Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving in Botswana

I spent the last week up in Maun in a language workshop with several other volunteers and two Peace Corps language trainers. It was great to get to see everyone again and it helped me get motivated to study more Setswana. The language training was intense but fun. We worked on language for about 8 hours a day and I have a few more phrases to use every day.

Maun is about 6 hours northwest of where I live and is a major tourist hub in Botswana. Most of the safari companies are based there and everywhere we went we saw tourists. It was quite a different experience. Aside from all of the tourists, Maun is beautiful. It is near the Okavango Delta and because of all the water, everything there is very green. It almost felt like we were in a different country.

On Thursday, we learned vocabulary about cooking and commands. I can now say things like "hand me that knife" or "hand me that cup over there." We also got to cook a full Thanksgiving meal. Our hosts found 2 frozen turkeys and we also made spinach souffle, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and had cranberry sauce. It was almost like being at home.

Before the meal, we all went around and said what we were thankful for. After I thought about it for a bit, I realized just how much has happened in the past year and how much I have to be thankful for. As hard as it is for all of us to be away from home around the holidays, being able to get together and eat a somewhat normal Thanksgiving meal was quite comforting.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Botswana Parable: The Old Man and the Donkey

Heard this parable today and enjoyed it.

One day a man and his child needed to go into town. They only had one donkey to use and so the old man put the child on the back of the donkey and led it along the path to town.

They soon encountered a woman from another village. "What are you doing?" she asked. "You are an old man. You shouldn't be walking in such heat. Let your child walk and you use the donkey."

The old man switched places with his child and they continued down the path. Soon enough, they bumped into a man along the way.

"What are you doing?" asked the man. "You let your young child walk in this heat while you rest and ride on the donkey. You are a bad father!"

Not wanting to be a bad father, the old man quickly picked up his child and they both rode on the donkey.

As they came close to town they encountered a young woman. "That poor animal," she cried. "You two can both comfortably walk and here you are over burdening this poor animal in the heat. You both should be ashamed."

The old man and his child got off the donkey and the man pondered what to do next.

The two entered town soon after, both struggling to carry the donkey. The people in town all fell about laughing at the man. They called him "stupid" and "crazy." "No one in their right mind carries a donkey," proclaimed one man. "It should be the other way around."

Ashamed, the old man and the child quickly returned to their village.

It just goes to show that you can't please everyone at all times and just because someone has an opinion, it doesn't mean that they are right.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

If The Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me

Ted Turner once said, "To be happy in this world, first you need a cell phone and then you need an airplane. Then you're truly wireless." I disagree with the happy part (probably because I don't have a jet) but it is nice to have a cell phone here.

The above picture is the model I have. Many people here refer to it as a "throwaway phone" because it is so cheap and simple. Despite this fact, it serves its function well, and I will not be too sad if I lose it or if it gets stolen. One curious thing about my phone is that the speaker is on the back of the phone. To hear people I sometimes have to turn the phone around backwards.

It even has a flashlight at the top. In Setswana, this phone is called "sedi la me" which translates to "my light." When I first got the phone, I remember thinking that a flashlight was a stupid thing to put on a cell phone. As it turns out, its a great thing. I cannot count the number of times I have used it to find something in the dark, light my path at night, or using it when the power goes out (which has been frequent in the last month).

The phones here work a little differently because the vast majority of them (including mine) are prepaid. There are three major companies that offer service and if you need more airtime, you simply find someone who is selling it. There are easily thousands of places to buy it in Francistown, from the post office all the way down to the street vendors. You get a little card with a code on it, input that number into your phone, and then you have more airtime. I like having the phone be prepaid. I don't have any bills to pay and I can never get charged for overages. If I don't have airtime, I cannot make calls or send texts.

It costs me about 6 Pula (about $1) per minute to the call the US and is as much as 3 Pula (about 50 cents) per minute to make domestic calls. On my $9 a day budget and at those prices, I don't call too much. I do send a lot of texts (1,986 since I got my phone). Texts to any phone in Botswana are 25 Thebe (about 4 cents) and I can send one to the US for about 1 Pula (15 cents).

The price of talking on the phone leads to some curious behavior here. It is not considered rude to answer your phone no matter where you are. You never know who might be calling and since it costs nothing to receive a call, you might as well talk on someone else's dime (or Pula). I have seen people answer the phone at ceremonies and in the middle of meetings. This wasn't the "Hey. Let me call you back" conversation either. This person answered the phone and sat there having a conversation in the middle of the meeting.

Also, because it costs money to make a call but not receive one, people will dial your number and then hang up as soon as you answer, hoping you will call them back. I have found this one to be especially annoying because it is always from a number I do not know. I had one person do this dial and then hang up routine 5 times over the course of a Sunday.

It is still a little mind boggling to me that I can have a little, cheap phone that will make or receive a call to someone 10,000 miles away in the US. Having a phone doesn't exactly fit into the Peace Corps Volunteer stereotype, but it sure makes life here a little easier and a lot more connected.

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Very Own Billboard

I spotted my Setswana name in big letters on a recent trip. This is one of a series of billboards at the bus rink in the capital city of Gaborone.

As part of my training, I lived with a host family and they gave me the Setswana name "Mopati." My name has many different translations and it depends on who you ask. If you look in a dictionary it translates to "a suitable wedding partner." Other definitions include "partner," "one who helps out," and my personal favorite, "sidekick."

I had to get a little help with the translation and it roughly translates to: "A journey becomes shorter with a partner (sidekick)."

Its not quite a traditional African proverb, but it works.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lending a Helping Hand

I often go to another volunteer's project in Francistown to help out. It is called Mother Theresa Resource Center and it offers after school programs for the kids in the area. Typically on Saturdays, the Rotary Club comes out to do a feeding program and I often go to help out and play with the kids. It is often the highlight of my week. On a recent Saturday, a few other volunteers pitched in to help with a work day. We put in some tires to keep people from driving on the soccer field, cleared out an area for a new basketball court, prepared garden plots, and set up a compost bin.

Digging holes to put the tires in.

Then filling the holes back in with the tires.

The kids really got into it and wanted to help.

More helping.

We kind of made a straight line.

The garden plots

From here, I hope we can get the garden plots going and teach a few people in the community how to tend them and have gardens of their own. I am working with the other volunteer to line up some funding and supplies and hopefully we will have the garden going by January.

We might even have the kids paint the tires as an art project.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Favorite Picture I Have Taken (So Far)

This little guy's name is Zhu Zhu (I'm guessing at the spelling). He babbles constantly in Setswana and always has a huge smile on his face. He will run over to me whenever he sees me and asks to be picked up.

The other day, he wanted to try on my backpack. I put it on him and we both laughed. It almost touched the ground.

No sooner had I turned around that he had opened the zipper and was rooting around inside.

I yelled over at him jokingly, "Legodu!" (Thief!)

My voice startled him and he jumped and quickly stood up. Once he saw me he laughed and said, "Ga ke legodu." (I am not a thief.)

He then reached down into my bag, pulled out a packet of tissues, and asked, "Ke eng?" (What is this?)

I have no clue what the word for tissue is in Setswana so I just told him the word in English. I pulled one out to show him what that were used for and he was amazed.

One of the best parts of being here is getting to interact with the kids and Zhu Zhu is by far my favorite.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hurricane Francis(town)

On Friday, I went out to Mother Theresa to help another volunteer plant some mango trees. That afternoon there were a few thunderstorms in the area, and while we were planting we could see thunderstorms all around us. There were some distant lightning strikes, but the skies were clear directly overhead. As soon as we got the last tree in the ground, the skies darkened, and we were caught in the most severe thunderstorms I have ever seen.

The calm before the storm. Notice how nice the mango tree looks.

I pulled my camera out to get a picture of these kids in the wheelbarrow.

Moments after we finished planting the last tree. This is about the time where I said we had better get inside.

The wind came out of nowhere and blew the dust from the soccer "field." It had to be blowing faster than 60mph.

Then the rains came.

And everything was quickly soaked.

We went inside to check out the building for leaks and found that a section of the roof had blown away and water was pouring in.

I was standing out under a cover to get pictures when there was a terrible crunching sound and then a large section of the sheet metal roof flew by and hit a tree.

The flying roof section

And just as quickly as it had began, the storm ended and the sun came out briefly.

The mango trees did not make it through the storm unscathed. Hopefully they bounce back.

Walking back was just bizarre. The power was out and trees were down in the road. It almost looked like the aftermath of a tornado or hurricane.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

San People of Botswana

An article about San people in Botswana was on the front page of the New York Times :

Also, be sure to check out the slide show. There are some great pictures of rural life here:

Friday, November 5, 2010

What In the World Is a Tuck Shop?

The Tuck Shop right across the street from where I work.

I first noticed Tuck Shops my first week in Botswana. I was on a bus with 56 other volunteers and we were on our way to Molepolole for our two month pre-service training. We all had been sheltered in a hotel for that first week and really had not seen much. The other volunteers were chatting and laughing, but nervous tension hung in the air. That day we were going to get assigned to our host families.

As the bus crested a small hill, we descended into the village. There were people walking the streets and little shops and stores. One of these shops had a small sign that said "Tuck Shop."

"Does anyone know what a tuck shop is?" asked one volunteer.

"Maybe it's like a laundry mat," offered another volunteer.

"Maybe it's a fabric store," said another.

I was just about to offer up my own misguided opinion when another volunteer smiled and said, "I know what a tuck shop is. You walk in the door, put both hands in the air and they will tuck your shirt in for you."

We all shared a small laugh and the bus continued on.

As it turns out, we were all wrong. A tuck shop is a small store that might sell mobile phone airtime, candy, milk, soft drinks, and even prepared food. These "mini markets" are often run by one or a few women. In many small villages there are not many stores and there might not even be a grocery store. Tuck shops ingeniously meet people's need for food and other small items when getting to a store is impractical or impossible.

One way to think of them is that they are the "7-11's" of Botswana. If you need milk, a coke, airtime, or maybe a quick snack, just walk over to the closest tuck shop and you can get it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Going Postal

The Francistown Post Office

I think few of us would describe going to the post office as a pleasant or enjoyable experience. It is slow. It seems inefficient. There always seems to be a long line.

Whenever I receive a package from home, I get a little slip and then have to go to the post office to actually pick it up. This involves standing in line an then showing my passport to prove that I really am the person the package is addressed to. It can be a slow process but generally is hassle free.

That was, until yesterday. I had a few padded envelopes to send and so I walked downtown to the post office. The post office is quite chaotic. Besides selling stamps and shipping packages, they also sell mobile phone airtime, do car registrations, distribute pension checks, and do western union money transfers (and I am sure I am leaving out several others). I still am not sure, but there are at least three lines inside. There is the main line for stamps and posting, but then there is also a line in the back to go see a woman at a desk (I'm guessing it has something to do with money transfers), and then there is a separate line for completed money transfers.

I got in the line for postage which was about 20 people long. Good thing there were only two employees helping people. (Adding to the chaos, sometimes people will walk in the door and then go directly up to the counter, rather than waiting in line. They generally get helped rather than being sent to the back of the line. Lines, or as they call them here, queues, are merely suggestions).

After waiting for 30 minutes and wishing that the fans making lazy circles above would actually create a breeze, I get up to the counter. I say hello and tell the woman I needed to send some letters to the US. She asks me if I want to send it "ETS" or something like that. I shrug my shoulders and tell her I don't know. She goes to weigh the envelopes, returns, and then consults a table of prices. "It will be 198 Pula to send these," she says. I quickly do the math and realize that that is $30. I shake my head and tell her that the last padded envelope I sent just had stamps put on it and cost me around 25 Pula ($3.80). She looked at the envelopes, consulted another chart, punched some numbers into a calculator and then decided it would cost me 21 Pula for each envelope. I smile and thank her and she starts the paperwork.

