So I have been nicknamed “The Mongoose” and a “brick slingin bad ass” over the past few weeks. But I think I am getting ahead of myself. First of all the last post on my blog (that wasn’t just a shameless plug for the YouTube channel I started) was a few weeks later than I planned in going up. That was because I didn’t get around to posting it before I went to a 10-day Youth Forum run by the Ministry of Education. Let’s just say that coming back from that experience I have been bruised (both physically and a bit emotionally), been emotionally drained, had a huge crash course in culture, was at my wits end many times, grew a lot closer to those who went with me, had some of the best days yet during the hardest times of my service so far, and would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
The Youth Forum started on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and went the next ten days. Due to the start time we had to be in Gaborone on Friday to travel to Kgagodi where the forum was (about 1 hour from Palapye). And since I can’t make it to Gabs from my village that quickly I had an excuse to go to Molepolole and see other volunteers on Thanksgiving before going to the forum. So I still got to have a pseudo-American Thanksgiving courtesy of John and Carol Chicago. So huge shout out to them for that. It was probably my favorite Thanksgiving ever. It was also the strangest. Instead of family it was just a bunch of us Peace Corps friends (most of those in Moleps and the other volunteers staying there on their way to the forum as well). It was the Thanksgiving I probably ate the least at, but the company more than made up for it. And since I had not seen anyone in two weeks it was really great to catch up. But to all those who were at Thanksgiving here are a few references you might get: Becky and her RHA, Supriya being a SDF, Rachel and her hobbit house that causes her to get lost in bigger houses and holding hands.
But I think that will be about all I need to write about Thanksgiving. Let’s move on to the forum, shall we? So we left Moleps that morning for Gabs to catch the transport from the Curriculum Department to Kgagodi. Bus left late at about noon and we were with many of the other facilitators whom we had never met: YOHO, KBTS, BOFWA, etc. But by the end of the week we all knew each other and were getting along great. Especially with YOHO and KBTS. YOHO is a Youth Health Organization and BOFWA is the Botswana branch of the International Planned Parenthood Association, no idea what any other groups stood for, but they all work with youth. Oh, and just so everyone knows here is who all went to Youth Forum from our group: Bots 9-Abby and Paco, Bots 11-Nate, Supriya, Becky, Rachel, Julia, Alex, Caitlin, Corey, Karla, Sheburra, and me. The first hint that something may not be properly planned with the Youth Forum came on the journey up. We made two stops, once in Mahalapye and once in Palapye. For anyone who knows those villages are close together, we did not need to stop at both, but it happens.
When we got to the Kgagodi Community Junior Secondary School (CJSS) we were staying at the real shock started to set in. The accommodations were….less than appealing. The females in our group ended up in a room filled with 16 people. There were not 16 beds. Some doubled up and some were on the floor. So that created some stress for them. For the male said we were in a less crowed hostel with just YOHO guys, but with a door that did not lock, or even really shut. The place was bug infested to no end (and my bed was top bunk under the working light so I had a ton on it) and the shower facility was a concrete building with no doors or curtains for the “showers” (cement stalls you brought buckets into). And they were quite filthy since they were being shared by 75 people. Of course I did not have room to pack sandals so I had to barefoot it in there. Yuck. But no weird fungus was picked up so that is a point for me I guess. Also, the second night in our room a bird got in since the door would not shut. We spent 20 minutes trying to catch it with towels to release it so we could sleep. During its time in our room it pooped on two things: my shoe and my sleeping bag.
Peace Corps always teaches you to roll with the unexpected, and so far we were doing just that. That first night there was a meeting about snakes and scorpions. Due to the existence of poisonous snakes in that place we were told how to get to the clinic, and where to find drivers to take us or anyone who is bitten. The next day we got more unexpected surprises. We were on the schedule for World AIDS Day. We were running World AIDS Day activities and we did not even know until we saw the program. And we were supposed to have materials for an expo that we didn’t know what was happening. So we were a little frustrated to say the least to be so unprepared and it made us look a little foolish, but throughout the week we planned and managed to put together an (at least from my perspective) impressive program for World AIDS Day and good spiel for the booth. But as we learned later the best laid plans fall apart. The one activity before ours on World AIDS Day ran two hours over and exhausted the kids so we had a lot of last minute alternations to make to our schedule, but it all worked out. This whole scheduling and communication debacle though at least had one good point; it gave us a huge crash course in how the style of planning sometimes goes in this country.
