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...

Monday, September 17, 2012


One year ago....

On September 14 my group, Bots 11, reached the one-year mark in our service. It was fun and sobering to look back at what our expectations were and what the reality is. I expected Peace Corps would mean I would create my own projects teaching or working with students and that I would be in a small village where I would get to know the language, the people, and respond to their needs. I expected Botswana would be as it was depicted in the book and TV series “#1 Ladies Detective Agency.”

The reality is that Peace Corps has very proscribed (and often contradictory) directives and the fact that PC Botswana is closely aligned with the Ministry of Education means it is difficult to create your own projects in teaching or working with students. The village I live in is relatively small (five to nine thousand people, depending on who you talk with) but is basically a suburb of the capital. It has been a challenge to learn the language, and integration has not gone beyond being identified as the ‘white lady.’

In our training Peace Corps told us Batswana are peace-loving, non-confrontational people. We were constantly told that we were fortunate to be in Botswana, as it was one of the best posts, often referred to as the ‘posh corps’ because we can drink the water, and it has most of the amenities of a first world country (paved roads, electricity, internet, etc.) The reality is even here, 20 km from the capital, the water goes off for days, electricity goes on and off and internet is not available in the village. All of that can be disturbing, but not unexpected when you sign up for Peace Corps work.

What was unexpected was the level of violence that we have been experiencing lately. A month ago one of the young volunteers staying in the village where we all do our training was attacked while walking on a road with a former Navy SEAL. The attackers came up from behind and separated them, knocked her front teeth out, and fortunately for her, were finally repelled by the Navy SEAL. She has since returned home for good. A couple of weeks ago another female volunteer was attacked as she walked three blocks from an upscale shopping mall to the home of a peace corps staff member. Three men came up behind her, one put his arm around her neck and lifted her off the ground. When she realized what was happening she began fighting back and screaming. Fortunately for her some people in a car stopped and neighbors came out of their homes. The attackers fled, leaving the necklace they had ripped off, and the knife they were carrying, on the ground. Two nights later a Botswana woman was attacked at knifepoint and died of her wounds.

On Friday September 14 I left the Peace Corps office and walked through Game City, the major mall in Gaborone, to meet some friends for lunch. At noon, in a crowded mall, I was accosted by three young men. One walked towards me asking if I was ‘visiting.’ I said “I live here” and kept walking. He walked me towards a wall, I felt something poke into my back and felt my backpack being lifted. I went into a rage, screaming at the men to get away from me. Although there were many people around, no one turned to look much less to help. The young men walked calmly away, having unzipped my pack but not having gotten anything out.

Friday, September 7, 2012

PACT Training

Peer Approach to Counselling by Teens is a program that began in a YWCA in Cleveland, Ohio and somehow found its way to Botswana. It's a program designed to empower teens to make informed decisions about important issues in their lives and is based on the idea that teens usually turn to each other for information on such things as sex, love relationships, fashion, sex, career plans, sex, dating decisions, sex, etc. And we all know how successful that can be...

So it was that my friend Mia, who works at a primary school in the bush, came to Kopong JSS last Saturday and helped me run a training session for PACT members. The learners (that's Botswana for 'students') had told me they wanted to learn more counselling and public speaking skills. The day began with Spike, my landlord's dog who thinks I am in his charge, counselling the students on how to take over the podium..

Once we managed to convince Spike that we were in charge, the day began with 46 students eager to become counsellors. We did ice-breakers such as "kingdom, wisdom, condom" (can't wait to bring that back to the states) and the time-honored game of 'telephone' which proved once again that you can't believe what someone whispers in your ear.
At one point we divided the men from the women and asked each group to write down the definition of friendship/love/dating/and the ideal qualities they want in a man or woman. The men retreated to the far corner of the room and spent quite a while preparing their answers.

The women talked and argued and wrestled with their answers, but still, they had to wait for the men...

At another point we mixed and matched learners and gave them a 'situation' for one to ask for advice from another. Once all the learners had had a chance to role-play both the counsellor and the advisee, we had them write a list of what was helpful and what was not helpful. The overwhelming response was that the most 'not helpful' thing was laughing at the person who asked for advice. We talked about the fact that people laugh when they are nervous, and that sometimes one wants to ease the tension, but clearly the person being laughed at did not experience it as helpful. The second most common problem was trying to talk to a counselor when they were looking you 'in the face.' Mma Seakobeng, the PACT advisor, took a chair and a learner and showed them how she counsels someone, sitting a bit to the side of them and listening well, but not staring into their face.
Then she showed us how happy she was with the learners and their counselling skills.

At the end of the day we asked the students to stand in front of the group for ONE minute, take a deep breath, and state their name, where they are from, and name the person they most admire. ONE minute, one deep breath, three things to say.

This turned out to be the most challenging part of the training. Students who willingly introduced themselves at the beginning of the day and sang a song when asked what they liked to do, now tried to exit the hall rather than stand and 'speak publicly.'

Mia did a fine job of coaching each student up to the front and helping them get through their ONE minute of fame.

Then it was time for Congratulations and Certificates.

Today when I returned to school I was told the students loved the workshop and want to know when we will do another one. That was gratifying, but what was most gratifying was hearing that they are 'much more confident' when they speak at the all-school assemblies.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Life's a BEACH

 After 10 months in a dry land, friends and I headed northeast to the Indian Ocean. Here is a photo-log of the trip, beginning with my favorite photo:

Tofo, Mozambique
Botswana's Track and Field Olympic Team was on our flight!
unexpected bus stop 11 am

bus rank 5 am 
in Maputo--tree shopping...

the ladies who sew...note my wallet at the ready...
shopping comes to you--at the restaurant 
In Tofo--more salesmen... 
At last--The Ocean!

yoga on the beach

evening sky

first fish braii
swiss friends on the beach

back to Maputo--the natural history museum

Nucleo d'arte -- artist studios

me and Maputo friend Geraldine at Alliance Francaise

fish market
'I must go down to the sea again...'