On April 17th I officially closed my Peace Corps service and left Botswana. Many people who read this blog know that I was originally supposed to COS (Close my service) in May, but due to some circumstances with my family and the fact that I was so close to the end of my service I was allowed to COS a bit earlier. This meant I had to leave my village a bit sooner than planned. Although it was hard to say goodbye to my community in Werda, I feel lucky because I was at least able to say goodbye and my last days in my village were filled with some precious moments.
I had to warn my community before I left my village that I was possibly going home early and through that process I was able to spend time with people and say goodbyes. I wrote letters and gave them to people I knew and worked with, and I put letters up at the clinic to the community as a whole and to students I worked with because school was out still for Easter Break and many of the students who were boarders at the Junior school were not around. I spoke with the children who were still around when I saw them around the village, gave my last bunch of high fives to my neighborhood children, and spent time hanging around the clinic so I could be around the nurses who were so kind to me throughout my service. During my last day in my village before going to the capital to figure things out with Peace Corps staff, I spent time with my friend Elia who told me that a child who couldn't walk and had never been able to go to school was accepted into a school program outside of the village that would enable him to move around more easily because he would have a wheelchair and to learn. This is something that the two of us had been working on. I also got to spend the evening walking around the village with Elia visiting OVC families we knew and then visiting Elia's grandmother who is in her 90s. Her grandmother was wise with a beautiful smile and told me in setswana translated by Elia that "It doesn't matter that we are from different places, different backgrounds, or speak different languages because we are a part of the same universe and same God and that everything would be ok with my family". I will never forget that.
As I said, I had to spend my last days in Botswana nearer to the Peace Corps office because I was working with staff to figure out how I could get home to my family. I stayed with friends who were very supportive during a time that was very difficult for me, and I'm very grateful for that. I'm also grateful for how supportive Peace Corps staff were. My last night in Botswana I went out to dinner in the capital with some other PCVs who were around for other meetings/appointments. I was even able to lodge in the capital with a close PCV friend during my last night and help her out a bit with an event she was having at the PC office the morning of the day I COSd. It was a good send off.
People here in America and back in Botswana keep asking me how it feels to have completed my service and to be back home. I've been home for just over a month now, and the truth is that I've experienced a mixture of emotions. It feels great to have completed my service because I'm proud of what I did in Botswana, I feel lucky that I got to meet the people I met and experience the things I experienced, and I know having served as a PCV has changed me forever. Sometimes I feel sad because I miss people and things about being in Botswana or because I wish my goodbye was a bit different/feel badly about having to COS early. In moments like that I remind myself of the kind words some friends, teachers, and nurses I worked with in my village said to me before I left Werda or messaged me before I flew out of Botswana , and remembering that people were understanding and supportive helps. I also know that leaving a bit early was necessary and have had many moments where I've been very grateful that I was allowed to COS a month ago. Overall I'm very happy to be with my family and to be able to spend time with friends I hadn't seen in so long, but I also do have moments of feeling overwhelmed. At times I feel guilty about things like having so much food or when I see everything that is available in stores here or get angry when I see people being wasteful with things like water or paper products when I truly understand more than ever how precious these things are. I like my alone time more than I used to, but so far people have been understanding of that. I've been on the go quite a bit, but today I'm taking a "lazy" day to be on my own for a while. Readjustment is going to take time I think. Oh, and I'm also very excited about graduate school in July!
I'm not really sure how to sum up this blog post or this blog. I feel like being an RPCV ( returned Peace Corps Volunteer) is always going to be a a part of my identity and that as I continue on with my life this experience is something that will stay with me. This isn't really an end but a continuation...
I'm finding that as I near the end of my service, I have an even greater appreciation for the experiences I've been fortunate enough to have here and the people I've been blessed to have met. I'd like to share some stories that highlight this.
My friend Elia is one of the most hardworking and caring people I have ever met. She is from Werda and returned here after school and working outside of the village for sometime to help orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and their families. She has been working very hard to start an NGO to serve this population, and in the meantime she visits families in need in the village to see how she can help them. She doesn't get paid at all and is doing all of this out of kindness and love for her community. She also has a young son she is raising herself. I have had the privilege recently of visiting OVC families with Elia and of helping her to document that there is a need in Werda for an NGO serving OVC families through interviews with families and photographs. There are 95 documented orphans and vulnerable children in Werda right now, and this doesn't include the OVC at the junior school who are from other villages but board in Werda. Though many of these families are getting some type of governmental assistance, usually in the form of some food each month, it often is not enough to sustain an entire family.
