27 July 2010

Nemo vs. Angelina

No, I’m not referring to a showdown between Pixar’s precious poisson and America’s alluring actress, but rather another aspect of being a foreigner in a homogenous society. Many people in Botswana have never seen a Caucasian person other than on television, which leads to constant surveillance. Even in my village, which has had three previous Peace Corps volunteers, stares follow me around from the moment I leave my family compound. People who see me every day (albeit mostly children and teens) can’t seem to resist the urge. During my Peace Corps interview, my recruiter Maya referred to it as “the fishbowl effect.” Fellow volunteers comment on it as a “celebrity complex.”

The Fishbowl Effect. A volunteer is placed (usually) into a small community, likely to be rural, without many resources or exposure to diversity in any sense. Upon arrival, community members flock to the person out of sheer, uncontrollable curiosity. Maya described moments of her service in Turkmenistan when children would be peeking into her house from every window. Imagine literally being in a fishbowl: diminutive, different, and displayed.

The Celebrity Complex. It derives from the same situation – a completely new type of human being in a non-diverse community. However, from this perspective, people want to know every last detail. What does her hair feel like? Where does she come from? What’s her name? Where does she live? How does she like the village? Does she have a camera? Is she married? Can I be her friend? Can I check* her?

Personally, I have experienced aspects of both “phenomenon,” and before you worry about the state of my mental health, rest assured I am learning each day how to deal with the extra attention. But I wonder – which perception is the more accurate description? Am I a specimen or an idol? Am I scrutinized or admired? Do I live in a clear glass bowl or the lens of the paparazzi? Nemo the clownfish or Angelina Jolie?  And who wants to be a fish or a celebrity, anyway?

There are certain shades of limelight that can wreck a girl’s complexion. –Audrey Hepburn, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

*In Botswana-English (Bonglish?), the verb “to check” means “to visit.”

24 July 2010

A Secret Success Story

In the Briefing section of the June 28, 2010 edition of TIME Magazine, there was a short article outlining the “danger” of undeveloped countries discovering abundant natural resources – “Brief History: The Resource Curse” by Alex Perry. Perry asserts that upon such a discovery, governments will mismanage the resource, leading to corruption and violence. The first three examples cited are oil in Nigeria and diamonds in Sierra Leone and Angola. Perry then mentions Norway as a “success story” that managed to use its resources wisely.

A short article – three paragraphs – however, it piqued my interest. Botswana should have been in that last paragraph with Norway. Immediately after declaring independence in 1966, Botswana discovered an enormous supply of diamonds within its borders. Are you wondering why you’ve never heard Botswana mentioned in all the talk surrounding blood diamonds? That’s because the first president, Sir Seretse Khama, managed to introduce Botswana to the diamond industry without breaking human rights law, and even turned the profits directly into social programs for Batswana (the people of Botswana), thus avoiding the slippery slope to corruption and violence. An admirable act, and one that set the stage for Botswana to become the peaceful nation that it remains to be to this day.

In fact, Botswana is a success story in more ways than just management of natural resources. Independence was bloodlessly declared, democratic elections are regularly and justly carried out, the country enjoys an economic status similar to middle-income countries such as Turkey or Mexico, and the newspaper headlines are more likely to be agricultural developments than homicides. In the 1990s, Peace Corps ended the program in Botswana because developmental help was no longer needed. In 2001 the program was reinstated strictly and solely to address HIV and AIDS, as the rampant spread of the disease was threatening the astonishing progress the country had made in other areas over the 40 years of independence.

I wish Perry had used Botswana as the positive example rather than a European nation. Too often the perception of Africa (always “Africa,” never the individual country, as if Africa was some sort of giant nation-state rather than an entire continent) is hunger, disease, poverty, and violence. In reality though, there are stark differences between different African countries, and the diversity only increases as you learn the nuances of each individual culture. It would have been nice for TIME to recognize Botswana’s effective management of its diamonds, thus calling the world’s attention to the little-heard-of nation of Botswana, Africa’s secret success story.

