In Closing

Folks, I’m not sure if this is known to all by now, but I’m back in America. I’ve been back home since late July, but have been pretty much a hermit for a large percentage of this time because I had come home not remembering silly things like how much a carton of eggs should cost (they’re sold in “cartons”, correct?), and also most of my clothes had 3 years of Africa worn on them.

After settling at home for a while I can tell you I’m quickly remembering how to be a person here again (and, yes, I bought some new clothes), and I’m ready to move on to whatever I decide to swing at next. Dallas is my home for the very extended time being, and so I’m delving into wonderful things like “the GMAT” and local events like “FlugTag DFW.” Today I’m headed to a Marketing and PR course put on by the Dallas Entrepreneur Center.

Between Peace Corps and home, I made a quick detour to the lovely village of Tofo, Mozambique. Friends told me great things about this little town, and I figured getting there from the States later on would be a lot more expensive than from Joburg. Because of the timing, I tripped it solo. This was at times really pretty boring since it seemed to be the off, OFF season, but nevertheless the experience served as an excellent buffer between Peace Corps life and life at home. It was gorgeous. Crystal clear beaches, lovely people, great seafood, and lots of time to reflect on the past three years and also what I want to do with the next.

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More pictures of Mozambique

Now that I’m home and moving on, I think it’s time to put this little blog to rest. It’s done a great job of doing what I wanted it to, and I’m going to keep it live for reference and reflection.

In lieu of this blog, I’m starting a fresh, new Tumblr.  I’ve also been using Twitter for quite some time and have no intentions of giving that up.  For Twitter, please find me here, and for Tumblr, you can find me here but please be aware it is currently a serious work in progress!! Who knows what I’m going to post next on that thing, or what theme I’ll choose, or which accounts I’ll link it to (probably all of them), or what purpose it will serve (but it will serve one eventually.)

If you follow me, I’ll follow you!

With that, thank you all for your attention and support, and please stay in touch!!  I’m always around to talk about this experience or anything else. It’s been one hell of a ride.

Alexis

Summing it up at SAREP

After a third year of service, my year has come to an end and as of today I’m officially an RPCV. Spending my last day in Botswana, I’m sitting at a friend’s house, sipping coffee in my pajamas and basking in the fact that a chapter of my life has closed. It’s a pretty surreal feeling, but before it fades I want to share with you what I did this last year for SAREP.

My job at SAREP was to create a working HIV/AIDS program that could stand on its own as well as integrate with other components of the team (biodiversity, water and sanitation, livelihoods). Later on in the year I also helped develop their online presence with a Facebook and YouTube page. The HIV/AIDS component was relatively small in funding compared to the other components, so my supervisor and I created a workplan with support organizations that was broad enough to allow for a wide variety of interventions. In order to avoid arbitrarily teaching random facts about HIV to communities, I worked with local partner, NCONGO, to create and disperse an HIV/AIDS Baseline Survey. This survey brought together community leaders in twelve villages throughout Ngamiland to tell us what they thought are the most important HIV/AIDS issues in their communities today.

One of the big items of the workplan was the purchase and use of audio-visual equipment and HIV/AIDS educational films to screen to high-risk groups. We bought STEPS films, which are produced in South Africa (filmed all over Southern Africa) and focus on sensitive topics all around HIV. Often times it is hard to get people to discuss issues like death, drugs, condom use, sexual debut, and so on. This is a way to help educate and break the ice.

I worked with Peace Corps Volunteers in the area to put together a number of STEPS screenings for different high-risk groups. SAREP supported Lindsey Ferguson, a Volunteer based at the Thuso Rehabilitation Centre of Maun, in screening a film shot in sign-language to two groups of deaf and hearing impaired youth. The film focused on the discrimination that can occur to deaf people when they go in for testing, and also emphasizes the importance of staying safe and testing even when it is difficult. This is a group that rarely gets much HIV/AIDS education.

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Hearing impaired youth aged 14-18 participating in post-screening discussion of the HIV/AIDS sign language film. Sign language translator, left, and PCV friend, Lindsey, right. Lindsey is a social worker by profession outside of Peace Corps. SAREP helped organize the event and provided the film materials.

Below are photos of another screening I helped put together at SAREP, this time working with PCV Daniella Montemarano. She and I put together multiple screenings of a true-story film about an HIV positive couple going through the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission Process, a drug treatment program that has dropped Botswana’s HIV positive birth rate down to two percent. The audience seen here is mostly HIV positive pregnant mothers going through the same process. The film was made in Botswana, and the woman starring in the film was also in attendance to take questions and interact with the various audiences.

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Clinic visitors watching a film on a first hand experience of a woman undergoing the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission Process.

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Basha, left, speaking to clinic visitors about her experience in the film and undergoing the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission Process. Her son, who is HIV negative because of the process, was also there for the screening.

In addition to screenings, SAREP also helped organize and fund program design and management workshops for older HIV positive youth, and a number of safe-male circumcision discussions joined into water sanitation and hygiene workshops. Taking care of one’s health ties into taking care of one’s environment and leading an overall healthier life and better state of well-being.

