Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
As you may or may have not noticed by reading through my blogs, my English language skills are slowly deteriorating. A fortunate part of being in Southern Africa is that I do speak a good deal of English on a daily basis, the downside is the ominous creep of “village voice.” I first noticed the existence of it on our first week in country. Most of the current volunteers spoke in this funny, slow way when they spoke to a Motswana. Volunteers in my group talked amongst ourselves and guessed whether we would get those same accents.
What is village voice? Village voice is a way of speaking slowly with simple words and with a bit of an accent so that people here can understand you. A lot of people here have trouble understanding the American accent, especially when I speak quickly. Batswana will tell me that my voice is high pitched and sounds “nasal” frequently. In fact, I once had a guy approach me to tell me he learned the secret to speaking English “like a white man.” I asked him what that secret was and he quickly pinched his nose and started to make noises like the teacher from Charlie Brown. We both had a good laugh and the man walked on.
For Americans, accents usually are not a problem. We are used to hearing English spoken with some form of an accent and in big cities you can meet people from all over the world and hear many different accents in any given day. In Botswana, this is not the case. Most of the people here understand and speak at least a little English, but they typically learn British English and it was most likely a second or third language for their teacher.
Writing is a poor format to try to describe speech, but take for example a problem I ran into yesterday. One of the women in the office named Vee was going around shutting off lights and preparing to lock up for the night. She came to where I sit and tried to get the blinds to go down. She pulled on one cord and one side of the blinds would fall. Then she pulled the blinds back up and tried a different cord. The other side of the blinds fell. Then she pulled them up again and restarted the whole process. After watching this for several seconds, I spoke up to tell her how to do it.
Here is what I said first in American English:
“No, Vee, you can’t just pull on one cord. You need to grab all of the cords at the same time. Then you pull down and to the left to release the catch and then while bringing the strings back to the middle, gently let down the blinds. It is not too difficult.”
Vee gave me a large smile and nodded, which I knew meant she had no clue what I just said and then she went right back to her original routine.
Then I thought about it a little and translated what I wanted to tell her into “village voice.” It went something like this (in my funny accent):
“Okay, Vee. Take this string. Now, take this one too. And now grab that one. Take all of them and pull to that side (the left). Now let them down slow slow.”
After that second set of instructions, the blinds went down nice and slow and were even. She laughed and looked at me like I had revealed some great mystery. Village Voice will undoubtedly be the death of my English skills but it sure does come in handy when you need to communicate.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Personal space varies in importance and distance wherever you go. Americans generally prefer to have lots of it. People stand a few feet apart when talking and no one wants to sit in the middle seat of an airplane or a car. In Botswana you are fortunate to even get a seat on a bus and people stand a lot closer than I am used to when they talk to me.
I have had so many funny moment from traveling here, but one really sticks out. Buses here have five seats to a row. There are two seats to the left of the aisle and three to the right. I generally try to sit in one of the two seats on the right so I am not squished in, but another strategy is to sit in the row of three and pray that the bus won’t fill up. I try to sit in the aisle, and in my mind, if a person comes along after me, they should have to sit in the middle. Things don’t work like that in Botswana. There is an expectation that you will slide over to an unoccupied seat if someone wants to sit in your row.
I was on a bus and sitting in the aisle seat of the 3 seat section. There was a woman sitting by the window and the middle seat was not taken. The bus was not that full and I had hopes that maybe the seat would stay empty. I took out a book and started to read. A few minutes later, I had a baby thrust into my lap on top of the book and then the mother slid into the aisle seat, sliding me over into the middle seat. It all happened so quickly that I was too shocked to react. I went from enjoying a book in the aisle seat to holding a baby and sitting between two rather large women in the middle seat. I was so packed in that I had to hold my arms out in front of me to fit.The woman smiled at me like nothing happened and took the baby back. We chatted for a few minutes and while she talked to me, she pulled one side of her shirt down and started to breast feed the baby. I went back to my book and hoped the driver would go fast.