Since visiting more of these families with Elia, I've been reminded of what true poverty can look like: Children taking care of children and living in a one room house without any bed or even a mattress/ sleeping on concrete floor, a child who is unable to walk and has no way of moving around so he can't go to school, and grandparents struggling to raise their late daughter's three young boys even though they themselves aren't well. Yet, these families are still trying so hard. Some of my PACT students are in OVC families and despite some difficult situations at home, they do well in school and are among some of the most polite, intelligent, and creative students I have ever met.
I also found out, through this experience of visiting these families,that some of my former junior school PACT students who have graduated had been cooking and cleaning for some orphaned children during their school break because they saw that there were hungry and alone. They told Elia they wanted to give back to their community. The fact that there are times when people do step up and help each other renews my faith in humanity and warms my heart. Although there is a lot of sadness that exists here, there is also a lot of strength and hope. If people who have so little can remain so hopeful, then I certainly can.
Last weekend I participated in the third GLOW camp that I've been a part of during my Peace Corps service. This time the camp was in a small village right outside of my village. I've written a lot about GLOW camps and the purpose of GLOW in the past so this time I just want to write about a few highlights/ key parts of my experience at this particular camp.
1) I facilitated a session about basic mental health and coping skills and lead an activity during which the girls made mailboxes as a craft activity coping skill. The girls then wrote kind notes to each other throughout the rest of the weekend to help build each other's self-esteems.
2) We had a question box- girls could write questions they were too embarrassed to ask out loud with out writing their name and put them in the box. Then we addressed the questions at the end of the camp. Some of the ones that came up were about very sensitive topics such as abuse and HIV, and fortunately we were able to address their questions because of the box existing.
3) We slept in classrooms at a primary school on mattresses on the floor. I slept in a room with two other PCVs and about 20 girls between the ages of 13-16. Also, there were giant beetles that kept flying into us all so once one was starting to sleep either a giant beetle would fly into one's face or one would hear a giant "WACK" sound as someone else was killing a beetle with her shoe. I did not sleep haha.
4) The water was out for a lot of camp. This is not unusual in Botswana. Us PCVs didn't really care and just didn't bath for a few days, but our counterparts cared much more, which was kind of funny.Also, I sprayed myself with really gross bug spray that my PCV friend brought to the camp. It smelled kind of like cat urine. I ended up smelling like that for three days.
5) Kids, no matter where you are in the world, say ( or write) the funniest things sometimes…The rest of the PCVs who were there know what I mean haha.
6) We drank a lot of Oros ( a juice mix that is mixed with water)
7) Transportation problems always exist here. Always.
79. That is the number of days I have left in Botswana.
I recently attended my Close of Service Conference with the rest of my group, Bots10. We went to a lodge in Nata, up in the North Eastern part of the country. We stayed at a lodge near the bird sanctuary and salt pans. A lot of the conference was about the paper work and practical things that we need to do before we close our service in May. Another major component of the conference was reflecting on our time here and planning for the emotional and psychological aspects of returning to the U.S. I really appreciated that we were given time to reflect and prepare.
The highlight of COS conference for me was our group dinner on the pans. We spent time telling funny and sentimental stories from the course of our time here together and spoke about each of the 17 Bots10 members who early terminated their service over the course of the past couple of years. There are 23 of us left!
What will the next 79 days look like for me? Well, at the end of this week I will be part of my third GLOW camp to empower young girls in my district that will take place in a village right next to mine and include 10 girls from the junior school in my village and 20 other girls from around the district. Then at the end of this month I will be traveling up north to an event that two of my PCV friends have been planning, a Half Martathon/5k and Health Expo. I will be run/walking the 5k and painting children's faces at the Health Expo following the run. Other than this, I will be focusing on wrapping up projects in my village, saying good byes, medical appointments,and finishing reporting and paper work that I need to do before I finish my service. I have a feeling this is all going to pass by quickly.
People keep asking me what I'm most excited about. Really, I'm proud of myself for making it to this point and I'm looking forward to having completed my service and being able to say "YES, I DID IT!". Being a PCV was a dream of mine since I was 14, and it is pretty cool that I've been able to follow my dream and see it through. There have been some tough moments, I had many opportunities to leave. I'm glad I didn't. I'm also of course looking forward to seeing my family and friends very much. When I picture myself seeing my family for the first time I get tearful. I haven't seen them at all during my service so it has been a very long time. I'm also looking forward to things like the mountains and lakes of Maine, food I miss, and graduate school.
At the same time, there are things I will miss about being here, and I think it may be hard for people at home to understand that at times, which worries me. I will miss the quiet. Life here is slow and quiet, and sometimes that can be difficult, but overall, I have come to appreciate that. I worry that I will feel overwhelmed at times in America by things like busy streets, large stores, and the general fast pace of life. I will also miss people here. I will miss friends I work with and the children in my village. It will be strange to leave them because I will most likely never see them again. When I left America, I at least could be pretty certain that I would see people again when I got back home, but that is not the case for people I've met here ( with the exception of volunteer friends). I've also become more accustomed to being alone. Before I came here I was on the go always and had a really hard time being by myself. My experience here has changed me because I've had to get so used to being alone. I worry that people won't understand when I want alone time sometimes when I get home. I will also missing being around my volunteer friends here who get what it is like. Going back to the U.S. will certainly be an adjustment.
