Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Botswana Housing and Population Census

For the better part of the month of August, the Government of Botswana conducted a census survey. The last one they conducted was in 2001 and many people here are interested to see if the country will exceed 2,000,000 total residents.

A census taker came by my house around 7:00pm on a Friday night carrying a rather large pad of paper. We sit down in my living room to fill it out.

It was fairly straightforward but there were some interesting questions and categories. A few highlights:

-Asking what appliances were in my house. (Not many)

-Asking how many cows, goats, donkeys and chickens I owned. (None)

-Asking if I owned a boat, car, bike, or donkey cart. (No, no, no, and no)

I think the census taker was fairly surprised at my responses. A goal of the census, besides recording population, is to take a measure of the relative wealth of residents to accurately gauge poverty. I live a very comfortable life here but according to his metrics, I am poor because of my lack of animals and material possessions.

I also found it interesting that the census form does not have an area to fill in the respondent's race. I didn't ask the census taker about it, but later researched it some. Apparently, the Botswana census has never recorded anyone's race. I am sure there is an explanation for this, but I was unable to find one. My guess is that it was either seen as unimportant information or it was an intentional effort to prevent race or tribe from becoming an issue like it has in so many other nearby countries.

The whole survey took about 15 minutes and mostly involved me saying "no" to questions about possessions. I gave the census guy some food to eat and a cup of water and then he left. I have now been counted in two censuses in as many years.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Backyard Garden - August 2011

I finally got all the seeds planted and am waiting for them to germinate. I planted tomatoes, red peppers, jalapeno peppers, broccoli, basil, cilantro, cucumber, and corn. I just hope I get something out of all this work and watering.

One positive note is that my Moringa trees finally sprouted. (If you haven't heard about these amazing trees before, go here, here, and here). I got a few moringa seeds from another volunteer here and planted them about a month ago. I watered them daily and nothing happened. I chalked it up to not knowing much about getting trees to grow, but kept watering them. Then, after about 3 weeks, the first tree popped up. I now have 3 trees that are growing and a fourth may come up soon. I am trying to keep the termites away and will hopefully have them planted in my yard soon.

More updates to come...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

It Takes a Village...

The phrase, "It takes a village to raise a child" is a well known African proverb. It even was used for the title of then First Lady Hillary Clinton's 1996 book about the future of American children. One of the main ideas was that groups outside the family could have a major impact on children. 

In Francistown, there are many children who are left up to their own devices for large portions of time. They roam the streets, explore, and play games; all seemingly without parental notification or supervision. It is something that would horrify many traumatophobic parents in the US.   

It is estimated that Botswana has anywhere between 25,000 and 75,000 orphaned or vulnerable children. Current policy focuses on keeping children with their families, so many of these children end up being raised by grandmothers, aunts, or even older siblings.  

One of my secondary projects is volunteering at a local Center that does after school and weekend programs for kids, many of whom are orphaned or vulnerable, in one of the least developed sections of the city. Some of the best times I have spent in Botswana have been with those kids, as I have blogged about before (here, here, here, and here). The idea behind the programs is to provide a safe place for the kids to go after school and have fun activities to take up some of their free time. I have been tasked with running an arts and crafts program twice a week. 

Despite my complete lack of art skills, working with the kids has been great. I have big plans to do all sorts of crafts, but so far the kids have been coloring pictures from a coloring book. It is not much right now, but it's a start. It took some effort to get them to sit and work quietly, but I think they are slowly catching on. 

The other day, there was a little boy no older than 3. Whenever he sees me, he tries to take my watch but I don't know his name. He waddled into the art room and I put him in a chair then gave him a blank piece of paper and a crayon. He clearly had never seen a crayon before and just sat there, staring at it. I crouched down behind him, showed him how to hold the crayon, and then drew a simple stick man, while guiding his hand. I stood up to see if he could do by himself. The little boy brought the crayon slowly up close to his face and then rotated it, as if it were some magical wonder. He then put it back down on the paper and preceded to draw a jumbled mess of scribbles. When I bent back down to check on him, he was smiling from ear to ear. 

Soon after that, I had another boy came up to me to show me his picture. He had a colored in a picture of a truck from a coloring book. The truck was a multicolored mess but I smiled and told him in Setswana that I thought it was excellent. He smiled and shyly looked down at the ground before going back to his seat. Before I knew it I had several kids mobbing with outstretched pictures, wanted to know my opinions on their coloring skills.

I told them all they had done excellent work before sending them back to their seats. Now if only I can get them to share crayons nicely with each other...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On the Bus

Needless to say, public transport operates a little differently here in Botswana. Overall, the buses here are quite good and generally reliable, but at times, it can become a frustrating, hot, and miserable affair. 