(You can read the TIME article here: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1997460,00.html)

Success is simple. Do what’s right, the right way, at the right time. –Arnold H. Glasow

18 July 2010

The Devil Wears... Birkenstocks?

It’s slightly shameful to admit, but one of the most homesick nights I’ve spent is when I borrowed Nicole’s external hard-drive and watched “The Devil Wears Prada.” It was the catalyst to full-on mourning of my past “college girl” life – mix-and-matching outfits (never repeating one, God forbid), living by the laws of “What Not to Wear” with well-made basics and tasteful accessories, and unhurried boredom-browsing through sales racks at Short Hills Mall. It’s not as if I have the money to even look at Prada, and Anne Hathaway’s performance was mediocre at best, but the movie made me realize that the clothes I stuffed into two suitcases in April have to last me for two whole years. Does this make me materialistic? Yes, but that’s one of my personal short-comings I wanted to address via Peace Corps service.

During my application process, I attempted to not have preconceived ideas of what my workplace would be like. However, it didn’t even cross my mind that I would be placed in a country where teachers dress to the nines. Every day, through the red dirty dust and cloudy, chalk-filled classrooms, the teachers of Motswakhumo Community Junior Secondary School look perfectly put-together. Sky-high heels, cute clutches (never a tote-bag, like I carry), and meticulously matched jewelry. Every. Single. Day. They do live on-campus, so they don’t have to make the fifteen-minute trek that I make every morning, but my Birkenstocks do me no justice next to their polished pumps. Especially since I had put off buying them until the day before I left the States, and in my haste I forgot to treat the leather. The water stains really add to my “poor volunteer” look.

The way the teachers dress is far from the norm in rural areas (which is basically everywhere) of Botswana, but it’s surprising how western many of the people here look. The older generation maintains wearing traditional dresses and skirts and using heavy blankets as coats, but even in the most remote areas, younger people can be seen wearing jeans, hoodies, and even velour tracksuits. In bigger villages and cities, you can find familiar brand-names, like Roxy. Fun fact: Jeep actually has a clothing line, and it is extremely popular here in Botswana. I see people all the time wearing shirts with “Jeep” emblazoned across the front.

Another amusing aspect of clothing culture here in Botswana is their winter dress. It is absolutely frigidly cold from roughly 6 pm until 10 am the next morning (it’s winter in the southern hemisphere right now), so everyone layers and wears heavy clothing. People will even walk around wrapping fleece blankets as skirts over their dress-pants. However, in the afternoon it still gets pretty warm (by my standards), but everyone stays completely bundled up, like little children in bulky snowsuits. And no matter how warm the afternoon is, everyone sill comments, “Go tsididi!” (“It’s cold!”) Imagining their reaction if they were to experience an Oswego winter never fails to bring a smile to my face.

A very big difference that is important to note is that people own very few clothes. Having choices of what to wear in the morning is a new idea here, and the majority of the population cannot afford to have the variety that we enjoy back home. Having a large wardrobe is a sign of wealth, even though clothes are relatively cheap in China shops (I’m not trying to be derogatory – that is what the shops are called here) compared to the U.S. Many students continue to wear their uniforms after school is out, despite the sweaters being worn-out or sometimes even having tears, for they do not have many other clothes. I walked around the village today with a student from my school, and she informed me that she could not attend church because she did not have a skirt to wear – only slacks. Even as I’m writing this, I’m feeling embarrassed for being so sad about the clothes I left behind.

So, it’s not the end of the world to forgo Forever 21 for awhile, and the memories of all the cute shoes I left in my closet will fade. Maybe I can get peace of mind knowing that my Mom has integrated my leftover wardrobe into hers. She’ll definitely be the most stylish teacher at Leighton Elementary – maybe even rival the teachers at Motswakhumo.

