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.