An issue arises about giving me a receipt for the envelopes because she does not want to do a separate one for each letter. She goes to the back to consult her boss and they decide that one receipt can be given for all five envelopes but I will have to write the names and addresses of the people I am sending letters to. She does the first one to show me how it is done and then tells me to finish the rest at a table in the back. I take one quick glance at the line, which is now at least 30 people, and ask if I can come back to her when I am finished. She says that will be okay and I go to fill out my sheet.

I finish and try to return to my original teller but she is busy. I get her attention and then shrug my shoulders, indicating I have no clue what is going on. She says something to the teller beside her and that teller motions me forward. I am quickly cut off by a woman who was next in line and does not like me being seen before her. She and the teller have a long exchange and the woman goes back to the line. I show the teller my receipt (correctly filled out) and tell her I am sending the envelopes to the US. She gives me a funny look and tells me that I better be ready to pay.

She grabs an envelope and goes to weigh it. She comes back, consults a table, and then tells me it will be 200 Pula each to send. I tell her that I have sent the exact same size envelop before and it cost around 25 Pula. I also mention that the teller right next to her told me it would be 21 Pula.

Teller: "She made a mistake."
Me: "A mistake? She is right next to you. I have sent these before and it is no more than 25 Pula for stamps."
Teller: Consults another chart, shuffles some papers around, gives me an icy stare, and then comes up with a figure of 22.60 Pula. "But this is wrong. You are trying to not pay me money. These are not letters, they are packages."

I figure that 22.60 Pula is close enough and hand her my envelopes. She flips one over and sees that there is tape on both of the seams.

Teller: "You cannot have tape on these. Take it off."
Me: "No tape? Is that a rule? I had no idea."

I had closed the seams with the only tape I have around - duct tape. It does not come off paper easily. I take the first one off and it rips some of the paper off of the envelope.

Teller: "What are you doing? You should remove the tape more gently. Now your envelopes look old and dirty"
Me: "There is nothing I can do. This tape is very sticky and you said it has to come off."
Teller: "No, you are not doing it gently enough."

I finish removing the tape, and despite my most gentle efforts, it does rip some of the envelopes.

Teller: "What is in these envelopes?"
Me: "It is a magazine for my friends back home."
Teller: "They don't have magazines back in America?"
Me: "Not this kind."
Teller: "When are you going back to America?"
Me: (Just wishing she would give me some stamps and my receipt) "I live here. I am not going back until 2012."
Teller: "Ah, then you must find a Motswana wife." (This is actually a very common interaction I have with people here. They find it strange that I am not married, and even stranger that I don't have kids. When they find out I am staying a while, they want to set me up with someone).
Me: Laughing (and trying my best to keep a sense of humor) say "Maybe so."

The teller gives me my stamps and again complains that the envelopes are too big and overweight and I am not paying the right price. I ask her what the maximum weight and size are for envelopes and she tells me she will find out. (Which made me mad because she told me that they were overweight but didn't seem to know what those weight limits were).

I pay her and she tells me to get out of the way while I put the stamps on. She then takes another customer while I lick and stick my stamps. I finish with the stamps but then have to wait until the current customer is done.

I get back up to the window and she gives me another icy stare. She stamps my receipt shuffles some other papers around and then takes the envelopes. While I am standing there, she takes another customer.

At this point I am clinging to the last fraying strands of my sanity and patience. The teller looks up from helping her other customer.

Teller: "Why are you crying?"
Me: "I am not crying."
Teller: "You look angry."
Me: "May I please have my receipt?"

She slides the receipt to me. I ask her again what the maximum weight for envelopes is and she just shakes her head. I take one last look at the padded envelopes sitting on the counter.

I sure hope they make it.