Wednesday, December 2, 2009
An hour and a half later we had scaled the rock face of Otse Hill. We had also learned that the “hill”-designation was a phenomenal understatement. Three thousand vertical feet had brought us to peak after peak. When we were certain we’d conquered our “hill” there was another summit, cresting in the background. We huffed and puffed and pressed on. At some point we agreed to stretch our distance so the rock landslides we unearthed wouldn’t keep tumbling onto the person hiking in the rear. At another point I stopped looking down to keep our steep vertical from giving me vertigo.
At last we peaked. The summit held the pride and exhaustion and splendor that mountaintops are famous for. We turned in slow, panoramic circles-- gasping at the dramatic expanse and absorbing the landscape in silent awe. The pictures muffle its depth and quiet the colors. Still, we remember the majesty of that vibrant green ocean and the way it impressed upon us a sense of being very strong and infinitely small. All at once.
Dappled in that exquisite landscape were Images that have come to mind
A monkey’s glare. A summit sign reading “wisdom”. Two frightened deer. A crystallized rock. And a very small hut that sat at a peak, adjacent to ours.
Maybe these things have significance. Maybe they are nothing but garnish. But I remember them now. And I remembered them Then. Then. Just two days later. When our world crashed and spun and slammed us harder than we’ve ever known. And when everything stood still. When we were small. Smaller than a breath in all that vast terrain. When we were practically nothing at all. Then.
Jessica you should have asked someone!
I did—we stopped in the village in Otse and asked for directions.
But what did they say!? They just let you go?
Well, yeah. I mean, they looked at us like we were kind of crazy but I just thought that was because it’s so high. You know—it’s the highest point in Botswana.
They looked at you like that because it’s cursed!
Lesego, I really don’t think—
I’m telling you. You’ve heard the story of those two lovers who went up and never came back.
But Lesego that’s just a story.
No it’s not. It’s cursed and now you are too. That hill is the place where our traditional healers get their power. That’s why. You shouldn’t have gone there. You should have asked first.
Lesego, I think you’re overreacting a bit. It was fine. Really. We are fine.
But you should have asked. Don’t ever do that again.
At first I can’t stop hyperventilating. I’ve never hyperventilated before and I find myself fascinated and disturbed by the sound. Still, I know I am not hurt and so I watch it play out. Like a spectator. A bystander who clasps her hand against her lips and tries to keep her eyes open.
For all I knew it took an hour. Time crawling like that. At first sadistically. And then, it seemed, to help us.
I remember blackness and scrawls of light. I remember Mari steering frantically. I remember hearing my name called and I can’t answer.
When the car stops I manage to breathe again and Mari says: There is blood in my mouth. And she says it over and over. And I’m scared and there are people everywhere. At all the windows.
When we get out of the car we hug each other and look at the damage. Our audience confirms that we are not hurt and then shouts at us to collect our things.
They are coming now! They are going to rob you! You must remove all your things from the car! Quickly!
Mari leans against the hood and breathes and asks about the police. A tow truck arrives. I find lip gloss and passports and cell phones and pens. They have stolen our leftovers from the restaurant and a package of gum. I find this sad and confusing.
The other car is also smashed but he’s walking. People tell us to sit down but I can’t help feeling like there’s something I should be doing. A man in the crowd catches my eye and I lock on him. He is soft. He says he will take us to the hospital. After the police come.
And so the police come. There are blue blinking lights. There are x-rays. There is a mechanic’s shop. There is a car rental company. There is a neck brace.
There is Mari in the gate, looking weak and exhausted. Hugging me goodbye.
There is an airplane.
Three days later I am feasting with a group of volunteers. Turkeys and pies and cocktails and cigarettes. At the end of the night we lie in the yard and stare at the stars. My neck is throbbing but I am elated.
Someone decides we should honor the holiday by sharing about the things we are grateful for.
The funny kid says turkey. The sentimental says all of you. Someone talks about their family. Someone describes their village. I look at my arms and legs and I breathe in and out. I’m thankful for that. I say this and people nod and sigh and do not understand.
There are bruises all across my pelvis from the seatbelt. I have been on pain medicine for a week for my neck. I have trouble sleeping and exercising because of the ache.
I also walk and cook and laugh and teach and lie on a blanket with my friends feeling enormously grateful.
Were we cursed or blessed?
Maybe neither. Maybe both.
Maybe we were just reminded of our size. Our infinite irrelevance. Our source of respect.
Three thousand feet above sea level.
360 degrees and spinning.
It is good to feel small. It is right.
Monday, November 30, 2009
The farmers and cattle have their own, far more noble, reasons for rain-relief. I, on the other hand, am just thrilled to have hardened sand beneath my morning run.
On Friday morning I left at 5:15, as always, jogging towards the pink sunrise. This has, and is, and will always be one of my Most Serene Spaces: privacy in a giant expanse of twisted trees and drifting cattle
and a horizon freshly painted, just for me, every day.
Today I’m gliding over dirt paths and the storm’s misty residue. It’s been 20 minutes or so when I come upon a giant smoking tree. The sight is so unexpected that I run past and spend the next ten minutes rationalizing it.
It must be a method of clearing the land, I reason. Certainly a farmer is close by, prepared to control the burning and later chop up the tree for firewood. I pace on with uneasy resignation to this explanation.
Or, I tell myself a mile later, or it was some type of traditional worship… some healer is carrying out a ceremony or burning the bush for a medicinal concoction. Maybe the smoke is to dry out herbs or perhaps the ash is used in some type of curative mixture.
I am exactly half way through my run and the reasons seem weaker with each step.
Turn right to finish the loop or turn back to retrace my steps and find the tree.
I check my watch. 5:45. The stillness is profound. Too early for farmers and healers. And too far out.
I turn back.
This time when I approach the tree, its smoke has turned to giant flames. I advance to see that the trunk has been torn in two splintered halves. The gash is nearly vertical—attesting to a tool quite different from an axe or saw. I feel the spongy, wet earth beneath me and remember the storm. There is lightening in this tree. And it is very much alive.
The tree’s torso lies in a long stretch against the earth. I consider the surrounding bush in all its dry growth and thick vegetation. Bush-fire stories feel haunting and real. My house and neighbors feel close.
And so I begin.
Giant fistfuls of wet sand crash into the flames. Over and over I lean to collect the dirt and quench the tree’s blaze. At one point I pick up a fallen branch to chip away the smoldering bark. It falls to the ground in black chunks—sizzling into the piles ash.
I alternate between the sand strategy and branch beating for ten minutes before the flames dissolve and the smoke is controlled. I step away to survey my work and see finite success: the tree sits stifled and grey, yet still pulsing with energy. Small remains of embers and smoke appear to taunt. The potential for another ignition seems more than likely.
I check my watch again: 5:55. I can be back to the village before 6:15. If I sprint 6:10. People will be awake by then. I can tell someone.
I remember that the closest fire station is 40 km away in Gaborone.
I remember that my landlords leave for work at 6:00.
I remember that the neighbors speak only Setswana.
What’s the word for lightening? I know fire. I know tree. But how do I say burning? Should I call the Kumakwane police?
I am calm but anxious. Perhaps I was in the right place at the right time but does Fate stop there? Certainly people have taken wrong measures in those right places. Certainly I’d be held accountable if acres of bush burned down.
But Fate didn’t stop there.
Just five minutes after leaving the tree I come across three men walking towards their cattle post. This was miraculous for the following reasons:
1. I have been running this route for over six months and have Rarely seen another person in the lands before 6:30.
2. Most Kumakwane farmers are older and illiterate – these three men were in their 20s and spoke fluent English.
3. The majority of those who work out in the lands do so alone—herding cattle or repairing fences or collecting firewood. These were three.
4. And they had a shovel.
On Saturday morning I return to the lands with Heather and Tim. They stop to take photos of dawdling cows and enormous centipedes and bright red sand bugs. When we finally come upon the tree we find a farmer busily hacking at the stump. He has even pulled his truck into the bush to collect the massive trunk and branches. I greet him and he looks up with a smile.
A rain storm and a truck-full of firewood all in one week: a farmer’s paradise, I think.
How wonderfully bizarre to have participated.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
People groan about the travel, but softly. There is An Awareness here. Zimbabwe and South Africa bulging at the seams and straining the borders. Election days go differently there.
On Monday morning the Deputy School Head stands before our student body and nearly shouts the words
“Not one drop of blood was shed!”
I stare at her poised there with pride and passion. I feel the significance. The students are encouraged to be proud of their nation’s stability during these elections. They are also persuaded to work towards lives that sustain and promote Botswana’s unique and profound state of peace.
Several times each month I engage in the Getting-To-Know-You banter with Batswana. Americans have their own set of traditional inquiries on employment, the weather, family, etc. The Batswana nearly always ask me the same string of questions:
Which country do you come from?
How long have you been here?
What are you doing here?
What do you think of our country?
In response to the last I typically comment on Botswana’s natural beauty or the warmth of the people. And they nod and reply:
“Ah, and we are peaceful here. A very peaceful nation.”
Botswana was not a colony of Britain, it was a protectorate. It earned peaceful independence in 1966. It has never had a civil war. Its 8 major tribes reside in harmony and tolerance of one another.
