Marion and I reached the one year mark in Botswana on April 3rd and will reach the one year mark as Peace Corps Volunteers in Mochudi on June 8th.
Though pleased with this accomplishment, I will be the first to admit that I have struggled at times. My struggles have mainly been emotional ones, as I try to cope with the wide variety of feelings that race through my mind daily. The list below will give you some insight into my emotional roller coaster.
- For coming from the wealthy country
- For having a college education
- For having plentiful opportunities for employment (you may be saying to yourself, Tish, unemployment in the US is close to 10%, wake up! Unemployment in Botswana is around 40%, so count your blessings)
- For being treated equally as a woman
- For coming from a culture that values open discussion of problems and supporting one another in dealing with them
- For being blessed with a loving family that doesn’t beat me
And if that American guilt isn’t enough, it extends to Botswana guilt. Guilt for where I am now
- For getting a house in Botswana with electricity and hot water and flush toilets
- For having a three bedroom house just for Marion and me, when some families have a two room house for 8 people, get water from the tap in the yard, cook over a fire, and use a pit latrine
- For having enough money on my Peace Corps stipend to never be hungry and eat pretty much anything I want, when many folks I know live on maize meal or sorghum porridge
- About what is the right thing to do – give a child/stranger a few pula when they ask, or refuse, to try to teach them that life is not about handouts?
- And is that child’s “friendship” with me real, or do they see me as a lekgoa (white person) who is an easy mark for money?
- Or maybe I should put myself in their shoes and wonder how hard it is to ask someone for a handout. I know there is not much food at home for them to eat, so maybe their begging is desperately legitimate.
- Should I “build capacity” or just give because my heart tells me to give?
- About being culturally correct — when do I defer to Batswana cultural norms and when do I respond as an American with my own cultural norms?
- When does “confidentiality” turn in to stigmatizing, and impair communication about problems?
- At the trash that is ALL OVER THE PLACE – people here just toss cans, plastic, wrappers and glass bottles (which get broken) anywhere and everywhere – the side of the road or in the river. To be fair, there aren’t a lot of trash cans here, but really, trash everywhere is disgusting. The Batswana may meticulously clear the weeds out of their plot and sweep the dirt in front of the house, but right outside the gate is trash, trash, trash.
- At public urination. Pretty much every day when I walk to or from Stepping Stones, I pass a man urinating. They don’t go behind a tree or bush – just stop, turn away from the path, unzip, pull it out and let it go. Sometimes they even call out “Dumela” to me mid-stream. I almost hit the elbow of one guy who was standing at the end of a narrow passageway. Disgusting. One day one of the girls from SSI was walking home with me. She tapped my shoulder and handed me her backpack, ran behind a bush and squatted. I’ve even seen a three year old running along, pull off his pants mid-run, fling them in the air, squat, poop and keep on running. That was pretty funny, in a disgusting sort of way. Everyone has a pit latrine here. Come on people, use them.
My biggest fear in Botswana is getting hit by a car. Pedestrians definitely do NOT have the right of way. Sometimes it even feels like the drivers try to see how close they can come to you. I don’t even feel safe on the few sidewalks that do exist, as sometimes drivers veer on to the sidewalk to miss a pothole or speed bump. Riding in a vehicle can be equally worrisome. I admit, I am a nervous passenger. But even Joe, the driver at Stepping Stones, who is transporting kids home in the afternoon, will stomp on the gas, race down the dirt roads, or get right on the tail of Kgori ( the other SSI driver), as if reckless driving is a sport written in to his job description.
- To learn of the number of young girls who have been raped or sexually abused, by their “uncles” and that many times nothing is done about it – it’s just accepted because the male is the breadwinner, and if he is sent to jail, the family will have no food
- That a parent would refuse to allow their child to be tested for HIV or treated for tuberculosis
- That family members don’t openly talk about the challenges of living with HIV with their HIV positive children, or acknowledge that the HIV was transmitted from the mother to the child at birth, even when both the mom and the child are on ARVs (medication) – they are both taking “tablets”, but no one talks about what they are for
- That a kid’s father can die and the teen doesn’t know what caused his death, or be allowed to attend the funeral, or even know where he is buried
- That the school system allows teachers to beat kids, daily
- That kids are punished at home by denying them food (and I’m not talking no dessert, I’m talking NO FOOD, when they rarely get enough food to eat in the first place)
- First and foremost with the Peace Corps — The first goal of Peace Corps is to bring trained men and women to help in developing countries. Having 38 years of health care experience, I consider myself “trained” as a nurse and health care provider, with broad exposure to a variety of settings — clinics, hospitals, community health, and schools of nursing. What does the Peace Corps do? The changed me from my original assignment in a clinic, the one I left the United States expecting, and placed me in an NGO that runs an after school program for adolescents.
