Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Our Close of Service conference has come and gone. Heaps of bureaucratic paperwork and exercises about proper closer and that twinge in my throat as someone distant and significant hugs me goodbye forever.

In addition to preparing us, Peace Corps was also thanking us. One night they piled our remaining 48 volunteers (originally 61) and took us to a game park at sunset. We were greeted with picnic tables of mimosas and then ushered onto three large vehicles for our twilight game drive. After a six elephants, three kudu, tiny warthog babies and a journey of giraffe we came across a clearing in the bush. It was dark by then and someone had set a bonfire.

At the bush “braii” (bbq) we got to enjoy traditional Tswana fare (butternut, chicken, papa, cold slaw) mixed with rare American delicacies like garlic bread and hard, red, seedless watermelon (Botswana’s watermelons are typically soft, pink and besieged by seeds, so we were particularly impressed with this desert and filled our plates with giant juicy slices)

In addition to the braii there were several other decadent meals and the Counterpart Dinner where the dessert bar was almost as long as the dinner buffet. Three volunteers gave speeches in fluent Setswana and five Batswana health professionals thanked us and a representative from the United States Embassy gave a poignant speech that left us feeling appreciated, heroic and nostalgic. We wore dresses and ties and took millions of photos hugging our counterparts.

By the end of the weekend everyone’s stomachs ached after the dramatic shift from village fare to the American-style feasts. On the last morning I carried this ache under a heap of papers and a gnawing sense that I didn’t have the words to say good-bye. And sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we said “Oh, I’m sure I’ll see you again” or “You’ll be in Gabs before you go, right? Call me.” Sometimes we avoided eye contact. Sometimes we squeezed hands and said nothing.

Brad hugged me and said “we did it” into my hair. And that was enough.


Back in the village I spread the stack of papers across my couch and tables and start drafting a “to do” list. I have 8 weeks and one US visitor remaining plus three reports, a week of medical appointments and 22 documents to complete. The list makes me feel more organized but I still find myself lying awake in bed and thinking of people’s faces and counting weekends.

In the last weeks before leaving America I dreampt over and over that I’d lost my shoes. Different scenes but in every one I was frantically searching for my boots. Someone assured me it was just transitional stress and a fear that I wasn’t prepared.

My dreams have become more vivid again. Especially since the conference.

In the one that returns I am standing in our school hallway and the electricity is out. I’m fumbling for the key to my office and it is pouring outside. The building is empty and when I look down the hallway I see a locked door with a small window. Beyond the window are hundreds of my students and they are pressed against the glass and calling for me. The rain is beating so loudly and I look at them and then the floor, and then back to them. They continue banging and calling to me. Over and over. And I stand in that long, dark hallway with a broken key and a locked door. And I am frozen.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Glass Hours

Next week we go on lock down for the last two months before close of service. This means volunteers are scrambling for our last social moments together. Parties and camping trips and dinners… tonight is my first quiet Friday in a long time.

At sunset I walked to Giam’s for one of her fabulous Tswana meals. The kids were dancing in bare feet and the shabines were blasting traditional music and the sun was setting gold behind a stretch of soft blue clouds.

Late now. I shuffle home to cows competing with bar songs and crickets and stars whispering the melody. My yard is all sand and sleepy chickens. Our banana tree sways in the cool air. Botswana’s autumn rolling in.

Time slips through this hour glass. I remember the way home and family and friends used to ache in me. I marvel again at human resilience and adaptation: fascinated by how happy I have come to feel in this bizarre and beautiful world.

The lights are out on my right. The neighbor’s fire smoldering to my left. I open a window and say good night to them and to this little village and to another day in a place that I will leave but which will not leave me.

Another Case of Pace

I hear them coming and freeze. Terrified. Niwde drops Ohpm onto a chair in the office and people begin crowding the door. He is hysterical and sobbing—and he can’t catch his breath.

Things move so slowly in Botswana. Most days I try to deep-breathe the impatient Bostonian out of me but then there are moments when the pace is unacceptable. When speed and time and urgency are essential.


The story has been told to me and by me a million times:

Last year’s Sports Day where 3 children were left in this state for 2 hours.
The student who died of asthma just two months after I arrived.
The boy who drown in the pool of rain water.
Jen’s student who complained of a heart pain and died an hour later.