At some point in my service I began to take advantage of these facts. I got bored of people telling me how peaceful Botswana is. I numbed to this predictable praise.
And then Election Day came and went as every other day has in quiet, sunny, serene Botswana. And then I looked at my map again: Zambia pouring frightened refugees. South Africa still on the mend from apartheid. And all the horrors that sit and stir in the wake of Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya
“Can you believe this?” Hael says out of nowhere.
I look up from my book.
She’s bright from the light pouring through the bus window. And from Something else.
“I just can’t believe we’re sitting here, Living in an African country—and with these elections… right now there are elections going on. And nothing, nothing at all. Just another day.”
We sit there like that. Half comprehending the novelty. Attempting to sense the weight of These Things.
The bus window flashes light and dust and green. We watch it. We feel grateful. Or as grateful as we can - two privileged, sheltered, curious American girls, learning perspective. And the importance of an absence. And the value of a Stillness.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
“Mma Charles… you have changed! You look so nice now--- so white!”
Color and shades are significant here. Since everyone has black hair and black eyes, skin tone becomes crucial to identity. In my first months people I met kept referring to others as “that black one” which left me completely baffled as I stared into the sea of black faces surrounding me.
Even more confusing was the opposite. One day I was attempting to check out at grocery store when the manager directed me to “that cashier there… the white lady.” I scanned all 8 tills before turning back to him for help. “Right there baby—the white one… you see her there.” I most certainly did not see any white people anywhere. Eventually, he brought me down to the third register and deposited me in the line where I found a female cashier with light brown skin. This, I learned, was African’s “white”.
Ofet is a “black one”. No mistake about that. He might be the darkest boy at our school and this deep complexion makes his teeth and eyes glimmer in the perpetual smile he’s always donning. Ofet flirts with the girls and makes his classmates laugh. He comes to club meetings and sits in the back row cracking jokes with the other boys. When I glance at him he bites his lip and slaps his neighbors quiet. He is one of the few boys who greets teachers with full formality (hands clasped, small bow, “dummella mma” “dumella rra”).
I don’t know Ofet as well as other students but I like him. His energy and charm are impressive. The sweetness he preserves in popularity is rare.
On my first day back someone handed me a program with Ofet’s image on the front page. The photocopier had been broken and left ashy lines across the white and turned Ofet’s face into a shadow. Though too dark to see his features, the shape of that black silhouette was unmistakable. The program trembled slightly in my hands so I put it down on the desk and waited. The others waited too. Eventually someone took the program away.
On the far stretches of the village, beyond the lands there is a large sand pit. Rumor has it that the man with the permit to this land had been meant to use it for agricultural purposes. People were surprised, therefore, when the man began digging up the sand with giant cranes and trucking it out of the village to be sold. Surprise quickly turned to frustration when the massive trucks began polluting the village with dust storms and noise for long hours each day. Over time this frustration became anger when the trucks gained momentum and went tearing through town leaving pedestrian villagers terrified for their lives.
I don’t know what comes after anger but I’m sure, whatever it is, it sits there now and waits to explode.
The week before I returned the rains began. Giant heavy drops in the south and massive balls of hail in the north. In Serowe the village was destroyed by hail storms but in Kumakwane we dealt with the expected: soggy paths and restless cattle and dirty donkey carts and the return of myriad mosquitoes.
On the first day the sand dunes grew damp and hardened. On the second they began to fill. On the third they were deep enough to swim.
And it was the weekend. So the kids went swimming.
In the 18 months since my arrival two of my volunteer colleagues have rescued drowning children from pools.
The vast majority of Batswana children do not know how to swim because a) their country is land locked b) rivers and lakes are thought to be cursed by witchdoctors so no one swims in them and c) the nations pools are usually restricted to expensive hotels and upperclass back yards where Batswana children rarely find themselves.
People don’t talk about the details here. It’s taboo. If I asked they might tell me but I spare them this discomfort. All I know is that Ofet went swimming with a group of children at the sand dunes. When he started drowning no one was a strong enough swimmer to save him. They watched him drown. And on October 6th, they buried him.
Before I left for Peace Corps my advisor asked me if I was ready for all the death I would see in these two years. He was preparing me for this plagued continent. He was referring to HIV and, at the time, it scared me.
HIV doesn’t scare me that way any longer. Now there are bigger ghosts. Negligence. Poverty. Alcoholism. Logistics. Carelessness.
The causes of death here are so casual. So shockingly simple. Sometimes they can be explained and many times they cannot. Accidents without fault. Consequences without cause. People slip away and the grieving comes and goes. Not insincere but also not prolonged. How could they bear to fully mourn them all?
The first time a student told me they’d rather have HIV than TB I looked at her with such horror that I’m sure she was embarrassed. Later she explained to me that tuberculosis kills you quickly and with HIV you can live for years and years.
With the government providing ARV therapy those years have now turned decades. HIV doesn’t look so bad compared with the other options. Most days you can hardly see it at all.
Sometimes I get frustrated over the lack of urgency I see towards the crisis of HIV. I rue the international donors for inspiring Botswana’s dependence. I question my own presence and how it’s limiting local investment. I teach impassioned classes on HIV prevention where the students stare at me blankly.
But how can I blame them? Their classmates and siblings are dying of drownings and asthma and car accidents and all manner of tragic, startling cause. Meanwhile, their mothers and fathers are going to the clinic every month to pick up free medicine and free foodbaskets and living well into their fifties.
It’s more shocking than depressing. The thought that those who make it past HIV have so many other hurdles to cross. And the thought that so many of these hurdles are easily evaded. Preventable.
I am a Lifeskills Peace Corps volunteer. I teach HIV prevention.
But who teaches the rest? The Life-Stuff: swimming, crossing the road, dealing with an emergency…
Maybe we started in the wrong place.
Maybe we’ve been too narrow.
Seven months left of service. Retrospect enlightens. and humbles.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Thursday, September 10
5 hour lay over
Anticipating the novelty and nostalgia of home has consumed me… mildly in the impending months and then intensely these last few weeks and then desperately in the final days.
I dream of them. Romantically. Urgently. Literally. I see their faces and wake up feeling restless.
Heather’s engagement ring.
Linnea’s first baby.
Peter’s new fiancé.
We are forced to shut these things off. To be present. To be available. To be Here.
And then, one day, someone lifts the blindfold and says
It’s okay. You can look now.
And in that looking swarms a thousand shadowed emotions: stifled joy and hushed grief and the type of yearning that grows from three decades of love for a place and people and planet that turns quite well in your absence.
This is the pressing sentiment as I zip my bags. As I lock my door. As I say goodbye to the neighbors.
This swarms through me when we lift off and I look down at that patched brown desert and that hot white sun and know that This too, will be a space I miss and crave and wake up restless for on the Other Side.
This transient world. Lucky me to have arrived in time for airplanes and volunteerism and an adventure and a freedom unknown to previous generations.
Lucky me to have loved with such variety and range.
Idling between worlds and feeling the bite of bitter and the soft of sweet coloring them both.
Lucky lucky lucky me. To be nourished and to ache with such intensity.
Friday, August 28, 2009
Savid is buried inside yellow flowers and spinach blossoms when we first meet. He greets me in English and flashes a white smile that traps the sunlight and wrinkles his face deep with ebony. Savid dons stained trousers and a purple button-up shirt that holds a long tear, exposing his shoulder. These will be the same clothes I see him in every day of our impending friendship. He is the first Zimbabwean I meet in Africa.
In the beginning, Savid gave me giant fans of spinach and refused to accept payment. Over time I came to compensate this generosity with baked goods and photographs from America. One day Savid told me he loved to sing and wished he could record his voice that echoed so well in his empty little house. I loaned Savid a small recorder which he received with such joy and enthusiasm that it almost made me sad.
On Valentine’s Day the village kids were over baking and making cards for their parents when Sivad knocked on my door. I opened it to his whites and a nervous laugh as he handed me a vase filled with plastic flowers. The kids peeked out behind me as I shoveled oatmeal cookies into a plastic bag and thanked him for his visit and the gift.
Last week Sivad sent me a message saying that his wife and son were visiting from Zimbabwe and he’d be very happy if I’d come to meet them. I set to work baking treats and polished off my spinach, knowing Savid would shower me with veggies when I met him at the garden.
The sun was beginning its decent when I arrived at the gate and used the Setswana words for knocking: “Ko ko!” Sivad’ youngest son, Yule, was playing alone beneath the gate. He greeted me shyly before spearing the fence with a long twig. I’d never seen Yule before but he smiled with Savid’s shape and so I asked for his father. Yule paused his fence-assault and pointed the stick to the garden’s edge where Savid waved and headed towards us, whites blazing.
Normally, the process of learning another person stretches between years and events and conversations. Occasionally, however, there are moments when the act of experiencing another person is pressed into a very small space. All at once the blinds raise and the colors cascade and you are left with a profound sense of awe and guilt.
Sivad greets me and introduces Yule before swinging the boy onto his back. It’s late in the day so Sivad locks the garden and we head off to meet his wife.
On the way to Kris’ family gatherings I have him quiz me on names and occupations so I can make polite conversation with his relatives. As we walk to Sivad’ house I slip into this strategy. Sivad obliges and answers my questions with a frown.
