Thursday, November 24, 2011

First Days at Site

The first few days at site have been very interesting, scary, exciting, and boring all at the same time.  It is hard to really adequately explain how it feels to move to a very small village in Africa, but I will try. I got here on Thursday November 10th. Pulling up to my village in a pickup truck full of my only belongings was surreal to say the least. We pulled onto the school grounds and everything seemed to stop, at least to me. This was a place I knew that I would get to know very well over the next two years. These were children I would hopefully make some sort of impression on. This was a big moment. I was with another volunteer whose site was a few hours past me, but her supervisor has been so kind as to drop me off on their way. Naturally, the teachers who were there to meet me were eager to find out which of us was “theirs”. When they found out it was me they were very happy and welcoming, but gently asked me why I wasn’t white. I was sort of expecting that since that has been a common question since I got here two months ago. After the explanation was given and other introductions made, we set off for my house which was just a few minutes down the road on a family compound. Without any furniture in it my house is four concrete rooms --2 bedrooms, a sitting room and a “kitchen”. I put kitchen in quotes because there is nothing in it that distinguishes it as a kitchen—no cabinets, no counter, no sink and obviously no dishwasher. Luckily they had followed through on the promise of furniture (including a fridge yay!) and a stove, and slowly but surely the concrete box is looking more like a home. The first and most immediate challenge is the heat. It is so incredibly hot here; sometimes it’s hard to think about anything else. Although the Batswana comment on the heat, they never seem to sweat even a tiny bit as much as I do. It’s really unfathomably hot. The second challenge so far has been not having a sink anywhere. I have to wash dishes kneeling or squatting on the ground in front a plastic basin I bought. And the third challenge is harder to explain. It’s hard to actually get myself to leave the house! It’s exhausting just walking out of the house because you really do live in a fishbowl as they say in the Peace Corps. Everyone stares at you everywhere you go, which I didn’t think would bother me all that much, but it actually does wear on you for one reason or another. Culture here also requires you to greet every person you pass, which also doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it gets to be a lot. Believe it or not, it’s hard to be a stranger in a strange land! I must admit that I’ve been a bit of hermit these first few days, although I’m assured by seasoned volunteers that this is ok and I shouldn’t feel guilty about it (although I do a little…). I took a trip into my shopping village on Sunday which is only about 40K away, but requires hitching (sorry mom!) as there is no public transport and 5k between us and the nearest paved road. This means we have to hitch out of the village and wait at the tarred road for another hitch to Molepolole. People with pickup trucks essentially become public transport because so many people pile in. I guess it’s because I’m American and so presumed to be fragile, but every hitch we got I was promptly given the front seat instead of getting in the back. I thought about insisting otherwise, but I didn’t feel like taking up that battle yet. In Moleps I bought most of the rest of the things I needed for my house including a very ugly (but cheap!) set of burgundy polyester curtains for my living room! Anyway, today (Monday) was my first day at the school.  My supervisor who is the school head introduced me to all of the staff, many of which I had spent time with over the weekend. She then took me around the village to all the major places which consisted of the clinic, the police station, and the goat ranch; all of which are in within a ten minute walk from the school to give an idea of the size. Everyone was exceedingly welcoming and nice and expressed their appreciation for me being there. I hope that I will live up to everyone’s expectations. I then chatted with the school head and deputy school head about issues the school is facing and differences between the US and Botswana (I once again had to dispel the widespread myth that there are no poor people in America). As I mentioned before many of the students at the school are boarders and are part of the indigenous population of Botswana. The school head described them as a marginalized group and said that they struggle in school because they don’t have guidance or support from their parents, obviously in large part due to the fact that they are living so far away from them. When it was break time, I went home as there isn’t much yet for me to do as I am still in the “introduction phase” as my school head put it. She was sure to allay any worries that I had coming from a fast paced American culture that I would have to be super productive right off the bat. “How can we expect you to do anything before you feel at home?” she asked me, and she’s right. Considering I’m still overwhelmed by leaving my house, I think it’ll take a little while before I’m churning out genius ideas that will save the school, but don’t worry, they’ll come…I hope! 

Monday, November 7, 2011

I haven't written a post in a while so there's a lot to write! We got
our sites and leave in only three days! My village is called
Mantshwabisi and it is about 40k from a big village called
Molepolole. The village is very small; there are 700 people, 500 of
which are students or staff at the primary boarding school where I
will be working. There is 5k to the closest paved road. I will be
living in a house on a family compound and will have electricity
(yay!) but no running water (ah!). The school I'm working at is a
boarding school, like I mentioned, for San people which are an
indigenous population in Botswana. They are typically hunter/gatherer
people and have a very different culture then the Batswana. Their
children go to this boarding school since their families live in very
remote areas, far apart from each other and do not have schools close
by. This means that there are children as young as 6 years old living
in a boarding school and only going home three times a year.
Obviously, this is a huge challenge on many levels. Children have a
hard time coping with being away from home so the drop out rate is
very high. My supervisor told me that they have students as old as 16
or 17 still in primary school because their education was interrupted
so many times. Additionally, Setswana (which is what most Batswana
speak and the language I've been learning) is not their first or even
second language, and English is their fourth language. School is
taught in Setswana and English, so the language barrier causes a lot
of issues. The whole issue surrounding the settlement of the San
people and other minority ethnic groups is pretty controversial, but I
will get into that more in a later post. My role in the school is
pretty loosely defined at this point, but since I am the first
volunteer in the village, there is a lot of room to help and also a
lot of flexibility with how I get involved. I met my supervisor who is
the head master at the school and she is super nice and really excited
about me coming there, which is great! However, my house currently has
no furniture! Hopefully, It will be furnished by the time I get there
on Thursday, but I have a feeling that I will be sleeping on the floor
for a while.
Anyway, training is coming to a rapid end. We had a great party on
Saturday for our host families which was really fun. We made it
thanksgiving themed and shared the story of thanksgiving with our
families; in return they acted out a similar tradition of celebrating
a plentiful harvest for us. I was on the cooking committee and made a
massive amount of mashed potatoes which was awesome as I LVOE mashed
potatoes! On Sunday we were all invited over to an Indian man's house
for a party which was really generous and the man was Guajarati so
that was exciting. It was a good party, except he is also a butcher
and they were slaughtering cows (to donate to poor people which is
nice..) while we were there and that was REALLY hard to be around. I
ended up leaving for a while with some other people so we wouldn't
have to be in such close proximity. It was a really fun weekend, and
I've been realizing that everyone is really close in our group and it
seemed to happen overnight in a way. It will be sad to say goodbye on
Thursday. I don't know when I will get the chance to post again since
I will not have internet at my house and will only be able to get
internet at an internet café in Molepolole, so I will try to get a
post up as soon as I can once I get to site. I'm really excited to be
finally swearing in to Peace Corps after deciding to join over a year
ago! I'm definitely nervous for the challenges and mostly at this
point scared of the unknown, but I'm super pumped to get started and
get settled in my own house and village.