Congratulations, Invitees!

I apologize for my lack of posts. I’ve been spending a lot of my free time replying to the newest group of Peace Corps Botswana Invitees (Bots 19, so named because you’ll be the 19th group to serve in Botswana since we reengaged in 2003) who stumble across this blog and then send me emails full of great questions. So, I  had the idea this morning to post a few of my responses to these questions, thereby killing several dinonyane (birds) with one lentswe (stone). And if you’re an Invitee to Peace Corps Botswana, congratulations! Feel free to email me at amylopermcbride@gmail.com with your questions.

What is a typical day or week for you?

My day starts between 4 and 5. I down a glass of chocolate milk, make coffee, catch up on WhatsApp and Facebook (if I have service), do a New York Times crossword puzzle, cook breakfast and make my lunch, wash dishes, bathe, and head to work around 7:30. One of my NGO (non-governmental organization) bosses picks me up out at the main road, since it’s too far to walk. I’m there three days a week.

My NGO counterparts, Thabo and Ausi Tinny

I try to walk to my other NGO, which takes about an hour. If it’s raining, or I’m running late, I hop in a combi (minibus), which costs P3.50 (3 pula, 50 thebe, or $0.35). I’m home at 4:30 from the first one. I work until 5 or 5:30 at the other one and then usually walk home. I have Setswana lessons from 5-6 on Mondays and Wednesdays with morutabana wa me (my teacher), Fani. (Peace Corps gives us a language tutoring allowance.)

At work, I do a bunch of things…lots of meetings, working with counterparts to write plans and proposals, other things that come up (for example, I’m leading a group of kids in an income-generating venture at my second NGO (they serve orphans/vulnerable youth) to make and sell cookies…we’re just getting started.)

In the evening, I clean my house, read, do work, wash dishes, and cook/bake. I listen to audiobooks all the time (I download them from my various library accounts when I have wifi at my workplace…one book takes most of the day). Many PCVs watch movies/TV shows that they brought on hard drives, and downloading/swapping media is a big activity at trainings (which are held at hotels with wifi). I’m usually in bed by 8, because: 1) I get up at 4; 2) I have to shut my windows around 7:30 because the mosquitoes start coming in, and screens aren’t a thing here; 3) Even in the summer, it’s dark by 7:30; and 4) It’s hot, especially with the windows closed, and the fan is the only relief, and that’s in my bedroom.

On weekends, I often attend social events (weddings, funerals, Rotary gatherings (I’m a Rotarian, and still belong to my Colorado Club)). I do work that I brought home, stock up on groceries, read (in my hammock,

Kereke ya me

which I finally put up), do laundry (by hand and then hung on the line), catch up on letter writing, and go for walks/hikes. On Sundays, ke ya ko kereke. (I go to church.) I attend the local congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church of Botswana. According to Wikipedia, it was founded by Swiss missionaries in 1863, who were working among the Bakgatla, the tribe that settled my area. The first DRC in Botswana was in my village, and was established in 1877.

Singing from the Sunday School group

The DRC in Botswana gained its autonomy from the DRC of South Africa in 1979. It has 6,000 members in Botswana, and my congregation is one of 14 here. It’s Protestant, its theology is Reformed, and its polity is Presbyterian. I wasn’t a formal churchgoer in the US (I considered myself a member of the Temple of the Gunnison Gorge), but here, I enjoy the amazing music (Batswana seem to know hundreds of hymns, and can sing them in three-part harmony), fellowship, inspiration, time for reflection, and practicing my Setswana.

To be honest, I feel as prepared as I could be at this point with the exception of ONE thing. I have a terrible phobia of spiders, and imagine they are everywhere in Botswana. Swimming with sharks? No problem. Snakes? No problem. But spiders? Have they been an issue for you?

The camel spider that was dying in my house. After I stomped on it…

As a Civil Society Volunteer, you’ll likely be in a bigger village in the south, where spider appearances are less frequent. You’ve probably heard about the camel spiders. I think they’re more common in the north, and in rural areas. I have found 2 in my house. One was small and dead, and the other was big (like three inches across) and dying. They’re orange and ugly, and kind of a spider/scorpion hybrid, and they won’t kill you, but I’ve heard that a bite from one can be nasty. Why were mine dead and dying? Because I use BLUE DEATH (so named because it comes in a blue container)! It’s a brown powder that you sprinkle indoors at the base of all your walls. And then when spiders walk through it, they get poisoned and they die. The good news is that camel spiders are pretty skittish (I’ve heard…I’ve never encountered one that could scoot away from me), and they’re afraid of light. I haven’t heard of anyone else in the south encountering ca