Maybe I’ve missed some social taboo, I think while glancing at his clouded face. I become silent and Sivad sighs. That breath breaks off a little piece of him that tumbles out and stands between us. I wait.
“Her name is Rotiat and she is a primary school teacher. We… um… She lives 40 kilometers north of Harare. With our four children. Two boys and two girls.”
I smile and ask the names of his children. Savid sulks out four long and beautiful names. I repeat them to savor the stretched syllables and rhythmic sounds. I tell him that these names are lovely and he nods. In the year I have known Savid, I have never seen him without a smile. It’s his trademark. It’s his charm.
I also have never heard him mention a wife. Or children.
“You know, Jessica.” He sighs, looking away from me. “You know I left them six years ago. In 2003 I left them because of That Man. Since then I have seen them one time in 2005 and one other time: now.”
Yule bounces on Davis’ back and giggles, still swaying his wooden sword.
“I have suffered, Jessica. I cannot return because That Man… he hates refugees. When there is a problem he will kill us first. He will blame us. And these little ones” he squeeze Yule’s legs, “These ones are wiped out. Like nothing. Just destroyed… I cannot put them in that danger. And so I am here.”
Savid’s pace grows slower and more labored with each sentence. I “tsk” and shake my head from side to side and reach up to smooth the back of Yule’s shirt. Savid swallows.
“Last month my wife sent me a message and told me our oldest daughter is pregnant. My baby girl. I did not believe her until she came here and told me in person. You have not seen me this past week, Jessica. But I have been bad. So bad.”
As we approach the compound I see three very small stone houses, turned into one another to form a square. The fourth edge is a rusty bar-front with the windows boarded up. Teenage girls stand in the house’s doorframes, holding their brooms and staring out at me. I greet them and they watch me in silence. Blinking and blank. My presence confusing them.
Savid’s house is one very small, dark cement room. It is smaller than my parent’s bathroom in America. In the corner there sit two small pots and a shelf that holds tea and flour and a jar of peanut butter. The single window drops light onto a chair and a thin sofa where Rotiart sits folding blankets and beckoning me to come inside.
As Yule crawls onto her lap Rotiart and I begin to make small talk and become comfortable with one another. When we have discussed the children and her job and my family and the weather I ask her how she and the children are doing with the situation in Zimbabwe. I ask her I she feels safe.
Rotiart sighs and exchanges a glance with Savid.
“We are not very safe there, you know. We hear things. They are close to us… even now. And we have heard that He wants to reintroduce the Zimbabwean currency, can you imagine? How can we live? There is no economy.”
“The Rand,” says Savid. “The Rand is strong. That should be where we move but That Man is just terrible. He will give us nothing.”
Rotiart’s eyes sparkle with rage and fear. “You see that there?” she says pointing to the peanut butter jar. “How much do you think that costs there?... two dollars!” she exclaims holding up her fingers, “Can you imagine!? For one jar.”
I look at my bag from the garden overflowing with spinach and onions and carrots. I have spent 8 Pula or $1.10 to buy enough vegetables for an entire week. Half a jar of peanut butter in neighboring Zimbabwe.
“That’s all they know is dollars,” says Savid. “There are no coins so everything is a dollar… a piece of fruit… a loaf of bread… all one dollar.”
We continue to discuss Zimbabwe’s shattered economy and political leadership. Savid and Rotiart swing from enraged to despondent and back again. When the conversation lulls, Rotiart offers me paleche which I know I should accept to be polite. But I look at that peanut butter jar and shake my head and apologize.
“Next time, Rotiart. I should be going. It’s getting dark.”
Out on the road Savid and I walk in silence and I look at him out of the corner of my eye. The last arc of orange has slipped behind the treeline and the twilight turns him grey. Whites stay hidden behind his lips.
“They go on Sunday, can you believe it? She tells me Yule has school starting on Tuesday and they must go.”
Savid’s visit with his wife and son will be 9 days long. One and a half days for each year he’s been away from them.
“I am thinking this must change. They must come to me or we all must go or…” his voice trails off in the narrowness of options.
When we reach the road’s end I persuade him to leave me and return to them. He nods and touches my arm lightly. Before turning he flashes his whites and I see a glimmer of the man I knew before, inside the darkness of the person I know now.
It is hard to touch people here. It is harder to be touched. Language and culture and wealth form walls that I climb but cannot cross.
Until today, Savid was the garden-guy. The Valentine smile. The bloke singing himself to sleep.
Those whites are distracting.
Produce and sunsets. And Savid. I’ll miss Savid. The outside he always donning and the inside he opened today.
On my walk home I pass nurses from the clinic and students from my school and the tuck shop owner and the neighborhood kids and my landlady. I know their names and their jobs and the way their eyes sparkle when they smile. I know their houses and their hair-dos and their voices.
I know nothing.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
But as with all social welfare programs, there are exceptions. The exception at my school are those children who have not been orphaned. The poor without excuse. These ones are left.
The PACT club can name these kids and want to donate the funds they raised at the beauty contest towards buying school uniforms for them. At first I find this unsettling. What if we miss someone? What if it becomes a popularity contest? What if the kids feel embarrassed by being singled out?
My concerns are listened to and promptly ignored. The PACT kids make a list and the guidance counselor narrows it down. By Friday I have a paper with 5 names.
The students are called to see me during tea break. As they enter the guidance office I am hit with a thick and pungent odor of sour sweat. I beckon them to sit, but they stand-- nervously staring at me.
The school has just ended two weeks of exams and this week the students are being punished for the tests they failed. Most teachers administer a beating for wrong answers. Since Botswana’s Ministry of Education only allows 5 strokes for each punishment, the teachers go question by question. A student with 10 incorrect answers could receive 50 strokes in one class. I had spent most of the week consoling the kids and passing out bandaids.
“Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.”
Ten eyes move back and forth across my face. The tallest boy relaxes his shoulders. I look at him and smile.
“Thapelo. I need you to translate for the others, okay?”
He nods and looks at his feet and laughs: this is novel.
The students line up to show me their uniforms. One girl’s jersey is ripped at the elbows and tattered around the sleeves. Another boy’s trousers reach only to his shins and are deeply stained. Several of them don’t have button-up shirts or sweaters at all.
I write the sizes and their requests. Thapelo translates clumsily.
“Ask them which item is most important. If I only have enough money for one, which do they need the most.”
After a few minutes I finish the list and look up to dismiss them. They stare back at me with deep and serious eyes. Five of the smallest children at our school. Tiny from malnutrition and manual labor and stress. They wait for me. I take too long. I stall. For no reason. Or maybe for guilt. Or maybe for hope. As though there were anything I could do in that square room and pinch of proximity.
When the door closes after the last, I sit there in something of a residue. The paper in my hand feels light. Like air.
After a few minutes I smooth out the paper and wipe my face. I walk into the hall where the space is white and stable. Where 340 bodies dilute the scent of a few and all my senses dull.
In Botswana kids raise funds with beauty contests.
You’d be shocked how many beauty contests I’ve seen in this country. One at school, one at the mall in Gaborone, one at the preschool… I’ve been invited to about 20 others. At some point I started declining because I couldn’t bear the blatant superficiality. Plus, the outfits are just offensive. Truly, no 14 year old girl should be prancing down a runway in a mini-skirt and halter top. And if you think that’s a conservative view, consider the cultural dynamics.
How to explain youth and sexuality in Botswana…?
Maybe the clearest example of this tension was demonstrated by the host family I lived with during training. If you remember, my family had 7 kids who all loved to sing and dance. Every day I’d come home from training to find the group of them jumping and shaking and spinning around the living room to African music videos on tv (yes, they had a tv but no running water).
One day I arrived to find the kids particularly enamored by a South African video where the super star sang a 30 second chorus and spent the rest of the time thrusting her body around in a green half-shirt and tight go-go shorts. As the video played, my four sisters shrieked and giggled and talked excitedly to one another. At some point I found myself watching 15-year-old Naillil. When she noticed my attention she replied with a guilty glance and said: “Ah - these girls are beauty. But they bring shame to their families in those clothes.”
So entertainment culture poses an interesting juxtaposition here in Botswana. On the one hand people are fascinated by the flashy media images and sexy modern entertainment but on the other hand there remains this very conservative, traditional undercurrent that makes the whole scene risqué and controversial. Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in the beauty contest.
And so this is the dilemma that comes crashing towards me in the first PACT meeting of last term.
“Mma Charles can we please, pleeeeeeeease have a beauty contest this time…?!”
I’ve heard the same plea for three terms and each time managed to dodge the request by suggesting other fundraising ideas. Last summer we had a cinema and drama event and the term after that we made and sold jewelry out of magazines.
“But you said we could this time. Can’t we? We’ll do all the work. We’ll work Really Hard! We can raise money for the poor people.”
Sigh. I’m doomed by my affection for all those pretty black eyes and big smiles.
I agree to help them put it together and they cheer and I say:
“No shorts! And No Mini-skirts!”
And they scowl but get over it and run off to find CDs so they can start practicing the parades.
Two months later I’m sitting in the music room and the kids are blasting American hip hop songs from our one radio attached to our one working socket.
