Friday, December 30, 2011

A Quiet Christmas

As with most major holidays in this country, Christmas is for family. It is not about the latest toy available at Walmart or stringing up enough lights to illuminate the entire neighborhood. Other than hearing Bing Crosby sing 'white Christmas' on the radio once, and almost tripping over a lone Christmas tree in the middle of the Rail Park Mall, I would not have known 'tis the season. Particularly since my Christmas has always been of the cold and snowy kind. . .

People in Botswana return to their 'home village' for holidays. As I walk around Kopong I notice many more people gathered in the shade on their plots. The grandmother next to us, who is raising two grandchildren alone in a house with no windows or electricity, has had a full team of family for days now. My landlady, on the other hand, has been enjoying a few days alone with her husband, having sent her son and daughter and nephew 'up north' to stay with her mother. Family is everything in Botswana and family is not as strictly nuclear as it is in Amerika. It is not unusual for children to be living with aunts or uncles or grandparents, for any number of reasons. I had been living here for a few weeks before I realized that Tselang, the six-year-old, was not my landlady's son, but her nephew. He has been living with them for four years and is treated like her own son. It is not clear to me why this arrangement was made, but Tselang will be going to live with his mother and father in Kasane when he starts school next year, and we will all miss him.

In Kanye my host family consisted of two unmarried sisters raising their four children together. At first I could not figure out whose child was whose because both sisters were called Mma by all the kids, and everyone followed the dictate that the oldest in the family is treated with the most respect. Thus all the children responded when the older sister called tla kwan (come here) and either sister stepped in to discipline or help with homework or fulfill any of the roles necessary to raise their children.

On Lesatsi Keresemose (Christmas day) music was everywhere in the village. I remember reading a novel years ago that referred to the 'drums of Africa'. I assumed it was referring to the bush, but I now think it referred to the constant beat that thrums beneath all music here. More often than not I go to bed feeling the percussion of someone's music vibrating through the ground.

I anticipated Christmas would be difficult for me--most of my family was born on Christmas week (including me) and my sister hosts a huge all-day dinner and yankee swap that had become the highlight of the year. It's amazing how little you really need to celebrate, though. My son in NYC and his inlaws in Dublin Ireland sent me what I am calling "Christmas in a box." Mary sent a wooden Christmas tree complete with tiny ornaments and Jason and Sarah and the girls sent a package with all the things I had jettisoned from my suitcases when I went over the luggage limit last September. The best present of all were photos and a video of my granddaughters and the news that my niece in San Francisco (she's also my goddaughter) is engaged. On Christmas eve I had a lovely dinner with some fellow volunteers and talked on the phone with my son and his family while dodging the antics of monkeys. You can't do that in New England...

 Rose, Shannon, Karla, and memonkey business

Christmas in a box

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wedding Day

This is the wedding season in Botswana. Every weekend a tent goes up on someone's yard, plastic lawn chairs are arranged about the yard, goats are gathered together in full view of the pots and charcoal braziers that will be used to transform them into a delicious stew, and somewhere nearby eight cows will be delivered to the kraal--the bogadi (bride payment). Once the tent is up, people 'pull all-nighters' as we used to say in college. A color theme is chosen, and all the tent poles, the tent roof, the sides, everything in sight is wrapped better than Christo could have imagined.

I was privileged to attend the wedding of my peace corps LCF (language and culture facilitator) Tiro, a beautiful woman who was married in the village of Moshupa, not far from here. As is the custom, there was a day-long reception at the home of her parents, which would be followed by another at the home of the groom. In Botswana a marriage is seen as the combining of two families. At some point in the celebration, both families will walk towards each other and welcome the bridal couple. Actually, they dance toward each other, swaying and singing and greeting the entire family.

