Recently I was having a conversation with a couple of PCV friends about approaching our one year mark and how things were for us when we first arrived in Botswana versus now. One of my friends told me how much more relaxed and happy I seem now and asked me if I actually am, and if this is the "real me" and more of how I was at home or if how I was when I first arrived here was more like the "real me" before I came here. It was an interesting question and not one that anyone had ever asked me before, but I completely understood and appreciated why she asked it. When I first got here my malaria medication was making me feel sick and that combined with being so far away from home for the first time and adjusting to a new culture, learning a new language, and everything else during PST made me feel very unlike myself. I felt really anxious, had trouble concentrating, and was ultra sensitive ( I'm still a sensitive person, but man oh man was I overly sensitive then), and it really bothered me that I couldn't seem to feel like "me" and that I felt like other PCVs weren't seeing the "real me" either because of this. I had friends, a great host family, and many happy moments during PST, but I still didn't feel quite right. Toward the end of PST I had adjusted to everything a bit more , was no longer sick, and felt more like myself, but it was really at site where I began to be able to feel fully like myself again. I do feel happy and relaxed and like myself now, and I'm glad that others can see the difference too because that means that they are actually seeing the real me. In some ways I think I've become more mellow about things than my "before Botswana" self because I've gotten used to my life here and the challenges of being a PCV. There are some things about myself that I can't talk about with people in my village and will never be able to so in that way I can't fully be myself here, but I can with other PCVs, and most importantly I feel like myself. I never realized how incredibly important being able to feel like oneself and to be able to express it to at least some people was until this whole PC experience.
When you are training as a Peace Corps Volunteer, everyone tells you that you and your group of PCVs will become a family. Although I really liked the idea of working with people who would have this whole Peace Corps experience in common, I was a bit skeptical of the idea of developing the whole "family" feeling. I'm very close with my family, and I have maintained some long lasting friendships with people who I do consider family at home, and I just couldn't imagine developing connections strong enough with people here that I would refer to them as "family". After being in Botswana for almost a year, I can tell you how wrong I was, and I really do feel like I'm part of a big family of PCVs here, especially with my training class, Bots10. A major reason is that they "get it". No matter how kind and supportive friends from my village and my family and friends at home are ( and trust me, they are awesome), they will never be able to fully understand what my life here is like. My PCV friends get it. They understand the roller coaster that is a PCV's service and how things can be great at site one minute, and the next terrible. They get that it takes so much time to develop friendships here in our communities and feel integrated and how hard that can be some days. They get that not every day is a "Yay I'm in the Peace Corps!" kind of day, but they celebrate with me when I have days that are like that. They get just how exciting it is to receive a letter or mail of any kind from home and how much a piece of chocolate can help sometimes. I think another reason why I feel close to my PCV family after a relatively short period of time ( compared to how long I've known many of my friends at home) is that they experienced both the worst of me and the best of me very quickly after getting to know me. When you are someplace where you don't really know anyone and experience rough moments, there literally isn't really anywhere to hide most of the time. At home, I would never have let a brand new friend see me sob a day after I met them, but that is something that happened here. Even though at the time I was completely mortified, I'm now grateful that I was in a situation where I was forced to let my guard down very early on because I developed close friendships with people who still liked me and wanted to be around me even when I was a hotmess and at my lowest here. Since then, I've had many happy moments here , and my PCV friends have been there to celebrate those happy moments with me, and I have been there with them during their happy moments and through their tough ones as well. Like a family, my Bots family and I have experienced a lot of change. Some of us have left to go back to the U.S., and I would say all of us have changed at least a little bit personally since coming here. We jokingly make fun of each other and have inside jokes like siblings. We share everything from our houses and food to seats on the bus. Sometimes, like family, we fight or get frustrated with each other( because we care so much)When someone has something bad happen, most of the time everyone else finds out about it and worries about that person and checks on them. Yes, we are often in each others' business, but I'd say that it is because we care and want to take care of each other. My Bots family is diverse in many ways. We have some volunteers in my Bots family who are very parental, and I love them for that. For my birthday I was given a card with tea in it and a homemade chocolate cake and a brunch from some of my Bots family. Some feel like older siblings to me who have experienced more in life, and I appreciate their wisdom. I get advice for my projects from them and about dealing with tough situations that they may have dealt with before. Sometimes I feel like a middle child just kind of absorbing what is going on around me and doing my best to get to know everyone.At times I feel like the older sibling watching out for other members of my family and wanting to yell at anyone who is mean or unfair to them. I worry about them and wish I could fix their problems. Even though there are some I'm closer to than others, they are all family.I realize that this blog post is another example of something that people will not understand completely unless they've been here or are serving someplace else in the Peace Corps, but I felt the need to write it anyway. I'm grateful for each and every member of my lovable, crazy, sometimes dysfunctional, but mostly functional Bots family.
