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 email@example.com with your questions or comments (or to get her address).
Ke ile ko manyalong a mararo ka Sateretaga yo o fetileng. That means, I went to three weddings last Saturday. More accurately, it was three weddings held jointly at one hall. The couples hailed from the same church (Bible Life Ministries, which I attend) but from different villages, and all three pastors had a role. My churchmate, Tebogo, was one of the brides.
I thought the “three weddings in one” concept was brilliant. I got to admire three beautiful bridal gowns and a dozen bridesmaid dresses. Choirs from all three churches performed together. The families spent a third of what they would have if they’d rented the hall on their own. And I got to watch three grooms awkwardly kiss their brides. (The pastor gave them the option of not kissing.) Public displays of affection are not seen here. People hold hands, but only with their friends, and you frequently see two men or two women walking hand in hand.
Each couple held its own reception, and I went to the one for my churchmate. There was much singing and dancing, and the wedding party made three costume changes and danced for us after each one. And food! If you’ve followed my columns, you’ll know I’m a fan of seswaa (pounded meat), and we had plenty, since the family slaughtered two cows the previous day. My friend Abel sat next to me and wasn’t eating. I asked him why, and he said that this was his third reception of the day, and he’d had two plates already (and Batswana know how to fill a plate). Though Abel had been invited to the other two receptions, he could have joined the food lines, since there’s no such thing as “wedding crashing” here. My churchmate and her new husband did it all again the next day, because most weddings have a second reception (with more seswaa and slaughtering) at the groom’s house. I skipped that one, because I had a pile of laundry to wash.
Speaking of food, Happy belated Thanksgiving. I celebrated with take-out Thai food that my boss picked up after an evening board meeting that we attended in Gaborone. I spent dinner and the night with her and her family since it was too late to head back to my village. Along with chicken curry and Pad Thai we enjoyed a butternut squash pie that I’d baked and brought with me (pumpkins aren’t available until fall (March)). If you’ll recall, last month I was in the combi (minibus) with a huge bag of raw meat. This month, I climbed into an overcrowded bus to Gaborone with my pie (fresh from the oven) and got just as many comments. Pies exist here, but they’re meat-filled pastries that you hold in your hand. And the idea of putting squash in a big, open pie crust (and adding sugar and milk to it) struck my bus mates as strange but they all wanted to try it and were sad when I left the bus with my pie intact.
Holidays make me miss friends and family. It has been more than 16 months since I hugged my sons, Aidan and Liam. I’m grateful for social media and the internet, which allow me to stay in touch with them and you. And thank goodness I don’t need to rely on BotswanaPost to do that. I did receive mail in the last month, including some Olathe Sweet, Sweet Corn seeds that my father sent four months ago; a package from my mother (with lots of gel pens and spices, which I needed); and 10 letters from two of my favorite people in Montrose: Helen Beck (who turned 102 in July!) and Sherry Lynn Nicolas (a longtime family friend who also writes on behalf of Babe Faussone, another one of my favorite people). Ke a leboga thata (I am very grateful), and I mailed letters to them this week, which hopefully won’t take four months to get to Montrose.
Some of you have asked what else I miss. Here’s a short list: the smell of sage after a rain; the Gunnison Gorge; Nancy Turley (the amazing woman who cut my hair for 26 years … it’s hard to get a good haircut here); washing machines (I wash my clothes by hand and now sport matching thumb callouses); hiking by myself; Tejano burritos at Don Gilberto’s; Alpenglow on the Cimarrons; Colorado Boy IPA; and snow.
And I miss anonymity. I shared a touching moment a few weeks ago with my favorite taxi driver, Koketso, as he drove me home after work (a downside of my new place is that I promised Peace Corps I wouldn’t walk the 2 kilometers from the main road to my house, since it passes through an isolated, “bushy” area, so I take taxis). He remarked that everybody was staring at us and asked if it bothered me. I told him that some days, it does. Those are the days that the little cultural differences that have been piling up for weeks will finally upset the cart. But most of the time, I consider their stares an affirmation of why I am here. They stare because they don’t see Americans walking in their village (I still can walk on the main roads, which I do every chance I get) or riding in combis and they’re curious about why I’m here. And I try to remember that I’m an ambassador (and as former US Ambassador, the Honorable Earl Miller said, Peace Corps Volunteers are the real ambassadors in Botswana) and it is a privilege to represent you and our country.
Eish, it was a busy month! I spent three days at Peace Corps’ “Mid-Service Training” with my fellow Volunteers. Thankfully, we didn’t get any shots, but we had another Language Proficiency Interview to measure our Setswana progress. I’m pleased to report that I’m up to “Mid Advanced,” thanks to barutabana ba me ba bantsi (my teachers everywhere).
Last week, I attended a two-day “Structured Dialogue with Civil Society and Community-Based Organisations for Enhancing Efficiencies and Effectiveness of the National Health and Social Development Response to End AIDS by 2030 as a Public Health Threat.” It was a great opportunity to meet some major players, including the Director of the National AIDS Coordinating Agency, Richard Matlhare, and Jyothi Raja Nilambur Kovilakam, the Country Director for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). I made some important connections for the Rotary Vocational Training Team that I’m organizing to bring to Botswana in May to train HIV-focused organizations in how to raise money domestically. This is a big need, because international donor support for HIV/AIDS work is dwindling, especially for upper middle-income countries like Botswana.
This week, my NGO once again hosted the First Lady of Botswana, Mme Neo Masisi (she was here two months ago with the Queen of eSwatini and the First Lady of Lesotho). This time, she came to hold a conversation with adolescent girls and young women about sexual and reproductive health. I was impressed by her compassion, interest, and engagement with the participants during the three-hour session in a packed and very hot hall. She urged them to set goals, find role models, protect their personal values, and, above all, get an education. She was elegant and eloquent, and Botswana should be very proud to have her as the “Mother of the Nation.”
Three days later, her husband, His Excellency the President Dr. Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi, was the Guest Speaker at Botswana’s World AIDS Day Commemoration which my District hosted. Both of my NGOs had stalls at the event, and though I didn’t get to meet His Excellency, I stood within a meter of him when he and Mme Masisi stopped by our stall to hear about our work to unlock the potential of orphans and vulnerable youth. Other stalls offered HIV testing to help people uphold this year’s World AIDS Day theme, which was “Know Your Status.” Botswana is very close to meeting the UNAIDS “90-90-90” target by 2020, which is that 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90 percent of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, and 90 percent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression. We still have a lot of work to do, and that’s why I’m here.