Saturday, March 30, 2013

Regional Athletics Competition

Three weekends ago there was the regional athletics competition for primary schools. Seventeen schools gathered to compete from Friday to Sunday. The host village was Lentsweletau, a village nearby, which was very nice and convenient for me. Usually the kids travel and sleep in the classrooms of a school nearby the hosting school. Since Kgope is close, the kids just slept at our school along with two other schools we hosted.

Leading up to the big competition we had small competitions at school on a crude track marked around the soccer field at our school. I should clarify that by ‘athletics’ they mean only running and jumping (long jump, high jump) events. We only practiced for a few weeks, but other schools had been training for months.
Leading up to the competition the kids were very excited. The team was about forty kids although some came along but didn’t participate. The events were supposed to start Friday morning, but in true Botswana fashion there were transportation problems. I can imagine what a logistical nightmare it is to transport seventeen schools. When the transportation did come on Friday it ended up being a big truck that looked like was for cattle. We were told it was the only option, so the kids all piled in. I was lucky enough to score a seat in the front, and didn’t have to cram in with the well over fifty kids in the back. I also got to enjoy this nice conversation with a gentleman in the front (these are the highlights):

“Are you married?” – This was the first thing he said to me, after checking out the rings I wear.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” – I don’t know why he even bothered asking, because he completely disregarded the answer.

“He is far, maybe he is artificial.” - ?
“Why are the Peace Corps here? Are you a spy?” – This was the first time I’ve been asked this, but I’ve been told it’s not an uncommon question. I calmly asked the man why he thought the U.S. government would care what was said in the front of a truck on the way to an athletic event.

“I want to come visit you at your house.” – Classic. When you read this imagine 'visit' in exaggerated air-quotes. I get this a lot; the answer is always no.
After this lovely conversation we arrived, and the competition began. I won’t go into the details of each race, but we did fairly well and it was fun cheering them on. The absolute highlight for me was the singing. Most of the cheers took the form of songs; I love Setswana songs so I was thrilled. There were many songs, but the song that became our anthem went like this:

Siruru-bele, siruru-bele sa Kgope School (2x)
A o batla go bona, sirurubele, sirurubele sa Kgope School? (2x)
It means: Butterfly, butterfly of Kgope School
Do you want to see, the butterfly, the butterfly of Kgope School?
Saturday when we got back to the school after the day’s events had finished I was dancing with the kids to that song. They always get surprised and happy when they see me dancing, or hear me singing in Setswana.

For the competition they divide the competitors into divisions by age. They couldn’t do it by standards because in each standard the age can range greatly. My friend’s school had a seventeen year-old in standard six. Our school took first in the senior boy’s long-jump and the intermediate boy’s high-jump. We took second in the senior boy’s high-jump, and the intermediate girls 4x4 relay. Overall we came in sixth of the seventeen schools! It was an exhausting weekend, but a lot of fun.
Dirurubele di fofile – the butterflies flew :)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Adventures in Kgope

On January 4th I accompanied some people from the village to check out potential tourist sites in Kgope. It was me, the VDC (Village Development Council) chairman and his wife, some VDC members, the kgosi, and some village elders. There were about ten of us in total and we piled into the kgosi’s truck and took off into the bush. I always feel a little weird calling the landscape ‘the bush’, like I’m not being politically correct or something, but truly that’s what it is. There are lots of trees but they are all relatively small and have low limbs making them look almost like bushes.

We took the dirt roads into the bush: and I am using the word ‘roads’ generously. At times there was a dirt bath wide enough for the car. Other times there were two faint trails of dirt spaced apart like the wheels of a car. The trees were frequently so close to the car that they raked against it, and I literally mean raked because many of these trees had thorns the size and sharpness of nails. You could hear them dragging against the outside of the truck. Three times we had to stop because one of the men in back of the open truck had their hats knocked off of their heads.
The "road" through the bush.
After twisting and turning down the paths (and I had no idea how they knew which path to take when it split) the car finally stopped in what looked to me as an unremarkable stop. I was told we were going to see a potential tourist spot, but nothing else. At this point we all had to go to our knees and pray. I was told that failing to pray at this spot might mean that we wouldn’t reach our destination. After praying, we took off on a small trail through the trees. It was easy to follow the rest of the group although the trail constantly kept me on my toes. On the ground were a lot of small rocks that needed to be minded so I wouldn’t trip or stub my toe. Up higher were branches that constantly had to be ducked because they had, like I mentioned earlier, ridiculously large thorns. I’m sure I was doing an uncoordinated bob and weave the entire time.

