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.

Wrapping Up 2011

It feels strange and significant to say, “I’ve spent all of 2011 living in Africa.” It’s the same thing as saying, “I’ve spent a whole year living in Africa,” but the turning of a numerical year seems to mark it more clearly in my mind. It’s one of those things where I can look back and think “was in Africa” when I refer to the entire year of 2011.

Two-thousand eleven has been a roller coaster. Nothing can compare to the experiences working here and the amazing friends and connections I’ve made, but saying that alone might paint the picture too perfectly. For me, security became an issue. The nation endured a work strike, which only affected me tangentially but left many unemployed. People have disagreed with me but I believe this caused an increase in crime around Francistown. Between May and November my neighborhood endured a consistent string of attempted night-time break-ins, and a couple of attempts were made on my house. No one managed to get into my house, and thanks to the Botswana Government and Peace Corps I have burglar bars and a motion alarm system with excellent security to give me some peace of mind. But, as a precautionary measure, Peace Corps and the DAC office paid to have vulnerable areas of my house reinforced with extra strong, lead, flat burglar bars.

Finishing the extra burglar bar installation in my bedroom

The neighborhood crime gave me frequent bouts of insomnia since I would head to bed every night and wonder if my house would get struck next. I would wake up repeatedly to the slightest sound, and often I found it difficult to get back to sleep. I experienced additional petty and somewhat serious crime in Francistown, and witnessed a purse snatching in Gaborone. Sometimes living alone can be difficult, but it can also be awesome, and I find my experience in Francistown and in Botswana too rewarding to quit or relocate. I also realize things like this happen all over the world – especially in the States.  I certainly feel lucky. The lessons learned from going through all of this are invaluable, and have made me a generally more responsive and vigilant person (while trying to avoid characteristics of paranoia).

Awesome billboard located in Gaborone. Even Gabs can't get enough of FTown

And after a year and a half of living in Francistown I’ve kind of fallen in love with it. The Ghetto, as it’s commonly called, is a place I enjoy calling home. In the past year and a half I’ve befriended store clerks, street cleaners, gardeners, bartenders, government and NGO workers, postal workers, doctors, kids, very very old people, taxi drivers, restaurant and hotel owners, my own neighbors, and even a few expats. Its a great feeling to walk around a city almost every day and run into someone I’ve met. It also, in a way, feels like any small, contained population in the sense that many of us frequently recognize one another, and then varying degrees of familiarity determine how friendly we are.  But then again, strangers still exchange hellos.

The city is also a hub for cultural exchange and influence, which adds to my interest and attachment. It’s occupied by an eclectic population of youngsters and old people. Expats from far and neighboring countries who swore they would only stay a year have settled here – some for 30+ years. My neighborhood is inhabited by Batswana, Pakistanis, Indians, Zambians, Zimbabweans and a slew of other ethnic backgrounds I’m not even clear on (though I am positive I am the ONLY American). People regularly buy inexpensive clothing and housewares at the plethora of China Shops. To clarify, these are shops owned by Chinese immigrants – they often give their stores names that accentuate their Chinese origin, names like “China Shop A,” which, in my opinion, legitimizes referring to them as “China Shops.”  Every day except Sunday, the main street, Blue Jacket, and the large bus rank downtown, bubble with music and people shopping and other people selling vegetables, phone air time, earrings, CDs, cowbells, locks and pumice stones. Though racial tensions certainly exist, the fact that Francistown is a huge center for cultural exchange seems to challenge these tensions in subtle ways. I guess my love for it really boils down to the potential it has to positively effect the rest of Botswana with regards to this cultural exchange, but also with their health services, education, visual art, fashion, music, and tolerance. I would say it is a relatively progressive mini-city.

Peace Corps Botswana Volunteer Placements

Peace Corps celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year, and to commemorate this the Peace Corps Botswana office threw a party for all of the PCVs in October. Located in Gaborone at a recreation center near the American Embassy, the event included a fantastic meal, grassy patches for playing volleyball and frisbee, a cash bar, raffle, and great dance music.  Volunteers sold crafts made by village locals to help bring  local businesses some profit. The weather was perfect, and the gathering was really the first time Botswana PCVs from all intakes and all locations were able to come together. It also included RPCVs who remained in Botswana after ending their service. Many of these RPCVs have been here for decades, and one had just received his Botswana Citizenship (which is significant because Botswana makes you renounce any other citizenship in order to be accepted).  It was great to see PC staff relaxed and out of the office, and it was also great to catch up with PCV friends who are placed on the other side of the country. The event reminded me how spread out we are all over this Texas-sized country (refer to above photo), and so I suggested to a staff member that we try to do this gathering at least once every two years.