It takes time here for colleagues or counterparts to truly take you seriously or even to trust you. It makes sense because really, they don't know us PCVs, just like we don't really know them. Nonetheless, that can feel frustrating at times or at least it sometimes has felt frustrating to me. For me, the most challenging place, and the place where I've had to work the hardest so far to earn trust, has been at the schools, in particular at the JSS, which is ironic because the schools are also my favorite places in my village to go. I've been going to the JSS in my village since around August. At first I just spent time meeting with the guidance teachers and getting to know people there. Then I began to work with the PACT club. It took a while before PACT club meetings became something "normal" at the school, and it took a while for even some of the teachers whom I really like and get along well with to trust me working with them. When I first started teachers who still didn't really know me would stop by meetings and ask what we were talking about or ask if the students were behaving if we were playing a game or team builder that was a bit louder. It didn't bother me when they stopped by because the school should know what is going on and be involved, but it was a constant reminder of "Ok, they don't know me yet. They don't' know that I can handle this yet. They don't trust me yet". Part of why this took so much time was also because the guidance teachers who were technically in-charge of PACT weren't there or seeing what work I was doing with the students or talking to other teachers about PACT club. A while ago, I held a PACT club workshop to help train new PACT members at the start of the new school year and to sort of "show off" PACT a little bit and make it something that people saw as important. I invited the two guidance teachers and both attended for a while, and I think this helped. ( I had also met with the school head to get permission before planning it) One of the guidance teachers and I also took 10 students from PACT club to Girls Leading Our World camp for our district, and ever since things have been going better for PACT. Teachers asked me a lot about GLOW and PACT when we got back and talked about how much the students seemed to enjoy it and learned. Now PACT club meets every Monday and Wednesday afternoons regularly, there are new students who have joined, and they are consistently making classroom presentations every Tuesday afternoon to all fifteen classrooms at the JSS. This is a huge deal for many of my PACT students who are very shy and are working very hard on their presentation skills, which brings me to a story that is an example of how much things have changed for me as far as I'm viewed at the schools now.
Like I said, PACT club has been presenting every Tuesday to all 15 classrooms at school for nearly a month now. Every Monday we meet and discuss the topic that they will teach their peers about so that we can make sure that they all understand the topic and so that they can feel prepared to present the information. Then on Tuesdays I show up to the school a little before their presentation time, make sure they are all ready, give them handouts to help them with their presentations, and check on them as they present. Before this, students from PACT were expected to present to their classmates but the problem was that there are no teachers in that classrooms during that time of day. It is a study period during which all of the teachers are in a staff meeting and the students are left alone. The often very shy PACT students were getting walked all over when they were trying to present and talked about how much they disliked presenting because of that. I now try to float around the best that I can and make sure that things are going smoothly for them and so I can give them feedback or advice later. It has been working pretty well. Yesterday afternoon when I was floating around one of the PACT students came to find me to tell me there was a group of students in her classroom who were being rude, talking, and laughing at she and the other student who were presenting. When I followed her to the classroom one of the teachers was there already with a stick (corporal punishment is legal here) and was about to give lashings to a group of 5 boys from that classroom. Now, this is not something that I haven't seen before here, but in the past there has been absolutely nothing I could do about it. This time, all I said was "Rra, is it ok if I just talk to these students for a moment? I want them to understand why they are in trouble and how rude they were being to these PACT students?" I expected that he would just look at me like I was insane and say something along the lines of "No, I've got this", but to my surprise he said "Ok" and let me talk to them! That NEVER would have happened even a couple of months ago. This is an example of trust being earned here, and it feels good because it really has been EARNED. It didn't just happen. I really had to work for it, and now it feels pretty great.