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SMC speaker, Olatile Taolo, doing a great job of explaining the potential health benefits of safe-male circumcision to the Toteng community. To his right sitting down is the Kgosi, or Chief, of the village.

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Ruth Stewart, an independent NGO Consultant, working with Teen Club kids on project design and management. SAREP worked with Peace Corps to put this event together, and funded the space and materials.

The year was busy, full, challenging, and one of the most professionally rewarding of my life so far. I cannot thank Peace Corps and the SAREP team enough for the support they have given me. Being part of these world-changing teams has been an incredible experience!

Windhoek Strategic Planning Meeting (and skydiving)

May was consumed with travel. On May 8th, I left Maun to travel to Namibia, specifically Windhoek, for SAREP’s Second-Phase Strategic Planning Meeting and Workshop. To give this a little context, SAREP is a five-year project that had to be approved at the half way mark in order to proceed. We passed with flying colors, and so SAREP staff and partners (as well as myself and my PCV successor, Becky) participated in this gathering to brainstorm and create structure, solve existing problems, unify the team, and bring everyone to the same page as we move forward. We also did a fair bit of schmoozing.

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Karine Nuulimba from one of our partners, the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation of Namibia (IRDNC).

All of our partners (like IRDNC shown above) presented their work from the last two years. Additionally, the SAREP technical team presented the work of the various components, which opened up discussion on how to further collaborate with each other. Being a member of this technical team I also presented a snapshot of the year the HIV/AIDS component took off and “became a thing,” and received great feedback from our partners of ideas and suggestions for integrating the HIV/AIDS component into the other biodiversity, water and sanitation and livelihood components.

All in all, it was an excellent way to see Namibia and Windhoek and interact with my colleagues outside the office. Before leaving for the trip, my supervisor suggested I take a detour either before or after the workshop to visit Swakopmund, a tiny, affluent beach town directly west of Windhoek on the Namibian coast. So, I did. Took a few days before the planning meeting and ended up going skydiving! It was a much needed break  and an incredible experience!

First Annual Okavango Half Marathon, 5K Fun Run/Walk & Health Expo

Around August of last year a Peace Corps friend of mine sat me down at a Maun coffee shop/bar to tell me about her crazy idea of putting together a huge marathon for people up in the northern part of the country. The event would take place in her village, Shakawe, and the goal would be two fold: to increase health and fitness awareness, and in doing so raise money for an ambulance for the Shakawe clinic. Botswana already has its own marathon, but it takes place way down south in Gaborone. Much of the country, especially outside of Gabs, doesn’t seem to view exercise as a priority. Perhaps it’s merely a cultural omission, or maybe it’s because many Batswana use their holiday time to travel to their cattlepost to plow all day long in the heat. I don’t think I’d exercise much if that’s how I spent my vacation.

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Click the Poster for More Photos of the Event!!!

Either way, Shakawe desperately needed an ambulance, and to her this was a fine way of getting one. She teamed up with a few philanthropic businesses, pulled together some Peace Corps Volunteers, and started putting the event together from absolutely nothing.

I peripherally helped her plan it out at first, and then got the idea that perhaps SAREP (USAID) could fund part of it with our HIV/AIDS account. She was thinking the same thing and we both began discussing it, and sure enough SAREP ended up funding about half of the entire event including promotional posters, flyers, reusable banners, portable toilets, tables, chairs, and tents for the Health Expo. 

The event took place over Easter weekend. Our Country Director and his wife ran the half marathon along with many other volunteers and Batswana. People from all over the country attended. The Health Expo featured HIV and TB testing, Malaria information, arts and crafts, traditional dancers, choirs, speakers, and even a DJ.

SAREP traveled up to Shakawe and held a stall at the Health Expo; it was a perfect opportunity to give and take feedback with the community. I asked people to fill out a survey (provided in both written English and Setswana) in which people could let us know what types of HIV/AIDS education are needed in their respective villages. They, in turn, received information on all of SAREP’s components as well as factual information on safe-male circumcision.

Logistics teams from both sides, Peace Corps Volunteers and SAREP staff, went nuts trying to make it work, but in the end it did. Over 200 people from all over the region ran in the marathon or 5K, almost 1000 people attended the whole event, and they raised enough money to secure the purchase of the ambulance. My favorite part about the whole event was seeing Batswana with their numbers tacked to their shirts as they competed in a run for the first time. I hope the ambulance comes through, but if for any reason it doesn’t I hope the event at least inspired people to see the excitement and fulfillment of exercising for fun.

Welcome 2013

Yes, I know it’s already March. With only a few more months of this epic journey I wanted to make sure to get in a few more posts before it wraps up. A friend of mine who also happens to be a social media guru suggested to me recently that the best blog posts are ones where the text can fit within the size of one screen. If you’ve ever glanced at one of my prior posts you’d have noticed that’s never really been the case with me, so it is a 2013 goal of mine to begin posting more succinctly and then hopefully more often.

Wrapping up last year, all I can describe it as was one big learning curve. Serving as a PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader) while also heading up the HIV/AIDS program component for the Southern Africa Regional Environmental Program (SAREP) has been one of the finer experiences of my work-life. The work at SAREP, however, took some extra attention and effort to learn-quickly-as-I-go, especially with regards to the ins and outs of SAREP’s scope-of-work and a working knowledge of how these types of international development institutions, namely USAID and Chemonics, operate. Luckily I thrive on such challenges; I often crave that feeling of disjointed information coming together like a puzzle. So though this blog had taken a bit of a hiatus, I can say with enthusiasm and gratitude that this third year of service has been the most exciting and most rewarding of the three.

Also, Maun is really great. I’ll be ready to go when I do, but seriously, it’s lovely here.

Now I want to share with you an exciting new addition created just two days ago that will provide a sense of what SAREP is doing around the Okavango Delta region to positively impact livelihoods, biodiversity, climate change, water and sanitation, and HIV/AIDS.

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Behold – SAREP has a new Facebook page! If you have a moment, I invite you to go explore the page and learn a little about what we do and the communities we work with. Even better, “Like” us and stay up to date on all of the fascinating stuff. My colleague and I put it together, and though the page is new, we’ll be working hard next week to put up backdated photo albums and more narratives to better paint the picture of the scope of impact this incredible five-year project has undertaken.

Thanks! Hope you enjoy!

A Perk as a Third-Year (and Texan): Meeting Former President Bush and Former First Lady

In the midst of traveling for all of these tiny-regional meetings I had the opportunity to attend a gathering with former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush. The presidential pair was in the country supporting, “See and Treat,” a PEPFAR funded program supporting cervical cancer diagnosis and treatment.

During the trip they made a planned stop to a tiny village just outside of Gaborone, Gabane, to visit a home-based care organization for people living with HIV. A fellow PCV, Tija Danzig, put the event together with the help of the Bush Center Staff, and so several volunteers (Texans, extendees, and former military) were also invited to attend and support the event.

It was surreal meeting the former President and First Lady, and I was honored to receive the invitation. We spoke with Mr. and Mrs. Bush individually, formally as a group, and in a causal “mingling” setting. He asked me what I was planning on doing after service and when I was heading back to Texas, and while several of us were chatting in a group he voiced his strong appreciation for the Peace Corps as an institution (to his credit he brought Peace Corps back to Botswana in 2003 after a six year absence).

Irresistibly I had to wear my cowboy boots to the event, and as we were arranging ourselves for this group photo Mr. Bush exclaimed, “I like your boots!” I thanked him and explained that the boots are perfect for walking around on Botswana’s very dusty, Texas-like terrain. Boot wearing success.

This service has certainly brought me to some unexpected places, and I think this event juxtaposes nicely with meeting First Lady Michelle Obama last year. All in all life as a third-year is much busier than before, and I’m enjoying how it’s all rounding out. Posts on my new role at SAREP and life in Maun to follow.

More photos of the GWB event can be found here.        

Life as a PCVL: No Sleep till Tsabong

The day I moved to Maun I spent the night in my new one bed-roomed apartment, sleeping on a bare mattress with a sleeping bag and surrounded by clutter and boxes. The very next morning I left Maun to travel south to Kanye, a village on the opposite end of the country. It was swearing-in time for the new Bots 12 group, and Peace Corps wanted the PCVLs (Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders) there for support. This is the life I’ve been leading since early June – fast paced, consistent travelling and direction changing at the whim of Peace Corps. As much as I love my new home in

Meeting my successor to the Francistown DAC office, Dominique Shephard, at the Bots 12 Swearing-In Ceremony

Maun and am glad when I have a weekend to do laundry, I’m acutally enjoying the opportunity to get out and interact with Peace Corps Botswana on a deeper level.

Our first action item as PCVLs was to set up tiny-regional meetings in various shopping villages in the country. The three PCVLs coordinated and conducted our own meetings and wrote follow-up reports, ensuring we accounted for all volunteers traveling and collected their feedback. I held meetings in three villages: Maun, Ghanzi, and Tsabong. If you were to compare this to Texas, that would be kind of  like having meetings in Ft. Worth, Odessa, and Laredo, respectively.

The meetings were great opportunities for the new volunteers to get to know the earlier intakes and ask questions like, “When will I get a house?”, “What do I do when strange men come to my house after dark?” and, “How do I check for gas tank leaks?” The earlier intakes helped to answer these questions, and also discussed issues of their own like communication problems with staff and each other, technical issues, travel issues, counterpart problems, and questions about other aspects of their service. Much of my job, aside from conducting the meeting, was to give and receive feedback and liaise between the volunteers and staff.

Some of the PCVs participating at the Maun tiny-regional meeting

It was also good just to hangout with volunteers from all over the country inside their respective regions. I’m trying to wiggle my way into a comfort zone with being a PCVL. PCVLs are not staff, and we’re still just volunteers, but other volunteers tend to look at us as a gateway to staff, and so this can put an awkward cramp on some normal volunteer-to-volunteer interactions. So I made a special effort to ensure volunteers that:  a) I’m here to provide support first and foremost, b) my job is not to rat on volunteers but to help them keep their service productive, and c) yes, I would love a beer.

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