This past week, I had a meeting in Gaborone and I definitely did not look forward to the 5-6 hour trip each way. There are several reasons for my apprehension. First, the buses are cramped. The seats have plenty of legroom if you are 5'5", but not so much if you are tall. Also compounding this is that the seats are barely wide enough to fit a 13 year old girl, much less several large ladies. Secondly, there is no air conditioning. This wouldn't be as bad if there was not a cultural aversion to opening windows on the bus. People will refuse top open their windows, and even go so far as to reach over you to shut a window because they believe that moving air causes disease. 

I got to the bus rank in Gaborone to head back to Francistown. Buses generally leave every half hour to Francistown, with different bus companies "owning" a different time slot. The buses are first come first serve and you simply jump on, find an open seat, and sit down. The conductor comes along to collect money a half hour or so into the journey. 

As I approached the stall for the Francistown bus, I was encouraged to see a bus at the front with large orange stripes running down the sides, meaning it was a Mahube and Sons bus. The price for a bus ticket here is strictly regulated by the government and so there is very little incentive for bus companies to offer perks or comforts to their passengers. Mahube and Sons is a little different. While they do have their fair share of worn out, run down buses plying the roads, they do have one or two "luxury" buses with plush seats and air conditioning. 

I got on the bus and sighed in relief. I had lucked out and was on a luxury bus. Even better, it didn't look very full and it was due to depart in a few minutes. Buses here have five seats to a row; the left side of the bus has two and the right has three. This leaves someone sitting on the right taking a chance to get stuck in the dreaded middle seat. The bus was not full and so I took my chances, taking the aisle seat in the row of three. I said hello to a woman sitting by the window and hoped that no one else would come along and I would have an open seat next to me for the trip. 

The driver climbed into his seat and turned the engine on. After several revs of the engine and a few shrill blasts of the horn, we set out to Francistown. The middle seat was unoccupied and I smiled a little at my good fortune. 

My luck did not last very long. At the first major stop, several people got on the bus and a woman came to my row and motioned for me to move over. I tried standing up to let her sit in the middle, but she kept pushing my shoulder and motioning for me to move over. I had the open seat for a few hours and I didn't feel like fighting so I moved into the middle seat. Only then did I realize that the woman sitting by the window was quite large. So large in fact, that she took up a portion of the middle seat as well. I had to extend my arms out in front of me just to be able to sit back into my seat. 

Luckily, the woman sitting next to me was only going to a town about an hour up the road so I put my earphones in, turned up the music, and tried to relax a little. Besides, it would only be for an hour or so, right?

At the next stop, the woman sitting next to me got up and left and I slid immediately back over the aisle seat. A lot of people were getting off at this stop and I again harbored my irrational belief that maybe the bus would not fill up and I could again enjoy the middle seat. Those hope were quickly dashed and a long line of people boarded the bus and began frantically searching for seats. 

A woman came up to my row and pushed on my shoulder, motioning me to move over. I was not falling for this trick again and so I told her that she could sit in the middle. She shook her head and again nudged me towards the middle seat. I stood my ground and again motioned for her to sit in the middle seat. The conductor came swiftly behind the woman to see what was going on and quickly told me to move over and let the woman in. 

I begrudgingly moved over and assumed my sitting position with arms held awkwardly out in front of me. As if things could not get any worse, the driver shut off the air conditioning, which was grossly under performing to begin with. So here I was sandwiched between to fairly large women in a sweltering bus. I thought to myself that things could not possibly get worse. 

It was not long before I was proved wrong. The woman sitting in the aisle seat got up and switched seats with a young lady who was carrying a very small baby. Now I was between a large woman and a young lady with a cranky baby. Just great.

The mother quickly shoved her bag with all her baby stuff under my legs and then turned to console the baby. I didn't quite know how to react. Not only was I sitting on only 2/3 of my seat with my arms extended out in front of me, but I now had stuff under my feet. The baby was less than a year old and I tried very hard to be patient. I turned my music up a few notches while she got a bottle out to feed the baby. 

The bottle mercifully quieted the baby, but while he was eating, he kicked both legs in rapid succession right into me. I had to laugh at just how ridiculous my situation was as I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and wished for the bus ride to end. 

The baby quickly has his fill and the mother sat him up to burp him, which ended him kicking me. Out of the corner of my eye I see the mother recoil and lean back. I turned just in time to see the baby spit up all over himself and his mom. The smell of vomit instantly triggered my gag reflex and I fought the urge to dry heave. My eyes watered and I held my clenched fist firmly over my mouth, hoping to ride it out. 

The mother quickly cleans up the baby and the ride ends a tortuous 90 minutes later. When I got off the bus, I felt a little like Tim Robbin's character in the movie "Shawshank Redemption" after he escapes from prison through a sewage pipe. All I wanted was to change my clothes and take a bath. 

Maybe I should start sitting on the side of the bus with only two seats. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Is That You, Jesu?

I was walking by the bus rank the other day when a guy I passed by looked in my direction and said,

"Lekgoa, mpha madi" (White man, give me money).

To which I replied in my usual way, "Ke chonne. Ga ke na madi." (I am poor. I have no money).

Then the man switched to English. "Ah! You are lying. All white people have money."

(This, by the way is a fairly common belief, and is a big reason why I am asked for money at least every day). I smiled and pantomimed pulling the pockets out of my pants to show they were empty. I then again told him that I didn't have any money.

He stood there and stared at me a while. Then said something about me being a son of Jesu and needing to by charitable. (Jesu is what people here call Jesus. It is pronounced, JAY-soo). I didn't quite catch what he said and so I asked him to repeat it. He clarified by saying, "You are white. All white men are the sons of Jesu."

I was taken back a bit and didn't quite know how to respond. Religion is a thorny issue here to say the least. The people have taken to Christianity but still strongly cling to traditional beliefs. The result is a an interesting, yet confusing hodgepodge of belief and superstition. (Religion is so ingrained in the culture that when I meet a new person one of their first questions will be to inquire where I go to church.)

Not wanting to get into a theological debate and still trying my best to smile, and told him "We are all children of Jesu."

The man's eyes got wide and he simply said, "You are lying. Jesu was white."

I simply couldn't contain myself and chuckled. "Ah, my friend, here is where you are wrong. Jesu was not white. He was from the Middle East."

The man looked at me like I was an idiot, shook his head, and walked away.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Peace Corps or Posh Corps?

When you think of the Peace Corps what pops into your mind? For many it might be a young volunteer living in “darkest Africa” in a mud hut. Or it could be some steaming jungle in Asia or sleeping in a hammock in a tropical rain forest in South America. You might then also think about the difficulties of adapting to living in a developing country like using pit latrines and the lack of electricity.

I think it is fair to say that most people have a romantic stereotype of Peace Corps volunteers, thinking that we live in a hut somewhere in a tiny village with no electricity and no running water, teaching children to read while sitting under a mango tree.

Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), it is quite different in reality. According to the 2010 Volunteer Survey, only 13% of volunteers worldwide never had access to electricity at their homes and only 23% of them never had access to running water. Over 95% of volunteers had regular access to cell phones, and 80% had at least weekly access to internet. Not quite what you pictured, right?

I can’t speak for all Peace Corps posts, but Botswana is definitely a place that you could consider posh. It is considered a “middle income country” by the World Bank and I live a pretty comfortable life here. For the first year I was here, I lived in a small apartment that had a shower and air conditioning. There are almost a dozen grocery stores and one is only about 1km away if I run out of anything. I live in my own house that has electricity and running water as well as a bathtub and an indoor toilet. There are a few large malls and shops where I can find anything ranging from microwave ovens to electronics to clothing. I could even get cable TV and an iPhone, if I so desired.

I may live in a comfortable house and have access to all sorts of goods and services, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I am living high on the hog. One key thing that keeps me from living a posh lifestyle is my salary, or lack thereof. Peace Corps volunteers are given a small stipend each month that is intended to be used for food and other basic necessities. We are expected to live at the level of and similarly to people in our respective sites. So while I may have a grocery store in easy walking distance and access to all kinds of products, I am one of the poorest people in my neighborhood. The stipend is quite adequate for food and some occasional trips or entertainment but that’s about it. There are children on my block that have nicer phones than I do.

The fact is that many places in the developing world have advanced and are quickly catching up with the modern world. The days when volunteers built bridges and lived out of touch with the world may be coming to an end but that doesn't mean that Peace Corps now is a 27 month vacation for recent college graduates. My time here has still been challenging despite the fact that I don’t have to collect water from a well or forgo personal hygiene for weeks on end. The things I have struggled with since leaving (being away from family and friends, adapting to a new culture, trying to communicate in a foreign language, and trying to find meaningful work) would be a challenge whether I had all the creature comforts or not.

I am comfortable and happy (most of the time), but I am certainly not living a life that is conspicuously different from the people around me and that is what I find to be one of Peace Corp’s best characteristics.