The 10 contestants have been perfected their parades but are frantic over the outfits. The older and wealthier students have torn apart their houses to find jeans and dresses and shoes to fit the poorer girls. As always, I am impressed by the sense of community and the willingness to contribute that is such an integral part of this culture.
I’ve follow their lead and done my part by donating three pairs of high heeled shoes to the event. The girls wobble around in them and practice kicks and twirls while I sit in the back and silently pray that no one falls over and breaks their ankle.
When the day of the contest rolls around all the ankles are still in tact but just about everything else has gone wrong.
- Three of our 10 contestant are an hour late due to mothers, aunts and neighbors fretting over the quality of their hair-dos
- The local radio station has come to MC the show but just told us there will be no guest musician (as we advertised to the village for the past 3 months)
- Parents are protesting that the candy sales prices are too high
- There’s a broken door in the back of the school hall where children slip into the performance without paying
- The traditional dance group and three of our sports teams have made it to the nationals and are away for competitions this weekend—depleting out audience by hundreds.
- One girl has started crying because she’s decided she’s simply too shy to answer the social welfare questions that will be posed to the contestants after the final parade (but not, apparently, too shy to parade around in a dress in front of 400 audience member…?)
- Of the five student performers who have agreed to dance and sing between parades only two of them have CDs that work in the radio station’s equipment
- Two teachers have arrived to help with the show but I get call after call from the others expressing their regrets.
- Each time the student MC announces a parade the girls shriek from the dressing room and complain that they need more time (this is due, in large part, to the one mother who’s managed to sneak into the back and is giving meticulous attention to the task of sticking feathers and beads into her daughters hair)
- Oh, and I’m sick. Sicker than I’ve been in years. Sore throat and fever and chills. I’m popping cough drops and pain killers and stomping out all these fires and kicking myself a million times for agreeing to this.
Still, we survive. The contest runs from 2:00 – 6:00. The feather-girl wins and the smallest contestant comes in second and the girl with a learning disability comes in third. My friend from Gabs (my favorite taxi driver) rescues us by arriving in MC-Hammer garb and lip synching to songs between parades. The radio station finds a guest speaker to present about drug and alcohol abuse. The girls all manage to answer the health questions at the end of the show. We raise 600 pula.
This event took place back in June but I was so sincerely traumatized by the accompanying mayhem that I’ve been hesitant to write about it. Since then I’ve sworn off helping to organize big events and to ever attend another beauty contest in my life.
But then yesterday we had our last PACT meeting of the term and I brought in photos from the contest. The kids circled me, squealing and shrieking and laughing at the images.
“You are so beautiful in this one!”
“See, in this one she looks like an princess!”
“Oh her body is so nice—So Nice!”
“Those shoes matched the dress perfectly!”
“Your answer there was great… see how you’re moving your hands!”
“Ah—that one… that one is just lovely!”
And so I go the Half-Full route and decide that, despite my attachment to perfection, the day was not a complete wash.
For one, the contestants felt pretty-- that in itself is an achievement for a teenage girl. And they did get practice thinking through questions like “Why did you join PACT?” and “How can you help to improve the health of your community?” and “What is the biggest challenge to Botswana’s social welfare?” Plus, we raised money and the kids who weren’t competing got experience with leadership and event-planning.
“Mma Charles! Next term we should do a Beauty Contest with girls AND boys!”
She flashes me a giant smile and runs her fingers through my hair and says
Oh, and they also learned how to be desperately charming and dangerous convincing. I’ve recorded it all here in case I’m tempted to succumb again.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
You think they’re hard to manage in your life? Try dealing with all those normal frustrations, confusions and miscommunications and then adding a pinch of cultural relativism and a dash of language barrier and a fistful of societal quirks.
Voila… complete mayhem!
So I’ve had my fair share of maddening moments with the opposite gender in this country but last week was particularly harrowing. In this man’s defense it is only fair to give you a proper preface to Batswana Love Dynamics… after which I’ll let you decide if he’s is
b) A Stalker
d) Desperately in love with me
Now, I can see you reflecting on my phenomenal character and famous good looks and instinctively leaning in to circle letter (d) but allow me to sidetrack you for a moment with a brief review of romantic societal norms in southern Africa.
So, first, a cultural lesson.
Then the story of Baba a.k.a. The First Man Who’s Made Me Feel Irresistible and Irate All at Once
To the American mind, Botswana’s love culture is a land of phenomenal ambiguity. It begins with a language that uses the word “rata” to mean both love and like. In turn, without proper context, the audience who hears you exclaim “ke a go rata!” might not know if you’re referring to zeal for a passionate lover or fondness of a warm plate of semp and dinawa (just about the most unhealthy conglomeration of carbs, oil and protein you can fathom but a Damn Tasty Dish… I rata semp and dinawa thata!)
Alright so the language thing seems minor because how many times have you bellowed out “oh I LOVE this song!” and moments later hung up the phone with your hubby citing the clichéd yet affectionate “love ya!” Sure, there are ambiguities in English too but, for some reason, the manifestation of this love elusiveness is far more influential in Botswana.
The first time I noticed it was during a class on love and dating where my teenage students were asked to explain their understanding of a number of words relating to the theme.
What does it mean to have a “crush” on someone?
It means you love them but can’t have them.
What does it mean to “date” someone?
It means when you’re in love with them and take them out to get to know them more.
What does it mean to “be dating” someone?
It means no one else can love her because you agree to only love each other.
Then there was the day when the teacher women took the village women to the kgotla for a court case in front of the chief. The village women had been threatening to hurt the teacher women… and why? Well, I asked one of the teachers and she said:
“You know, these male teachers just love everyone. They have a wife but they go out and love the village girls and then they come back and love us teachers and it creates problems for everyone.”
So “love” sometimes gets a bad rap here in Botswana. And it’s also frequently degraded to the level of flirtation wherein a man can meet you once and get your number and then text you the next day “I love you. When can I see you again?” Last weekend a friend of mine was dancing with a man in a club in Gabs and he leaned in and said “I just love you!” (that was a record - we toasted tequila to his remarkable efficiency)
So aside from semantics the other thing to understand is frequency. Now, as a seasoned American flirt, I can pitch with the best of them when it comes to dating etiquette and appropriately Playing The Game. We all know, for example, that you don’t call for 3 days after the phone-number-exchange and you always let the phone ring twice before picking up (so as not to seem too eager). You also never admit to being available both weekend nights (despite the fact that you’ve bought a pint of icecream and planned to watch the Rocky movies marathon-style if he fails to ask you on a date by Wednesday). Oooo, that’s another one—no accepting dates on a Thursday for a Friday… who the hell does he think he is calling less than 24 hours before we’re supposed to go to the North End for a fancy romantic dinner?!
Ahem—where was I?
Frequency, right. Okay, so maybe American dating-norms are a bit too prudish or arrogant but image yourself in a land where No One Fears Looking Desperate… Can you picture it? Well, allow me to illustrate the oddity… this is male behavior that is, not only tolerated, but also encouraged…
- Hounding her friends for her contact information and personal details
- Sending her text messages that liberally use the word “love” mere hours after you’ve met her
- Rapid-fire calling with little attention to the fact that she keeps rejecting your calls
- Sappy voicemail messages not once but THREE times on the first day after meeting
- Continuing this barrage of contact efforts for a full two weeks despite the fact that she responds to NONE of the calls, texts or messages
This was Baba’s routine from July 4th – 14th to my great dismay. The friend who had drunkenly passed on my contact information refused to reveal herself which was smart on her part but infuriating to me. Still, I had seen this routine go down with friends in the past and figured that enough ignoring would eventually send the message.
By the 10th day I was sincerely impressed with his persistence and a little annoyed since my voicemail box kept getting filled and my text message beeps kept going off in class. Still, I was determined to wait him out and not succumb to the gnawing urge to pick up the phone and scream “Leave me alone, you freak!” (I’d been warned that negative attention often backfired and the playing-hard-to-get interpretation tended to mask even the most candid of rejections)
So, day 10 goes like any other day: I go to school, I come home, I go for a run, I come home, I cook dinner, I go to bed. With one Glaring Deviation…
When I come home from my run I find a little blue note slipped under my door:
“Hi Jessy. I just stopped by to say hi. This is my number. Hope to see you soon. ~ Baba”
I am flabbergasted. (I think flabbergasted is a word that’s used too freely in normal conversation but I assure you this was warranted…)
For one, Baba lives 30 minutes from my home which means 50 minutes at rush hour. Helluva hike at 6:00 at night.
Then there’s the fact that he found my house which means he was driving around the village asking people where the white girl lives.
And THEN in the awareness that, had I not been out on a run, I would have had to face this guy and do what... freak out because he’s acting like a stalker? Demonstrate cultural flexibly and invite him in for a cup of tea? Refuse to answer the door? Sound my hand-held-rape-blow-horn?
So, yeah, I was a little shocked and also a little unnerved. I called a few friends who got me to relax by reminding me of Batswana dating norms but then also encouraged me to relay the details to the Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer “you know, just so it’s on file… just so he knows…”
I never neglect and opportunity to contact the incredibly-attractive-and-protective Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer (you might remember him from earlier blogs) so I call him and he asks a number of questions and takes notes and tells me to send a single, direct message to Baba saying that I am not interested in seeing him again and that his texts, calls and visits have made me feel uncomfortable.