The lack of personal space also extends to casual conversations. Last week, I was sitting around just after a meeting had ended and one of the drivers came over to talk to me. He stood very close to me and we talked for a bit. Then he told me he had an important question to ask me. He grabbed my hand and walked me over to a nearby couch. We sat with our legs touching and him holding my hand in his lap while he talked to me. It was uncomfortable in so many ways but I just laughed. In the US, men sitting very close and holding hands might draw stares. Here, it is no big deal and is a sign of friendship. The driver leaned over until he was only a few inches from my face and we talked about cowboy boots. He had seen some movie that had cowboys in it and he wanted to order a pair of cowboy boots from America. We sat and talked like this for at least 15 minutes.
It is times like these that I realize how I have changed. It would have been awkward or upsetting if either of these situations happened in the US. Here, I just laugh and go with the flow because at the end of the day it is really not a huge deal (and it makes for a great story to tell too).
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Thursday, March 3, 2011
There is rarely a day that goes by where people do not ask me for money, and, as a general rule, I do not give. I think it sets a bad example and I don’t have that much money to begin with. I get annoyed with all the people who ask me for money. Some clearly need it, but in my own (albeit quite limited) experience, I feel like some people just ask for money because they see my skin color and assume I am rich. I wish I could help everyone that came along, but I simply cannot. There are, however exceptions to every rule.
Last Thursday as I was coming back to my house, a man came running up, wanting to speak to me. The man was older and I could tell he was in rough shape. He told me in broken English that he was from Zimbabwe and needed help. His name was Benjamin and he was in trouble back home. He had traveled to Gaborone to try to find his brother to get money. He was unable to locate him and only had enough money to make it back to Francistown. He told me he would be in serious trouble if he didn’t make it back to Zimbabwe and needed some money. I don’t know what moved me about this man, but I asked him how much money he needed to get back home. He told me it would be 50 Pula ($7.50), which happened to be the exact amount of money I had on me. I told him that it was his lucky day and I gave him the 50 Pula bill. He thanked me profusely and left.
I took him at his word about his struggles and it felt good to help him get back home.
Then, yesterday as I was returning from picking up a few groceries, Benjamin was back. He told me he had waiting all day outside of my house because he had something urgent to speak to me about. I went inside to drop off my groceries and then came back out to speak to him. As it turns out, Ben is in a good deal of trouble back home. According to him, he is destitute and living with AIDS. Last year a man agreed to let Benjamin stay in his house so long as he paid the bills, but Ben never paid any bills. The man returned when he found out the government was going to auction the house off to pay the debt and beat Ben pretty severely. Ben handed me several crinkled sheets that were the water and electricity bills. They totaled up to over $900 (and that is in US dollars).
He went on to tell me that a judge in his town had lowered the amount he had to pay to $250 and $50 monthly payments after that. If Ben couldn’t pay, he would go to jail. He then told the judge that he had a friend in Botswana (me) who he would go see to get the money. He had traveled all the way back to me to ask for $250. I was shocked. I was prepared to give him all the money I had one me (about $20) so long as he didn’t ask for more. I live on about $5 a day. Twenty dollars is a lot and $250 is an astronomical sum.
Ben told me that he was getting money at the beginning of May and that he would repay me then. I really felt conflicted. It seemed like he was in a great deal of trouble but I was not in a position to lend out that much money. I also had no guarantee to get my money back. He told me that if he didn’t get that amount, the judge would throw him in jail and he fully expected to die there. What could I say back to that?
I tried explaining that I was an unpaid volunteer and as much as I wanted to help him out, I simply didn’t have the money to lend him. I gave him the $20 and said something about how I hoped everything would work out for him. I truly felt rotten that I couldn’t help him more.
I am still greatly conflicted about the whole experience. I saw this one man and figured I could make a direct impact and help him get back home. I never expected to see him again, much less have him use his limited money to come back and ask me for a loan. Now I wonder if he was truly better off from the experience. Would he have told a judge he has a friend who could make a loan and then paid to travel back if I hadn’t given the money? He would undoubtedly still be a hole but he would not have dug himself farther in.
Even our best intentions can have many unanticipated consequences. I still feel rotten about the whole deal and I don’t think I will be giving out money in the foreseeable future.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps-who works in a foreign land-will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.”