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?