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.

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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!

In which I’m an Honored Guest at the FTown Prison

It’s Month of Prayer time again – a time that begins a day after the the completion of Month of Ramadan and ends just before the Jewish High Holidays begin. During Month of Prayer, which is a nationally implemented event, Batswana organizations such as our District AIDS Office, the Botswana Defense Force (BDF), Botswana Meat Corporation (BMC), and other official groups of people either collaborate or put together their own “Month of Prayer Launch.” The purpose of the launch is simply to announce that Month of Prayer  is here, and that we should keep praying to end HIV and to support our churches. Some organizations continue with MoP services throughout the month. The launching events consist mostly of multiple songs of prayer, opening remarks, speeches, a sermon, closing remarks, and more songs. At the end of the month we’ll have a  “closing” which will announce the end. Our office held a successful collaborative launch with the BDF and Ministers Fraternal (an organization of Francistown Pastors) on Thursday, September 1st , and last week Tuesday my co-worker, Mma Habangana, and I visited the Francistown Prison to be honored guests at theirs.

I had been to the prison once before – it was for a similar “Month of..” event – I want to say it was “Month of Youth Against AIDS.” The experience visiting and being a guest at an FTown prison is something I only wish I could capture with stills or a video, but along with cellphones, cameras are strictly prohibited.

So I’d like to paint a verbal picture of what I saw.

The prison is basically a small compound of single story, narrow hallway buildings, surrounding a dusty courtyard with a large and burgeoning mango tree. White walls, dark green rooftops, and sandy dirt. One of the buildings was marked “Leather and Upholstery Workshop,” and though I haven’t been inside I would assume the prisoners make and sell items to collect money for the prison for things like uniforms. I’ve also heard of prisoners carving and selling wooden frames, and that day I was surprised to see a few artistic metal sculptures stacked up in a corner of the courtyard.

We first entered the main building to sit in the Commander’s office and chat while we waited for the event to get started. The Commander is a tall man with high cheekbones, a constant smile, narrow eyes, and sort of reminded me of my friend Edward from back home. His uniform was simple brown and green with a few decorations. On his bookshelf he had a few plaques and oxidized trophies, photographs, flags, and several copies of the Bible.

Mma Habangana and I sat in the room with pastors and other guests of honor, and about an hour after the launch was supposed to begin we were escorted out to the courtyard with the mango tree.

Here’s where it gets interesting. I left the building and stepped out into the courtyard, only to see the entire group of around 250+ prisoners sitting on the ground with their backs to me. They were facing the large tent we were headed toward, but they had no restraints, no guards at their sides, and no barriers to keep them from us. Some of these men are alleged rapists and murderers. A petite female usher walked us through the group, but no one made any lewd comments or tried to make any physical contact. They seemed excited about the upcoming event, and it dawned on me that, compared to prisoners in the States, they are treated more like school children at camp.

That’s not to say the guards are probably not hard on them, but the inmates are obviously allowed, at least during events like this, to somewhat go about their business within the prison walls. On these occasions they also wear what they want – most wore a combination of half uniform half ratted t-shirts or pants, and many had their own accessories like rasta hats and funky sunglasses.

Out of all the prisoners, five were women. These women sat separated from the males on chairs off to the side, next to a female guard. It seemed as if they are never allowed to mingle with the men. Two of the women had babies in their laps, and one started breastfeeding during the show.

So at the start of the event the guests of honor sat under the large tent along a table decorated with a lace tablecloth, jugs of water, and plants. We watched as a choir made up entirely of inmates and a couple of guards marched out to perform beautiful baritone hymns. They were all very talented, and seemed truly dedicated to putting on a remarkable performance. The choir looked like a hired group – wearing ironed lime green collared shirts, matching ties, and dark pants. One choir inmate personalized his outfit – wearing dark aviator sunglasses and suspenders that pulled his pants up comically high and exposed his pointy-toed tan leather boots.

Another inmate was clearly mentally disturbed. He would interrupt speeches and wander about unpredictably. He wore big, Run DMC style glasses, and made the tongues of his sneakers flop over the tops of his feet. He stood up during the Commander’s welcoming remarks, and started on a loud rant about how the honored guests had come to release them from prison. Instead of using force to get the inmate to calm down, a female guard walked over and held his hand for a few seconds, and he quickly sat down and got quiet.

