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…

Advertisements

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.

5-a-Side Football Tournament

Pie City Meat Pies

The day after the big storm the DAC office driver, Bob, picked me up from my house in a government truck and drove me, the DAC office supplies keeper, Albert, and about 200 meat pies over to a residential part of town called Area W.  We were headed to the sports field to fulfill some of our duties as DAC officers, representing the office to show support and take note of the success level of the event. This match wan’t created solely to play football, but because more and more HIV/AIDS based organizations are using tactics like football tournaments to reach out to young men.

Albert and Bob

Area W is a residential part of town with low to middle income housing. It’s just a few blocks from Francistown’s ritzy outdoor mall and big box store (think Wal-Mart but slightly more upscale), but our group conversations with community members reveal that the area, like many areas in Francistown, has a substantial problem with brothels, over drinking, out-of-school youth, and consequently, HIV. These problems can be well hidden from outsiders – one would probably not know it if he were to walk past a brothel as they look like any other home. Because the problem areas can be so hidden, penetration into the community and implementation of behavior change can be much more difficult.

The day’s organizer was Ultimate Youth of Destiny, an up and coming NGO in Francistown that caters to educating young people on the benefits of abstinence until marriage. It’s also one of many organizations that occasionally uses football as a bridge to bring a message of HIV/AIDS awareness to young men and women, but especially  men.  Men in Botswana statistically don’t test for HIV as often as women, and therefore have a greater chance of infecting several partners before becoming aware of a positive HIV status.  So, ideally, the men hear news of the game, come out to play, eat a meat pie provided and paid for with government District AIDS Office money, and leave with a message of healthier living. Positive reinforcement through food and sports.

I was amazed at how many people turned up. Six teams worth, or about 30 players, came out to play while onlookers sat on the roads nearby or walked through the field as the games commenced. The game field was just a large patch of ground enclosed by street and trees. Off to the right from where I sat was a huge pool of rainwater from the storm the night before that repeatedly floated the football during a play. The teams trickled in over the course of the morning, each with their own impressive uniform shirt, and jumped right into the game with intense energy under the hot and humid sun. They seemed totally unphased by the sweltering heat.

Spectators

The Saturday was turning out to be an excellent day for a football match, but a pretty unlucky day for the real purpose of the game – getting the message of abstinence and the dangers of multiple-concurrent partnerships (MCP) out to the players.  Though the organizer from Ultimate Youth gave a brief pre-game talk on the goals of the organization, only one team out of 6 had arrived by that time. Once the games started, Bob and Albert attempted to set up the sound system and some large speakers so Ultimate Youth could play music and occasionally talk about MCP, but this plan fell through when the cord was too short to reach the power source, the Area W clinic, down the street. Bob and Albert left during a match to get a longer cord, and meanwhile more teams arrived and played and left and some didn’t receive the message. So when they were finally able to set up the sound system there were only a few matches left, and Ultimate Youth was only able to squeeze in a few last minute reminders towards the end.

Bob setting up the Sound System

The other issue with events like this is that even if the sound system had worked from the beginning, it’s still very difficult to determine how effective these types of events are. There isn’t really a quantifiable way to measure the effects of a message-based football tournament because behavior change is such a gradual process and can come from a number of different factors. And in a country of only 2 million with one of the most highly concentrated HIV positive populations in the world, all efforts need to be worthwhile.  We are presented with a constant tug-of-war between reaching out to the community in an enriching way that produces a quick enough turnaround reduction of HIV infections, and fighting with the fact that poverty and lack of education lead so many so quickly down a destructive path. Regardless, we assume that a football tournament is a failsafe way to reinforce positive behavior by keeping people, at least temporarily, away from an abusive lifestyle and focused on healthy living and camaraderie.

It’s a Cultural Exchange

Democratic societies are unfit for the publication of such thunderous revelations as I am in the habit of making. – Salvador Dali

For the two plus months I’ve lived in this town and worked in the wonderful office I do, I’ve spent most of my time soaking up the surrounding culture and keeping my thoughts almost entirely to myself. Not everyone has it as good as I do – I’m lucky enough to work with a team of educated, liberal-minded positive thinkers who are motivated and engaged in mobilizing people and actively making the district an HIV/AIDS free area. But even still, during large and small meetings I’m faced with the challenge of opening up and revealing my true thoughts. Do I give them a taste of my perspective, or, until learning who I’m really dealing with, keep my ideas hidden and my mouth shut? Knowing I’ll be here for two years I’ve been treading lightly on eggshells trying to keep from possibly offending a culture so very different from the strange one in my head. After all, I’m supposed to be the one with the culture shock – I don’t think giving them one is what they signed up for.

