Thursday, April 30, 2009

To Be Heard

I recently submitted this piece for a Peace Corps story contest…

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 Boston exactly 365 day ago.


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:


“Dear Jessica,

I give you these flowers.  We have been friends since you came.

From Soma”



I’d trade a standing ovation and ten bottles of champagne for the feeling I had when I read that note. 


I Belong.

I Fit.

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

In My Absence and Your Departure

It’s just camping. I’ve gone camping a dozen times since I’ve been here and there have been parts of this experience where normal day-to-day living felt more like camping than anything else. Still, it’s Easter weekend and I’m excited for a trip with 10 friends to northern Botswana.

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.

Mice and Easy

I used to work for an ESL school in downtown Boston. One of my most vivid memories from that school was “The Mice Day” when the office was invaded and I found myself perched on my desk and screaming hysterically.

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.

Ohmygodohmygodohmygod…whatdoido?... whatdoido?

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

It works!

The mouse (or, perhaps more accurately, Rat) races around the room and out the door and is gone

And I

I am left shaking on top of that chair and compiling the next strategies…

Call the landlady.
Buy mousetraps.
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


The recent entry “On Love and Loneliness” quotes a conversation between three d i f f e r e n t people. Holly and Brad’s thoughts are not mine. Mine are actually quite opposite of theirs.

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

Standing Still

So a crazy thing happened last week. I got Bored. Really Bored. And it didn’t go away. And hasn’t now for 2 weeks.

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.


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.