Wednesday, January 26, 2011

3 Stories One Lesson

1/25/2011 3 Stories, 1 Lesson.

Unfortunately I am well aware of how lame I sound when I say that for
the past 2 weeks, my gardening has kept me alive and occupied. Though
plans had failed, meetings were abandoned, and projects forgotten,
twice and sometimes three times a day, I could look forward to
bucket-watering my watermelon and squash plants, watching my tomato,
pumpkin, and herb sprouts grow, and devising plans to build a fence.
During the days I could not get out of my bed, let alone stand the
heat of the sunlight against my eyes and skin, the garden got me
outside, sweating, tanning, and moving—and yes, sometimes I would even
pull out a chair and sit next to the garden, staring at the plants and
hoping to see them grow just a little bit.

Of course, if you follow my blog, you know that after a mundane story
like this, I have to say something overly dramatic, negative, and
disastrous. Well here it is: I hate goats. They came into my yard this
weekend and trampled everything, leaving piles of goat poo smashed
into my front porch with long white goat hairs clinging to them. I
came home yesterday and found that the part of my garden where my
beautiful squash plants were growing—my pride and joy—were completely
destroyed. There are 3 small stubs remaining, their leaves all eaten
off, the 2-month old bodies of their brothers and sisters strewn
across the sand as the sun zaps whatever is left of their short lives.
The other plants were also trampled, but I care about them less… what
baffles me is that the ugly, yellow, wilting watermelon plants were
left untouched even though they were only inches away. I guess squash
leaves are tasty—reminder to self, if the squash plants start growing
again, eat their leaves before the goats get to them.

This is going to sound totally whiney, but I spent this morning locked
in my house unwilling to do anything but watch tv shows and leaf
through the Tai-Chi and Yoga books my brother sent me. I deluded
myself into believing that I was "learning" these forms, and thus,
spending my day in a productive manner. In actuality, I couldn't face
the sight of the garden outside. Around one o'clock, I heard my
Setswana name from the porch and met 3 girls who often come over to
goof around. The littlest one, the newest of the gang, I'll call her
"Wee-wee," always asks me for money, for food, for sweets, water,
whatever I happen to have in my hand. She said "Mpha!" give me, and
another girl, who is normally a pain in my butt, I'll call her
"Wah-wah," surprised me by scolding Wee-wee. "Nyaaa! Nyaa!" Wah-wah
said. And then Wah-wah looked at me and smiled and repeated, "Nya!"

I have trained them.

For that, I smiled and sat outside with them and watched them play for
15 minutes or so. And by "play" what they did was sweep the massive
amounts of goat poo and goat hairs from my front porch. After Wah-wah
and Wee-wee left, I went outside and repaired my garden.

Who would've thought that the horrors of my first few months here
would turn out to be my saving grace?

Yesterday, I had my first English Club. Well, sort of. I arrived at
the school at 3PM only to find the teachers in a meeting. They had
said they would do English Club with me but perhaps they forgot I was
coming. I didn't really care, this is what I expect nowadays whenever
I have an appointment, or meeting, or project. Things don't really
happen the way they do in the states. I sat at the school and chatted
with the cleaning ladies who are friends of mine. When the teacher I
work with finally came out, she apologized for the inconvenience and
suggested that we start next week, in the meantime, would I be willing
to do something with the standard 7 students? Surely, I said. I was
in a good mood. I went to the Standard 7 classroom where the teacher
introduced me (but really, do I need an introduction? Everyone knew
who I was). I was left alone with 30 7th graders. First, I went around
and asked everyone to stand up, tell me their names, ages, and
something interesting about themselves. Boy, was that a mistake. The
first kid stood up, said his name was peter, he was 13, and…. and…
and… if he weren't a dark shade of brown, he would've turned bright
red. He stared at the table and everyone in the room laughed at him.

"Can someone help Peter? What is interesting about him?" I asked the
class, drawing on techniques that my own teachers used to use on me.
"Anyone?" There was a small meeting at Peter's table and Peter
finally looked up and muttered, "I Am A Boy," each word emphasized as
if being read for the first time. "Thank you, Peter," I said, "that
is… interesting!"

I looked at the student next to Peter who stood up, said his name was,
"blah blah," and announced to the class, "I am 13... I am a boy."
Thank you blah blah… next?

Thirty 13 to 16 year olds then went one by one around the room, told
me their indistinguishable click-filled names, their ages, and their
genders. Oh boy.