15 July 2010

Is This Real Life?

Sometimes I feel like that little kid David in the YouTube Video "David After Dentist."  It's like I open my eyes, feeling half drugged, look around and think, "Is this real life?"

And for the next two years, it most definitely is.

14 July 2010

My First Day at the Clinic

I know this is so silly, but I’ve been feeling very apprehensive to go out into my community, even to do things like buy flour and check my mailbox. I think it’s a fear of awkward situations (there has to be a phobia name for that - Lindsay and Meg Nat, you probably know). But today, I woke up and said, “Tess, you are going to go to the clinic today and introduce yourself.” And I did!

The nurses were so nice and welcoming. I met the head nurse and right after I introduced myself she said with a huge smile, “Yes, we can use help.” Simple as that. I got a tour of the clinic before settling in to observe the ARV and PMTCT* counselors, and it is a beautiful facility for such a small village. It is actually more of a mini-hospital, and it even has a whole maternity wing! (Keep in mind that I speak on a Botswana scale – so by “wing,” I mean there are two rooms in a hallway. But that’s way more than I expected!) What made me even happier is that every room was spotlessly clean and the workers were all efficient and friendly.

Wednesdays are “ARV Day,” meaning that people in the community and surrounding villages come to the clinic to receive their Anti-RetroViral Treatment (hence ARVs). The waiting room was filled with people, and I think it was one of the first times the high prevalence rate of HIV clicked in my mind. These people are my neighbors, my colleagues, and my community. Since I am based in the school, it was saddening to know that students of mine have to come every week to get medication. One of the counselors was telling me that the younger patients often get frustrated and angry at their parents for passing HIV to them, and thus do not take their medication, which ultimately hurts them even more.
At the same time though, I felt proud to be a part of my community today. So many people are taking responsibility for their status, and working to be healthy, contributing members to society despite being HIV positive. The great majority of patients have a viral load of less than 400, and a CD4 count well above 250 (in layman’s terms: they’re very far from being diagnosed with AIDS). Also, due to the strong PMTCT program, only two babies were born positive this year. Yes, it’s tragic that they are HIV positive from birth, but only two babies. That is such an achievement.

Next week I’ll be returning on Wednesday to help with ARV day again, and hopefully as I understand protocol within the clinic, I can take on other jobs. I would love to start a nutrition initiative to ensure that PLWHA* stay healthy and strong.

Oh, and after I left the clinic I went and bought flour, and it wasn’t even scary! With this success under my belt, who knows what tomorrow will bring. ;-)

“Doing little things well is a step toward doing big things better.” - Harry F. Banks

*PMTCT: Pregnant Mother To Child Transmission. A huge issue contributing to the prevalence of HIV was pregnant mothers passing the disease to their children either during childbirth or through breastfeeding. Botswana has created a very strong program throughout the country, and rates of transmission in this way are now very low.

*PLWHA: People Living With HIV/AIDS.

07 July 2010

What's In a Name?

Well, William, a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but I’m not sure the same rule applies for me. Upon being matched with a host family, one of the first family affairs was the selection of a new, Setswana name for me. I was dubbed Lorato (meaning “love”) after my host mother. Overwhelmed by all the excitement that accompanies the commencement of an adventure, I embraced it whole-heartedly and accepted it as part of “the new me” without much thought.
Fast forward five weeks into training, and I was just about fed up with the seeming refusal by Batswana to use my real name. The use of Setswana names rather than given names doesn’t seem to bother any other volunteer, but it became a personal pet peeve of mine. I personally do not think that a person needs to forsake their identity in its entirety in order to assimilate into a culture and integrate into a community. As I struggled with mourning my past life, an intense training schedule, and severe homesickness for my friends and family, not being called by my name became a tragedy. I made it my personal mission to only be called Tess. Let me illustrate.

Conversation With a Motswana Pre-Operation “Tess” (with translation):
Me: Dumela Mma. Hello ma’am.
Woman: Dumela Mma. O tsogile? Hello ma’am. Have you risen?
Me: Ke tsogile, wena? I have risen, yourself?
Woman: Ke tsogile. Leina la gago ke mang? I have risen. What is your name?
Me: Ke bidiwa Tess. Wena? I am called Tess. Yourself?
Woman: Ke bidiwa Neo. Leina la gago ke mang ka Setswana? I am called Neo. What is your name in Setswana?
Me: Ka Setswana, ke bidiwa Lorato. In Setswana I am called Lorato.
Woman: Ah! Lorato! “Love!” Ah! Lorato! “Love!”

Conversation With a Motswana During Operation “Tess”:
Me: Dumela Mma. Hello ma’am.
Woman: Dumela Mma. O tsogile? Hello ma’am. Have you risen?
Me: Ke tsogile, wena? I have risen, yourself?
Woman: Ke tsogile. Leina la gago ke mang? I have risen. What is your name?
Me: Ke bidiwa Tess. Wena? I am called Tess. Yourself?
Woman: Ke bidiwa Neo. Leina la gago ke mang ka Setswana? I am called Neo. What is your name in Setswana?
Me: Ka Setswana, ke santse ke bidiwa Tess. In Setswana I am still called Tess.
Woman: (Look of confusion; walks away.)

As you can tell, insisting upon my given name is somewhat a conversation killer. Perhaps you, my dear readers, side with Juliet and feel that a name is insignificant and superficial. Many volunteers would agree. But, as I questioned why I felt so adamantly against the practice of re-naming, I found myself reflecting upon our own country’s experiences with foreigners and nomenclature. (Note: Let me preface this by saying that these examples are absolutely not comparable to the situation in Botswana. I in no way intend to imply that Batswana are being rude or belittling in giving foreigners a Setswana name. I will explain further later, but please keep that in mind as you read.)

• I began to think of immigration and Ellis Island when I realized that “Tess” is a very odd name here in Botswana. The “eh” vowel sound is unusual to them, as is the double “s.” That is another reason for having a Setswana name – it is easier for them to pronounce and remember. It is a common myth (one that I believed actually until I did some research for this blog post) that officials at Ellis Island changed hard-to-spell names. Rather, Ellis Island upheld strict standards for accurate information. It is the immigrants themselves who changed their names for a variety of reasons: to prevent confusion and/or frustration concerning the pronunciation, to aid in adapting to American culture, and to help assimilation into their workplace and the society, among others. The one I associate with is the frustration over pronunciation – although it truly doesn’t bother me to be called “Tazz” (in fact, that is closer than most Americans’ attempts to pronounce my last name). However, despite the obstacles a foreign-sounding name may pose, I cannot agree with immigrants coming into America and changing their names. It is too much a part of your identity, especially as one has forgone every other aspect of their previous life. [Source: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/ihrc/immigration/2007/02/whats_in_a_name.html]

• The second instance in American history concerning name change hit me as I was glancing through A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. (Note: I really was simply glancing through. I’m not mature enough yet to think that history books are fun to read.) In the whole chapter on slavery, only two names of slaves were mentioned – Emanuel and John Punch. It struck me that both of those names sound remarkably… English. Slave owners changed their slaves’ names for, it seems, two main reasons: they did not care to learn their given name, and it established the power dynamic. Slave owners would often use shortened versions of common names, such as Jem for James and Beck for Rebecca. Also popular were Biblical names and location-inspired names. There are very few registration records of slaves using their original names. Additionally, slaves were not given surnames, but rather chose them for themselves if they were so inclined, seemingly as an effort to regain some status and integrate more into society. Their owners would refuse to acknowledge those surnames (although in runaway notices, they would include the full name, in case the slave used her/his full name as s/he traveled). [Source: http://www.afrolumens.org/slavery/names.html]

The last thing I want is for you to think I am comparing Batswana to slave owners. Here in Botswana, they give foreigners a Setswana name in order to welcome them and to help them feel at ease. Here, names are given in good spirit, and I realize and recognize that. However there are moments when, after expressing my desire to be called “Tess,” a Motswana will basically say, “Oh, well, I am going to call you Lorato anyway. So get used to it.” It is those moments when the cross-cultural barrier seems impossible to cross.

