Thursday, July 31, 2008


As planned I spent the day typing and researching in an effort to recuperate from an emotionally draining week.

At mid-day I had recovered my optimism and decided to look back over my notes from yesterday.

As I read through the officers words, the thought struck me that maybe the he had been embellishing. How could an organized, developing suburb of Gaborone allow traffic accidents to repeatedly take the lives of their child citizens?

Surely he had exaggerated.

And then I found two articles:

Yes, it really happens...

And, yes, the village has reacted passionately, even violently… with little government response…

The Straw

Kumakwane must have two primary schools. One is not enough. This is our biggest needs.

Why do you think this? Is it the teacher shortage?

No, Bontle. Because they’re dying.

The teachers?

No. The students.

Silent look of horror.

The kids from Newtown Ward have to cross the main road to get to school each day. And sometimes they’re just not careful enough.

Have cars actually hit the children before?

Every year we lose two or three this way.

I walk back slowly from the kgotla. I think of Sanoj and Oletum. People stop to greet me but I am heavy from the week and forget the formalities.

Tomorrow I will stop asking questions. Curiosity has consequences. And resilience limits.

Salvation Comes to Those Who Pay

Sanoj Mesiog is one of our Form 3 students. She’s about to graduate from Kumakwane Junior Secondary School at the end of the year. She is in the Scripture Union Club and plays on the school soccer team. She also has a history of asthma and struggles with peaceful breathing on a daily basis.

Last Saturday night Sanoj couldn’t catch her breath. In Kumakwane the health post closes at 4:00 and afterhours emergencies are sent to Thamaga Hospital… 40 kilometers away.

Sanoj’s family is very poor. They do not have a car or a phone. Like most Batswana they refuse to leave their homes at night for fear of being robbed or assaulted.

Sanoj’s mother held her through the night but early Sunday morning the girl began coughing blood. She died before the sun rose.

It is coincidence that I have planned an interview with one of the police officers today but it is fortunate. I have questions. And I am angry.

The officer tells me that there is an ambulance available in Kumakwane but that it sometimes takes hours to find and wake a driver and get the patient to Thamaga. The officer tells me that this is a major concern for the village as many pregnant women go into labor in the evening and weekends. Many of these poorly timed pregnancies have dreadful outcomes.

Still, I know Sanoj’s parents did not call for an ambulance and this makes me furious. I cannot understand why they wouldn’t have tried to help her.

And then the officer says something that clarifies this seeming negligence:

It’s cheap, the ambulance. Less than 50 pula. Maybe even 20.

20 pula is 3 dollars and 30 cents. Sanoj’s family didn’t have it.

When I heard the news at 7:30 this morning I was enraged to think that a young girl could die from a preventable problem like asthma.

But it wasn’t asthma that killed Sanoj. It was poverty.

The sun is setting at the memorial service. The students have come in their uniforms and us women arrive in skirts and head coverings. We sing hymns and pray. I understand nothing of the service so pray silently to myself

I pray for her wrinkled, barefoot, weathered mother
I pray for her tiny cement house with no glass in the windows.
I pray for the one chicken.
I pray for the beer cans littering the yard.

Our chairs are perched beneath a thick tree and the branches hang down so low they are nearly touching our heads. These branches weep yellow leaves on us throughout the service.

No one cries. Life is cheap in Africa. And expensive.

I hold a leaf between my finger and thumb and bite down hard on my lip.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Oletum is built like most Batswana teenagers: tall and lanky. What strikes you about him immediately are two enormous black eyes framed by thick, curly lashes. He looks young for 15 but speaks proficient English through a voice crackling with puberty. He is my neighbor.

In Botswana it is acceptable to stop by for a visit without calling ahead. This is actually a sign of genuine friendship and so, if someone “checks” you, you should be quite flattered. The downside is that being “checked” also puts you at a risk of being caught in your sweat pants, with your hair in a knot, washing your socks in a bucket. Irrelevant in Botswana. You drop the socks and heat up the kettle for tea.

