Editor’s note: Longtime Montrose resident Amy McBride has spent the last few months in Peace Corps training in Botswana, and was sworn in as a volunteer on Oct. 4. She will spend two years building capacity of nongovernmental organizations in order to help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. She is writing a monthly column for the Daily Press. You can follow her blog at www.amyinbotswana.com)
I am writing this column from the Tlotlo Hotel in Gaborone (tlotlo means respect in Setswana), where my fellow PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) and I are attending Interim Service Training. After 11 weeks in near-daily contact during Pre-Service Training, it’s the first time most of us have seen each other since Oct. 5. I’ve enjoyed hearing everyone’s stories about their villages, and they’re as diverse as the Volunteers.
One Volunteer lives in Northwest Botswana, on the banks of the Okavango River, and his kgosi (chief) called a meeting at the kgotla (community meeting place) to discuss the health dangers from dead hippos that were showing up in the river (the result of eating anthrax-tainted plants). Another PCV hears lions roaring at night. A PCV who lives on the edge of the Kgalagadi Desert works in a primary school that declares “water days” when water arrives in the community’s pipes, so that children can haul water to their homes.
I’m eager to return to my village and get back to work. During the first month at our site, the Peace Corps requires us to complete a thorough Community Assessment to learn about our village. We conduct interviews, visit community hubs, attend meetings, and consult statistics. My village (which I can’t name for security reasons) has 50,000 people and is the largest in my district (Botswana is divided into 17 administrative districts, which are kind of like US states). There are 21 other villages in the district, ranging in size from 650 to 6,500 people. The average household size is 3.7 people.
Seventy-eight percent of my district is Christian, and the literacy rate is 86.5 percent. I’m happy that the life expectancy increased dramatically from 2001 to 2011 (according to the national census). Men’s life expectancy grew from 52 to 66, and women’s rose from 57 to 70.
The national census also surveys people about their utility usage, and I learned that 43.7 percent of the district cooks with wood, followed by electricity (34.8 percent) and gas (18.6 percent). Ninety-seven percent of the district has regular access to water and 27 percent have indoor plumbing.
Regarding the reason I’m here (to reduce the spread and impact of HIV/AIDS), the prevalence rate in my district in 2013 was 19.9 percent, which unfortunately increased from 15.8 percent in 2008. The highest prevalence is among 31-49 year-olds (40.1 percent), and women have higher prevalence than men (23.8 percent versus 15.6 percent).
I was reminded of another statistic this week, and that’s Botswana’s population, which is just over two million (the size of Houston). While I’ve been at the Tlotlo, I’ve run into: 1) a cousin of my landlady, who I met at a party a few weeks ago; 2) a coworker from one of my non-governmental organizations(NGOs); and 3) a woman who goes to the church of my host mother in Molepolole. People say that everyone knows everyone in Botswana, and I’m seeing the truth of that.
We celebrated Thanksgiving while we were here, and the wonderful hotel staff tracked down some turkeys (which are imported from South Africa and in short supply). We enjoyed a delicious dinner with stuffed turkey, mashed potatoes, squash, and wild spinach. Last night, we had a braai (barbeque), with grilled steaks. Beef is a diet mainstay, and cattle outnumber people here. Beef production is Botswana’s third largest industry (behind diamonds and tourism). As a lover of thick, medium-rare steaks, I’ve had to adjust to the thin, well-done beef here (but the flavor is fantastic!)
I encountered my first camel spider this month. It was dying under my couch, having walked through the Blue Death Insect Powder that I liberally sprinkle around my house. Other PCVs kill them daily, although they’re fast and can run up to 10 mph. They’re more closely related to scorpions than spiders and can grow to 6 inches. Mine was about 4 inches and it took several stomps to kill it. Here at the Tlotlo, we encountered another critter a few nights ago when a huge rainstorm blew through (causing flash floods throughout Gaborone) and prompting millions of termites (dikokobele in Setswana) to emerge and fly around. We watched as they crashed into windows and lights, lost their wings, and crawled into the darkness. It reminded me of the stonefly hatch on the Gunnison.
I’m back in Gaborone next week for a fundraising training led by the European Union and Government of Botswana to help build the capacity of Botswana’s NGOs. Then I have one more week at work before everything shuts down for Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Year. It’s a time when Batswana return to their home villages to visit their families. I’m looking forward to dikhwaere, or traditional choirs, for which my district is well known. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, singing is central to Setswana culture, and dikhwaere is where singing gets serious. The choirs are highly-organized and very competitive. The songs often focus on community issues and are accompanied by choreography and costumes. My Christmas break also includes a trip to Northeast Botswana and Zambia to check out wildlife and Victoria Falls.
Thanks to those who have sent letters and packages. It’s taking two to three months for mail to reach me, so I apologize if I haven’t replied to your correspondence. If you’d like my address, please send me an email, and you can keep up with me at my blog, www.amyinbotswana.com. I wish all of you a Christmas filled with peace, love, and joy. Masego a Keresemose! (Merry Christmas!)