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.

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

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.

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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 Real Purpose of In-Service Training

Through the many PCV blogs I’ve read I learned that the first three months of Peace Corps service (after training) are typically the hardest. More people early terminate during this time (or think they’re going to) and culture shock creeps up until the PCV looks down and has either spontaneously lost 15 lbs (most men), gained 15 lbs (most women), and can’t remember the last time he or she spent a night totally sober. It can be a very trying time for someone, especially if he or she hasn’t traveled much abroad or experienced any form of culture shock before. Most PCV’s here are alone in their village and don’t always know the best way to cope.

Luckily it never got that bad for me, but I did experience culture shock to a degree that can only be paired with the last time I spent studying abroad in Prague. Whereas in Prague I never expected it, here I expected to fight it off and it still got me. Before I knew it I wasn’t sleeping well, became apathetic towards work and personal time, wasn’t controlling the way I ate (I’m usually pretty scrutinizing about this), and my homesick spells piled on top of one another so often they became the norm. I had unintentionally bottled up my emotions until one afternoon just before IST when weeks of stress manifested in the form of tears literally falling over my beer glass. I even experienced a week mulling over the idea of going back to the states, even though I knew my placement was one not to be taken for granted.

But that’s where the beauty of In-Service Training (IST) comes in. Just when we may think we’ve had enough, we are whisked away to another town for 2-3 weeks to reunite with our friends and, essentially, press the reset button. At the quirky and hospitable Oasis Motel in Gaborone, Bots 9 got together and shared experiences, relaxed by the pool, had our meals prepared for us, and sure, we sat through some boring (and some very interesting) presentations, but at night we went out for karaoke or salsa dancing or just hung out in someone’s room laughing and playing cards. I’m pretty sure we all had a blast.

oasis gaborone thumb

IST was exactly what I needed. I experienced a sense of gratefulness for my time here, and was really surprised when I came home after all that fun sincerely missing my house and my town – The Ghetto!*

So I’m a success story – a statistic that can be checked off as someone who got the most out of IST. Prior to IST I went through many of the same ups and downs most PCVs tend to go through, and, predictably, climbed out of IST ready to rock back at my site. I returned to site re-energized, in better mental and physical shape, and content with the work set out ahead of me.

So while IST presents itself as a “training” that focuses on language and job skills learning, it’s come to my attention that the real purpose behind IST might be to bring us out of culture shock. After IST, a lot of PCV’s report having an easier time back at site, and their chances of staying with Peace Corps the rest of the two years go way up. We were on lockdown before IST, meaning we could not leave our site, and while that rule frustrated most of us it makes sense to me now – the build up to IST is worth the wait and, I believe, produces a higher degree of satisfaction after IST is over.

*”The Ghetto” is another name for Francistown. It’s also known as “The Real City”.  I still think it’s funny I’m one of two Jewish volunteers in Bots 9 and they assigned me to live in the Ghetto.

In-Service Training

Just a quick note to mention I haven’t abandoned this blog – haha, that would be ridiculous.  At times this blog is the most accessible concrete expression of my growth and experiences during my service, and the support I’m getting from readers is always heartwarming. For the past 3 weeks I’ve been in the capital city of Gaborone completing my In-Service Training. Aside from having little to no internet access (but a whole lot of access to a pool, jewelry markets, great food, and dance clubs), this was the only time the volunteers could get together for that long a period of time without taking leave, and most of that time consisted of interesting presentations by day and lots of heading out on the town at night. Gabs can be a lot of fun, to say the least.

Anyway, I’m finally back at home in Francistown. I really, really missed my house and this city. Some good blog post ideas are on the way but I’ll be taking a few days to clean my house and decompress. Like last night, for instance. What’s a better way to decompress than listening to relaxing music and drinking green tea while taking a bubble bath by candlelight? Anyone?