Dec 2011 - The Francistown Delegation at National World AIDS Day in Moshupa, Botswana

 

My work in 2011 crossed through several different arenas. Mostly spent with the District AIDS Office helping to implement the HIV/AIDS district activity plan, I also managed to dabble in NGO consulting, the creation of an NGO forum to unify the HIV/AIDS organizations and help give them one voice, HIV/AIDS district budget assessment, journalism both in Botswana and American publications, participating in the Francistown safe-male circumcision task force, technological progression within the office and with other HIV/AIDS organizations around the city, collaborating with other PCVs to put together a young girls leadership camp, and of course, a focus on cultural exchange.  I hope to get involved more in the planning side of Francistown – I want to help map out the NGOs and the schools and locations they work with. I want it to be publicly known what all of the HIV organizations are doing and where they are concentrated, both for community benefit and so that we don’t overlap our HIV efforts while leaving other communities out.

But there’s so little time left!

Two-thousand twelve seems bright, shiny, and new. It’s the kind of year where I feel like the lessons learned in 2011 will be carried out the correct way this time. It seems very promising.  My plans are not set, but I know I’ve got a lot to do between now and June.

Until then I’m going on vacation. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

More photos!

In-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?

President’s Day Weekend

So Botswana just celebrated its President’s Day, which is different from Sir Seretse Khama day because this time we received two whole days off from work.  So some friends and I took advantage of this by doing the following:

  • Cooking an exorbitant amount of food
    • Macaroni, failed attempts at rice krispie treats and caramel corn, egg dishes, roasted vegetables, roasted marshmallows, hamburgers, hot dogs, coke floats (tonight for dinner I will be eating carrots and beets). P1030419
  • Playing with and Feeding orphans at the Mother Teresa Resource Center
    • Spent Saturday morning playing with close to 200 orphans who are offered a healthy, filling meal each Saturday. More on this in next post. It was amazing!P1030361
  • Attending a Motswana Baby Shower
    • These events are fierce. “Bring your own Bottle” was the only thing mentioned on the invite aside from the time and place. Though the one we attended was tame, I learned that a game frequently played at these is to give unmarked gifts to the mother-to-be, and if she can’t correctly guess who gave the gift then someone has to “punish” her by executing various hazing activities (ie smearing mayonnaise in her hair, making her expose various normally unexposed body parts, etc.)P1030414
  • Playing a lot of cards
    • Ever played 31? Ever played 31 after 3 glasses of wine? It’s pretty addictive!P1030480
  • Checking the layout of the World’s Worst Golf Course
    • So I heard a guy saying he owns two sets of golf clubs: one he takes to the Francistown Club Golf Course and one he uses for everywhere else. This place doesn’t have greens, it has browns. Amazing. I will make a future post about this as soon as I actually try it out. And that will be soon.
  • Watching more Bruce Willis movies than could fit in a China Shop DVD
    • Die Hard with a Vengeance, Die Hard 4.0, The Whole Nine Yards, The Whole Ten Yards, I know there was at least one more in there.P1030449
  • Enjoying the new Braai stand
    • Please see above bullet about foodP1030425

More photos

Shadowing Cont’d – Birthday Braai and the Flood Plain

One of the most mysterious things to me before joining the Peace Corps was the daily schedule of the average community development volunteer. What do they do all day if they are not in an office from 8:00-5:00? Watching my host I learned that there is some downtime, usually around lunch, but the mornings and afternoons (at least for our shadowing host) appear to be somewhat busy with community meetings, clinic work, and other new and ongoing projects – such as helping a basket weaver’s group raise money. I also observed that the job really is as busy as you make it. It’s possible to sit around for most of the day and read, but that lifestyle would drive me mad with boredom and I would feel like it was a waste.

Friday was our host’s birthday, and to celebrate she planned to visit the flooded plain near the Delta and to cook a braai. A braai is like a barbecue, except without the sauce. People gather and cook meat outside, drink a little, listen to music, and socialize. Our host planned this by collecting 10 Pula from each eating attendee, and essentially delegating tasks to her Motswana friends.

The flood plain was surprisingly elegant. A friend of hers ferried us around in a large, wooden canoe, and the cattle and cattle egrets wandered lazily around us. We spent about an hour an half at the flood plain, and arrived at around 4 to begin preparing for the braai.

Around sunset people started trickling in to our host’s house. A Motswana friend brought the electric braai stove, another brought the freshly slaughtered cow meat, and another brought an axe and chopped some wood for a fire. The other trainee and I prepared a pasta salad, I tried a new alcoholic beverage called Hunter’s Dry, the ipod played some familiar hip hop, and everything came together as it was supposed to.

Getting to experience a local Motswana party was really something I needed. I learned more about their sense of humor, how they relax and socialize, and I also got a chance to see the beautiful starry Botswana sky. In Molepolole, aside from the fact that during training we have to be home before dark, the stars are muted as they would be in any well populated city. Out in Etsha though, I saw shooting stars and the Milky Way, and looked forward to living at my site and perhaps seeing that sky on a regular basis.