20 December 2010


I don't often beg for things, but this warrants it.

Someone please please PLEASE find a way to get this movie to me after it comes out.  I will be forever indebted to you:  http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1637333/20100419/phoenix.jhtml

17 December 2010

White Christmas?

I'm dreaming of a sunny Christmas
Just like the ones I've never known
Where we seek shade inside shops
And children eat ice pops
Just to drink something that's cold

I'm dreaming of a sunny Christmas
With every care package that comes
May your days be merry and fun
And may all your Christmases have sun

15 December 2010

The Twelve Days of Christmas

*With notes for clarification

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a cow in the middle of the road.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two doves in my roof.

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three Botswana hens.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four calling roosters (when I’m trying to sleep).

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five diamond rings!  (Although I’ve yet to see any Batswana with a diamond from their own famous mines.)

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six donkeys a-braying (it sounds like they’re in pain).

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven safari animals (especially elephants).

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight maids hanging laundry (after hand-washing it).

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine traditional dancers.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ten traditional doctors.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eleven precious “dipudi.” (Goats)

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve mosquitoes buzzing.

Thus, sung like this:
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
Twelve mosquitoes buzzing
Eleven precious dipudi
Ten traditional doctors
Nine traditional dancers
Eight maids hanging laundry
Seven safari animals
Six donkeys a-braying
Five diamond rings
Four calling roosters
Three Botswana hens
Two doves in my roof
And a cow in the middle of the road!

14 December 2010

Insomnia Will Follow You

  1. Boycott Lunesta.
  2. Watch an episode of “True Blood” before going to sleep.
  3. Are scared, so put in romantic comedy to take your mind off of vampires. ETS (Estimated Time of Slumber): 11:00
  4. Have a weird dream and wake up to a mosquito buzzing around your head.  Assume it’s at least 3 or 4 am, when really it is 12:43.
  5. Spray DOOM in the room, then hide under your sheet to avoid inhaling chemicals that will kill you as well as the bugs. ETS: 1:00
  6. Wake up in a haze at 1:30 to your phone ringing.  Spend an hour on the phone with your American bank, trying to figure out how you can actually get money out of your account.  ETS: 2:45
  7. Wake up at 4:00 to the dogs barking right outside your window, a nightly occurrence.  ETS: 4:20
  8. Finally, sleep until the morning!

Sleep is over-rated.  -Sarah Mather, circa junior year of high school

09 December 2010

My Trip To Francistown

Or, Why I’m Superstitious

Or, Relying on the Kindness of Strangers 

It always amazes me at how slow people can walk – especially on busy sidewalks.  I was crossing a pedestrian bridge at the Gaborone bus station with a heavy duffel bag (and I had packed light this time) at 11:57.  Buses from Gabs to Francistown leave every half hour, but with a five-hour trip ahead of me I wanted to catch the earliest one possible.

Dodging between meandering couples and single mothers who should look into using leashes to control their children, I managed to get on a bus on its way out of the station.  Literally, the driver stopped the bus in the middle of the road so I could throw my bag underneath and then climb aboard.  What luck! I thought.  There were even empty seats so I didn’t have to stand.

As I settled into my seat, I thought about a time when I had been on a bus that broke down in Pennsylvania and we had to wait for a replacement bus to be sent.  I’ve never heard of a bus breaking down in Botswana, and I wondered what they would do if it did.  These thoughts were quickly pushed aside when I realized that I had, in my haste to board, left my lunch and all my reading material in my duffel underneath the bus.  Cue tears.  (In my defense, I hadn’t eaten since dinner the previous evening.  And the trouble I had even finding something to eat for lunch is a blog entry in itself.)

Two and half hours into the ride, we made our first stop at a village called Mahalapye (mah-hah-lah’-pay).  I asked a woman to save my seat and dashed out to get my lunch (of nutritious potato chips).  Crisis averted… or so I thought.  Not ten minutes out of the station, the bus slows down and pulls over to the side of the road.  The driver gets out of his seat to look at the engine while men get out of their seats to go pee by the side of the road.  Minor setback, I assumed, and continued reading my book.

Five minutes later an announcement is made in Setswana.  The girl sitting behind me taps me on the shoulder and translates that they are going to replace the fan belt.  Ten minutes more of waiting, another Setswana announcement, and my new friend tells me that they don’t have the tools to fix the bus so we’ll have to get some of our money back and hitchhike, or wait for another bus to be sent.

“What are you going to do?” I ask her.

“Probably hike to Palapye and then get on a bus from there to Francistown.  You can come with me if that would be okay.”

“That would be great.”

The girl’s name is Dorica, and I’m halfway convinced she’s my guardian angel.  She managed to flag down a car to bring us to Palapye, then flag down another car to bring us to Tonota, and then had her boyfriend pick us up and drive us the rest of the way to Francistown.

Hitching, or hiking as they call it here, is extremely common.  People rely on hiking as much as the bus system (which may show you how reliable the buses can be here).  You just stand on the side of the road, stick out your arm, wave around your hand, and if a car has room they will usually pull over.  If you hike, you pay the equivalent of what it would be to take a bus to your destination, which makes it a much more legitimate practice than hitchhiking in the U.S.  In my experience, I haven’t found the culture here to be entirely welcoming of strangers, but hiking proves just how generous Batswana can be.

With all of the setbacks, the entire trip only took me about a half-hour longer than it would have on the bus and was possibly cheaper since Dorica’s boyfriend refused to accept any money for the ride.  I considered it a successful adventure. 

Now that I’ve survived my first bus-breakdown, hopefully I’m safe for the rest of my time here.  Although I’m never, ever jinxing myself by thinking about a breakdown as I board a bus!

Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.  -Oprah Winfrey

08 December 2010

Some Women Like Smoking

Scene: Two Peace Corps volunteers, PACO and TESS, are waiting at the local hitch-hiking post.  A local woman, DINEO, is sitting at a table selling fruit, sweets, and ice pops.  A local man, SMISH, approaches.

