As I sit in the office, I am embarrassingly covered in more sweat than you can imagine. My shirt is soaked. Lesson learned: bring an extra shirt with me to work. I guess it’s summer here. When I ask people what season it is or when summer begins, they look at me like I’m nuts for caring. I guess if it were this hot for so long, I wouldn’t care when spring was, either. Hot is hot and cold is cold. Those are the two extreme weather conditions you get when you live in the desert! Here’s a snapshot of the weather forecast this week just to give you a taste of the kind of heat I’m talking about:
So, I’ve lost some weight since moving to Botswana four months ago. Maybe it has something to do with the absurd amounts of sweat coming out of my body on a daily basis. I’ve lost a little more than 30 pounds. For me, I’m just back to my normal size that I’ve always been. I gained some weight my last year living in NYC. I was stressed, not getting enough sleep and doing the best I could on a busy schedule to eat healthy with absolutely zero money in my pocket to afford the food I needed.
I find myself eating more whole foods and walking and cycling everywhere. I also now have more free time to live a normal life. I finish work at 4:30 and voila! I’m home before 5 pm. I can walk home. Are you kidding me???? For years I have been taking trains, planes and automobiles for an almost 2 hour commute each way to get to work. Now I can simply hop on my bike and ride home. There’s no bus schedule, no train delays to worry about. I love it!
I still don’t have a permanent home, I’m living in a temporary house while the house allocated to the Peace Corps is being repaired, but I don’t mind. I consider this all part of the adventure. May the adventure continue until the house is repaired!
I also live in what is called a “low food security” area. Meaning, there isn’t access to a wide variety of foods at a cheap price, even though I live in the shopping village. Many people from surrounding villages shop in my community. In fact, some people travel hours by bus or hitchhike just to come to my village and go to the grocery store. There is nothing but small general dealers outside of this village in the area, so I am extremely lucky to live in the village I do.
So, if you’re a vegetarian like me, you take what you can get and make it work. Yes, people here typically are surprised when they find out I’m a vegetarian. “What?! Oh my. I can’t imagine life without meat,” they usually say.
I promise, I really tried to eat the meat here. I didn’t want to be the prissy American who demanded a special meal. To make matters worse, I am allergic to dairy. So now I’m a vegan, who eats eggs and sometimes bacon. Can you imagine how confused people must be?
I wanted to be the cool kid who could blend in anywhere and be grateful for the food put in front of them. When I lived in the US I wasn’t technically a vegetarian, but I didn’t eat a lot of meat. I typically only ate the white meat of chicken off the bone or ground turkey. I think it would be absurd for me to demand only white meat chicken breast meat in Botswana.
My first week of living here, we were staying in Gaborone at a hostel/hotel and our meals were provided. I took the meat, and while I didn’t love it, I forced myself to eat it. That became more and more difficult as time went on. I was getting a lot of anxiety around mealtime and whether I would have to pretend to like something I didn’t. Finally, one day I was chewing a piece of meat at lunch and my throat wouldn’t swallow it. I swallowed, it came back up. I swallowed again, it came back up. I must have tried 5 or 6 times, before my stomach was like “Nah girl, this ain’t happenin’” and then whole-heartedly rejected it and I puked all over my plate. The guy next to me looked at me in horror.
That was the last time I ate meat.
But, I still don’t consider myself a prissy American. Usually I just eat everything else that’s served aside from the meat and it’s delicious. Here’s a pic of a meal I made recently. It’s rice topped with curried vegetables, cabbage and beets:
When I lived in New York, I used to plan all my meals at the beginning of the week. I would wake up on Sunday, go shopping and get all the food I needed and then spend the day cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for the entire week and put it into containers. I was constantly on the move, so when I got home late at night from work, the last thing I wanted to do was cook. I would be ravenous and eat everything not nailed to the floor that didn’t require cooking. Thus, meal prep was something that was essential for my survival if I wanted to eat healthy.
But here, in my Botswana village, meal prep is not practical. I can’t plan meals in advance because I don’t know what the grocery store will have from day-to-day. Every day it gets in a different vegetable one at a time, and you have to work with what they have. Sometimes that’s an abundance of green peppers, or cucumbers or cabbage. Usually they will have beets, carrots and potatoes in stock, but that’s it. The rest changes daily.
I really love Morogo (pronounced mo–ro-ho) and it’s an essential staple on all plates here. I get it from the little shop in the parking lot of the grocery store. The woman who works there cuts it up fresh and has a bag waiting for me for 10 pula (about a dollar) a few times a week.
I actually really enjoy visiting the store every day to see what new vegetables are in stock. Last week, I visited the store near my house and they had baby brinjals, or little eggplants. Score! I cooked up a brinjal curry that night.
