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 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?