Note: Translated from Setswana.

PACO and TESS: Dumela Rra.

SMISH: Le kae?

PACO and TESS: Re teng, Rra.  Le kae?

SMISH: Re teng.  Ke kopa madi.

PACO: Ah, sorry Rra.  I just spent all of my money on ice pops.

SMISH: But I need a smoke.  I have not smoked since this morning.

PACO: You should not smoke Rra!  It is bad for you.

TESS: You will live longer if you do not smoke.

SMISH:  Me, I am 38 years old.  Right now.  I am fine.

PACO: But you never know man, what will happen tomorrow.  If you stop smoking maybe you will live to be 58, or 68.

SMISH: I finished standard 7.  I started smoking and now it is life to me.

TESS: Rra, do you have a wife?


TESS: Women, they do not like smoking. 

TESS mimics vomiting onto the ground.  SMISH stops and thinks with a genuinely concerned look on his face.

SMISH: Some of them do.

PACO: Dineo!  Do women like smoking?

DINEO: Smoking?  Noooo!!

TESS: Ah, Rra!  See?  Ke boamaruri!

SMISH: But some of them do.

End scene.

07 December 2010

World AIDS Day 2010

December 1st is World AIDS Day, and I was lucky enough to be at the Tsetsebjwe Youth Forum for the event.  As I’ve mentioned, the Youth Forum is a week-long camp for orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs).

Roughly 150 children attended.  The children are handpicked from schools in the region as those who are the neediest and would most benefit from the event.  Over the week they played games and did activities to build skills such as leadership and to address issues such as child abuse.  They also are provided one-on-one and group counseling when needed.  As with anything here, it was run much differently than a camp in the U.S., but it was still an undeniably great experience for the kids.

On World AIDS Day, the Peace Corps volunteers got to run all the morning activities, which was a great chance for us to step up and take some responsibility.  There were some things we didn’t have control over – such as a sermon in the morning and a half hour of hymn singing.  After that though, we had a candlelight vigil in honor of those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.  The kids were very respectful (even the youngest ones) and it was a really powerful moment. 

After, we showed the students a documentary about a teenager in Botswana, Keitumetse’s House.  It follows a teenager named Keitumetse, who was left the head of the household with two younger brothers after her parents died from AIDS.  Until their death, she had not even been aware that they had the virus.  It shows her struggle to stay in school, her rocky relationship with her brother, and her determination to volunteer in a youth group and keep her family healthy and safe.  After the movie, we lead a discussion.  

In a circle for the candlelight vigil

Two groups then performed dramas (or plays).  The kids all seemed to enjoy them, but to be honest I have no idea what they were about.  I’m definitely not fluent in Setswana yet.  At that point it was lunch time and we closed the World AIDS Day celebrations.

One of the two dramas that were performed

It was nice to hear from all of you back home who were honoring the day and also thinking of me and my students here in Botswana.

The STEPS movie series is a great program to not only educate people on issues of HIV/AIDS, but also to get them talking and, most importantly, encourage them to take the next step and do something about it.  Peace Corps provided training to any volunteers that wanted to become facilitators.  Check it out at: http://steps.co.za

Many people have been fighting for freedom.  I was still young when I heard about Apartheid, and about Mandela fighting for this and that.  I never took it seriously.  Now I believe that as long as we are still living with HIV and there is nothing done about it, we are not free.  We must go on fighting.  –Busi, from A Luta Continua, a STEPS movie

06 December 2010

Living "The Lion King"

Or, My First Safari

Picture it: Maun, Botswana. Late November, 2010.  The clouds hang heavy in the sky, ready to open at any moment and unleash a tempest.  Seven Peace Corps volunteers head out into the bush on their very first safari.  One of those volunteers… was me.

Okay, enough with the dramatics (although you get ten points if you understood the reference).  Last weekend a group of volunteers went out with a great guide to Chobe National Park to see some animals.  It ended up being a weekend of laughs, amazement, and pure terror.

It all started out regularly enough – we set up camp by the truck’s headlights and started a campfire to cook dinner over.  Then, as we finished eating, there was a loud noise behind me.  Oh, you know, it was just a hyena.  Ten feet away.  Wanting my food.  No big deal.  We fell asleep in our tents that night to a lullaby of lions calling across the bush to their tribes. 

The next day started out great with ostriches, zebras, baby wildebeests, and giraffes, not to mention dozens of birds.  Already I was content, but Botswana was not through with me.  In fact, it had not even begun.

A baby wildebeest, getting breakfast from its momma

We drove past a tree and it looked like there was a log or something underneath it.  Pretty normal.  Actually, no, it was a waterbuck carcass.  The interesting thing about waterbucks is that they have a white ring on their backside, so they literally have a target on their butt.  Alwyn, our guide, backtracked the open truck to investigate and we found two lionesses resting underneath the tree.

Yes, we were this insanely close to the lionesses

Lions eat roughly every four days, and they never know when their next meal is coming, so when they make a kill they completely gorge themselves.  After eating, they’re so full that they just lay in the shade and concentrate on trying to breathe.  Seriously – their stomachs expand so much that it presses against their lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

Lioness: I'm... soooo..... fulll....

We sat watching them pant for awhile and, resolving to return later, continued on our way.  We saw a pond full of hippos, which really means that we saw a pond with a bunch of hippo noses, ears, and eyes sticking out of the water.  There were times when the hippos would stand up and let their backs come out of the water and they are huge animals.  They’re actually very territorial (and thus kill the most people out of any animal in Africa) and they were warning us not to get any closer.  I was happy to oblige.

You can't really see the hippos, but they're there, I promise!

After that we ran into an elephant!  Need I say more?  He was precious and perfect.  I wanted to give him a big ol’ hug.  Now that I’ve seen one in its natural habitat, my life is complete.

