25 February 2011

A Smart Mind

Scene: A Peace Corps Volunteer, TESS, sits in the shade with a local woman, LESEDI.  They are drinking juice and talking about life.

TESS: Someday I am going to save up my money so I can have a beautiful house that's all decorated.

LESEDI: Yes, the would be very nice.  But buying nice things for your house, it's expensive.

TESS: (Sighs)  I know.  I guess I'll just have to marry a rich man!

LESEDI: You don't need a rich man.  You just need a smart mind.  If you have a smart mind, you can make yourself rich.

TESS: (To self) I just got pwned.

End Scene.

23 February 2011

Live Like a PCV Challenge

Ever wonder what it is like to live as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in a developing country? Do you think you have what it takes?

The “Live Like a Peace Corps Volunteer Challenge” is a project started by volunteers in Mongolia to help raise awareness about the Peace Corps within the United States. Those taking this challenge will get a small taste of what life is like for volunteers here in Botswana. The challenge will take place on the first week of each month from January 2011 until December 2011, and also during Lent.

This March, the Peace Corps will celebrate its 50th anniversary and we wanted to find a unique way to celebrate it and to carry out one of the main goals of the Peace Corps. This project’s goals are to increase the understanding of life in Botswana among people in the US.

Look under my "Get Involved" tab or check out the website to get more information on how you can accept the challenge!

The PCV in Botswana who put all this together (and who I stole this blog entry from)

15 February 2011

YES Club Officers 2011

From Left: Mma Gaoetswe, Tsaone, Tsotlhe, Tess
Gobona, Wame

13 February 2011

Sunday Series: Superstitions, Part Four

In the calm of the early morning, something moving on the floor catches my eye.  I freeze, assuming the worst (cockroach), but see that it’s a harmless lizard.  Being a superstitious person though, I realize that a lizard is actually much worse than a cockroach.

In Botswana, lizards mean you are pregnant with a baby boy and frogs mean a baby girl.  My good friend Lily said that while she was pregnant lizards would follow her into her bedroom.  There’s also a practice (though I’m not sure how many people actually partake in it) of putting a pregnant woman in a room with lizards and frogs, seeing which species runs away, and thus finding out which sex the baby is.  

Owls are bad omens in Botswana.  People don’t see them very often, so they make people somewhat panicky.  The man who redid my roof in October discovered an owl, and was so completely shaken he could not work the rest of the day and had to be calmed by my landlord.  ...Though in truth, he probably wouldn’t have worked the rest of the day anyway.

All Batswana tribes have a Totem, which is an animal.  The Totem is supposed to guide and look after its people, and in return the people are supposed to respect the Totem.  The Totem is painted on the walls of the kgotla, which is where the chief of the tribe meets with his people to discuss problems in the community.  In my region, the overwhelming majority of people are from the Bakwena Tribe, and their Totem is the crocodile (kwena is the Setswana word for crocodile, hence Bakwena, people of the crocodile).  Other Totems throughout the country include elephants, cows, lions, etc.  Levels of reverence for Totems varies by tribe – for example, having a cow Totem wouldn’t stop someone from eating beef, but those with an elephant Totem would never eat elephant.  Regardless, people’s Totems are an important part of their identity in Botswana.

There are some other fun animal stories, but they aren’t quite superstitions, so I’ll save those for another time.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my first Sunday Series.  Next up: Lentsweletau.  It’s about time I share my village, school, and home.  Get ready for lots of pictures!

One last note: Happy 10 months of being in Botswana to my training group!

Oh, and clarification: I share my office with other people, so the lizard I saw was not meant for me!!

10 February 2011

Universal Truths

I don't care what anyone says about cultural differences.  It is just as obnoxious and demeaning to be whistled at and catcalled by construction workers in Botswana as it is in the States.

Edit: I realize that that's an unfair stereotype.  The majority of construction workers are, I'm sure, very respectful citizens.


Usually I try to have an overall theme to every entry, but sometimes that’s not possible.  Here are a few random updates from this week.

- Every Thursday, the students are divided into three groups, called “Houses,” for an assembly.  The House I belong to is Sechele (say-chel-ay).

At assembly each week, one class must give a presentation on the “Weekly Theme.”  My counterpart (the senior teacher of guidance) and I work together to create the themes and provide material to all the classes – topics such as time management, alcohol abuse, and study techniques.  It used to be that the presenting class would have one student stand in front and read off a paper about the theme.  It was very boring.

A teacher came up to me at the beginning of this term and asked, “How can my class present this topic in a new way?”  So I suggested they do a drama.  On that Thursday morning, all the kids swarmed to the front, completely engaged in the drama and laughing the whole time.  It was amazing to see these students transform from glazed-over eyes to active participants, and nothing beats the sound of laughter at a normally sober school.