This is a bittersweet time!
The last time I wrote was just after the holidays, and so much has happened since then. After spending more than a month in my village without leaving other than to go get groceries a couple of times, I went to the capital for a meeting with the other members of the Peer Support and Diversity Network. (PSDN). It was a time for us to train the newest members from the Bots12 group and to discuss future planning for the group. For me, this meeting was quite bittersweet because it was the time for myself and the other Bots10s in the group to hand over the majority of our responsibilities to the newer members and to step back. It was also a really fun time because it isn't often that we all get to spend time together. I was even able to have an early birthday celebration with my PSDN friends and other close friends who live near the capital.
Following my meetings, I used some of the many leave days I had left over to travel around Botswana a bit and to go to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I spent two days in a PCV friend's village, Kalamare, which is in the North Eastern portion of Botswana. Her home was very welcoming and relaxing, and it was a lot of fun just getting to catch up on life, walk around her village, see her garden and a village garden, and meeting some of her friends there. We spent my first night there teaching a young neighbor friend of hers how to make tacos! It was so much fun ,and my friend Susan makes amazing salsa!
After visiting Kalamare, I then headed further north to Francistown where I celebrated my actual birthday by using fast internet at a cafe and having a blueberry milkshake ( Mainer style) and met up with a PCV there for some Indian food as well. The next day I arrived in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe where I spent one night at a backpackers lodge called Shoe Strings, which I highly recommend. It was only $11 dollars to stay there, and the food was very good! I spent my day there going to see the falls, which were incredible and going to the open craft market. I traded a Boston Celtics T-shirt and a Patriot's hoodie for some beautiful craft items! I can't wait to show and give some of the awesome art I found to family and friends when I get home! I also found this food place that had pizza and real ice cream in one location, which was a bonus. Something really cool about staying at backpackers is getting to meet interesting people from all over the world. I spent my time seeing the falls with a young woman around my age who was from the Netherlands and was traveling after her medical school internship in South Africa. I ate pizza for lunch with a guy from Japan who was a wonderful photographer. I spent time hanging out at the backpacker's bar in the evening with three friends from Australia who were traveling around Africa together. It makes the world feel smaller.
I ended my birthday week travels by making one of my dreams come true: I saw elephants! On my way back down from Vic. Falls, I met up with a friend in Kasane for lunch with she and a friend from her village, and it was really great to catch up. Then I went on a game drive in Chobe! The main reason why I wanted to go on this game drive was to see elephants because I had never seen one before. I was so happy when the very first animals we saw upon entering the park were elephants in the distance! The guide then drove us closer to them so we could get a better look. It was amazing how close to them we were able to get! I saw a couple hundred elephants that day!I wish I could do a better job of describing how incredible of an experience that was. That night I spent time hanging out with my friend who lives in Kasane and cooking dinner with him, which was also fun.
Something also pretty major that has happened in my life recently is that I was accepted to some of my top choice graduate programs, and I made a decision about which one I will be attending! I was lucky to receive a really great merit scholarship to the University of Denver, and it has a very strong M.S.W. program , so I will be going there starting in July of this year! I will be going home to Maine to live with my family before beginning my program. I'm of course a little nervous because I've never even been to Denver before, but I've only heard great things about Denver and about DU. I'm also looking forward to living near mountains again!There will be snow!!!
For now, I'm very focused on finishing up my projects and making sure my students and the teachers I work with feel confident in taking them over. I've seen that they are capable because when I've handed responsibility over to them, they have done an amazing job. I think now I just need to help them believe in themselves a bit more and to see just how awesome they are.
Well,that's it for now!
I posted the first 25 books I read in another post a while back, but people have been asking me what I've read here so I decided to just post all 50 books that I've read so far now so that they do not have to look back. Here they are!