The next exercise I did with the kids is an exercise I learned from
another PCV here, a cognitive behavioral psychologist named Pat. Pat
works in the schools. One day she sat down with her kids and asked
them, "How are you doing?" The class said in unison, "I Am Fine." Pat
laughed, the students laughed, and Pat said, "How are all of you fine?
Certainly you can't all be fine!" She then talked about the importance
of thinking outside the box. Everyone here always answers. "I am fine"
to the question "How are you?" She went around the class and asked
each student to provide another answer to "how are you" that wasn't
"I'm fine." Some students said "I am not fine!" or "I am happy!" or "I
am cool!" one enthusiastic student even shouted, "I am Fantastic!"
Pat's personal focus here is to teach the people of Botswana how to
think critically, or as we've abbreviated in our talks, how to think.

I started my talk to the class by telling them that I wanted to talk
to them today about "how to think." They stared at me like "ok crazy
lady…" The next 40 minutes felt like pulling teeth. For the first 20
minutes, the only answer I could get out of these kids to "how are
you?" was "I am fine." Only one student really got the point of the
talk, and she responded, beaming with pride, "I am fine. How are you?"
I couldn't disappoint her so I said… "Ok, that's good… anyone else?"

After picking on a handful of poor students whose names I could
remember, I started going crazy and throwing out suggestions like "I
feel like dancing!" and dancing around the room a bit. The kids loved
that. Eventually we came up with the following short list of answers
to the question "how are you?":

How are you?
I am fine. How are you?.
I am not fine because I have a headache.
I am not fine because I do not feel well.
I am shy.
and my own personal contribution, "Fantastic!" (after which I had to
explain to them what "fantastic" meant)

By the end of the 40 minutes, though, I am proud to say that I think
at least one student really got into my talk. It's a shame I have the
memory of an ant cause I can't remember her name, but I was happy that
she and her friends came up to me after class and asked for my number
and if they could visit on Saturday. It's not much, but it's a start!!

After Wee-wee and Wah-wah visited today, I thought, "I guess this is
what Peace Corps is about. Being here long enough that kids can feel
safe enough to come to your house even if you don't do a thing with
them but watch them play."


The day before yesterday, I was in Ghanzi to meet some representatives
from the U.S. Embassy. These officers came to do some first-hand
scouting of the settlements to investigate the possibility of forming
Community Trusts for San villages such as New Xade. They gave me a
lift to New Xade in a sweet air-conditioned silver 4x4 equipped with
GPS, electric fridge, and satellite phone; and I showed them a bit of
the Village while men, women, and children alike followed us around
and asked for money. One old guy actually stood there for a good 20
minutes just staring at the truck, finally he had the balls to walk up
to it and touch it. Ironically, he did this while we were discussion
the development of the San and how, before they were relocated, some
of the Batswana had brought them to Ghanzi, shown them a house and a
car, and said, "You will have things like this."

We had some good talks and I learned some things I didn't know, but
most importantly, I learned a lot of things that I already knew. It
felt good to think that the conclusions I came to myself were
supported by the opinions of the people here. It amused me that the
Americans pulled out their little gadgets and maps as soon as we
pulled onto the dirt road. It's exactly what I would've done if I had
just arrived from the States. It's exactly what my brother and father
will do when they visit me. Oh how we westerners love our gizmos and
gadgets; I realize that now, I can probably do just fine without them!
As I was saying goodbye to the Embassy men in the late afternoon, we
shook hands and one of them politely commented, "You're one of the top
notch PCV's for positivity." I asked him if he was kidding. He said,
not at all. What a validation! "I'll be living off of that for
months," I beamed at him.

All that said, I'm going to try to do what my friend Lucie has told me
to do and not focus on the negatives. So, a toast to the casualties of
my trampled garden: here's to the future, to new beginnings, new
sprouts, lessons learned, compliments on my positivity, and an
opportunity to… well to do what I'm not exactly sure, but I'm sure
it'll come to me after a few more drinks! Clink Clink! (I'm drinking
ice water. I finally got my fridge working again. Oddly enough, on
very hot days, cold water has the same effect on me as alcohol.

Oh, and this weekend, I got bitten by a tick! It was gross and creepy
and painful… and actually kind of cool, but that's a story for another
day. 'Cause How am I? I am tired.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Picture of the Rains coming in Serowe (patti's village, where we painted Pooh) btw, this is her view every evening from her front step.


