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.

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.

Representing my Roots in the TJP

The Director of Communications at the elementary school I grew up attending recently asked me to write an article to fit with this photo of me with Mma Obama. The article is an introduction to my service, Peace Corps service in general, and my experiences during my first year. It was just picked up by the Texas Jewish Post. Hopefully it will serve to help some understand more of what Peace Corps is about, and also perhaps get those who are considering joining the Peace corps, or making huge life changes in general, to take that step and do it already 🙂

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Former Levine Academy student meets her future — and Michelle Obama — in the Peace Corps

Posted on 21 July 2011 by admin

By Alexis Kanter

Alexis Kanter (left) speaks with Michelle Obama at a recent event in Gaborone, Botswana. Kanter is serving a two-year term in the U.S. Peace Corps. | Photo: Caitlin Anzalone/U.S. Peace Corps

If you had asked me three years ago if I’d be interested in joining the Peace Corps, I would have chuckled and said, “no thanks.” Already three years out of college, the thought of running off to serve a two-year stint in the Peace Corps seemed like an escape from developing a stable career at home. But after realizing the opportunities Peace Corps service can provide, I look back on the past year and know it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made.

I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2005 having majored in history and anthropology. During my college career, I wrote for the university’s newspaper, then later worked in politics on a gubernatorial campaign and at a lobby firm, and had a private-sector job with an architecture firm. Through these activities I developed a passion for the way policy and culture influence the well-being of communities. The decision to finally apply was mostly based on the desire to challenge myself to live in a culturally new environment, and commit to a long-term goal that would enable me to grow personally and professionally. My uncle, who served in Peace Corps Peru during the early 1960s, became an inspiration to me when considering Peace Corps service. His enthusiasm for the program stoked my curiosity, and the more I looked into the benefits, the more I liked the idea of being able to work closely with locals on a local income level.

Following a year-long application process, I arrived in Botswana in April 2010, and was assigned to spend my service in Francistown, the second largest city in Botswana, and home to a vibrant population of over 100,000 people representing all levels of the wealth spectrum. It has a wonderful, distinct flavor that incorporates both traditional and modern Setswana culture. I work with smart, passionate men and women in the District AIDS Office, which is the government office that oversees all HIV/AIDS organizations and programming in the district. Part of my job entails introducing fresh ideas to help improve the way the office functions. I also help connect the District AIDS Office with the community at large, mostly through involvement in HIV/AIDS related campaigns and helping the HIV/AIDS organizations address challenges and improve their skills so they can better serve their community.

Volunteers and locals work together toward promoting positive behavior change, and as a Peace Corps volunteer, my primary focus always centers on making sure the change I bring will be sustainable after I leave. Peace Corps volunteers work not to save the world, but rather strive for incremental improvements that will last after service is complete.

Along with fulfilling my initial goals, new experiences I encounter daily continue to bring a wealth of knowledge I couldn’t acquire in any other setting. For instance, the cramped, long-hour bus rides between cities taught me an etiquette to maintaining order on a bus with almost zero personal space. I’ve seen elephants and lions roam their native habitat, attended a huge wedding celebration in the tiny village of Mapoka, been awakened to beautiful traditional dance and music, and feel as if I’ve become a part of real life here.

More significantly, I’ve worked on a campaign where teenage boys in Francistown signed up by the hundreds to voluntarily get circumcised in order to increase protection from contracting HIV. Never before had I seen such an immense sense of personal responsibility displayed at such a young age.

My work here is fulfilling, and I’m fortunate to have made lasting friendships with volunteers and locals. But service is not easy. I can’t say that I haven’t had some trying days, but that’s where personal growth comes in. Once out of your comfort zone you may begin to answer questions about yourself you never thought to ask before. And then out of the blue, things beyond your wildest expectations push you forward, and answering those questions becomes a little easier.

Recently, Botswana Peace Corps volunteers attended an event held at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in the capital, Gaborone. We were given the rare opportunity to shake hands with First Lady Michelle Obama during her visit to Southern Africa.

It was a fleeting yet incredible experience that reminded me how great things can happen when risks are taken. It’s not every day one gets to shake hands with someone who is essentially living history, and it made me proud to be where I am and do what I’m doing. I try to take nothing here for granted, and so for the rest of my service (and beyond), I intend to live up to that handshake.