It seems there is more of an effort to truly rehabilitate the inmates here. Though they don’t have access to the best educational or medical resources, they are sometimes sent to workshops where they can learn to become pastors, carpenters, gardeners, skilled in upholstery, and even knitting . During the previous event, another group of inmates put on a drama and the rest of the inmates had a chance to enjoy watching their peers speak out about HIV/AIDS through a funny sketch.

The morning wrapped up with a sermon from an Anglican pastor who for 10 years had also served time in prison.  He spoke about how the guards are there to protect the prisoners from the dangerous outside world, and that it was God’s intent to make them the chosen few so that they could have the opportunity to receive these messages about Month of Prayer. The inmates loved it, and from then on wanted nothing to do with their choir. They started yelling  for an encore from the pastor (“Re bata moruti!” or “We want the Pastor!”), and when the choir came out instead, many got up and left to go about their business.

Wrapping up Gay Pride Month

There’s quite a backlog of things I want to post since arriving home after mid-service training (and that minor addition of shaking hands with the First Lady), but as June gives way to July I didn’t want this little story to pass by.

Relative to many African countries, it’s my opinion that Botswana is on the progressive side of homosexual tolerance. Not being gay I can’t speak from personal experience, but I’ve observed an interesting aspect to Botswana culture that crosses over from the urban to the rural communities. It appears that though heavy religious influence leaves many in Botswana totally averse to the idea that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle (look at any internet comment thread on the subject in this country and this aversion becomes clear), I still think that with this culture in particular, tolerance is possible once people are given the opportunity to understand more of what being gay is, where it comes from, who is gay, and why. I feel fortunate to have been able to elaborate on this to a small group of people living and working just outside of central Francistown.

My co-worker and I attended one of the monthly ward multi-sectoral AIDS committee meetings,  which is a gathering of people from different sectors of society (religious, medical, schools, etc.) who meet to discuss matters arising surrounding HIV/AIDS. This meeting included people coming from an area that’s mostly impoverished, somewhat uneducated, and highly religious. During the meeting, one woman brought up increased delinquency and “homosexual tendencies” among students in her middle school, and wanted to know how to put it to rest. The parents were starting to worry that their kids were going to become gay if they were around other kids expressing homosexual behavior.

Now, I’m thinking that in middle school if a child is “acting gay” it probably means either he or she is going through a phase of sexual or emotional exploration without much meaning behind it, or the child is in fact, gay. Either way, some parents were sure that if their child became friends with these “delinquents” then they, too, would “get the gay.”

The coworker I was with and I have discussed homosexuality before, and she knows me to be pro-gay rights. She’s previously told me that as she learns more she’s becoming increasingly confident that intolerance towards homosexuals is an important human rights issue.  Given the chance to share the knowledge she’s learned, she asked me to address the meeting and give them my understanding of whether people are born gay, or if they can become gay by observing such behavior at a young age.

Nervous, I stood up thinking that the best way to explain it would be to put it in a blatantly clear and understandable way. So I compared sexual orientation with the other big controversial biological issue: race. I said, “It’s of my personal knowledge that choosing to be straight or gay is like choosing to be black or white. It’s how we are born, and it’s something we cannot change. I could paint my skin black every day, but at the end of the day I will always be white.”

An immediate sense of pride took over me, followed by a small dose of fear. It was the first time I had expressed my thoughts to a group of Batswana on such a sensitive topic (I usually keep it all to myself to keep the peace) and had no idea what people would say to that. They could have yelled at me, told me I was wrong, and that I would be punished in hell for such thoughts. But instead I got initial looks of shock but then quiet nods of understanding. I further explained that if the child acts gay it might be that he or she was actually born gay, and if he or she had not expressed that before it could be due to commonly understood societal pressures against homosexuality. I clarified that if the child was not born gay then he or she will not become gay by befriending someone who is.