mel spiders…I’m not sure how I got so lucky! It might have been that my house had been uninhabited for awhile. Anyway, I haven’t seen one in three months, so perhaps they got the memo. The other spider you’ll encounter is what my fellow Volunteer, Sara, calls a “flatsie,” because….they’re flat. They’re brown and can get as big as 2 inches across, and I like them. They’re terribly afraid of people, and they just hang out on the wall, and if you get anywhere near them, they dart away, and they’re very fast. I’m pretty sure they’re harmless, but

This flatsie watched me while I bathed this morning.

I don’t worry about them biting me because they are such scaredy-spiders. Sometimes I’ll have a couple hanging out in the corners of my bedroom, and they’re sorta like pets. Yes, I know that’s weird, but I’m not allowed to have pets because of my landlord’s allergies. (Plus, I reaalllly don’t want the responsibility. I don’t even have a plant.)

Any language prep or prep in any other form you would recommend between now & July?

Here’s the Setswana manual you likely will use when you arrive in Botswana.   It was written by some Peace Corps Botswana Language and Culture Facilitators. I also watched the Peace Corps’ YouTube videos (featuring the amazing Meshack and Tonic, whom you’ll meet soon after your arrival) and I downloaded and listened to these audiofiles. Anything you can do to learn Setswana before you arrive will help overcome some of the shock of being here (you immediately plunge into Setswana). Just hearing it before you come is helpful. I made flashcards, and be sure to bring extra blank cards if they’re helpful for you.

As far as other prep, someone probably will send you a file about things to download before you come (like the VRF (Volunteer Reporting Form) program). I suggest installing any apps on your phone that you think you might need. Especially maps.me and the maps for Botswana and any other countries you think you might visit. (A fellow PCV’s forethought to download the Zambia map saved us when our taxi driver couldn’t find our hotel.) Get everyone’s mailing addresses so you can send them letters. People get REALLY excited about letters from Botswana. Then maybe they’ll send you chocolate.

And my Obligatory Packing List has some other recommendations for prepping. I can’t stress the importance of the introductory postcard. It has done so much to open doors. One thing I’ll add (and if I remember, I’ll update the original post) is to get on WhatsApp before you go and set up an account with your US phone number and then list that number on your postcard (if you don’t know how to keep your US phone number, check out the Peace Corps Reddit posts about Google Voice, and DO IT…and if you’re not checking out the Peace Corps Reddit posts, you should…I learned so much from them). For $20, Google Voice lets you keep your US number and emails you any texts you get, as well as transcripts of any voicemails. If you’re worried about weird people sending you WhatsApp messages, leave off your number, but I’m selective about who gets a postcard, so I’m not worried.

How’s the food? What do you eat?

Typical wedding fare in Botswana

Setswana food is good. The predominant proteins are beef and chicken (and some goat and lamb), cooked VERY thoroughly. And there’s always a big portion of starch (maize/mealie meal or sorghum made into a thick porridge, kind of like polenta, or rice, or samp, or chips (soggy french fries…Batswana don’t like crispy chips!)), merogo (vegetable…greens (a common one is called “rape”) or cabbage cooked with tomatoes, onions, and green peppers), and salads (often cole slaw or beetroot salad) . And a “soup” over everything, which is made with flavor packets and tomatoes and peppers). People also eat a lot of squash and sweet potatoes. Now that I’m at site, I rarely eat Setswana food, unless I’m at a funeral or wedding. During Pre-Service Training, you get to grocery shop with your host family, and you can advocate for yourself and say that you want to eat your own food, instead of what your family eats. It’s up to you. A lot of the Volunteers just brought leftovers for lunch from whatever their families ate. Here in my village, I eat a veggie omelet for breakfast, and a salad for lunch, and lots of hummus and vegetables.  Vegetables are fresh and plentiful in Botswana, and I eat lots of tomatoes, green peppers, rape, onions, baby marrow (zucchini), and avocados (when they’re available).  In the winter, cauliflower and broccoli are abundant.  I can’t wait until winter comes and I can roast them in my oven with garlic and olive oil.

What’s been the hardest thing so far? Best thing?