Now up to this point everything we had experienced was just more a huge inconvenience (and a bit gross) but that was only the crash course in culture part. What came throughout the week that put us through our emotional paces was one woman, the woman running the forum. For the sake of this blog let’s call her M. She was the one who pushed me to my wits end many times over. And I think she did that to most if not all of us who went. And I don’t mean just the Americans. On the bus ride back (which gets its own paragraph of ridiculousness later) everyone was mocking her. Everyone. She ran the Youth Forum the year before too and Abby informed us that while she was unpleasant then, but this was above and beyond this year. The first instance of M’s unpleasantness was with Karla. M wanted all of Peace Corps to do security work (it was only after getting to the forum that we found out that M just wanted us to serve food and patrol dorms-we defied that and interacted with kids as we felt we should). But at that point we were willing to do security because everyone was supposed to; she just wanted us to coordinate the schedule. Yet no one else wanted to do it, at all. And when Karla asked M how many people she had to work with so she could schedule everyone the reply she got was an angry, “If you don’t want to do it just say.” But in the end we actually didn’t do it, since no one else would help like they are supposed to.
But the rest of the week continued in the same thread in regards to interactions with M. At one point she insulted us in front of the entire group of facilitators in Setswana (since she knew we didn’t understand that well). That dispute was over the fact that we were told to wear the shirts we were given for a certain day, and when we brought up (for the second time that week) that some of us had yet to get shirts she told everyone in Setswana just to ignore us since some of us were barely older than some of the kids at the camp. That second part she also said about the YOHO group as well, so it wasn’t just us. And as the week went on she got more and more rude (to everyone, but us in particular) to the point where should would not even great us, which is a cultural no-no in Botswana. So needless to say M was frustrating, but at least she is not the norm in Botswana, and the fact that all groups suffered together made it a bit easier to handle. Yet I will not be happy to work with her again if I find myself in that position. But we made it work by eventually just ignoring her and working directly with the other facilitators. So that not only made some great contacts for us, but also taught us that despite protocol there are certain times that you just push through no matter what so you can do what you came to do, in this case work with youth.
So far I have covered the crash course and being at my wits end, so now it is time for the emotionally draining part of the experience. That would be World AIDS Day. I didn’t quite realize exactly how hard it would be to commemorate that day in Botswana. First of all I was at a Youth Forum where some of the kids in that room were HIV positive. That alone is sobering. Especially in this country that has so many infected and affected people. Yet I think the bigger problem for me was much more personal. Back in the states I usually worked with various groups for commemorations on World AIDS Day. And here in Botswana I am not able to do that for a variety of reasons that many of you can guess. And that reminded me of my personal situation here, which is something that I try not to dwell on too much, because it is a hard thing to cope with. But seeing all those kids lighting candles for World AIDS Day and knowing that everyone in that room at least knew someone (if not themselves) who has been affected by HIV/AIDS just made the commemoration that much more powerful and important. And yet at the end of the day I was picked up by one of the kids who tried to teach me Kung Fu and how to dance. So I learned that despite all of the problems and emotional hardships people are going through due to HIV/AIDS, there is always someone there to pick you back up, which is what makes this a great country.
At this point we have reached more or less the second to last day of the forum, the day long field trip (the last day was just travel back to Gabs). This was the day that I was literally scared for my life and got the physical bruising. There was not enough transport to the location so some of us rode in the back of trucks. M put 8 of us in the back of a single covered truck with only one thin pad on the floor for a 5 hour ride one way. There was barely room for all of us to sit. When we asked for water M refused to give us any bottles and instead gave 3 bottles to the driver. Yeah. My back and behind were bruised from sitting in that truck for so long. And after we reached the site we only had enough time to eat lunch and turn around. And at that point some of the vehicles just went back to school and not the second site so we ended up getting another of the volunteers with us (Abby was with the YOHO people in another truck on the way up). By the way, a lot of the way was on a dirt safari road where we were going 100km/hour and the door to the back did not shut. It was tied with a piece of stretchy cloth. Like I said, I literally feared for my life. At one point we were all shouting/singing Christmas carols to try and not think about the conditions we were being transported under. But at the end of it all I was more frustrated by that day for the kids. All of them (150) were packed into one bus which did not have enough seats and it never even stopped for them to use the bathroom. Many of them that I talked to also felt that the trip was a waste due to how far it was when the Rhino sanctuary was much closer to Kgagodi. But at least some of the younger ones enjoyed it, and I got to see the South African border so that was pretty cool too.
And now for some of the best days I ever had. Those kids at that forum were just amazing. As I just said they are always looking on the bright side even after emotionally draining times. They are just kids being kids, but something about the way they want to help you just makes you love them all the more. Several of the kids worked on teaching us some Setswana, they would always come and see us during their free time to play, and they were the first ones to be able to tell all the Americans apart. Some of them taught me some dance moves, we taught them games like Uno, red light green light, etc, I gave more piggyback rides than I could count, and I got to see a bunch of them do the chicken dance. This is literally the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life. At the end of the 10 days some wanted our phone numbers, many wanted pictures with us, and one boy even made for some of us sheets of paper with common Setswana phrases on it so we could have something to study. There we were at a forum to help the youth and they went out of their way to help us. I think that is why these were some of the best days I have had, despite it also being some of the most challenging.
