A Decision to Extend Service: Goodbye Francistown and Hello… MAUN

It’s time to move on, challenge myself again, and get out of what’s familiar. As much as I miss home, before I get there I’m going to tackle the next year working in a whole new way here in Botswana.

Francistown.    Source: http://www.flickr.com/ photos/ennor/4789822402/

I pondered the idea to extend back in October. Back then it was all about the comfort and connection I felt with Francistown. I didn’t want to leave. The pull of this place is eerie – you’re in a city yet everywhere you go people recognize you. Low turnover in the businesses means store owners and employees know your name, what you like to eat or drink, will help you out if you’re stuck, etc. Living is easy, relaxed, and each year it grabs a little more of you and makes you think you could live here for years. I realize now that Francistown is actually a pitcher plant, and I almost fell in. Note to the incoming Francistown PCVs.

After that epiphany I decided that for my own good I had to get out of Francistown, no matter what. The idea to extend, however, still lingered in my mind as an option for the next year. Why? Well, third-year Peace Corps Volunteers have more say in where they work, what they do, and are usually able to find great opportunities for professional growth. In making this decision I told myself I would not settle (operation “Go Hard or Go Home” is what I acutally called it), and that if I did extend it would be for something really worthwhile.

Luckily that happened, and so a week from Thursday I’ll be “Going Hard” and relocating to Maun.

So for the next year I’ll actually split my time between two jobs. The first is tied entirely to Peace Corps, and is one of three third-year positions called PCVLs, or Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders. PCVLs provide guidance and support to other Volunteers, liaise between the Volunteers and Peace Corps staff, conduct Volunteer site development, and participate in the development and implementation of Peace Corps programs and trainings.

Map showing the three PCVL regions. Mine’s the blue one.

We also regularly visit Volunteers at their sites, which means lots of travel. There are three of us so we can divide the Volunteer placements up geographically and give our focused attention to those in our region. Due to the low density of volunteers in the North and West parts of the country, I’ll be managing the area shaded in blue. Wish me luck.

My other role will be as the HIV and Volunteer Coordinator for SAREP, the Southern Africa Regional Environmental Program. This is a USAID funded project operating in Namibia, Angola and Botswana. It focuses on:

  • Protecting Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
  • Increasing Access to Water Supply and Sanitation
  • Addressing Global Climate Change at local levels
  • Integrating HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment
I’ll be working in their Maun office and heading up the HIV/AIDS portion, which entails creating partnerships with HIV/AIDS organizations all over the Delta area and building a working program that effectively disseminates HIV/AIDS information to people in the region. I’ll also be managing any volunteers who sign on to help the program.

So there you have it. It’s quite a big change, and I’m pretty excited to get started. I hope you’ll stick with me! Another perk for third-years is the month of home leave provided by Peace Corps. I can’t imagine a better time to visit the States than around Thanksgiving, so hey let’s make some plans.

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Is Botswana’s Zero New HIV Infections by 2016 Realistic? – Urban Times

Please enjoy this recent article I wrote about Botswana and the country’s No New HIV Infections by 2016 goal!

Is Botswana’s Zero New HIV Infections by 2016 Realistic? – Urban Times.

Close of Service Conference and Public Praise for PC Botswana

My intake group, Bots 9, is getting ready to head home. Last week we completed our Close of Service Conference, which is intended to give the group one last time to reunite and get acquainted with administrative and medical procedures needed to leave country. It’s also intended for Volunteers to feel rewarded for (almost) completing their service. To help with the reward part, Peace Corps held the conference at the Phakalane Golf Estates just outside of Gaborone. The resort had incredible food, and the poolside views made me think for a moment I wasn’t in a landlocked country. The bedrooms were also very cushy, with buttons to press for “do not disturb” instead of door tags. I had become so accustomed to not having air-conditioning that I almost froze my first night bundled up in my fluffy white comforter. I got used to it though!

We had sessions on service challenges and successes, job hunting and readjustment.  We even had a Q&A with a panel of RPCVs who now live and work in Gaborone. After our first full day, Peace Corps treated us to a game drive and bush braai in Mokolodi. The truck I was on managed to spot two hyenas and a tower of gorgeous giraffe. We then had the bush braai out by a lake, drinking wine and listening to the hippos make sounds like they were arguing over something.