When we finally reached our destination it was beautiful. The ground was interesting. It was open rock that looked like it had been formed by mud and smaller rocks being cemented together over time. Running down the middle of a dip in the rock was a small stream. Occasionally the stream would flatten and run through a patch of grass in the rocks, only to emerge and tumble lower. Three of the men had brought water bottles to take the water with them. I asked them why they wanted the water and the response varied from just wanting to drink it, to something that definitely had to do with traditional healing/witchcraft.
It was nice hiking over the rock. It was nice just seeing running water in Botswana. While we walked around a few people were collecting a small shrub that was growing in the shade of the rocks. They said they could brew a tea using the leaves that would lower blood pressure. It was a nice afternoon. On the way back we stopped at one more place, and then headed back to the home. We were driving on the road when suddenly the kgosi stopped and pointed to the road. Less than thirty feet in front of us there was a huge snake crossing the road; at least six-feet long. I tried to get a picture but only caught the tail of it. They told me it was a python. They then proceeded to tell me that ‘yes pythons can kill you but they’re one of the nicer snakes’, also that this was a ‘small one’. I’m sorry, what? A small one?? ‘Oh yes, the blue mambas are a lot meaner and more deadly’. Oh good.

If you look closely, on the left you can see the last half of the snake crossing the road.
If that wasn’t eventful enough, about a mile or so later we heard a hissing noise that was, not a snake, but the sound of the air quickly leaving the back right tire. We had driven over one of those nail-thorns and it had punctured the tire of the big truck. Nature here does not play games. The irony was that as we were driving to the site I kept thinking encouraging thoughts like: ‘you could get stranded out here and no one would find you’, and ‘how would you give them directions? Oh yes, take the dirt path until the thorn tree, turn left on the other dirt path, now there’s going to be a fern blocking your view but if you look carefully there are tire marks right past the brown cow and it’s calf, if they’re still sitting in the same spot….’ etc. Of course I’m being ignorant here because people know their way from experience. I am clearly just blind to the signs, but still…
 The joke’s on me though because the situation was under control. The kgosi and another man walked off into the bush almost immediately. The rest of us hung by the car while the VDC chairman called people at his farm (maybe a tractor could come get us), and the police officer (his car was out of fuel) but we had no luck. I settled in for a long stay. About an hour or so later the kgosi and the man came back with a tire and a pump. A farmer nearby was letting them use his spare and was on his way with the jack. I thought that was great community spirit. We were shortly after on our way, and made our way home with no more problems (except the hats getting knocked off). It was a nice trip and I’m glad I was able to tag along. Almost as glad as I was to be inside the car when I saw the snake. Yikes. More adventures to come!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Where to start! As I’m writing this I’ve now been at site for a little over six weeks. My village is called Kgope, and is a small place in Kweneng North region. By private car I’m about an hour’s drive away from Gaborone the capitol. Without a private car it can take anywhere from one and a half hours up to forever (more on this later). The 2011 census says Kgope has 368 people although I’ve been told it’s wrong and there are around 550; like I said, it’s small. Kgope is what people call ‘the lands’ meaning that it’s mostly farms. In Botswana if you are a citizen you can apply to the Land Board and after a long process they give you land. It’s a radical idea compared to our private property America. This leads to many people having their house in one village, and their lands in another. I’ve been told Kgope founded because people decided to stay and live at their lands.

Needless to say, Kgope is very spread out. I know I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. I’ve been told some of the kids walk almost 10k to get to school. The good news (the best news!) is that there are a lot of fresh vegetables and water rarely runs out. Life in Botswana really drives home the fact that water is life. We are very lucky in the U.S. to have not only easy access to water, but plenty of it. Botswana is in large part a desert. Water is taken from boreholes in the ground. I am lucky in Kgope because I’ve been told we rarely lose water and if so, it’s only out for an hour or so then its back. I know people in villages where the water will be out for days, come back for a few hours, and then be off again. In that time they frantically have to fill up every bucket/container on hand. Enough about water right now though, because like I said Kgope is fine on that front.
In Kgope there is one primary school: Kgope Primary School. For all other educational levels the children have to go to another village. In my two years of Peace Corps service I will be primarily helping at the school. My focus is Life Skills. I will try to explain this as best I can, but it’s a bit vague and up for interpretation. In every school there is a teacher called the Guidance and Counseling teacher. In primary schools it’s just a title and that teacher also teaches one of the standards (remember these are grades). Every class once a week has a guidance and counseling class. In primary this, like every subject, is taught by the main teacher. The Ministry of Education in Botswana has created a syllabus called Living; it’s a series of Life Skills books. They want these books to be taught not only during the guidance and counseling class, but infused into every subject. They believe that if children are taught better life skills, it will lower their chance of contracting HIV. My main task is to help with this ‘infusion’.  I’m also supposed to help with community projects, and bridging the school and community together.

