Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Periphery Prevention

I lost most of my tan in America which disappointed me but seemed to make quite an impression on my students…

“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.

9 comments:

Michael Kevin Farrell said...

Outstanding entry. This essay reminds me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Perhaps HIV prevention is at (or near the top) and basic safety measures (like teaching all children to swim) is at the bottom.

You are a brave woman.

Kagiso said...

I have been reading your entries with a lot of interest, not because I always agree with what you say but because you are such a gifted writer. I am a citizen of Botswana and obviously your views about Botswana are different from mine. I lived overseas for 6 years myself and I know how difficult it is to have a full grasp of a society's norms, culture and so forth. I would say Botswana is not mainly a "brown desert" as you always say. The south western part of the country is mainly semi-arid. There are no sand dunes in Kumakwane. Kumakwane is pretty urban because of its proximity to the capital city, Gaborone.

It's not true that 1 in 4 people in Botswana are living with HIV, may be 1 in 8. The statistics are conducted by foreigners with ulterior motives and are not always a true reflection of the state of affairs. Botswana is not dependent on international donors to bankroll her ARV therapy. Botswana has been weaned from all forms of foreign aid because of the massive wealth from diamond mining. However the majority of the population still remains poor because national wealth has not been distributed evenly among the masses, but comparatively speaking this country is far better off.

In traditional Tswana custom, sex is a taboo. You will always see blank faces when you teach 14, 15 & 16 year olds about HIV prevention. They are clueless when it comes to sexuality and even if they are not it is only culturally appropriate to display ignorance especially when they are addressed by an adult.

Jessica said...

Dear Kagiso:

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate them very much. A few responses:

I have never claimed to have a “full grasp” of Botswana’s “norms, culture and so forth. I think I’ve been quite clear about the fact that I see myself as a learner and observer here.

I do not say Botswana is “mainly a brown desert”… I often talk about the beautiful sunsets and landscape and purple trees. I find it incredibly beautiful here and numerous blog entries I have written reflect that.

Beyond Newtown Ward in the northern part of Kumakwane, past the lands and cattle posts there are large sand pits where digging has been taking place for years. They are not natural sand dunes but, rather, sand pits created by the man who obtained a permit to dig there.

I sympathize with your feeling on the accuracy of international HIV/AIDS statistics. Many people believe there are inaccuracies with this data. I referred only to the data that I have been given. Thank you for sharing your new, more optimistic statistics. I certainly hope they are more accurate than the ones I’ve mentioned.

It is true that Botswana funds a great portion of its social welfare systems through diamond revenues. It is also true that a number of international NGOs, FBOs and PEPFAR continue to donate funds to assist Botswana in improving its mortality rate and quality of life for its citizens.

My comment regarding my student’s “blank faces” was in regards to the fact that many of them have heard HIV messages over and over and have become numb to the material. I was also conveying the idea that perhaps we as public health professionals need to put energy into other parts of the children’s safety and development. Risk reduction and decision making seem almost more important than HIV prevention when so many of them are dying from avoidable accidents.

While sex is taboo in Botswana I’ve certainly had a lot of interesting and enlightening discussions with my students regarding relationships, dating, abstinence, condom use, etc. I refer to these discussions throughout my blog and I’d encourage you to read them so you can appreciate how brave and intelligent and articulate many of the students are on these “sensitive” topics.

Again, thank you for your thoughts. I appreciate any feedback on these entries. If you’d like to discuss these or other issues further please feel free to contact me at misscharles@hotmail.com

Jessica said...

Dear Kagiso:

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate them very much. A few responses:

I have never claimed to have a “full grasp” of Botswana’s “norms, culture and so forth. I think I’ve been quite clear about the fact that I see myself as a learner and observer here.

I do not say Botswana is “mainly a brown desert”… I often talk about the beautiful sunsets and landscape and purple trees. I find it incredibly beautiful here and numerous blog entries I have written reflect that.

Beyond Newtown Ward in the northern part of Kumakwane, past the lands and cattle posts there are large sand pits where digging has been taking place for years. They are not natural sand dunes but, rather, sand pits created by the man who obtained a permit to dig there.

I sympathize with your feeling on the accuracy of international HIV/AIDS statistics. Many people believe there are inaccuracies with this data. I referred only to the data that I have been given. Thank you for sharing your new, more optimistic statistics. I certainly hope they are more accurate than the ones I’ve mentioned.

It is true that Botswana funds a great portion of its social welfare systems through diamond revenues. It is also true that a number of international NGOs, FBOs and PEPFAR continue to donate funds to assist Botswana in improving its mortality rate and quality of life for its citizens.

My comment regarding my student’s “blank faces” was in regards to the fact that many of them have heard HIV messages over and over and have become numb to the material. I was also conveying the idea that perhaps we as public health professionals need to put energy into other parts of the children’s safety and development. Risk reduction and decision making seem almost more important than HIV prevention when so many of them are dying from avoidable accidents.

While sex is taboo in Botswana I’ve certainly had a lot of interesting and enlightening discussions with my students regarding relationships, dating, abstinence, condom use, etc. I refer to these discussions throughout my blog and I’d encourage you to read them so you can appreciate how brave and intelligent and articulate many of the students are on these “sensitive” topics.

Again, thank you for your thoughts. I appreciate any feedback on these entries. If you’d like to discuss these or other issues further please feel free to contact me at misscharles@hotmail.com

Kagiso said...

Dear Jess

I just like reading your entries, that's all. They are brilliantly written and extremely enlightening.

Take it easy and have a nice day

Sara Ede said...

Hey Jess,

How much are future peace corps volunteers informed of the experience of the previous volunteer? What I am curious about is, do you feel that future volunteers are able to shape their work based on past work or does it seem that each volunteer is essentially starting from scratch? My impression is that its the latter which makes me wonder about the real sustainability of any one volunteer´s peace corps project.

Miss you lovely!
Sara

Jessica said...

Good question Sara. As I understand it, the Peace Corps philosophy is that a volunteer should make their own experience during the 2 years of service and not feel as though they need to fill the shoes or experiences or goals of a previous volunteer. That means that we get information about the person who lived at our site and some of their projects and connections but we are not expected to continue or complete their work. Of course, if there is a big project (like the Ministry of Education’s Lifeskills projects that will take years to implement) then, yes, we are informed of this and fully trained on this. In general, though, volunteers are encouraged to begin and end projects within the 2 year time period and pass those projects off to local leaders so they remain sustainable.

In my opinion this is a good system because it forces volunteers to engage local leaders and residents in the projects so they stay sustainable at a grassroots, culturally-sensitive level and dont have to depend on a Peace Corps presence to be maintained. The other good thing about this is that it helps to reduce disappointments when the new volunteer chooses to ET (early terminate) or is medically separated or is not impassioned about the ongoing work and, therefore, not invested.



Sustainability is a huge part of our jobs here. We are trained on it throughout our service. It includes building the capacity of those in our community and transferring skills to enhance the community’s skill base. The absence or presence of other Peace Corps volunteers (present or future) is often irrelevant to these goals.

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(drbenharbalhome@gmail.com).I spoke to him, he asked me to do some certain things which I did, he told me that he is going to provide the herbal to me, which he did, then he asked me to go for medical checkup after some days after using the herbal cure, I was free from the deadly disease, he only asked me to post the testimony through the whole world, faithfully am doing it now, please brothers and sisters, he is great, I owe him in my life. if you are having a similar problems just email him on (drbenharbalhome@gmail.com) or simply whatsapp him on: +2348144631509.He can also cure disease like Cancer, Diabeties, Herpes. Etc. You can reach me on email: vargascynthiamaye1995@gmail.com

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