Ann & Nate Levine Academy alumna, Alexis Kanter (’96) is the daughter of Nancy and Jay Kanter. She is in the middle of a two-year term of duty with the U.S. Peace Corps. For more on her meeting with First Lady Michelle Obama and her life in Botswana, check out Alexis’ blog at http://www.alexiskanter.wordpress.com

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 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).

AIDS Support Group Defies Adversity

This is the first of several articles I’ll be writing for the Botswana Guardian and Midweek Sun.

Light poured into the one-car garage meeting room of the Francistown Network of Support Groups as Edward Moreki opened the heavy, vertically swinging door. “Today we are meeting to approve our new constitution,” said Moreki, chairman and founding member of the organisation, and eight core members took their seats around a wooden conference table that almost entirely filled the dimensions of the room.

Edward Moreki, Founding Member and Chairman of FNSG

The Francistown Network of Support Groups (FNSG) is a tiny, influential, and at times life saving organisation with a history of growth and struggle. Started in 2005 to fill a gap left by the closure of COCEPWA – Coping Center for People Living with HIV/AIDS, it served as the umbrella organisation supervising eight HIV/AIDS support groups in the Francistown district. Through its counselor training programmes for people living with HIV, FNSG has helped hundreds accept their positive status and correctly adhere to treatment programmes, and has mobilized other infected and affected individuals to lead healthier and more fulfilling lives.

But since late 2009, the organisation has been in danger of folding.  Once fully supported through the District AIDS Office and by the African Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Partnerships (ACHAP), funding ended when ACHAP’s focus shifted from HIV treatment programmes to organisations that specialise more directly in prevention.

“We were impressed with what they were doing, “says Charles Olenja, Senior Programme officer at ACHAP.  Olenja says they were so impressed that in 2008 they produced “Prevention with Positives,” a thorough documentation of FNSG that would be used as an example to help similar fledgling organisations throughout Botswana grow into what FNSG was at the time. “I still feel they are an important group in prevention, but if the principals say no, I have no control over it, “he says.

The funding cut left FNSG with an inability to retain members.  Both the organisation’s lay counsellor programme, which focused on counseling patients in clinics, and focal person programme, which spearheaded support groups, required putting in full-time work. ACHAP’s funding included small incentives to these trained members, and as a result of the cessation of funding, support groups collapsed and FNSG’s membership dropped significantly – falling from over 100 to five in a matter of months.

“It was a blow to us,” recalls Moreki. “Most have gone to greener pastures and joined other organisations.”

Without money or members, FNSG lost its structure as a multi-tiered organisation offering counseling and support to hundreds, and has instead whittled down to a group of determined members meeting once a week and now offering their support towards resuscitating the organisation.

FNSG Members working on their constitution

To make matters worse, at the time of ACHAP’s withdrawal FNSG was not a fully registered organisation and had no other backup funders. They relied solely on the District AIDS Office, the HIV/AIDS Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), and ACHAP for their technical and financial support. Part of this, says Sibatheni Phakala, FNSG member and lay counselor, was due to the fact that they were concentrating all of their efforts on their operations. Funding seemed secured.

“We focused too much on clinics,” says Phakala, “we realized that some of the important things are not done.”

The HIV/AIDS Technical Advisory Committee was also caught off guard by the withdrawal. “TAC was not prepared for the withdrawal of ACHAP,” says Dr. Paul Nashara, Public Health Specialist and TAC Coordinator. “Since this happened we have run out of ideas,” he says, adding that he hoped to include FNSG in the next meeting’s agenda.

While FNSG fights to regain its financial security and status, HIV positive patients who would be receiving benefits from the organisation are now left without much help to turn to. Mopati Mompati, FNSG member and lay counselor, says since he stopped working in his clinic in Gerald he has already noticed the situation regarding patient adherence to anti-retroviral therapy changing rapidly.  He explains that people are not receiving the right counseling to help them accept their status and thus feel uncomfortable waiting in the lines to receive medication.

“Since we left, the number of people who have defaulted has gone up. The number of people who have died has gone up,” says Mompati.

He also believes the FNSG lay counselor programme is essential and irreplaceable.

“The relationship that we have with them is the kind of relationship even a doctor cannot have with a patient. That’s why I think we are different,” he says. “We feel it’s only at FNSG where HIV positive people can find comfort within people they share the same feelings with.”