The Head of Department is calm. Disturbingly so. She saunters out to the school combi and we are told they can’t take us to the clinic—they are on their way to Gabs. I’m asking everyone to use their car and everyone is staring at me blankly. His head is on my shoulder and he is hyperventilating and coughing and terrified. I say it’s okay—we’re going now, we’re going soon, it’s okay

in part to reassure myself.

Maybe it didn’t take a 5 full minutes for the Head of Department to get her car. Maybe it was my fear or impatience. Maybe it was her age. I said is she here yet? She’s coming. Now—is she here now? She’s coming. What is taking so long? Doesn’t anyone else have a car?

She arrives and I have to commission two male teachers to help me carry him to the vehicle.

Ohpm is one of the tallest boys at school. Athletic and handsome and popular. I hold the shell of this in my arms as we drive to the clinic. He looks exactly like a baby. And he’s turning blue. He looks exactly like he is dying.


The clinic is empty. Not one person in sight as we pull up. I race out of the car screaming “Ko ko!” (the Batswana sound for knocking) “Re batle thuso ja nong!” (We need help now!) No one comes so I begin opening doors and calling louder.

Eventually, I come across one of the cleaners and a family welfare educator. They stare at me, tsking my audacious behavior. I stare back furious at their complacent response.

Both ladies stroll out to the car and look at the boy and there is so much silence surrounding his gasps and sobs.

The head nurse patters across the yard to us—clicking her pen and surveying the scene.

At this point I stop speaking. My voice is very small and my insistence irritating. This is not how they do things. I may be making it worse.

Mma Idalt finally asks for the boy to be taken into the clinic. I watch as the nurses turn him. I wait and wait as they call his name and shift him around the table. Eventually I walk outside.

On the broken bench I am praying and counting minutes. At 4 Mma Idalt presses him against the wall and pours medicine down his throat. I can hear his breathing subside and mine return.


Ophm’s father is called. He tells us he is working at the primary school, just behind the clinic. Still, he takes 30 minutes to arrive.

Ophm’s asthma occurred in Mma Gnasid’s science class. She was performing an experiment. As she poured the ethanol Ophm immediately began gasping.

Mma Gnasid asks Ophm’s father why he didn’t tell the school about his son’s asthma so she could take proper precautions. The father shrugs and claims not to have known. The mother left him 10 years ago -- that was really more her sort of thing to deal with.


Back at school the teachers approach to ask if Ophm is okay. The track and field coach says Ophm often had asthmatic problems during training.

You didn’t tell anyone?
The parents are supposed to come with a note from the doctor.
But you could have told us.
He always recovered.


The Head of Department and I sit in the office. She’s staring at her notebook. I’m staring at my desk.

That was scary.
I never waste time with these things. I’ve seen it too many times.

I look at her. Trying to hide my awe and outrage.

I lost a nephew that way. 12 years old. By the time he got to the clinic they had already pronounced him dead.

Yes, time is so important. It determines everything in these cases.

And then my husband. A diabetic. No one knew. When the stroke came, again, we were too slow.

She tells me story after story and I’m clutching the arms of my chair and I’m teetering between compassion and fury.


Teacher blames father.
Father blames mother.
Coach blames parents.

And I blame a culture where emergencies do not elicit urgency.

Still, he survives. This time.

I spend the afternoon talking to the classes about safety. I write down allergies and take the names of the asthmatic children and plead with them to bring medicine, inhalers and doctor’s notes to the guidance office.

The nod at me. They say “Yes, Mma” in unison.


My walking pace has slowed in Botswana. I am adept at waiting in queues for hours. Meetings that cover two items and run for 4 hours no longer phase me. A 10 mile trip in a friend’s car requires no less than an hour and five stops. Events start, religiously, 2 hours after the program states. Sermons and ceremonies can run all day and all night.

I am better. Not perfect, but better. I still tap my foot and doodle in the margins and day dream with abandon. But I am better.

Every once in a while you get to stop being “culturally sensitive” and “adapting”. Every once in a while that American-ism makes sense and you get to say that out loud.


And here I thought I’d be relieved.