Today I made the decision it’s time to begin interjecting more of my Alexis-isms out there. Love me or hate me, I’m your Volunteer for two years. Though my silence was at first out of respect for embracing a culture I am still trying to understand,  today I actually went so far as to annoy someone I very much respect because it was noticed that I felt uneasy about speaking up. I even rounded off my uneasy statement with a timid, “well, then again I may not know what I’m talking about.”  A laughable, unlike-me statement that came about because I truly don’t know how some Batswana will respond to the suggestions and comments I have, and in this cultural context I honestly don’t often even know whether or not I know what I’m talking about. Rremogo*? What makes sense on my culture hat may not make sense across the table. I think many PCVs go through similar dilemmas.

Things have progressively improved though, and I’ve been paying attention to cues to take steps forward. When I first arrived I occasionally tested the waters in meetings only to receive collective blank looks and confused stares. So, naturally, I shut my face for a while. Just last Friday during a large meeting I finally spoke up to a group who received my comments positively. Part of it was due to having a connection with those in the room – most knew me already. The other reason was because the methods used for conducting the meeting seemed wholly inefficient, and I really felt my ideas would make things run more smoothly. And they did, so here I am, starting to dance on those eggshells. Day by day, they’ll receive more and more of the benefits of having me as their PCV. After today I can see now they are ready for me, and I think I’m finally ready for whatever response they give back.

* pronounced – Rremocho, meaning, are we on the same page?

Work

Like a friend and fellow volunteer once said to me, many people leave well paying, horribly lit cubicle jobs to join the Peace Corps, and are disappointed when they arrive to the same fluorescent environment in a foreign country. People don’t join the Peace Corps to become “Cube Dwellers.”

That’s why my job is new. Revamped. New to me, new to Peace Corps, and new to the District AIDS Office where I work. Previously called the “District AIDS Coordinator,” Peace Corps changed the position because A) each District AIDS Office already employs its own District AIDS Coordinator (they head the department) and B) the volunteers in this position used to spend every waking moment inside their office.

Now called the District Community Liaison (sexy, no?), this position needs to be broken-in like a new leather loafer. As one of its first occupants, I’ve been attempting to set precedents and hold my ground so I can defend the main difference between the two positions – that I am to spend half of my time in the office and half of my time out in the community.  From the beginning I knew I had to set the right example so coworkers wouldn’t assume the new PCV is just a slacker.

I arrive at work at 7:30 sharp each morning, dressed in the best PCV work clothes I can muster (ha). On the surface, the DAC Office in FTown is similar to a typical office in America.  I encounter the usual office chatter, people sitting at desks typing on computers, and coworkers calling each other on their respective phone extensions. Of course, the screaming difference being that most of this is done in Setswana. For half the day I attend office meetings, read materials on the current AIDS situation in the district and country, and plan my community work. I always eat lunch at home, and for the other half I venture out into the community. To keep me focused, I’ve taken the list of  ~80 organizations in connection with the District AIDS Office – the NGOs, churches, clinics and other HIV/AIDS affiliated organizations in the community – and walk to four or five of them a week to meet their leaders and become familiar with the layout of the city.

So far it’s worked out splendidly. People are pleasantly surprised to meet me, especially knowing I’m taking time out of my day to introduce myself to them.

The other part of my first three-month plan is to compile all of that contact information and make a public listing on Google Maps.  I want to make one website that will direct people to a map and listing of all of the HIV/AIDS services in the area. The internet is catching on in Botswana, and especially in FTown. All of the corresponding organizations could use it as a referral, and though many people still don’t have internet in their homes, they do go to internet cafés. With this one site people could easily and anonymously get the HIV/AIDS information or counseling they are looking for.

The position will shift a lot in the next two years, and I’ll have more goals as soon as I find my footing (which, in this city, could take a while), but at least a precedent will be set and people will know more why I’m here.

