Friday, May 14, 2010

Once

My village has five wards, eight tuck shops and 11 bars. We have 10 churches and 12 traditional healers. There are two schools, one clinic, a kgotla and a day care center for orphans. The village is flat except for a single, steep hill on the south west side. Thirty precarious minutes will bring you to hill’s peak where you can see all the way to Gaborone in the east and clear to Kanye in the west: a giant green blanket with dips and climbs, like rippled ocean. Beyond this hill there are graveyards and beyond a hundred headstones there is a river dropped into a shallow valley. The river scatters trees and grass and cows along its banks. Local residents avoid this place for fear of snakes and curses. In its abandonment it becomes well suited for picnics and books and solitude.

My village is plain and peaceful. Miles of land dotted with shade. Tiny roudeval huts and make-shift hair salons and a lady selling oranges by the bus stop.


I take endless photographs and spend hours jogging through sunsets, sunrises, dirt roads, people, gardens, children, crops, cattle… trying to hold and articulate some fragment of a place that’s seeped inside of me: now owning little pieces of my history and identity.


You will see me in three weeks and we will catch up and I will fall into rhythm and you will forget that there is another world living inside me. Another home. With shops and churches and schools and rivers and all those people. All that personality. And I will carry them around and you will not be able to see but I will carry them and hope and pray and try to keep them heavy. To feel the weight of these things. Of them. Of once upon a time. When I was here. And this was mine. If only for a space.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Full Circle

We sit in the living room and talk together for the last time. My mother got “saved” last year and now wants to pray for me before I go. Idnil shuts the door so mother can close her eyes and speak for a long time in Setswana. At the end Naillil translates while my host mother sits patting my thigh and wetting her eyes and sighing out those blessings for me.

We do our traditional things together. Pel plays with my hair, Naillil practices her Chinese words, Idnil poses for pictures and Are giggles and climbs onto my lap. The boys aren’t home but mother calls my father at the gold mine in South Africa and we stumble through a Setswana farewell. I leave them with little gifts: American tea bags, dangly earrings, a tie, a deck of cards, a bottle of lotion, crayons and, of course – Scrabble: the miraculous little game that allowed us to bond in those first mute and awkward months of my homestay.

Before leaving I decide to take one more memorable trip to the pit latrine. I walk past the old bicycle holding up the orange tree. The fire pit where I’d stirred rice for my mother at twlight. The low, thorny tree that had once nearly blinded me on a night-time stroll to the latrine. The grass that Odnam and I had cleared with shovels. The stone I’d sat on for hours hand washing clothes. The spicket where I’d fetched water for my morning bath.

On the way back I check my watch and know I need to hurry to catch the first combi back to my village. I round the orange tree and see Pel sitting alone and staring at me with giant sad eyes.

Pel, my little imp. I lean down to kiss her and she wraps her arms around my neck and kisses me back and I marvel at how tall and sweet she has become in just two years. At one time Pel spent many devious hours trying to charm her way into my room and then, once inside, would steal little bits of paper and food and hair elastics to get my attention. She once took a pen and scribbled all over the Scrabble board. When I scowled at her she laughed and laughed.

But here was baby Pel, all grown up to five years old -- and so affectionate now. I kiss her forehead and tell her and I love her and go inside to begin the rest of the goodbyes.


Usually Naillil and Idnil walk me out but Are is crying this time so they stay back to hold and soothe her. I hug everyone at the gate and turn with a big sigh.

The tall bushes hide them after a minute and I stare out across this poor little ward and will myself to remember the roudeval huts and soccer-children and broken trees and branch-fences and cactus plants. I’m deep into this before I realize that Pel has been trailing me down the path. I laugh and squeeze her fingers and she does not smile at me. I say goodbye and I love you again in Setswana but she does not turn back. And so we walk like that. Me in front and Pel behind. All the way down that path. All the way around the bend. All the way to Ame’s house. And there she stops. I’m watering now and she’s waiting and we hug once more. With that Pel and I start walking in different directions. I step three paces and look over my shoulder. She does the same and we wave to each other. I step three more and wave again and she does too. I think we waved ten times before I couldn’t see her anymore. And each time I turned Pel did too. And each time I lifted my fingers, Pel lifted hers back. And with that I said good-bye to Lekwapagne and the Elopmar family. And with that I made peace with little Pel.

A Start

My “yard sale” was really more of a “house sale” since putting things outside would have involved a number of environmental challenges (pecking chickens… hungry dogs… blazing sun… petty theft… sand… bugs…)

So instead I invited the village inside. At first I felt a bit nervous about opening my tiny home to potential throngs of shoppers but after the first few hours I realized I was having fun with it and forgot all about my anxiety. Yes, little things were stolen. A few dishes were broken. Someone stained a shirt. The price tags were jumbled. Sand and dirt and baby drool were scattered all over my floors. Someone left their bra in the t-shirt pile.

But even with all these minor inconveniences it really was just an easy, informal, amusing day. Mostly women came and chit chatted with me for a while and then handed me their babies so they could strip down in the sitting room and try on my clothes. Then there was the ooo-ing and ahhh-ing and butt-slapping and cackling and chattering and laughing while I held the mirror for them.

The kids were equally entertaining – holding up item after item from the One-Pula-Box and saying to me “Ke bo kai?” to which I’d answer “One pula!” and they’d giggle and squeal and fight over who-would-get-to-buy-what-when-mummy-gives-us-a-pula. The American games also caught their attention and led to tiny tornadoes of dice, checkers and jacks being strewn over every available surface. (Travel Yahtzee, as it turns out, is not an easy game to explain in one’s second language)

And my friends came too. With cards and hugs and little presents. With promises to write and visit and open their home to me when I returned. And when would I return? And why exactly was I going? And how long was the trip? And what do you eat on an airplane?

(Air travel is a hot-topic among Batswana… I think they still can’t quite fathom that we’re capable of such a thing. I once invited the Peace Corps African Continent Director to speak with my PACT Club about international health and, instead, the kids grilled him about his airplane trip for 20 minutes. One girl who is nearly 17 even turned to him and asked, in all seriousness: ‘Can you see God from up there?’)

In the end I made less than 100 USD and donated the rest to the village’s orphan center. I also made a little closure—not the deep kind, but a start. The acquaintance-villagers hugging me good-bye. Making little endearments that roughly translated to “it was amusing to watch you for 2 years.”

I also said good-bye to Adlih and Savid today. Two of my closest friends in the village. Adlih traveled an hour from the school she’d been transferred to last month. She hugged me hard and long and laughed at me when my eyes watered.

And Savid. Savid stood in my kitchen and smiled. He was leaving for Zimbabwe on the 12:00 bus. He was buying shirts and games to take home to his children. And he was smiling at me as I broke and broke. So many things I’d wanted to say: Write me. Remember me. Stay safe. Please be safe. But instead I just crumbled all over and into his white t-shirt. And he held me, waiting for it to pass. Tightly. Gently. Pulling me in and in. Right there in my kitchen with the naked women trying on clothes and the teenagers stealing things and the chickens swaking through the door. When it passed he squeezed my arm one last time and flashed his whites and was gone.


It’s hard to feel the significance of a transition while you’re moving through it. It’s hard to know the scope.

But I felt Savid. The depth and the fear. The uncertainty. I felt all of him. And all of this.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Reassurance

This morning I participated in running an event for the Kagisano Women’s Shelter. I’ve been part of a team of volunteers working with this organization for over a year. Last year we helped secure a grant to open a second branch of the center. Now Botswana has two shelters for women and children survivors of gender based violence—the original in Gaborone and the new one in the country’s largest village: Molepolole.

In addition to opening the new center, the grant also allowed us to hold a number of community awareness events. Today’s event was a Kweneng District poster contest and debate. Ten schools participated in the event and two in the debate. We had guest speakers, snacks, brochures, media coverage, prizes, a trophy -- all arranged through our ambitious team of Batswana counselors and American volunteers.

Such a powerful day. Somehow it ended up that all the poster finalists were male students and all the debate participants were female. We interviewed the men standing by their graphic, disturbing, enlightening posters. They told us how the images reflected violence they’ve seen in their villages and theories they have on ways to reverse the trends of gender based violence in Botswana. They spoke in soft and articulate English. Humble and strong.

The women were equally powerful but far less reserved. The women debaters stood at the podium shouting at one another and quoting the Bible and shaking their fists. I’ve seen about a hundred passionate student dramas in this country but nothing quite as evocative or poignant as ten teenage women debating the moral and cultural implications of domestic violence reporting. The topic they’d spent two months preparing for read:

“Women who do not speak out about their partner’s abuse and infidelity are showing respect and integrity.”

If I had the time or space I’d go into the points these girls made. The way one side argued that perpetrators of violence deserve love and forgiveness. The way the other side retorted that the GBV is linked to the spread of HIV and teaches children to use violence for problem solving and conflict management. I do not have space. But I have videos. And memories. Ask.