Hello, I am an elephant and therefore perfect in every way
After lunch back at camp, we headed out again for another game drive and saw more elephants, giraffes, zebras, and baby warthogs.

Bebe Zebra on the right

The Botswana sky is massive and absolutely beautiful

This is the grandmomma elephant, who takes care of the herd.
When her ears stick out like that, it means GET AWAY!

I am totally inspired by the lushness of giraffes' eyelashes

'ello croc!
A little before sunset, we returned to the lionesses.  They were still half-eating/half-lounging, and calling to their tribe to let them know there was food available.  They looked so comatose I felt compelled to get out of the truck and give them a belly rub (that always makes me feel better after feasting).  That’s when we saw it in the distance – a hyena, lions’ eternal enemy.  He was scoping out the food prospects.  The lions weren’t worrying about the lil guy just yet, but Alwyn decided to drive our truck to a better position to watch.  He turned the car on, pressed the gas, and – ka-KLUNK.  Yes, folks, you got it.  We had a flat tire.

Our very flat tire

Complicating matters, we couldn’t get out of the truck to fix the tire.  The thing about lions is they view safari trucks as one huge animal that’s not worth attacking, which is why we could get so close.  However, if you make too much movement or get out of the truck, they realize you can be eaten.  Also, it’s against the law in Botswana for guides or anyone else to carry a gun, even for protection.

So you see our dilemma:  On one side, there are lionesses, in the distance there’s a hyena, the rest of the tribe is being called for dinner, and we are a truck full of hors d’oeuvres right in the middle.

This is what we were up against

Well, I think.  At least the lionesses are so full that they probably can’t even move.  No real danger.

That’s when one of the lionesses decided the hyena was too close for comfort.  She leapt up onto all fours, crouching, and crept through the tall grass – straight at our truck.  None of us dared to breathe.  Luckily she walked around us and continued to track the hyena instead of the humans, but so much for my “too full to move” theory.

Turns out that we didn’t have everything we needed to fix the flat tire, so with night quickly approaching, Alwyn decided to just drive back to camp rather than test our luck with the lionesses.  It was a long, slow, bumpy drive, and I was really happy to be back.

The next morning we had more lion luck and ran into two lions eating what the lionesses had left them.  They really are beautiful – the morning light seems to turn their manes into pure gold.  However, the beauty was fleeting as we then spent an hour watching them tear into a fly-infested carcass, blood and muscles spewing out everywhere.  Let me tell you, it didn’t smell too great either.  Ugh.



My friend Ross grabbed the carcass while the lions went for a stroll.
"Guys, it touched my leg.  The spinal cord touched my leg.  It was warm."

Sadly, it was time to head home.  On our way out we saw a momma ostrich with roughly twenty babies!  It was a cute, harmless ending to my first safari.

Baby ostriches running away from our truck, after their momma
completely abandoned them and ran away herself

I know I’m leaving out stories (like when the grandmomma elephant got mad at us for driving too close, and when one of the lionesses looked like she was going to attack us, but then she just farted).  All I can say is – get yourself to Botswana and check it out for yourself!

[If you would like a more detailed account of the safari and more pictures, check out my friend’s blog: http://fromwanderingsabroad.blogspot.com]

17 November 2010

Botswana v Tunisia

“Hurry up!  It’s starting!  Let’s go!”

“Geeze Tess, I didn’t know you were such a sports fan.”

I’m absolutely not.  I spent the entire season of kindergarten soccer picking dandelions and yelling at my dad to turn off the video camera.  Even so, nothing can beat the thrill of 10,000 fans wearing Botswana blue, cheering, singing, and blowing those damn World Cup horns.

Today I went to my first (hopefully the first of many) football game here in Botswana.  The Botswana Zebras were playing the Tunisia Vultures in hopes to score points toward playing in the Africa Cup in 2012.  It was absolutely crazy inside the stadium, and I ended up sitting on the ground behind the fence.

The smaller stadium at University of Botswana

As with most football games, nothing really happens until someone finally scores.  When Botswana did in the first half, the crowd went crazy.  Everyone was on their feet jumping and screaming.  My friend even got a kiss on the cheek from a random stranger.  (…Yes, that’s kind of creepy.)

Nicole: Does this headscarf make me look like a pirate?
Me: Yes.  But it's really cute!

There actually were three injuries during the game, and once while we waited the crowd did the wave.  Not once, not twice, but four times around the stadium.  I guess when the stadium is so small, four times around makes sense.

The ominous looking rainclouds at the end of the first half.  Luckily the storm held off.

At the end, when the score was still 1-0 Botswana, everyone began to sing.  I don’t know the words ka Setswana, but I was told that the English translation is, “Jesus, Jesus, look upon us now.”  As I’ve mentioned before, religion enters every aspect of life here.

Getting out of the stadium was pretty crazy.  People were parading around, crushing innocent bystanders (a.k.a. me), and mobbing the bus with the players on it.  Not even 20 minutes after the game ended, radio news stations were broadcasting the victory.


I made it through the game without picking even one dandelion, although I did thoroughly analyze which type of Botswana jersey I’d like to buy.  And I maybe checked out the players while they warmed up (football players have the cutest behinds).

I didn't want Tunisia to win, but I also didn't want their players to stop stretching right in front of me.

15 November 2010


Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is finally freed from house arrest!  Let's hope she stays that way.


02 November 2010

Youth Forum: Day One

Yesterday I checked my email at around 6pm, after work, and I had a message from my supervisor at the Ministry of Education, Jane.  She wanted to know if I could make a meeting at 9:00 the following morning to help plan for the Youth Forum.  Luckily, Peace Corps has made me nothing if not flexible, so I cleared my day and headed out the next morning at 6:45.

