where we spent the first four or five days in Botswana.

The objectives of IST (per the email from Peace Corps) were to include:

  • More detailed technical training on program related issues by Peace Corps staff
  • Peace Corps Volunteer led sessions and guest speakers
  • Continuation of language training and testing
  • Medical and Safety and Security updates
  • Processing the first two months of service
  • Getting help planning future work
  • Training to facilitate STEPS video presentations

As you can imagine we were looking forward to other things, such as:

  • Re-connecting with our BOTS-10 family that have been spread all over Botswana for the last two months.  We grew close to them all during PST and could not wait to see them again.
  • Staying in Big-Five Lodge and enjoying the amenities (showers, heat in the rooms, restaurant meals)
  • A mini-vacation from our village and some time spent in the big-city (shopping centers, movies, restaurants)

It was odd to be back at Big Five Lodge again.  The first time we were here, a little over four months ago, we had just stepped off the plane in Gaborone to begin our Peace Corps experience.  We were exhausted from lack of sleep and jet lag as we got off our bus from the airport in the Big Five Lodge parking lot.  On that first visit we were at Big Five for only four days to get a crash course in Setswana and the culture of Botswana prior to being taken to Kanye and our two month stay in the home of Tebogo Gophamodimo.

I remember those first four days at Big Five Lodge.  Fresh off the plane from bright and beautiful America, the Big Five Lodge seemed a little tired and drab to me, like a cheap motel.  Things were a lot different, there were so many little differences that they all added up to a big adjustment.  The rooms seemed weird with their remote control A/C-Heat, uncarpeted floors, and odd electrical outlets.  Light switches were all backwards (up was off, down was on), and the food they served was strange.  I ate my first (and last) Mophane worm during that period.  Also, at that time we were just getting to know our new Bots-10 family.  There were 37 new names and faces to remember.  We were nervous about living in the home of a Batswana family for the next two months, and then the months to follow in a village somewhere in Botswana.  Add to all of this the fact that we missed our families.

Now, four months later, arriving for IST and standing once again in the parking lot of the Big Five Lodge, I reflected on how different we are since we stayed here the first time, and how many things had happened during that time.  During those four months…

  • Our Setswana progressed from Dumella (hello), to more complex sentences in which we could (just barely) say where we were from, what we ate that morning, who our friends were, where we lived and what our jobs were, how much something was, what that strange food is, etc.
  • We started new jobs in a new community in a new country in a new continent.  We got to know the people we work with, and tried to find small ways we can be useful, and began thinking of how we might do some big things.
  • During these four months we adjusted to a new land of littered, mostly dirt roads that we shared with donkeys, cows, goats and cars that drove on the wrong side.
  • We grew comfortable living in homes with no heat and air conditioning, always behind walls or fences with wrought iron bars on the windows and doors to protect us.
  • Heating water on a stove and bathing with a bucket became routine, as did washing clothes by hand.
  • After four months, Pula notes seems normal and the US currency looks strange.
  • I have not ridden a bike or driven a car in these four months, and my commute to work every day is done on foot while carrying my backpack.
  • We got used to being the only white face in a crowded combi, and hearing Setswana spoken all around us.
  • Walking…walking…walking almost everywhere.
  • We have gotten used to no TV, no Friday night movie nights, no regular dining out at restaurants (or even fast food restaurants), and no visits with family and friends.
  • Going to bed at 8:30 or 9:00 (because it is the warmest place in the house)

Somehow these things that seemed strange before all seem almost normal to me now, and I like it here.  I have made the adjustments to my new environment and have a new “normal”.  So after these four months of changes and our adjustment to those changes, as we arrived back at Big Five Lodge my first thought when I got out of the vehicle at the lodge was how lovely and nice it looked.  It had not changed at all, but in my new “normal”, Big Five lodge (as drab as it looked to me before) looked positively luxurious.

Our Bots-10 family were there and we were happy to exchange news about what we had been up to during lockdown.  We are eight fewer than we were when we started.  Some had gained a little weight, or lost a little weight.  Hair looked a little scruffier, some of the guys sported beards.  We all had a lot more confidence than we did four months ago.  We were Peace Corps volunteers now after all.

Some things had not changed.  Many of the classes we sat through were a bit boring and at times we feel like we were treated like children by Peace Corps Staff.  But we were glad to be there, glad to have weathered the storm of new experiences and adjustments we had all endured over the last four months.

During the weeks of IST all of the volunteers spent a lot of time together sharing their experiences, their good and the bad, with each other.  The changes we have all had to go through since April 3 are huge.  We all understand each other, we are empathetic, we all understand, we all want to help.  Some of us have flourished in our work, some have been struggling.  A few have had trouble adapting to the isolation.  One girl up north sometimes had trouble sleeping at night because of the sound of hyenas and lions growling.  We heard some great stories.  We all went out together, drank together, played games together.  Bots-10 truly is a family, and I feel closer to each and every one of them than I did even before before IST.  Going through this has created a very strong bond, and I am sure I will be in touch with some of these people long after the close of our Peace Corps service.

Some highlights of IST for me…

  • Hearing from Tom, a PCV in Romotswa, that some information I shared with him about typing software and about offline web browsing was appreciated and was being put to good use in his office
  • Being elected as the Volunteer Advisory Council (VAC) representative for the other District Community Liaison (DCL) volunteers in my BOTS-10 group
  • Going to a movie at Game City Mall (first movie in many months)
  • Dining out at restaurants as nice as those back in the USA
  • Working on my “Work Plan” for the next year with my Motswana counterpart, K.  Watota, and getting very positive feedback on what I had been doing and what I will be doing
  • Going through STEPS Training, which taught Watota, Tish and me how to facilitate the showing of STEPS films; and developing an action plan for five showings later this year

Completing IST is a big landmark.  Training is completely over for us now until Mid-Service Training (MST) next year sometime.  We are off of “lockdown” and can now travel wherever we want to on the weekends or using our vacation days.  Travel is something we look forward to – in Botswana and neighboring countries.  I feel like we have finally left the nest and are on our own.  It is a great feeling!

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