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