Since then, every class has done a drama for assembly, and all the students are much more interested.  Even better, today the main characters were all played by Form 3 boys.  These were 16-year-old boys, the oldest and coolest in the school, putting on a play to warn their classmates about the dangers of smoking.  For me, it was a great moment.

My village is growing!  There is a new complex in town that has a general store, a hair salon, a book store, and a restaurant.  The restaurant is owned by a fellow teacher and friend of mine.  I ate there on Tuesday and it was really nice.  Absolutely crazy to think that Lentsweletau has a restaurant now though!

Currently my village is without water, so yesterday after lunch they canceled study time and let the students go home.  As I was walking, a group of boys was walking behind me.  Generally I love my students, but as with all kids, some are just jerks.  Plus these boys are all taller than me and that makes me nervous.  So I let them pass me.  However, one of the biggest boys went over to a little girl (maybe 7 or 8 years old), towered over her, and stole a handful of her snacks out of the bag she was carrying.

I got really upset when I saw that, and started to chastise the boy.  What makes it difficult to be a disciplinarian here though, is that the kids laugh at me.  Because of my white skin, because of my accent, out of embarrassment, out of disrespect… I don’t know.  It’s very, very frustrating however.  I realize now I should have made him give the snacks back and then taken his name, but I wasn’t thinking clearly.  I want to be these kids’ friend, but sometimes the bullying and lack of respect is just appalling.  Obviously, this is something that happens everywhere, not just in Botswana.

My last update of the week is the work I am doing with an HIV support group called Pula Matlho (pooh-luh mah-tloh), which means “open your eyes”.  They have a nice building with a kitchen, bathrooms, and even a sewing room, all donated by Al-Muslimah, the women’s Muslim group in Botswana.  Unfortunately, they are not using the building.  I’m working with the group to get funding in order to open up a preschool.  The idea is to have it open to all children, but to provide free tuition to orphans and vulnerable children.  They also plan to start a garden in order to provide income.  I’ve never written grant proposals before, so wish us luck!

- Shameless Plea for Attention:  I have a phone, and two numbers you can reach me on: +267-72-627-867 and +267-73-649-223.  

In other news, please leave me comments if there’s anything you’d like to know about the culture or my life here!  After this Sunday, I’ll need a new topic for my “Sunday Series” (I am really cool) and I want to make sure it’s interesting.

06 February 2011

Sunday Series: Superstitions, Part Three

Although I know witchcraft exists in some form, it was hard to find out exactly what people believe.  If someone talks too much about witchcraft, people start wondering, why do they know so much?

Some beliefs about witches in Botswana:
  • They wear black.
  • They gather on hilltops and sing in the middle of the night.
  • Also in the middle of the night, a witch will go to the houses of her enemies to get revenge.  One way in which she does this is by poisoning any glasses of water which have been left out at a bedside or on a counter.  This could kill someone or make them seriously ill.
  • Normal people can go to witches if they wish to harm someone.
  • They can create a thokolosi.

Part of the reason people refrain from speaking about witches is the prevalence of Christianity.  Witches are the antithesis of Jesus here, and a large majority of the population is very devout.  To speak of a witch is beneath a “good Christian.”  You can imagine the reaction I got when I explained Wicca as a religion.

The interesting twist to witchcraft here is that traditional doctors are the only ones who can undo the spell.  An “English doctor” (as they call doctors who practice Western medicine) can treat the symptoms, but can never fully cure someone who has been harmed by a witch.

Traditional medicine will be covered in a different Sunday Series, because it’s a crucial part of life here – and, interestingly enough, a contributing factor to the HIV epidemic.  Some people consider traditional doctors better than witches, while the truly devout consider both witches and traditional doctors sacrilegious.

Despite not wanting to talk about it, I never once got a reaction that witchcraft doesn’t exist or isn’t real.  The belief is there – I’ll just have to keep digging to get some real answers.  

03 February 2011

Democracy Makes Me Happy

Forgive me in advance for how scattered this entry will be – I’m excited about a current project and wanted to give a quick update before the weekend.

As some of you may know, one of my biggest projects here is the Young English Speakers (YES!!!) Club.  The school’s management team approached me in August last year with the pass rate of the school – less than 25%.  I was as eager to address the issue as the rest of the school, and after talking to students and teachers, found that the biggest problem is the lack of English comprehension.  Students will fail an exam, and when the teacher reviews with the class, the students know all the answers – in Setswana.  The Ministry of Education’s policy is to administer all exams in English, regardless of the students’ comprehension.

Wow, two paragraphs in and I’m already on a tangent.  Long story short, I have an English language club and love my students so much I’m contemplating taking on a side job to buy them all plane tickets to come home with me in 2012.

The club has been going extremely well.  We’re working on reaching out to the student population as a whole with weekly prizes, we have encouraging posters in all the classrooms, and we’re working on our second literary magazine, A New Beginning.

