This blog represents my personal reactions to my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer. It is not an official communication from the United States Government or the Peace Corps.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Different experiences

This is the weekend of my 50th high school reunion. I think the plan is a party and attendance at a game - I cannot remember if it is football or baseball. Lots of memories floating around as well, I am sure.

By contrast, yesterday I went on my usual weekend trip to Jwaneng. At the bus stop I met a young woman who was carrying a baby and had a suitcase with her as well. She was a talkative young woman, and very devoted to the baby, covering her (she had pierced ears and was dressed in pink, so I assume it was a girl baby) often and talking to her. We boarded the bus and I sat near the front and the young mother went further back. About five minutes out, there was a piercing whistle from the back and voices, and the bus driver pulled to the side of the highway. The young mother came up and made to get off the bus. After some discussion with the driver and the conductor, she sat in the conductor’s seat, and the driver put the bus in reverse and backed a distance of probably 2 miles or so down the trans-Kalahari highway back to the bus stop. When oncoming traffic came in our lane he stopped and let traffic go around us. it is only a two lane highway, but vehicles go 120 km/hr on it.  At the bus stop, the young the conductor got off and the mother peered anxiously out the door.
Then she turned and started back toward her seat, and the conductor got back on with a stuffed animal (it looked like one of those with a zipper that can hold things) handed it to the mother, and we were off again.

While I am sorry to miss the reunion, because there are some people about whom I would love to hear the stories of their lives, this was an OK substitute.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sunday Thoughts

It is Sunday morning here, and I can hear the singing from the church just down the road. No organ or other instrument, just human voices, in wonderful harmony.  In the evening, the local bar believes in electronic amplification, and it is not as pleasant.  There are no audiologists here that I can find, but soon they will be able to make a very good living because of damaged hearing.  Either that, or the sale of ear horns.

The longer I am here, the more I realize how much of human existence is the same everywhere. Senses of humor are the same.  Children who instinctively reach up for their mother’s hand, or hide behind her skirts at the approach of a stranger, are the same.  A group of teenage girls giggling is the same.  The variation in the work ethic, with some going for long hours and weekends, and others who frankly appear offended when asked to do their job, is the same.

But there are also moments, when I am in the middle of a room of people and loud conversations in Setswana, when I know that this is a special adventure, and I am fortunate to be having it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Maggie’s party

A fellow Peace Corps volunteer named Maggie recently had her 50th birthday and decided to throw a party. She invited all of us ‘oldies’ to help. At 10am, the children started to arrive, and by the time they had all arrived, there were more than 60 there. Maggie had borrowed chairs, and these children, between the ages of 1 and 12, all sat decorously on those chairs as they arrived. Then the inflatable jumping castle arrived, courtesy of one of Maggie’s friends in the village, and the kids started to behave more like American kids, jumping, giggling, and clowning.  We divided them into rough age groups, so that the younger ones were together, and then the older ones. Maggie had water balloons for those who weren’t jumping, and other games as well. These kids are remarkably well behaved. Can you imagine 60 American kids at your house?
She had a teen-age function after the young ones left, and then an adult party in the evening. She has my undying admiration for her organization! All went quite well until the end. Maggie had invited another young friend of hers to be a disk jockey for the teens and adults. He arrived with huge speakers and a collection of music, and also with a couple of his cousins – a common phenomenon here. At the end of the party, Maggie found her computer had been stolen. She had put it in the closet in her bedroom and kept the house locked, but had unlocked it for clean-up, after everyone except the helpers, including the disk jockey and cousins, had gone home.
On discovering the theft, she went immediately to the police department, at about 11:30pm. There she found two police officers. She told her story, and they began to fill out a report, except none of the pens lying on the desk would work. One of the police officers offered to go home for a pen, except he has no driver’s license. So Maggie’s friend, the disk jockey, drove him home in the police car. Meanwhile the other officer found a red pen and wrote Maggie’s report in English. Maggie wasn’t sure she (the officer) quite captured the facts, but the officer said it must be thus. At the end, the officer said that Maggie must return the next day because reports can’t be official if they are written in red pen – it must be blue or black. Gritting her teeth, Maggie agreed to return in the morning. She did so, found some new officers on duty, pens that worked, and so she repeated the story and the officer wrote, again in English. In the meantime, Maggie had found out that one of the cousins of the disk jockey was a known thief and on probation. She suggested that they go immediately to his house and question him. No, said the officers, the report must go to Lobatse HQ and be approved before they could do so. Maggie and I went back that evening to see what the word was from Lobatse, and of course the report had not yet been sent. Monday morning I left, but got a text message from Maggie that she was sitting in the police station alongside the suspect, who was in handcuffs. But he denied all and was released. There was never a search of his place.  Maggie has publicly offered a reward for return of the computer, but so far no luck. Theft is the most common crime in Botswana.
Even with that, it was a great party, and a great way to introduce kids here to the way Americans celebrate their birthday.