Typically, a Botswana meal consists of meat (usually goat), butternut squash or beets, morogo and a big helping of paleche (maize meal), which I would compare to grits. I love everything on that plate except for goat. I swear I’ve developed a sense for goat that I can smell it from a mile away. It has a very distinct smell. I can’t walk in the meat section of the grocery store because it has the strongest scent of goat I’ve ever smelled. I can taste when a dish has recently had goat on it, even after it’s been washed.
Goats wander the streets everywhere here, and I tell them I love them when I see them (don’t judge me. I do love them and someone should tell them!) But do I want to eat them? No.
Recently, I was dog sitting at a friend’s house and didn’t have my water filter with me. So, I boiled water in a pot. As soon as I tasted the water after it was boiled, I said “this water tastes like goat!” Sure enough, it was the pot that they had recently cooked goat meat in. Even though it was washed and clean, I could still taste it. I was at a work event a few weeks ago, and the coffee tasted like goat. It’s like I have goat-dar.
I was thrilled to discover that people love carbohydrates here, too. It’s not insane to have someone hand you an entire loaf of bread for a meal. Are you kidding me?? That’s my lifelong dream! For my entire life in the US, people have always preached that carbs make you fat. But let’s keep it real, carbs are the BEST. Screw chocolate. Keep your desserts. I’m in it for the bread and potatoes! <<insert Oprah screaming “I love breaddd” here>> It’s so great to be in a place that loves them as much as I do. No more shame for taking a lot of potato salad on my plate. I have finally found a place that eats like me, with many women who have my same body shape.
I admit that for most of my life, I have had issues with my body image. I come across as a confident person, but my body has been a source of insecurity. No, the word I would use is agony. I can’t tell you how many times I felt ashamed to even leave my house because of my body. I have tortured myself internally over it. I’ve never been “skinny” by beauty industry expectations. Yes, I’ve got a rockin’ bod with curves. But is that what most people look like? Not in my opinion and I reminded myself this every day.
So, now that I’m in a place with people shaped just like me, I feel very at home. I never feel ashamed. I rarely even think of my body. It’s like suddenly I can be completely present with people because the elephant is no longer in the room (ironically, in the place where elephants live).
The torture has ended; it’s taken 36 years to get to this point! I feel healthy. Recently a Motswana colleague of mine said she had gained some weight, and then said to me “but you’ve never had an issue with your weight, so you wouldn’t understand.”
My head nearly exploded.
On top of that, she informed me that I had a small chest. The women in the room burst out laughing when I said I had large boobs (TMI?). They said, “Clearly, you have not met African women. You are so small!” Mind you, I’m almost 5′ 10″ and wear a size 12 shoe. Ain’t nothin small about this frame.
Never had an issue with my weight???? It has been a central theme to my life since I was a child! People all around me in the US would constantly remind me that I was both taller and of a larger frame than most women. A man at work once said to me as I walked down the hall “you’re not just big, you’re a STRUCTURE coming down this hallway!”. I once got a bed sheet in my Easter basket because I was told I didn’t need to eat any candy, while my brother got a basket loaded with chocolate. The awareness that I was not built like everyone else was never far from my purview.
So, you can imagine my shock when I was told I was small chested and skinny. It reminded me that body image is exactly what it says it is. An IMAGE. It’s a perspective. No, I don’t want a bunch of comments that say, “Aw girl, you’re not fat” on my page. I’m simply sharing with you the internal struggle that I have had because I imagine many other women echo the same voice. I now know I was not seeing myself clearly. And suddenly the negativity has dissolved.
I feel bad for beating myself up all of those years. There are so many other bigger issues on the planet that I should have been worrying about. I feel self-centered for caring that much. Meanwhile, I think people are more worried about themselves instead of someone else’s body image so there’s really no point.
At the same time, though, I find that the Motswana (people born in Botswana) are also extremely honest when it comes to body image. I was walking down the street the other day and a woman came running over and used her hands to show large hips and said, “You are big!! And you are white!! Wow! Usually Americans are tiny and small. But you are fat!” I think she was genuinely surprised to find out we are not all short and skinny with blonde hair and blue eyes. I explained that Americans come in all shapes, sizes and colors. I happen to be tall and full figured. She seemed relieved and surprised and excited all at once.
So there you have it. I guess it takes moving across the globe to realize how unnecessary it is to beat yourself up over your body. It’s like I knew it, but couldn’t internalize it without physically removing myself from the situation. I was taking on things that didn’t belong to me. Opinions. Perspectives. Judgments. Thoughts. I was making them mine and they didn’t belong to me. I had to remove myself from the noise. I now give them back to their owners and say I don’t want them anymore.
I feel guilty, like I’m supposed to be changing the world in the Peace Corps and doing huge projects. Not thinking about body image. But I think in order to serve, the person who is doing the serving must have a strong foundation. And it’s things like body image that were holding me back from giving myself completely. Now I feel free. The truth is, I’m getting way more out of this experience than I feel like I’m giving. And I’m grateful for it every day.