The first time Oletum checks me he asks for help with his English homework. I’ve been missing my ESL tutorees back in Boston so I quickly agree and send him off to retrieve the novel he’s been assigned. Oletum returns 6 hours later and says his parents had made him go to The Lands to work for the day. It’s late now and he’s sorry but maybe I can help him in school tomorrow.

The second time Oletum checks me he asks for video games. I’m not sure why he assumes that I have video games but, oddly enough, Kris has just sent me a package with the video game in it. I tell him that the package should arrive in a week or so.

This second check happens on a Monday.

Oletum checks me again on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Each time asking for the game. The following Sunday the game finally arrives and Oletum is elated. He runs off to play it on the school computers.

Ten hours later Oletum returns looking exhausted. It’s after dark and he should not be out (all Mostawan are locked in their houses by 7:00 every night. “Avoiding thugs” they say). I collect the game from him and wish him good-night.

Oletum shifts back and forth on his feet and does not begin to leave my porch. There is something heavy in his eyes and I ask him how he’s feeling.

He does not hesitate.


His eyes drop and the shifting accelerates into a nervous sway.

“Havent you eaten today?”

“No.” he says to the floor. “No. Not all day Ms. Charles and then my parents gave my dinner away.” There is a twinge of anger in his voice that breaks me.

“Gave it away? Who would they give it to?”

“We had visitors. They needed to be fed.”

My weeks in Botswana seem to have themes. This week’s theme was Child Hunger. The morning after this visit from Oletum (which culminated with bulky sandwiches, of course) I’m helping a few girls in the computer lab. Somehow we start talking about public punishment.

Have you ever seen a child punished publically?

Oh yes. At the kgotla.

How was he punished?

Beat. With a stick.

Who punished him?

The parents first and then the land owners.

Land owners?

Yes, he had stolen food from the Lands.

When did that happen?


Did that happen recently?

Nervous laughter.

How many times has this happened?

Many times, Ms. Charles. Many times.

Thank you

So some of you are praying for my physical comfort, some for heightened self awareness and some of you are praying more for the people I’ll work with. One running theme, however, has been that you are praying for Safety.

It is a strange sensation to Feel other peoples prayers but I want you to know that this has been the case for me in recent weeks. There are break-ins and rapes I hear about daily and in May a volunteer passed away in a car accident. These things happen in the States but feel magnified here by my solitude and vulnerability as well as the inescapable language/cultural barriers.

Still. I feel safe. Protected even.

Two stories:

Kumakwane is a squiggly line intersected by a long tar road that runs from Gabs to Moleps. Off the squiggly line are dirt paths and tuck shops and a clinic and the kgotla and two schools. At the far reaches of this line are “The Lands” where people keep cattle and grow melons and live in tiny roundeval huts. I adore The Lands for a number of reasons: The Lands feel like Real Africa. In the right light Gaborone and Francistown can look a bit like suburban Florida with a bunch of strip malls and potted palm trees and restaurant balconies. But The Lands. The Lands are wide stretches of desert and livestock and tangled trees and tall grass. If you walk through the Lands for an hour you might pass four donkey carts and 2 roundeval huts. If you walk for an hour you also might come to an expanse of deep sand dunes and if the sun begins to set over those enormous dunes you will catch your breath in such a away and you will feel Africa and you will know that you are happy.

This walk through the Lands was fast becoming my ritual when the builder came to talk with my landlady. At first I was miffed. Its daylight. I’m running. I carry a blow horn. I pass people all the time. It’s the only place where I don’t have to dole out a thousand greetings. But the builder was adamant and came back the day after to see me in person and told me it was very unsafe. Yes, even in pairs. I sighed like a teenager who has just been grounded and went inside to jump rope.

Still, this was my first reassuring sign that the Safety Prayers are being answered. So thank you.

Story Two:

I lied about the burglar bars. I know. I’m sorry but I was afraid The Boyfriend or The Parents might go and do something crazy like complain to the Peace Corps office or fain illness to lure me home. I lived in my Kumakwane hut for exactly 31 days without burglar bars. And I felt their absence every night. It started to intensify with Telocs visit (see “Make Shift Alarm System” entry) and then became really frightening when one of my friends had his house broken into. He was home. He lives a quarter mile from me.

