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.
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!”
Predominant Language: Setswana
Distance to Gaborone: 40 km
Closest Volunteer: Botswana 7 Life Skills, Thamaga
Location: Kumakwane Junior Secondary School
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.