And what made this experience all the more special was going through it with some of the others in our group. We are now even closer than before, whether it be the women group bathing and holding towels for each other behind a window, to just being there to support each other in our frustrations, and everything in between. And of course the field trip transport I think sealed the deal on bringing us closer. They always say in Peace Corps that as much as you try it is hard for people back in the states to completely grasp what you are going through. They get an idea, but never the full picture, and try as you might you can’t explain it. And that is what this forum was for us. We had an intense experience that I am not even sure if our other volunteers could quite understand unless they were there. I am sure they get the idea, and can picture it in their heads, but it is something else to experience it so I think I can say for all of us that went to the Youth Forum we now have a stronger and somewhat special bond, which when coupled with the amazing kids and connections with other groups made the whole frustrating time worth it for me. I can honestly say if they invited me to go to another Youth Forum starting tomorrow I would be on a bus as we speak. And that may be sooner than later since the next one is in Kweneng West (my district!) in April.
And I gotta say it didn’t hurt getting back into Gabs so late on Monday that we got to stay in the capital at a nice hotel for half price and pamper ourselves a bit with great food and FIRST SHOWER SINCE SEPTEMBER 16th!!!! I took 3. Bucket bathing just is not quite the same as showering. Yet I never want to have such a frustrating time getting back to Gabs ever again. Now we come to the journey leaving Kgagodi, which was fraught with problems. We left at 10:30 from Kgagodi and did not get back to Gabs until 7:30. For those of you doing math that is 9 hours. The trip usually takes about 4-5 depending on stopping. So I already described the field trip transport going 100km down a dirt road. Well the bus that went on that trip (that also transported the facilitators back to Gabs) did the same. And it bent the axel. Yet instead of fixing that they just put a new tire on and put us on our way. Needless to say the tire on the bent axel went flat about 45 minutes in. The bus was swerving all over the road (for most of the trip) and we just kept patching the tire or replacing it. We stopped completely about 3-4 times to work on the tire and for the rest of the trip we were just driving really slowly. When we called M the first time the bus broke down she just told us (PC and all the other groups) that it was our problem and there were no vehicles to help us. At that point Julia and Becky hitched out of there and the rest of us waited for the bus to get fixed. We should have followed. They made it to Gabs by 4 at least. Due to the bus breaking repeatedly and after one game of road-side Scrabble we finally made it to Mahalapye (the first town we hit since leaving the forum). When we made it to Mahalapye they were going to see about fixing the bus again, so the PCVs jumped off, flagged down the public bus to Gabs and were finally in smooth sailing for the rest of the time. And of course after we left M finally showed up, apologized, and gave people money for public transport. But we were just happy to be on a reliable bus so we didn’t care.
But in a nutshell (and yes compared to how long Youth Forum felt 4 pages of word document is a nutshell) that was Youth Forum. Except for one last little story that is, that I purposely saved for the end. So I mentioned earlier that someone (John Otterbach) gave me a few nicknames. And if you were paying attention I also mentioned that there were poisonous snakes and scorpions in Kgagodi. Well one of the snakes up there is the black mamba, aka basically the deadliest of all snakes. Well one night some of the facilitators were hanging out at a party at one of the ministry housings on campus. Karla and I were heading back early and Shaolyn (from Min. of Health) called us over to use Karla’s phone light. He shone it over to where he saw something in the yard and it was a black mamba. First of all they aren’t really black; the tongues are which is what gives them the name. Well Karla held the light and Shaolyn from a distance threw an empty beer bottle at it attempting to kill it. Well it didn’t kill it and just kinda pissed off the snake. You can tell it was pissed because when snakes are mad they stand their ground, or worse chase you when you run. If it was scared it would have slid away, but it didn’t. So at this point I did probably the stupidest thing I have ever done. I picked up a big rock, and instead of throwing it at the snake I got close to it and beat it to death with the rock (making sure to hit the head to it couldn’t snap at me if I hit the body). But yes, I killed a black mamba while being within arm’s reach of it, hence the nicknames. And I think I can hear many people taking a collective gasp and wondering what is wrong with me, so I will just end it here for now.
Talk to you all soon!
P.S. Merry Christmas early in case I am not on again soon.
P.P.S. Happy birthday to Hinkle, Brandon, Hodge, Nate, and Yami!