The other facts are that everyone, Everyone in Botswana has burglar bars. If you ask about local theft people shrug and say “Well, you know, this is a good country but it is still Africa.”

Last term thieves broke into the school and stole all of the kid’s food for breakfast and lunch (they go to school from 7:00 – 5:00 daily). The Headmaster couldn’t secure funds to replace the food and so was forced to end the school day at 1:00 and send the kids home for food.

Some people blame the Zimbabwean refugees but I think local poverty and alcoholism are equally responsible. When Peace Corps sent us crime statistics for Africa, Botswana was significantly lower than other countries for rape and assault but we were off the map for theft.

So I knew that a phone call would fix it. I’d call Peace Corps or the Ministry of Education and just say “I feel unsafe, the landlady needs more rent money so we can get burglar bars.” The problem is that I had already spoken with the landlady about the bars and she had told me she’d “get a quote” and asked me NOT to call the Ministry for funding. Sigh. In Botswana respecting the hierarchy is incredibly important and one slip up can ruin a relationship. Going over the landlady’s head would have been social suicide and even if the burglar bars did come, this maneuver might compromise the landlady’s willingness to help me with the rest of my housing needs (mainly furniture, wall paint, floors, bedroom electricity).

You see the pickle.

Even so, it was last Thursday and I was sitting in my office feeling tired after another sleepless night. My friends kept saying “Call Thuso” and I considered it since Thuso is the Amazingly-Attractive-Professional-And-Powerful-Peace-Corps-Safey-And-Security-Officer. (sorry Kris) Still, I worried about his approach and if he’d out me to the landlady.

But I was t i r e d and it was the end of the month when people get desperate for money and the crime rate goes up (most Batswana get paid the last Friday of the month. It is almost a sure bet that all ATMs in the country are cleaned out by Saturday morning and most people have to wait until Monday for them to be filled again. Those who do have money go straight to the bars and spend the weekend celebrating. Alcohol and poverty: excellent combo for crime)

So I start to text message Thuso: “Hi Thuso, I was wondering if you could call…”

No. No. It’s going to create problems. I’ve heard of other people botching village relations and it’s just too much of a risk. She’ll get the quote. The bars will be installed in a couple of weeks.

I’m rationalizing my way out of the text message when the door to my office opens

And Thuso Walks In.

I am flabbergasted. I am elated. I jump up and hug him and I’m talking in very fast and excited English that he can’t understand and I eventually realize this and apologize and take a deep breath. It’s just that being able to tell him In Person will allow me to be thorough about my safety concerns and fully express the urgency of addressing the issue discretely.

Thuso hands me a few pieces of mail and sits down and takes out a pencil and a pad of paper: “Okay, Bontle, start from the beginning. What’s on your mind?”

That was Thursday. The burglar bars were in the windows by Saturday morning.

So this entry is just to say thank you for your prayers. They are working.


Mr. Eltnolep teaches integrated science and has been working at Kumakwane Secondary School for 9 years. Nine years makes Mr. Eltnolep the longest serving member of the teaching or administrative staff at our school. A decade at one site is incredibly rare since the Botswana education system requires teachers to transfer schools every 5 years or so. Some slip through the cracks like Mr. Eltnolep but most serve in 8 – 9 different schools during their teaching careers. This transfer system does wonders for making people Wholly Unattached to their school community and you can imagine the effect it has on the Often-Distant-And-Disrupted-Family-Unit. Transfers. Solitude. Loneliness. Promiscuity. HIV/AIDS. These things collide.

I digress.

So Mr. Eltnolep is in my office flashing his bright white smile and convincing me to stop by the table tennis practice this afternoon. I have heard that our team placed top in the district and, yes, I’d love to see them play.

Mr. Eltnolep speaks in a booming voice that seems misplaced on his wispy frame. He is always laughing and I enjoy his easy nature. He doesn’t make me feel like a deer.

We talk about table tennis and the weather and the weekend but when I realize he’s wanting to chat for a while longer I start asking Report Questions. He doesn’t realize I’m researching and so is incredibly honest and forthcoming.

I choose the subject that no one will talk about. The subject that turned my boisterous host family into stone when I mentioned it. The subject that people avoid in churches and hospitals. The subject that knots my stomach a thousand times and yet simultaneously piques my fascination.

I ask him about Witchcraft.

Of course I don’t s a y witchcraft. I start with something simple. I start with the roots.

Mr. Eltnolep scowls a bit at the term: Ancestor Worship.

We call it African Traditional Religion.

Oh. Ok. Sorry.

I start a follow-up question but he predicts the theme and launches into an explanation without my lead…

The thing is, the missionaries brought Christ and modernity. Before that it was only African Traditional Religion. And yes, we believe in the power of our ancestors. They are the link to our gods. They speak for us. In traditional religion you can’t just go talking with the gods yourself. You must have an intermediary.

So, ancestors sound kind of like the Catholic saints.

Right, exactly. But the thing is, the missionaries taught us there was only Jesus Christ and that our traditional religious beliefs were wrong. We craved modernity and wanted to be seen as progressive so we accepted their religion. But we are still Africans. Today we’re all proclaiming Christianity but the African Traditional Religion still definitely exists.

Do you know people who still practice it?

African Traditional Religion is our roots, Bontle -- our culture. Most people practice both religions. I’d say close to 95% of Batswana who call themselves Christian also practice traditional worship. They just don’t talk about it.

I’ve started taking notes.

Even me.

He laughs a little as he says this and I look up from my paper. He looks embarrassed. He laughs again. I smile and tell him he is the first person who has been willing to talk with me about this subject. His shoulders drop a bit.

I’m impatient for more. I ask him about ancestor powers, traditional medicine, witch doctors, religious customs, herbal healing, etc etc. Mr. Eltnolep speaks perfect English and describes the details well. We talk for 30 minutes and somewhere along the way he forgets his nervous laugh completely.

Until I ask about child sacrifice.

The question hangs in the air for a very long time and Mr. Eltnolep looks away from me before answering.

Well yes. He says to his feet. Yes, these things happen.

There is a heavy silence where I swallow too loudly.

It hasn’t always been this way, he continues. It’s happening more now.

You see, the western medicine came in with the missionaries too. Over time, western medicine began replacing traditional medicine altogether. Eventually things like traditional religion and traditional healers became kind of…well… taboo. Primitive. In many villages the traditional doctors began to lose the respect of their communities. And the business.

He pauses so I can catch up with my notes. I’ve stopped being furtive and he’s stopped being embarrassed. It seems that my fascination may even be encouraging him.

And so as their trade began losing popularity traditional healers went to greater lengths to convince people of their power. And to obtain power. And so they started these things which are very bad. And they do happen. Sometimes you’ll hear them in the newspaper. They do happen.

His eyes look heavy. He rubs his mustache.

I am writing furiously and with a deep scowl:

But the kgosi. Doesn’t the kgosi disapprove?

Even the kgosi believes in African Traditional Religion. Bontle, it is our custom. There are probably 9 or 10 traditional healers even in Kumakwane. Not all of them do these things. Actually very few. But it does happen.

And the kgosi says nothing?

Mr. Eltnolep thinks for a minute.

Yes, sometimes they are called by the kgosi. When there is a missing person all the traditional healers will be called to the kgotla.

We read of these things in text books and novels. We learn about them and they sit in us and stay there. We hear about them from a colleague and they become more real. Not quite real but closer to real. That thing inside of us gets heavier.

And, one day, out of no where… that Thing becomes all too real, all too fast.

We’re hiking a mountain in Thamaga and it’s 8 in the morning. The peak is made of giant round boulders stacked on top of one another like children’s toys or abstract art. Some of the boulders have made a cave and we slip into the shadows there where our echoes whisper and the light grows dim.

Lee gasps.

As my eyes adjust I see them. Candles and egg shells and pieces of bone. We touch these things and they silence our echoes. When Lee turns over the bone she finds it covered long, deep etchings. From a knife. she says.

I hold the pieces of bone for a very long time. I pray that I am wrong.


I leave the door open to the guidance and counseling office when I’m collatingsurvey results or typing my site report (PC requirement during first months of service). Teachers and students pop in throughout the day to talk with the lekgoa or ask me for a pencil or sometimes just smile at me. I smile back and practice my pitiful Setswana and eventually I can’t say anything else and they get tired of looking at me and go away.

Seeing a white person in Botswana is like spotting a deer on the highway. People slow down. They lift their kids up and point at it. They want to look at it. Closely. They even, bashfully, would like to touch it. If, um, it doesn’t mind.

Just yesterday I was leaning my head against the window of a combi and little fingers from the seat behind me began stroking my hair. I considered turning around and telling the child to stop but then she started absentmindedly singing and the hair-playing kind of felt good and so I relaxed and let her pet the deer. I was amused. And kind of soothed.

There is a distinct shortage of relaxed affection for the Peace Corps Volunteer. We take what we can get.

I close my eyes and listen to her song and miss Everything and Everyone and am consoled.

Friday, July 11, 2008


I was interviewing one of the clinic nurses yesterday and we came to the question:

What is your biggest concern for the village?

Without a seconds hesitation she answered me:

“Water. These people need water. Without water it’s like you cannot be human. We cannot go without for these days and weeks. They need water to live.”


Despite the fact that Botswana is covered in desert most of the population are farmers who depend on water for their nutritional needs as well as their livelihoods.


When I told my Motswana friends that I’d been stationed in Kumakwane I got the same response every time:

Ah. Kumakwane. Beautiful village. They have a water problem.

Further investigation told me Kumakwne is notorious for going days and even weeks without water. I bought a very large bucket.


When I meet with the Kumakwane kgosi (chief) he tells me that in his 40 years as chief the only time the village has taken collective action is when they come together for Dikgafela, a celebration to thank God for a good harvest (i.e. the absence of drought).

A typical Dikafela celebration takes place when the kgosi calls for a vote regarding the harvest success. If the village votes in favor of Dikafela, the celebration is announced and the village gathers together at the kgotla to share their food surplus and celebrated together with singing, dancing, drinking and eating.


The kgosi also tells me that the only time the government provides employment assistance is during national drought emergencies when citizens can register for work under the Botswana’s Drought Relief Program.


In Setswana the word for rain is pula. This is also the word for money. When Motswana cheer for one another they clap their hands together and shout “Pula! Pula!”

In Setswana the phrase “Ke Tu Metsi means “I am happy” and directly translates: “I have water.”


All of this I knew when I arrived at my house with no sink, toilet or tub. All of this I remembered when, after 3 weeks, the plumbers finally arrived at my house. All of this sat nestled in the back of my mind when, after two full days of work, my toilet was finally connected to the pipes. And all of this came tumbling to the front when, upon completing my house’s plumbing project the workmen turned on the faucet and VOILA

The pipes were dry.

Kumakwane was out of water.

For the first time I tasted this thing they had been expressing to me. This need. This urgency. Pula.

From the Mouth of Babes

So the Guidance Counselor (my counterpart) was off at a workshop all last week and I got to take her classes. The first day I flopped and taught bizarre lessons where I couldn’t find the chalk and the students didn’t have writing utensils and everyone spoke to me in a ridiculously high-pitched voice (this is how they think Americans talk—I am greeted at least 20 times a day with “Hiiiiii” said in such an offensive, nasally way that it makes me cringe).

Okay, so Tuesday. Tuesday I get my footing back and I remember I’m planning for 50 African kids, not 10 ESL kids and things go a bit smoother.

By Wednesday I’m on a roll and the kids are asking me to stay for their next period and I’m contemplating how to engage them when – bingo… I remember The Peace Corps Assessment Survey. Perrrfect… I’ll distribute a questionnaire which will lead to discussion which will lead to more integration which will make up for the Monday-flop. Yee-haw.