In other news, the Peace Corps held a regional meeting last weekend, and all the volunteers from this area went. I was able to meet several of the group that arrived last September, who work primarily in the schools here.  They are a very nice group of people, with a very nice mutual support feeling regardless of age. Our group doesn’t have quite that feeling of oneness, although everyone is quite nice to me. I am now the oldest in the group, because the three who were older than me have all gone home early for a variety of reasons. So perhaps age has its compensations.
It was very interesting, however, to hear the level of frustration in the following group, over logistics, lack of organization, and the pace of trying to get things done here. It is the same as we experienced, but those of us in my group looked at each other and realized that we no longer feel those frustrations. It has been said that at around 11 months of service, things being to ‘click’ and we feel different. The same frustrating things are still present, but we now seem to be able to sail through, or over, them.  So it takes about a year to become a comfortable Peace Corps volunteer, then you have one more year to really shine, and then it’s time to go home. It’s a common phenomenon all over the world, I’m told.

Dentistry in Botswana

Your teeth and gums age along with the rest of you, and before I left the States I was told by a number of dental professionals to be sure to get my teeth cleaned every three months, as I did at home. The Peace Corps pays for only one cleaning, at mid-service. So I asked the PC for the name of a reputable dentist. They gave me one in Gaborone. Things being as they are here, I did not get it arranged to see the dentist for a cleaning until last month. I went to Gaborone, and it was pouring rain. I literally waded through the parking lot to get to their office. When I asked the guard at the gate where the dental office was, she waved vaguely up the stairs. After going up and searching both upper floors I found the office on the first floor, just down from the gate guard. My appointment was for 10am, and I arrived about 9:55am. I filled out paperwork, and sat in their waiting room. I did find an interesting reference in one of the magazines, that I will describe later.
At 10:30, I was called into the treatment room. I had a quick exam, and then a cleaning, that consisted of use of the ultrasound scaler and then a polish with the gritty stuff. A rinse, and I was done. I walked back into the reception area at 10:40, and then paid 1,136 pula – which is $157 American. All for ten minutes work. I think that beats even American dental prices. I don’t plan to go back.
The reference in the waiting room. One of the African magazines at the dental office had a reference to “The Size of Africa” and a most interesting visual. Africa is as big as the United States, including Alaska, China, India, and a good chunk of Europe combined. If it ever develops the rest of the continent as thoroughly as the oil countries, it will be formidable indeed!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ode to Bob

I learned this week with great sadness that my friend Bob Wham died shortly before the new year. I also feel very blessed to be able to call him a good friend, as I think he was one of the very special people in my life.

I first met Bob when I was newly in the Capitol. An issue arose about which I felt very strongly, and I went to talk with my Senator as an individual, not a lobbyist. There I was, quivering with earnestness, making my passionate pitch. Bob listened very intently, let me finish, and then offered, in the mildest of tones, his reasons for viewing things a little differently. At the end of the conversation, I left knowing I had not convinced him, but that I had had an intelligent conversation, and I had some additional things to think about.

When his wife Dottie was elected to the House I was privileged to work with her on several very meaty issues. Through the years, I felt adopted into the Wham family.

Just before going to graduate school, I took a week long sailing course. When I came back, I stopped in Frisco to check in, and there began another aspect of our friendship. Bob was a sailor. A very very good sailor. He and I sailed the Dillon Reservoir for several years. I bought a share of his boat, and some of my very fondest memories of him were those adventures on a cold mountain reservoir. He wore a misshapen sailors cap, and we took water to drink in an old thermos water jug that had been christened the “WHAM BOMB” as in former years I gather that it had contained liquid refreshment that was, well, not water. We talked of all manner of things during those sails. Family, great stories of early Wham years, current political issues (we still did not agree on some of them), and the wonder that is the mountains of Colorado.

My brother, who is a physics graduate, tells me that scientists have found that the universe is not, in fact a great vacuum. It is filled with energy. However one thinks of the afterlife, calling it heaven or whatever, I am certain that the sweet energy that was Bob Wham has found a very good place to be. The justice of the universe would have it no other way.

On a related note, please do not be afraid to send Peace Corps Volunteers news of home - whether good or bad. It makes us feel more connected to friends, family and community. Those connections are what make this service a privilege, rather than a burden.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year's in Cape Town

Cape Town does not feel like Africa - it feels like a blend of San Francisco, New Orleans (in terms of architecture), and Boston - because here is the ocean.  Very cosmopolitan, real traffic jams (no wonder - everyone drives on the wrong side of the road!) and quite wild on New Year's Eve.  We went down the coast for New Year's Eve day - to the farthest possible tip of the continent where two oceans come together, and saw a penguin colony on the way home.  Great Day.

Spent the next day in the wine country - a lot like Napa - very pretty, green, with real mountains in the background.  Definitely doesn't feel like the Africa I know.

Next to Robben Island - where Mandela spent so many years.  Probably won't be pretty there - but necessary to see.

Then out of here on the train and see the rest of South Africa out the window. It's been a great vacation, and I feel refreshed to go back to Mabs.

Happy New Year!

World AIDS Day in Tsonyane

December is the month of World AIDS Day – all over the country, and the world, there are events to recognize those who have died of this disease, and to rededicate those who remain that there is still much work to be done.

Tsonyane is a village of roughly 700 people located on the eastern edge of the Mabutsane sub-district. Travel there from Mabutsane takes about two hours, not counting the obligatory stop in Jwaneng for fuel and usually food. This village was selected by the Mabutsane District AIDS Coordinator and the place for the first, and largest, event for World AIDS Day. As with all official travel, we would go together in a government vehicle, and this one was packed with supplies for the event as well as all of our suitcases and sleeping gear.

We were slated to begin the trip at 2pm – and finally got underway at 3:30 – not too bad by African standards. Of course we had to stop in Jwaneng to buy ourselves dinner, and my companions bought raw meat and mealie meal to be cooked later. We arrived about 5:30 to 6pm, and a group of men were setting up a large tent to be used by for public education. There was a table for condom distribution, complete with anatomically correct models, in both black and white, for demonstration of the correct application. There were also people there who do house to house canvassing to do AIDS education. They also go into bars and other settings where men congregate to make their pitch.

It was a typical male activity (putting up the tent) and with about 8-10 guys working, the tent was up in about 20-25 minutes. Because the land is sandy here, the stakes are curved metal rods that are pounded deeply into the sand.  After we schmoozed for a while, we went to inspect our sleeping quarters – a room in the school building. Others were smart and brought inflatable mattresses or other padding, while I thought I could tough it out with just a sleeping bag folded double under me. A mistaken assumption, that was. I am way too old to sleep on a cement floor. Lesson learned.

By this time it was dark. The electricity in the village was out, except for the nurse’s house, which has a solar panel on it. She had the only lights visible, except for candles. I do hope there is greater acceptance of solar power here soon, as Lord knows there is plenty of sunshine, and the electrical system is not close to 100% reliable. So a group of about 5-6 of us knocked on the nurse’s door, introduced ourselves, and asked if we could use her kitchen to cook.  She had never met any of us, I think, but sure, come on in and so we did and made a mess in her kitchen. I had bought already prepared food for my dinner, so I was already fed. Everyone else waited until 10pm to eat.
The nurse is a lovely young woman (she told me she is about to turn 30 this month) who is the sole health provider in the village. She has at her disposal an ambulance to taken seriously sick patients to a bigger clinic or hospital.

In the morning, after an uncomfortable night, complete with hard floor, a door that was very noisy opening and closing, the late to bed people coming through that door around midnight or so, and the early to bed people rising very early, I went back to the nurse’s house for a bath. At roughly 5 am, she sweetly greeted me, cleaned out her bathtub, and heated water over an outdoor fire. By 6:30 I was bathed and dressed. One other of our group also availed herself of the bathtub.
The event was like a combination of a company picnic, a religious revival, and a trade show. There were greetings, long prayers, motivational speeches, children running about with treats in their mouths, mothers nursing babies, and entertainment by local people.

In addition to singing groups, there was a gentleman playing a home-made ‘guitar.’ This instrument consisted of a rusty can (large paint can size) into which a large wooden branch had been placed and then the can squashed around it. Through the branch a hole had been drilled for a peg . At the end of the peg was a wire string that also ended in the can. This single string was played with a bow consisting of a curved small branch, maybe 10 inches in length, also strung with a wire. Rubbing the two wires together and using his finger on the larger wire to regulate pitch, he made music and sang. Complete with misshapen hat, baggy trousers and a suit coat of indeterminate age, he made quite a picture. And, because I was a part of the official visiting party, I had no camera with me.  Later, he wandered the ground and seeing me, began to sing about ‘lekgoa’ – the Setswana word for white person. I don’t know what he said about me!

It was quite an event.