The “painting skin” element to my comparison was particularly important, because these societal pressures don’t stop at adolescence – many Batswana grow up knowing they’re gay, but paint themselves to look straight every single day of their lives. Some get married, have children, and essentially live a lie to keep from being outed. I’ve occasionally asked people to think about it with the tables turned – to think of a world where they had to marry someone of the same sex in order to please everyone else. Looking shocked and disgusted, I think they tend to get the idea this way.

After the meeting, many of us sat around talking and enjoying our tea, when the ladies started giggling and laughing. They were reflecting on a man they all used to know – they used to call him “one of the ladies,” and referred to him with the feminine prefix “Mma” before his name, as he used to shop, socialize, and talk effeminately with them. They didn’t speak negatively about him at all, in fact, they spoke fondly of how nice he was and how easy it was for them to get along with him, and they were also discussing the realization that he was probably gay. For some it was the first time they realized that they had actually known someone gay. It seemed to click that just because he might have been gay did not mean he was a bad or negatively influential person.

Witnessing this was amazing. It gave me a sense of hope that if people are simply provided more education on the subject, then they might come to understand how hard it can be for some homosexuals in Botswana. Luckily, Gaborone is already somewhat of a hub for homosexual expression and tolerance. There are dance clubs akin to gay bars, and I’ve heard from a few friends there’s even a secret “I’m also gay” handshake. Hopefully, with more education and reflection, a slow but steady acceptance will enter people’s hearts privately, and then public action against this intolerance will follow suit.

Teen Club Feedback Meeting and Subsequent Realization of Winning

It’s been said most Peace Corps Volunteers don’t fully begin their real work until about a year into their service. In most situations, PCVs are dropped off at their home after training and basically given the green light to “begin service,” whatever that may be. Some PCVs have a very open ended service, while others know to report to a classroom or office regularly. In any of these situations, however, it can take months just to acclimate to the lifestyle and work environment, get people to like and trust you, and learn enough about what the community needs to actually begin to give back at a substantial level.  As someone who works in a modernized office with people who speak fluent English, I never thought this path applied to me quite as much (my job is a definite exception to the norm). But, in my own way, I recently experienced something akin to this phenomenon, and as a result I see whole new possibilities for my service beginning to open up.

A couple of Thursdays ago the District AIDS Coordinator asked me to attend a stakeholder feedback meeting for a group called Teen Club, a peer support group for HIV-positive adolescents. I was to report to the Cresta Marang Hotel for a morning meeting in which we were to review the organization’s progress from the last year and round off the meeting with a catered lunch at the hotel.  Surely I had gotten used to these types of gatherings already.

But this time the meeting was drastically different. While normally I would attend a similar conference accompanied by either the District AIDS Coordinator or some other member of the District AIDS Office team, this time it was just me. Also, usually the group meeting is relatively large – I’d say an average of 20 at a time – so the pressure to participate isn’t always that high. And when I would participate, it was often with a confidence only backed up by a general, superficial understanding of the situation. This time I sat in a small, windowless room with seven others around a very intimate conference table, and the participants at the meeting were looking to me to represent the District AIDS Office and give adequate feedback on the organization’s progress. Lastly, I would usually be told ahead of time if I was expected to give any type of meeting presentation. This time that realization came only after reading it on the agenda at the meeting’s start.

The wonderful thing that surprised me though was that none of these intimidating changes actually intimidated me, and I felt comfortable with the whole situation. Upon arriving I not only recognized 2 out of the 7 other attendees, but I also know and greeted the Marang Hotel manager. These connections made me initially feel at ease. When Teen Club presented their yearly reports and explained their recent successes and challenges, I immediately referred back to a bank of comparative references I had learned over the months to see if they were operating above or below par. I could read their graphs and charts and see gaps my Batswana colleagues didn’t initially see. To sum up, for the first time I realized my collected background knowledge of both the organizational structure and the culture enabled me to know what information I should give back that would be both useful and appreciated.

“That was too much. Too much good feedback for one person,” was the literal response by the co-chair of the meeting. He and others also admitted it was great to have an “outsider’s” perspective on the issues. Hello, Peace Corps Goal #2.

It felt like an achievement, and also like a turning point for me in my service.  It happened with appropriate timing too – our year anniversary for entering this country is just around the corner.

Hobbies

Sometimes I have free time

 

Remixed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both are the same pencil drawing – the second was colored using GIMP.