I do this and Baba stops and all is well.
Remember how in the last blog I was craving the clamor of a Boston night? This week I’m craving all those pretentious, American, yuppie bachelors in white button up shirts drinking captain and coke and playing up their best aloof posture while trying to smile at you with that air of charm and subtlety. I am WAY better at That Game.
Well, I guess it’s all part of the acclaimed cultural-exchange.
Travel has this phenomenal ability to make you crave the novelty of other-ness and simultaneously yearn for the comfort of all those things you’ve Learned and Known and Become from years of static living.
Arrogant American Boys: keep up the good work… consider it part of your cultural identity.
And Single American Girls: hang in there… things could be worse…
Sunday, July 12, 2009
I literally c r a v e the sounds of a Boston night over this village clatter.
Traffic? Sirens? Car alarms? Drunk neighbors? Melodious compared to the average evening in Newtown Ward of Kumakwane Village.
I keep expecting to get used to it. It’s been 15 months… isn’t there a point of acclimation I’m supposed to reach in all of this?!
It’s 8:32p.m. and I’m exhausted from a cold I’ve been fighting (winter here, remember) but there’s no way I can go to sleep. Why not? Well, allow me to play for you My Lullaby…
There are 7 neighborhood dogs that live within a 50 meter radius of my house. If a goat or chicken happens to wander into one of these dog’s respective territories they go absolutely ballistic. On and on. Barking frantically. Since I arrived my landlord’s dog has had two litters… her 4 remaining puppies bark with just as much zest and hysteria as the older dogs. I have come to loathe the pets in this country.
But not more than roosters. Hell No. My friend Rahj grew up in Gaborone and drives me home to the village now and then. He’s a city boy through and through and when he arrives at noon and hears the rooster he says “Woah… you have roosters here?! Do they crow when the sun rises-- is that actually true?” Uh, yeah. Sun rises at 6:00. Sure, he crows at 6:00. He also crows at 4:00, 3:13, 2:41, 1:56, 1:18… you get the point. Damn bird never stops. Batswana eat just about every species of animal… roosters are an exception. I find this enormously disappointing.
Style. Oh Style. Toothless and drunk Style. He loves to sing. He takes care of my landlady’s gardens and changes my light bulbs now and then. He loves to sing. L o v e s T o S i n g. Style sings all through the night. Competing with roosters and dogs. When he wakes up at 4:00 to heat water on the outdoor fire for the family’s baths… he’s still singing. I prefer his drunken murmurs to the dog’s tirade… but still.
Kumakwane does not have a village newspaper… or any newspaper for that matter. It also does not have a town hall, a radio station, a clerical phone line or a website. The great majority of Kumakwane families do not have cell phones. Parent and grandparent generations have a high illiteracy rate. So how does the kgosi share information with his village residents? Easy: he has a government vehicle drive through the village at 9:00 in the evening (when everyone is safely home from the lands, work, school, etc… a Captive audience) broadcasting important announcements. In the past year I’ve heard this imperious vehicle shrieking about parliament meetings, kgotla gatherings, civilian weddings, community events, court cases and funerals. The loud speakers that broadcast our local “news” can be heard all over the village. It is so phenomenally loud that I honestly believe it could sit in one central spot and be heard by all 3,400 villagers. But, alas, that is not How Things Are Done in Kumakwane. Nope. Instead the vehicle circles the village for hours at a time repeating its announcements in piercing repetition. Sometimes I use this as an opportunity to practice my Setswana listening skills. Sometimes I bury my head under my pillow and curse.
Crickets. They’re nice, right? They remind you of summer. They have that kind of purring, rhythmic sound, right? WRONG. They’re beasts. They breed in my pipes and I swear they’re getting bigger. My house is all hollow cement walls which means one thing: echoes. Such infuriating echoes! Can I justifying spending a heap of money on carpets just to muffle the sound of crickets? I develop sincere empathy for those plagued by the locust in Exodus.
My neighbors in the roundeval hut spend winter nights huddled around their fire. Their fire happens to be a whopping 10 feet from my bedroom window. Family banter is fine. Sometimes they sing and that’s actually lovely. But there are four kids and someone just had a baby. Yup, you guessed it: a Colicky Baby. And so when the baby cries and the toddler whines and the teenagers fight and the mother yells I want to bang on my window and reprimand the whole dysfunctional lot. God, can you image there was a time when all the village families were that transparent?!
Sigh, alright 8:47. Fan time. Ear plug time.
Who’d have ever guessed that of all the things to miss I’m sitting here craving the raucous commotion of a Monday night in Somerville…?
(And here you’d hoped I had something profound to say ;)
Monday, June 29, 2009
*What are some things you wish you’d thought about before going into the Peace Corps?*
This is a great question and one I had to think about for a while. I guess I wish I’d thought a bit more about the implications of leaving for 2 years at 28 verses my one year trip to China at 23. These two travel experiences have been VERY different and I didn’t realize how much harder Botswana would be due to length of time and the life experiences I’d be missing.
When I was in China I really felt like things stayed the same at home. There were minor changes but, in general, I came back to the same world I left. I remember thinking several times when I was in China that I missed my family but I had so many friends in Hangzhou that I didn’t really miss my friends.
Botswana at 28 is quite the opposite. Since I’ve been away I have missed 3 weddings, my sister’s engagement, the birth of 5 babies, and my grandmother’s death. Also, eight of my friends got pregnant and I’m going to miss 5 of their baby’s births. More Life Events happen when you’re 28 then do when you’re 23 and it’s very hard to be so far away when your world is being re-written in so many ways.
I don’t regret that I left. I don’t regret that I’m here. I love Botswana and this experience is changing and improving me in ways I never thought possible. But there are sacrifices.
My sister’s been engaged for a year and I haven’t seen her ring or hugged her. I’ll never be a part of her wedding planning. I’ll never be able to go to her bridal shower or shopping with her for dresses. I also didn’t get to say goodbye to my grandmother and when I finally do I’ll be talking to a headstone. I wasn’t able to be there for my family when they were grieving her death. I didn’t get to celebrate my 1 year anniversary with Kris. These things are big. Huge. These are things I sacrificed for a career choice and a personal growth experience. And most days they are worth it. And some days they are not. And I wish I’d thought more about that before I left.
*Things you wish you’d known before leaving for Peace Corps*
I wish I’d known how to protect my computer from viruses. And I wish I’d brought more music and movies. Now, in lieu of the last question this answer might seem very superficial but I think it’s something that should be said and I think it’s something that people Don’t Say because they fear the implications of media-escapism. Well, yes, tv, movies and music are fairly mindless ways to spend your time but here’s the thing: you need it. Very few Peace Corps volunteers are placed in urban sites which means the bulk of us find ourselves in small, remote villages where we don’t speak the language and relationships are difficult to make and harder to develop. You are a person like me who craves long, deep conversations and meaningful relationships. So cooking dinner with my colleagues is fun and taking walks with my neighbours is great but at the end of the day it’s me in a quiet room, in tiny house feeling Lonely. And to be honest—loneliness is alright. It’s good in many ways because it slows you down and gives you time for self reflection, creative expression, exercise and sleep. I really believe that this loneliness and boredom has put me in the most healthy psychological/physical/emotional and spiritual state of my life.
It’s still loneliness. There entire days I don’t speak to anyone. Last week I went to bed at 9:00 every night. Today I haven’t left my house and don’t plan to. Some of it is a choice to just escape cultural awkwardness and some of it is not. Either way, at the end of the day when I’m feeling homesick or frustrated with language or in need of a good long chat or just phenomenally bored—it is really nice to put on a movie or some music. And I don’t think it makes my experience any less profound or effective… frankly, I think it keeps me sane. That and running. But I knew that about running before I came. I wish I’d brought an extra pair of running sneakers.
*How do you feel about the experience now that you’re there?*
Hm. This is very broad. I think a lot of my understanding of this experience will come in retrospect but at the moment I feel quite good about being here. I really love Botswana and this has surprised me since a flat dessert with boring cuisine and dry history was not my ideal placement for Peace Corps. I had envisioned war-torn Cambodia or dramatic South Africa or delicious India… Botswana had only come up once in my MPH studies as “a place with a lot of AIDS orphans”. Aside from that I didn’t know the first thing about Botswana and I think that has made it all the more amazing to be here. Someone said it so perfectly to me once… they said:
“You were placed in Botswana because you never would have come here on your own… you’ll visit Kenya and Uganda and Tanzania at some point, those countries are on your ‘to do’ list… but Botswana never would have crossed your mind… and now you get to experience it so fully.”
Whenever I get envious of Peace Corps volunteers serving in West Africa or South East Asia I always think of that and feel better. And so, yeah, I’m happy I’m here. I’m happy I’m learning about grassroots international public health work. I’m glad I’m learning the value of solitude. I’m relieved to learn that my friends and family haven’t forgotten me. I’m proud to see I can survive here and learn a language and handle rats and deal with bucket baths and survive without a buzzing social network.