Three dogs just came into my yard and killed my cat, Dobby. He had been getting bigger and exploring just in my yard right near my house; he had never left my yard. My yard has a big fence around it, and usually dogs do not come near my yard or me because they are too afraid so I never even thought for a second they would ever come into my yard and attack my cat. He had been outside playing for a little while , literally right in front of my patio, and I had the door to my house open so he was in and out all day. I had shut it only about 10 minutes before it happened because it was really hot and wanted to change so that I was wearing less clothing and lie down for a bit and didn't want my whole neighborhood to see me in my skimpy clothing. The windows were still open so I'd be able to hear if he wanted to come back in. I had done this same thing many times before and thought nothing of it. All of the sudden I heard dogs barking and some children yelling VERY loudly. I ran outside because I thought that a dog was biting a child. When I looked three dogs had Dobby, and the children knew he was my pet and were screaming at the dogs to stop. I told the kids to back away because I didn't want them to get hurt, and started yelling and swinging my broom at the dogs to get them to stop, but they wouldn't; they were trying to fight each other for my cat and didn't seem phased by me at all.(All three were very scrawny, stray dogs and were probably legitimately starving and had no idea they were doing anything wrong) I continued to scream, yell, and swing at them, and they let go. Dobby was still alive, but I could see he was coughing up sand. I tried to scoop it out of his mouth with my pinky finger and rub him to help him cough up the sand and breath better, but then I saw that he was coughing up blood as well. It was too late, and he was dying. All I could do was sit there with him and pet him until he died a few minutes later. It felt like the longest few minutes ever. I feel awful that this happened. I was supposed to watch out for him, and I couldn't stop or fix any of it. I wish I hadn't shut my door at all because then maybe the dogs would have heard me inside and been too afraid to come or something or maybe Dobby would have ran inside when he saw them. It felt so hopeless not being able to stop the dogs from hurting my little Dobby and not then not be able to help him after. All I could do was sit there and sob next to his body afterward. I didn't know what to do. I had never seen an animal die before let alone a pet. I was the one responsible for figuring out what to do with his body, but I couldn't stop crying. I sat on my patio for about 15 minutes or so just sobbing with my cat's body on the ground in front of me. When I could stop crying, I realized I couldn't just leave his body lying there and needed to do something. I walked over to the fence of my yard where I realized the children who had tried to help were standing and watching me sob and told them my cat was dead and that I didn't know what to do with the body.I actually tried to ask their mother who was standing in the yard nearby, but it was the children who responded to me. The three children, the oldest about 12, the youngest about 3, came back with a shovel and helped me dig a grave for my cat. I tried to keep it together, but the youngest kept petting Dobby's body as his brother helped dig the grave and saying something like "sorry katsi", which made me cry more. I'm still pretty much a hotmess because I'm writing this only a half an hour after this all happened, but I needed some way to process this, as I still feel a little shocked and need for it to feel real. I didn't want to get a pet here initially because I was worried about getting attached to it because I'll leave at the end of my service, and now I realize that I was already attached to my little Dobby and used to his company and now he is gone.
Last night I organized my luggage that I had piled on top of my clothing closet when I moved to site and had not touched since. When I moved one of my suitcases, I realized it felt like there was something in the front pocket. I opened it to find my second pair of glasses (PC wanted us to bring 2 just in case one breaks), a few Ziploc bags, some stationary, and one brand new pair of clean, white socks. I laughed so hard that I cried because I realized that these were all things I had packed and thought I would absolutely need, and I just now found them 11 months later. I will definitely use these things now that I've found them, but clearly I was surviving just fine without them. It made me think about how freaked out I was packing to come here and how afraid I was that I would pack the "wrong" things or not pack enough of the "right" things. It really didn't matter. There were still things I wished I had brought and still things I brought and haven't really used, but I've been just fine. Being able to now say that, I feel like I have grown a lot in the past 11 months. There is a new group of volunteers, Bots12, that will be coming here in about a month, so now they are the ones who have been on Facebook asking questions about packing and what life is like as a volunteer here, and it is strange to think that a year has passed since I was one of the ones preparing to come here. A year ago I was so excited, anxious, nervous, happy, and sad all at once to be coming here. A year ago I was one of the ones asking questions about packing and clothing and what I should or shouldn't bring, preparing to say goodbyes to family and friends, laughing, crying, and jumping up and down excited all in one day. It is very strange looking back and understanding where this new group is coming from, but realizing at the same time that I feel so different than how I felt a year ago. I'm going to be helping out at their training as a member of PSDN, the Peer Support and Diversity Network, and I'm really looking forward to meeting all of them. I remember how glad I was to be able to meet Bots9 volunteers when I got here because they were the ones giving advice to us before we all got here, and they were the ones who understood what it is like to be a PCV, and now I get to be one of the ones who helps the new group feel more at ease here and who understands what it is like. It feels pretty good to be on this end of things now : ).