27th Worldwide HIV/AIDS Candlelight Memorial – FTown District

Last week I helped plan my first event. As a PCV, I’m not really supposed to be planning or leading, but more acting as co-facilitator. Whatever it was, leaders from the Catholic Relief Services, District AIDS Office, Ghetto Artists (an amazing local acting troupe that specializes in promoting messages of healthy living), and the Francistown Network of Support Groups (support for people living with HIV/AIDS) met together and planned a beautiful memorial for those who have died from complications due to AIDS. This is an annual worldwide event that usually takes place in May.

I learned a lot about how events can come together. Some planners arrived (with me) at least an hour early. Others arrived after it had already started. The even took place in the Tatitown Customary Court, or Kgotla as it’s known in smaller villages, which serves as a community center. As per usual with community events held at the Kgotla, our driver strapped a PA to the top of a truck and drove around advertising the event. Loud, festive music blared from speakers as children from the community came to help set up. Chairs were arranged in the shape of a large red ribbon, everyone received a red ribbon and a candle, and as always, a pastor opened and closed the event with a prayer. The Assistant District AIDS Coordinator gave a speech centering around the theme of the event, “Many lights for Human Rights” and spoke about how we need to stop turning our backs on vulnerable and underrepresented populations like the homosexual community, people living with HIV/AIDS, commercial sex workers, youth, orphans, and drug users. A passionate woman named Grace gave a testimony about the stigma she faces living with HIV, mentioning at one point (or so it was translated to me) that when people in her office found out about her status they would not use the restroom after her until it was cleaned at the end of the day. They would instead rather wait until they got home.

Ghetto Artists put on a musical performance illustrating the effects of multiple concurrent partnerships (a very common practice in Botswana that significantly contributes to the HIV spread), and they did a really beautiful job of pantomiming sensitive topics in a way that could be appreciated in a family setting.

Though the event took place on a Saturday, and usually I would have wanted to stay home and enjoy my time off, I was so glad to be there! Close to 100 people attended, and many of them were community leaders and members that I will work closely with. To see everyone come together for such an occasion and interacting with them on this level was really beneficial. I left thinking about how much my job rocks, and how happy I am to be working with the people I do.

Photo Album

Site Announcement!!!

“To affect the quality of each day is no small improvement in”….. Francistown!

On Saturday we finally had our Site Announcement Ceremony. The quote above was what I read just before discovering my name on a large map of Botswana. The announcement was especially exciting for me because, at the request of Peace Corps staff, I had been keeping the secret that two other trainees and I were switched to another program. I really, really wanted to tell people.

My new position is as a member of the District Community Liaison program, and will work in the office of the District AIDS Coordinator (DAC). The DAC is a district-level, government appointed position that oversees the funding, technical support and resource dispersal to programs, organizations, offices, and clinics responsible for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

My job as a District Community Liaison will be to serve as the liaison between the DAC office and the community, and will split my time almost 50/50 inside and outside the office.  Within the office I will be an inter-departmental liaison as well as a colleague to the DAC and the Assistant DAC, and outside the office I will strengthen the connections the DAC office maintains with local non-governmental organizations through technical assistance, community mobilization, and resource mapping.

So, I’m doubly excited. I’m thrilled because I feel the DCL position really fits my prior experiences and future goals. It is a great job for my current place in life, as it will be challenging and rewarding but I feel capable to dive in and get started.

I’m also ecstatic about moving to Francistown. It is the second largest city in Botswana, and home to approximately 150,000 people. Someone told me that it’s like the capitol, Gaborone, in terms of its activity level, but it is slightly smaller and does an excellent job of maintaining a rich, African culture.

I will be one of two PCVs in Francistown. The other will work directly with a local non-governmental organization. But many other PCVs will be located just an hour or two outside of Francistown, so I’m happily expecting visitors on a somewhat regular basis.

This Wednesday we all head to our sites for the weekend to see our future home and office, and to figure out what furnishings we’ll need to purchase before we move to our sites.

I will obviously blog about this tour as soon as I can. Once I move to site, however, my access to internet will significantly increase.

The schedule from here looks like this:

Wednesday, May 26- Sunday, May 30th – Site Visit in FTown

Saturday, June 5th – Host Family Thank-You Party

Wednesday, June 9th – Shopping Day in Gaborone (for house furnishings)

Thursday, June 10th – Swearing-In Ceremony (where we will transition from Peace Corps Trainees to Peace Corps Volunteers)

Friday, June 11th – Move to Francistown

P1020714-1

P1020714