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

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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!

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.        

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.

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.

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…

Mid-Service Training and Mma Obama

The second year of my service is already well under way, and what better way to recognize it than with a week long training in Gaborone with all of the volunteers, ending with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet First Lady Michelle Obama.

Mid-Service Training

Getting a chance to reunite with the other ~45 volunteers was refreshing. Aside from all the catching up and partying, it was great to exchange experiences and be reassured that the problems or concerns I sometimes have at site are shared by most of us.  The actual training part was somewhat lacking, and the sessions I thought could use a little more planning and attention, but just getting out of the routine in Francistown was beneficial in itself.

Mid-Service Training
Me peering though friends during a Mid-Service Training reunion party

Other highlights included eating several different kinds of pizza, celebrating a birthday, sipping wine around a hotel mini-bonfire, and coming home with a lot less money in my Peace Corps bank account (still worth it).

During training, the acting Country Director made several announcements regarding the possibility of the volunteers attending an event where we would have the chance to meet the First Lady during her last stop to Gaborone. It became a week-long suspenseful fiasco, because we were told we could go but were repeatedly reminded that at any moment it could fall through.  Luckily it didn’t.

Meeting Mma Obama

The Beautiful and Freezing Cold Venue

That Saturday morning of the event,  US Embassy staff,  PCVs and PCV staff met outside the residence of the US Ambassador to Botswana, and we waited for a good hour in freezing temperatures before being allowed on the premises. We were never allowed into the house, but the spacious backyard garden provided hot tea and heaters. Walking through the gate to the backyard felt like entering an airport – we passed through metal detectors, and a team of secret service inspected our clothes, bags, cameras, phones, and especially passports. We all had to turn in our social security numbers ahead of time so security could run background checks.

After another forty-five minutes of chatting around heaters with our tea, all of the volunteers and staff gathered to a fence near the podium where the First Lady would speak. We all settled and readied ourselves for the speech,  strategically positioning our cameras between the heads of those in front of us. Like the sound check guy at a concert, the events coordinator walked up to the podium and received wild applause. She introduced herself, roused the crowd in preparation for Michelle Obama’s arrival, and then announced that Peace Corps was assigned to a separate roped off area and that we would have to move. So, somewhat begrudgingly,  our large herd of volunteers slowly peeled out from the tight cluster of Embassy staff, relocated to our newly designated area and repositioned our multitude of cameras. I guess our presence was a slight distraction from the event, because we were then publicly informed by the events coordinator that we’d be “more difficult to handle than the children.”

US Ambassador Michelle Gavin Introducing First Lady Michelle Obama

The First Lady spoke for about five minutes, then took the time to spend a moment with each of us. She shook everyone’s hand and really circulated around the event. I was excited to meet her but also felt relaxed. Whenever I have the opportunity to meet or see someone well known, I tend to appreciate the accomplishments of that person in relation to their physicality, and oddly enough I also think about the degrees of separation the person closes between myself and a world of distinguishable people and events. Someone like, say, Nelson Mandela, whom Michelle Obama met just days prior.  I also appreciate that she is essentially living history, and nonetheless history I’m proud of. So all in all meeting her was a pretty incredible experience.

Click on the photo below for an album of the event, and below that is a video of the short speech Mma Obama gave. Hope you all enjoy!

Meeting Michelle Obama Photo Album