Thursday, October 28, 2010

What Would You Say Ya Do Here?

Besides being a quote from a great movie, it is a hard question for me to answer.

My official title from the Peace Corps is "Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Capacity Builder." This basically means that I am assigned to an NGO in Botswana and I am working with them to become a better organization. A lot of the HIV/AIDS response in the country has been led by the government, which offers all kinds of services. The government wants to push some of this to civil society so that the response is not dependent on government funding and is somewhat sustainable.

Non profits (NGO's) are relatively new here and a lot of them grew out of the efforts of one or a few people to address gaps in the prevention of HIV and the care for those infected. They do great work but there have been growing pains as they move from a small group of people doing the work out of their own concern to fully functioning organizations. There is a lot of times a lack of institutional knowledge about running a large, complex organization simply because it takes different skills to found an organization than it does to manage one. When I worked for my fraternity, there was a curious phenomenon where new chapters would go into decline after the original founders had graduated. It is difficult to keep an organization going and the people passionate as it transfers from people who started it to their successors. I have come to realize that whether it is an NGO or a fraternity chapter, it really comes down to having an effective vision and mission and having people who buy into it and the organization's culture. (Working for my fraternity and my experience in my chapter really have turned out to be such good experience, even for work in Africa).

The NGO I am assigned to is called the Light and Courage Centre Trust. LCCT provides palliative and respite care to people living with a chronic illness. The majority of the clients have AIDS and many of them show symptoms of an AIDS defining illness. LCCT works to create a unique care plan for each client and then helps them through it. For some clients that may mean physical therapy, others come for nutritional support (which is critical for people living with AIDS), and others learn skills like sewing and using a computer.

So what exactly does this entail for me? Good question. Some days I help with the budget. Other days I work on proposals. Still others I might be working on the HR policy. I might also help with a bank reconciliation, go out with the nurses that do home based care, or work on a sustainability plan. Basically, I am a jack of all trades, and I am here to help the organization better utilize its resources.

What makes my role different is that I am supposed to work with the people here to train them (capacity building) rather than just do work that needs to be done. I still struggle with this because I can do things (especially on the computer) much quicker by myself than I could if I had to show someone the steps to do it themselves. It will continue to be a balancing act for the rest of the time I am here. I just hope I can get everything I want to get done accomplished.

I alternate between being so busy that there aren't enough hours in the day to sometimes just sitting waiting for something to come up. I think that has been one of the biggest adjustments to life in the PC. Things are now somewhat routine, but each day brings different challenges. Its all in how you deal with them that matters.

Another great thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer is that I have some free time to develop "secondary projects." I try to spend time at an after school program that is at a community center nearby because I like working with the kids. I also have a few projects that I am trying to get going (and I will blog about them if and when they do work out). Stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pula! (The Rains Down in Africa)

The Kalahari Desert covers almost 70% of Botswana, and while it isn't a desert with rolling sand dunes and little vegetation like the Sahara, it does not rain often. It rains so little in fact that I have not seen rain in about 5 months. It's been five months of clear skies and only a few clouds.

Then, yesterday around lunchtime, the clouds rolled in. They were big, grey thunderstorm clouds. They blocked out the sun and brought temporary relief from the 102 degree heat. I figured it was too hot to rain anyways and went back to work.

Right around 4pm, just as I was leaving work, there was a brief thundershower. I never thought I would miss rain but it was great.

Pula (Poo-lah) is the Setswana word for rain. It is also their unit of currency, showing just how important people here think rain is. And also, interestingly enough, most speeches and public announcements end with the speaker loudly saying "Pula!" I guess this is a wish for more rains or maybe a wish of luck or prosperity for the people.

Here's to seeing a few more days of rain. Pula!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Weighing In

A lot of volunteers actually put on weight during their service. In the Peace Corps we cleverly call it the "Peace Corps 15." It is very similar to the "Freshman 15" in college. We are away from home, eating different foods, and are at times stressed and emotional.

Luckily, I have been able to avoid gaining excess weight, and actually have lost a bit. When I left for Botswana, I was around 195 pounds. I weighed myself today just out of curiosity and I am 85 kilos (187 pounds). A few people who were nearby commented that 85 was too much for me and I should eat less. This is not the first time I have been called overweight here.

For example, here is a conversation I had last week at my office:

Her: Eish Daniel. You must give me your relatives' address back in America.

Me: (I give a confused look) And why do you need that?

Her: Because you are getting fat. I am going to write them and tell them to stop sending you so many packages with sweets in them. (Whenever I get sweets or candy in the mail, I generally share some with the people at my center. It has been a big hit with the staff and it keeps me from eating it all in one sitting).

Me: I actually don't get that many sweets and I don't eat too much either.

Her: Well you should eat less. You have gained weight, especially in your face.

I tried to explain that I had actually lost weight but she wouldn't hear it.

And here is another conversation I had about a month ago:

Her: Mopati, o kima! (Mopati you are fat).

Me: I am not fat. I am losing weight here. I think I am too skinny.

