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 d├ęcor. 

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!