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).
If you’ve been following my columns since I came to Botswana, you’ll know that I spent the first 10 weeks in pre-service training in the village of Molepolole where I lived with a wonderful woman named Mma Peggy. She welcomed me into her home, took me to weddings and funerals, taught me the Setswana language and culture, tolerated my endless questions and became a dear friend. And finally, this month, I went back to see her.
As the bus pulled into Molepolole, I was worried that a year of absence would cause me to forget where Mma Peggy lived, but I got off at the appropriate stop and then snaked my way through the labyrinth of paths and dirt streets leading to her house. And there she was, waiting on her porch and doing her happy dance as she rushed up to give me a hug. The neighbor kids — Lefika, Hadiah and Itumeleng — all appeared, and I passed out the gifts I’d brought. Then we all gathered in Mma Peggy’s living room to catch up.
In the 10 months since I’d left, glaucoma caused vision loss in one of her eyes, and she had surgery to improve the sight in her other eye. I was tickled that the kids have kept up with the baking that I began with them a year ago. The girls wanted to make chocolate cake and “egg pies” (mini quiches that I devised when I lived there), so we walked to the supermarket for ingredients and ran into another volunteer who was also visiting his host family, and a trainee from the new group who recognized me from my blog. And, of course, we had to stop for ice cream on the way home.
We set about baking and Mma Peggy joined us in the kitchen to share more news. She had become a great-grandmother two weeks earlier, and the new mother and her son were in the guest bedroom; so I shared Mma Peggy’s bedroom. In the past, it was traditional in Botswana for a new mother to observe botsetsi, where she went into confinement for up to six months and was cared for by her mother. The father wasn’t allowed to see the baby until the confinement ended. The new mother had her own pot and eating utensils, and it was very bad for her to share them with a pregnant woman, since this was believed to cause slow growth or sickness for the new baby. But many of these customs are falling by the wayside, and Mma Peggy’s granddaughter joined us for cake and egg pies.
I got a new house in August. A security issue forced my relocation to a nearby village (I’m still working in my original village), and I feel much safer in my new place. While I was awaiting inspection and approval for the new house, I stayed in a guesthouse in the capital city of Gaborone for two weeks and was able to meet with several people who will be instrumental in the success of the Rotary Vocational Training Team that I hope to bring to Botswana in early 2019, including the directors of the Botswana Business Coalition on AIDS and the Botswana Network of AIDS Support Organisations. I also enjoyed a traditional Kalanga meal, prepared by the guesthouse owner and featuring seswaa sa pudi (pounded goat meat), lebelebele (stiff porridge made from pearl millet), and morogo wa dinawa (cooked Setswana bean leaves, also called Setswana beans.) The Kalanga are one of Botswana’s largest ethnolinguistic groups.
Spring is coming, but it’s still cold in the morning. During a quick trip last week to the Republic of South Africa, there was ice on our car in the morning, and snow was predicted for the hills around where we were staying (but it was too stormy to tell if that materialized).
I was in South Africa to see the wildflowers and succulents of Namaqualand. A friend and fellow volunteer had heard of this place last year during pre-service training, and we vowed to go this year. A 75-year-old Brit that I met through the Rotary Club of Gaborone offered to come with us and provide his car and the driving, which was very welcome.
Namaqualand is in the Northern Cape Province and covers 170,000 square-miles of semi-desert, ranging from the Atlantic Coast to elevations over 5,000 feet. Its name comes from the people who have inhabited the region for thousands of years, the Nama or Namaqua, the largest group of the Khoikhoi people. (And I learned that 10,000 Nama were brutally killed by the German Empire in a genocide from 1904-1908 in present-day Namibia.)
People come from all over the world to see Namaqualand’s flowers, and indeed, we met some botanists from Germany at our guesthouse. It has the highest concentration of succulent plants in any of the world’s arid regions with more than 3,500 species of succulents and wildflowers, including 1,000 that don’t occur anywhere else. Luckily, unlike the past two years, there were flowers for our trip, though we were told that we were seeing about one-third of the normal splendor.
But it was still beautiful, and we saw flowers that I’d never seen before. We drove over several “mountain” passes, and it made my heart sing to be so high (I know, I know, 5,000 feet isn’t much, but it’s the highest I’ve travelled in more than a year).
We also spent a night at Augrabies Falls National Park. The Orange River runs through the Park, and the waterfall is about 60 meters high. Augrabies is a Boer derivation of Ankoerebis, a Khoikhoi word meaning the “place of big noises.” The Park was beautifully maintained, and in addition to hiking around the Falls, we enjoyed a drive through the Giant Tree Aloe, also known as known as kokerboom or quiver tree (so named because the San people of the region used the soft branches to make quivers for their arrows).
It was a lovely trip, but I was glad to return to Botswana, mainly because vestiges of apartheid remain in South Africa. As you probably know, apartheid (meaning separateness in Afrikaans) was the South African government’s system of racism and segregation that ran from 1948 until the early 1990s. People were classified as “white,” “colored” (mixed race), “black,” or “Asian” and were forced to live in certain neighborhoods based on their classification. Many people lost land, citizenship, access to education and jobs and their lives during this horrible time. While looking for our guesthouse in Springbok, we stopped to ask a white woman for directions, and she informed us that it was in the “colored” neighborhood and that we might want to find a different one. (We didn’t.)
Thank you for reading about my experiences, and feel free to send me an email (email@example.com) if you have any comments or questions. You also can check out my blog at www.amyinbotswana.com. Pula!