Tag Archives: Beginning

What I Wish I Had Known (Part 1)

I’ve been a little down the last couple of weeks, so I haven’t been good about blogging. Sorry! I know you probably don’t really care, but I said I was going to be better about it, so I care. This post is going to be a little long and as I started writing it, I realized it was going to be far too long. So it’s actually going to go out in installments. This first will be mostly about my job. The next will be about cultural differences and I’ll try to get it out in less than a week.

This series of posts is mostly aimed at the new trainees coming to Botswana in July/August. I promised them I would write a bit about what it’s like here, what I packed, etc. So, it’s aimed at them, but will also be pretty informative about what my life is like here for all you curious friends and family out there.

I’m going to get extremely real in this series of posts, so I just want to put a disclaimer that these are my perceptions and feelings toward my service currently. I do know many volunteers who agree with me on many points, but I really can only speak for myself and my one perspective out of the 120ish volunteers currently in country. I also want to make a point that this gives you an idea of what your service could sort of look like, but everyone has completely different services and faces many different challenges. So I don’t want you to read this and start building expectations that this is exactly what your service will look like. This is my service and no one else is going to have the exact same experiences as me. So here goes.

Here’s a look at my job, both what my job would have been in Ralekgetho and what my job is here in Kanye:
I’m what’s called a life skills volunteer in the Youth in Development sector. I’m in a unique situation because I’m going through a second community integration phase right now. While my fellow volunteers are really getting into their jobs, I’m still trying to figure out what my job is going to look like. That being said, because of my unique circumstances, I’m able to tell you about two very different Botswana experiences.

In Ralekgetho (my first village) I worked at a small primary school of only 160 students. That’s the smallest school I’ve heard of here. I refused to teach because I didn’t think that was sustainable or useful when what I’m here for is to help with HIV/AIDS work. The main thing we’re supposed to do in schools is help them to implement a curriculum called living or life skills. In the primary school level, it’s mostly about self awareness, self-esteem, and other basic mental and physical health topics. It really isn’t until standards 5-7, which are the last three grades at the primary level, that you go into more HIV related topics. A large issue we face here that the national language is considered English and so their standardized testing is done in English, but more often than not, the students are taught in Setswana and their English is not good enough to read the tests. This can lead to students failing out of school and falling into more risky behavior which can lead to HIV. So we are expected to help rectify this situation a bit.

So this is what I had planned for projects: I was going to start 3 English clubs, one for standards 1, 2, and 3, one for standards 4 and 5, and one for standards 6 and 7. I was also helping the health post in my village and they wanted to do monthly health talks for the community. So the standard 7 teacher and I had planned to teach the standard 7s a health topic and have them lead the health talks for the community. My tutor in the community wanted to start a girl guide troop and I have a lot of experience as a Girl Scout for 11 years, and the founder and leader of a large troop of 30 girls for 3 years, so I was going to help her with that. The community seemed a little disjointed from the school, so I was planning a monthly newsletter to share more of what was happening with the school and community as a whole. I was also planning monthly events to address vision issues in the school, oral hygiene, gender based violence, etc. I was also planning to fix up the school library, have library hours to talk to students, and start reading clubs.

I had a lot of plans and normally I wouldn’t try to start so many different projects, but I was really able to integrate in Ralekgetho and had many people who wanted to help with these projects. So I had a lot of hope that they would be sustainable and successful. Since I had to leave that village before I was able to begin anything, we really have no idea how successful I would have been. I’ve heard of volunteers who’ve had 20 or so ideas and not a single one was successful in their service. There are just too many factors involved to really know if something will take off. Ralekgetho was also one of the few sites that had never had a volunteer before. So I was really starting everything from scratch.

Kanye is very different. First off, I’m in a senior secondary school, so I’m working with form 4 and 5 students (11th and 12th grades). I am teaching, more like facilitating, 14 classes a week on guidance and living topics. So similar to the living curriculum for the primary school, just more in depth and we have a whole period to discuss the topics instead of just infusing it into other lessons. I also have office hours to work with students one on one for guidance and counseling. On top of that I am facilitating a club called teen talk and helping with the PACT (peer approach to counseling by teens) club. I’m also assisting a local man in starting a youth center. Besides the youth center, I am just filling in the shoes of the previous volunteer. I never really had interest in teaching, but my counterparts expected me to just do what the previous volunteer did. They had already made a schedule of my classes before I even moved here.

In Ralekgetho, I had all the control over my job and here I have no control. In the end, this job is going to be more applicable to my education and career pursuits, but is also less free and open for me to make my own path. In many ways, I feel like I am just acting as another guidance and counseling teacher. So I feel that this job is less sustainable than what I was doing in Ralekgetho. In Ralekgetho I had other teachers and counterparts who were equally as invested in the projects with me. Here, I am pretty much on my own with my projects. When I leave, what I’m currently doing is not going to continue. My teen talk club won’t continue, and my classes will most likely be dispersed amongst the other two teachers, but many times they don’t actually attend their own classes as is; other things seem to take priority. So the amount of teaching will also go down. It’s challenging to think that I won’t be making a real impact in the school, but hopefully I’ll be making a real impact with the students.

No matter what your work looks like here, you’ll have less control than you’ll be used to from American jobs; you just have to find the little things that can keep you going. For me, it’s knowing that I can be a positive influence to my kids. I can help that form 5 who’s being bullied because he comes off as gay (which is further complicated by the fact that any form of sex besides penile/vaginal intercourse is illegal here), or that student who wants to know how to make it through school when she feels all her motivation is gone. I can be that non-judgmental active listener, that I’ve never seen anywhere else in this country. A lot of the time, people just need validation, and I can give that. If that helps a student to succeed and in turn help or influence someone else in the future, I’ve made a sustainable impact. That’s what I have to hold onto.

Watch for my next post on cultural differences! (It is now available here.)

I’ve Metamorphosed! (But I really think the word should be metamorphisized)

One minute, we’re a group of 74 trainees and the next we’re 74 volunteers! Swear in was a blast! Most of us wore our pretty new traditional dresses or shirts in the case of men (I really thought they should have worn the dresses as well, but none of them went for it.) We took tons of pictures together before the ceremony. Then we sat through long introductions and thank you speeches to the staff and host families. Next came the fun part! We all stood, raised our right hands, and said the same oath that the U.S. president and every other official government worker has to say. We also recited the first ever peace corps pledge for Botswana that our country directer and other staff prepared for us. At the end of the pledge, we were instructed to say “I am a Peace Corps Volunteer” and some of us started to tear up (I didn’t, because I’m clearly more bad-ass than that, but I did give a little squeal, a very bad-ass squeal). Then we sat through some more long and slightly boring speeches. And finally we shook hands with all the officials including the U.S. Ambassador and our country director and we finally received our official volunteer pins! We did it! We’re official volunteers! And for life! When I return, I’ll always be a returned (not retired or ex) peace corps volunteer. Here’s to volunteer life!

RALEKGETHO!! Don’t Worry, I Can’t Pronounce It Either

This title is a little misleading. I can pronounce it every three or four tries when the phlegm in the back of my throat works right. Anyway, this is my future home! I found out today that I will be living in this tiny village (also called a small settlement) for the next two years. It’s probably about thirty kilometers from Molepolole and maybe sixty or so from Gabs. So I’m below the Malaria line!! I will be working in the primary school (grades 1-7) which is most likely a small school of only about two to three-hundred kids. I won’t be teaching, but I’ll be there as a resource to other teachers and to run clubs and other activities for the littles (this is my favorite term, so I’ll probably use it often). The village itself only has a population of 430. It’s the seventh poorest village in Botswana and is comprised mostly of agricultural workers. It’s in the middle of nowhere with no paved roads entering the village at all. In fact, it’s probably about twenty to thirty minutes of driving on dirt roads to reach a large enough village to warrant pavement. I honestly know very little about it because there is no literature on it. Most of the other volunteers received a little information about the village and what previous volunteers did there, but I will be the first volunteer to ever serve in Ralekgetho, so no such information was available. I have been informed that I will likely have running water (unless the village is out which is common in the drought we’re in), but it’s unlikely that I will have electricity. So it will be an exciting time to figure out how to preserve food and keep up on my blog posts! It’s unlikely that there will be any internet in my village, but I’m hoping to maintain the little internet I’m able to get on my phone. I’m extremely excited! I know that it will be challenging to work with an extremely impoverished community and not have things like electricity that I take for granted, but I also know that I will really be able to make an impact as the first volunteer and I will also be able to grow so much more because I am not relying on my Western amenities. My country director told me that I am going to have a really unique Peace Corps experience because it is actually becoming really uncommon to live in a village this rural. I’m really excited for this experience and I will be trying to maintain a regular blogging schedule, though (I promise!). My host mom is not as excited as I am. She thinks I should have been placed with electricity (I’m not surprised because she spoils me and thinks everyone should [Which, duh! Everyone should spoil me]), and she also thinks I should be working with college age students because I am so smart. She really loves and thinks highly of me. I guess I made a really good impression or she thinks all Lekgoas (white people) are that way.

