Editor’s note: Montrose’s Amy McBride, who spent a semester in Nigeria during her junior year of college, has traveled to Botswana in Southern Africa for a two-year commitment with the Peace Corps. Her experiences will be chronicled on her blog, amyinbotswana.com, and in a Montrose Daily Press article that will be published the first Tuesday of every month beginning today.
Dumelang, Bagaetsho! That’s Setswana for, “Hello, my fellow people/countrymen.”
On July 24, I arrived in Botswana as one of 72 Peace Corps Trainees. We are in the middle of ten weeks of Pre-Service Training and on Oct. 5, we’ll be sworn in as Volunteers to spend the next two years working to address the impacts of HIV/AIDS.
Botswana is a landlocked country of 2.2 million people in an area the size of Texas. It’s bordered by South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia and has the lowest population density in Africa (just slightly higher than Ouray County!). It’s winter now, and highs are in the 60s and 70s and lows are in the 40s. Summer brings temperatures in the 100s. Nearly two-thirds of Botswana is in the Kalahari Desert, so I feel at home in the arid climate. Northern Botswana holds the Okavango Delta (a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa), which is a lush animal habitat that floods seasonally and is home to lions, elephants, hippos and all the other animals you might see on a safari.
Botswana gained independence from Great Britain in 1966 and quickly increased its annual per capita income from $73 in 1966 to more than $16,000 today, making it a World Bank “Upper Middle Income” country, along with countries like Turkey and Mexico. The Peace Corps also arrived in 1966 (five years after President John F. Kennedy established it) to assist the people of Botswana in development, and in 1997, the Botswana government said it no longer needed Peace Corps’ help. But, that changed with the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and in 2002, President Festus Mogae asked Peace Corps to return to help stop the spread and address the impacts of this awful disease.
Nearly one-quarter of Botswana’s adult population is HIV-positive, one of the highest prevalence rates in the world, and there are more than 60,000 orphans due to AIDS (UNAIDS, 2015). The Government of Botswana, in concert with the US Government (through PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, launched by President George W. Bush in 2003) provides free antiretroviral treatment to citizens who test positive, as part of PEPFAR’s 90-90-90 initiative (90 percent of HIV-positive people know their status, 90 percent of those people receive treatment, resulting in 90 percent suppression of a person’s viral load). If HIV-positive people adhere to treatment, they can enjoy long, fulfilling lives. Peace Corps is part of the PEPFAR Botswana Team and its Volunteers work in four sectors: Local Government, Clinic and Health Team, Life Skills (schools), and Civil Society (non-governmental organizations, and my sector), to target HIV/AIDS in priority populations (adolescent girls and young women, people living with HIV/AIDS, orphans and vulnerable children, and clients of female sex workers).
I have been assigned to work with two NGOs: Bakgatla Bolokang Matshelo (where I’ll assist in the design and implementation of intervention services for HIV/AIDS affected people) and Botswana Family Welfare Association (where I’ll help with project planning and implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and running the Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health Volunteer Program).
My journey began on July 21, when I said goodbye to my sons (Aidan, 20, and Liam, 18) and cabin on Log Hill at 4:30 a.m., and drove to the Montrose airport with my father. I flew to Philadelphia, where I joined the other Trainees for a day of getting to know each other, and receiving initial instructions and our new Peace Corps passports. At 2 a.m. on July 23, we boarded buses for JFK International Airport in New York, and nine hours later we were aboard our 15-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa (and at 4.5 million people, it’s twice the size of all of Botswana). From there, it was a short flight to Gaborone, Botswana’s capital.
We spent our first four days at the Ave Maria Pastoral Centre, a beautiful, 96-room conference facility, where we ate delicious Setswana food. A meal consists of a meat, usually beef or chicken; a starch, either maize or sorghum; and morogo, vegetables, often spinach or pumpkin. We had our first Setswana lessons (I’m loving learning a new language), and got the basics on culture, safety, and Peace Corps policies. We also got our medical kits, water filters, mosquito nets, cellphones, bank accounts and more vaccines (rabies, Hepatitis A and B, and typhoid to go along with the six I got in Montrose).