It’s difficult to do the event justice but, suffice to say that this was one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve participated in in two years of service. Not simply because the students and community were so engaged, but also for what happened after:

Sweeping. Stacking chairs. Moving tables. Removing the posters. Emptying the trash. People keep coming up to say good-bye and thank you and what an event and then Lesego comes and I hug her and she says:

“You know, we’ve secured funding to do this again next year. We want it to be an annual event. Can you send us all the templates you used for planning, invitations, judging, scoring and the agenda?”

!!!

This is one of those rare and spectacular moments in an international pubic health career where Things Actually Work. Not for me. Not for the participants. But for the FUTURE.

This is, dare I say it: Sustainable!

And oh irony of ironies: I literally had sat in an the Peace Corps Country Director’s office five days ago, blabbering through my close of service interview and I’d actually said: “Yes, well, I’ve learned quite a lot about capacity building and skills training but I still feel somewhat mystified by sustainability…”

And not that this day revealed any epiphanies about the how-to of sustainability but it DID give me renewed confidence in the idea that it is p o s s i b l e to make changes and advances that continue.

Lesego is a gem. Kagisano is an absolute god-send for this country. I’m sure it is everything about the people and the organization and nothing about me -- but to have p a r t i c i p a t e d. To have been there. To have had something to contribute. Templates. How simple. How trite. How phenomenally reassuring.


In ten days I close my service and return to the U.S. as an international public health professional. I have a Master’s degree, a two year Peace Corps service, an armful of doubt and a pinch of hope. There are so many systematic, bureaucratic, financial, logistical, sustainable problems I see in development work. And then there is a silver lining: when a project works. when people learn. when someone says – “we want to do this again… this time without you.”

How nice to have been needed. And to be unnecessary.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Being White

Close of Service Medical Screening is a 3-day circus of invasive exams, uncomfortable samples and thorough disease testing. On top of these medical-festivities are seemingly endless administrative duties of report writing, financial closings and a paper-work-check-list with a whopping 46 items.

Today I managed to get 28 of those little boxes checked and most of my medical awkwardness sorted. By late afternoon I was finally exiting the dentist office and searching for a combi to begin the 2 hour trek home.

Damn. All that paperwork and dashing between appointments— now I’m confused about how to get back…

Do you need help?

I’m always embarrassed when I look lost in a place I consider “home”. Suddenly I’m a tourist and I feel the need to speak in Setswana or use a cultural hand symbol to prove I belong.

Uh… yeah—I can’t remember which way it is to the combis from here.

The man points me in the right direction. He’s smiling so I do what I always do when I’m far and someone’s being kind: I ask for a ride.

The smiling man can’t, but the guy behind him is going that way and, yes, he can take me—let’s go.

Hitching is Oh So Easy in Botswana. It’s a great way to meet friendly people, save some cash and shave hours off your trip.

So my 30 minute commute to the rank is sliced to 10 and two minutes later I’m launched into the get-to-know-you-banter with my driver. Here are the typical interview questions:

Where are you from?
What are you doing here?
How long have you been here?
When are you going home?
What do you make of our country?
When can you take me to America?
(and, smiling) Why don’t you marry a Motswana guy and stay?

My driver and I make our way through this set and still have 5 minutes to the rank. We slide into post-small-talk silence. Batswana are good at silence and I’ve come to enjoy it here. I begin to rest after a very long day.

We go through two more traffic lights and I can see the rank approaching. At the third light we stop and my driver turns to stare at me. I stare back and wait. He finally says:

What is it like to be a white person in Botswana?

I am so surprised by this question that I laugh. He laughs too. We’re uncomfortable together for a minute.

At the time I think I said something like:

Er... it’s nice… but sometimes hard because everyone notices you. Sometimes I wish I was black.

And he said something like:

Ah—but if you were black I wouldn’t have given you a ride.


And we laughed together because it was terrible and true and we were out of time.



But what a question. ‘What’s it like to be a white person in Botswana?” It’s something I stopped thinking about a while ago and something I think about every day. It’s hard to explain but, since being asked this, I’ve felt a need to articulate it.

Being white in Botswana is luxurious and horrific—almost simultaneously.
Being white in Botswana goes something like this:

- Everyone wants to talk to you and take your phone number
- Everyone wants you to give them money and food and take them to America
- People give you the good seat on the bus
- People rob you on the bus
- Kids want to shake your hand and mimic your voice
- Kids scream at you if they’ve never seen a white face before
- Women younger than you admire your clothes, hair, skin, body, accessories, makeup, music, books, etc.
- Women older than you scrutinize and criticize your clothes, hair, skin, body, accessories, makeup, music, books, etc.
- Hitching drivers rarely charge you for the ride
- Hitching crowds push you to the front so you can hail a ride for the group
- Students feel more comfortable talking with you about sex and problems and emotions
- Students feel more comfortable disrespecting you because they know you wont use corporal punishment
- If you’re thin you “look just like typical white woman” (is this good?)
- You are fat you “look just like a traditional black woman” (is this good?)
- Colleagues come to you for professional help and training and support
- Colleagues assume you’ll do all the work for them once you’re involved
- Strangers like to touch your hair
- Strangers like to touch you – a lot
- Shop and restaurant owners give you special treatment and lots of attention
- Shop and restaurant owners charge you more than other customers
- Taxi drivers are constantly shouting to you and offering a lift
- Taxi drivers are constantly shouting at you for refusing to pay more than the locals
- Men all want to date you, marry you, sleep with you
- Men all want to be seen with the white and not, necessarily, with the woman
- Other white people want to meet you and hear your story and become friends
- Other white people want to bitch about the culture and compare survival-stories and inspire your empathy
- You are never alone
- You are often lonely
- You are constantly learning about cultural differences and traditional norms and Tswana history and relational expectations
- You are constantly learning how little you know

These, of course, are generalizations and not always the case. Still, they are what comes to mind when I think about this question. So much privilege and opportunity mingled with so much frustration and awkwardness. Peace Corps has this cheesy little slogan that says “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love” … but like so many clich├ęs, most days it’s spot on.

Friday, April 30, 2010

After Rain

It’s been pouring for a week. My shoes and trousers caked with wet sand. The clothes I washed 4 days ago still hanging-- wearily waiting to dry.

School opened again this week. Students shiver in damp classrooms. The teachers sip tea and go home early.

Quiet village.
Empty roads.
Sullen cattle.
Lethargy.
Darkness.


I wait too. Hugging a hot water bottle. Bundled in the few clothes and blankets that still remain inside my bare, little house.

and counting. 25… 23…

Today is 18. Two and a half weeks to go. Restless, if not impatient.


At 5:00 tonight the light changes. A golden streak climbs inside the window pane and rests there. Staring at me. Waiting for me to notice.

Grey breaks.

I go outside to see sunrays softening the horizon. The kids playing. Laughter. The neighbor’s humming. A rising moon. Laundry ballet. Donkey cart rattle. Far off bar music. Smoke. Footprints. Crickets. Life leaking back in tiny shards of color and sound.


Will I be still like this? Will I be able to hear? Will the light wait for me? Will I catch it? Any of it?

18 ahead.

744 behind.

What lessons do we take from time and distance and difference and poverty and solitude and quiet and space? What do we leave? Forget?

My most profound moments are wrapped inside interludes. Inarticulable:

the air between people. the background of photos. the aftermath of rain.

and of all the other
irrelevant,
significant
seconds

that have made this so much larger than ‘an experience’.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Jazz

She agreed to take home a suitcase for me. Two months ago this seemed like a godsend: I’d be able to travel after service with just my backpack and wouldn’t have to pay exorbitant fees to ship things home.

We had planned The Big Pack for Monday night. We ate dinner and procrastinated.

Two months ago this seemed like a great idea. On Monday night I started to feel unprepared. It seemed rash to be packing already.

Still, I knew I’d decided this months ago. There was no other way. And just like the process of Getting Here, I knew the process of Leaving would sometimes required that I turn off the rest and just put one foot in front of the other.

At 9:00 I finally padded to my room and returned with an armful of clothes. From there I took pictures and posters off my walls. Sorted through jewelry. Wrapped my favorite mug. Labored over the book shelf. Pulled the crayon drawings off my fridge.

It took an hour. Just one hour and my little life was piled right there on the coffee table.

It doesn’t look like much, I said.

And Jenah laughed.
And I laughed.
And I was happy she was there with me in my little house with my little pile of life.

We fit the whole thing into one suitcase. We pre-packed my Kilimanjaro bag. Everything fit there too. With extra space even.

In less than two hours we’d finished. My suitcase and backpack and daypack sat in a line along the orange curtains. I flip flopped through my house. A “final sweep” Dad used to say when we were leaving the summer house. I swept over and over. I paced. Jenah caught me staring at a bare wall where the shadows of my pictures still remained.

Come on. She said. Let’s go outside.



We sit on my porch sipping cocoa beneath the banana tree silhouette and the Milky Way smear and a billion blinking stars.

I say thanks and my voice shakes.

There is a conversation I can’t remember. There is laughter.

After, it feels easier to be inside. I pinch the last bits of tape off my walls and rinse out our mugs and say good night. My room looks like 2008. My luggage like the day I left.

Maybe we have to go back before we can go forward. I lie in bed reminiscing. Playing it over. A song without a chorus. Sad in places and loudfasthigh in others. Frequent crescendos. And the finale -- just now starting to fade.