Sunday, April 14, 2013

For the Curious and Questioning Prospective Volunteer...

I have received emails and questions from prospective volunteers who are questioning whether or not they should accept their invitation, who are unsure of the region they’re assigned to, and who are just plain curious what their service may be like. I decided to write this blog post as insight to what may be experienced when volunteering in Botswana, Africa. Remember, it is just my experience, nobody elses. I hope you enjoy it!

First, congratulations on being invited to serve! I think this is an accomplishment in itself as the application process is competitive and tedious. I remember how excited I was when I first got the invitation letter/kit. You should feel proud. J

My application process took two years. ( I know, right?) I gave Peace Corps a mental time frame, that if I didn’t receive an invitation within a certain time, I would decline. I know that it must’ve taken you a lot of patience to go through that process. At first, I was nominated for Community Development in an Asian region. I was soooooo excited for that. When I had complications with my medical/dental issues I received an invitation for Botswana, Africa. I didn’t really know how to feel because I was so excited for Asia and now I would be in a completely different part of the world. When I read that I have been invited to serve in Botswana I immediately googled ‘Botswana.’ Where is this place? I’ve never heard of it but I’m sure it’s in Africa somewhere...” Those were the thoughts in my head. I did have hesitations like you may be having. I was scared of Africa because of what little I knew about it and what the media shows us. I think many of us have a mental image of Africa that includes war, violence, poverty, etc. Maybe those were just mine, I don’t know. But, like most of you, Peace Corps was a dream of mine for a couple years and after long thought and research, I decided to take on this challenge. I told myself I could not judge my possible experience without having actually experienced it yet. So I prepared to leave in September 2012 and envisioned what my life would be in Africa. It is nothing like that. (In a good way, though)

If you choose to come to Africa (I hope you do) your service will come with both rewards and challenges. My service has been slow but good. We moved to our sites on November 16, 2012 so it has been only 5 months since swearing-in although we arrived 7 months ago. Some of us have many projects we’re working on and some of us have just a few. And both are okay. At first I would make the mistake of comparing myself to others doing the great and grand things they were doing but it really is relative to what village you are in and the people in it. We all have these expectations for ourselves that are unrealistic most of the time. I have different things I am working on and planning but pretty much set my own schedule. Right now I am doing health talks at the clinic and at school. I co-facilitate classes with my counterpart, which you all will be given, and give her ideas on our upcoming lesson plans. Our goal is to find new ways that may improve the lives of others while focusing on sustainability because the point is helping them to better their lives and keep it that way even when we go back home. I am leading the PACT Club which stands for Peer Approach to Counseling by Teens. I am also collaborating with other volunteers for our GLOW Camp which stands for Girls/Guys Leading Our World. Both these things incorporate life skills which include topics like HIV/AIDS prevention, Teenage Pregnancy, Substance Abuse Prevention, MCP (Multiple Concurrent Partners), Leadership Skills, etc. If you are in Community Development and Life skills like I am you should expect to hear a lot about this during PST, or Pre-Service Training, which will happen immediately after arriving in country. I will say that I started these projects slowly and took my time. There is no right or wrong way to do it.

I live in Hebron, Botswana which is in the Southeast part of the country near the border of South Africa. I have 3 other volunteers who are not too far away, approximately 20-25 kilometers away. Transport to them is very difficult so even though they are relatively close, I’d have to travel double or triple the distance just to get to them. I see other volunteers during breaks and holidays and that is common. It is nice to see each other once and a while after being in your village for weeks. I recently spent a week with friends in Maun which is known for the Okavango Delta and safaris. I also visited another volunteer/my friend in Tshane which is in the Kgalagadi or Kalahari, and that was fun. It’s nice to see other parts of the country. Since we’ve been here only 7 months I haven’t had time to travel to other countries yet but definitely plan to.

 I really like my village. When I first got here I was scared. There was nobody around! My village is small, about 700 people, and everybody leaves to their home villages on the weekends and holidays. I like it here because I have privacy when I need it but can easily talk to my neighbors and/or friends. I’ve been lucky enough to make good friends who will talk to me when I like to and who will help me as much as they can. I’ve never had any problems with villagers and the teachers I work with are great. Since I’m in a small village most people know me and will say “Hello Rotlhe” (that’s my Setswana name) as I pass by and I end up feeling bad for thinking, “Who are you?” but continue on with a hello and a smile. It happens. A lot. Haha For the most part, I am alone in the village. Quite a lot, too. It seems like nobody is ever here because houses are spread out unless you’re on the teachers’ quarters. Even then the teachers all leave and I am usually enjoying my own company and privacy. I like my privacy so it’s okay. Being in isolation is not too bad though. I’ve always found things to do and have been reading/cooking/cleaning more than I ever have in my life! Haha I would be using my laptop a lot more often to watch TV shows and movies but I live without electricity. I have a sink with running water but likes to tease me and runs out at the worst times. I have a LOT of water storage. I also have a pit latrine which is pretty much an outhouse but I try to avoid using it as much as I can because of all the bugs and mosquitoes that frequent it. I’ve cleaned it well but the bugs just...bug! I’d like to pee or poo in peace, thank you very much. What I AM grateful for is the stove/oven that was there when I arrived. I really enjoy cooking and baking so that’s nice. Some people have an electric or gas, 2-burner, hot plate. From what I hear it is sufficient for most. You really adapt to these things and it is so much easier than you can imagine. When I first found out I wouldn’t have electricity I was like, “What?! How will I do this and that? Noooo!” Honestly, I just told myself to suck it up. It is not that bad. You deal. You become stronger. You handle things braver than you ever have before and you are proud of yourself for it. 

My experience has been great partly because I try to stay positive as much as I can and realize what my boundaries are, although I sometimes tend to cross it and feel awesome for doing it. It’s true, there will be things that are out of your control and you will have to practice patience at these times. If it’s necessary, scream or vent every once in a while. That’s okay. There are things in this culture that may or may not frustrate you and annoy you. There will be times that you may feel angry or confused. But the one piece of advice I was given and will always remember is that you don’t have to accept things that are rude or things that make you feel uncomfortable. It is okay to stand up for yourself when necessary, even if it goes against certain values. The one thing that is stressed is cultural sensitivity and cross-cultural values and I think it is important to realize how different American culture is compared to Batswana, the people of Botswana. Just appreciate the things that are different without giving in to people who are rude or offensive. You don’t have to deal with things that are inappropriate, no matter what culture. You’ll learn that when you get here. I used to be scared of a lot of things but especially things like insects, bugs, spiders, and the like. But when you are relaxing one evening enjoying a good book and a bat flies into your home, you deal with it or stay scared. I don’t mean to scare anyone but I’ve had several encounters with bats and other scary things and I’m fine. I mean, I won’t lie, after the first one I screamed, ran out of my house, and almost shat my pants. But all the ones after I was fearful and brave! I like to remember the latter when I tell people about my bat stories. These are the experiences I appreciate the most: the experiences that test me, the ones that push my boundaries, and the ones that have made me become a better, stronger person. And I know I will have a lot more.

What I hope you take from this is that this is just my experience. It differs from volunteer to volunteer and I hope you understand this. I also hope that you understand that my experience won’t be yours. Or anyone elses. You can make it what you want it to be, for the most part. So for those of you contemplating whether or not to join the Peace Corps, I say, “Why not?” You will learn so much about yourself and will realize how much you can handle. If you do decide to leave for whatever reason, you can, but I encourage you to pull through because it can be very rewarding. There will be times you contemplate if you’re doing the right thing with your life but really, that is up to you to decide. I think you can get a lot out of your Peace Corps experience but the first step is to take it!

Friday, April 12, 2013

MYAA - Month of Youth Against AIDS

It's been so long, I know!! I really don't ever get to use the internet when I'm at site so blog posts may become more and more scarce. (Sorry!)

The end of Term 1 at Iphutheng Junior Secondary School was a success. I've been busy trying to get projects started and helping with small things at school. March is the MYAA - Month of Youth Against AIDS. We focus on topics like alcohol use and it's effects, road safety teenage pregnancy, and, of course, HIV/AIDS prevention. I was honored to speak to the entire school at the end of term assembly on alcohol use and it's contributing factors to road accidents and poor performance in school. I was really nervous at first but realized that this will be something I'll have to get used to. I mean, I'm in the Peace Corps. I will go out of my comfort zone more than I'd like to. So I convinced myself that I wasn't nervous, I did my presentation with confidence, and was able to make it very interactive. I was pretty proud of myself actually. That day we also had a small march on road safety. We marched along the dirt paths within our school and uncovered signs. It was pretty awesome. Later that week I managed to judge a fashion show for Form 1. They looked so cute in their traditional outfits. It was very last minute that they asked me to do this so it was a bit stressful.But of course, they think I'm an expert at all things so it was my duty to judge the fashion show since I had professional input. haha I pulled a lot of things out of thin air and they were so happy I was able to give them my expertise on all things fashion, including what they should be judged on. (Thank you America's Next Top Model!) Also, this same same week I was preparing some of the kids in my "house" (the schools are divided into different "houses") for a debate on HIV/AIDS. I was so excited to help them with proposed motions and rebuttals. I was determined or them to win!! I watched them cleverly use the rebuttals we practiced because I made sure they thought about the attack and I told them to think about what the other side would say. Boom. We won!!! I was so happy! The three students who represented our house jumped up in excitement and it made me so proud! I'd say my end of term was a success!