Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sorry to...

...post so much at once but I’ve had no access to Internet for over a week and have been forced to store these up. All entries are back-dated by title for a chronological image of my adventure in this bizarre and beautiful world. Enjoy…

April 28, 2008

Our four host mothers are holding a competition called Whose Volunteer Can Learn Setswana the Fastest. There is an enormous amount of time spent scolding us for conversing in English and spoon-feeding us new language without translation. This amuses us for a while and then annoys us and now rolls off us like so much of the oddity we’ve been swallowing this first week.

First week.

Today was the one week marker from the day we crossed the border South Africa into Botswana. The general consensus is that this week has felt much more like a decade. Will two years feel like a lifetime? Fortunately there are escapes in the midst of a bizarre language, pesky bugs and strange cleaning habits (my swollen knuckles are healing from a painful afternoon of hand-washing laundry).

My First-Week Escapes:

- tea after dinner while studying Setswana with my 15-year-old sister
- pink Botswana icecream for 45 cents
- washing dishes in the quiet back yard under stars and surrounded by dogs, chickens and roosters
- holding a whole conversation in Setswana with curious villagers (this ultimately breaks down into a confused garble but I can hold my own for about 3 full minutes!)
- constant, chronic, gorgeous s u n
- little girls playing with my hair
- the absence of mirrors
- the allure of UNO cards
- marriage proposals screamed from passing cars
- enormous aloe cactus plants
- playing handball with the all neighborhood kids
- learning the names of all the neighborhood kids
- shoveling weeds with my host sister (to her great amusement)
- having a tan
- picking up baby Ara for the first time without her screaming at the-weird-white-face
- neighbors yelling “Dumela Bonkle!” when I pass their house (Bonkle is the Setswana name my host mother gave me last week… it means Beauty)
- dancing with my host mother and sisters to American pop
- meetings other PCVs who have survived the first year and look sincerely happy (and sincerely sympathetic)
- sleeping through the night for the first time
- music everywhere, always
- mastering the art of Bucket Bathing
- walking home from school over desert grass at dusk

We met a volunteer in his third year today and he told us candidly that Pre-Service Training was one of the toughest times we’d face in our service. We nodded in unison and waited eagerly for more validation. And he smiled back at us. Just smiled.

April 26, 2008

We learned that another volunteer in our group had decided to go home today, dropping our numbers to 57. Since we began, 4 volunteers have left us. Today’s news hit us harder because so much bonding has taken place and, understandably, there is a sense of community and perseverance between the group.

Fortunately, we were distracted from this news with a day off from training and language lessons. My three neighboring volunteers and I met for a walk to the Internet café which lasted three hours and was wholly unsuccessful. Although we didn’t find the Internet (thus another backdated entry) we did manage to get a bit of exercise, community exposure and navigation capacity. We learned that “restaurant” in Botswana means “bar” (which we have been strongly discouraged from entering as the country is very conservative and we don’t want to “give the wrong impression”). We also learned that store hours are random and Internet “cafés” involve two monitors set up inside small trailers along the main road.

Sometime at the beginning of the walk a street child began to follow us. Her body was a wisp of bone and her eyes where filled with conjunctivitis. The child was barefoot and spoke no English. Even so, for three hours she followed us. Along the way we bought her some ice cream and water. She never spoke a word to us but smiled and waved wildly when she left at the end of our trip.

When we returned to the village we learned that a wedding ceremony was being held at the kgotla. We ran to change our clothes but were told, to our surprise, that our dirty walking clothes were perfectly suitable for a Botswana wedding.

By the time my host sister and I arrived, the ceremony had finished and the wedding party was dancing down the aisle in a beautifully choreographed dance. For hours we watched the wedding party dance while hundreds of villagers were fed at a buffet of chicken, rice, salad, squash and a very strong drink made completely of ginger. Three times the bride changed her clothes and the wedding party changed twice to match her. Each wardrobe change was introduced with another dance and many villagers congregated behind the wedding party, joining in with their own dances and singing.

When the sun began to set a stern neighbor told my host sister to take me home. We reluctantly obeyed her (per Peace Corps policy that all volunteers be at home by sundown). On the way back Indil linked my arm without looking at me. We walked like that through the dry desert grass, waving to neighbors, and watching the sky turn purple.