The meeting was two hours long, but really interesting.  There are two Youth Forums each year for orphans and vulnerable children from across the nation, aged 10 – 20 years old.  This Forum is expanding its capacity to 175 students and is being held in the Tuli Block, and one day there’s an excursion to see the wildlife.  It was great to be in a meeting with individuals who truly wanted to be there, and who wanted nothing but success for the Forum.  Many raised really good points as we discussed different aspects of marketing, logistics, and counseling services.

I fully expected my role to be “Peace Corps Volunteer: Help out with random things, mostly just observe, and play with the kids.”  However, Jane nominated me to be on the facilitation committee.  It entails evaluating different organizations in order to determine which one will be the best at facilitating sessions for the students.  On Friday, I am going to watch four organizations do activities with three different age groups, and after that decide which one to hire. 

Jane also informed me that she wants me to create a hands-on session about volunteerism.  I want to make it really interactive, and ideas are starting to formulate (although, if any of you can think of any games or activities that apply, please let me know).  I might even volunteer to do a couple dance sessions.  It could help students not only express themselves in a new way, but become more comfortable with themselves and with the other students, allowing them to open up more in the counseling sessions.

It feels great to actually be given responsibility!  

01 November 2010

Pula - Rain!

Last weekend, we had heat lightning, which was beautiful and amazing to watch.  The next morning, there was a ten minute downpour, which was also beautiful and amazing.  Having not seen rain since April, it’s much appreciated.

Wednesday evening there was another thunderstorm.  I told Katlo, the little boy who lives on my family compound, to come dance in the rain.  He laughed at me, as he always does when I have these “crazy” ideas.  I ran out in my gym shorts and a t-shirt anyway, did some cartwheels, and chassé-ed around on the pavement.  My landlord’s maid yelled in Setswana that I was going to “catch flu.”  Ignoring them, I sang whatever song I could think of, conveniently inserting the word “pula” into every line.

That’s when I noticed that there were four workmen fixing something on the roof of my landlord’s house, frantically trying to finish in the downpour, and they absolutely thought I was insane.  Too late to turn back, I just told them I was out of my mind (“Ke a tsenwa!”) and after that they laughed with me and maybe even started to enjoy the rain themselves (if nothing else, I certainly was entertainment to help pass the time as they worked).  Katlo gave in to the urge and joined me in dancing around.  Coconut, Blackie, and Doodle-doo (my landlord’s dogs) came out for the fun as well. 

It poured again last night, and while I didn’t choose to dance outside, I saw Katlo spinning around, embracing the fat raindrops and cool breeze.  I may fail at capacity building with the teachers at my school, but it’s nice to know I may be able to teach about appreciating life’s little pleasures. 

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

31 October 2010

Ga Ke Na Ditsala

Two summers ago I was a live-in nanny.  The family lived in Westchester County and I was really excited for the experience.  I pictured swapping recipes with the other nannies at soccer practice, stopping to chat with some neighbors while at the grocery store, and maybe even having a summer romance with a gorgeous guy who mows all the lawns in the neighborhood with his shirt off.  As you may guess, I learned a lot about the danger of romanticizing a situation.  I ended up spending my weeknights alone in my bedroom, my weekends traveling to visit friends in the city, and speeding through my grocery trips with my eyes on the shopping list rather than the faces around me.  It was a necessary lesson in the difficulty of finding one’s way in a new community.

When I accepted my invitation for Peace Corps, I made a point not to romanticize what I expected to happen.  In fact, I tried my damnedest to not have any expectations at all – something that has served me well in adjusting to life here. 

However, I now realize that I had one huge expectation – something so essential that I took for granted that it would happen, and it’s the same assumption I had upon embarking to be a nanny.  I assumed that I would have friends.  I assumed that people would want to get to know me as much as I want to get to know them, despite barriers in language, background, or culture.

Well, that hasn’t happened here.  Of course I’m friendly with a lot of people.   Everyone I see says hello (well, “Dumela”) and a majority even know my name.  The teachers and nurses are also starting to get more comfortable with me as well.  And of course everyone is absolutely fascinated by my white skin.  But there’s no one in my village I would call a friend.  No one who knows more than the most basic information about me.  No one who I feel comfortable going to when I’m homesick.  When I stay home on the weekends, the only face I see is my own in the mirror as I’m brushing my teeth.

Okay, I know, my dramatic side is coming out again.  It’s just that I honestly hadn’t thought too much about it until recently.  I figured it would just take time to make friends.  But the fact is, every other volunteer has someone they’re close to in their community.  Someone who lets them know if there’s an event going on, or someone to stop by and say hello to, or someone who invites them to baby showers.  So, since I don’t have that, I’m wondering what exactly it is that I’m doing wrong.  I know I’m not an effusively out-going person, and maybe I even come across as somewhat guarded at times, but I do always try to wear my brightest smile.

So I find myself again looking to my weekends as an escape.  A chance to either visit other volunteers who know me well or to just get to the capital where I can be a nobody (instead of the village lekgowa).  This worries me.  I don’t want to look back on my Peace Corps experience as I do my nanny experience: something I would never take back, but also something that could have touched me on a more personal level.

I want to live without regrets.  I don’t want to live without friends.

25 October 2010

Phirimo ya Letsatsi

My training group finally set foot onto Botswana soil as we walked from the airport to the bus that was transporting us.  It was April 12, 2010, and we had been through over 24 hours of traveling.  Our ankles were swollen and we were in that groggy daze affectionately called “jetlag” with at least 2 more solid hours of transport and checking into the hotel.  We should have been on the verge of either strangling one another or sliding off the bus seats and laying unconscious in the aisle.

