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!

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

Peace Corps Botswana has a New Country Director

Our previous country director, Peggy McClure, left Botswana last fall to take a position as Country Director in Morocco. Since then we’ve had a couple of acting country directors who have done a great job keeping the position filled and the program running as smoothly as possible,   but on June 29th we received our newest official country director, Tim Hartman.  Below is an interview with him from his alma mater, Stanford University.

Q&A with new Peace Corps country director, Tim Hartman ‘86 | Stanford Daily.  – SOURCE

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Q&A with new Peace Corps country director, Tim Hartman ‘86

Thursday, July 14th, 2011 | By Harini Jaganathan

Tim Hartman ’86 was sworn in as Peace Corps country director in Botswana on June 29.

Hartman served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon from 1986 to 1989, immediately after graduating from Stanford. The Peace Corps program in Botswana focuses on improving health and promoting HIV/AIDS prevention. Hartman has worked on HIV/AIDS treatment programs in Africa and on international development projects in multiple areas. He graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in history and philosophy of science and received his MBA from the Yale School of Management.

Tim Hartman ’86 was recently sworn in as country director for the Peace Corps in Botswana. (Courtesy of peacecorps.gov)

The Stanford Daily spoke with Hartman, who is currently in Gabarone, Botswana, about his new position

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why did you choose to accept this position?

Tim Hartman (TH): It’s an incredible job and an incredible opportunity to be able to return to the Peace Corps and serve the volunteers of the Peace Corps and the people of Botswana in addressing important challenges and goals. Peace Corps gets in your blood, and it’s difficult to get out.

TSD: Could you talk about your experiences with the companies you previously worked for? Did they influence your decision to take this position?

TH: The country director position is a very broad one. It requires experiences and skills in many arenas: leadership, management and administrative skills, human resources, international development, cross-cultural skills…It takes a while to gain competency in all of those different areas, and I think all of my prior positions contributed to my ability to serve as Peace Corps country director.

TSD: What are the challenges the initiative for HIV/AIDS prevention in Botswana is currently facing?

TH: Those challenges, to some degree, are the same world over. Prevention requires behavior change…and that’s hard for people the world over. Knowledge is different than effective behavior change, so I think the challenges really are global. The other [challenge] is that there’s a very high prevalence rate here, unfortunately, of people already with HIV. Obviously, it’s all that much easier for the disease to spread, so that makes the prevention challenges even greater.

TSD: What ways do you go about promoting human behavior changes to prevent HIV/AIDS?

TH: First you have to raise awareness. People have to get tested and know their status. They have to know that there are things that they can do if they are HIV positive…We work in Botswana with youth, helping them with life skills and learning to make good decisions, and hopefully a number of those decisions are around sexual partners and how they can lead safer lives.

TSD: How did your Stanford experience — including your degree in philosophy — prepare you for this experience?

TH: I think the education at Stanford that I received helped me in critical thinking and making good decisions…Philosophy in general is all-around critical thinking, problem solving, looking from many angles, thinking through challenging issues, good writing and logical thinking. Those skills are just so useful in life.

TSD: How did your Stanford experience — including your degree in philosophy — prepare you for this experience?

TH: I think the education at Stanford that I received helped me in critical thinking and making good decisions…Philosophy in general is all-around critical thinking, problem solving, looking from many angles, thinking through challenging issues, good writing and logical thinking. Those skills are just so useful in life.

TSD: How has your experience in Botswana been so far?

TH: It is phenomenal. I’ve only been on the job three days now, and just on the first day of work I had a most enjoyable lively exchange with the Peace Corps staff…I was invited to a dinner with one of the former presidents of Botswana, Festus Mogae, by a previous country director, and I mean, what an honor…It’s just a wonderful country. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be here.