At twilight I leave with Naillil to buy wood for the fire. I am hefting back three large logs when the red clouds begin melting into the tree line. When we return my host mother asks me to watch a pot of rice boiling over the fire pit. Although there is nearly always music playing somewhere, tonight the village is very quiet. I am sitting on a green plastic chair feeding the fire when Pel crawls onto my lap. She sits sucking the juice from an orange as we watch the flames together. I close my eyes and breathe the soft of baby skin, firewood and desert dusk.

April 25, 2008

“Kgotla” is the meeting place for a community. Women who arrive to the kgotla wearing pants are considered disrespectful and may be sent home by the “kosana” (community chief). Important matters are discussed here with the community and people take the kgotla meetings quite seriously.

Today I and the three other volunteers in my neighborhood were asked to introduce ourselves to our community at the kgotla. In the morning our teacher Amos worked diligently to help us prepare a speech for the community. We have a minimum of 4 hours of language training each day and sessions are held in the shady spots of Amos’ back yard. Setswana is a tonal language with strange “clicks” and most words have a minimum of 5 syllables. These features make Setwana exceptionally difficulty to speak and even more of a challenge when faced with the eager eyes of 100 neighbors.

Even so, at sunset today we found ourselves sitting under an enormous tree listening to the welcome speeches from the village kosana, kounsillara, and our morutibana (teacher). The ceremony was incredibly moving and, as you may have expected, we made it through our Setswana speeches with enthusiastic cheers from the audience (in particular, our proud host mothers).

I would like to paraphrase a section of the kosana’s speech for you which I will forever remember. After living a year in urban China I was convinced that poverty breeds corruption, competition and isolation. After living a week in rural Africa I have found the exact opposite to be true. Here is what the Kosana spoke to four, pasty, American girls on the night of their community entrance…

“I am so pleased to welcome you to Lekgwapheng. During your 2 months in our community I expect you to work hard, help your host mothers and prepare well for your years of service. Although you will not be living with us after 2 months we want you to know you will always have a family and a sanctuary in Lekgwapheng. If, at any time, you have concerns or needs, please do not hesitate to speak with me. I know your families will show you my house. This house and community will be your family throughout your stay in Botswana.”

April 23, 2008

(names have been changed in this entry to protect the identity of those mentioned, per Peace Corps request)

I have just eaten a piece of bread for dinner, washed my face in a bucket of cold water, swatted 3 ants off my toiletries and peed in a basin in the corner of my bedroom.

I am going to bed for the first time in my Bostwana homestay.

Ikitip Elopmar lives on the outskirts of Molepolole, one hour walk from the building where my two months of training will be held. Ikitip is the mother of six children: four girls and two boys. Her sons are away for most of the month taking care of the family’s cattle and her eldest daughter, works at a grocery store and only comes home on weekends.

Ikitip’s husband has been working for 27 years at the gold mines in South Africa. I am told that my father (ntate) will come home next Wednesday for just four nights. He will leave for another month of work on Sunday.

What’s left of the family when I arrive are Mma Elopmar, three daughters and one grand daughter. I’ll description my four new sisters to paint you a picture of life in my Batswana household. (I’m convinced that these daughters will also distract you from the bucket and ants, as they have me…)

Idnil is the oldest daughter at 20. She prances into the house wearing capri jeans, a spaghetti strap tank-top and no bra (mind you, I am pouring sweat beneath a long skirt and modest T-shirt, struggling to attain Culturally Appropriate Dress). Idnil looks through my photos and corrects a few of my Setwana words before sauntering back to the porch for a smoke and a chat with neighborhood friends. When she returns she asks me to unlock a cell phone she has “found”. Both Idnil and her mother seem slightly flustered when I explain that the phone cannot be unlocked without first having its battery charged. Idnil dances back to the porch (Idnil is nearly always dancing or swaying and, to accompany her, the Elopmar household is nearly always playing music).

