22 March 2012

Meeting the President

Or, My Close-of-Service Conference

Peace Corps service is marked by various trainings and conferences: two months of Pre-Service Training, then two weeks of In-Service Training, then Mid-Service Training halfway through, and finally a Close-of-Service Conference when there are only three months left.

March 12 – 14 was my training group’s Close-of-Service Conference, and I have to say it was my favorite conference by far.

We stayed at Phakalane Golf Resort – a.k.a. the nicest hotel in all of Botswana.  The food was delicious and the rooms were nicely and uniquely decorated.  There was an infinity pool that looked out over a pond and the golf course. 

Most of the sessions in the conference were about the future.  We reviewed the process of ending our service at site, using our Non-Competitive Eligibility for government jobs, and how to share our experiences when we get home (among other things).  For our first night, they arranged a game drive at nearby Mokolodi Game Reserve followed by a braai, or barbecue. 

The next day was a formal luncheon.  All volunteers were allowed to invite two guests from their villages, but there were also many VIPs present – the Minister of Health, representatives from the Ministry of Local Government, as well as officers from the Ministry of Education and others.

I had been chosen as one of four volunteers to give a speech in Setswana at the luncheon, in front of all the honored guests.  This made me very, very nervous.  As if that wasn’t enough, I found out the morning of the luncheon that the Tautona wa pele, Former President Rre Festus G. Mogae was going to be in attendance!  Can you imagine?  That is like, Bill Clinton status! 

Needless to say, my palms were sweaty and I felt a bit nauseous leading up to my speech.  I couldn’t even focus on what other people were saying.  Lucky for me, all those years of acting really pulled through and I spoke better at the luncheon than any time that I had practiced.  (Daniel took a video of my speech.  If the quality is good enough, I’ll post it here in a few weeks.)

This was already an honor.  But then a woman from The Daily News, the government newspaper, came over and asked to take my picture with President Mogae!  She asked me because I was wearing a traditional dress.  Two days later, my picture was in the paper, in color, shaking hands with President Mogae.  I even had my left hand on my right forearm, following proper traditional Setswana culture.

It was one of the most special moments of my time here in Botswana and my life in general.  It might even beat meeting Michelle Obama.  What a way to end my service!

President Mogae and myself

Shaking hands

The following day we took one last group picture and said our goodbyes.  For some reason, it didn’t hit me that this would be the last time I’d see many people – not only the last time in Botswana, but likely for the rest of our lives.  I know that the people who have become my family here will certainly always be in my life, but it’s unrealistic to think I will keep in contact with everyone.  It felt a bit like high school graduation.

So here I am, with 78 days left of a life-changing experience.  While meeting two famous, influential people are some of my favorite memories, they barely scratch the surface of what the past two years have been like.

Daniel and me, of course
Why Former President Rre Festus G. Mogae is special to Peace Corps:
Peace Corps has been in Botswana since the 1960s.  But, as I mentioned before, the country made such amazing progress, Peace Corps pulled out, no longer needed.  Then, when the AIDS epidemic struck, it threatened to undo all of the progress Botswana had made.  President Mogae asked for Peace Corps to return strictly to address this health issue, and thus he is the reason we are here. 

I especially admire President Mogae because he stood up for what was right even when his peers were not.  When the AIDS epidemic struck, the leaders of countries surrounding Botswana (such as South Africa and Zimbabwe) refused to acknowledge HIV.  They would not accept help nor direct social/health initiatives to educate and inform their people.  President Mogae, however, saw HIV for what it was – a fatal disease – and took prompt action to ensure a healthier future for his country.  I can’t imagine the pressure he must have been under, and the strength it took for him to be the lone leader.

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