God, I feel like I could talk about this for ages but I guess to answer your question, yes, I feel good about the experience. It has not come without sacrifices but I think it has been worth it for what I’m learning about my career choice and how I’ve been able to experience a different version of life and of myself.
Friday, June 19, 2009
Is this project sustainable?
Am I capacity building?
Does this contribute to the stop of HIV?
Are they acquiring skills?
Am I too involved?
Will this make a difference?
Every project gets analyzed a million times. Every intention dissected.
International public health work forces you to struggle with your humanity. Maybe all acts of charity do but here it is so palpable. And persistent.
My human (and American) flaws make me proud. They make me success-driven and results-oriented and in need of praise, recognition and control.
At the same time I’ve got this engrained ethical code that compels me to Empower: to inspire my colleagues, to strengthen my students, to raise role models. To build the capacity of this village. To teach risk reduction they can practice and develop knowledge they can use to examine behavioral patterns and societal norms. To transfer skills that can enhance their professional lives and arouse compassion to provide more care for their families and community.
To leave something.
Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I find myself knee-deep in the latest child-rights-drama-performance and wondering…
Why am I leading this alone?
How is this making any difference in HIV prevention?
The social worker had invited us to the “Day of the African Child” Celebration in Mmankgodi. All I had to do was get the 30 kids to put on a drama about protecting children’s rights.
Piece of cake. We started planned. We held practices. We made costumes.
Somewhere in the middle of all those preparations I realized that I didn’t have the slightest bit of drama experience, nor could I understand the bulk of the Setswana script. I also didn’t know any songs or even the history of “Day of the African Child.”
What the hell was I doing?
This was A Mistake. No doubt about it. I was committing the carnal crime of international development work:
I was leading a project alone—without local leadership. And without proper skills.
Bad bad bad volunteer.
But sometimes the universe throws you a bone.
My big break was a workshop that took me out of the village for a full week.
At first I was frantic and narcissistic…
How will they practice without me? Who will lead? What if they have questions?
I wrote detailed notes.
I assigned a director.
I scheduled practices.
The kids nodded and smiled and assured me that everything would be ready when I returned from the workshop on Monday. I bit my thumbnail nervously. The drama was meant to be performed on Tuesday. In front of 600 people. Mmankgodi was providing transport and food… what if it didn’t work out? I’d be held responsible (pride)… I’d look like a failure (success-driven)… I’d be criticized (need for praise, recognition, etc.)
I shuffled off to my workshop and, for a week, resisted the urge to call into school and see how things were going.
At last the workshop ended and it was Monday. I showed up early to school. The kids said they’d missed me and there had been some fighting and one practice had gone badly and they weren’t sure if they were ready. I squeezed their shoulders and reassured them and quelled the anxiety rising in my voice. Our last practice was scheduled after classes, from 3:00 – 5:00. We were leaving at 7:00 the following morning.
By 4:00 they had finally all gathered in the music room and I was checking my watch in an obsessive compulsive rhythm. But in the middle of all that nervous tension I started to notice changes…
For one, the drama had been totally revised. My idea had been replaced for a plot more closely aligned with the day’s theme.
The script had also been re-written… by one of the students.
The student teacher—Mma Tuwe was standing in the corner. She had been supervising all the practices since I left. No one had invited her—she just saw a need and started coming.
And there were other colleagues in the room too. There was Pegosotso, a volunteer from a local NGO. She had been holding a special lifeskills session with our guidance classes when she heard about the drama. She started coming to practices and in the past week had taken on the much needed role of their leader and director.
Matching t-shirts had been donated from the drama department.
A black curtain was on lend from the science lab.
The drama instructor made an appearance to guide them through the songs and choreograph their last dance.
The guidance teacher watched from the door—encouraging the younger students with smiles and cheers.
Surprise was not the word.
I was elated.
All these professionals were working together. The students were fully invested in a project that they’d created and developed. The school departments were offering support with props and supervision. I’d never seen this type of cooperation and community at my school. Or anywhere in my village, for that matter.
I sat on a desk in the back of the music room and watched the play unfold and the facilitators respond. I smiled when the kids looked back at me and applauded when the curtain fell. I surrendered all of those human, American, Bostonian tendencies and just
Humility is often painful and occasionally rewarding.
I knew that the only reason these people had worked together so completely and so passionately was because my absence had left the need. I was grateful for this. And embarrassed.
We’ve turned the corner on our service. Just eleven months left.
What will remain after I go?
What will I have inspired?
What will I have left?
What will grow in my absence?
I loosen the grip ever so slightly and—to my surprise—things balance perfectly without me.
Maybe part of my impact on them will be felt in the process of fading.
Maybe part of their impact on me will be recognized in this blaze of their strength.
I have a long list of goals for this final year.
Perhaps the most valuable will be, simply, my disappearance...
Friday, June 5, 2009
Being Always Outside can be infuriating—especially after living here a year.
- Why do the cars still stop me on the road?
- Why do the children still ask me for money?
- Why do people incessantly touch my hair/skin/clothes?
A new Peace Corps volunteer arrived in Kumakwane today. Twenty-five year old black kid from Georgia. Looks remarkably like my village neighbor. I smile at him and offer to show him around and try to keep the jealousy from creeping into our get-to-know-you banter.
Just once I’d like to be invisible here.
But the outsider label is not always negative. Being invisible has its perks. And one of those perks is that you are, quite simply, Not Real.
At first being Not Real made people feel safe to gossip with me. I know who’s sleeping with whom, why the computer teacher fought with the Setswana teacher and which school administrator is thought to be developing a mental illness. I also know why the village women hate the teacher women (yes, sex—everyone’s favorite cause of chaos) and which students take condoms from the clinic and who was being reprimanded in the Headmaster’s office last Monday.
I could continue. Despite all the loneliness of this life I cannot complain of boredom: I feel like I’m an extra in a soap opera every day.
But, then, of course there is evolution.
It may have been hitting the one year mark. Or perhaps they saw that I was finally comfortable here. But all of a sudden the gossip developed into something far more serious. And far more concerning.
They started confiding in me.
Maybe this kind of pain exists everywhere and I just don’t see it because I’m always a member of the Involved Inside instead of the Neutral Outside. Maybe this country holds an immense ache that goes ignored more times than not. It would take me a long time to explain to you why I have this sense of a deep distrust between Batswana but I feel it intensely. A distance from one another. A guard.
A student once submitted a paper to the question box that read:
“Why do all girls hate each other?”
In an interview with the social worker she told me that, yes, rape cases do happen but mostly go unreported:
“Even when the parents know they usually just ask the perpetrator to pay them money and then everyone forgets about it.”
Everyone knows I was an English major in undergrad and got my Public Health degree in post grad. They know I am not qualified to give them anything. But still, they come. Because there are so few places to go. Because they are overflowing with these things.
- A student lingers outside the office. I call her in and she closes the door. Rubs the back of her neck. Looks out the window. Bites on the end of her pen. She has come to tell me she’s a lesbian. And that she’s afraid. They publicly whip homosexuals here. They believe such behavior is “of the devil". She wants to stop feeling this way but she can’t make it go away.
- In the empty computer lab my colleague’s eyes water as he’s recounting the story: that party where his best friend told him There Was Talk. Gossip about his promiscuity. Concerns about his reputation. He hadn’t had a partner in 2 years. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of it. Or the implications. Or the threat.
- We’re sifting through paperwork and chatting about the weekend when she tells me she’s not sleeping. We discuss diet and stress but it’s neither. Her mother died of a sudden stroke just last year and now she cant stop thinking about her own death. She’s deeply concerned about having her will authorized. She’s 43.
- She stops me in the hall at 5:00. I’m exhausted and running to the store for milk so I can make it home before dark. But two hours later she’s still sobbing on the desk about the discomfort. Discharge and itching. She’s had it for two years now. We go to the clinic the next day and the nurse tells her she must ask her mother to bring her to Thamaga for an appointment with the doctor. And she sobs and sobs.
I am carrying a dozen more stories like these. More as of late. And the sources more shocking: people I rarely talk to coming to find me. Spilling everything.
I research homosexuality and grief counseling and STDs. Stress, insomnia, promiscuity, domestic violence, neglect, bullying… I distribute ridiculous little stacks of highlighted pages from the internet. And I say my prayers every night. And sometimes in the morning. And sometimes between classes.
I am coming to believe that the way a language develops its greetings can reveal immense truths about the corresponding culture and reality.
In America we ask “How are you?” and we answer “I am well.”
In China they ask “Have you eaten?” and they answer “We have.”
In Botswana they ask “Where are you?” and they answer, quite simply,
“I am here.”
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Amazing vacation on the Greek Islands with Kris. Feta cheese and olives and seafood and sunsets and the ocean have never ever tasted so good. I spent a lot of time staring at Europeans with their blonde hair and long cigarettes and fast walking fast talking fast living pace.
I was mildly culture-shocked but mostly with the minor details:
The newspaper is just one giant sad story.
There are no black people in Greece.
Waiters become sincerely distressed when you order red wine with fish.
A cocktail in Greece costs as much as a week’s groceries in Botswana.
Spending an entire day with someone I love brings a forgotten flush of happiness.
