Monday, June 23, 2008


June 22, 2008

So it turns out that the information I received about my Peace Corps placement was slightly misleading. If you remember back to May 31st you’ll recall that I was handed a paper describing my village and that on this paper all amenities and local services were checked “yes”.

In order to dispel the myth that Peace Corps Botswana is “Posh Corps” I’ve decided to correct the mistakes. Here’s what my site placement notes should have said:

* Electricity: Intermitted, goes off about 9 times each week for 1 – 4 hours at a time; you’ll have working lights in two of your three rooms.

* Cell Phone Coverage: Yes (whew)

* Water Inside House: Nope. Buy some large buckets. There’s a pump outside the house but sometimes the village loses water for days or weeks at a time. Oh, and water comes out white. Not sure what that’s all about.

* Toilet Inside House: Promised but, alas, not delivered. Pit latrine. Carry TP and bug spray.

* Access to Public Transportation: Combis to Gabs and Thamaga every 15 minutes… or sometimes 30… or sometimes 60 and NO you may not accept rides from the plethora of friendly Motswana who stop in their cars and offer to take you to your destination. Hitchhiking is strictly Against Peace Corps Rules.

* Post Office in Village: Nope

* Oh, and it’s not a category on your sheet but we thought we’d also mention that Internet, grocery stores, banks, pharmacies and paved roads are also not located in this village.

* Er, and the front door of your house is going to fall off its hinges in the first week. Heh. Sorry about that.

Alrighty then.

So the amazing thing about Peace Corps is that you learn relatively quickly that (on the whole) humans can adjust to just about anything over time. We’re creatures of habit—we crave routine. Someone says “no leaving your house after dark” we start a ritual of evening exercises, cooking and reading. Someone says “you have to bathe in a bucket” we purchase a big sponge and get to it. We crave schedules. We form habits. We’re resilient.


So in the Spirit Of Human Resilience this morning I decided to make my way up to Thamaga for Internet and groceries. It’s my first time traveling solo in Botswana and, as such, is very liberating. I’ve traveled alone all over Europe and Asia but the first go on a new continent is always slightly nerve-wracking. I sling a backpack over my shoulder and get started.

The thing about Human Resilience and Routine is that it does take Time. And mistakes. And lessons.

Here are the lessons I learned on my first Independent Journey in Africa:

1. Do not travel at noon. The mid-day heat, even in winter, will strike you dead as you wait on the side of the road for a combi.

2. Combi and buses are rarely labeled. Your best bet is to use broken Setswana with others waiting at the bus stop and follow them onto the correct vehicle.

3. Once on the bus practice breathing rituals to stay conscious. Motswana believe that opening windows will “let in flu” so you are bound to be breathing in the scent of bodies and sweating profusely throughout the duration of your trip.

4. Per Lesson #1 and #3 do NOT wear long sleeves with only a tank top underneath. Tank top is inappropriate in public and long sleeves are just plain masochistic.

5. Overcome the urge to Rail Against The Administration when you visit your PC friends in Thamaga to find them basking in a plush home of gardens, shutters, working windows and doors, Pier One furniture, gas, electricity, water, HOT water, radios, etc. Smile and put on your best Happy For Them Look. Resist the urge to steal their toaster.

6. Just because it’s a grocery store do not expect produce variety or freshness. Peppers and bananas, baby—count yourself lucky cuz Kumakwane’s only got onions.

7. Call ahead. Even though the sign claims that they’re open on Sundays shopkeepers can close whenever they feel like it. Internet rejection can be shockingly depressing.

8. Sunday’s rush hour is 4:00. Avoid traveling home at this time or you’ll be standing the whole way in all that bus-heat and b.o., praying for forgiveness for having worn the long sleeved shirt.

9. Do NOT be among the first passengers to enter the bus. Wait patiently at the end of the line so you get a standing spot close to the front door for easy exiting.

10. If, perchance, you are body-chucked into the rear of the bus make a valiant effort to work your way back to the front long before your stop. Waiting until you’ve arrived to push through the masses can take several minutes and result in the impatient murmurs of your fellow passengers and chastising remarks from your bus driver.