Naillil is the next oldest girl at 15. She is the Worker Bee of the house and is constantly chasing babies, sweeping crumbs, heating water and granting her mother’s persistent requests. When she has a small break Naillil sits beside me on the couch and runs her fingers through my hair while teaching me Setswana. (She is very patient and I take copious notes). At tea time Naillil shows me how to start a fire in the back yard. I take pictures of her kindling the flames and she giggles excitedly at the images. Naillil tells me there will be gas for the stove on Sunday and, until then, she will be heating my morning bathwater over the outdoor fire at 6 a.m. This makes me apologize and thank her profusely to which she retorts a blank stare of neutrality.

Pel is, without doubt, my favorite. At 3 years old she is shy but curious about this new host sister who insists on hugging and photographing her. She spends time touching my skin and staring at my strange complexion with her enormous black eyes. When I lean over family photos Pel reaches for a wisp of my bangs and if I become distracted for too long she presses my legs for more affection (this technique, she’s learned, is incredibly effective). Her mother sees my attraction to Pel and decides that the best possible way for us to bond is for me to shave her head. This I do poorly under a knobby tree in the back yard. Ikitip cleans up my mess with a sharp blade to her daughter’s scalp. All Ikitip’s children are bald.

Baby Ara is just one year old and screams hysterically at the first sight of me. She is Idnil’s daughter. After hours of smiles and gentle touches to her skin, Ara finally warms up enough to giggle through a peek-a-boo game but will still have nothing to do with me attempting to hold her. Ara wears a poufy red dress and no underwear. Sometimes I feel as though she speaks better Setswana than me and so sweet Ara has become the source of great embarrassment and motivation, all at once.

There’s lots more to tell you of the homestay-matching ceremony, Pitiki’s backyard latrine (ant farm?) and the plethora of neighbors who visited to see me today

but alas

I am la pi le (exhausted) and have heaps of Setswana to study before turning off my light. Plus my fingers are ice cold from typing! (winter nights in Botswana’s cement houses are freezing!)

Cherish your toilets, your dinners, your families.

Robala sentle – Good night

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Jet Lagged in Jo-burg

we landed in south africa last night after 18 hours in the air. the sky was filled with purple and orange clouds and we were eager to collapse in the hotel-- unfortunately a shuttle-mishap left up stranded in the airport where we held a yoga class and slept on each others shoulders until we could finally leave.

the hotel is plush and beautiful. we are not allowed to leave (city is a bit too dangers for naive americans) so we spend the night sipping beer and talking about our homestay families who we'll all meet on wednesday.

last night i also found out i'll be station in a suburb of Gaborone with electricity and, at the very least, a spicket for water in the home. i also learned that all the lifeskills group will be in the Gab-burbs which means i'll be relatively close to a familiar face throughout the 2 years-- phew.

attempted to run this morning and nearly fainted (after recovering i was told jet-lag, low blood sugar, poor sleep were to blame) recovering now and setting off for gaborone in just 1 hour... more updates soon...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Gauging Staging

Peace Corps "Staging" is this crazy little event where 61 nervous people sit in a room chatting about culture, anxieties, dress code, and rules... all while trying to get a real sense of what this new "family" is going to feel like for the next 2 years. Mine is ending tomorrow morning when we all shuffle (err... drag, pull, hoist) ourselves + 80lbs of luggage onto a bus for JFK airport. Flight to Botswana leaves at 5:20.

While I'm battling a v e r y nervous stomach and nausea from malaria meds I'm also craving Africa in a way I never have-- everything is so close and I cant help day dreaming about stepping off that plane into the sun and smells and colors of my new planet (don't pretend like you dont know I'm melodramatic)

The women here are truly amazing-- I've made some great connections already and everyone has fabulous stories of international travel and volunteer work... we compare war-tales of packing, discuss the ambiguities that frustrate us, and munch on our last American dinners before diving into the Botswana cuisine (which one gal has playfully prophesied to be "2 years of beef and Fanta"... still crossing my fingers for fresh veggies)

The group is incredibly diverse with 3 married couples, 15 retirees and everyone else spanning the age groups in a way that makes me feel Snuggly In the Middle.

Lots more details but this is the boring stuff-- look again in a couple days for an update on Jo-burg arrival: possibly exhausted but surely fascinated, eager and r e l i e v e d…