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

29 August 2010

A Rollercoaster Ride

Please excuse my hiatus - I have been enjoying the relative luxuries of Oasis Motel in Gaborone, the capital city, with my fellow Bots 9 volunteers (“Bots 9” meaning the 49 other volunteers I train with). It was an occasionally overwhelming, intermittently informative, yet frequently fun two weeks of training. I trekked home today loaded down with two extra bags – one of a couple days’ groceries and another of thick manuals and guides on topics ranging from working with youth to project design management. On the combi ride from the motel to the bus rank, a fellow volunteer Mark commented, “I don’t feel like I’m going home. I feel like I’m leaving again.”

Looking back, I realize that the past four months have really been spent in a constant state of upheaval. Before I left for this training, had you asked me if I felt at home in my house, I would have responded in the affirmative. Now, as I sit on the floor in front of my awkwardly-placed coffee table (I live in a round house, remember? The layout is terrible!), I’m not sure this really does feel like my home. It’s like starting all over. Throughout Peace Corps training, you can’t escape the cliché that “Peace Corps is a rollercoaster of emotions.” Fact: I hate clichés. Fact: that particular cliché is absolutely true.

I have a week before the next term of school starts. With that time I hope to visit the government offices in my village and find my footing once again. I can’t honestly say it’s something I’m looking forward to, but it’s essential to my service… and probably, in the long run, my sanity.

Adding to my rollercoaster ride is a lot of worry about friends and family back at home. Praying for the Hilton family, the Paice family, the Kazarian family, JoBeth Dunsmoor, my Uncle Kenny, my Uncle Dan, and all of their family and friends. Here in Botswana, prayers for the Rampipi family and friends.

I always feel like I’m on a rollercoaster, but I never want to get off. There’s a certain high you’re always on. –Leonardo di Caprio

08 August 2010

Let Us Protest Ignorance

It was astonishing to see the headline of nytimes.com today: “Battles Around Nation Over Proposed Mosques.” What? I had heard of Sarah Palin ludicrously leading protests against the potential mosque near Ground Zero, but the words “around nation” took me completely by surprise. What other mosques could possibly be causing debate? What is happening in my homeland?

Protests are occurring in New York, Tennessee, California, and Wisconsin (and surely in other states as well) over the possibility of new mosques being built. One protester asserted that Islam’s goal is to get into Congress and the Supreme Court in order to impose Shariah law. That particular statement conjured up an image in my mind from Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, where a giant brain ruled a world, commanding the people what to do and when. This woman spoke as if there is a giant brain of Islam, decreeing people to take over the U.S.’s judicial system. No, ma’am, actually the goal is for Congress and the Supreme Court to accurately represent the population of America, all religions and ethnicities included. Islam is a religion, quite separate and autonomous from extremist and terrorist groups. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists… we’re all people, trying to make a living. Crying, working, makin’ love, sleeping, cheating, eating. Being a Muslim does not equate being a terrorist, just as being a Christian does not equate being a crusader, being a German does not equate being a Nazi, and being a sorority girl does not equate being a coke-head.

Now do we really want to delve into a literal translation of religious texts? I’m no Biblical scholar, but for example, the Book of Leviticus (Old Testament) says a woman must be kept in complete isolation for a week during menstruation and a man must sacrifice two turtle doves after ejaculating, not to mention that all homosexuals must be killed. The point is not to make jabs at the Bible, but to show that ancient religious texts need to be taken in context.  (Fareed Zakaria published an excellent article in Newsweek which touches upon modernizing Islam.)  Non-Muslims who have never studied the Koran and its implications in the modern world should not be given the microphone to speak out nationally on the perceived “danger” of mosques and the presence of Islam in America.

Again, I am no scholar, but let us look at the goal of an act of terrorism. The actual act itself is nearly inconsequential – it is the aftermath that counts. Frenzy in the media, crazed people in the streets, fear stricken into the hearts of the citizens. The goal of terrorism is to instill terror, thereby leading people to make rash accusations and premature decisions. The goal of terrorism is to cause a nation to tear itself apart. These groups that are protesting the building of mosques are playing into the hands of terrorist organizations. As a nation, we should band together to protect all citizens, rather than creating unnecessary divides.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City said it best:

On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, "What God do you pray to? What beliefs do you hold?" … We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

Fear is not an excuse. If you want to protest – protest ignorance. If you want to fight – fight injustice. If you want to speak out, then speak out in the name of love and tolerance, and let us work together toward a country that is founded in equality.

Reading List:
The NY Times article
Mayor Bloomberg’s speech in support of the Mosque
Fareed Zakaria's thoughts and his subsequent return of his ADL award

01 August 2010

Montle Means Smart

I would like to set my rose-colored glasses down on the coffee table for a moment, and give an example of the minor obstacles I face on a daily basis. This is an actual, verbatim conversation I had with a Motswana (person from Botswana) on Friday.

Referring to a Peace Corps volunteer we both know.

Woman: He is very good at Setswana!
Me: Ee Mma. O montle. (Yes ma’am. He is smart.)
Woman: Montle? That means beautiful.
Me: Ee Mma, but “montle” means smart as well, right?
Woman: O montle. He is beautiful.
Me: Oh, okay. How do you say “smart”?
Woman: “Montle” means beautiful.
Me: Ee Mma. What is smart? How do you say, “He is smart”?
Woman: He is smart? You say, “O montle.”

A hurdle may only be two feet high, but jump over them from 6:30 am – 5:00 pm, seven days a week, and even LoLo Jones would need a vacation.

Courage doesn't always roar.  Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "I will try again tomorrow."  -Mary Anne Radmacher