Welcome to the very first blog entry, straight from the Peace Corps in Botswana!
I admit that I have written and rewritten this blog post many times. I started with a full explanation of my political views and why I chose to join the Peace Corps and my intentions to make the world a better place. But it didn’t sit right with me. Do you want to hear a political rant? I imagine you get enough of that on a daily basis.
Instead, I came to the conclusion that morality can be derived from ones actions. Plenty of people can talk a big game, but don’t show up with their actions. And that is what the Peace Corps is all about, right? Service. I intend to be the change and share with you the nitty gritty of my experience here in Botswana; the good, bad and the ugly.
To bring you up to speed, I previously lived in New York City in Brooklyn. I lived there for 18 years, and I knew it was time to leave. You just feel it inside of your bones. I began taking the beauty of the city for granted because I felt like I was suffocating. And NYC isn’t a place that should be taken for granted. I thought about moving to another place in the US, but I just couldn’t think of anywhere I wanted to be. I have loved Botswana since I was a kid and read “The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency.” I knew the minute the Peace Corps offered me a job in Botswana that I belonged here. I feel at home.
I worked most recently as a television producer for CNBC, and before that I was a digital producer/writer and worked in banking for 10 years before moving to television. That’s a whole other blog post to explain the job transition.
These days I’m working as a capacity building local government volunteer here to help with HIV and AIDS. About 17% of the country has HIV/AIDS, and the Peace Corps is here solely to focus on the epidemic. In fact, Botswana is such an economically stable country that the Peace Corps left here in the 1990s and returned in the early 2000s at the request of the President of Botswana to assist with HIV/AIDS.
I arrived in country in July after a 31 hour journey, including an 8 hour layover in the Johannesburg airport with 88 other volunteers. Here’s a picture of us looking tired and happy to have arrived as soon as we landed on Botswana soil:
I was so nervous to meet the other volunteers, but as soon as I met them I realized I was in a room with 88 other people who were just like me! Everyone was there for a good reason and willing to take this insane journey together. It was an immediate feeling of family.
We stayed in a hotel in Philadelphia and did training for a day, and then got up at 2 am and drove from Philly to JFK airport in NYC. Here’s me after not sleeping a wink the night before, ready to embark on the journey:
It was pouring rain that night, and that was the last time I ever saw it rain hard again. I admit it was very strange when our bus drove through Brooklyn and we passed my house. I looked out the window and yelled “Hey, that’s where I used to live!”. But the majority of the volunteers weren’t from New York, didn’t know I was from New York and were sleeping. Therefore, they had no idea why I was yelling on the bus. I drove past a place that was my home for so long on my way to begin a new life, and yet, it wasn’t mine anymore. I didn’t belong there.
I realized at that moment that I didn’t really belong anywhere. I am a citizen of the globe. That is a freeing and scary feeling to have all at once.
We spent the first three months training in a village called Molepolole and I lived with a host family. It wasn’t really what we would usually think of a village in the sense that the population is 78,000 people there. It was a bustling, big town! I was so scared the day I found out who I would be living with. Would they like me? Were they nice? They quickly welcomed me with open arms into their family. They put up with my bad Setswana and fear of spiders, taught me how to cook Botswana dishes and prepare bush tea. I made tacos and pancakes, went to church and let my niece braid my hair. I suddenly had two new sisters, a brother, parents, a niece and nephew and a cute dog to welcome me home every day. What an experience!
After three months of training, we were officially sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers. My family attended the ceremony and we all wore matching outfits made from the traditional Botswana pattern. It was literally the sweetest gesture on the planet that they wore matching attire!
Flash forward, I now have moved to my site and work in a District AIDS Coordinator (DAC) office. That is the local government entity that oversees funding of all projects related to HIV/AIDS. We oversee 23 villages and they report to us project progress data and we help to coordinate various committees.
When I first heard that I was placed in a DAC office, I thought to myself “oh great, I’ll be sitting in an office staring at a spreadsheet. I could have done that in New York!”. I had requested to work as a social worker in the North with all the safari animals, and was placed at a DAC office in the South in the desert with camels (no joke). I am of course happy to serve anywhere I was placed, but it took a second to digest the fact that life would be very different than I imagined! Of course, any fears I had of being bored in an office were immediately put to rest when I walked in the door. I now feel bad for even having a disappointed thought in the first place.
I work with two other women who are kind, hilarious and smart. My first week here we went on a tour of several villages in the south to set up Village Multi-Sectoral AIDS Committees (VMSAC) with the notion that AIDS doesn’t happen in a vacuum; you must include people from each cohort within the community to provide perspective.
I soon found myself sleeping in a tent every night and crawling into the back of a covered pickup truck with 12 other people curled up in a ball while we drove through the sand dunes on unpaved roads to go to meetings. I was also assured that my tent was lion-proof… I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, but I was told there were cheetahs and lions out there. As we were driving we saw a hyena on the side of the road and our driver immediately stopped, grabbed his phone and made a run for it out of the car to try to snap a picture. He kept yelling at it in Setswana so I wasn’t sure what was happening at the time, but ultimately the hyena outran him.
So, I had such a blast that first week that I have completely fallen in love with my office and my village. Every day I am grateful to be placed in such a welcoming place. Most people know who I am and say hello. My neighbors are friendly. Everyone is genuinely curious and wants to get to know me.
The first month and a half we are at our site as volunteers, the Peace Corps wants us to focus on integration. We are tasked with meeting with various stakeholders and organizations in the village to get to know how things work. We listen to what the community wants and understand the traditions and cultural norms of the area. So that’s what I’m up to these days. I am getting to know my village and integrating every day.
A few months ago, a man came to speak to us from the US Embassy. He said that typically when the government sends an American citizen to a foreign country, they will place them in a home with top security. They turn the home into a fortress to protect the person from any danger – except for Peace Corps.
He pointed out that we are sent into remote villages with no weapons, no fortress. Our security is our community. We believe that if we can integrate into the community, the people around you will protect you. I believe this is true, no matter what part of the planet you’re on.
Be nice to those around you. Listen with an open heart. Take the time to get to know one another, and you will be safe and secure.
May the journey continue! Or tsamaya sentle, which means “go well”, in Setswana.
Thank you for coming along with me!