Instead, we smushed into the seats together conscientiously as if we were already old friends.  The excitement was still alive in us because – there it was, right in front of us, right out the window – we were experiencing our first sunset in Botswana.  Phirimo ya letsatsi.  I’ve seen my fair share of beautiful sunsets, but nothing compares to what you see here.  Words fail to give a true depiction – the overwhelmingly wide expanse, the rainbow palette of colors, a golden sun that blazes so brightly you fear it’s imprinted into your eyelids forever.  But, in truth, looking at something that beautiful forever wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Fast forward six months: one day last week I realized I never, ever watch the sun set anymore.  The fact that I am forced to watch the sun wake up as I walk to work at an ungodly hour seems to nix the need to also watch it go to sleep.  When I come home from work, there is too much decompressing that needs to be done, and barely over an hour of sunlight left.  So the beauty of a sky lit on fire has been escaping me.

That is, until yesterday.  Enough is enough, I told my lazy behind.  Your book and comfy chair will be there when you get back, and right now there is gold dripping off every surface in your village.  You need to watch it.  So I made myself a cold drink, invited along my landlord’s granddaughter, and watched the sun descend behind the rocky hills in the distance.

I repeated the experience tonight.  Each evening brings a new set of colors and another chance to appreciate true, unadulterated beauty.  The peacefulness is addictive, and I hope to make watching the sunset a habit. 

Also tonight, I realized that the sun was leaving me in order to bring that same beauty across the ocean to my friends and family, and I fervently sent all my love with it.  So the next time you are driving home from work or making dinner or running errands in the evening, take a minute to appreciate the sunset.  It’s the closest thing to a real hug that I can give you.

Know what you want to do, hold the thought firmly, and do every day what should be done, and every sunset will see you that much nearer the goal.  –Elbert Hubbard


At the end of each term, every school across Botswana holds a big ceremony called Prizegiving.  Basically, it’s a day-long event at school where the students who have gotten the highest grades for each subject get rewarded (one student per subject per form, meaning that for each subject three students receive a prize).  Parents are invited and encouraged to come, and there are fundraising efforts for many months leading up to the event.

During the week before Prizegiving, excitement permeated around the school but I had no idea what to expect.  When the day rolled around, I made sure to wear a pretty dress and took extra time on my makeup.  I arrived to school to find all the teachers took the opportunity to dress down instead.  Typical. 

As I said, preparations had been going on for months, and yet the ceremony was delayed nearly two hours in starting because the actual prizes for the students had not even arrived at school, let alone been wrapped.  I helped teachers wrap prizes such as big mixing bowls for cooking, electric kettles, and home décor. 

Finally it was time to begin, and I sat on a curb to watch, as the parking lot had been converted into a little stage, with plastic chairs set up under big tents.  There was a DJ playing music as we waited for the guest speaker, a businessman by the name of Ittan, to get situated.

In the U.S., I’m familiar with school awards ceremonies – they always have academic and athletic ones.  Someone at a podium will announce the winners, he or she will walk up to get a certificate, shake hands, smile, take a picture, sit back down.  In Botswana however, the drama club performed a play which was really cute (not that I understood any of it – it was in Setswana), the choir sang a few songs (even one that involved the audience and got all the parents laughing), and a long speech by the guest speaker about the importance of education.

I have to say though; I think my favorite entertainment of the day was from our math teacher/choir instructor.  He’s very passionate about music, and loves to perform.  (Note: this is the same man who texted me two days after we met: “i hav nvr had such strong luv feelings 4 a lady.”)  Well today he was of course performing, but he actually had two BACKUP DANCERS.  I’m thinking of reconsidering my rejection of his courtship.

Then came the actual giving of prizes.  It was really amusing – after being announced the kids would walk up to get their prize either a) completely embarrassed and covering their face with their hands, or b) acting completely nonchalant, hands in their pockets and everything.  The really funny part was that their mother would also come up to get the prize, dancing and celebrating, and giving their embarrassed kid a huge hug.  Even the Head of Department teachers would get up to give students hugs, picking them up off the ground and swinging them around.

One form 3 student I know, Botho, got a few prizes.  The first time she went up, I was worried that a parent hadn’t come for her.  Then – her older brother came walking up and gave her a hug, overwhelmed with pride.  My God, break my homesick heart into a million pieces.    

At the end, I was exhausted.  Sitting in the sun for three hours without any water had just drained me of energy.  I decided to head home without getting a free lunch (which, let’s be honest, is what everyone was looking forward to).  The DJ had turned on music and the kids stormed the parking lot, dancing around and jumping.  Of course I had to dance with them – and found myself getting completely mobbed.  I couldn’t see anything but laughing faces and hands and general jubilation.  It was fun, until I started to get pulled in three different directions and then someone pulled on my dress (which was bad since my dress was strapless).

I spent the rest of the day recuperating on the couch, but it was undoubtedly a nice day to be a part of the Motswakhumo Community Junior Secondary School family.

17 October 2010

An Apology

I’m sorry.  I know you, my friends and family, as my most avid supporters, deserve more than an occasional blog update and a stray email every now and then.  There’s no excuse, so please just know it’s not a reflection of my feelings toward you.  Rather it’s a side effect of the whole “Peace Corps experience.”

Sometimes when I do talk to people from home and they ask how I’m doing, I answer, “Fine… just trying to get adjusted.”  This statement is met with a fair amount of surprise.  Admittedly, six months is an ample amount of time to get acclimated, but when you’re immersing yourself in a new culture, there are levels of adjustment.  And I don’t think the end is anywhere in sight.

Please, continue to be patient with me.  There are still overwhelming days and nights where I collapse onto my bed exhausted at 7:30.  I'll try my best to post more, I promise.

12 October 2010

Predator and Prey

All is quiet as the prey unknowingly slips its shoes off and relaxes into the early morning warmth. The prey becomes engrossed in reading material and ceases to notice its surroundings.

Meanwhile, the predator swiftly and silently approaches. With each inaudible step, it seems to twitch with excitement and anticipation. It is close, so close, and ready to attack when -

"AHHHHHHH!" The prey screams, jumps onto the coffee table and completely freaks out.