Tiro's wedding color theme was lavender and gray. The tent was swathed in white, lavender and gray, and the bridesmaids dresses were lavender and gray. Unlike in the states, where many the bridesmaid has to add one more cookie cutter dress to her closet, the bridesmaids here take the color theme and choose their own design. Also unlike in the states, the dresses--all of the dresses--are provided by the groom and members of the family. The groom pays for the bridal gown and the bridesmaids dresses. The bride then has a number of outfits that are paid for by an aunt, an uncle, a parent, etc. After the luncheon, Tiro and the wedding party danced their way out of the tent and into her parents' home. A while later the entire party danced their way back, dressed in new outfits that they modeled for the guests. As they danced the song changed from the contemporary 'it's her wedding day' to a traditional song in which people announce who has provided the particular outfit the bride is wearing: "this is from the aunt', 'this is from the uncle' etc. Another song cautions the mother-in-law to 'step aside, the new boss is coming.' All in all, Tiro and her wedding party danced through five separate outfits.

Aunts and uncles are very important members of the family. It is traditionally the aunt who talks with a young girl about her role as woman, and it is an uncle who looks out for her. When Tiro's uncle introduced Tiro she had a hard time brushing the tears away from her eyes. We were honored to have been given a seat inside the tent, and enjoyed the festivities despite understanding maybe 1% of what was said (another LCF sat with us and translated at important moments). A wedding in Botswana is also a community affair. Anyone can come to a wedding and it is expected that they will be fed. Thus, the cooking and preparations begin days in advance. When we left the tent, neighbors had gathered under the trees about the area and were enjoying the feast. The bogadi was not present during the party, having been taken off to graze elsewhere, but whenever the breeze lifted the gossamer sides of the tent, there was no doubt eight cows had been in residence at some point.

my host sister prepping for another wedding

Tiro's beautiful gown

The demure bride

Tonic our fearless translator

Sunday, December 4, 2011


I am a child of the '60s. When I hear the word 'integration' I see firehoses and attack dogs, bombs in churches, and Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial declaring "I have a dream." Integration was something that had to be forced on our country by legislation and enforced by military troops. Integration in Peace Corps terms means 'get to know your village and your community as well as you can in the next two months.' It means interview people and do research to fill out a community assessment form, then create a report that highlights the history of the village, the main concerns in terms of safety and security, water and sanitation, food, employment, schools, health care, environment and of course, HIV/AIDS, the reason the Peace Corps was asked to return to Botswana.

At present, I am the only Lekgoa in Kopong. Lekgoa means white person--literally 'vomit from the sea' which may sound unfriendly, but consider that the first time people in this part of the world saw a white person, he was coming off a boat and probably, given the rigors of travel a century or so ago, looked like he had been vomited from the sea...

When I arrived at the school three weeks ago, I was introduced to more people than I could possibly remember. I took the advice of a previous volunteer and always carry around a small notebook in which I ask people to write their name, and I make a note of where and when I met them. Now that school is closed and I am in the position of introducing myself to people, this little notebook has become invaluable. Particularly when I see someone look at me with a bit of surprise or hurt in their eyes. Then I know I have already met them and I apologize and say 'ke lebetse' (I forgot) and they open my notebook and point out their name. Still, I know there are times people have been offended that I do not remember them. Everyone knows who I am--the lekgoa--I am easily recognizable, particularly with the two dogs following me around, my backpack, and apparently--my camera.

I walk around the village at least once a day, trying to figure out the lay of the land, and also to meet people. The other day as I walked back from the post office, I was stopped by children who wanted me to take their photo, and then was called over to the fence of a neighbor who asked me to take her photo. I explained to one young man that he was wearing the sweater of 'the greatest university in America.' Those are the words of a Boston Globe columnist, and although Alex Beam definitely uses the term with tongue in cheek, I was happy to see this fellow stand up proudly at that news.