The decent into Botswana on Sunday morning was dreary and stale. I looked out the window at that long brown desert and felt the thick of loneliness and solitude and difference rise into my throat. The other passengers filed off and I waited in H3. Preparing. Or maybe just delaying.
I’ve been back for three days. Pushing through sluggish hours. Counting weeks on the calendar. Tolerating small talk with neighbors. Fabricating excuses for solitude.
It is hard to come back to this un-life and un-home that is my life and my home but not. Just not.
Tonight I go out for my run at 5:00. I’ve just returned from a sexual abuse presentation by the Ministry of Health to the students at my school. The presentation adds to my sour mood and I plan interval training at the track with the hope that adrenaline masks my depression.
Eight laps before the footballer villagers take over the track and field. I scowl at them and head toward the bush.
I’m 40 minutes into the run before I lift my head. I don’t realize I’ve been staring at the dirt like that until I see my edges mingling with the air and color and energy that Is Botswana.
At the time I knew I’d never be able to write it but here I am… trying anyway…
A family files out of the bush in one long line. Women carrying firewood on their heads. Children walking barefoot. The father greets me with weathered skin and gentle eyes.
A donkey cart trudges through the sand. (Sometimes Batswana greet with gestures instead of words) The old man swings his whip in a circle over his head. His wife cracks a wrinkle smile at me and pulls her shawl up to her chin.
The sun sets beautiful in Greece but even that glittery ocean and seagull sky cannot compete with a Wednesday night in Botswana.
Botswana is the only place I’ve been on the planet where the entire sky—all 360 degrees of it—holds kaleidoscope color. Every cloud streaks paint. Even the sand turns orange and purple in the fading of a day.
Botswana feels like an old lover who turns his head just so in the light… or laughs with a tone that sparks your nostalgia... and there you are staring at him and feeling a closeness and an urgency you thought you’d lost.
I’ve been back for three days. But tonight I came home.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
In the first three months of service my sole responsibility was to perform a community needs assessment. This involved holding interviews, administering surveys and organization hours of observation. At the end of the third month I had a 100 page site report and an enormous heart ache.
Botswana is not like other African countries. In my village there are satellite dishes and painted houses and well-fed dogs. Of course there are also shanty houses and roudeval huts and poor children. The difference is that even the poor families are taken care of by the federal government. Destitute families receive food baskets, OVCs have their school fees paid and when drought assaults this dessert, there’s a job relief program for the country’s many farmers.
Botswana takes care of its people. Still, the nation’s rate of HIV is 2nd highest in the world with nearly 33% of the population infected. 1 in 3.
And so this is the reality I thought I had stepped into: politically stable Botswana with an economic safety net and a wealth of diamond revenue. Perfect storm for my mission: to build the local capacity towards achieving effective HIV prevention work.
But even before my second foot had landed, things began to change.
It started with the student’s needs assessment at the school where I’ve been stationed. Just a simple survey with 21 quantitative questions and three qualitative questions. Clean language. Straightforward themes. Easy work.
Or so I thought.
When I had finally collected the surveys from all 340 students I began to tabulate the data. What I found were a plethora of disturbing facts that characterized these children’s reality.
The data confirmed that children were not being fed enough food. That teachers were being physically abusive under the guise of legal corporal punishment. Young girls were involved in relationships with staff members. Teachers were insulting and embarrassing their students publicly. Many classes were missed regularly by teachers and, as a result, the student’s academic scores were dropping.
When I distributed these survey results to the teaching staff they immediately began flipping through the pages and mocking the student’s complaints. Later, in their private interviews, many teachers explained to me that they could not be “open” to their student’s personal needs. They didn’t have time. They didn’t have energy. With hundreds of students, monthly exams, and extra curricular obligations… how could the personal be met without sacrificing the academic?
The teacher support-system was clearly absent. So where did these children get mentorship, supervision and care? I began to ask questions about other areas of their lives.
The great majority of Batswana citizens subsist off small scale agricultural work. While this makes many families self-sustainable it also keeps parents away from their children for months at a time. As the parents leave the village to plow, weed and later harvest the family land, children stay behind to care for the home and attend school. Many children are left alone in their homes for nearly half of every year.
Closed teachers and absent parents. In my first month of service it became abundantly clear to me that the children in my village had little to no support system outside of their peers. This had enormous implications for their emotional health but further ramifications for HIV prevention and risk reduction. No role models, no adult supervision, no personal accountability and no one to listen. If these children weren’t given a platform to voice their physical need for food or their legal concerns about abuse… what else was not being said? What other needs were being neglected?
When I was finally able to tackle some of what I’d recorded in the needs assessment, I first went to the school’s PACT Club. PACT stands for Peer Approach to Counseling Teens and the group of students meets twice each week. The PACT group in my village, however, had been inactive for nearly two years. The problem? Enormous student interest but no teacher facilitator.
At our first meeting we talked about what it means to “Counsel Teens” and how we, as a group, might do more to help our peers. Students suggested recruiting more PACT members, presenting on health themes at morning assembly and referring troubled students to the guidance and counseling teacher. We wrote these ideas on the board and made a plan for each strategy. Once we had flushed out their ideas I suggested something that a fellow PCV had started in her village: A Student Question Box.
The PACT members seemed intrigued by this idea and over the next few months we established a system for the Question Box. First, the idea was presented and approved by the administration, then it was announced to the student body and, finally, the box was placed in the school lobby. In the first week we received nearly 50 questions and the PACT students worked together to answer each inquiry. Questions and answers were then reviewed by the school’s headmaster and posted in the court yard for the student body to read.
The system worked well but was not developed without difficulty. In the first week, for example, teachers protested the box for fear that a complaint would come in about their class or their teaching style. In response we announced that all personalized questions and complaints would be given to the school administration and not posted publicly.
Then there was the issue of position. Where could we place the poster so students could read it without being chased away by teachers? And who would monitor the posters so they weren’t damaged by other students. The PACT club brainstormed solutions to these questions and eventually created a rotating system of poster-monitoring at lunch and tea times.
Finally there were the questions themselves. Some weeks there were too many to answer. Other weeks the questions were too difficult to answer. Some weeks the administration got upset because there were too many questions about dating and not enough about academics.
We dealt with each hurdle as it came. A Question Box Committee was formed. A peer-support training session was held for PACT members. A deal was struck with the administration so that theme that appeared more frequently (such as dating) would be reported to the guidance teacher so she could arrange special classes and guest presentations on these “hot topics”.
The question box has been in place for nearly 8 months. It is, by no means, a solution to our student’s problems but it is a start. And it has given them a voice.
In 8 months we have helped students cope with a number of issues arising from problems such as bullying, gossip, homosexuality, physical abuse, pregnancy, sex, hygiene, corporal punishment, teacher respect, family pressures, academic challenges, self esteem, etc.
The students concerns have helped to inform the establishment of new school rules and teacher accountability as well as the topics for the school’s weekly health themes. A number of students have come to the guidance office for help with issues they had voiced anonymously through the Question Box. The village social worker was contacted and asked to set up a weekly meeting with our school’s guidance office so she can meet privately and regularly with students who needed her services.
The school’s staff is still suspicious of our “dangerous” little box but the accountability it has laid upon teachers and the voice it has given students is invaluable. We will deal with suspicion and fear if it means that more students will be helped and more PACT members will be trained on peer counseling.
HIV prevention work involves, foremost, risk reduction. I cannot be certain that my students are protecting themselves from HIV but I do know they have started to talk about a number of their life risks and receive advice and strategies for coping with those risks.
Each week our little box fills up with deeper questions and more urgent needs. I can only hope that one day the pain and need inside this box will subside. Until then, we collect on Mondays, answer on Tuesday and post on Wednesdays. One week at a time.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
The village kids always come to greet me on my way home from work. Lately they’ve developed this routine of hanging around and asking to help me prepare dinner. It’s adorable. They peel onions and measure water for the rice and carry the scraps out to the chickens. After everything is prepared and boiling away on the stove we play Go Fish and Uno in my livingroom until their parents call them home for supper.
I love this routine. I look forward to seeing them. It’s nice to come home to someone. Or many little Someones.
Today was my one year Peace Corps anniversary. I flew out of
The kids didn’t know this. I almost forgot myself until I was walking home with two enormous bags of groceries and watching the sunset and greeting the villagers and marveling at how familiar this has all become in just a year.
As I approached my house the kids ran up laughing and squealing.
“Look, Jessi! Look!”
On my porch there sat four flowers that had been placed on top of notebook paper. The paper held giant pencil letters that read:
I give you these flowers. We have been friends since you came.
I’d trade a standing ovation and ten bottles of champagne for the feeling I had when I read that note.
I am Here.
I am Happy.
And a little boy who doesn’t know what day it is or why my eyes are watering has wrapped his arms around my waist and made everything Perfect.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Jenah and Aaron are two Kenyans who have lived and worked in Pikwe for 16 years and offer to bring us to their private camp site on the Letsibogo Dam. We load up their truck with tents, sleeping bags, groceries and booze. We arrive at dusk on Friday.
It’s hard to do the experience justice so I will simply say that it is true that absence can illuminate affection. And remind.
I have not seen a body of water in one full year. Rivers, yes. Ponds, yes. But this was no pond. This was an enormous pool, no less than 100 miles in circumference. Gorgeous in its breadth and with the garnish of picturesque islands and exceptional serenity.
