Editor’s note: Amy has spent the last year in Botswana, 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).
I celebrated one year in Botswana two weeks ago by revisiting the first place I stayed upon arrival: Ave Maria Pastoral Centre, a Roman Catholic events facility in Gaborone. The reason for my return was a quarterly meeting hosted by the National AIDS Coordinating Agency and UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS). I attended with the coordinator of one of the non-governmental organizations with which I work, and we received lots of updates from the various presenters.
I was inspired by graphs showing dramatic declines in new HIV infections and AIDS deaths from their peaks two decades ago. However, the downward trends have leveled out and new HIV infections have increased slightly. I’m especially worried about 15-19-year-old females whose infection rate is nearly four times higher than their male counterparts. Thankfully, others are also worried, and everyone is working to implement new programs to target these and other at-risk populations.
Three days later, I was back at Ave Maria to speak to the 89 Peace Corps trainees who arrived in Botswana July 23. Being with them took me back to my first days in Botswana and all the new things to absorb: language, food, cultural etiquette, immunizations, cell phones, driving on the other side of the road. … But as I left the Centre after my presentation, stopping to joke with the security guard in Setswana and then joining the throngs of Batswana on the street who were headed to the combi rank (where I crowded onto a combi (minibus) to head to the bus rank to hop a bus to my village), I felt pride and happiness for all that I’ve learned in the last year, and a renewed commitment to getting the most out of the remaining days of my service.
My one-year anniversary also brought reconnection with some of the people I’ve met along the way. At the market last month, I ran into my host mother from my first visit to Motse in September, and she scolded me for not coming to visit. Last weekend, I baked cookies and took a combi to see her. As I walked to her house, I heard someone shouting Tsala (my Setswana name) and it was my host mother’s housekeeper, Tshego. She was inside a tuck shop which she opened a few months ago.
Tuck shops are a tiny version of a convenience store and they are everywhere. They’re usually made of cinder blocks or corrugated steel and measure no more than 4 square meters. They sell sweets, soda, airtime, fat cakes, Grand-Pa Headache Powders, soup packets and jalojalo (Setswana for etcetera). Tshego proudly reported she is already turning a profit. I congratulated her on her success and headed to Mma Menyatso’s house. Alas, she wasn’t home, so I left the cookies with the new housekeeper and a message that I would be back in a few weeks.
Tomorrow, I go to Molepolole to spend the night with Mma Peggy, my host mother from pre-service training. I haven’t been back since I left in October and I’m very excited to see her and the kids who live next door. You’ll recall that I baked cookies with them every Sunday, and we’re planning a big batch of chocolate chip cookies for this weekend and many rounds of all the card games I taught them. Speaking of cookies, the Motse Cookie Company continues to rake in profits with its “MoCookies.” Now that it’s finally warming up, we may be switching to our summer product, “MoCrispies” (rice krispie treats), since they don’t require baking (and heating up the kitchen more than we need to).
I also got to reconnect last week with the U.S. ambassador to Botswana, the Honorable Earl Miller. I first met him at our “swearing in” ceremony in Molepolole in October. I’ve run into him a few times since, and even got to eat breakfast at his house. He was visiting one of my NGOs, where he spoke to a group of teens who participate in the U.S. Embassy’s English Access Microscholarship Program, which helps economically disadvantaged students gain better opportunities through skills and knowledge in English. Ambassador Miller told a powerful story about his single mother who dropped out of school at 15 but went back and earned a PhD while raising her six children.
My NGO had three other special visitors last month — the First Ladies of Botswana and Lesotho, and the Queen of the Kingdom of eSwatini. Their husbands were in Gaborone for a meeting of the Southern African Customs Union, which maintains the free interchange of goods between the five member countries. It was established in 1910 and is the world’s oldest existing customs union.
The Queen and First Ladies heard presentations about my NGO’s work to unlock the potential of orphans and vulnerable youth and met with representatives from our Responsible Young Mothers and Grannies groups. My NGO provides parenting and life skills education to the young mothers, and the grannies serve as community mobilizers on issues such as child sexual abuse and gender-based violence. They were very impressed with my NGO’s great work.
But wait, you may be saying, what is the Kingdom of eSwatini? You may know it as Swaziland, the small, landlocked country northeast of South Africa. In April, King Mswati announced he was changing the country’s name, to eSwatini, which means “land of the Swazis,” because “Whenever we go abroad, people refer to us as Switzerland.” I’m hoping to make it to Swaziland soon, as well as Lesotho, which has a ski resort and mountains that are 3,200 meters high (10,500 feet). I miss my Western Colorado mountains a lot.
As you may have heard, we had a total lunar eclipse in our part of the world last month. It was the longest eclipse of this century, lasting nearly four hours. And it was during a “blood moon,” and indeed, the moon turned a brilliant, deep red. I watched it with my neighbors, and I was happy to see other people out looking at it. Most of the people I’ve met here think it’s odd that I’m always commenting on the stars (which are truly exceptional, especially during our frequent power outages … the Milky Way is fantastic), and they tell me that Batswana don’t share Americans’ fascination with the night sky. I don’t know if that’s true, but it was fun to see parents out with their children watching the eclipse.
I apologize for not updating my blog in a while. I’ll try to do better. I’m working on a post right now that introduces you to some of my coworkers, and I gave them a questionnaire to complete. One of the questions was, “What do you want Americans to know about Botswana?” Tidimalo wrote, “Americans should know that Botswana is a peaceful country, land of tourism, with minimal population.” Katlego wrote, “That we have the highest quality of diamonds and a very good tourism industry, and also that Botswana is a peaceful nation.” Emmah wrote, “There are many investment opportunities. Batswana are friendly and love Americans.” I think the Botswana Tourism Organisation needs to put them on the payroll! You’ll need to check my blog for their answers to the other questions. I especially like their descriptions of a happy childhood memory.
I’ll end with a shout-out to Mandy at Bank of Colorado who helped unblock my debit card. And a thank you to anyone who has sent me letters and packages. It was a slow month for mail, due to a strike at the South African Post Office (and all your mail must go through the Republic of South Africa), which ended two weeks ago, but I’m sure there’s a backlog. You can send mail to Private Bag 00243, Gaborone, Botswana or email me at email@example.com for the address in my village. Thank you for reading, and enjoy the “Olathe Sweet” sweet corn. (That’s another thing I miss a lot.)
PULA! (As you’ll recall from last month’s column, this is what we shout at the end of the national anthem. It means rain and money and I hope that both come to Western Colorado.)