Wowee, 2011. I came home yesterday in Pax’s big flatbed truck. It was me, Pax (a tall Herero man who wears a cowboy hat and chews tobacco and speaks very little English), Tamaga (a light skinned San man, my counterpart, who has a strange resemblance to a young version of my father, thin but starting to show a belly, a weird sense of humor but always has a joke ready in a slightly crooked smile), and Isaiah (pronounced “EEE-ZAI-AH,” a short, skinny Motswana who always wears a bright red trucker hat and a pair of sunglasses, I’ve only seen his eyes on 3 occasions thus far). Pax speaks very little English, but because we travel so often together, I like to think that we’ve become good friends. I play with his kids and his large herero wife at home sometimes, even though none of them speak English either. These 3 guys are like my leprechauns at the end of a treacherous rainbow, whenever I come home from a long trip and see them in Ghanzi, waiting for me to ask them for a ride, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside, give them each a big handshake, and think, “Man, I like New Xade.”

Around 4PM yesterday, Pax, Isaiah, Tamaga, and I pack into the cab of the big flatbed truck and load in a dozen or so kids from the Ghanzi farms on their way to school. We also pack in some villagers, including some friends of mine, and all our little parcels and packages of food and material from the town. As we set off on our regular route, Tamaga occasionally turns around to ask me how I’m doing. I’m starting to feel more tired than I’ve felt since I arrived in Botswana when he turns around and asks me, “What are you expecting?” Huh? I thought for a second that he was speaking in reference to the men I finally hired to clean the makgunda from my yard, why would he ask me that? He pointed to the sky ahead which had grown eerily dark and cloudy. “Rain?” was my answer. “Pula!” he said, and then Pax did a funny sort of high-pitched Speedy Gonzales laugh as he pulled out of a pothole in 1st gear, slammed on the gas, and leaned back in his seat so his large body was a flat as a plank. The truck rumbled and jumped and I looked behind me at the people and kids wrapped in their blankets as their bodies bounced a few feet off the bed of the truck.

A few minutes later, I watched out of the window as the rain came and eventually turned into torrents. Behind me, in the truck, not a person could be seen. Everyone hid, lying flat against the flatbed with their blankets held over them. They looked like one large, shivering patchwork quilt. Tamaga looked behind us and asked me guiltily if I had any blankets or a jacket I could lend them. I had nothing, and my own hair was standing straight up and down on my arm in defiance to the cold weather. A few minutes later, no sooner had the storm died down when I heard a very loud, almost cartoon like “WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!” A tire had deflated. The sound was so cliché, I almost thought it was a joke.

Everyone climbed out of the truck, me last, cause I was convinced it wasn’t real, and the men got to work. They were like a well-oiled machine. 3 men salvaged parts from 2 extra tires in the back. 1 man began unscrewing the bolts from the flat, and Pax stood and watched. The kids and the women, eerily enough, immediately ran to the bush on the sides of the road and picked berries from the trees. A few minutes later, they had moved beyond my line of vision, but I swear to God, I could still hear a harvesting noise, like the sound of a stick on a washboard or wooden fence, that sounded almost exactly like the sound effect in the video game Age of Empires, when the peasants are gathering food. I don’t know how much time passed, but soon enough later (after I helped to unbolt 3 screws from the tire—why on earth do these massive tires require 10 bolts to keep them on? What genius engineer decided 10 was optimal? I bet he just thought 10 was a pretty number but never thought to himself what the practical implications of “10” are!), another truck drove by and all the women and children gathered their stuff and switched vehicles. Tamaga suggested I go with them if I wanted to go faster, I said I was ok to stay. And I was. I was enjoying myself quite a bit. After the truck had left, he then said, “This is why there are no women in Botswana, you see how those women reacted? As soon as there is trouble, they run away.”

As the men started cleaning up their handiwork, Tamaga showed me some wild green things that he said provides salt, I imagine he was replenishing his electrolytes after all the hard work of changing a tire from a large flatbed truck. It tasted pretty good and I felt pretty cool, standing there in the aftermath of a storm, eating wild green things, in the wide open bushland. I’ve realized I’ve spent so much of my life in enclosed places, my house, the car, the office, the city, that being out there surrounded by trees and clouds for as far as the eye can see--- it was really pretty neat.

The Stuff Even Peace Corps Can’t Prepare You For

When you join the Peace Corps, I’d say they do a pretty good job of sending you pamphlets, letters, packets, and papers to prepare you for your journey. They brief you on medical tips, traveling tips, packing tips, working, language, and culture tips, and they tell you that the trip will be hard, you will miss your family, you may even see people die. But nothing they can tell you or write to you about can prepare you for that moment when the frailty of life lays out in all its glory naked in front of you.

Almost a month ago, my friend died. Only this week did I have the guts to face our friends about it. I found out details about her death that I never wanted to know. Details that made her absence even more real and finite. Her shop is closed, locked up indefinitely; her house, empty and dark. Her family, I’m told, has left town for the time-being, perhaps to grieve, perhaps to brood. Her death, not only unexpected, was wrought with mysteries and frustrations. Apparently, she didn’t have to die. Apparently, someone did something wrong after the accident, and her life could’ve been saved.

2 weeks ago, our village had a funeral for a 5 year old. Today, an 8 year old was raped and another child ran away from the hostels all by himself. I sat next to my counterpart as he held my hand in his lap and buried his head into his arm. When he looked up, his face was puffy, but his voice was calm. We talked about our options. Then we stopped talking. We had no options. The best we could hope for was that a car from Ghanzi would find the child. We had no resources, no transport, no back up plan. I could tell he was disappointed. Maybe it was his face mirroring back at me, but I thought I also saw failure there. Failure to intervene in time, failure to stop more pain from entering this community, failure to be able to do anything about it. At that moment, I realized. No amount of Peace Corps programming, no volunteer project, no youth center or tutoring program I can create in my 2 years here could be enough to pull these people out of the intense feeling of failure and misery they endure on a day to day basis, the result of being displaced from their homes and cultures and told to live in a world and life that is void of options. It’s like walking in a desert at noon with the sun burning a hole through your back, your head, your feet, and not seeing a single tree to hide under. I know that feeling now.

The moment before my counterpart appeared, I was thinking about what could happen here that could help these people, a conversation I have with myself daily. The only conclusion I come to these days is education. Like my counterpart, there exist a handful of bright, motivated, hard-working individuals who want nothing more but a tertiary degree so that they could be successful, and in Tamaga’s case, so that he could come back and help his community. If only there existed some fund that would do just do that. Send a hardworking San individual to school, regardless of his age or sex or occupation, so that he could return to this community and be the one to empower, teach, and guide his people. No more black and white talk about “these people,” no more complaints of communication or cultural barriers, no more feeling of defeat and failure at the hands of an educational institution, no more coming home from secondary school just to be a drunken bum, like your mother, your father, and your uncles before you…


1.21.2011 As of right now, the child who ran away from the hostels is still missing. It's been around 29 hours and it's been raining intermittently. My counterpart estimates he may have gotten as far as 20 km as of last night. Ghanzi is around 108 km away. No one has seen the child on the road yet. We all hope he is doing ok. We still don't have a vehicle to go looking for him.

Monday, January 17, 2011

having a really really hard time getting out of bed these days.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Today, I wanna go home. (Despite the awesomeness pictured above)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Happy New Year

Happy New Year Everyone!

I'm at a bit of a loss for what to write today. I'm in Serowe, the village of the President and past Kings helping a friend of mine paint her preschool (pictures to come). We just returned from our New Year Vacation in Namibia.

I'm at a loss for words today. I found out just an hour or so ago that a good friend of mine passed away during the new year holiday in a car accident. She was supposed to come with us on our Namibian Vacation to Swakopmund (beach) and the dunes (see picture above), but she got turned away at the border because (being not an american-- she's from China) she needed (and didn't have) a tourist visa. I promised to call my friend once we arrived, but I didn't have enough air time to make an international call, so I kept putting it off. Once we got back to Botswana, I saw that she had called me, and I thought, i'll call her once I've gotten some rest. I kept putting it off again. Finally, after a day of hard painting Pooh Bear and Tigger's in Serowe, I received a call from Jeffrey, a mutual friend from Zimbabwe (An american, zimbabwean, and chinese trio are we), saying she had passed away. I couldn't believe him. I called several people in Ghanzi just to check, i was sure that this was a horrible joke. I told myself, if this is a joke, I'm never going to talk to these guys again. My friend reminded me, If it isn't a joke, you won't be talkin to her again anyway.

It seems wrong and cliche of me to tell you all to remember your loved ones this New Year, to call them, and keep in touch, because you never know what the next day may bring... but I feel so guilty for not taking my own advice this week. In the end, my friend is gone and we're the ones who are suffering her loss.