Editor’s note: Amy has been in Botswana over a year, where she is serving as an HIV and health-capacity building specialist with the U.S. Peace Corps. She lives in a village near Gaborone (which she can’t name for security reasons) and works with two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help them better serve a country where one of five people are HIV-positive. She writes a monthly column for the Montrose Daily Press and also maintains a blog, www.amyinbotswana.com. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions or comments (or to get her address).
Fifty-two years ago, on Sept. 30, Botswana gained its independence from Great Britain. To celebrate, most dikgotla (traditional tribal government meeting places/courts) hold an event, and since I didn’t get to attend one last year in Molepolole, I was eager to go this year. After church, moruti wa me (my pastor) and I went to the kgotla of the small village where our church is located. The program was in full swing, with speeches, singing and dancing. As often happens at kgotla gatherings, there were gentle jabs at people in power. Several women performed a song in which they lamented the dilapidated state of nearly everything in the village, ending with the kgotla in which we sat, and called on the District Counsellor to do something about it. It appeared to be all in good fun.
We sat at the head table with the District Counsellor and Kgosi (chief), because my moruti is a person of distinction, and I got to introduce myself to the crowd, which I always enjoy. I good-naturedly corrected the Counsellor, who in his speech had referred to me as a lekgoa (white person), and I told the audience that I was a kgabo thôôthôô (a true monkey, or someone who has embraced the Bakgatla tribe, whose totem is the monkey), which brought laughter and applause.
A congressional delegation composed of eight members of the House of Representatives visited one of my two organizations today. Led by Representative Bob Goodlatte, House Judiciary Committee chairman, the delegation arrived in Botswana on Thursday evening and departs tomorrow. They chose to visit my organization (whose mission is to help orphaned and vulnerable youth realize their potential) since it is partially funded by American taxpayers through USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development).
The three Democrats and five Republicans, and three dozen military escorts, staff, family members, and agency representatives arrived at 2:30 p.m. and left at 3:15 p.m. Their first stop was the kitchen, where members of the Mochudi Cookie Company were busy baking oatmeal cookies, and I explained that this was an income-generating activity for the youth. Then they headed to the hall to engage in a debate with some of our after-school youth participants about whether adolescents should have access to social media. Then, the Cookie Company presented the delegation members with bags of cookies. Several of them said that this stop was a highlight of their trip.
At the beginning of September, also after church, I attended the National Launch of the Month of Prayer for HIV/AIDS, which was hosted by my District. People from all over the country came, and there were speeches by many dignitaries, including the Director of the National AIDS Coordinating Agency and the acting kgosi of the Bakgatla. My favorite part was when eight pastors from churches throughout my District offered short prayers for various aspects of the disease. A look at the latest HIV statistics shows why prayers are needed. In my District, one in four 15-49-year-olds is HIV-positive. I am grateful for antiretroviral therapy (ART) and the Government of Botswana’s commitment to “Treat All” through free ART for every HIV-positive Motswana (citizen of Botswana). That means that thousands of HIV-positive people in my District can live long and healthy lives if they adhere to treatment.
I was back in Molepolole this month for Peace Corps business and paid a surprise visit to Mma Peggy, the 72-year-old with whom I lived for ten weeks during pre-service training last year. We caught up on events since my last visit, and my affection for her grows even stronger. I had a productive second meeting of the Advisory Committee for the Rotary Vocational Training Team that I’m organizing to bring four to six nonprofit professionals from America to Botswana for a month of intensive mentorship with HIV-based civil society organizations. I’m enjoying my new (and very safe) house and neighborhood, after being relocated in August due to a security incident, and I’m grateful that last month the police caught the reason for my relocation and he is in a maximum-security facility in Gaborone. I’m continuing to work with colleagues at my organizations to implement improvements … from a website and online donations for one of them, to a new “Giving Society” and donor levels and benefits at the other.
I’ve been keeping a list of neat things in Botswana to share with you. Here are just a few.
Commitment to the Environment
We’re gearing up for the start of the Plastic Carrier Bags and Plastic Flat Bags Prohibition on Nov. 1, which is designed to reduce impacts on the environment and domestic animals. There already is a charge for plastic bags (around 40 thebe, or 4 cents each), but there’s going to be an outright ban, with confiscation of the bag on a first offense, and a fine not to exceed 5,000 pula ($500) or 30 days in jail (or both) for subsequent offenses. In anticipation, one of my NGOs ordered fabric bags imprinted with its logo and contact information, and we’re hoping to make a lot of sales.
Botswana is a leader in conservation, with around 38 percent of Botswana’s land protected by national parks, reserves, and wildlife management areas. The Government also has dedicated many resources to wildlife protection, and Botswana is home to the world’s largest concentration of African elephants. Quite a few of you sent me links to a recent article that was first published by the BBC about alleged elephant poaching in Botswana. The article cited a conservation organization’s claim that it that had found nearly 90 elephants in the Okavango Delta, dead from poaching. The article did not provide a government response, but the Government of Botswana issued its own release in which it stated that it “wishes to inform members of the public and other key stakeholders that these statistics are false and misleading.” The statement acknowledged that a recent aerial survey had discovered 53 elephant carcasses, but “the majority were not poached but rather died from natural causes and retaliatory killings as a result of human and wildlife conflicts.”
Another cool thing is geysers. These are hot water tanks that are mounted on the sides of many houses. When I want to bathe, I flip on my geyser about an hour beforehand, and I have hot water. The sun warms the water in the geyser during the day. Also, you buy electricity and load it into your meter, and then watch as it gets depleted. It certainly makes me conscious of how much I’m using.
Dilo tsa Ngwao (Cultural Things)
Media. There’s one national TV station (BTV), a handful of radio stations, and around a dozen newspapers, and reporters who seem to be courageous and committed. As I don’t have a television, I don’t watch much BTV, but when I have, one of the things that impresses me is that there is a person in the corner of the screen to provide sign language translation. The radio station I listen to has daily talk shows where people debate local and national issues, and the discussion is intelligent and respectful. (Another neat thing is that they report chess tournament results during the sports updates.) When I walk into the supermarket, people are crowded around the newspaper kiosk, and the Government publishes a free daily paper. Batswana are committed to being informed both about their country and the world, and they often know more about what’s going on in America than I do.
Meetings. Working in the civil society sector, I spend a lot of time in them. They usually open and close with a prayer. Someone offers a “vote of thanks” at the end to acknowledge attendance, accomplishments, etc. Often, when we’re awaiting the start, people will break into song. And there’s always a tea break around 10:30 a.m. When I first got here, I thought they were a waste of time. Now, I relish them, not only for the food and break from work, but for the camaraderie and conversation. A good tea is like a light brunch, with eggs, phaphata (an English muffin but denser), magwinya (a giant donut holes but denser), and little sandwiches filled with meat, cheese or vegetables.
Greetings. As our Peace Corps Setswana manual says, “In Botswana, greetings are culturally a door opener to a day-to-day life. [A] simple “Dumela!” to someone you meet acknowledges their being and is a sign of what Batswana would term “botho.” At first, I was a bit uncomfortable with greeting everyone, but now I love it. It really does make you feel acknowledged and connected. I hope that the next time you enter the post office or head to your car after grabbing some groceries, you will smile and say hello to the people you pass. After all, “Madume ga a jewe,” which is a Setswana phrase that directly translates to, “You can’t eat greetings,” but means “You don’t lose anything by greeting someone.” PULA!