Monday, June 29, 2009

Three Questions

Someone recently asked me three challenging questions regarding Peace Corps. Responding to them required quite a bit of self-reflection and I think the answers might give you a peek into some of what I’m experiencing out here…

*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

The Relevance of my Irrelevance

Every day I have moments when I have to step out of myself and decide if I’m doing it right.

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

Ke Teng – I Am Here

In Chinese the word for “foreigner” directly translates to “outsider”. In Setswana the word simply means “other”. Still, I feel more outside in Africa than I ever did in Asia.

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.”