- Secondly, with myself. Not wanting to be the bitchy, demanding Peace Corps Volunteer, I didn’t make a fuss about the change in placement. I knew the Peace Corps had to find a village assignment to accommodate a married couple. I wanted to be “flexible”, a stated requirement of Peace Corps Volunteers. I figured I would find a way to adapt, and I have. But every time I cross paths with health care workers in Botswana, I immediately feel at home, and realize how much more I could be accomplishing if I was placed in the health care system. Note to self: sometimes sticking up for yourself is a requirement.
- With lack of advance planning for events, and last minute scrambling to make things happen.
- Last minute cancellations – I can’t tell you how many things get postponed, sometimes indefinitely
- Last minute change of plans, that pulls the plug on all the advance work done for an event, when you actually managed to get something planned ahead of time. Example: I received a phone call at 5pm on a Friday, the day before the Saturday morning Teen Club. It was from B2 (yes, that is his name), who works for Baylor in Gaborone, the organization that sponsors our teen club. He told me Barclays Bank was sending a speaker to talk about Financial Literacy. Since Barclays is a donor for Baylor and Teen Club, Baylor had agreed that once a year in March, they could give a presentation. I had been working with our teen leaders, getting them to plan meetings, and take more responsibility for the club. They had planned a great meeting with plans for small group counseling about Disclosure and Challenges Facing Teens Living with HIV, something they desperately need help with. I had written up the plan for Saturday’s session and was ready to go. In a five minute phone call, everything was changed. B2 knew about this months ahead of time, and didn’t think to tell me until the day before. I had to agree, because Barclays is a funder. I cried walking home that day. My tears were not because my work was wasted, but because I see that the message it sends to the teen leaders is this: Your efforts are not valued. What you want doesn’t matter. Learning about saving money from a bank is more important that getting help in living with HIV.
- At the way kids are treated here. Yes, children are taught to respect their elders in Botswana and I find that refreshing, but they are not talked to by their parents. They are not supposed to think or question or communicate. Just memorize stuff in school and if you don’t get it, you are beaten. Do the chores at home, and if you don’t, you are beaten. At Stepping Stones, no one gets beaten, but events involving adults take precedence over the after school program for kids. Kids come last.
- With the lack of please and thank you here. Something in the Setswana language doesn’t translate well to English. People say “Give me your pen” in a demanding tone, which seems very impolite. Many requests come across as commands, which make you want to say something nasty in return, until you learn that is just the language difference. I still don’t like it, but I understand it.
- At being treated as a Caucasian ATM. One day an older teen I had never met before, a girl in the leadership program at SSI, came up to me and said, “Tish, give me a laptop.” Because I am a white foreigner, it is assumed I am rich and have money to give away. And again, no introduction, no please, no explanation of why, just “give me a laptop.” What do you say to that? The smart ass remark on the tip of your tongue, or be nice and politely decline.
- At the combination of footprints in the sand on the dirt paths I walk daily — tiny bare feet, chicken feet, cow hooves, large heavy shoe prints, high heel imprints, all next to one another
- At the random things that come in our front door – We have a wooden front door and outside of that we have a burglar bar door, with the same set up in the kitchen on the back of the house. I have used gorilla tape to attach screen mesh to the inside of the kitchen burglar bar door to help keep bugs out. I was able to add screen there since we don’t enter the house by that door, and don’t need to lock and unlock it from outside the house. I couldn’t put screen on the front door, because we need access to the locks. During the day, we keep the wooden doors open to allow a breeze to come through the house. The front door is essentially wide open. So far we have had several unannounced visitors. I’m usually lying on the couch reading a book or sitting at the table working on my laptop when I notice movement out of the corner of my eye. Birds have flown in. A chicken quietly strutted in. Our neighbor’s Jack Russell dog walked in. Goats on the front porch looked in. And of course, there has been an assortment of lizards and bugs, including some very interesting looking “walking sticks.”