No, we're not talking about lions and lechwes in the Okavango Delta. We're talking about me, in my office, nearly being bitten by a cross between a black widow spider and a roach. This is the most innocent of my recent encounters with bugs, but come to find out, this particular bug sprays its attackers with urine, and if it gets in your eyes, well... ke mathata a matona, to say the least.

My bug woes all began about 3 weeks ago, as I was beginning to move out of my house in order for a new roof to be put on. Peace Corps issues all volunteers a huge, thick, fuzzy blanket for the cold winter nights. Well, living up to my nickname "Tess the Mess," I had just thrown it on the floor when the weather got warmer and let it be. As I finally picked it up to put away, I heard a soft "flop" onto my bed. I assumed there had been a book wrapped up in it, or maybe I had unknowingly dropped my cell phone onto the blanket. A closer look at my bed revealed how wrong I was.

It was a tarantula. A huge, hairy, menacing tarantula. This was the first time I had ever seen one in real life, and it's hopefully the last. After I called the gardener to help me, I decided to name him Clarence (...rest in peace).

Fast forward a couple weeks and I'm comfortably staying in my landlord's extra bedroom as my roof gets put on. I'm lounging on my bed, sipping some ice water and reading a book, when I hear a rustle. Assuming it's the gardener outside my window, I don't think much of it. There's another rustle, and again. Geeze, I'm thinking, that sure sounds like it's right inside my bedroom. This thought brings a flashback of when I was at homestay and the family cat would jiggle my windows open in the middle of the night and jump onto my bed, scaring me shitless. My landlord doesn't have a cat though...

It was a cockroach. A huge, germ-ridden, terror-inducing cockroach, and it brought along its brother. I swear, the things had frog legs to propel them across all my belongings (my clothes are on the floor, since I don't have a dresser) and away from my can of Doom bug spray. Needless to say, I didn't sleep in my room that night.

On top of all this, I am in a constant state of having 50+ mosquito bites on my body. I'm considering keeping a count on my blog so at the end of two years I'll know how many bites I've gotten. Thank goodness for my malaria pills, because otherwise I'd probably be hospitalized.

Finally, enough was enough and I decided to "Doom" my room before I went to sleep last night, despite my hatred of pesticides and the like. I thoroughly sprayed my room, closed the door, and let the poison do its magic as I brushed my teeth. When I re-entered my room, there was - could it be? - silence. No buzzing or rustling. I went to climb into my bed and saw something lying there.

It was a dead roach. A small one, but gross, and on its back. Rest in peace, lil guy, but get the heck off my bed.

In my previous life, I wouldn't have considered myself especially scared of bugs. I found it easy to live in peace with the occasional daddy long legs. The reason, I suppose, for my laid-back attitude, was that I had never actually encountered any scary ones before. Let's hope that my "predator and prey" analogy doesn't become true, and I survive the next two years out here!

21 September 2010

I Am Very Happy

There is one woman that I often pass as I’m walking from my house to the tarred road.  She’s an elder of the community, wears traditional clothes, and has yet to remove any of her blankets and scarves although the summer heat is settling in.

We always have a short, basic conversation in Setswana.  It’s not because I’m unwilling to try to discuss more, but rather because after I get past the “O tsogile, Mma?” she breaks into laughter.  This is no little chuckle either, it’s a full blown guffaw that is absolutely good-natured and lasts long after I have passed her. 

I couldn’t seem to figure out why exactly she was laughing.  Out of curiosity I asked her one day, “Why are you laughing?”  I couldn’t resist laughing a little myself – it’s completely contagious.

“I am happy,” she replied, “I am very happy,” and then continued on her way (still laughing, of course).

Le nna, Mma, I thought.  Me too.

The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.  –Mark Twain

16 September 2010

A Re Rapeleng

A re rapeleng.  Let us pray.

You hear it all the time in Botswana – at all school assemblies, the start and end of every meeting, any type of get-together.  The idea of separation of church and state not only doesn’t exist here, but the opposite is actively pursued.  In everything the Batswana do, they keep their religion (of which the overwhelming majority is Christian) in mind.  This doesn’t bother me.  Although I am a strong believer in separating church and state, it’s not as if I’m personally offended that they pray before a meeting.

Well, today they asked me to pray.  Let me set the stage: the meeting was scheduled for 3:15, but was only starting at 4:05.  Many people were absent.  The agenda was ridiculously long.  The late afternoon heat was beating down on my back through the large windows in the staff room.  Being a Thursday afternoon, the weekend was on everyone’s minds.  I was struggling to keep from falling asleep out of boredom when I hear the demand, “Tess, pray for us.”

My first thought was, ha ha, making a joke with the lekgowa (white person).  Then I realized from the other attendees’ intent stares that they really expected me to pray.  Flustered, I blurted, “You know, in America, we don’t pray before meetings.  Actually, it’s illegal to force people to pray in public schools.”

Silence.  Stares.  Luckily my good friend Mothusi burst into laughter and broke the tension.  After laughing myself, I said, “Thank you for the day we’ve been given.  May we all do our best to help the students the best we can.  Amen.” 

In my previous life, I considered myself a religious person, so my reaction seems out-of-character.  I guess I just like to be religious on my own time, in my own way, in a venue that seems appropriate to me.  If nothing else, I don’t think they’ll be asking me to pray again anytime soon!  And hey, it’s all about a cultural exchange, right?

I am a deeply religious nonbeliever – this is a somewhat new kind of religion. –Albert Einstein

13 September 2010

Don't Trust Monday Mornings

Dogs bark outside my window.  Mama goats knock over trash cans outside my family compound and baby goats cry for them to come home.  Roosters in the surrounding compounds commence a cacophony of crowing.  Firewood crackles and water sloshes as cast iron kettles are placed over the flames throughout my neighborhood.  The ensuing smoke rises into the early morning air silently as the first rays of light tiptoe over the horizon.  A donkey cart creaks, the commuter bus beeps its horn, my alarm rings, and another day in Lentsweletau begins.