The other advice I have followed is to "accept all invitations." Thus, yesterday I headed out in 100 degree heat to attend the bridal shower of a woman who works at the local tuck shop. (A tuck shop is usually a shipping container turned on its side in someone's yard with a hole cut out for customers to ask for sodas or bread or minutes for their phone.) "Come at four" she said. "It's just beside the clinic."  I got to the clinic about four. All the houses were quiet and I was stymied. I showed my piece of paper to two women who were walking by, and they said they knew Boteke and would take me there. We began walking--far, far from the clinic. I kept looking back wishing I had breadcrumbs to drop to find my way home. After a number of twists and turns we came to the "cul-de-sac" tuck shop, where the women ran into two young girls they said were sisters of the bride. They waited patiently while the girls bought popsicles, and did not leave me until I was under the guidance of Tracey and Carol. We arrived at the bridal shower and I was invited into the home. No bride in sight, no shower in evidence. People were kind and friendly and as I talked with them I noticed a very pretty young woman with blue eyeshadow and a blue scarf sitting silently in the room. "She's blind," one of the cousins of the bride said. I began speaking with her, and her mother told me "she's very smart," and brought out a braille book for her to read to me. Hope ran her fingers across the bumpy page and began reading to me from the book of Genesis.

I now have over 150 names in my little notebook, and a project I plan to work on with Hope: finding books in Braille for the local library* (she told me she is not the only blind person in the village). Everyone I have met has both a Setswana name and an English name. Some have told me their parents gave them their English name, others say they chose their own 'Tracey suits me, don't you think?' Setswana names are very descriptive and I sometimes keep myself amused by deciding on Setswana names for my friends and family at home.

I left the shower before the bride arrived, and before any shower activities began. African time is mutable and 4pm can mean 8 pm, or whenever. But volunteers have to be home by dark, so I took my leave with Felix in tow and somehow we managed to find our way back home before the sun set.

Today I set out once again with Felix and Spike and once again, I was called over to someone's fence to say hello. This time it was the cleaner from the school, someone I had met before, but who simply laughed and pointed to my book when I began to introduce myself.

*If you can help with this project, please let me know. Ke a leboga!

koloi ya ditonki

A Harvard Man in Kopong


Hope reading to me from her Braille book

Monday, November 28, 2011

Warm African Hostility

Last weekend I traveled to Molepolole (mo-lay-po-low-lay, say that 10 times fast...) to celebrate Thanksgiving with some local volunteers.  My friend Mia and I shared a room at Lemepe Lodge, the evacuation destination for peace corps volunteers in this area, and a reason for us to consider this a research project. The lodge is lovely: complete with restaurant, bar and pool.

Mia is living in the bush, without electricity, running water, or refrigeration. When we arrived she disappeared into the bathroom and must have taken 4 showers in the 24 hours we were there. After a drink at the bar, a swim in the pool, and a trip to the local grocery, our group arrived at John and Carol's house on the grounds of Kwena Serowe Jr. Secondary school. Peace Corps Botswana is fortunate that the government provides housing for its volunteers. This means some people (John and Carol) have houses with extra bedrooms, full baths, complete kitchens, and large yards. Others are housed in family compounds, which can range from 2-room boxes (such as mine) to lovely 3-bedroom homes or one-room roundelas (think cover of "Ladies Number One Detective Agency").

I have celebrated Thanksgiving in a number of different countries, including Canada and Italy, and always, I am happy to think that this is THE American holiday. I struggle to explain this to people in other countries. When I say "everyone goes home for dinner" it doesn't quite translate. When we decided to make Thanksgiving the theme of our thank-you dinner for our host families, we came up against the fact that we were celebrating the arrival of the 'oppressors'. We decided to concentrate on the turkey and the idea of communion at the dinner table.

In Italy my brother-in-law and I made a trek to the local macelleria and managed to convince them to butterfly a breast of turkey for us to cook on the grill  (there was no oven in the apartment we were renting). In Canada Thanksgiving is celebrated in October, before the rough winter settles in. Here, John and Carol managed to find a turkey and roast it before we arrived. Mary (a true Irish woman) made amazing mashed potatoes and Rose did her magic with onions, zucchini and patty pan squash.

Dining with friends and hearing how all of us are dealing with the same things in different situations was  invaluable. True communion. The 2-hour bus ride (with door that didn't close and flapped all the way from Gabs to Molepolole) was amusing. On the ride back the bus slowed down, the driver yelling (Setswana often sounds like people are yelling) and gesticulating until a bus coming from the other direction slowed down and both buses stopped. They opened their doors (this bus had a door that closed) and a young boy got out and ran across the highway to the other bus while both drivers called to each other and waved their arms. My Setswana is dismal, but there was no mistaking the fact that this young boy had gotten on the wrong bus and everyone was taking care of him, making sure he got where he was supposed to go. This is Botswana.

flapping bus door

Mia celebrating running water

rose, yami, dana, mia at the pool

in the kitchen with dana, mary, rose

the Duxbury Dames

Thanksgiving on the patio

carol and mia (note the map--every volunteer house has maps on the walls...)

Rachel, Dana, Finda and maps

Since I am still trying to figure out how things work, I took the bus from Kopong to Gaborone, then Gaborone to Molepolole, and back. This means I was actually going in the opposite direction and turning around to go back. This is strong impetus for me to learn more of the language and figure out how these combis and buses work. In the meantime I am dependent on the good will of Batswana, which is immense. Every time I leave this village there is someone who steps up and helps me find my way.

I traveled back to Gaborone with another John and Carol (we have two married couples named John and Carol in this group) and felt my heart skip a beat when I said goodbye at the Gabs bus rank. As good as it was to see people again, it was hard to say goodbye to them. I rode the bus back to Kopong with a heavy heart, got off at the dirt path and trudged along with my load of groceries and memories. As I bent down to avoid the thorn tree I saw two girls come running towards me. It was Pearl, the girl who came to my office the day before school closed, to tell me she is a writer. I did not recognize her without her school uniform, but when she told me who she was, there was no mistaking the smile. She is my next door neighbor! My heart is no longer so heavy...

Before I sat down to write this blog I opened the flyer I picked up at Lemepe Lodge. This is their 10th annivesary [sic] and their mission is to "provide divine, warm African Hostility."
I think there is work for me here . . .

Friday, November 25, 2011

Out and about in Kopong

This was the last day of school for Kopong Junior Secondary students. Form 3's who pass their final exams will now move on to Senior Secondary school, which for them will be a boarding school in Good Hope, in the south of the country. Those who do not pass will most likely join the list of unemployed young men and women in this country, one of the problems the government is hoping we will help them address.

When we return at the end of January, there will be a new class of Form 1's, and today the Head of School informed us it is a large incoming class--45 students to a class. ouch. This has not been the best time to arrive. The teachers are at the end of the longest term in the history of Botswana education, as they have had to make up time for the days that were lost last term during a bitter teacher's strike. They are tired, finishing their grades, and ready for semester break. Not the best time for an eager, ready-to-work peace corps volunteer to arrive in their midst. I have spent a lot of time observing and listening and wondering where I might fit in. Sometimes I don't feel I will fit in. But then, someone like Rra M. will ask if I would be willing to invigilate an exam, which I did, and which  led  to me talking to the students about my work in America which led to two young girls showing up in my office the next day to ask if I would help them with their writing. One thing usually leads to another, and just when I am thinking I am going nowhere, I don't know what I'm doing, etc., the librarian will speak to me and ask if I can help her sort through the 500 books that were donated from world wide libraries. And then yes, I have work and something to do while the school is closed for two months.

Outside of school my job for the next two months is to 'integrate into the community.' Again, not the best time, as many families return to their home villages for the holidays or are gathered together. Sometimes it feels like me and the dogs--Felix and Spike--are the only ones out and about. This is a respectful, friendly country, and people always greet each other. On Thanksgiving day, when I was feeling lonely and a bit lost, I put up my umbrella, stepped out the gate with Felix and Spike and said "Dumela Mma" to a pretty young woman at the bus stop (some tires buried in the sand under a shady tree). Her name was Precious and she walked with me and told me she had known the previous peace corps volunteer and wanted me to let her know that Precious 'is in school.' I now know what a victory that is, and I have already emailed the good news.

In the evening, when I want to see the sunset, and I need a bit of  walk before bed, I wander about the dirt paths around my home (not too far, as I am prone to getting lost here). Sometimes I hear a child call out "hello English lady" or sometimes a bold one will walk up to me and say 'give me madi.' The assumption is that all white people are wealthy and so we are often approached and asked for madi--the word for money AND for blood (interesting homonym). I tell them I have no money. They clearly don't believe me. But they can see I have a camera in my hand. "take our photo' they say, and burst into giggles when I show them the result. I come home and burst into tears at the pride and strength in their madi.