On Friday morning, we traveled 50 km to Molepolole, Botswana’s largest “village” (even though their population has grown to 70,000, residents are unwilling to shed their village moniker) and our home until Oct. 6, when we go to the sites of our two-year placements. Molepolole is home to the Bakwena, one of Botswana’s eight major tribes, and the tribe of Chief Sebele I, one of the three dikgosi (chiefs) to travel to England in 1895 to ask Queen Victoria to separate the Bechuanaland Protectorate from the South African Company and Southern Rhodesia and place it under British rule, which she did. Just outside of town is Kebokwe Cave, which was believed to be haunted by dark spirits and giant snakes. Despite the Bakwena’s warnings, David Livingstone (the famed missionary, physician, and explorer) spent a night in the cave in 1847, to help with his efforts to convert the Bakwena to Christianity.
We drove to the campus of the Institute for Health Sciences and entered an auditorium with more than 100 boisterous Batswana (the term for the people) on one side of the aisle. We took our place on the other side, and one by one, we were matched with our host families, with much dancing, hugging, and ululating. I was matched with Mma Peggy Leburu (Mma and Rra are terms of respect, and akin to Madam and Sir), a 77-year old retired nurse who lives alone on her family compound. Her younger brother lives in a separate house and she rents another house to a young couple, who have a son, Lefika, and a daughter, Itumeleng, with whom I play countless games of Crazy Eights and Slapjack and bake cookies every Sunday after church. Mma Peggy gave me my Setswana name, Tsala, which means friend. She takes me to funerals, helps with my Setswana, and is a great tsala to me. My house has two bedrooms, indoor plumbing (although there’s no hot water and no water at all on Sunday nights), and electricity (most of the time). There’s no internet (I’m sending this from an internet café, and if you’re checking my blog, I apologize for my infrequent posts) and no heat.
Six days a week, my days begin at 5:30 a.m., with the crowing of the dozens of roosters in my neighborhood. I brought my French press and found real coffee at the market, so I make myself some coffee and eggs, take a very quick bucket bath (remember…there’s no heat and mornings are in the 40s), and head to the bus stop by 6:45 a.m.
Batswana are early risers, so I pass dozens of people on their way to work or school, along with donkeys, cows, goats, and chickens. I greet everyone I meet, because greetings are VERY important in Botswana. They have a saying, “Madume ga a jewe,” which means, “You don’t lose anything by greeting someone.” Training starts at 7:30 a.m., with two hours of Setswana class, and then sessions on various topics, from how to work with orphans and vulnerable children to permagardening (a low-water option, which is important, given Botswana’s aridity).
Last Friday, we learned the sites of our two-year assignments. I’m in a village that's the hometown of Mma Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. It’s home to 45,000 people and northeast of Gaborone. It’s home to the Bakgatla people who migrated from South Africa in 1871 to escape encroachment by the Boers on their land. It has its own Premier League soccer club and a rugby team.
Since I’m in southeastern Botswana, I won’t have elephants and wildebeests roaming past my house, but I’m looking forward to visiting the Volunteers who have been posted up north, and perhaps going on a safari next year (we accrue two vacation days per month). After all, I’m not here to sightsee. I’m here to achieve the three goals of Peace Corps: 1) To help the people [of Botswana] in meeting their need for trained men and women; 2) To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and 3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
It’s that “Third Goal” that compels these monthly dispatches from Botswana, and my blog (www.amyinbotswana.com, which hopefully I can update more frequently when I get to my village). I also am looking for teachers who would like to set up a penpal program with their classroom. My email address is email@example.com. And if you’d like to send me a letter (or better yet, a package with dark chocolate and coffee), my address is Amy McBride, c/o Peace Corps Botswana, Private Bag 00243, Gaborone, Botswana. All letters receive a response from Botswana!
Peace Corps Botswana
Private Mail Bag 00243