Friday, February 18, 2011

Snakes on a Plain

January was a particularly rainy month. It watered all the crops and the desert landscape all around suddenly burst forth with green plants everywhere. There was so much rain that the grass grew to well over a meter high in many places. As a way to provide a little income, the city council hired people to cut down the grass. All over town, there are people with long machetes and tools that look like sling blades chopping down all the grass.

With all the grass being chopped down, the animals that make it home suddenly are scared off and have to look for other places to hide. This includes snakes.

I saw a snake (that I think is this one) on my way home from work yesterday. It made my heart skip a beat. There are about a half dozen poisonous snakes here, including cobras and the black mamba. I had just mentioned to my mom the week before (after she saw a black mamba at a Nature Center) that I had not seen a snake and wasn't scared of them. Turns out I was wrong.

Now I can tell you that snakes give me the willies. The one I saw quickly slithered away but I still felt weak in the knees as I walked by. I quickly looked through pictures when I got back to work to try to identify it and see if it was dangerous. The Western Yellow Bellied Sand Snake is only semi-poisonous and primarily eats lizards and small mammals.

Now I almost expect to see snakes in the tall grass along my way to work. Let’s hope I don't run into any more for a while.

Photo courtesy of

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Live Like a Peace Corps Volunteer

On March 1st this year Peace Corps will be celebrating it’s 50th anniversary and as a part of the activities in our year long celebration currently serving volunteers have developed the “Live Like a Peace Crops Volunteer Challenge.”

As a participant in this challenge individuals back in the U.S. are asked to give up some everyday conveniences for one week, in part to help raise awareness of the Peace Corps mission and also to give the participant a small taste of Volunteer life.

I have added a permanent tab above that has more information and links to the Challenge rules and other information.

Please take a moment to find out more about our “Live Like a PCV Challenge” by visiting

Monday, February 7, 2011

They Eat Caterpillars, Don't They?

Yes they do. In Botswana a certain type of caterpillar called a “Mopane (Mo-pah-nee) Worm” is a delicacy. They only appear a few months out of the year and last month, they were everywhere. I would see them crawling around whenever I went outside. They are quite beautiful and very colorful.

Since peak Mopane season just passed, all the street vendors have mounds of cooked mopane worms in front of them. People ask me all the time if I have tried “the worm” yet. I shake my head and always say that I will try them at some point while I am here.

“At some point” turned out to be the other day. I was walking along the main street in town and noticed a woman selling beans and other dry goods. She also happened to have a large pot of dried Mopane worms. I figured that now would be as good a time as any to try one and I asked her how much they were. It was 10 Pula for a cup but I had no intentions on eating an entire cup of caterpillars. I asked her if it would be possible to only buy a few and she offered me a half a cup.

After I bought them she asked if I had ever tried them before. I told her that I hadn’t and upon hearing this, she immediately broke the head off one and ate it. She was showing me how to eat them. She handed me one and told me to try it. I reluctantly broke the head off, put it in my mouth, and slowly started to chew.

The taste is pretty unique but I imagine it would be similar to the taste of a bunch of dried grass. I chewed and swallowed it in front of the woman and then said my goodbyes. I’m glad I tried them, but I am not sure that Mopane worms will make up a large portion of my diet in the future.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Lighter Side of Living in Botswana

There are definitely times where I just have to shake my head and laugh at the things I see here. I have had a few of these moments in the past weeks.

One day, I was out at the Center and some of the kids were around. They are generally rowdy, but on that day, they were especially bad. One kid started throwing rocks at me (he is the one in the picture above). I just really wasn’t in the mood so I told him to cut it out in Setswana and then pretended to chase him. This only made him more rambunctious and he ran away laughing.

Later, when I was drawing pictures in the dirt with a few other kids, the rowdy boy sneaks up behind them, pulls down his pants and promptly urinates on several of them. It took the kids a second or two to figure out what was going on, but once they did, they all started bawling; just screaming their heads off. I wanted to be mad (and was shocked more than anything), but I also couldn't help but giggle a little. I mean, did I really just see some little guy drop his pants and pee on other kids? How does that thought even enter someone’s mind?

And then another funny moment happened the other day on my way to work. A woman who runs a tuck shop along my walk to work has a little boy who is maybe 3 years old. Every day when I pass by he runs out, waves, and yells “Legkoa!” (white man!). It always manages to bring a smile to my face so I wave and at least try to say hello to him in Setswana. I am also trying to teach him to give me a high five. He is starting to get it, but most of the time, he just grabs my hand to hold it.

That morning I did not see him and continued on my way. As soon as I had passed by, I heard the familiar little voice yell, “Legkoa!” I turned around, squatted down, and put my hand out so he could give me a high five. I quickly noticed that he was not wearing any pants. He had a sweater on but no pants. (It is actually not an infrequent occurrence to see little kids running around with shirts but no pants. I guess it is cheaper than buying diapers). He ran over to me and gave me a high five. I was happy he remembered how to do it but I don’t quite know how to feel about getting a high five from a kid who is naked from the waist down .