I hit the snooze button.  Ten minutes later, I hit snooze again.  I continue to snooze for no less than fifty minutes.  Bathing before work is over-rated anyway.

Monday mornings aren’t fun anywhere.  They’re especially not fun after having a great weekend, and even less fun when you’re exhausted and work starts at the ungodly hour of 6:30 AM.  It’s safe to say that when I walked into school this morning with droopy eyes and uncooperative hair I was leaning toward the “grumpy” side of the scale. 

The senior management team of the school had an extremely long meeting this morning, so I quietly worked at a desk and waited for my counterpart to discuss what the day would hold for us.  The meeting got out and I watched as she rushed – and rushed – and rushed past me a few times, greeting me with a nice “Dumela Mma” but no words beyond that.  Still no problem – obviously she was busy.  Finally she comes to speak with me, and asks me to do what every Life Skills volunteer dreads: to take over a class for her.  I’m not here to teach classes… but I’m also not a broken record.  I decided against reminding her again of my intended role as a volunteer, and just agreed to do the class.

Fast forward to fourth period.  I’m with the Form 2 students, who are somewhere around 14 years old (it varies).  One of the students brings up an issue on tolerance.  Great, I think.  These are the kind of discussions I want to have.  Then I study the other 39 faces in the room.  There are maybe 3 students that look as if they understand what I’m saying, which is precisely why Peace Corps tells volunteers to co-teach rather than teach alone.  The message completely wasn’t getting across.  When they told me, “All Americans are rich,” and “All Zimbabweans steal,” I did my best to refute that in the simplest English possible, but I simply don’t have the Setswana vocabulary to discuss social issues (even though I did score “advanced mid” on my latest language exam).  How can I explain to them, “Yes, I have a laptop, but that’s because I studied hard enough to get a full ride to college,” or “Yes, I have pretty jewelry, but I had to have three part time jobs at once while taking 21 credits”?  Before I knew it, the period was over, and I left the classroom feeling completely discouraged and as if I had created an even larger gap between cultures rather than closing it.  I spoke to one of the teachers that I’m close with, and she voiced exactly what I felt: if someone had been with me who spoke Setswana, they could have helped the students understand.

Call me dramatic, but after that I was thinking, “This is pointless.  No one wants my help, or to help me.  I’m going to just pack up my stuff and call it quits.”  (In reality I used a lot of expletives, but I’ll try to keep it G-rated.)    

Out of the blue, a teacher walks up to me and says, “Tess, I’m trying to infuse the Life Skills curriculum into my social studies class tomorrow.  Think you could help me out?”  That is literally exactly my job here – the integration of Life Skills curriculum.  I could have kissed her I was so relieved.  Someone gets it!  So tomorrow I’ll be helping her out with a double period as she teaches about the different aspects of culture.  We even made up a matching game to play with the kids, and I’m going to cut out pictures from magazines to help explain American culture and its differences (no laptops or jewelry included). 

It was as if a light had turned on.  After planning, I walked to the post office (where I had a package waiting – thanks Mom and Dad!) and had an absolutely lovely conversation with the ladies there (in Setswana, thank you very much).  A man from the Agriculture Office stopped me and gave me a rose that he had cut for me.  Further along the road, some little kids that I’ve walked with before ran to the fence, jumping up and down, taking turns yelling, “Dumela Lorato!”  (I’ve come to terms with my Setswana name.  Sometimes.)  Feeling oddly optimistic, I thought, Screw the stares, I’m going to go for a run.  So I did!  It was the first time I've exercised in public since May (due to the Fishbowl Effect).  At one point, I had 15 little kids running with me, laughing and screaming.  I even got two women to jog along in their dresses as we passed!  I know there are times when running is enjoyable, but when’s the last time you went for a run and actually had fun

In a span of three hours I went from near-despair to jubilation.  (Okay, I’m not quite jubilant.  I’m just living up to my dramatic reputation.)  If there’s one lesson I’ve learned today, it’s this: 

Don’t trust Monday mornings.  Stop to smell the roses (or get one given to you) and stop being so hard on everyone, including yourself.

Can you see my village in the background? ....Didn't think so.

05 September 2010

The Wisdom of Whores

I have been reading The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS by Elizabeth Pisani (and by reading, I mean sitting in the sun devouring page after page in between hand-washing loads of laundry).  It’s a book that I absolutely recommend to anyone, whether you are well-versed on the HIV epidemic or don’t even know what the letters H-I-V stand for (Human Immunodeficiency Virus, by the way).

Although I have yet to finish the book, I have learned a great deal.  Mainly that the HIV epidemic is far from universal.  The virus affects different demographics in different areas of the world in different ways.  The “cookbook” manuals (as Ms. Pisani calls them) put out by the UN on how to address the epidemic and effect behavior change turn out to be… not so helpful.  Every region, country, and even city has its own sex and drug culture, which dramatically changes which population should be targeted and how said targeting should be attempted.  There is no one-way to behavior change.

Another important lesson: don’t blindly trust anything.  Not bare statistics, not UN-sanctioned reports, not the country’s political or religious leaders.  Numbers can be deceiving, or misinterpreted, or “beat up” to shock key people and organizations (another of Ms. Pisani’s terms). In order to get a true picture of how a disease is being spread, you have to go to the people.  It takes time, patience, and flexibility, but this book proves that policy-makers contained in comfy cubicles (or even the corner office with a great view) have no idea what’s happening on the ground.  Thus it’s impossible for them to make effective policies (unless, of course, they consult those who are on the ground and then actually follow their advice… but how often does that happen?)

After reading this book, I don’t feel so bad for the lack of hard data on my blog.  Although followers may be craving a more concrete outline of the HIV epidemic here in Botswana, the statistics only give a bare skeleton of what the situation truly is.  (And as long as we’re being honest, there’s hardly any reliable data in my region to begin with.  The most recent population records are from 2001.)  Instead, I’ll do my best to relay the down and dirty about what’s really going on, and we can discover the truth together.

Now really, go check your local library or Barnes & Noble – it’s a great book!

There is one thing even more vital to science than intelligent methods; and that is the sincere desire to find out the truth, whatever it may be. –Charles Pierce

31 August 2010

Posh Corps

As with any organization, Peace Corps has stereotypes about certain regions and countries.  Botswana is not an exception, and has been dubbed by some as the “Posh Corps.”  I can imagine some of you back home agreeing with this (though you’d never speak it aloud), thinking, well, she does have electricity, not to mention internet.  Also, a large majority of the population speaks English, so she can communicate more easily.  Didn’t one of her entries mention that she can buy western clothes and high heels?  I thought Peace Corps was supposed to put her in a mud hut where she would sit under a mango tree and teach kids English! 

Let’s examine.

Posh adj.
  1. Elegant; fashionable.
  2. Typical of or intended for the upper classes; highfalutin.
Origin unknown.
First use: 1918.


When I think of “elegant,” I think Grace Kelly.  I think little black dresses and pearls.  I think Baryshnikov and the Louvre and Carnegie Hall.  Gatsby, red wine and pasta, cruise liners, Steinway grand pianos. 

I don’t tend to think about bucket bathing.  Or squeezing four people into three seats on the combi.  Or summers without deodorant, squatting to wash dishes in a tub on the floor, or a permanent coating of red dust on my skin.  Also not entering my thoughts: scrubbing my clothes by hand until my knuckles bleed (and subsequently hanging my “personals” on a clothesline for all to see), sitting on the floor to eat dinner since I don’t have a real table, considering hitch-hiking the most reliable method of transportation, or going anywhere from two hours to two weeks at a time without any water available (I’ve since learned to always keep huge containers full of water, just in case).

This isn’t a list of complaints – these are by far the most minor challenges I’ve encountered thus far, and if it’s not an absolute joy to do my laundry, it’s not terrible either.  The actual lifestyle here is very manageable, but it’s certainly not “elegant.”


The situation in Botswana concerning HIV is not what I might call “fashionable.”  Beside the fact that action is being taken to attempt to remedy the epidemic, there’s nothing concerning HIV that any person or country would want to imitate.  Mothers who are fully aware of their HIV positive status continue to have unprotected sex and have further pregnancies, putting their unborn babies at risk.  Teenage girls fall into this category, and they are expelled from school if they become pregnant, even if it is due to rape or incest.  People are not taught how to use condoms, so the widespread condom use is ineffectual and the disease continues to be spread.  Alcoholism and unemployment are running as rampant as HIV itself, compounding upon the problem.  Furthermore, now that the government and other organizations have taken such a public campaign for prevention, Batswana (the younger generation in particular) are completely burnt out on the topic.  I don’t wish to speak poorly of the Batswana, I merely want to give an outline of the challenges they are facing.  Peace Corps volunteers’ overarching goal in Botswana is to find a new way to inspire behavior change.  And if there was a formula for that, well, we’d have world peace.

Upper Class

If we’re going to say that Botswana is Posh Corps, and thus upper class, let’s take a look at the economy.  At first glance, the national average income of 12,860 (Purchasing Power Parity, international dollars) ranks Botswana as a middle-income country.  However, according to a UNDP report, the richest 10% of Botswana owns 57% of the country’s wealth.  Looking closer at Botswana’s main resource, cattle, shows that the wealthiest 2.5% of farmers owns 40% of all cattle (Source).  Thus, it is obvious that there is a disparity between classes.  While this difference may be greater in other nations in the world, the realities in Botswana should not be downplayed.  Being statistically classified as a middle-income country should not lead to assumptions that the wealth is equally distributed.  Social classes must be examined in order to get an accurate depiction of the situation.  And frankly, I can’t imagine anyone coming to Lentsweletau and declaring it “upper class.”


Neither “pretentious” nor “pompous” (synonyms for “highfalutin”) describe the Batswana.  Now, getting to know and understand Botswana’s social norms is what I have struggled with the most.  This is not an easy culture to understand.  All cultures are like icebergs, but I feel Botswana is even more so than most.  It’s like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic: the tip above water could barely be seen, but underneath lurked an unimaginably large mass.  There is so much that goes unseen and unspoken about here – topics ranging from HIV and sex to mourning and familial relations.  I’ve lived here for four and a half months now, and I’m still discovering nuances and learning new aspects of the culture on a daily basis.  As Americans, we live in a low-context culture, and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live in a place where things aren’t so obvious.  It’s impossible to explain; it’s something you just have to experience.  So please take my word for it: the Batswana may be difficult to read at times or may seem unexpressive (to Americans), but they are far from pompous or pretentious.

Alright, yes, I have internet.  I have a cell phone.  The majority of Batswana I see on a daily basis know at least some English.  I have electricity and when I turn on my faucet, water comes out (…usually).  When I needed a sweater, I hopped on a bus to the capital and bought a plain black V-neck.  But in the end, it doesn’t matter which amenities I have.  I’m still completely alone in a foreign country with only a basic understanding of the language and culture.  Some nights I’m so homesick I stare at the ceiling wondering how I’ll make it through the week.  When I feel lost, I don’t even always know how to ask for help, and I certainly don’t have the vocabulary to express how I’m feeling, or what I’m experiencing.

So go ahead, call it Posh Corps.  Call Botswana “the Country Club of Africa.”  But just as calling me Lorato doesn’t change me from actually being Tess, calling Botswana a country club doesn’t change any of the real, pressing issues it faces each day.  Regardless of what others may think, I’m determined to find a way to truly become a part of my community, fully grasp the culture, and maybe even try to make a difference at some point.  And I may hit a few bogeys on the way, but hey, that’s life on the green.

These people are amazing.  It’s so emotional I was thinking about wearing waterproof mascara. Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham