Tag Archives: Preparation

What I Wish I Had Known (Part 2): Cultural and Societal Differences

Alright, here is the next installment of my info for new volunteers blog posts! (if you missed the last installment you can read it here.) I stabbed my thumb with a skewer stick when I was cooking tonight, so this is a painfully typed post, but I’m determined to get it out no later than a week after my last blog post! I’m going to start this one off by giving you the same disclaimer: these are my experiences and perspectives and don’t represent the views of the U.S. Peace Corps, U.S. government, or the bots government. They also may be different from many other volunteers viewpoints and could be very different from what you may experience here. I am in no way an expert on Botswana, this is just how I have experienced my 9 months here so far.

I guess I should also kind of explain what I mean by culture. In this post, I’m looking at culture as how identity is perceived and reacted to. The societal norms that affect the way a person lives. Many aspects of my identity are not the norm here or very accepted. I’m using my identity as a reference point, so this post does get more personal. I honestly believe that I live a better life by being open about my identity. I’m not willing to oppress myself by hiding who I am to make someone else more comfortable. That being said, my intent in this post is to be informative of Botswana culture, not make you uncomfortable.

So, what should we tackle first?

Religion here is very prominent. Most people are Christian and every meeting and assembly starts with a prayer. I am not a religious person. If anything, I consider myself pagan, but I don’t typically share that with a lot of people. I do have a tattoo on my back that says pagan, and people have read that here and not known what it meant. I am constantly asked by my students and other batswana (people of Botswana) whether I’m a religious person. That pretty much means, ‘are you a Christian?’ here. I say that religion is a more private and personal thing in the States and I don’t like to talk about it much, but I’m not a religious person. This usually leads to exclamations or more questions that I basically just brush off. I also get a lot of questions about my tattoos. There have been people who have said that tattoos are linked to satanism and witch craft here. Since my tattoos are pretty mellow, I am less connected with witch craft than some, but I have been asked if I believe in it.

Youth here is defined as people between the ages of 19 and 35. What does that tell you? You’re not an adult until you’re 35. So, as a 22 year old, I receive far less respect here than I did as a 20 year old grad student in the States. I was proud of my age and would boast about it in the US, but here, I can count the number of people I’ve told my age to on one hand. I do often get asked how old I am, and just simply reply that it’s rude to ask someone how old they are in the States. That’s what my grandma always taught me! “Never ask a woman how old she is.” As the feminist that I am, I take that to mean never ask anyone how old they are. I do tell my students that I began college when I was 16 when I talk about what my high school experience was like in the States. So there is a lot of gossip going around the school about how old I must be, but I just let the gossip run free without confirming theories.

The national language here is English and most jobs require that you speak English. Students and teachers in senior secondary schools are supposed to use only English (except for their Setswana courses) and primary and junior secondary are also supposed to be taught only in English besides the Setswana courses. All exams are given in English, which is part of why pass rates here are quite low. The amount of English spoken can also depend on how big the village is. In my old village, very few people spoke English and I attribute a lot of that to the level of education in the village. Not many people who stay in the smaller villages are extremely educated. So, now that I am in a large bustling village, there is a lot more English spoken. One of the reasons we are in schools is to help with pass rates and a huge part of that is helping with English. In my school, there are teachers from other countries working here as well, so Setswana is not supposed to be widely used. Of course, since it is the mother tongue of so many, that really doesn’t stop it’s use. We have an English only rule in my classes, but the students still constantly whisper in Setswana. I’ll be sitting in my office and my counterparts will be talking across me in Setswana and then not understand why I didn’t know what they were talking about. I don’t have anything against the language and I do see how being fluent could help me, but Setswana is not an easy language to learn. To top that off, I’m a visual learner and there are no workbooks or tools for me to use. Their dictionaries don’t even work for conversational Setswana. So for me to learn Setswana as well as I would need to to understand what I currently don’t would be quite an endeavor and I probably wouldn’t even see the fruits of my labor until I was nearly done with my service. Don’t get me wrong, I can greet people, start a conversation, and even understand quite a bit, I just don’t see a lot of reason to learn more. I’m here to help people with English and it will benefit my students more to hear me speak English than to fumble with Setswana.

I feel almost as if I went back in time to the 50’s when I moved here. Women are expected to keep house, do all the chores, raise the children, wear dresses and skirts to work, respect men, and be submissive. People are extremely surprised that I don’t have children already and that I am not married (although, that’s less shocking than the lack of procreation on my part). Bride price is still the custom here, so children often come before marriage since many people cannot afford the bride price. My experience as a woman here is relatively different than most local women because I am white. I get a lot more street harassment than my site mate who has a darker skin tone than me. It seems that being curvier also warrants me more harassment here. When I first arrived, I was more often called fat than anything else, but since losing 65 pounds, I’ve acquired a lot more sexual harassment. I’m still not at a weight that would likely lead to catcalling in the States, but I definitely get it here. I also get a lot of shock from people when they find out that I live alone, that I came here alone, that I drink any hard alcohol, that I am not looking to get married, that I don’t think I want kids, etc… Women have a very small box here that they are supposed to fit into. It brings me a lot of happiness to break some of those norms though.

Race and socioeconomic status:
I wouldn’t normally tie these together, but here it’s expected that I’m rich because I’m white. As a white person, people constantly ask me to set them up with white people, ask me for money, and ask me to take them back to the States with me. I even have students who will ask me for money as I am walking by them on the way to a class. I’ve had people follow me asking me for money for blocks. There is also a stereotype here that white people are inherently smarter than black people. Apparently this started because the white people came to colonize Africa and those white people were educated and started to educate the Africans. So therefore white people must just naturally be smarter. It gives me a lot of joy to work on breaking that stereotype as well.
There are many different socioeconomic statuses here. Botswana is considered a middle income country. I don’t have a lot of information on this though because money and socioeconomic status is not as apparent here as it is in the States. I pretty much have just seen people asking me for money and people not, but that also doesn’t say much because I have seen people who are more well off than most ask me for money because it’s just assumed that I have more than everyone else.

Sexual Orientation:
Heterosexuality is really the only thing legal here. Even then any sex that is not penile vaginal sex is illegal. It is just assumed that people are heterosexual and if you aren’t, you don’t publicize that. I consider myself pansexual because I think that love is love and sex is sex. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re a woman, man, female, male, transgendered. If I love you and you love me or we mutually find each other sexually attractive, that’s all that matters. Would I share that with host country nationals? Absolutely not. If you were to ask me in the States, I would be completely open about it, but people here are almost hostile toward it. My students are bullied relentlessly by peers and even some teachers if they give off the smallest hint that they’re gay. Homosexuality and Bisexuality have been brought up in my classes and at least half the class acts disgusted by the idea that it is more accepted in the States. It kills me when a student comes to me to talk about being bullied for seeming gay. I hate that people have to fight for who they love.
This next bit of info veers from sexual orientation to more general info about sexual practices. Multiple concurrent partnerships are very common here. The government has a system of transferring people from one village to another quite often and with both partners working, that often means that families are separated, sometimes as far as a 20 hour travel from each other. Of course the women are caring for the children generally and quite busy, but they will sometimes still find time for affairs on the side and it is extremely common for men to have what are called little houses or side dishes. In other words, many men have mistresses. There are still some people who follow polygamist customs as well.

Diversity isn’t really widely respected here. Part of the reason the transferring system began was to mix up the different tribes to have the country united as one. Part of that was that they wanted conformity. I don’t think that you can ever truly have conformity in a large population of people, but they have managed to make their norms quite widely received. When issues of gender based violence, women’s rights, and even rape come up, it has been very commonly excused by culture. “Oh, it’s our culture and that isn’t going to change, so we just need to accept it.”

To conclude, there are many differing societal and cultural practices that can be challenging to adjust to. I have found that I have to be a little more private with my identity here. There are some things that I can’t hide and set me apart from people here, but there are some things that I don’t need to share. It’s OK to keep some things for myself because I just don’t need to add to the list of things I get far too much attention for. Of course, I’m looking at norms, so I’m making many generalizations and what I’ve said cannot be said to apply to every human living in Botswana. We have to recognize that there are outliers and people who believe differently. I am just trying to illustrate what I typically face as culture clashes and differences here. I know this was a long one, so as always, thanks for reading!

You Can’t Live Your Life in Fear

I get this question or variations of this question a lot: Are you afraid? My brother, Ivan, even asked me the other day why I was watching so much X-Files when I was about to move to a place where I would probably have to go outside in the dark to go to the bathroom. My answer to these question is pretty simple, no, I’m not afraid. I don’t think you can live your life in fear. How limiting is that? I can’t limit myself by being afraid of new experiences. There are millions of people who have lived long, full, and happy lives in Africa. And yes, there are lots of killer animals and diseases, but that’s just a small part of the amazing journey that I am about to embark on. Also, I’m a pretty smart person, I don’t think I’m going to put myself in too many unnecessarily dangerous situations. Of course, I’m sure that I will come across some scary experiences, but that’s just a part of life.

Of course, as I get closer and closer to my departure date (just fifteen more days) I get a little more anxious and nervous. I’m not scared, but it is a little unsettling going into a situation like this where you can really make no assumptions or expectations for what your life is going to look like for the next two plus years. It’s also hard to have so much still to do and so little time. I’m feeling the pressure to get packed up and have everything in order, but that’s not quite possible yet. There is also the added stress of making sure I see the people I love before I leave and getting some good quality time in. I’ve already had the beginnings of goodbyes and am not looking forward to the really official ‘I won’t be talking to you for months’ goodbyes that are coming. I can’t even begin to think of how hard it will be to say goodbye to my mom when she drops me off at the airport. But as Winnie the Pooh said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

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.