Her. (Laughing) No, you have fatted in the last weeks. (Sometimes people here turn nouns into verbs. Fatted might be my new favorite.)

This is another interesting "clash of culture" that I have experienced. Talking about weight or being overweight isn't rude and it is talked about openly (even if the person commenting on your weight weighs more than you do).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Laundry Day in Africa

I can't say that I have ever really enjoyed doing laundry. In college I would let my clothes pile up until I had nothing left to wear and then overload the washing machine. I had no clue where to even begin with washing clothes by hand. Luckily, my host sister sat me down and showed me how to do it.

I will break it down into a few (relatively) easy steps:

Step 1. Fill tub with water and then sprinkle in some laundry detergent. (I am very fortunate to have a tub to do this. During home stay, I used several large buckets and had to hand carry the water from a faucet).

Step 2. Throw your clothes in to soak and do something else for 30-60 minutes while they soak. (I have even left them overnight in hopes that more time will magically mean more clean - it doesn't).

Step 3. Come back, stare at my clothes in the tub, wonder how I ever disliked doing laundry back in the US, and promise myself to never take a washing machine for granted ever again.

Step 4. Swish the clothes around and then start scrubbing them by hand. It is difficult to explain in words, but here goes: You take the clothing item and grab it with both hands. Then you vigorously rub it between the heels of your two hands. Repeat this step over and over and over again until at least one hand feels raw. Pay special attention to dirt or stains; this calls for even more scrubbing by hand.

Step 5. Wring each item, drain the tub, and then refill with water.

Step 6. Swish clothes around again, in hopes that this will wash out all of the soap suds. Wring the clothes again and put aside to be hung up.

Step 7. (optional) I sometimes do a second rinse and wringing if I think I haven't washed all of the soap suds out. Jeans are especially tough to wash by hand (and so I rarely do...).

Step 8. Go out back and hang clothes up on the line. Hope and pray (in vain) that they will not stretch out.

Step 9. Ignore neighbors laughing and telling me that I should have a maid to do my laundry (most of them do).

Step 10: Wait for clothes to dry (and hopefully not be too wrinkled). Go and collect them and fold. This step is easier now that it is summer. Clothes dry very quickly in 100+ degree heat.

Nothing to it right? All told, a full load (what I wear in one week) takes me about 4-5 hours from start to finish. Now that I have it down to a routine, I really don't mind it as much.

Friday, October 8, 2010

6 Months In Botswana

It has been 6 months since I left home. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it. There have been times when the minutes drag by and the days never seems to end and then it gets to the end of the week or month and I wonder where all my time went. There have been times when my apartment really feels like home, where I feel well adjusted and where I have friends. There also have been times when I wonder what I am doing here and would give anything to get back and have a Chick-fil-a sandwich, a good beer, and a football game on TV. In short, it has been a constant roller coaster of experiences and emotions. I have heard that most volunteers drop out of Peace Corps in the first 6 months, and that if you can make it past that point, things start to become easier. I don’t know if I believe the easier part, but maybe I will just be better adjusted to roll with the punches as they come.

Here are a few reflections from the past 6 months:

Botswana is nothing like I expected it would be.

I don’t think any amount of reading really prepares you for reality. In any given day, I can see a brand new Range Rover zoom by on a paved street, shop in a modern grocery store, call people on my cell phone, and meet a child who is orphaned, maybe HIV positive, and is losing hair due to malnutrition.

If you were just here for a visit and just passed through the capital and then on to the safari camps, you would think that people in Botswana are really well off. The country is, in fact, classified as a middle income country with a per capita income of around $5,000. Compare this figure to several neighboring countries, and Bots is head and shoulders above. The things about Botswana is that on the surface everything looks relatively okay, but once you dig deeper, you find that there remains a lot to be done.

I think the above picture sums up the current state of Botswana pretty well. It is a picture taken from just outside the capital city, Gaborone. There are several large, modern buildings and the city as a whole is developed. There are two movie theaters, 2 large shopping malls, car dealerships, golf courses (with grass), and all kinds of other businesses. I can even buy the new iPhone 4 here (if I actually made any money). But travel only a few kilometers outside of the city (and I am sure even inside the city), and you can find people living in simple, traditional houses with no running water or electricity. The country should be hailed as a development success but it is important to remember that a rising tide does not always lift all boats (especially if you don’t have a boat).

There are numerous success stories here that should be noted. Botswana has large deposits of diamonds, and I have read that up to 20% of all diamonds mined originate here. What sets Botswana apart from other African countries is that they set up policies to put the revenues from the diamonds towards developing the country and towards the people. When the country became independent in 1966, there were 13km of paved roads (in a country the size of Texas), now there are highways that connect most of the towns and villages. Every citizen of the country is entitled to free land, and can get it simply by putting an application in with the land board. People here get healthcare practically for free, and there are clinics in most villages and towns. (Patients are supposed to pay a clinic fee of 5 Pula, which is about 85 cents). The government provides ARV (Anti-Retroviral Drugs) for all citizens who are HIV positive. And, maybe most impressive is that Botswana has held free and fair democratic elections ever since independence in 1966.