My Mokolodi Game Drive Truck

The hyenas had to be behind an enclosure, but they got as close as they could!

The male among the herd

The last full day of the conference included a formal luncheon to pay tribute to the volunteers along with VIP government officials. Former President Festus Mogae attended, which was especially significant because he was a driving force in bringing the Peace Corps Volunteers back to Botswana in 2002. Volunteers had previously served in Botswana since 1966, but left in 1997 due to the country’s strong economic growth and development.

Other officials attending included the Minister of Health, Minister of Local Government, and the National Coordinator for the National AIDS Coordinating Agency (NACA). Four volunteers gave speeches in Setswana about their service.

The cozy luncheon and Ross Szabo giving one of the Volunteer Speeches.

Throughout the conference I took in how amazing it was to see the growth and changes of our little group since we arrived. It made me remember the first few days of training – standing outside of class eating fatcakes in the cold and discussing how difficult it was to bathe with one bucket and handwash our clothes. Back then we had absolutely no idea what we were in for, as if bucket bathing would be the big challenge. One woman has grown a streak of grey hair just since her service began, but she’s also about to marry her Motswana fiance. Another friend of mine also just married a woman he met during his service. Several are heading to the graduate program of their dreams, and a few are staying on for another year!

To round off this wonderful experience and in response to our successful luncheon, Botswana press put out radio interviews, television reports, and printed a great article about Peace Corps Botswana in Mmegi, a Botswana national newspaper.

Bots 9 COS date is scheduled for June 9th, 2012.

Wrapping Up 2011

It feels strange and significant to say, “I’ve spent all of 2011 living in Africa.” It’s the same thing as saying, “I’ve spent a whole year living in Africa,” but the turning of a numerical year seems to mark it more clearly in my mind. It’s one of those things where I can look back and think “was in Africa” when I refer to the entire year of 2011.

Two-thousand eleven has been a roller coaster. Nothing can compare to the experiences working here and the amazing friends and connections I’ve made, but saying that alone might paint the picture too perfectly. For me, security became an issue. The nation endured a work strike, which only affected me tangentially but left many unemployed. People have disagreed with me but I believe this caused an increase in crime around Francistown. Between May and November my neighborhood endured a consistent string of attempted night-time break-ins, and a couple of attempts were made on my house. No one managed to get into my house, and thanks to the Botswana Government and Peace Corps I have burglar bars and a motion alarm system with excellent security to give me some peace of mind. But, as a precautionary measure, Peace Corps and the DAC office paid to have vulnerable areas of my house reinforced with extra strong, lead, flat burglar bars.

Finishing the extra burglar bar installation in my bedroom

The neighborhood crime gave me frequent bouts of insomnia since I would head to bed every night and wonder if my house would get struck next. I would wake up repeatedly to the slightest sound, and often I found it difficult to get back to sleep. I experienced additional petty and somewhat serious crime in Francistown, and witnessed a purse snatching in Gaborone. Sometimes living alone can be difficult, but it can also be awesome, and I find my experience in Francistown and in Botswana too rewarding to quit or relocate. I also realize things like this happen all over the world – especially in the States.  I certainly feel lucky. The lessons learned from going through all of this are invaluable, and have made me a generally more responsive and vigilant person (while trying to avoid characteristics of paranoia).

Awesome billboard located in Gaborone. Even Gabs can't get enough of FTown

And after a year and a half of living in Francistown I’ve kind of fallen in love with it. The Ghetto, as it’s commonly called, is a place I enjoy calling home. In the past year and a half I’ve befriended store clerks, street cleaners, gardeners, bartenders, government and NGO workers, postal workers, doctors, kids, very very old people, taxi drivers, restaurant and hotel owners, my own neighbors, and even a few expats. Its a great feeling to walk around a city almost every day and run into someone I’ve met. It also, in a way, feels like any small, contained population in the sense that many of us frequently recognize one another, and then varying degrees of familiarity determine how friendly we are.  But then again, strangers still exchange hellos.