One good and bad thing is that ‘life skills’ is extremely vague. Whenever someone asks me ‘what is life skills?’ I always have to think about it. It could be almost anything. In upper levels Sex Ed would definitely fit in here, but that would take some sensitivity to address it with the young kids. I’d like to focus (if it’s even possible) on confidence, decision making, and communication. I’m not sure how I’m going to tackle life skills yet – but I have two years to work it out, right?
Back to Kgope. There’s one school like I said, with one class at each level. There’s a health post with one nurse, a health educator, and a cleaner. There’s an agricultural office, one church (only the Roman Catholics have their own building), one general store, one bar, two depots (drinking places, but only selling the cheap Chibuku alcoholic drink I’m not sure how to describe), and the kgotla. The kgotla is a traditional center for village meetings with the kgosi (chief). In Botswana, instead of throwing out the old system of governance, it was adopted into official law. Each village has a kgosi who is in charge, and is (usually) the eldest son of the previous kgosi. There is a book of law, and within that law he can rule on disputes in the village. One example I heard of (from the police officer) was if a man was beating his wife/girlfriend. They would collect evidence, and then bring the two before the kgosi. If the man was pronounced guilty the kgosi could decide to fine him, or order him lashed. Maybe it’s wrong, but I find something really satisfying about the idea of someone getting lashed for beating another person. It’d be like castrating child molesters: that’s justice you can feel. But I digress…

 There are two police officers in Kgope and they’re both extremely nice. One has been here for many years and one came just a few weeks ago. It’s nice for me because the old officer is taking the new one around to show him the village. It’s the perfect opportunity for me to tag along. They’ve been very nice about accommodating me.

The last thing about Kgope I’ll mention today is my house. I love it. The government provides housing for the teachers, and it worked out that a house was free and I am staying in teacher’s housing. I’m right across the (dirt) road from the school and can see the health post from my house too. I have a kitchen, three rooms, and two-ish bathrooms; the toilet and a sink are in one small room, and the bath tub and a sink are in another. I have running water, but no electricity. I have a gas stove in the kitchen. I really don’t mind not having electricity. At the moment I get by using my headlamp, flashlight, and candles. Everyone keeps telling me to get a paraffin lamp which I’m sure I’ll get around to eventually. At the moment I’m content with my candles.

One thing I’ve noticed about not having electricity is how much more aware of the sun I am. You get a feel for exactly when the sun sets, and what a difference it makes. It’s amazing that the sun can be setting for some time, but once it hits the horizon it could be a ten minute difference between light and pitch dark. I could write a whole blog entry on the sky here and sunsets. When I look at the pictures I’ve taken of Kgope so far they’re mostly of sunsets; and the pictures don’t even do them justice. The sky at all time of day mesmerizes me. Try to think of how many times in a day you look at the sky. Most days it’s probably not even once. That’s kind of sad isn’t it? Here the sky is so vast and so beautiful it can’t be ignored. At night it’s equally amazing. I won’t go into how many stars I can see at night, because that’s a whole other wonder.

I think this is a good introduction to Kgope. Everyone has been very nice and I’m enjoying myself. I read a lot. All the time I’ve been too busy to read for pleasure, is finally being equaled out by the massive amount of reading I’m doing here (via the lovely Kindle Martin gave me). Life is good.
Don’t forget to write me letters!