So the first 21 questions of the survey are meant to get their wheels turning by having them rate (on a 1 – 5 scale) the quality of teaching, parent involvement, staff respect, exam preparation, food nutrition, access to resources, information dissemination, corporal punishment, etc. etc.

Once they’ve fully contemplated several aspects of their school’s quality they are then asked:

“In your own words, please write a few sentences describing
how your school experience could be made more positive.”

I administer this survey to over 300 students and spend the weekend reading through their profound and often heart wrenching responses. They describe their beatings, being insulted by the teachers, going days without food, being denied extra help in their classes, etc. etc. Fortunately these concerning comments are scattered among a number of amusing complaints and your typical high-school-kid concerns like: “I wish I could talk with my friends more.” and “Why can’t we spend all day in the computer lab?”

So in honor of these 300 Burning Little Soles I thought I’d share with you some of my favorite comments from their surveys. Naturally, these are anonymous. You will notice that many of them are still perfecting their English but it appears that sometimes those who must resort to simpler language have expressed their thoughts in an even more profound manner.

I have selected the most amusing and powerful comments from the bunch.

* Building new toilets which use water.
* Teachers should not beat students for minor things like laughing.
* Being accepted as I am and not as I should be.
* There are teachers that like to shout to us when they get in the class they say we didn’t bathe.
* Our tradition should change and we should have friend who are boys.
* Students should be beaten on the bumps.
* Teacher should punish for a reason.
* Giving us more food and removing beans.
* Teachers should not tell students that they are stupid.
* Bring more experiences and buying one of each a laptop.
* Discipline could be enforced because students are seriously out of control.
* I think we should be treated at daycare centers where students use computers if we want (please).
* The stick is not solving anything so they should reduce beating.
* Teacher should be more friendly to us and always give us help when we need it even if they don’t like us.
* Teachers should beaten us in the hands almost every day.
* I think the school should be rebuilt again.
* Something that can make school better for me is no clean-up the school.
* Teachers should stop chewing gums when they are teaching.
* Watching television or playing which will help our being free from stress.
* Knocking off from school at 15:30.
* Teachers should mind their language when talking to students.
* By employment toilet cleaners.
* Change of school uniform to a more brighter color.
* Entertainment.
* Changing school stationary.
* Have more security so that thieves cannot store anything in our school.
* I think teachers should attend guidance and counseling classes on Tuesday and Wednesdays.
* Teachers should stop calling students with nicknames.
* More classes and toilet doors.

And, my personal favorite…

* If there was food and allowed to have girlfriends, I will rejoice.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Make-Shift Alarm System

July 2nd, 2008

So, despite my steady progress in acclimating to this village a few challenges remain.

I’m great at peeing in a bucket, I can cook a whole meal by lantern light without cutting myself and my record for counter-top-dishes-washing is 45 minutes with just 3 trips to the water spicket but…

I can’t sleep.

There are noises Everywhere in this village and not the normal rooster-cow noises of my training village… no, in Kumakwane there are dog fights, donkey carts, brawling men and last night I heard a goat being slaughtered. Plus my cement walls and scant furniture let off ungodly echoes which wake me up terrified from the slightest creak.

Kris assures me this is Normal for my First-Month-Alone-In-Africa but I’ve never had trouble sleeping and it frustrates me a bit.

Then this past weekend I round a corner with the insomnia-plague: I sleep two full nights waking up only once (and I think I was roused by malaria nightmares vs. robber-noises). In any event, it was clear that I was adjusting to my sleep conditions and I was reassured of my own adaptability…

And then

And then my land lady comes knocking at my door tonight. Teloc. I greet her with a smile. Nice to see you—how did you pass your day (blah blah formalities) and then she says she’s looking for a level one of the builders left in the house (along their their magazines, jackets and a random brick, I think to myself). Anyway, we start scoring through the rooms and cant find the level and so we get to talking and she feels bad about my water/electricity/furniture shortage and I tell her it’s fine and we find the level and she’s about to go but the door is stuck from the broken hinge and she says OhTheHingeIsBroken in a voice that makes me nervous and the door pops open and she’s gone.