The city is also a hub for cultural exchange and influence, which adds to my interest and attachment. It’s occupied by an eclectic population of youngsters and old people. Expats from far and neighboring countries who swore they would only stay a year have settled here – some for 30+ years. My neighborhood is inhabited by Batswana, Pakistanis, Indians, Zambians, Zimbabweans and a slew of other ethnic backgrounds I’m not even clear on (though I am positive I am the ONLY American). People regularly buy inexpensive clothing and housewares at the plethora of China Shops. To clarify, these are shops owned by Chinese immigrants – they often give their stores names that accentuate their Chinese origin, names like “China Shop A,” which, in my opinion, legitimizes referring to them as “China Shops.”  Every day except Sunday, the main street, Blue Jacket, and the large bus rank downtown, bubble with music and people shopping and other people selling vegetables, phone air time, earrings, CDs, cowbells, locks and pumice stones. Though racial tensions certainly exist, the fact that Francistown is a huge center for cultural exchange seems to challenge these tensions in subtle ways. I guess my love for it really boils down to the potential it has to positively effect the rest of Botswana with regards to this cultural exchange, but also with their health services, education, visual art, fashion, music, and tolerance. I would say it is a relatively progressive mini-city.

Peace Corps Botswana Volunteer Placements

Peace Corps celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year, and to commemorate this the Peace Corps Botswana office threw a party for all of the PCVs in October. Located in Gaborone at a recreation center near the American Embassy, the event included a fantastic meal, grassy patches for playing volleyball and frisbee, a cash bar, raffle, and great dance music.  Volunteers sold crafts made by village locals to help bring  local businesses some profit. The weather was perfect, and the gathering was really the first time Botswana PCVs from all intakes and all locations were able to come together. It also included RPCVs who remained in Botswana after ending their service. Many of these RPCVs have been here for decades, and one had just received his Botswana Citizenship (which is significant because Botswana makes you renounce any other citizenship in order to be accepted).  It was great to see PC staff relaxed and out of the office, and it was also great to catch up with PCV friends who are placed on the other side of the country. The event reminded me how spread out we are all over this Texas-sized country (refer to above photo), and so I suggested to a staff member that we try to do this gathering at least once every two years.

Dec 2011 - The Francistown Delegation at National World AIDS Day in Moshupa, Botswana

 

My work in 2011 crossed through several different arenas. Mostly spent with the District AIDS Office helping to implement the HIV/AIDS district activity plan, I also managed to dabble in NGO consulting, the creation of an NGO forum to unify the HIV/AIDS organizations and help give them one voice, HIV/AIDS district budget assessment, journalism both in Botswana and American publications, participating in the Francistown safe-male circumcision task force, technological progression within the office and with other HIV/AIDS organizations around the city, collaborating with other PCVs to put together a young girls leadership camp, and of course, a focus on cultural exchange.  I hope to get involved more in the planning side of Francistown – I want to help map out the NGOs and the schools and locations they work with. I want it to be publicly known what all of the HIV organizations are doing and where they are concentrated, both for community benefit and so that we don’t overlap our HIV efforts while leaving other communities out.

But there’s so little time left!

Two-thousand twelve seems bright, shiny, and new. It’s the kind of year where I feel like the lessons learned in 2011 will be carried out the correct way this time. It seems very promising.  My plans are not set, but I know I’ve got a lot to do between now and June.

Until then I’m going on vacation. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

More photos!

Jacarandas

Jacaranda tree at the entrance to my neighborhood. While it’s blooming it makes the Monday morning walk to work a bit more inviting.

For a limited time only

Francistown’s 1st HIV/AIDS Civil-Society Organization Unification Forum

My first year in Botswana was spent soaking it all in. Working in Francistown, I’ve met and collaborated with people from different HIV/AIDS organizations who all have different perspectives on what the city needs the most. Throughout my time here I listened and observed, trying to pinpoint exactly what it was that I would do to contribute. As with most PCVs I feel I contribute in small ways on a semi-regular basis, and lately I’ve been a part of some bigger initiatives, but I also wanted to do something new and substantial that would carry on after I left – something that wasn’t arbitrary but would truly benefit the system and community, and something that I felt would be best started by a PCV with my background.

Today I began what I believe is that contribution, and I’m joined by several other PCVs in Botswana also putting together some larger-scale projects. My friend and Bots 9 PCV Jen Murphy, for instance, assessed that her community needed a space for children to grow and play safely, so she got her community together and is in the process of completing a huge playground. Other Bots 9 PCV friends, Sydney Lambson, Lucie Kuhlmann and Salewa Oroyelaran, are working together to include even more PCVs (i’m involved – facilitating and designing T-shirts!) to bring 40 young girls aged 13-15 to a four-day GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp in Nata, Botswana – a huge initiative that will teach young girls how to respect their bodies and lead healthy, strong lives.

My contribution has to do with unifying and organizing the Francistown HIV/AIDS related Civil-Society Organizations (CSOs). Over the past year and a half it’s come to my attention that Francistown has over twenty CSOs spread out all over town. These CSOs provide varied services including counseling, youth and sportstheater, and those that are faith-based. They are, however, all pooled together to receive a limited (and shrinking) amount of government and donor funds with which they use to implement their activities. Problems arise when they don’t know which organizations are working on what and where.

As a result, CSOs create redundant and overlapping programming, which wastes time and money and has a negative impact on HIV efforts within the community. In addition, many CSOs don’t know this but are set back from the same lack of skill sets.

Other districts have CSO Meetings where they attempt to address these issues, but with Francistown being a relatively large city in Botswana, bringing this meeting together here would pose a challenge and require focusing on the city’s distinctive needs. I became interested to see what could be done.

I wanted to create a quarterly CSO Unification forum that would focus on the following goals:

  • Unify the organizations so that each one knows which is working on what and where (via a mapping exercise)
  • Receive feedback from organizations on what skill sets they’re lacking so that we may conduct one-on-one or group trainings
  • Bring in members of the community (i.e. doctors to educate on HIV, entrepreneurs to advertise potential relevant business opportunities, government department representatives such as The Department of Youth, etc.) to explain how the CSOs might best work with them
  • Allow the CSO members to learn from each others’ experiences through open feedback
  • Collectively provide feedback from the CSO committee to the higher level of programming in the District

So in May I traveled to Selibi-Phikwe, a large village about 1.5 bus-hours South of Francistown, to benchmark their CSO Forum. About 15 members from varying CSOs throughout the village sat together in a conference room, all with their laptops, and took turns reading aloud their quarterly reports. I loved how freely members gave feedback and how they all seemed open to collaboration. They acted like one big team.

This benchmark meeting made me determined to bring it to Francistown, and after throwing the idea around to different CSO members, everyone independently said it would be a much needed contribution that would really benefit the district.

Bringing people together for such a new kind of gathering wasn’t exactly easy. Due to colliding and hectic schedules we had to reschedule a few times. Putting it off initially seemed detrimental, but surprisingly made people excited and anxious for the meeting to happen. With much support from the DAC office, I finally held the first meeting this morning in a hard-to-find but pretty swank conference room within our huge office building.

I wanted to be over-the-top prepared for this first meeting to show the attendants that the endeavor is serious and essential.  I prepared an agenda, a PowerPoint presentation introducing this type of gathering and explaining why it’s so important, developed and presented a reporting tool for them to fill out each time they attended the meeting, created a survey of technical knowledge questions and opportunities to give ideas and suggestions, and, of course, had tea and biscuits served at the end of the meeting.

Wrapping up and enjoying tea at the conclusion of the 1st Francistown CSO Forum

My plan was to chair the first meeting and get it off the ground, and then at the meeting have the group select a Chair, Vice Chair, and Secretary to work with a DAC Office member in preparing for the next one. This is a quarterly meeting, so the next meeting won’t be until January. I’m leaving in June so I only have a few quarters to ensure they won’t rely on me to keep it going. Though the attendance just barely reached a quorum, the group did elect a committee. After the meeting the new Chair assured us that once the news went around about how great this meeting was then those who were absent would make sure to attend next time.

