Friday, August 29, 2014

Green v. Brown

Although it was my greatest fear about living in Africa, I had not seen a snake since I arrived in my village. Evidence of them sometimes appeared—the zig-zag single track from the brick wall into the compound—did the landlord's car obliterate the track? Did a dog get the snake? Was it still somewhere within the compound?
            During my first month at my site, fellow volunteer John gave me a patchwork of aerial Google map photos of my village. I spread them out according to his directions and taped them together. There before me was a bird’s-eye view of the dirt paths of Kopong: the fenced off squares of each family plot, the silver metal roofs of most of the concrete houses and the orange terra cotta roof of my landlord’s home. Why, I wondered, were all the yards devoid of vegetation? I looked at the patches of brown amidst the greenish spots of the rest of the village. This is the bush: dry vegetation, waterless river land. Why make it worse by scraping the land bare?
            When I walked to school after one of the three days of rain we would have in the two years I was in Botswana, I watched the grandmother next door line up her two grandchildren and direct them to help pull every blade of green that had sprouted overnight. Judgment, judgment, my mind was full of righteous judgment. Here was the first bit of green in months of dry dust and there they were on their hands and knees making the earth barren.
            On the weekend I stepped over the donkey dung and the broken glass, stepped off the path away from the fence where the vicious dog always threatened to tear the wire mesh apart at the sight of me, and made my way to the only tar road in my village. It was a paved horseshoe that pulled you off the main road at the empty filling station, led you past the only bus stop with a shade tree and then turned back onto the main road at the cemetery.
            I wanted to explore my surroundings. Rra Sekobolo had drawn me a map of the horseshoe and said it wasn’t far to walk. I set out with Felix and Spike, my landlady’s dogs, trotting beside me. The sun was high overhead when they looked at me with pity and turned aside from the tar road to plop themselves in the shade of an abandoned shed. A family of six went by in a donkey cart, smiling and shaking their heads at me. My water bottle was almost empty. My feet hurt. Surely the road must be about to join the highway, where I could hitch a ride.
            When no highway appeared around the next bend I turned left off the road and walked through the green bush. It felt like astroturf. Tough, spongy, prickly. After half an hour I came to a gravel road and followed that back to the center of the village. The sun was almost to the horizon when I arrived back at my landlady’s compound, put the key in the gate and stepped into the brown dirt of my own square piece of the village.

            The next day I asked Rra Sekobolo why people denuded their plots of land. It’s the snakes, he said. They live in the green grass.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ironing in Botswana


When we arrived in country many volunteers were excited to be in Africa, eager to see the vibrant colors and designs they would find in import/export stores in the states. We had all seen the Peace Corps promotional materials with photos of volunteers dressed in traditional outfits for their swearing in ceremonies. At our swearing in only two volunteers wore traditional outfits, and that was only because their host families had made the outfits for them. Who would want to wear dull turn-of-the-century German hausfrau outfits? At some point in its history Botswana succumbed to the missionaries. They put aside their loincloths and ostrich eggshell anklets and bracelets and washed off the white dots across their foreheads, donned dirndl skirts, tight blouses and wrapped their shoulders in blue plaid blankets. The rest of the continent shimmered and glowed in dashikis and hand-blocked designs while Batswana walked through the heat in heavily starched tight fitting straight jackets.
            During training we were told that no matter how poor a family was, they always ironed their clothes. I knew this was true because the first morning in my host family home I was lifting a cup of instant coffee when a woman arrived at the door clad only in a bath towel. She was there to borrow an iron. When we were given 40 minutes at the mall in Gaborone to buy supplies before being shipped off to our sites, I dutifully bought an iron and ironing board.
            At some point months later I noticed tiny holes in some of my clothes—some of which I see now in the pants I’m wearing. These were not moths—the holes are in synthetic fabrics. It was perplexing to say the least.
            At the end of my time in country I spent a few weekends as the guest of an ex-pat friend to escape the lack of water in my village (in my own private rondavel--see photo). She generously offered to have her ‘girl’ do my laundry and when she said she would have her iron my things including my underwear, I said “Oh, please don’t bother.”
            “But you must,” she said, “all clothes must be ironed here. There are tiny bugs that lay eggs in your clothes. They are only killed by ironing.”

Monday, August 11, 2014

Receding memories

I can’t remember the name of the woman who did my laundry. I can’t remember the name of the town where I changed busses—so much is receding from my time in Africa. Metsimotlha
be—that’s where I changed busses. Mogoditshane, that’s where the combis stopped. But who did my laundry? Gail, yes, it was Gail. From Zimbabwe. I paid her 30 Pula (about 40 cents US) a week to wash my sheets and towels and some clothes by hand, sheer drudgery. I did small things myself, but sheets and towels? Ugh. My landlady raised chickens to sell—6 weeks from chick to slaughter, and sold them 40Pula a bird.
            Gail slaughtered and plucked the chickens as well as cleaned the landlady’s house, did the family laundry, made the meals and babysat the boys--oh, and fed the chickens and cleaned the coop and fed the dogs. Six days a week.  Sundays were the only days she actually left the compound. I always wondered where she slept. My landlady’s house had three bedrooms, one for the parents, one for the daughter and one for the son. In Shannon’s host family the maid slept in the adolescent boy’s room. One bed. Two people in the room. “You do the math,” Shannon said, rolling her eyes.
            In my host family’s home I was given a large room with a double bed. The oldest sister had a room of her own and the three children and younger sister somehow shared a room. Or so I assumed until the morning I had to catch a bus at 4 am and found her sleeping in the dining room. By the time I made the trip to Mozambique, I was perfectly content to share a bunk room with whoever showed up at the hostel that night. Particularly when the bunk across the way was given to a handsome young Spaniard. Sweet dreams that night.

            I miss the adventure, the trek into unknown worlds. Of course I am ignoring the Easter weekend in Kalamare when I stood at the bus rank for 1.5 hours and then was shoved into a tightly packed combi and had to stand for two hours behind a driver who seemed to be in training for the Indie 500. And I’m ignoring another trip to Kalamare when the combi pulled to the side of the road, steam pouring out of the engine. Everyone climbed out and headed for the only tree in sight, sat down on the ground and waited. We three white people in the back pulled out our cell phones and called our friends. “There’s only one combi,” they said. “Hitchhike.” We hadn’t seen another vehicle on the whole trip. By the time we got our legs to unfold and unloaded our stuff, the combi was coughing back to life. Do I really miss all that?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Last Bus Ride

Now that I am “this side” I am reading about Africa, watching a TV series about a family running a game camp in South Africa, looking for Africa in the news. I would never have thought I would miss Africa this much, but here I sit in a park in New York City listening to people talk about personal trainers and watching them parade by in their slinky dresses.  “Three percent rise in portfolio” drifts by on the air and I am seeing the bus rank in Gaborone and the women dressed in long white dresses with white head wraps, their bulky bodies seated on broken plastic chairs under the skimpy shade provided by anorexic trees or tipsy umbrellas
while they wait all day to sell three bananas or a roll of toilet paper.
            I see the tall slim fellow enter the bus with his bag of frozen ices. “Metsi!, Cooltime!” he calls and tickles the children under the chin and makes the women laugh despite the sweltering heat and for the first time I wish I had learned more Setswana. I wish I could understand what he is saying that pulls people out of their stupor.
            I see the beautiful conductor on the 3:30 bus to Kopong. She was a woman of indeterminate age, dressed more modestly than most. Her shoes were solid leather always polished. Her skirts were long and her blouses did not reveal the usual six inches of d├ęcolletage. I don’t think she was Motswana. Her face was more sculptured, with rounded eyelids and a generous mouth. When I saw the carved wooden figures in the main mall, I bought one immediately—it was her face. I kept it on my desk, thinking I would give it to my son, who has four daughters. It was called family tree and had the heads of four women carved out of a single piece of wood. After a few months of admiring it I realized one of the heads had an eye that seemed to wander. The Irish in me was superstitious, afraid it could be unlucky and so I found another family tree for him (these carvings are everywhere) and kept the flawed one for myself.
            The last time I made the trip back to my village I stood on the side of the A12 highway in the sun, resigned to a long wait and a packed bus. As if in a dream, the bus pulled up within minutes and when I boarded I was stunned to see I was the only person on it. This had never happened in the two years I was in Africa. Add to that, it was the bus with my favorite conductor. I sat down across from her and asked if I could take her photo. She smiled at me and nodded. I told her I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had seen in Botswana. She smiled at me and nodded.

            When I unpacked my shoes here in America, red dust fell out on the bedspread. That red scrim covers the edge of my notebooks, sits inside the zipper of my backpack and filters out of things even now, three months after I walked across the tarmac at Sir Seretse Khama Airport, boarded the flight to Jo’burg and looked out the window at the dry cattle and sparse branches of my village, five miles away.
            What do I miss? I don’t miss the chickens and roosters under my window waking me throughout the night. I don’t miss the dogs barking and jumping all hours day and night. I don’t miss the bus windows locked tight while people sit on top of me and cough. I don’t miss the nonexistent customer service, the frustration of finding no one available to do the job they were supposed to do.
            What do I miss? The sky. The clearest bluest largest sky I’ve ever seen. And time. I miss time. There is plenty of time in Africa. Time enough to wait for the bus, the combi, the hitch.  No one is late, unless they have died. There is always the possibility the bus will come, the person will show up, the meeting will begin, if not now, at some point. If there is no possibility, if the breath has left your body and you have been sung into your grave, then and only then, are you “late.”

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Long Good-Bye

It's been almost three months since my last post. Three months during which I struggled with issues both public and private. There was no water on my side of the village during those three months, constant power outages, and despite my resolve to do things differently during the next term, no real support for programs and projects within my school. I often felt like I was taking two steps forward and one step backward--some days like I was taking one step forward and three steps backward.

When you have no water you have to buy drinking water, often in bulk, and drag it home. You have to boil the water that has been stored in the jo-jo (large plastic silo sitting next to the house) to do dishes, wash clothes, and wash yourself. Each day you face the decision of how much water to use for cooking or for washing, not knowing if there will be water again the next day. The house gets dirtier and dirtier as you don't want to waste precious water on scrubbing floors, etc, and the daily sweep doesn't always do the job. You use your 'gray water' for flushing the toilet and watch as the garden dries up. Some volunteers, and certainly many Botswana, live with this all the time. And Peace Corps is quick to remind us that we signed up to work in "hardship" conditions. Having no water and intermittent power is not really a hardship, particularly when one is a bus ride away from friends who have that and will open the door and allow you to take a shower and relax for a day or two. So why was I so exhausted all the time, and finding it harder and harder to get motivated for the projects I wanted to do?

There is a kaleidascope of reasons, all of which came into focus when I had a blood test and discovered my thyroid was out of whack. Way out of whack. It took a couple of weeks of soul-searching and the patience and support of some fellow volunteers (you know who you are) to accept the fact that I needed to be "medically separated." That is Peace Corps talk for 'you need to go home and take care of your medical issues.' I was 'separated' on Valentine's Day and although my body flew across the Atlantic in 16 hours, it is taking my consciousness a while longer to catch up.

 The decision to leave seemed like a long time coming, but when it came things moved faster than expected. Especially when one has been on "Africa time" for almost two years.

On my trip back to my village to say goodbye,  I took photos of my favorite people at school, in the village and on the bus ride. My next blog will be a portfolio of these photos.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Hope Meets the Brailler

Today is Thanksgiving Day in America. What I am most thankful for at the moment is that I have such generous caring friends and community back in the USA. When I asked for help getting a brailler for Hope, a young blind woman in my village, the response was immediate, and overwhelming. It did not take long for people to research costs and find a way to organize the collection of funds. And it did not take long on 'this side' to find someone to sell me a brailler at a price that would eliminate the need to pay for shipping.

What did take time was getting Hope connected to the brailler. When I approached the community library with the idea of donating the brailler to them so that other vision impaired people in the community could use it, they decided it was best to present it to the library during culture week, specifically on the day of culture week devoted to education. Yes, I thought, a good idea. So I told Hope it was on the way and could she join me at the library for the presentation. Unfortunately Hope could not come, as she is now in school during the week. I was disappointed that no one from her family could be there either, but when I stood up to present the Brailler I told the community that it was actually a gift from Hope, whose strength and energy had mobilized my friends at home to make this possible. I spoke of my writing group, The Great Darkness, and other friends who contributed, and the community was excited to be one of the first, if not the only, community library to have a brailler.

I handed the brailler over to the librarian and she said "This is now the property of the Botswana Government." My heart sank to my dusty shoes. And, if any of the photos that were promised to me ever arrive, you would see my face had fallen that far as well. This is one of the quiet problems here in Botswana. A country that 40 years ago did not have a single paved road, much less a community library, has managed to become one of the most developed bureaucracies I've ever experienced. I had visions of the brailler being stamped with a number and put into a store room where it would never be touched by human hands.

Thus began my weekly visits to the library to 'check on the brailler.' I asked if Hope could use the brailler at home and was told that they needed to know who would be responsible for it (as it was now government property of course) and they assured me there were in the process of 'processing it.' Finally, I called Hope to find a day she was free and said 'we are going to the library.' Hope had never been to the library, and I never 'guided' a blind person. She showed me how to hold her arm and in reality, she guided me--with her long white cane tapping through the dust and gravel.

Once there,  Marea the librarian graciously brought out the brailler and Big Son (that is his name) came in to see what it was all about. Hope began to type and others in the library sat in silence watching. I sat back and listened to them discuss things in Setswana, and realized that Big Son had figured out the pattern of braille was mathematical. He immediately sat down and had Hope 'translate' the braille alphabet for him.  I told Marea I would be willing to sign out the brailler on my library card and be responsible for it. After a bit of discussion, the staff decided they could give Hope her own library card and sign it out to her. Big Son said he was a neighbor and he would carry it to her place at the end of the day, which he did.

On the walk back to her place Hope told me she remembered Big Son's face from when she was sighted, ten years ago. We have been talking with an NGO in the capital, Gaborone, about working on information for blind people. "I will have work," Hope says, and is very excited about being able to create a newsletter in braille. It will take time, I know, but somehow the bureaucracy has aligned: Hope had applied to go to school in merchandising, but the government powers that be only had one place open for her: journalism.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Peaceable Kingdom

My friends Plynn and Elaine arrived  in Botswana two weeks ago and headed out on safari with me. Safari is big business in Africa and one can choose to go the luxury route--being met at the airport and practically carried across the tarmac to waiting a/c transport to lodges where the animals come up to dine tableside. Or one can choose the route we took--met at the airport by Lucky, a Motswana who is building his own safari business and who knows the animals and land and respects every inch of each.

Lucky put us up in a lovely lodge by the river the first night, and went over where we would be going--up from Maun through Moremi Park, where we would stop in the road and pick up Dannie the cook, who was finishing up a week in the bush cooking for some Australians. They gave us the thumbs up as he piled into our chariot. It wasn't exactly "Out of Africa" but we had three men waiting on us--cooking, cleaning, driving, setting up camp, and tending to our needs as we traveled through Savuti Park, Chobe Park, and arrived in Kasane before crossing the border into Zimbabwe for Victoria Falls.

After a good night's rest we headed out of Maun and crossed the border between domestic animals and wild animals. For the next 5 days we would be living in their world, with no tar roads, no billboards, no sounds but theirs (and our truck engine, which I assume they think is our sound...) The first animal to appear was the giraffe. Plynn and Elaine squealed and pointed their cameras and I sat back thinking, 'of course, a giraffe' Maybe I've been in Africa too long, but why are the giraffes the first to appear and always standing in the middle of the road?

As we bumped along a certain rhythm overtook us. Long periods of quiet interrupted by animal sightings (Elephant on left! wildebeest behind bush!) left us calm and introspective. Lucky is still working on his truck, and we quickly adapted to the fact that the front left seat was the ejector seat, prone to popping off on big bumps, the front right seat was the thinking seat, whoever sat there reported they had found answers to some of their life questions, and the middle back seat was the sunscreen seat--the only place where sun didn't hit from each side.

Day by day we found ourselves getting in touch with our inner animals--Elaine had a special affinity for the hippo (those little eyes and ears popping out of the water above) as they personified the idea that our conscious life is just peeking out at the world while our subconscious takes up immense space beneath the surface. Plynn is a nature woman and had a huge heart for all the beasts, all the birds and particularly for the Baobab tree, which is over a thousand years old. I fell in love with the warthog--those sassy little asses disappearing with their tails in the air, or chomping along mowing the lawn...

In Savuti all was green and the animals moved among each other peaceably despite the presence of predators such as leopards (we saw three in three days) and lions. What surprised me the most is that none of them could care less about us, the strange beast of the motor world. At one point two wild dogs were stalking a lone wildebeest and came straight at the line of camp vehicles lined up to watch. They walked around us, never veering from their target, who faced them off and sent them on their way.

By the time we reached Chobe and camped along the river that divides Botswana from Namibia, we had no idea what day it was and no interest in knowing. Other guides were excited to tell us there were lions mating and so we headed out on our evening game drive and learned that this king of the jungle has to work hard to keep his species going. When the female lion alerts him to her needs (by pushing her ass in his face--something all cat owners are familiar with) he has to take her off on a solo vacation and pleasure her every 18 minutes for two weeks 24/7. Needless to say, this can be tiring, so there is often another male waiting in the wings to take over when he gets too exhausted. We watched as he finished up one show and little miss lion started walking towards the fellow behind the bush--no way, he rounded her up and led her away. We watched them rest, and then, sure enough, even without a watch, he was up and about his business 18 minutes later. Plynn has it all on video, but here's the 1-2-3 scenario from my little camera:

For the record: lions roar when they have satisfied themselves and their lady. Also for the record: don't blink or you'll miss it...

Chobe was not as green as Savuti, partly because elephants are herbivores and they need a LOT of greens. They basically eat a forest for breakfast. And since Botswana has the most elephants in the world [because they protect them] they have sacrificed a lot of greenery.

Somehow nature saved the best for last (or maybe Lucky did that). When we got to Kasane, he took us out for a sunset ride on the river, just the three of us in a boat with him and an aquatic guide.  We knew we were blessed when we saw the large riverboats with tourists bellying up to the bar and pointing and shouting. Even though our little boat put us a bit too close to the crocodiles and hippos for my comfort, by then I knew that Lucky loved this world (he took as many photos and stopped for binocular looks as often as we did) and that he knew just how close he could go to maintain the animals' comfort level. We cruised along quietly and he pointed out that the elephants who had gone across the river to the Nambia side were now wanting to cross back, but the riverboats were bothering them. We waited patiently until the large boats finally headed back for last call at the bar, and then sat in utter awestruck silence as the large matriarchs got their brood together--smaller elephants in middle, babies well circled, larger elephants at back, and they began to swim across. Swim may not actually be what they did. Elephants go down to the bottom and push themselves off to come back up for air, bobbing along the river. I swear all those silly Disney cartoons were not far off--the elephants were dancing across the river.

We were so taken with these elephants, we decided to try riding one once we were in Zimbabwe. We still walk like cowboys who have been in the saddle too long.

Oh, almost forgot--we saw Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world:

It was impressive, but there were no animals other than the human kind and they were all too busy 'getting and spending.' I miss the peaceable kingdom...