I don’t think too much about this Tone Of Voice Thing until she comes back two hours later with her groundsman. Teloc is in her bathrobe and the groundsman is scrutinizing the door and there are half-washed dishes all over my kitchen so I’m getting impatient but Teloc seems determined and then she starts talking.

Listen, the groundsman is going to fix this door and I want you to know I’m getting burglar bars for your windows—that’s my next project. And I want you to get some heavier curtains…

She starts checking my windows and I ask her if there have been a lot of break-ins in the area and she makes an ambiguous noise and starts talking about how the neighbors don’t have electricity so their house is dark and people might hide alongside my house and theirs and I start to get a little nauseous feeling and then

then Teloc starts hefting my gas tank against the front door.

Now, just so the picture is clear in your mind: My Middle Aged Bathrobed Landlady Is Hefting My 80 Pound Gas Cylinder Against My Front Door.
The cylinder is as tall as me and scary-heavy and she expects me to push this against the door every time I enter the house. (Mind you, I go out for water about 20 times a day)

Teloc and her groundsmen agree to come back tomorrow to work on fixing the door hinge in daylight (‘when it’s safer’) and I say goodnight and close the door and stare at my gas cylinder. The dogs outside start fighting on cue and I brace myself for another sleepless night.

(since writing this entry the burglar bars have been installed and the front door has been fixed… breathe, mum)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Snapshot of an Ocean

This is a paper I recently submitted to my advisor-- part of the last few bits of my MPH requirements.

It's long-ish but gives a good picture of PC in Botswana and what I'm actually doing for work these days.


Just about two years ago I was sitting behind a desk in a Boston office building. I was five years into a career in International Education, working my way up the corporate ladder and filling up my resume with promotions and experience. I had taught in China for a year and returned to the States where I dove into an administrative position for international English schools. After three years I finally had my dream job in marketing that would allowed me to work creatively and travel all over Europe, meeting students and agents from around the world.

I felt successful, challenged, productive and yet completely unhappy.

I couldn’t stop thinking that something was missing. In China I had taught English to wealthy children all day and then walked home through streets thick with poverty and sickness. Now I was shmoozing with international business leaders in swanky hotels, completely shielded from the countries and culture that surrounded me. I was restless for something.

Two years later I’m sitting in a cement house in a tiny Botswana village. I’m exhausted, dirty, homesick and yet completely happy.

Peace Corps service puts me at a grassroots level where 33% of this population is infected with AIDS and the need is unmistakable. Despite my 43 credits in International Health Courses and my two months of intensive pre-service training, I feel incredibly small against the enormous tasks of HIV prevention and youth behavior change. Even so, I am eager, motivated and urgent.

At Boston University I took a course in HIV/AIDS where the professor told us that this disease would be part of our careers whether we wanted it or not. Epidemiologists, teachers, lawyers, social workers, statisticians—whatever we chose as careers in international health—HIV/AIDS would be there waiting for us. I remember this professor for his candidness and yet his determination.

I also remember sitting at a house party a week before I left for Botswana and someone drunk and laughing at my impending assignment: “It’s like you’re trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon.”

This is my teaspoon:

Every morning I wake up at 5:30 and shiver through a bucket bath. I walk to school in time for the 6:50 bell when 350 secondary school students file into Assembly. I stand with the teachers and watch the children sing their morning prayers. After this I work.

I hold interviews with teachers and administrators, observe guidance classes, attend school clubs, visit local NGOs, arrange meetings with village nurses and speak with the village chief and his development committee. I walk through dusty streets and use my broken Setswana to chat with locals and shopkeepers about their concerns for the village. After work I buy dinner at one of the tiny tuck shops and make my way to my house across town. “Across town” is just a 30 minute walk through a population of just 3,000 village residents, most of whom work at the fields on the outskirts of town. I had asked for a small village where I could work on developing my language skills and so I’m quite pleased with this assignment. Once I arrive home I spend the evening typing a report and assessment of my community: its strengths and weaknesses, its stakeholders, its change agents—its potential.

The Lifeskills projects have one purpose: to strengthen the capacity of the school and community so they are better able to prevent HIV infection among this generation of vulnerable youth.

Three months from now I will finish my community entry report and begin to initiate intervention projects in line with this mission. I am hoping make these projects as sustainable as possible and, as a result, will work to incorporate the ideas and assistance of the 24 school teachers, 9 staff and 5 administrators at my workplace. One of the many Peace Corps slogans is “If you’re working alone, you’re doing something wrong.” I’ve explained this concept of capacity building and sustainability to every person I’ve interviewed and they seem eager to become involved. It is incredibly motivating to finally step out of the MPH student role and start seeing the reality of this public health philosophy and jargon.

Unfortunately, the reality of public health in the third world can also be incredibly discouraging:

The Guidance Counselor tells me that eight teenagers have become pregnant in Kumakwane in the past six months. The NGO tells me they are currently servicing 212 OVCs, nearly a tenth of the village population. The nurse tells me she sees endless cases of HIV positive women becoming pregnant again and again: increasing the rate of transmission and multiplying the orphan population.

Although I’ve been in this community just a few weeks it is evident that I have my work cut out for me these next two years. Fortunately, I have an amazingly supportive and motivated village community as well as nearly 100 fellow volunteers (nation-wide) to assist and encourage me. In the Lifeskills program we are just 12 people comparing notes and brainstorming our way through education bureaucracy and a bizarre culture. The other Peace Corps Botswana programs include the District Aids Coordinators, Community Care Based Workers and NGO Volunteers. All of us are here to drain this ocean of AIDS. We are terrified and overwhelmed every day—we are crossing our fingers that our work here has an impact on this horrible epidemic and its rising trend line.

Fortunately the government of Botswana is extremely active in promoting the social welfare of their citizens. Peace Corps was invited to Botswana in 1966 (the year of their independence (from Britain) and stayed for nearly 30 years, assisting with development work and general health care. In the 1990s the United State government decided that Botswana’s economic and population health had stabilized and Peace Corps assistance was more urgent in other countries of the world. We withdrew from Botswana then, but not for long.

In 2001 the Botswana president requested that Peace Corps return to his country to assist in developing strong HIV intervention and prevention programs. At that time over a quarter of Botswana’s citizens were HIV positive and infection rates were rising. Peace Corps agreed to return and assist Botswana in managing this vivid health crisis.

In April, 2008, my group (“Bots7”) joined the 50+ volunteers already serving in Botswana. We began as 61 volunteers varying in age, gender, professional background, gender and marital status. About 20% of our group is senior citizens, 10% married and 30% in their early 20s. I’m smack-dab in the middle at 28 which is actually a nice place to be for connecting on some level with everyone.

Unfortunately, in just 2 and a half months our numbers have already dropped to 53. Most people have left us for family emergencies and medical complications. Two of our volunteers ET-ed (early terminated) just after site placement. They told us they did not feel they were well suited for Peace Corps afterall and we were pleased that they made their choice to leave before their communities formed a connection and dependency on them. Still, there’s a certain “family” element to our group and it was hard to see them go.

After school this evening the Deputy Headmaster asks me if I’d like to take a walk with her. We pace through long stretches of farmland and greet the string of villagers as they make their way home from work. For the first time in a week I have a conversation with someone about politics and family instead of health and prevention. I know that “building relationships” and “inspiring trust” are meant to be my goals here but somehow I forget all that and just focus on walking with this woman-- this friend. When I come home I feel more invigorated and alive than I have in months: this social connection filling the spaces where my professional energy wanes.

Peace Corps is working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week but it is also living. It’s a balancing act between pouring into your community and finding the things that fill you up and keep you going.

Sometimes it’s analyzing village health data and sometimes it’s taking a long walk with a boss who feels more like a friend.

Either way, I’m surviving this and enjoying the challenge. Behavior change, language learning, cultural integration and community assessment are all enormous tasks but coupled with meaningful work in a gorgeous community, are also inspiring.

I dip my teaspoon and begin.