It is this aspect he and many other members feel sets FNSG apart. While other organisations offer support groups and systems for treatment, FNSG employs those who are already HIV positive to work with patients having a hard time dealing with the realities of an HIV positive life. They believe this helps new members feel confident about disclosing their status and beginning a new life, free of denial.

Aware of the vital role they play in Francistown, FNSG is now scrambling – implementing a new constitution, writing proposals to other donors and thinking of new ways to survive. It became a fully registered organisation in April last year, and in October it began a door-to-door campaign aimed at educating young adults on the importance of eliminating multiple concurrent sexual partnerships. This campaign, which is currently ongoing, is also geared at recruiting new members interested in volunteering.

In April 2010 FNSG began a catering service that provided traditional Setswana food both for individual and hired events and at a food stand outside Francistown’s government offices. Although it did not earn FNSG much money and eventually was put on hold, Wynter Mmolotsi – the Francistown South MP, occasionally still hires them to cater for his meetings. For the past year and a half he has continued to share his office space, electricity and water – a donation carried over from the previous Francistown South MP.

“We are working so well,” says Mmolotsi. “I wish I could do more for them. My office has limited resources – there is little that we can offer, but I wish we had more to share with them.”

News: Botswana Happy with Peace Corps Service

This was posted in the national daily newspaper just days after swearing in, but I just got a hold of a digital version to post. A copy from the original newspaper is taped just on my wall behind my desk at work.

Botswana Happy with Peace Corps Service
16 June, 2010
MOLEPOLOLE
– Botswana regards peace corps volunteers (PCV) as service
providers of repute, especially on HIV/AIDS programmes. The volunteers are mainly deployed at the District Multi Sectoral AIDS Committees (DMSAC).

Speaking at a peace corps swearing in ceremony in Molepolole on Friday, Assistant Minister of Local Government, Mr Kentse Rammidi said the volunteers were expected to facilitate development of a district HIV/AIDS response plan, which included strategies to overcome barriers to an effective district and sub district level response.

He said the volunteers would also coordinate, monitor and evaluate plan
implementation through the Botswana HIV/AIDS response information management system and to advocate against stigma and discrimination of people living with HIV/AIDS. Some of the targeted programmes for volunteer services included community home based care (CHBC), orphan care and PMTCT. For her part, peace corp director, Ms Peggy McClure said the volunteers were expected to serve for two years in different parts of the country, saying they have come at a time when HIV was threatening this country’s 40 years of hard work.

Ms McClure said with anti-retroviral therapy, behaviour change and greater
understanding of how to prevent mother to child transmission, infections were being prevented, but an average of 30 people were being infected with HIV every day and 10 000 each year. She noted that the volunteers were tasked with helping to reduce the rate of new infections and create an AIDS-free generation.

For the past 44 years, Botswana has been enjoying US assistance focusing on poverty alleviation. During that time, volunteers came in the form of engineers to help lay out the infrastructure, site boreholes to provide water, health workers, teachers and advisors to government ministries.

Another speaker, Mr Richard Matlhare from the National AIDS Coordinating Agency (NACA) said government was working with a tighter budget than ever before, adding the orphan programme for this financial year needed P450 million. He therefore urged peace corps volunteers to help the country to achieve more with fewer expenses.Mr Matlhare said there was a lot to be done, as the main purpose was to strengthen the capacity of individuals, service providers, organizations and the community to mitigate the effects of HIV/AIDS through behaviour change, preventative services and care delivery.
He said the technical agreement was operationalised mainly through local
government, health and education ministries. He highlighted that the programmes support areas were capacity building, HIV prevention, PMTCT, voluntary counseling and testing, CHBC as well as life skills programme for the in-school youth.

Mr Matlhare said the PCVs project has assisted in getting men, women and youth to participate in activities that promoted healthy lifestyles and emphasized prevention on HIV/AIDS to facilitate achievements of vision 2016 goal of no new infections.

Out of the group of 56 PCVs starting their two years of service this year, 14 would work with the district AIDS coordinator’s offices, 17 would be sent to clinics and social welfare and community development offices, 10 would work for nongovernmental organisations, primarily serving orphans and vulnerable children while 15 would work in life skills programme in schools in various villages in the country.

BOPA