Sometimes you just have to laugh and move on.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Lost in Translation

The center where I work has a rehabilitation department where they teach the clients basic skills like bead work and sewing to help them earn money. I have been working to help include small business skills, and on Friday I got the chance to teach a class about how to price the products they make.

Cost accounting was easily the worst course I took in college, but the skills I learned from it are in great need here. The clients make very pretty bags and bead jewelry but really just guess when it comes to pricing those items. It seems to revolve around how much they think someone is willing to pay for an item rather than looking at the costs and the desired profit.

I designed a basic curriculum, put together a PowerPoint presentation, and then set out to write a small quiz. I gave this quiz to the participants before and then right after the presentation. This way, I can (ideally) measure the impact of my presentation and see if they learned any of the concepts.

Just making this quiz turned out to be a major production. The quiz was multiple choice and only had four questions. I wanted to have it translated into Setswana because I know a few of the clients do not speak or understand English.

I will never forget what it is like to take a test I didn’t understand. In middle school, my class got a transfer student who was an Iraqi refugee. To teach us about the difficulties of being in another culture, my teacher, Mr. Hinchman, had her write a test entirely in Arabic and then made the class take it. Needless to say, she was the only one who passed. It looked like a bunch of gobbledygook to me.

With that in mind, I got a lot of help from the nurses at the center to translate the whole thing. Then I took the translation and had someone else in the office translate it back to English to make sure it was a good translation (a little trick I learned here called “double translation”).

There were a few minor adjustments. Setswana is a very tricky language because there is no standardized form for it, spoken or written. To compound the difficulties, each region of the country has its own little quirks and ways of speaking Setswana. After a few edits and then re-edits, the quiz was ready to go.

The presentation went a lot better than I thought it would. I would talk about a slide and then one of the women would translate it into Setswana. We went through how to cost items and then I had them do two example problems. More encouraging was that the quizzes I made up showed that the participants had a 30% improvement from the scores on the pre-quiz.

They all thanked me and seemed genuinely excited. From now on, they are going to work on calculating the costs of items they make rather than just assigning a price.

Peace Corps service can be thankless at times because there are few tangible results. Today was a great day because I actually saw results of the work I am doing.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

And How Many Homes Do You Have?

A single resident of Botswana is called a Motswana and a group of Motswana are called Batswana. The average Motswana might have up to three different "homes"; where they currently stay, their home village - called a motse (moh-tsee)- and a cattle post - called a masimo (mah-see-moh).

In a traditional village the ruling authority for hundreds of years (and even still today) is a chief - called a kgosi (koh-see). The kgosi has ruling powers over the village and can make judgments and settle disputes in the local gathering - called a kgotla (koh-tla). The kgotlas are unique to Botswana. They serve as a meeting place for the whole village and all are welcome. Each person also has an equal voice and can speak their mind on any issue.

Francistown is a little different because it was never a traditional village. Many will identify with their family's traditional home village, even if they were born someplace else. This is quite common in Francistown. There really aren't many hereditary ties here for people. Consequently, many people (even those who were born here) will call another village home. They are even subject to the authority of the kgosi in that village.

When you ask a Motswana here where they come from, a response could be something like this: "I stay in Francistown, I am from Sebina, and my cattle post is near there." This same person will have a house where they live in Francistown, a family home in Sebina, and then another traditonal structure out at the cattle post.

The cattle post (masimo) is also interesting. Each Motswana is entitled to free land from the government. All you have to do is go apply for it from the local land board. So just about everyone here has a masimo (or at least their family does). Batswana have raised cows for hundreds of years and cows are still a source of wealth today. These cows serve very much the same purpose a savings or retirement account does back in the US. The cows stay out at the masimo and a typical family will also have cropland where they grow a little food.

The plowing season begins sometime in late November or early December, depending on the first rains. (Irrigation is almost unheard of for these small fields). Because of this, many people take off the month of December to go plow, and the crops will be harvested in March and April. Popular crops include, maize(corn), sorghum, beans, squash, sweet reed (sugar cane), and melons. There is also a certain type of bean that I like called a "ground nut." These ground nuts are boiled for hours and have the same consistency and taste as boiled peanuts.

Despite the the modernization of the country and the fact that over 70% of the land is desert, the society and country still have deep agricultural roots. During the month of January, there were over 15 rainy days, which should make for a good season for crops - we will see.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Sad Day for Nevada

On December 30, 2010, vandals cut down Nevada's famous "Shoe Tree" with a chainsaw. The Shoe Tree was well known in central Nevada and served as a landmark on Hwy 50, the so called "Loneliest Road in America."

When I drove out to Great Basin National Park, I passed by and saw the Shoe Tree. It really is a big tree with pairs of shoes caught in the branches. Over the years people who passed by would tie a pair of shoes together and toss them up into the branches. There were hundreds of pairs of shoes in the tree (and many more on the ground from failed attempts) when I visited.

Despite the fact that an interesting and quirky landmark is gone, there really aren't too many trees in that part of Nevada. It really is shameful that someone felt the need to chop it down.

Here is an article about the tree from the Nevada tourism site, which includes several local legends about how the tree got its start:

And here is some of the media coverage of it: