Editor’s note: Longtime Montrose resident Amy McBride has spent recent time in the 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 Montrose Daily Press. You can follow her blog at www.amyin botswana.com.
I submitted last month’s column on the day before I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, ending eleven weeks of Pre-Service Training which included 50-plus hours of Setswana classes, a week-long “HIV Boot Camp,”, several dozen sessions on medical and security issues and the Peace Corps approach to development, field trips to the four sectors in which we are serving (Life Skills (schools); Local Government; Non-Governmental Organizations (my sector); and Clinic and Health Teams), and lectures on Setswana culture (ngwao) and Botswana history, As well as a lot of immunizations.
Our “Swearing In” was exciting, with most of the soon-to-be Volunteers dressed in newly-tailored Setswana outfits, and our enthusiastic host families packing the auditorium at the Institute for Health Sciences. There were speeches from dignitaries, including: Earl Miller, US Ambassador to Botswana; Kgosikgolo Kgari III, Chief of the Bakwena; and Shenaaz El-Halabi, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health and Wellness. Our Country Director, Elizabeth O’Malley, led the Peace Corps Pledge and Ambassador Miller led our Oath of Service. Entertainment was provided by some of our own Trainees, who had given up their lunch hours to learn Setswana songs with the Institute’s choir, and some incredible traditional dancers from a local secondary school. And four hours later, we were Volunteers!
The next day (after a raucous farewell party at which we got to stay out after dark for the first time since we arrived), we headed to our sites. I, and my possessions (which once filled two suitcases and have swelled to much more, thanks to Peace Corps’ supply of a pillow, bucket, blanket, fire extinguisher, towel, sheets, water filter, mosquito net, medical kit, and airhorn) were transported by the Kgatleng District Health Management Team to my new village (which, if you read my last column, I am calling Motse (Setswana for village), since security concerns prevent me from telling you where I live), where I met one of my NGO supervisors who drove me to my new home.
I couldn’t wish for a better living situation! My landlords are in the main house, and I’m in the guest house. I have a bathtub with a handheld shower, a geyser (a small hot water tank that I can turn on shortly before I want to bathe), indoor plumbing, electricity, a guest bedroom, a refrigerator, and a stove, and the District AIDS Coordinating Office outfitted me with furniture. A downside is that it’s an hour’s walk to my worksite. I enjoy the walk (and I continue to issue a “Dumela, Rra” or “Dumela, Mma” to everyone I meet), but often I don’t have the time or it’s too hot (highs have been in the 90s). So, instead I walk 400 metres to the main road and hail a khombi (a minibus that holds around 20 people depending on how tightly they pack us in) and for 3.5 pula (35 cents) I can be in Motse in under ten minutes. I always engage in conversation and practice my Setswana with my fellow khombi riders, and their appreciation of my efforts propels me to learn more. Peace Corps gives us a Setswana tutor allowance, and I have a wonderful woman named Fani who comes to my house twice a week.
The best part of my new home is my landlords. Gary was in the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to serve Botswana in 1966, the same year that it became a country, and as you might imagine, he’s a wealth of information. He was assigned to Motse, where he taught math at a junior secondary school (grades 8-10) and fell in love with a Motse woman named Baba who went to his church. Back then, Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world, with 12 kilometers of paved roads, annual per capita income of $70, and life expectancy of 37 years. Today, it is an upper-middle income country with more than 6,000 kilometers of paved road and per capita income of $16,380, and life expectancy has doubled.
Baba and Gary married in 1969, and have lived in Botswana and America (where two of their three children were born). Now they are back in Botswana, and I am lucky to have them as landlords, neighbors, and friends. Baba’s family history goes back to the beginning of Motse, and she knows (and is related to) nearly everyone. I never worry about what to do on the weekends, because in addition to church on Sunday (I’ve been to services at Dutch Reformed and Methodist churches), Baba takes me to weddings, graduation parties, and other events to which she is invited. So far, I’ve had seswaa every weekend, which is a celebratory dish and the delicious result of a slaughtered cow that is cooked all night and then pounded until it is tender. Last weekend, I enjoyed seswaa with ting, a sour sorghum porridge that is unique to the Bakgatla people, who settled and inhabit my District. On the subject of food, I must mention magwinya (fat cakes), about which several of you have asked (they’re often mentioned in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency). They’re deep-fried balls of dough, kind of like a big, dense doughnut hole, and you buy them fresh from little stalls and stands for 1 pula each. They’re very nice with a cup of bush tea (rooibos), but too many fat cakes can bring fat thighs…
During the week, I split my time between two NGOs that work with Orphans and Vulnerable Children (a primary focus of Botswana’s National Strategic Framework for HIV & AIDS). I’ve spent this month meeting my colleagues and learning about their work, reading past grant proposals and reports and other files, and a attending meetings and workshops. My tasks are similar for both organizations and focus on working with staff and volunteers to build capacity and find sustainable sources of funding. I also am completing a Community Assessment, which is a Peace Corps assignment to learn about my site. If I succeed in getting answers to the 258 questions in my Assessment packet, I will know more about Motse than I do about Montrose. Toward this task, I recently spent a morning at the local museum, and then dropped by the Kgotla to meet and ask questions of the Acting Kgosi (Chief) of the Bakgatla tribe.
Though Botswana is a Republic with an elected President and Parliament, it also is governed by the Kgotla system, or traditional tribal government. Almost all tribes in Botswana have a Kgotla, which is ruled by a Kgosi (chief) who oversees the Dikgosana (headmen) who preside over the Dikgotlana (wards) within the Kgotla. The Dikgosi make up the Ntlo ya Dikgosi (House of Chiefs), which is an advisory body to Parliament. But the main work of the Dikgosi is in their Dikgotla, where issues of concern to the tribe are raised and everyone is encouraged to speak openly and freely. The Kgotla also serves as a customary court to settle civil and minor criminal cases (and attorneys aren’t allowed, because people are expected to defend themselves). Finally, the Kgotla system promotes national cohesion and harmony among Botswana’s tribes. I think there’s a lot to be learned from the Kgotla system.
I’ve updated my blog (www.amyinbotswana.com) with more details about my first 100 days in Botswana. The first of the packages that were inspired by my September column’s unabashed plea for dark chocolate and coffee arrived a few weeks ago (thanks, Dennis!), but Botswana mail is frustratingly slow, so please forgive me if I haven’t thanked you. My desire for coffee and chocolate remains strong, so if you’d like to help, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you my address and shipping information. Any correspondence receives a handwritten reply from Botswana. Ke a leboga! (I am grateful!)