Three cheers for Cultural Integration, Awkward Transitions and Shopping Survival.
Dear Lord am I tired.

Where There Is No Gym

June 21, 2008

It’s possible that I have never in my life felt healthier.

I’ve analyzed this vivid sense of Well-Being and attributed it to the following Sources:

v Botswana has 340 days of sunshine each year.
v I’m outside for more hours each day than I am inside.
v There is a cultural expectation to smile at (and greet) everyone you pass.
v I sleep a minimum of 7 hours each night.
v My village is void of televisions, movie theatres and internet cafes.
v I eat only food I’ve prepared.
v There is no access to chocolate, ice cream, cereal or restaurants (personal vices, yours probably aren’t here either).
v I walk no less than 2-3 hours each day.
v You can ruin your reputation if you’re spotted with alcohol (or, likewise, in a bar)
v There are gorgeous trees, hills, sunsets and sand dunes around every corner.
v I’ve lost 10 lbs without even trying.

How’s that for an incentive to visit?

“In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud sometimes only Beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellent is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real. To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of Beauty, then, can be a serious business—not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding onto the real when everything else is fading away.”
~ from the novel “Eat, Pray, Love”

Post-training/Pre-Service: Purgatory

June 20, 2008

Although I had repeatedly called my Kumakwane colleagues, it was now the morning of my First Day of Peace Corps Service and I was still unclear about transfer logistics. My counterpart had also been oddly ambiguous about the state of my house and these things were making me increasingly nervous.

In an effort to distract myself from further anxiety I decided to take a long walk to the bank, post office and grocery store (luxuries I will not have access to in my new village).

Upon my return one of the PC administrators began calling me:

“Arent you with the driver?” she asked.
“Alright, let me call you right back.”
A few minutes pass.
“So you’re with the driver now, right?”
“Um, no.”

This goes on for about 10 minutes before they realize that my driver has actually picked up the wrong volunteer and driven her half way to Kumakwane. Fortunately they caught Snake (the driver… there’s a surplus of amusing English names in this country) before he got too far and he turned around to make the Volunteer-Swap.

A few hours later Snake and I roll into Kumakwane and I stop by the school to see the headmaster and my counterpart. We chit chatted for 10 minutes before I ask about the state of the house. Ms. Elitsab wrings her hands a few times.

“Well, you see I really wanted you to see the house for yourself and I didn’t want you worrying [thus the lack of returned phone calls] and really you should not be stressed [oh boy] it’s just that the gas company wont accept the form of payment we’ve offered.”

Alright, no cooking and no warm baths. I can handle that for a while.
“Well, that’s no problem.” I say “These things happen.”

She continues.

“Ah, the other thing is that the electricity hasn’t exactly been connected yet. There was a problem with the wiring and we thought that maybe you could run a line from the main house or use a lamp for a while.”

Huh. Okay so early to bed early to rise… don’t I have a headlamp somewhere?

I try to stay positive as Ms. Elitsab rattles off the list of additional problems…

The plumber hasn’t made it, there’s no toilet or water.
The furniture hasn’t been moved in, we haven’t had a vehicle for it.
The mattress is in Gaborone, it might be arriving this weekend.

I return to the car where Snake smiles at me. I take a deep breath as we head to the house.

What we find is shockingly similar to what I left 2 weeks ago. Windows, roof and door are securely attached but little else has been done. Teloc (owner of large house adjacent to mine on the family compound) tells me the builder has had the flu for the past two weeks and the other available workmen can only come on the weekend. She says she encouraged the school to delay me as she knew they would not have the house finished in time for my arrival.

I call Peace Corps.

Peace Corps is quite shocked. They called Kumakwane all last week and were told that the house was finished and ready to live in. They’ll call me back.

I pace around the yard for a while. I stand in the middle of my empty living room. I stare at the floor.

Eventually Teloc comes over to check on me. We discuss privacy curtains which seem like the least of my concern at the moment. Fortunately, she has some old curtains she’s willing to loan me and the kids come over to help us hang them in the four windows of my bedroom and living room.

When Peace Corps calls back there are more reassuring words. I hang up doubtful but within a hour thing start to take shape. The furniture arrives, broken and torn, but useable. The electrician arrives and wires two of my three rooms. The builder helps me move my bed into the lit room and the kids go wild feather-dusting my furniture.

Around 8:00 I wash up in the bathroom of the main house and say goodnight to the family.

I spend a few hours organizing bags and making my bed and arranging furniture. The cement floor involves a bit of maneuvering not to cover everything with dust and I have to bundle in all my clothes before I’m warm enough to sleep but eventually I settle down for my first night.

The wailing of roosters and dogs feel oddly comforting. I pull the hood up to keep my ears warm and I drift off into a plethora of anxiety-malaria dreams.

Still, it’s comforting to finally be home.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Begining's End

Yesterday we swore in as Official Peace Corps Volunteers. I stood with the group and raised my right hand and chanted the pledge of service—someone pointed out that, for most of us, this was the most serious vow we have ever taken.

The US Ambassador to Botswana gave a speech as did the previous President of Botswana. After the party I said goodbye to the other volunteers and walked home full with something that felt like sadness and excitement and nervous all mixing into one.

At home I sit in the living room with my host mother, five of my siblings, the three neighbor kids and Ame’s host mother and sister (Ame’s dad got sick back in April and she had to go home to the States). I present each of them with a photograph I’ve taken of them and wrapped in colored paper. On the backs of the photographs I wrote my favorite memories with each of them from the past 2 months. The colored envelopes are ripped open excitedly and the photos passed around the room for hours to the sound of their squealing and laughing. When the present-excitement settles down my mother leads the group in singing goodbye songs to me. My sisters jump up and begin dancing to the Motswana chants while Pel and Ara come hurtling into my lap for hugs and giggles.

Late in the night we lose electricity. I bucket bathed by candlelight and try to imagine where I’ll be in 24 hours. Will the house be finished? Will the electricity work? Will Kumakwane be out of water (again)? Will there be gas to cook? What will my first day of work be like?

The night before Hael had dreamt that her and I were walking through an enormous herd of elephants. They were stomping all around us but we where perfectly safe and not the least bit frightened.

I take this as a good omen and blow out my candle and go to sleep for the last time in Lekwapagne.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

New Address

Jessica Charles
Kumakwane Secondary School
Private Bag 00290

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Answered Prayer

Kim has accepted an offer to serve in Olibokum. I feel distinctly lighter today.


June 9, 2008

Three more volunteers decided to go home this week, dropping our original group of 61 to just 53. Although I was closest to Kim, I cried my heart out when Jan left today. Jan had been selected to serve in Olibikom, the village I had shadowed in last month. The village that broke my heart. The village that so desperately needs a volunteer.

The country director stopped to console me and agreed that Olibikom is one of the most needy areas in this country. We talked about the possibility of a transfer but when she realized I would have to change programs she explained it would not be possible. We discussed the value of HIV prevention work and I was reminded of how strongly I believe in the Lifeskills programs I’ve been slotted for.

Anel and Hael came outside to hug me and I cried for 5 more minutes before returning o session. We were processing site visits and it was my turn. I stood up and told the group about my beautiful new home in Kumakwane.

Bull Wit

June 8, 2008

Hael and I are walking to the Tuck Shop for soda and onions when we spot a bull 50 yards in front of us. Almost instinctively, we both stop moving and take a minute to gape at this beast. It one of the largest animals I have ever seen and is jet black balancing two enormous yellow horns. From tip to tail the animal stretches the full width of the car lane in which it has so inconveniently positioned itself.

Although there are people milling about on either side of the road and bull turns to stare at us for an uncomfortably long moment. We giggle nervously and then frantically as the bull starts heading towards us. A woman selling candy and oranges on the side of the road smirks and leans back in her plastic chair to be entertained by our terror. Undoubtedly, she has also noticed the peril of our garments: by some freak coincidence we are both wearing bright red t-shirts.

What develops is a type of erratic dance that has us running and stopping, grabbing onto one another’s arms and acting more “girlish” than should ever be allowed for two 20-something women. Eventually we compose ourselves and make a plan to walk behind a nearby fence that will separate us from the bull and dump us out a bit further down the road and past the beast.

We watch the bull closely while following the length of the fence. Towards the end I have begun to feel relief but Hael shrieks: the fence is enclosed and we have now been caged into a pen. When we look back we see that the bull has decided to enter the corral behind us. Although we see him peacefully sniffing at the grass, the sense of entrapment throws us into a state of panic anyway. We toss our bags over the fence and scan for an escape route. Hael starts to climb but the barbed wire forces her to stop. We then scale pile of cinderblocks in the corner of the pen but they are too far from the fence to help us climb over.

Perhaps a full minute passes before we are able to locate a part of the fence that has been broken and is shallow enough for us to exit through. We toss our bags and scurry through the opening.

Half a mile later we’re laughing hysterically at ourselves but still looking over our shoulder to make sure the bulls is safely out of sight.

I can only imagine the story our Little Orange Lady tells around the dinner table tonight.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


June 6, 2008

After sitting through a few classes and meetings I decide to take a walk through the village. The Africans I have met seem to have a very hard time understanding the concept of pleasure-walking but I assure Angeline (26, the Zimbabwean maid) that I am fine and will be back in about an hour.

I walk past the school and two small tuck shops selling soap, sodas and canned foods. As I approach the main road people who I’ve never met shout my name and make a valiant effort to sell me a dozen watermelon. I assure them I will be their best customer once I’ve moved in but they persist: “It’s nice Bontle… so nice… you try it now.”

Mme Elistab pulls up in her baby blue truck and saves me from the watermelon hagglers. I tell her I’m walking to the primary school across town. Despite the fact that it’s three in the afternoon and “across town” is just half a mile, Mme Elistab calls a boy to walk with me. The boy is heading for a haircut but obliges to take me half way and I wish Mme Elistab goodbye in the customary form:

“Ke a le bog a, mme” (thank you, madame) Hands clasped, small bow.
She returns the thanks.
“Tsamya sentle, mme” (Go well, madame)
She wishes me the same.
“Go siame, mme” (Good bye madame)
Final bow.

The boy walks me ten minutes before we reach a group of young girls who agree to take me the rest of the way. They range in age between 9 and 12 and speak impeccable English.

Earlier in the day I had spoken with several teachers who all assured me their students were well behaved, intelligent, moral and happy. In my first meeting the Guidance Counselor and Headmaster assured me that poverty was minimal in Kumakwane and the local social worker was actively involved in making sure the orphans and vulnerable children were well cared for. Alcohol abuse was rare and pregnant students were counseled and assisted in every way possible. I smiled at my new colleagues and praised them for their success.

Walking through the village I remember back to the suffering I’d seen in Olibukom and feel frustrated. How could they have placed me in a village that needs so little when the rest of the country is struggling to stay alive?

The girls walk me through the school yard and correct my Setswana as I stop to greet people. They ask to touch my hair and agree to draw me a map of the village. The oldest girl tells me she’ll be enrolled at the Secondary School in just a year…

Are you a teacher? She asks.
Do you beat?
Do you punish?
That’s good. Punishment is better than beatings.

The little girls describe the beatings to me. They show me the area where they line up to be whipped. They talk about the offenses: standing on a particular part of the cement walkway, forgetting their books, not bringing enough tin cans to win the competition, getting a math answer wrong.

My curiosity inspires further details. The dry classes, the teacher who slaps their faces, the lack of food for twelve hours. By the time they’ve walked me back to the road I am nauseous.

They smile and stroke my hair before waving goodbye. I walk away discouraged and inspired and exhausted and stirred. I walk alone for two more hours before returning home.

Sometimes need does not manifest itself in statistics or authority or poverty. Sometimes need is more subtle.

When I reach the yard I see they’ve finished attaching my doors and windows. My place here taking shape.

Humble Abode

June 5, 2008

Kumakwane greets me with such a spread of green that it seems a mistake to have called this place a desert. I visit the secondary school and meet a cluster of friendly teachers before heading to my house.

Mme Elistab seems oddly nervous as we turn off the main road and pass the kgotla.

I’ve been told that the Ministry debated between two houses for me and chose the location that was closer to the school and part of a family compound. The choice was made to provide added security and easier community integration and I’m feeling quite comfortable with this reasoning as we open the gate and walk into the yard.

Mme Elistab watches me gape at the bright gardens and stone arches of the main house. And then Mme Elistab points and says “There, Bontle. This one is yours.”

She can’t be pointing to the shed.

Oh my God. She’s pointing to the shed.

I’m sure my mouth has fallen open as I walk across the yard and stand in front of the cement block that is meant to act as my sanctuary for the next 24 months. Every window is broken and there is a vivid absence of doors, frames and walls. Two workmen are lounging across the door frame “dumella”-ing me. Mme Elistab tells me she’s grateful to see the tin roof arrived this morning.

Eventually I come around and make the obligatory optimistic comment to which Mme Elistab pats my shoulder with something that feels an awful lot like sympathy. I brood.

At the main house we meet Telloc and her children, Asomo (6) and Elibitar (9). I make my way to their guest bedroom. New village, new family, same awkwardness. I feel like someone has just reset the clock to April 16.

For the first time in two months I quite seriously consider if this is all a mistake.

We Break Bread

June 2, 2008

Naillil and I are kneading dough into rolls when she tells me she’s being beat at school.

I am aware that corporal punishment is legal and used in the Botswana school system but she describes a scene that turns my stomach into knots.

Naillil tells me of one teacher that beats them in such rage that he is overwhelmed with grief afterwards and apologizes profusely to the class. She describes the stripes across her behind and back and how the headmaster sprays their skin with medicine to dull the pain and hide the redness from their families.

I am enraged.

I talk about her rights and the limitations of Botswana’s public policy on corporal punishment. I discuss communication with the guidance counselor, the responsibility of the headmaster and the power of the kgose. I tell her a story I’ve heard of 30 Motswana children leaving school one day to report extreme corporal violence to their kgotla. I tell her over and over that no one has the right to beat her excessively or in rage.

Somewhere in the middle of my tirade Naillil pats the bun I have just thrown into the baking pan. “We should not throw the bread,” she whispers. I quiet and look at her as she continues, “Botswana people believe that throwing food during cooking will make stomach pain for those who eat.”

I watch her thumbs gently kneading the next piece of dough, sprinkling flour and pressing the tray.

There is a decade and an ocean and a culture and a color that separates this child from me. That leave me helpless to protect her.

I pat at the dough that she has smoothed. Perfect circle. Seemingly resilient to my frustration.

But there are consequences to carelessness. And something deep inside me has already begun to ache.


June 1, 2008

Mma has decided that Scrabble is a waste of time and that I must spend the evening singing Motswana hymns with her. The kids find this highly amusing and giggle through my broken Setswana before finally joining in to drown me out. Nomelihp (17) takes up a gorgeous baritone, Mma is the alto and Naillil (15) soprano. Pillihp (11) is meant to be a tenor but Mma shuts him up after the first verse shouting “Discord, discord… Pillihp is ruining!”

I’ve agreed to do a cultural-exchange program with Denise’s music class back in the States and decide that this is the perfect scene to video for her students. Mma agrees eagerly to the taping and thus proceeds an evening of chaos:

The video goes relatively smoothly (though Pillihp is repeatedly pushed out of the frame).

But when I finish capturing their performance, Mma goes flying into her bedroom, jabbering excitedly in Setswana. She returns with an armful of traditional Motswana dresses that she insists I try on, complete with headscarves and heavy shawls. I hesitate only long enough to realize the decision has been made for me and eight enthusiastic hands are wrapping skirts around my blue jeans and tying scarves against my head.

I sit through 6 wardrobe changes and what feels like nine million photos before shouting “Ke la pi le! Ke feditse!” (I’m tired! I must finish!) Mma obliges and sends me off for my bath.

An hour later I’m crawling into bed and grab my camera for a quick flip through what’s been documented of this bizarre evening. The photographs show my pasty form, swathed in bright German print and surrounded by black faces with broad smiles.

Nomelihp changed into his suit and stuck a plastic flower in the breast pocket before our photo.
Naillil into her best blue jeans and leaned her head against mine.
Mma dressed in her pink wedding suit and struggled to keep her eyes open at the flash.
Pillihp ripped his shirt off to flex skinny muscles for me.

I flip through the photos three times before realizing I’ve become quite sad.

It will never cease to amaze me how love creeps up on you. How people and places bury themselves inside you so easily and stay there for years and sometimes a lifetime. I have been here for 6 weeks and am leaving in just 2. I lie back into a cold little bed and stare at my tin roof and listen to their voices through the thin walls. I memorize them best I can. To keep them fresh. To keep this sense of love and belonging and family.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Site Placement

May 31th, 2008

We file into a bright room where the chairs have been set up in a semi-circle around flip chart paper holding a map of the country. There is nervous tension as we pull out cameras and guidebooks and say our last prayer for That Site We’ve Been Dreaming Of.

The map holds 56 numbers scattered in 4 different colors:

Red for Community Care Based Volunteers
Yellow for District AIDS Coordinator Volunteers
Green for NGO Volunteers
Orange for Lifeskills Volunteers

Although Lifeskills knows we will be confided to Kweneng District, I can’t help but shudder to see the cluster of orange dots in Molepolole (where we’ve been training). I quickly calculate that 5 of us will be restricted to this large, impersonal, 60,000 people, 36 school village… I have a 62% chance to get the small, intimate village I’ve been praying for.

Ron enters with a smile and gives us a speech about staying positive and optimistic about our placements. People nod through the pep talk and vow To-Remain-Jovial-Despite-Potential-Disappointment but an uneasy anticipation lingers in the room. So much depends on size, proximity, amenities, and population.

Ron tells us to pull a number from under our chairs and I am relieved to find I’ve sat on 16—just about a quarter down the line.

People go to the front of the room 1 by 1 and search a long table for the gingerbread cookie on which their name has been inscribed in thick white frosting. Beneath the cookie is a number that matches the map and determines their fate for the next 2 years.

I watch as the first 15 volunteers find their names and sigh when three of the Molepolole dots are filled with my Lifeskills colleagues.

When it’s my turn I pace to the front of the room and replay the scenes that have brought me to this place:

Late nights at the office working through endless application questions and essays (Summer, 2006)
A long interview at the PC headquarters near North Station on a snowy afternoon (November, 2006)
A slew of frantic phone calls to the D.C. medical office, proving my health and sanity (Summer, 2007)
Ten pages of acceptance essays reviewed and edited by Patient Kris (January, 2008)
A book of portfolio and journal entries demonstrating adequate training capacity (last month)
A nervous interview with the Lifeskills director beneath a knotted tree in a Moleps school yard (last Monday)

Which words, phrases, gestures of these moments have led to their decision? What did I give them to design my service with? Have I explained thoroughly enough my suitability for a small village? Do they know how desperately I want to learn Setswana in a remote part of the country?

I flip the gingerbread cookie to see a “46” and scan the map frantically. Oynka is standing with an air of impatience next to Zimbabwe and finally leans over to help me:

“It’s here, baby… Kumakwane.”

I burst out an involuntary laugh of relief and joy and gratitude. Someone snaps a photo as I turn around to exclaim “Kumakwane!”

When I return to my seat I cannot find the village on my map of Botswana or on Anel’s or on Patrick’s. After five frenzied minutes I realize it’s not listed. It’s too small.

I beam.

The rest of the ceremony is a blur of photos, tears and cheers but the last thing I remember vividly is the Life Skills Director passing out envelopes to us with site details. Mine reads something like this:

“Welcome Home Bots 7!”

General Info

Village: Kumakwane
Population: 3,400
Predominant Language: Setswana
Distance to Gaborone: 40 km
Closest Volunteer: Botswana 7 Life Skills, Thamaga
Location: Kumakwane Junior Secondary School

Housing Overview

Electricity: Yes
Cell Phone Coverage: Yes
Water Inside House: Yes
Toilet Inside House: Yes
Access to Public Transportation: Yes
Post Office in Village: Yes

The administration has strategically stored up mail and packages to console those volunteers who “didn’t get a clinic” or “cant believe they don’t have a water” or “won’t be able to handle being so far from friends” or “cant imagine traveling two days to get to Gabs.”

I let them scramble through the boxes and step outside to hug people and send text messages home and ask the Language Trainers more about Kumakwane. Everyone assures me that my community is intimate with just three schools (one secondary, 2 primary) and the perfect atmosphere for learning Setswana but also close enough to Gabs and other volunteers for the occasional escape. I close my eyes for a minute to envision my first shower in two months. I am already planning the vegetarian meal I’ll cook in my private kitchen. I go home to practice Setswana harder.

On Tuesday I will meet my counterpart and on Wednesday I will visit my village for the first time. I am elated. I am finally going home.


May 29th, 2008

Somebody grabs me at lunch and tells me theres a bus going to the track after our last session. I nearly fall over. Track? We’re in the middle of a desert…?

But a track there is.

And around the track there is a soccer field and a tennis court and a sunset.

I walk out onto the quarter-mile circle and stretch in the late afternoon breeze. My body has ached to run for weeks but training and long commutes don’t allow for daylight-free time and we are not permitted out after dark.

I breathe the thick, quiet air and launch into one the best exercise hours of my life.

It is a hard run. A damn-you’ve-been-lethargic run. But in this run I feel so much dripping off my skin. Fear and loneliness and stress and self-doubt and sadness and newness and homesickness: all the things transitions are made of. All the tension of these last 6 weeks. All streaming off me in the motion of breathing and prayer and meditation.

After my first lap the I-Pod battery runs out and I pump through the next 4 miles to my beating breath. There is no adrenaline rush, no runners-high, no sense of weightlessness. But there is an acute awareness of strength. I feel my body push and respond to perseverance. I watch a cloud constellation cast rays and melt the globe of sun. And I run. And I am healthy. Everything aligns.


May 27, 2008

I’m sitting in my room making my way through flashcards, crunches, jumping jacks and bucket bath when the kids start singing.

They’ve been singing for about 20 minutes now in perfect unison. The babies are quiet and Naillil leads while Indil, Odnam and Pillihp follow along in harmony. They’re all sitting on a bed in the room adjacent to mine, surrounded by heaps of dirty clothes and shadows of frightened cockroaches and the echoes of thin cement walls.

It will never cease to amaze me how the African continent seems to possess a Harmonizing Gene that we’ve clearly missed back home (well, except you, Linnea ;). I remember having the same thought about a month ago at our homestay matching ceremony when the kgosane asked the Botswana host families to sing their national anthem. What ensued was the rising and explosion of 100 Motswana voices into a melodic chant that made my eyes swell with patriotism for a country I knew nothing about. Truly, we were awestruck to see a group of strangers spontaneously create such a profound and gorgeous sound.

And then

Then the old ladies wiggled back into their chairs and the kgosane turned to us. Us: a group of 59 terrified Americans who could barely speak, never mind squeak out verses of the old Star Spangled. When we hesitated we got a smile from the American Country Director that said “get-up-and-do-it-cuz-we’ve-got-a-long-ceremony-ahead-of-us-and-the-lunch-is-getting-cold”. Gulp. We rose.

Imagine hearing Mozart followed by chalkboard nails, the rearranging of large furniture and the shrieks of infant children. Uh-huh.

When we sat down a hush fell over the room and I felt my cheeks burning. The kgosane choked out a “ke a le boga” (thanks) and our host mothers looked across the room at us in frozen terror.


Fortunately, the ceremony went on and when my name was called Ikitip Elopmar came running down the aisle to hug her cacophonous host daughter screaming “Bontle… Bontle… your name will be Beauty!” I embraced this enormous African woman and was happy to be reminded of the universal virtue of motherhood:

They love us, flaws and all.