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.

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!

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.

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.

The Botswana Worker’s Strike – Part 2 – Effects of the Long Strike

The strike was seemingly unending.  Since the first 10 days ended almost two months ago daily questions still float around the office: What’s going on with the strike today? Any progress? News? As the days passed the government publicly and repeatedly stated that money wasn’t available for a salary increase, but this didn’t seem to pacify anyone. Increasing the strike’s intensity was the fact that the unions couldn’t hold their promise to pay the strikers a salary when the government refused.  The workers fighting for a raise began to realize that they may not be receiving any paycheck at all.

A few weeks ago in Molepolole (the village where I spent pre-service training), students who were left without teachers to teach them began vandalizing schools and looting shops, demanding that the government end the strike. This caused schools to close throughout the country for about a week, and reopened only when they could be patrolled by police. Aside from a skeletal staff that was not allowed to strike, hospitals and clinics also shut down. Subsequently, government employed teachers and nurses on strike started getting fired.

Later, Ministers of Parliament held public meetings in various villages to address the issues surrounding the strike. Probably a well intended outreach, but the people only got riled up and angry and ended up physically running the ministers out while chanting and exclaiming that they would “rather be led by President Mugabe.” (this article link is from a Botswana newspaper and is especially colorful and dramatic)

Just a week ago on Tuesday, things culminated towards what I hope was the worst of the whole ordeal. Supposedly June 7th was the day an agreement was to be finalized – a 3% increase across the board for all government employees – and the strike was to end.  A 3% increase, however, for someone making one of the the lowest pay grades of P1200/month ($185), would be a raise of P36/month ($5.54). To put it in perspective that’s about the cost of a large bag of rice.

So Tuesday the strikers returned again to the forefront, but this time with a different attitude. Instead of peaceful protesting outside Ntshe House, Ntshe House employees fled from the building when rumors surfaced that the strikers were heading there for a confrontation.  I left with my coworkers.

Though my supervisor, Mma Mathumo, was running in jest, it was because none of us were quite sure what to expect. I exited the building and could feel the air of the city change as I walked down the street. Cars honked loudly at each other, taxis sped through intersections, and people’s pacing seemed quicker and more deliberate. All of a sudden I noticed the ladies who perch at tables surrounding the perimeter of the building to sell fat-cakes, boiled eggs and candy were hastily packing up their tables.  People were hurrying to get out of the strikers’ way.

I passed through the popular nearby shopping center, Galo Mall, on the way home and came across a woman repeatedly sneezing and crying in what looked like a painful allergic reaction. Once I got to Galo I learned that the civil unrest prompted the use of tear gas, forcing the stores to close early. Strikers charged down the streets and trashed another popular shopping center down the road, setting car tires on fire.

This video was not taken by me, but by someone down the street from where I was.

That afternoon Peace Corps told me to stay home and not come back to work the next day if the civil unrest persisted. They also put a temporary travel ban on FTown for all traveling volunteers. What’s interesting about this event (and all previous related events) is that Botswana is such a peaceful country, so this feels uncomfortable for everyone. No one is used to seeing Batswana react like this, and I think it’s clear the strikers themselves don’t want this to escalate into violence. All of this drama happened and then it stopped, as if it was a mid-morning mini riot and then people broke for lunch. Afterwards Francistown became calm, and I went to work the next day.

_____________________

Update: Union leaders met with the Directorate of Public Service Management (the Government Employer) on Sunday, June 12th to agree to temporarily suspend the strike, but a portion of the strikers are refusing to go back to work. Though the decision might have caused a chasm within the striking population, it seems most agree the strike is essentially over for now. Those who lost their jobs are requested to reapply, and workers can expect a 3% increase in salary starting in September. More later…

The Botswana Worker’s Strike – Part 1 – The Build Up

On March 22, I sat working at my desk at Ntshe House when my coworker and I heard what we thought was a thunderstorm. As the rumblings became louder I realized what I heard was not thunder, but feet. I grabbed my camera and discovered this:

Batswana government union members were publicly taking a stand against a three-year salary freeze attributed to the global economic crisis.  The protest also took place shortly after the country hit 8.5% inflation. At the time I was clueless about all of this, but the protest was somewhat expected by my coworkers. They knew the unions were not happy. The protesters wanted a 16% increase in salary to compensate, and if that wasn’t met then they announced they would soon go on strike.

It was the beginning of something huge. This significant population of government employees is interlaced throughout every major government provided service in Botswana, and fulfills an incredibly high percentage of the overall working population. For them to band together in this capacity is kind of a big deal.

Still, the protest was peaceful, and was followed by an evening candlelight vigil. People went to work like usual the next day.

But by mid-April no one could come to a deal, so on April 14th the protesters returned to Ntshe House to formally hand in a petition stating that the following Monday would be the beginning of a 10-day strike.

and them singing the anthem

The crowds were bigger and sounded more determined to see this thing through.  The following Monday, they began their strike.  In order to make sure they didn’t head out on extended vacation, the union required either a sign-in at work (going on strike was not mandatory for union members) or a sign-in at designated meeting spots throughout the country. At these meeting spots they were to appear in work clothes, arrive at the time they would for work, sit, represent their union, and leave when it was normally time to knock-off.

They did this for 10 days, but still no compromise was met, and so the strike continued. It turned into what became the longest strike in the country’s history (which, admittedly, isn’t that long).