Today I decided to make the trek to Gaborone, the capital. I stood by the buried tires under the shady tree with felix and spike sleeping beside me and while I waited a teacher from the school stopped and talked with me. No bus arrived, but a combi (think small mini van with folding seats to hold 9 people in the 3 three rows and 2 people beside the driver) came along and I folded myself in and asked if I could get to Gabs on the combi. A woman told me she was going to Gabs and would show me. Thank the good Lord she did, as it required getting off on the highway and getting into another combi which did not seem to me to have any indication on it that it was going to the bus rank. But we got there. By the grace of good Batswanans.

Speaking of God, he is very present in the schools  and all areas of life here. When I was introduced to the class I was to invigilate, Rra M. said "I pray to Jesus Christ that you will give Mma Jeffries the respect she deserves." Every meeting begins and ends with a prayer. People will ask you where you go to church, as if they were asking where you shop.


a poet and a songwriter

goat traffic jam

'give me madi'

When the bus does not show up and the water goes out for days on end, life slows down to the essentials, one of which is a belief that thla go siame it will be okay. Olebogeng. thanks to God.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Moral and Tolerant Nation

Today I went to the Kotla to be formally presented to a gathering of villagers. I introduced myself, in Setswana, and was given applause and ululations, which thrilled me. What I said and how I said it must have been pleasing and made them happy. This means a lot because I have been struggling with this language. Thankfully Kgomotso (which means 'comfort'), the Setswana teacher at Kopong Jr Secondary school, has agreed to tutor me. She's a lovely woman and completely won me over when she asked my age and was stunned--she thought I was 20 years younger!

The Kotla is an open-air gathering place for the villagers and the seat of the Kgosi, the hereditary chief of the village. The Kotla itself is similar to the palapas I had seen in Guatemala: a large patio encircled by a half wall and covered with a thatch roof. It is a place where people 'hang out' and where the chief holds court. People bring disagreements and problems to the chief, and to his advisors, and things are sorted out. Botswana has a police sector, but unless something is of a definite criminal nature (such as murder, etc.), most things are taken care of by the Kgosi. Each time I have been by the Kotla, I have seen a group of men sitting in a circle under a tree having discussions. I do not pretend to understand how things work at this early stage of my sojourn here, but it is intriguing to see a culture that seems to have blended traditional customs with modern needs. If your goat wanders into the neighbor's yard and is killed by their dog, and you cannot work it out between you, no need to take it to small claims court, or to Judge Judy. There is recourse in the center of town.

At today's gathering Rra Motigwa, a coordinator from the Office of the President, spoke about the disabled, and Botswana's work on their behalf. "We are a moral and tolerant nation" he said. I watched as the meeting opened with a prayer, then greetings and introductions (including mine) and then with entertainment. A group of women entered, singing and swinging their hips. How did I end up in a country that loves fat asses? Why did it take so long to get my fat ass here? As the women swung their hips and sang, people in the audience patted their rumps affectionately. Someone here told me that women should be able to 'talk with their derriere as they walk away.' My photo doesn't do it justice, but one woman was definitely 'speaking from behind." Music and dance break out all the time. Note the official following the women out of the Kotla, who couldn't help doing his own jig...

The purpose of this morning's gathering was to present gifts to two disabled children from the village. Botswana has many OVC's (orphaned and vulnerable children), a legacy of the continuing AIDS epidemic. The gift that was presented, one to a 10-year-old girl, the other to a 7-year-old boy, was startling to me--it looked exactly like our weekly rations from the Peace Corps during our home stay. In the photo you may note toilet paper, a plastic bucket, the exact same blanket we were issued, as well as other household products. I was relieved to see a doll in one package, and a soccer ball in another, despite the fact that the boy could not walk. Later in the program the minister announced that the government was giving the boy a wheelchair.