So to give you an idea of how they kept our excitement growing today: They had us all sit in designated seats for trainees, raise our left hand, drop it on our arm rests, reach underneath, and guess what was there! Used chewing gum, just kidding, it was a small slip of paper that had a number on it. So that’s how they decided what order we went in (I was number 26, my best friend, AKA my PC spouse AKA Bethany was number 5). Then they took us up, one by one. We opened a small envelope with our names on them, read a proverb (all of them were different) that ended with in (insert village name here). Then we all screamed and got excited. We then walked to another table, got an envelope with more information in it (that is if you had someone in your placement before, mine just informed me what school I’d be in), walked onstage and got our placement put on the map. Then we got a cookie with the number we were sited on it and watched and screamed for everyone else! It was the most exciting day we’ve had and there were only a few people upset by their placements. It really is a crazy time now because we are all just ready to be there. Our next two days are spent meeting our supervisors and doing supervisor workshops to make sure we’re on the same page. Then on Saturday we travel to our sites and are there for a two week site visit. We stay with new home stays; mine is a woman on the staff at my school who has a three or four year old. I’ll be trying to write more posts during my site visit, but it’s going to be a pretty crazy time. Then on the weekend of the 25th, I’ll travel to a neighboring village, Thamaga to shadow two volunteers who currently live there. They purposefully placed me near this village because there is a large pottery/ceramics community there. The only thing I requested was to be near pottery, I didn’t ask for amenities or a specific grade level, I just wanted to be near the possibility of continuing my wheel throwing. After the shadowing, I will be traveling (by myself for the first time) back to Moleps for three more weeks of training. I think it will be hard to go back to Moleps after getting a taste of my village, but at least we’ll all have a chance to debrief together. I am so excited for this adventure and every day it becomes more real. I can’t believe it’s already been a month, because I feel like I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg. I can’t wait to see my village and discover where I can help for the next two years!

UPDATE: This post was written on September 10th before I went to my site and has a few facts wrong. Since then I discovered that I will have power during my two week visit, which started on Saturday September 12th. I will however have no running water. For the house I will be staying at starting in October, for the balance of my time here, I will have no power or running water. I will also have reasonable internet (although more limited and no MySocial plans) and phone. It is also about 88km from Molepolole and 95km from Gaborone on the roads. The distances in the above post are as the bird flies.

Lower Manhattan Skyline

It’s Finally Getting Real

I’m sitting on a bus, on the side of the road because a taxi hit us, no joke. But that’s a long story for another day. Oh, well, why wait? Let’s just take an early tangent. We’re on the bus and for some reason there is a taxi sitting on in the gore area on our right side with no signals or anything. It looks like it might try and pull in front of us, though, so our driver honks at him. He doesn’t pull out until we are already passed him for a little bit and then he decides to try to use the shoulder to get passed us, hits us, hits the guard rail, and bounces back and forth a little bit, then speeds off. He didn’t look that worse for wear though. So we’re sitting here, waiting for the police, which we have been for close to thirty minutes and I’m starting to think, what if we don’t make our flight? I think this is making it hit harder for me that this is really happening. I’m moving to Botswana! It’s been fun saying that to random strangers for months, but now it’s real. I’m flying out in 3 hours! I think that this is also why my goodbyes weren’t that hard. That is until the last couple of days. It didn’t feel real, but now it is. Saying goodbye to my brother and mom who have been my everything this summer was the hardest. They have been there for me through the entire process and I can’t imagine not talking to them every day. When my mom dropped me off at the airport, I cried through the whole security line (quietly and discreetly, of course! Although people have been talking about how they were sobbing in the airport.) It’s a tough transition to go from so much communication to an unknown scenario of communication.

As soon as I got on the plane to Newark though, with my friend Kyra, I realized that this is the most exciting thing. I’m moving to Africa and my family is also excited for me! They support me unconditionally on this decision and I think that makes this so much better. When I got into Newark, I was sad, but of course there was so much going on that I just got sucked into new experiences and that is great! I met new friends, had a great dinner, went on an adventure to find a bar at 1 am, and had a great night sleep. Then the staging began. I got up around noon, went down for registration, got sent back to my room to put socks on to cover my tattoos (I’m kind of of the opinion that white athletic socks with black dress flats is more unprofessional than some tasteful tattoos, but oh well), got registered, and then sat through 5 hours of talking about the basics and history of Peace Corps (PC). Then we had an adventure in Jersey finding a little hole in the wall Mexican place (which was a BYOB restaurant, I’ve never heard of that before!!), and then hit the town for our final night out before we leave America! So in other words, it was a very eventful weekend with little time to feel sad for leaving. And I’m really not sad to leave, I’m mostly just excited to see this next chapter of my life unfold. I’m sure that I will have highs and lows though and you’re just catching a high right now. I’m really looking forward to sharing my experience with you all and seeing where this crazy life takes me. So stay posted on that, but of course, I also miss you all and wish I could take you with me. It’s time for me to take this journey though.

P.S. The bus is moving again and it looks like we’re going to make our flight (crossing fingers).

The Woes of Preparation

Most people know that I love planning. If I could plan everything out a year in advance, I probably would. It’s really only been in the past year that I’ve calmed down on the planning front. I used to have to plan everything out because I was doing so much, but when I moved to Montana, I vowed to work less and consequently plan less. I didn’t need to have every second planned out because I didn’t have quite as many responsibilities. My responsibilities shifted from making sure that I arrived to my overbooked life, to making sure I got the twenty-five million hours of homework done. Homework can be done at one in the morning and a paper can be written the night before its due, but you generally can’t show up to a shift at three in the morning. I also knew when I got to Montana that my end goal was the Peace Corps and I was definitely going to have to give up planning, and expectations, and toilets, and hot water, and electricity, and heat, and many other things we take for granted in the U.S. That’s a whole other post though, so back to the point. I was and am doing better about being flexible, but my planning nature does scream out for acknowledgement still. Suffice it to say, I’ve been planning for Botswana since October, five months before I got my invitation, and it’s a good thing I have. There is a lot that goes into planning to be in a foreign country with who knows what kind of communication methods and living conditions. My packing list alone has been a five month process and honestly that’s been the biggest focus of the whole process. How do you know what to pack for 2 years in 2 50-pound bags and two small carry-on bags? I’m sure I will write another blog post about what I did decide to pack, but for now this one is simply about the process.

When I started to think about what my life is going to look like half way around the world, I realized that the way I live now is vastly different than what’s to come. I doubt that I will be coming home after a long day’s work to an insulated house with air conditioning and ice cream. No, I’ll probably be going home to a small uninsulated house with no freezer and maybe a little unreliable electricity, but I won’t know that until after I am in country. So how do you plan what to pack when you don’t even know if you’re going to have electricity or running water? Or when you expect that it’s going to be hot all the time (it’s Africa, right? Isn’t it always hot there?), only to learn that they actually have a very chilling winter six months of the year. Or at least I think they do, but I’m not positive because I’m not there yet, I’ve heard multiple different stories that contradict each other. So really I’m just making educated guesses. Another complication to this whole process is being a poor college student who has lived from paycheck to three days after getting my paycheck for over 3 years. How do I manage to scrounge up the over $1000 I need for everything I’m bringing to my service, not to mention the hundreds of dollars spent on medical clearances, and the $6000 in credit card debt that I’ve acquired from paying for over a thousand dollars in repairs for my car, $2000 on oral surgery, and $3000 on a tonsillectomy while being a poor college student living from paycheck to three days after my paycheck?

Luckily, I have an amazing family who fully support me and this adventure I am going on. I wouldn’t be able to do this without my mom and brothers. My mom and my brother Ivan figured out a way they could afford to pay off my credit card debt for me. I’m working for them for the summer in exchange for a debt free standing when I leave for the Peace Corps. Thankfully, my brother Ivan and his wife Amanda, did an amazing job on their flip and were able to sell their house and acquire a little extra money to help pay off my debts. Now getting the money to pay for everything else was the main focus. In order to get that money, I really needed another job, but working 8:30-5 every weekday and living an hour away from your work doesn’t leave a lot of time for a second job. I also didn’t want my whole summer to be about work. I’m about to move to Africa for two years, after all. But I needed something. So with the connections of my other brother and sister-in-law, Nick and Jenny, I was able to find a subbing position for a paper route. Now working a paper route is one of the worst jobs ever, especially when working from 8:30-5 as well. I would get up at midnight, drive in to pick up the papers, leave after doing the inserts and checking on route changes around 2:30 am, drive the route until about 6am, drive to mom’s work and arrive around 6:30, take a nap until 8:15, work from 8:30-5 and then get home around 6 to try to sleep until midnight. It was exhausting and frustrating, but it was a little extra money and I made some pretty cool friends.

Between trying to decide what exact items I needed and how cheap I could get them, it’s been a very time-consuming and stressful process. There have been countless e-mail and text streams between my awesome brother Nick and me. “Hey, I think this sleeping bag looks better. Oh wait, actually you should go with this one.” “Wait, Nick, what about this one?” I seriously would not be able to do this without my brothers. Luckily, I am almost done with the process. I have made all of my orders but one and have gotten some pretty neat discounts for being a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer). I’ve almost made my money stretch far enough as well. I only need about a hundred dollars or so to cover any social life I may want over the summer (so no heavy drinking nights, guys). Just a couple days of donating plasma (hopefully I’m not anemic this time) and I’ll have the money I need. Now I just have to figure out how to pack all of this stuff.

The Start of a New Adventure

Beginnings are always the hardest because you don’t really know what’s to come. I’ve been racking my brain for the first thing I want to say, but each time I am hit with this question: “How can I start writing my blog when I haven’t started my adventure yet?” But in all honesty, my adventure started years ago when I first started thinking about the Peace Corps. My journey began when I was seventeen and thinking about which four year college to transfer to. I was looking at my options, Evergreen being number one, and asking myself if I wanted to take a break from school, (because I was so unsure of where I was going to come up with the money), when I stumbled across Peace Corps. Most Peace Corps programs require a bachelor’s degree, but at the time, to work in the agriculture field, you just needed an associates and at least six months work experience in agriculture. Now, coming from a two acre hobby farm, being vice president of the Students for Environmental Action Club, and thinking that I was hot shit, I thought for sure that I would be able to find a summer job and learn agriculture skills to become an agricultural volunteer. Yeah, fat chance of that one. It wasn’t until a day working on a farm, with an angry farmer who didn’t want me there, and my allergies flaring up to where I could barely see, that I realized that was not the life for me. I was not going to make it as an agriculture volunteer, but I was determined to not give up on the Peace Corp.

So I decided to continue pursuing psychology, after all, all the other Peace Corps programs required at least ten years’ experience or a bachelor’s degree. I chose The Evergreen State College (they were ranked number seven in schools to have alumni join the Peace Corps) and focused on school for a full year before thinking about the Peace Corps again. It wasn’t until I was done with my first year at Evergreen, my junior year of college, starting to think about grad school, and feeling completely burnt out that I started considering Peace Corps again. I was having an overnight with two of my best friends at the time, and we were all talking about life after Evergreen. Both of them were considering a year off and one of them in particular (*cough cough* Franny *cough cough*) kept telling me that I really should take a year off. Now I have never been one to take a substantial break in the middle of something. I just want to power through and get it done. But after that first year living on my own, working full-time, going to school full-time, losing both my grandparents in one day, trying to handle a tough living situation, and losing a credit in a class I didn’t think I deserved to lose; a year off sounded really good. Especially because the Master’s programs I was looking into were four or five year long programs. So I thought, “Well, I’ll apply both to grad school and to the Peace Corps, and then we’ll see which one I get into.” So I started to look into each of them individually.

I found over forty Graduate programs to look into, worked for months trying to whittle the list down, and then happened upon a little thing called Masters’ International. It was almost too good to be true. “I could get my Master’s degree while doing the Peace Corps?” I had never found such a happy medium in my life before. So I started looking into Psychology programs in the Masters’ International field. There were only two, one in Montana and the other in Michigan. For me, Michigan wasn’t even an option. It was too far away and I was going to be paying out the wazoo. Montana on the other hand, that was doable. I could become a part of the WGRP and get in-state tuition, it was only an 8 hour drive from home, and it wouldn’t be quite as shocking as moving to Michigan. It was like a little tiny baby step before I left everything I knew for the Peace Corps. Of course there wasn’t a guarantee that I’d get into either the Master’s Program or the Peace Corps, but as the all or nothing person I am, I decided “to hell with it” I’ll just throw all my eggs in one basket and only apply to the one program. If I don’t get in, it really is time for a break.

So I agonized over this one application for months. There was rewrite after rewrite that my amazing best friend was kind enough to give me feedback after feedback on. She and I made a goal that I would submit the application before my birthday, almost a month early, and I did. Then I agonized over my Skype interview, and then I agonized about how long I wasn’t hearing from them. This is why I will always remember the day I was sitting in the lunch room at my first grade teaching assistant job, eating my lunch, when I just happened to check my e-mail and see the news that would change my life completely: I was one of eight students selected for the Global Youth Development Master’s program at the University of Montana. This was the most exciting day of my life because I really had no idea it was coming. I, of course, had people saying that I was going to get in and that I should start planning my future, but I really had no concrete thoughts that I was going to get in. On top of that, I had a giant fear that I wasn’t ready. I was worried I was rushing myself and that I would get to Montana and fall on my ass. I was only 20, I had never lived more than a couple hours from my family, I had been surrounded by the same sorts of people my entire life, and always had a support system around me. How did I know that I could handle all of these challenges? This was the most excited I had ever been, but also the most scared I had ever been. I knew that if I wanted to succeed in the Peace Corps, I had to at least succeed in Montana where I at least still had reliable phone and internet contact with my mom.

So I finished my Peace Corps application, packed up, left the amazing friends and family I had in Washington, and moved to Montana where the first question I was asked is if I had a gun to register with the apartment. It was my first situation with an assigned roommate, my first Montana Summer, my first time trying to navigate a place I had only been once, the first time I knew absolutely no one within eight hour travel radius, and the first time I wasn’t either working, going to school, or doing both at the same time. I had a month to settle in which ended up translating to wallowing in self-pity and loneliness, doing endless online shopping, and watching every movie I had in my collection while avoiding my overly conservative, boy crazy roommate who was generally never alone. It was a rough transition and I really wasn’t prepared for it, but it was probably the best way for me to discover coping mechanisms, learn my needs, and prepare for two years of loneliness and self-pity in the Peace Corps (just kidding, I’ll only be lonely and self-pitying for the first year ;). Once school started, I was plagued with more insecurities of being so young, and not fitting in. I was worried that my lack of experience compared to everyone else would be a hindrance to my success. I was also worried that the two years of going to school with an ungraded system would have ruined me for traditional school. “Could I really do this? Or who was I kidding?” About half way through the first semester, I realized “Who was I kidding. Of course I could do this!” It wasn’t without its struggles though, especially as we played the Peace Corps waiting game.

The application is just the first part. You apply, go through an initial medical clearance, and then wait, and wait, and wait. Then you might hear that you are being considered for a country. I heard in September that I was being considered for Zambia for an English teaching position which I promptly turned down because I knew that every Peace Corps position came with teaching English and I didn’t want it to be my focus. So then I did some more waiting while they thought about my decision to turn down a position. “How entitled am I?” Then I heard I was being considered for Botswana! So there was a burst of excitement and then some more waiting and a bit more waiting. Then one of the moments that I was waiting for, I got a request for an interview! So then there was a bit more waiting. Then the day of the interview, at seven in the morning, a half hour before the interview, and after I had already gotten to the school and settled in, I got an e-mail saying that I my interviewer was sick and we’d have to reschedule. Meanwhile, all the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV’s) around me were saying how prepared I was and how I was for sure going to get in. It really didn’t feel like it after that interview was cancelled though. So I got the interview rescheduled, it ended up being with a different person, and as soon as the interview was done, I knew. I knew that I was going to Botswana with the Peace Corps. It only took three days to hear back that I had my invitation. Second best day of my life.