1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo- Stieg Larsson
2. The Princess Diaries Book 1-Cabot
3. The Book Thief
4. Light a Penny Candle-Maeve Binchy
5. Water for Elephants-Sara Gruen
6. The Wish Maker-Ali Sethi
7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone-J.K. Rowling
8. Happy Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
9. Ape House-Sara Gruen
10. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
11. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County- Tifany Baker
12. The Help
13. Cutting for Stone-Abraham Verghese
14. The Cross Gardner-Jason Wright
15. Millie's Fling-Jill Mansell
16. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
17. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
18. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
19. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
20. Dork Whore
21. The Road
22. The Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency-Alexandar McCall Smith
23. Middlesex-Jeffrey Eugenides
24. Fugitive Pieces-Anne Michaels
25. Jurassic Park -Michael Crichton
27.Charlotte's Web-E.B. White
28.Things Fall Apart-Chinua Achebe
29.Sisterhood Everlasting-Ann Brashares
30.Bossy Pants-Tina Fey
31.Lord of the Flies-William Golding
33. The Catcher in the Rye-J.D. Salinger
34. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
35. The Color of Water
36. Tuck Everlasting
37. Vernon God Little
38. The Hunger Games-Suzanne Collins
39. She's Come Undone
40. Catching Fire-2nd Hunger Games
41. Mockingjay -3rd Hunger Games
42. The PACT- Jodi Picoult
43. The Tenth Circle-Jodi Picoult
44. Roots-Alex Haley
45.The Poisonwood Bible -Barbara Kingsolver
46. Northern Lights-Norah Roberts
47. The Great Penguin Rescue- Dyan DeNapoli
48. Sh*t My Dad Says-Justin Halpern
49. Life of Pi-Yann Martel
50. Little Women-Louisa May Alcott
For Peace Corps volunteers it can often feel like our impact is very minimal, and it can be rare to actually see one's impact. I was lucky enough recently to be able to see 20 months of work at site (22 months in Botswana) pay off .Two days ago I went to the Junior school to introduce myself to new students at an assembly because the new school year just began here. At the end of assembly I ended up being left with over 130 Form I students ( about the equivalent of 8th graders in the U.S.) because the teachers who were supposed to be running a new student orientation for them ended up having to go to a workshop instead. I was legitimately told "Just talk to them about HIV or something for 4 hours" on the spot.
No way was I going to just lecture to these students for four hours straight. First of all, I was not prepared, and second of all, I would have gotten sick of listening to myself talk for that long ,and I knew they would have too! Instead, I talked to the guidance teacher and asked him to gather the PACT students to help me. I then watched in awe as my PACT students essentially put on a workshop about HIV, Gender Issues, Dating Relationships, and Substance Abuse for over 130 of their peers without time to prepare and with very little help from me. I literally only had to help them a bit with time reminders and speaking with a few students who were being disrespectful to them. Overall, they kept their peers engaged and happy for four hours and even though I know they were tired and it was not easy for them, they pushed through and were amazing. I was so proud of them that I was almost to the point of tears. Not only were the Junior school PACT students amazing, but I also got to see many of my former primary school PACT students who are now in Form I in action. They were answering questions and among the most engaged students there. I really got to see them put what they had learned through primary PACT club in action as well.
Lately I had been feeling anxious about leaving so soon and wondering what my impact has been here and if it has been enough. I've been afraid of leaving and feeling like my service was incomplete. However, because of these PACT students I now see that I have done something here and will be able to leave feeling like I've left something behind. I can't even begin to describe how wonderful of a feeling this is.
Overall, Botswana is a politically conservative country when it comes to many subjects, including sexuality and sexual orientation. It isn't illegal to be gay here per say,but it is illegal to engage in any sexual activity that can not lead to procreation. There is a LGBT organization based in the capital city and there certainly are members of the LGBT community living in Botswana, but most who are out about their sexual orientation live in the capital or in larger villages, not in the small, rural areas. I can't comment on whether or not it is physically unsafe for someone to be out in a village here or not because that would totally depend on the individual's situation. I've heard of teenagers who have come out here being beaten by parents or other family members as a form of discipline/punishment for being gay or using substances or harming themselves because they are afraid to be out or are being rejected for being out. Overall, Botswana is a peaceful country, but family dynamics and religious views have an influence, just as they have an influence in other parts of the world, including the U.S. Even if there isn't a physical threat, I can see how it could be intimidating for someone to be out in a small village here because it could feel very isolating and have some potential social implications for them. There isn't very much support or education regarding sexuality/sexual orientation in the smaller villages so many people just do not understand and lack of understanding often leads to discrimination and prejudice.
Now keeping all of this in mind, I want to tell you about how I've had the privilege of getting to know a pretty incredible person in my small village who is openly gay and even dresses in drag frequently. This person is a respected member of the community, and from what I have been told and witnessed feels safe in the village and doesn't experience harassment within the village. I do not know what this person's experience has been growing up here entirely, but I know I am certainly admire the bravery it can take be fully oneself in a place where so many would not feel comfortable or safe enough to do so. I also am impressed by and was taken a little bit by surprise by the general open-mindedness of my small village community. It makes me feel lucky to live here in this village and to get the chance to meet such wonderful people who are able to say things like "We may not agree with it, but someone's life is his or her own life". I wish more people in this world were able to adopt that attitude, even in the United States.