Four hours later (Botswana IS a tolerant nation) the gathering ended with more singing, a short drama, and closing prayers. All of this was conducted in Setswana. When the dignitaries left the building, the community began to elect members for the Red Cross. The official language of Botswana is English and business and government is conducted in English. The election proceeded in Setswana with the moderator writing everything in English, 'chairperson', 'vice chairperson,' etc. People's conversations, although usually in Setswana, seem to be salt-and-peppered with English. Phrases are dropped in here and there, and to my great relief all numbers are in English (!)

Back at school, the students were taking English exams. I asked to see one of the exams and was impressed to find these 13 and 14-year-olds were being asked to read and respond to sophisticated short stories, poems, and drama. And here I am introducing myself in kindergarten Setswana...

entering the Kotla

gifts and the Minister

dancing out the door

tonight's sunset

The day ended with another promise that furniture will be delivered tomorrow, with more pula (rain) and a rainbow!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Where I live now, part II

Kopong Jr/Sr. Secondary School

Felix/aka Fred Astair

Chicken plucking time

myhouse, pit latrine, chicken coop, main house with slaughter equipment

my communication center


Today, after 5 days of crazy heat, and being sent home from school because there was no water, we got PULA! (rain). Not a lot, not enough, but it was wet and the sky was amazing and we are all praying for more. I have found a place just outside the gates of this compound where I can lean against a fence and watch the sunset. The dogs, Felix (who I call Fred Astaire because of his white spats and his debonair manner) and Spike, who seems to live up to his name, now follow me about. It is comforting, and often opens up conversations with people because they recognize the dogs, but of course who on earth is the white woman with the flower umbrella? I can then tell them I live with the dogs and they know my landlady and know where I live. When I returned from school today the chicken slaughter was once again underway. Here in Botswana the feet are considered one of the best parts of the bird. Have not tried them yet. may never do so.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Where I live now: Kopong

My landlady Gladys & me with NYC shopping bag

Gail in the garden behind my house
Chantelle & cousin

front of my house


I am now living in a 2-room house on the Kgopo family compound. Gladys (my landlady) kindly took me to Gabs yesterday to grocery shop in what I could swear was Whole Foods. Needless to say my shopping instincts took hold and I managed to ignore my list and stock up on fresh fruits and veggies, cheese, herbs and spices, things I hadn't seen in two months. Then she took me to Pick and Pay (think Stop & Shop) and I filled the basket with staples and garden supplies. When we returned to our village, she took me to her favorite butcher, who slapped the beef on the scale without wax paper, etc. while brushing off the flies. After that we stopped in the local general provision store and I was excited to buy a NYC shopping bag. Gail, the maid from Zimbabwe, is eager to help me work on the garden the previous PCV created, and together we hope to create a compost pile and grow some tomatoes and herbs as well as some vegetables. Kopong often has water shortages, so I am using as much 'gray water' as I can to water the gardens. Chantelle, the 10-year-old who speaks perfect English is standing under the only tree in the yard, where the cars are usually parked. With her is her 6 year old cousin. The dog is exhausted from barking all night...

Saying goodbye to Kanye

It was hard to leave my host family. As the 'elder' in the family I was treated like royalty (family of origin take note, please...) and there was really no way to properly thank them. I made a dinner for them of my favorite chicken dish and gave the two sisters T shirts I had brought with me. Although we only spent a short time together, I'm sure we will keep in touch.  The car is the neighbor's--I stopped dead in my tracks on the way home one day, as this is the car I drove in the states...

Scenes from Family Thank You Party

The theme for our Host Family Thank You Party was Thanksgiving. The PCVs put on a skit about thanksgiving (complete with turkey shoot) and the host families put on a skit about their own harvest celebration (complete with traditional beer). We made turkey centerpieces out of Fat Cakes (basically fried dough balls, our favorite food). The children were perplexed that we made toys out of food, and a few of them ate the centerpieces. . .

Scenes from Swearing in Ceremony

We made it--all the basadi mogolo (older ladies)

Carol Munson and I (we were both on Cambridge Common on the same day in 1969--Look at us now!)

This is Amelia, from Rhode Island who hosted me for Shadowing in Shoshong.

Me and Malope the II, Paramount Chief