But last week it hit me: what does every good club have that we don’t have?  Answer: A president!  So, spur of the moment, I decided that we should hold elections for a president, vice president, secretary, and an editor of the magazine.  (I would love to have a treasurer, but you need to actually have money before you need someone to take care of it.)

Not only does this promote democracy, an ideal that America holds very dear to its heart (just look at how well we democratize other countries!), but it’s a great chance to learn new vocabulary.  Democracy, voting, two-thirds majority, nominations, elections, candidate, seconding, speeches, debates… and the nominees get to practice public speaking.  It has become an all-encompassing teaching opportunity!

At first the kids were shy to nominate themselves or others.  By the end of the day however, we even had two form 1 students (the "freshmen") step up and nominate themselves.  One boy in particular turned down my nomination for vice president, only to nominate himself for editor of the magazine!  If he doesn’t win, I might appoint him assistant editor.  Is that unfair?  …Maybe I could do it in order to teach the words “corruption” and “cronyism.”  (Side note: I can’t help feeling motherly love for him – he walks me home after every club meeting.)

On Tuesday, at our next meeting, all nominees will give speeches on why they are the best candidate.  Then we’ll vote and have our officers! 

I’m abnormally and unnecessarily excited for this.  Just thinking about it brings a huge grin to my face.  Not a creative project by any means, but my kids are so damn cute I can’t help loving everything the club does!

My students and me with one of the slogans they made up:
"Go on... You can say it in English"

To clear up any confusion - Botswana is Africa's longest, continuous, multi-party democracy, so the students are obviously very familiar with the concepts we talked about.  My excitement therefore comes not from teaching the idea of democracy, but from the students having a chance to hold their own elections, something that is not commonplace at my school.

A great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be a great democracy.  -Theodore Roosevelt

01 February 2011

Thanks, Man

“Thank you so much.  I really appreciate it.”

I adopted my standard, slightly-verbose way of sayin’ thanks after a rare argument with my father.  Apparently, being treated as a chauffeur by your 14-year-old daughter can make you feel unappreciated.  That day, I realized how important appreciation is – not just getting it, but giving it.  Since then, I have taken every opportunity to let people know that I appreciate what they are doing, and in my mind, the simplest way to do that is to be straightforward and tell them.

Fast forward to Botswana.  At my group’s IST, some volunteers echoed what my father had said so many years ago: they didn’t feel appreciated.  No one at the office said thank you after a favor; no one commended them on hard work; no one even complimented them if they took the time to throw on some mascara and a pair of earrings. 

The counterparts (colleagues that volunteers are “assigned” to at their workplace, in order to help get projects off the ground) at the workshop seemed almost amused by this.  Validation isn’t thrown around here as easily as it is in the States.  Not because Batswana are ungrateful – quite the opposite.  They simply aren’t vocal about it.

That explanation didn’t quite clear things up.  I could just imagine some of the snarky thoughts floating through people’s heads: what, now we have to be mind-readers too?

One volunteer offered an example.  Teachers at her school will just demand a pen (no “please” or “may I”) and then return it without a word.  This is something I relate to.  It happens all the time.  “Tess, mpha* pen.”  “Ke kopa* chalk.”  “Don’t you have a tissue?” 

As Americans, this comes across as very rude and demanding.  Seriously, “give me a pen”?  Why don’t you have your own pen? – you are a teacher after all.  After awhile, it can start to get on one’s nerves.

Enter the cultural exchange aspect of Peace Corps service.  How Batswana “say” thank you is one of my favorite things about the culture.  Thank you doesn’t come straight from their mouth – it comes from their body.

It’s true that there isn’t really a good translation for the word “please” into Setswana, so what seems like a glaring omission to westerners is simply a cultural difference.  In Botswana, when you give something to someone – let’s just say, oh, how about a pen – you extend your right hand with the pen and touch your left hand to your right wrist or arm.  The gesture of touching your proffering arm shows extreme respect. 

When you are accepting something, you extend both of your hands cupped together.  As you receive the item, you give a slight bend of your knees.  This is more respectful to a Motswana than any “Tanki, Mma” or “Ke a leboga, Rra” could ever be.  Since I have consistently employed these actions, my colleagues and neighbors have warmed up to be considerably.  Perhaps they were feeling just as frustrated with me as some volunteers had felt back in August. 

I find myself using hand gestures to show respect even when I am speaking to other volunteers or ex-pats (of course, I continue saying my please and thank yous).  Still, I love that in Botswana, the simplest way to let someone know you appreciate them is to be straightforward and show them, and it’s a habit I'll probably still have when I go home.

This past weekend I said to someone, “Thank you so much.  I really appreciate it.”  The sentence felt lengthy, my tongue tripped over the words, and somehow it all fell a little flat this time.  Proof that I’m beginning to re-learn a lesson from a new perspective:

Actions speak louder than words.

*mpha (mm-pah): Give me
*ke kopa (kay koh-pah): I am asking for…