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