Severe Culture Hangover

It’s been a while since I wrote – my life’s been pretty hectic with work and play and hosting people. I spent Thanksgiving devouring American food with friends in Selebi-Phikwe, went camping in the rain with other friends at Letsibogo Dam (near Phikwe), and coordinated with the DAC office 5 World AIDS Day Celebrations in Francistown. Oh, and I attended National World AIDS Day in Palapye, where I chatted with our Ambassador Steve Nolan and watched President Khama give his annual WAD speech.

Immediately after the final World AIDS Day celebration in Francistown, I hastily took off to Cape Town for a two-week long holiday. I had no idea 2 weeks could have such an impact on me – it made me realize just how slowly time passes here in Bots. If I could do as much as I did in those two weeks, then it’s become a resolution of mine to fill my time here more efficiently as well. Course, I’m back on my Peace Corps budget, so “filling my time” might mean “reading more books” and “exercising more frequently” as opposed to the following:

Things I did in Cape Town:

  • Ate copious amounts of sushi
  • Drank delicious, high-gravity beer with this crazy thing added called “flavor”
  • Visited 6 vineyards in the Stellenbosch region (only really remember the first 5 though)
  • Met and befriended several locals from Stellenbosch and Cape Town – sincere thank yous to Couch Surfing
  • Saw Harry Potter at the Waterfront – a part of town near the ocean filled with malls and breweries and restaurants by the water. The area has a huge ferris wheel and other fun attractions like “still-dude-in-all-bronze” and “man who makes portraits of you and advertises this talent with his portrait of R. Kelly”.  Also, choirs.
  • Visited Simon’s Town – the cute touristy spot just north of Cape Point – one of the most southern parts of Africa.
  • Enjoyed many hours shopping the markets and cafes in Cape Town – and though it’s hard to find a restroom, the urban design of some of these areas are beautiful, welcoming, and green.
  • Stayed at one hostel for the duration of the trip – the Kimberley Hotel – and by the end really felt like family there. Highly recommended, assuming they provide a fan in your room. Their cheap breakfasts of eggs, toast, beans and coffee really saved me a few mornings. It was also fun to watch people finishing their beers while eating these breakfasts.
  • Climbed Lion’s Head with my friend Hays and viewed all of Cape Town and the ocean from one single point at the top
  • My New Year’s Day consisted of visiting a Turkish Bath, watching The Social Network at the Labia Theater,  hitting up a Mexican Restaurant, a jazzy cigar bar… and a brewery at the Waterfront.
  • Drank 2 exquisite martinis – one bar-made and one home-made
  • Went salsa dancing, then later got booed off the stage singing Karaoke (crappy song + drunk people = little patience for anything other than “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond)
  • Ate at a Kurdish restaurant called Mesopotamia, shared a tobacco hookah, watched a belly dancer who later invited me to belly dance with her… which i did.
  • Drank a neat Laphroaig (this deserves a bullet of its own)
  • Ate a perfect meal with an incredible person at a restaurant called Blonde
  • Laughed until I cried at least twice
  • Danced and danced and danced with truly great friends

So from this experience I can see why some wait a long time before visiting the States during their service – I didn’t want to come back to Francistown. And though perhaps the sleepless night before the exhausting day of travel might have had something to do with it, I teared up a bit walking back to my house. Even in my wonderful tiny city of Francistown, everything seemed so flat in comparison to the saturation of culture and beauty I had just immersed myself in. I questioned what I was doing in Peace Corps again, but eventually resolved (again) to stick it out and use my time here as best I can. No sense in not living in a place like Cape Town if I’m just going to sit on my thumbs living in Botswana.

Though I don’t feel so energized to sit again in front of my screen in my FTown flourescent office,  I do, however, feel energized to fulfill some personal goals I’ve been sitting on for a few months. I need to act on them in a practical way  – like, inching forward by doing at least one thing a day on one of my goals. And I’ve got lots.

Will I mention my goals right now on this blog? Nope. Thanks to insight from Derek Sivers on TED I’ll be keeping them to myself for now.

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Happy New Year, everyone. And to quote the naked lady in the Turkish bath (who probably got it from someone else), “may the best of last year be the worst of this year.”