There is nothing that I can do to change this aspect of service or of the culture, as it is not even an issue of much importance. Luckily, I am placed in a school and if nothing else, I can require the students to call me Tess. Also, my landlord has taken to calling me “Tando,” which is a nickname for “Lorato,” and I actually kind of like it. Anyway, right now at the beginning of my fourth week, the irksomeness of “Lorato” is dimming as I find myself facing more serious issues – the ones I am here to address, such as HIV awareness and prevention. And I suppose that as long as my dear friends from home promise to always call me Tess, I can deal with losing a little bit of myself while I’m here.

What do you think? How important is your name to your identity? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Love-ingly yours,

"These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

05 July 2010

It's a Dog-Eat-Dog World Out There, Man

Every day, when I walk into my family compound, tired from a day at work and covered up to my ankles in red dust, I find myself facing another obstacle: dogs. My landlord owns three, and it actually is pretty precious – a papa, a mama, and a baby dog. Well, the papa dog has a head the size of a basketball and is at least five feet tall when he stands on his hind legs. The mama is skinny and black, and is so terrified of people while being overwhelmingly excited that she does this squirmy, jumpy, back-and-forth dance until you pet her and calm her down. The baby dog is a perfect mixture of the two, with a slimy pink tongue that refuses to stay in her mouth. Their names, respectively, are Coconut, Blackie, and Cuddles. And when I walk in the gate, they are all charging full speed ahead, straight at me. Let’s just say that red dust is the least of my laundry woes when I have three sets of muddy paw prints on my beige dress pants.

[On a side note, for those of my friends who grew up with me, I wanted to name our first dog Blackie. Because, well, he was black. It just made sense. No one else in my family would even consider it. Now here I am, justified in my knowledge that Blackie is not as ridiculous a name as I was once forced to believe.]

I remember hearing once (probably from my Dad or Leigh, the two most avid dog-lovers I know) that dogs raised domestically don’t realize that they’re a different species from people. They just assume that they are one of us – just unfortunately lowest on the totem pole, since they only get Purina while we get pasta. That idea always made me smile. Supporting this theory was the reaction of our first dog, Spider, when we brought home our puppy, Kiwi: Spider was so shocked at this little furry being that he could not close his mouth and stop drooling. There were trails of slobber on the kitchen floor for days. Until we brought another dog to our house, I don’t think Spider realized that he was different from us.

Now this is going to sound like a stretch, but I’m going to say it anyway – I can now totally relate to my dog. I’m living in a country that is not diverse ethnically, so as a Caucasian I stick out everywhere I go, all the time. I might as well be a different species. When I’m at work though, teaching the kids, or going over to a teacher’s house for lunch, or walking to the store to buy electricity, never once do I think, “oh my gosh, I am the only white person for miles and miles.” The color of my skin and the skin of the people around me doesn’t really ever cross my mind. I am Spider, not paying any attention to physical differences, only caring about fitting in and being one of the “pack.” It is not until I go into Gaborone to do my grocery shopping and banking that I realize what a minority I truly am in my village. The country’s capital forces me to face the physical differences between me and my community. If I am Spider, Gaborone is Kiwi (minus the excessive drooling). A very silly analogy, I know, but it struck me as I walked to the store today and I thought it might bring a smile to all my dog-loving friends back at home.
And to be honest, I don’t mind being Spider. He was pretty damn smart.

Blackie, Cuddles, and Coconut, getting into shenanigans on my patio.
This is for you Dad -
“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” -Mark Twain