Elizabeth Wallis (or Elizabeth Tshepo Wallis)
Kgope Primary School
Private Bag 24

Swearing In

November 15th was Swearing In. When I arrived in Botswana on September 13th it was as a Trainee. The Swearing In ceremony officially marks becoming a Volunteer. Swearing In was on a Thursday and earlier in the week leading up to it, our training schedule was finally relaxed a bit. I know I haven’t mentioned training very much, but it was exhausting. We were at the training center from 8:30-4:30 every weekday and 9:00-1:00 on Saturdays.

For Swearing In they wanted two volunteers to give speeches in Setswana. One was to thank the staff, host parents, Peace Corps, etc. The other was for the volunteers. After thinking about it for some time, and being encouraged by some friends I decided to do one of the speeches. The other girl, Kristin, and I decided that she would give the ‘Thank You’ speech, and I would give the one to the volunteers. We would each give our own speech in English and read the Setswana version/translation of the other one’s speech.
After I wrote my speech I had lofty dreams of translating it into Setswana by myself. The combination of our busy training schedule, and my limited Setswana dimmed that dream. My LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator aka Setswana Teacher) Tiro was kind enough to translate it for me. After I got the Setswana version of Kristin’s speech I practiced every night. I’m not even exaggerating; I practiced that speech for almost a week.  There are some Setswana words that are not for the faint of heart, and needed practice if I didn’t want to completely butcher them. One such word was: ikiteileng. Another: motlhotlho. Kristin definitely got some of the harder ones in the translated version of my speech like: mmantswitswidi (poet) and my personal favorite tlhakatlhakaneng (mixed feelings).

On Swearing In day the speeches were my favorite part. Kristin went first and I read the Setswana version. Everytime I finished a section I got a huge applause from our host parents and any Batswana in the room. It really helped because I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shaking like a leaf (I’m not a big public speaker). The constant postitive reinforcement was nice.  The best part was how impressed everyone was with Kristin and I. They looked at us like we had just whipped Setswana out on the spot, and were translating on the fly. One of the speakers at the main table even mentioned he had a son looking for a wife. Classic. When that same man stood up to give his speech it was in English then he randomly switched to Setswana. He then proceded to look straight at me speaking in Setswana (since of course, I had just proved with the speech that I was fluent). I just smiled and laughed in time with the Batswana in the room understanding about a quarter of what he said. I guess I was convincing because later other Volunteers thought I had understood him. I love things like this.
I really liked the speech I wrote too and it went over well. In a nutshell, that was Swearing In. It didn’t feel like a big deal, more just like the end of training. I’m glad I was able to give one of the speeches. I’m even more proud I made it through the Setswana one. I even got a marriage offer; this is one of the many reasons I love African cultures; that would never happen in America. It was nice to officially be able to call myself a Peace Corps Volunteer. The next day we all left for our sites.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Host Family Party

With training coming to an end, we were told that we were having a thank you party for the Host Families. We split into committees for the party: Cooking, Ushering, Shopping, and Entertainment. I was on the Entertainment committee and we spent a couple weeks planning what we wanted to do. I really wanted to do an acrostic poem. For those of you who don’t remember, those are the poems where you spell something (like in this case ‘Thank You’) then say ‘T is for ______, H is for _______’ etc. down the line.  Maybe it’s just having been a kindergarten teacher, but I thought it would be nice. I took it upon myself to write the English, and then had help translating it into Setswana. My friend helped me write the letters THANK YOU! on one side of a paper and RE A LEBOGA (we thank you) on the other side. I got people to volunteer to read each letter and the two sentences with it then at the end we flipped the papers and said “Re a leboga” together. The families loved it; I think they were the most happy to hear us speaking Setswana.

We also planned three skits. People seem to love skits. The three skits were: cooking, washing clothes, and pets. We were trying to show Americans in the funniest light possible. The cooking skit was about adding crazy things to food, since some of the things we cook get a strange look. The two volunteers who wrote it also stressed smelling food since here that’s not considered polite. Culturally, smelling food is implying something is rotten and so it is a big no-no. (Of course we learned this the day after I smelled all the spice mixes in the house trying to figure out what they were – go figure.) The pets skit was about how American’s love animals and treat them like pets. Dogs are kept strictly outside the house. There are used mostly for protection and are definitely not coddled. In the skit the two volunteers had the American naming every animal she passed and trying to bring it in the house as a pet. It went well.
The last skit: washing clothes was done be me and my friend Kate. She was the host mother, and I was the American. We joked about me being 25 and not even knowing how to wash clothes, when a Batswana would have learned how to at five. Then I wrestled with a sheet in my attempt to wash it. My favorite part was parodying a Setswana song. Let me preface this by saying: I love Setswana songs. It’s a great way to learn the language and culture, not to mention that the harmonies people sing here are beautiful. My favorite song is sung by a woman working in a field. Translated, the lyrics go: Aunty, please carry my child. I’m in the field plowing and I’m alone. You can see that I’m plowing, and I’m alone. For the skit we changed the words to say: Aunty, please carry my Sunlight (brand of soap). I’m trying, I’m washing, and I’m alone. It was a big hit. Like with the poem, I think they liked the fact that part of it was in Setswana.