And it really did feel great. The feedback given about the importance of this meeting was reassuring. One member of a youth counseling organization said, “if we are not united then we are able to be exploited at the end of the day,” and went on to say, “if we speak as one district like this we will win this battle.” In addition to praise, members already started to feel comfortable exchanging feedback about how to shape the committee and make it work best. This is what I wanted, and I could tell that it would not be difficult to ensure the Francistown CSO Forum’s sustainability. I reiterated during my PowerPoint that the CSO Forum was theirs to take hold of and make their own, and that the more effort put into it (with the surveys and reporting, etc) the more they would collectively and individually receive back.

So, for now I’ll serve on the committee as sort of a dormant official, meeting with the Chair, Vice Chair, and Secretary to help steer them in the right direction. I will most likely do this with another DAC Office member, since a DAC Office member will hold this particular spot on the committee indefinitely.

More later as it progresses…

Peace Corps Botswana Amenities Survey

Peace Corps just asked us to complete a survey about the types of amenities we have at site. It dawned on me that this information might not be known to my family, friends, and other interested people back in the states, so I’ve presented the survey to you as I sent it to them (sans the remarks in italics or links).

I live in a city, not a village, so my survey answers might not sound like the typical “Peace Corps” living situation most back home might expect. Before you read on though, I’d like to note that in my opinion a Peace Corps service is not justified by harsh living conditions as much as it is by the cultural exchanges and adaptations that occur. It’s about the process of figuring out how best to live, work productively, and adapt to an unfamiliar culture.

In other words, this survey might make it seem like I have it easy, but believe me, living in a city in Africa brings on a whole slew of new and interesting challenges that might not surface in a smaller village community. Perhaps I’ll elaborate on that in a future post.

All this being said, I realize I got pretty lucky with the housing placement, and I relish every warm shower!

 

Program HIV/AIDS Capacity Building Project Component: District Community Liaison (my program name)

1. Do you have electricity in your house? In your village? Is it reliable?
Yes. Yes. Yes, though we’ll have power outages during the rainy season and occasionally during planned energy saving periods.

2. Where do you get your water? Is it reliable?
I get my water from the tap. I’ve never been without water.

3. Do you have a refrigerator? Gas powered?
I have an electrical powered refrigerator.

4. Do you have a stove and oven? Gas or electric?
I have a both a stove and an oven. They are both electric.

5. Do you have cell phone coverage?  What networks are available at your site?
Yes. All of them.

6. Do you have internet access at your site?  How do you access it?
Yes. In many locations we have wireless, but I only access internet through work and home land lines.

7. Do you pay for a dongle (a USB internet provider through a cell phone carrier) or any other type of internet connection?  If yes, which provider do you use?
I split the payment for DSL in my house. I pay for half and my parents pay for the other half. I use Botswana Telecom Corporation (BTC). (This way I can video skype with my parents back home, and it actually cuts the cost for them on phonecards. Also, DSL is 512 kb/s). 

The Simple, Durable, Functional Nokia 1280

8. Does your workplace have internet? If yes, is it a school, NGO, clinic, dist. Office, etc,?
Yes, though we do have occasional outages. It’s in the District AIDS  Office.

9. Do you have a computer?
Yes, both at work and at home (computer at home is an EEE PC netbook)

10. Do you have a smart phone?
I consider my phone smart because it has a flashlight. Other than that, no.

11. Are there stores in your village? Are they chain stores and do you do the majority of your shopping there?  How far do you travel to get to major grocery stores and how often do you make the trip?
There are many stores in Francistown. Many are chain stores but we also have several locally owned businesses. I do the majority of my shopping in the central Francistown shops, like on Blue Jacket Square and in Galo Mall. I can walk 10 minutes to get to a large grocery store.

Shppers at Galo Mall

12. Is your village accessible by public transportation? If not, how far are you from the nearest public transport?
Yes. We have a large bus rank, and there are taxis all over town. The bus rank is about 15 minutes walking from my house.

Francistown Bus and Taxi Rank

13. How far are you from the nearest PCV?  How often do you see other PCVs?

I am about 10 minutes walking from the nearest PCV. I see PCVs about once a week.

14. Have you or do you plan to make a trip home to the US?
No.

15. How many visitors have you had or will you have (best estimate) from the US, family, friends, or otherwise?
None so far, but I am planning to have between 1-3 in early 2012.

16. Is there anything that I’ve left off that you want to add or any additional comments about your site? 
Francistown is pretty awesome.