My impressions of the United States have changed, but I have a feeling that I won’t know how or how much they have until I get back.

One thing that amazed me is how much Batswana (this is the proper term for people who come from Botswana) know about the US. Many people here have TV’s and many American shows air here. On any given afternoon, I could watch Oprah, The Bold and the Beautiful, or a myriad of music videos. Radio stations play brand new American hip hop and R&B music, and in the office this morning, one of the women had the new Eminem/Rihanna song as her cell phone ring tone. Those with Internet access keep up with the news quite regularly. (I had 3 different people approach me to ask my opinion on the Florida pastor who planned to burn Korans).

One of the three goals of Peace Corps is to help promote a better understanding of the American people, but the difficult part then, is trying to convince people here that the entertainment we export to the world does not always represent America or Americans as a whole.

As far as fitting into the culture goes, its complicated.

The word for “white man” in Setswana is lekgowa (Leh-Kho-wah). It is a rare day when I pass kids and they don’t yell Lekgowa, point, and wave at me. This bothers some volunteers, but I love it. I smile and wave back and greet them in Setswana. This shocks people. There are a good number of white Europeans and white Africans here, but few speak Setswana. Being able to speak the little bit that I do is a nice credibility builder with people (but I feel as if I will still always be seen as an outsider to people who don’t know me).

Botswana still has a very traditional society, but the country has also been faced with rapid development and an influx of foreign cultures and people. In my neighborhood alone, there are people from other African countries, people who come from the Middle East and South Asia, as well as East Asians, and I live cattycorner to a large Mosque.

This, I feel, is a downside of the “western influence.” I think any culture that has to balance tradition with progress has a real challenge. At what point do you lose your uniqueness and identity? What impact is it going to have on the next generation? I think this interplay is part of what makes being here fascinating.

Who knows what the next 6 months will bring? So far, this has been an incredible experience and it is hard to believe all that has happened. I still have to pinch myself to believe that my dream came true. I have made great friends and have had too many good experiences to list and I expect there will be more to come.

It is always easier to vent, complain, or feel sorry for myself, but really, I am living in Africa and working to make a difference in people’s lives. How fortunate am I?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fun With Electricity

As a general rule of thumb, if I haven't done something during the course of the day that makes me laugh at myself, then I figure I really haven't tried. Here is one of my favorite "laugh at myself moments" so far in Botswana.

Most of the houses on my street have high walls and electric fences (much like the picture above) and they may or may not have barb wire. Property crimes have been an issue where I live and I guess people operate under the rule, "Better safe than sorry." (And before anyone worries back home, I feel quite safe in my community.) My apartment building is also surrounded by a high wall and an electrified wire. Some days, I lovingly refer to my place as "The Compound."

To get in, I walk through a small gate. Over this gate are the four of five electrified wires. The lowest wire is maybe 6 feet above the ground and I generally was pretty good about ducking under it.

Then one morning, I got careless. I bumped into the wire. Amazingly, nothing happened. I thought to myself that maybe the fence was only a deterrent after all and went on to work. I even bumped into it a few days later and still, nothing happened.

Then one afternoon, I was headed out to meet up with a few friends and I backed through the gate while closing the door.

Wham! I got the feeling like when you stand up under something and hit your head and was instantly doubled over. I frequently run into overhead objects, so I looked up at the gate thinking that I had hit a railing or something.

Then, it dawned on me. The fence was on. I felt the back of my head to make sure I wasn't bleeding or hadn't singed off hair. Everything checked out so I quickly looked around to make sure no one else had seen what just happened.

The coast was clear and I continued on my way. Needless to say, I now duck much lower than necessary when going through the gate.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Independence Day in September

Botswana became an independent nation on September 30, 1966. To celebrate Botswana Day (and to enjoy a 4 day weekend), I headed out to the Nata pans with a few other volunteers. The Nata Pans are part of a larger salt flat called the Makgadikgadi Pan, which is one of the largest salt flats in the world. To give you some idea of the size, I have heard it are larger than the country of Portugal. They are also very, flat. It made for some interesting pictures.

We drove out a good ways and set up camp (I knew the tent I brought with me would come in handy). I drank a bunch of water and went for a walk out on the pans.

The ground was cracked because of the heat and lack of water but I did find some interesting tracks. They were about 8 inches across and had four toes. I figured they were from lions and followed the tracks for a bit. (Later back at the camp, I found out they were from hippos who were walking between water holes).

The temperature became bearable as the sun set and we started our braai (grill) and a bonfire. It was nice to socialize and just enjoy being outside in such an amazing place.

The sunsets and sunrises here are simply beautiful. I do not think I will get tired of watching them.

Once the sun set, the stars began to come out. I was by no means an expert in stars back home, but the stars in the southern hemisphere totally throw me for a loop. There are so many stars here at night that the sky looks hazy. The only other place I have been that comes close was at the Grand Canyon.

All in all, it was a great trip. There are so many beautiful things to see and do here in Botswana. I just hope I have enough time and money.