Site Announcement

On October 19th we had a special day half day of training. Everyone was only half paying attention because we were all focused on the afternoon and site announcement. That was when we would find out where in Botswana we would be spending the next two years. It was actually really nice and they made the site announcement all official. They cleared us out of the training classroom, and wouldn’t let us in until it started.

While they were setting up, we went down stairs with the LCFs (Setswana teachers) and they taught us some traditional games kids like to play. My favorite was dodge ball-esc. Two people stand about 25 feet apart and have a ball. Between them there is a shallow box, crushed cans, and a team of four or so people. Using their feet, the people in the middle have to pinch the cans and toss them into the box. In the meantime, the two on the outside are trying to peg them with the ball. When the person in the middle gets hit they’re out. Speaking as one who was in the middle – it’s a lot to keep track of, especially when you’re the last one. I’m sure it’s also funny to watch as the middle person frantically flips cans in between dodging the ball. It was a lot of fun.

That was the morning, then the long awaited site announcement! When we got to the classroom the chairs were in a big U facing the front where there was a map of Botswana with 34 pins in it for our sites. It was easy to immediately see that we were all mostly together except for a few on the fringes. Since my group is all Life Skills volunteers, we’re all in the southern half of the country. The room was decorated with balloons and streamers. After we had all taken our seats they told us to reach under our chair and find the paper there. Each paper had a number on it, and that was the order in which we were called to find our sites; I was number thirteen. I took it as a good sign since we are Bots 13 (the 13th group in Botswana since the program re-opened) and we arrived on September 13th. They called our name, we went up to get our site, announced it to the group, pinned our name on the map, and then we got to take a drink and a giant cookie with our number on it.

My site is…. *drum roll*… Kgope! My school is Kgope Primary School. Primary school here is Standards (Grades) 1-7. Some people are at Junior Secondary Schools: Form 1-3 (Grades 8-10) and two people are at Senior Secondary Schools: Form 4-5 (Grades 11-12). If what I just wrote doesn’t make sense, what I’m trying to show is that instead of saying “Grades” they use the terms “Standards” and “Forms”. Back to Kgope! Kgope is a small village of around 500 people in Kweneng District. It’s fairly close to the capitol Gaborone and another large town Molepolole. I’m the first PCV in the village which is what I was hoping for. There will be no groundwork in place, but it also means no expectations. It sounded like a perfect placement for me. On a funny note, if you google ‘Kgope’ the only thing the Wikipedia page says is the District and that there’s a Primary School; that’s me!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cultural Village

A couple weeks ago we were able to go to a cultural village to see traditional dancing, and learn more about traditional Batswana culture. It was nice to take a break from the training room. I wanted to post pictures but the internet is refusing. So I'll try another day. To continue the story:

After the dancing, they did a mock-traditional wedding so we could see what it’s like. One of the volunteers was a good sport and allowed us to marry her off. Her birthday was the next day so we thought: ‘what could be a better present than a Motswana husband” right? It started with the lobola being negotiated. Lobola is dowry for the bride. The standard rate is eight cows. The husband-to-be has to give the cows, or a cash equivalent, to the woman’s family before they can be married. Once lobola was decided in this mock-wedding they shook a bag of bones/rocks and tossed them to see if it was going to be a good marriage. To be honest, I didn’t really understand that part – but I guess she passed the test.
Then the new husband and wife went to their hut. Apparently traditionally the older women in the village peek through the windows to make sure the girl is struggling because that means she’s a virgin? It was definitely awkward. The best part was that they told the guy and the girl how to act. So in the “morning” after the girl comes out crying (success?!) and the guy came out strutting. I think that meant the deal was sealed. It was a lot of fun seeing it and everyone was a good sport.