The hardest part? I’m not sure I can pin down one thing, so here’s a list:

  • Feeling guilty about being away from friends and family (especially my sons).
  • Learning Setswana. The hardest part is my impatience. I want to be fluent! But, it’s coming along…. You don’t need Setswana to do your job, and there are Volunteers who haven’t spoken much Setswana since Pre-Service Training, but I came here to learn, so that’s what I’m doing. And the smiles and appreciation I receive from speaking to someone in their language are priceless. A few months ago, after I shared my limited Setswana, a taxi driver actually cried, and said he had never had a white woman speak his language to him. And if that wasn’t enough, he quoted Nelson Mandela to me! “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
  • Pre-Service Training. As someone who has been on her own for a long time, it was tough to be with a host family for 10 weeks (although I absolutely adored mine). But the experience is invaluable for integrating you into Setswana culture. PST is hard. It’s usually six days/week, 7 am-5 pm, Setswana every day. But, it prepares you for what you will need to make the most of your experience.
  • Figuring out how to have the greatest impact at my NGOs. I think I’m finally wrapping my head around this, but it has taken four months, and as I mentioned earlier, I’m an impatient person. I know that some of my CSCB (Civil Society Capacity Building) Volunteer colleagues continue to struggle with this, and some of them are seeking projects outside of their NGOs (or, in some cases, the NGOs are teetering on collapse). Also, it’s tough to be assigned to two NGOs, as most of us are, since I have conflicting allegiances and demands for my time.
  • The heat! Coming from the Colorado mountains where it never got to 90, it has been tough to have weeks and weeks of 90+ temps (my village’s average high in January was 92). And I’d never heard of heat edema, but it’s a real thing, and I now sleep with my feet on a pillow to reduce the swelling. My house hardly ever cools off, and I am grateful for my big fan, without which it would be hard to sleep (and when the power goes out, I am very sad). I can’t wait for autumn.
  • Safety issues. I hiked everywhere by myself in Colorado, and that’s not something you do here. I’ve been warned against taking the shortcut across the park on my way to work and walking along certain roads, because people have been attacked. It’s nothing you wouldn’t face in a big US city, but as a former rural Colorado resident, it has taken getting used to. Several of the PCVs have been burglarized. I had my phone stolen. My landlords had a break-in the week after I got here…someone came through an unlocked door at 4 am and took their laptops, and might have gotten more if they hadn’t heard them and scared them away. My boss’s churchmate had some kids slip through the burglar bars on her windows and beat her in her bed and then force her to drive them to an ATM. But, again, these things (and far worse) happen in the US, too.

Okay, that’s enough of the hard parts. Here are the best things:

  • People’s friendliness. Some mornings, I’ll be in kind of a funky place, and all it takes to get me out of my foul mood is walking down the street and greeting everyone and having them smile at me.
  • My hardworking and earnest coworkers at my NGOs. They truly care about making a difference.

    At a Journey of Life training with my coworkers, Emmah and Eva (L-R with certificates). The other guys are our trainers from Zimbabwe, Alex and Trevor.
  • The (relative) lack of racism. It’s affirming to be surrounded by people who, for the most part, are being judged on their merits and not by the color of their skin.
  • The beauty of the people and the country. At church this morning, I sat and marveled at how vibrant and talented everyone was (and how much better dressed than me). And Botswana has so much to experience. I got to explore the northeast at Christmas, and I’m looking forward to a trip to the Moremi Gorge and the northwest in May. And my village is lovely, with its hills and rocks and trees, and monkeys! Part of Botswana’s appeal (at least for me, coming from a sparsely populated area) is its lack of people. I met a Motswana on Thursday who had spent time in Houston, and I asked him if he knew that Houston has as many people as Botswana, and that Texas is about the size of Botswana, so imagine taking Houston’s population and spreading it out all over Texas, and that’s what Botswana is like. And very little light pollution makes for excellent stars.
  • Learning all the time! This is the main reason I came here…I’d kind of stopped doing this in the US. Every day is a new experience, full of opportunities to gain new skills and stretch myself.
  • Making a difference. I’ve had the chance to do some cool things at my site, and I’m looking forward to what the next year holds. Peace Corps really is about creating your own opportunities and advocating for yourself…I think the people who don’t do that might be unhappy here.

I have another monthly column coming out next Sunday (March 4) in the Montrose Daily Press. Ke a leboga thata (I’m very grateful) for their willingness to help me achieve Peace Corps’ “third goal.” Here are links to some previous columns:

Sala sentle, ditsala. (Stay well, friends.)