We set up camp on a ledge overlooking the banks and facing the sunset. In three days we see two wedding parties and one family picnic. Otherwise the view and peace are completely ours.
Canoeing, hiking, jogging, fishing, grilling, drinking… everything a camping trip should be.
Still, there were moments when I caught them stopping mid-task to stare out and breathe the beauty and experience that unexplainable human fascination with water in its vastness.
I spent Sunday morning crossed legged on a rock for several hours. Feeling all those things that can never quite make their way to us in the absence of nature and stillness. Maybe you were there with me. Thirty five relatives in a room where I should have been and where you were leaving us. We say goodbye in different ways. And in different places. I sat in my Paradise and you in yours and things aligned.
Not a mice fan.
Not at all.
So what occurred after That Mice Spotting was very predictable: the rest of the office girls start screaming, the boss comes in and makes fun of us, the exterminator is called and POOF the mice are gone. End of story.
Ohhhh the things we take for granted. To think that I am n o s t a l g i c for that experience in light of tonight.
Tonight I go through my normal routine. Cook dinner, clean dishes, study Setswana, write some emails, etc. It’s 9:00 and I’m ready to settle in for my favorite dessert of cornflakes and sugar (blissfully forgetting my once-upon-a-time decadent American desserts) when all of a sudden a little face peeks out at me from behind a living room chair.
I am instantly weak with fear. It’s strange. I feel my whole body get frail and queasy. I put down the cornflakes and start pacing the house.
I continue this for a while and then realize I really DO need to do something or else I’ll be forced to spend the night atop my coffee table.
And so I strategize.
It’s phenomenal the things you’re capable of when you don’t have any alternatives. I am certain in America I’d be shrieking and calling for the neighbors. Instead I do the following:
I close the door to my bedroom and bathroom.
I open the front door of the house.
I take the mattress off my bed and prop it on its side between the livingroom door and the front door.
The mattress makes my living room into a kind of corral so that when the mouse runs it will be forced to circle the room or run out the door. I’m banking on the hope that fear makes it choose the door.
Once I’ve set up this route I need to find a way to scare the mouse out of his hiding place without inducing my own terror. Again, I strategize:
Okay, the mouse is behind the basket.
(Cripes that’s a long tail… is this a rat!?)
I can poke it a bit with this long stalk of sugar cane.
I can avoid getting in its path by poking from on top of this chair.
And so, here is my horrified climax and your amusing image:
Me. On a chair. In pajamas. Clutching sugar cane. Poking at a rodent.
To my great surprise and relief
The mouse (or, perhaps more accurately, Rat) races around the room and out the door and is gone
I am left shaking on top of that chair and compiling the next strategies…
Call the landlady.
Check for holes.
Keep sugar cane on hand.
Eventually I dismount and settle back into the sofa. I feel quite proud of my controlled hysteria and methodical resolution. Still, I prop my feet off the floor and check behind the couch eight times before resuming the cornflakes.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
To paraphrase, I believe that, while some relationships are finite, many are not. And although I sympathized with Brad and Holly who felt like they were “losing” relationships back in the States— their experience also helped me see and understand how fortunate I am to have such an enormous network of supportive and reliable friends.
My experience in Peace Corps has done nothing but magnify the strength and consistency of my relationships at home.
I am so sorry if any of you misread this entry. It was meant to express gratitude, not fatalism.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
This has been a very peculiar experience for me as “boredom” is not a state I’ve ever experienced in great length. I’m American. I’m Bostonian. By definition that means I construct activity and stress and action as though my life depends on it.
Dinner parties, house parties, birthday parties, the gym, clubs, girls-nights, date-nights, working late, working dinners, family dinners, trips, holidays, hiking, happy hour, movies, musicals, plays, the ballet, weddings, wedding showers, baby showers…
and that’s not all—there are the events but then there are also The People…
In Boston there are people Everywhere: work people, family people, high school people, college people, grad school people, neighbor people, gym people, coffee shop people, party people, travel people…
Oh, and now that those people have gotten married and started having babies it’s People x 2 (or in Denise’s case, 4!)
And so boredom is not really much of a hurdle back in Boston. Which means that my first quiet year in Africa has felt like an enormous SIIIIIGH.
Not that I don’t miss all those people and events madly—just that for the first time in my life I’ve had heap of space and energy and time and solitude to do My Stuff.
And my stuff has been great. Now I run every day, write every day and floss everyday. I’ve also refined my cooking skills (sorry Kris, still veg) and developed a cleaning-habit that’s teetering on the edge of obsessive compulsive (my floors will never be free of desert sand… I am not yet resigned to this).
I now can communicate at a conversational level in Setswana and I’ve spent a chunk of time exploring and experiencing a spiritual peace which I would never in a million years be able to explain to you in type (incentive for a coffee date in 2010?).
I’ve also developed an acute passion for my career in international public health and have begun to define the areas of this field that inspire me most and which will guide my job search when I return home.
So, yes, Year One has been Productive. Important. Evolutionary. And I am certain I’m a healthier and happier person now than I ever was 12 months ago.
B U T
self improvement has its limit. And I reached that limit last week. On Monday.
Suddenly, things felt stale. Same running route. Same dinner options. Same work routine.
I started sleeping more.
I stopped writing.
I started to loathe flossing.
Peace Corps gives us this “emotional map” that plots out the typical highs and lows that we will experience in our 2 years of service. Brad snorted when he saw it: “Yeah so looks like we’ll be depressed 50% of the time… thanks for preparing us.”
But the lowest low? One Year mark.
And so here I am. Right on track. Not depressed but definitely losing interest in self actualization and career epiphanies.
And so what happens when Jessica Charles Gets Really Bored?
Well, the sleeping/flossing symptoms began first but then something totally surprising happened:
The Little Things got bigger. And then beautiful. And then Striking.
It was the craziest thing and I still don’t fully understand it but it happened. It was as if someone splattered color all over my tedious little black and white routines.
And started painting…
My walk to school is 10 minutes on a flat, sand road scattered with goats, chickens and dust. I walk this road four times each day—Monday through Friday. But one morning the tiniest of the village girls came up to join me on this 6:45 trek to school. She started talking to me in Setswana and I understood her. And so we had a conversation. And somewhere in that conversation she took my hand. And we walked like that for 10 minutes.
The task of cutting an African watermelon should not be underestimated. A) they are huge B) the rind is as hard as cement C) the 2-pula-kitchen-knife has seen sharper days. So it’s 8:00 at night and I’m whittling away at that watermelon and feeling tired of the task and I consider music but I’m too lazy to find a CD and I consider just slicing off a bit but then what else am I going to do with my night so I spend the 30 minutes dicing up this watermelon but at 8:20 I start to hear something. At first I think I’m hearing things. Then I think I’m going crazy—but eventually I realize that the noise is quite real and phenomenally beautiful: my neighbors are singing. Maybe 20 of them. Something deep and gentle. It’s the end of the month so the men are home from the mines to supply the baritones. And so I open my window and the night pours in that thick song and cool air. And I polish off the watermelon to the music of a Tuesday night in Kumakwane.
Mr. Gneom is working on his 3rd master’s degree. Every few weeks he’ll hand me a paper to edit or elicit a conversation from me on the state of the international economy. On Friday I glanced over his shoulder, “Eh. Globalization. That’s a good one.” “Not just globalization.” He replies and raises the paper to read: “Discuss the influence of globalization on democracy in the developing world: include both challenges and opportunities.” He watches my face light up and kicks out a chair for me. What then ensues is a heated discussion complete with passionate hand gestures, fiery opinions and dramatic examples. Other teachers stop to listen. Mr Gneom slams the table a bit and speaks too loudly and writes furious notes. And I sit there spouting off about global politics and soaking up his energy and feeling acutely invigorated.
Since beginning our Setswana lessons Rati has requested American pizza, American cookies and American photos. Despite the fact that Peace Corps is paying her by the hour I oblige to these requests because, really, what else am I going to do with all my free time? So I dish out a bunch of food and photos for the first 6 months of our lessons in an effort to enhance our “cultural exchange”. And it doesn’t bother me too much but sometimes I wonder at the balance of this supposed “exchange”. And then it’s Wednesday night at 5:00 and I’m heading to Rati’s house for my lesson and I’m dragging my feet because, like everything else, I’m bored with lessons too. Rati and I push through the lesson and at 5:55 she stands from her seat and disappears into the back room. I check my watch and tap my feet and yawn. When Rati returns she is cradling a giant watermelon, five sticks of sweet root and a bag of maize. I squeal. Yes, squeal. There is no other word for it and I’m not proud of it but I can’t help it. I squeal. Now—appreciate this: I’m vegetarian. I live in a desert. I can only get my groceries on the weekends. I then have to lug those groceries on stuffed combis and dirt roads to get them home from Gaborone or Thamaga so, really, my shopping is confined to the weight I’m willing to heft around for 2 hours. Many a week I’ve had to forgo the apples or canned tomatoes or tuna. And watermelons? Forget it. And so I squeal.
A child and a song and a conversation and gift.
I am learning so much here. Just by standing still.