- At the contrasts in our neighborhood. There is a house “church” across the way, filled with people most nights, singing and chanting for hours. Their holy spirit really has some stamina. Occasionally, we hear screaming and hollering, which we guess happens when the preacher comes to cast out demons. Next door, the neighbors make home brew beer, from sorghum, in large pots over a slow fire in a shed. Pulsating music and the chatter of voices in low tones drift over from there. Add in the background, donkeys braying, roosters crowing, and dogs barking, and you will get a sense of our nightly sound track.
- At how easily I can turn an unfriendly stare in to a smile. Most people stare at me when I walk through Mochudi because my skin is white, and there are only a handful of white people here. All I have to do is speak a word or two of Setswana to them, and the stare turns to a grin filled with delight that I am trying to speak their language. One of the ladies that sells vegetables on the street gave me a watermelon just because I asked for it in Setswana.
- At how music begets dancing and dancing begets smiling. I love the music here, and the style of African dancing involves fancy foot work.
At how trusting people are here. I offered to take some cool looking Botswana t-shirts to sell at the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary event last fall. The guy shows up and hands me a bag of shirts. I had to make him count them with me, so we both knew how many there were. Nothing in writing. He just trusted me, someone he had met once, to bring him the money or the shirts back.
- I’m a control freak. Never thought I was. Always thought I was kind of laid back. Marion is the control freak in our marriage. However, when I moved to a culture so different than my own, I realized how much I need to be in control of my own life. I realize that little things, like being able to organize my house, help me feel in control. I realize how easily I become annoyed with Marion when he unintentionally tries to usurp control by telling me when to lock a door or not to bring someone to the house he doesn’t know. Two control freaks is not a good mix in a marriage. I need to turn the big things over to God, and let him work through me, rather than trying to control things I have no power over.
- When you are worried about how to get something to eat for dinner at night, or where you will sleep, you can’t really focus on anything else. Maslow was right – you have to take care of safety and security needs first. Many Batswana experience this daily. We experienced it for a short time, and gained a new awareness of how it overwhelms you.
- I don’t really enjoy development work. I like working with individuals, building meaningful relationships, and knowing people beyond the superficial level. I don’t like trying to get other people to do their jobs. Yet I have utmost respect for those who do it and do it well.
- I need to be more curious, to see the beauty in small things in life, to embrace the present, and enjoy the journey.
- That chronic stress can turn you from a glass half full sort of girl to a glass half empty person, and how much I despise the half empty glass mentality.
- How important your network of friends is – those people you can unload on, who listen, help you solve problems, never judging, just being there for you. There is no situation a close girlfriend and a glass of wine can’t make better.
- What am I really doing here? Am I trying to unselfishly serve others, what I told myself when I came here, or just prove to myself that I’m a good person?
- Am I going to accomplish anything of significance while I am here?
- Is it worth being thousands of miles away from family and friends for two years and missing out on all that is happening at home, if I don’t really make a difference?
- Am I even happy here?
- By the youth at Stepping Stones who grow up in homes of such meager circumstances, most of whom have lost one or both parents to HIV, yet they have a desire to do well in school and have a better life for themselves
- By the spirit of helping one another in the community
- By the optimism and positive attitude of most people here, who tend to see good in things, that you and I would fail to see
- By the passion of Thato, the young man I partner with in the life skills program, and his genuine commitment to helping the teens at SSI develop self-confidence and decision making skills for a better future
- By the family and friends who send me encouraging words and goodies from home
- When I realize the kid that was quiet and withdrawn six months ago is now open and smiling and playful.
- When one small thing happens that tells me I have positively impacted someone. At the last teen leader planning meeting, the kids asked me if I was going home in June, because we had completed our planning through June. I told them no, not until June of 2013. They shrieked and cheered and beamed beautiful smiles at me. I had no idea how deeply they truly value the work we are doing together.
- When the garden we planted grows healthy rows of spinach and beetroot and peppers.
- That the next 12 months will be filled with more joy, amusement, amazement, and continued self-awareness
- That the kids at Teen Club will feel free to openly discuss being HIV positive and feel supported in doing so
- That kids at SSI will start putting life skills knowledge in to action – start walking the walk, instead of just talking the talk
- That I relax, let go, and see the glass as half full again
The roller coaster is leveling out now. I know what to expect. The second year holds lots of promise of good things to come.