Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Please read this

Sometimes I struggle with describing what I see in Botswana, and in my village, without sounding negative, condescending, and judgmental. So too often I skip it and post pictures of goats. But a few days ago the American ambassador to Botswana, Michelle Gavin, wrote an op-ed for the Patriot, and she described Botswana, Batswana, my Peace Corps experience, and all of the conflicting emotions I've felt, and she did it much better than I ever could. It's a bit long, but please read it. (Paragraph breaks are mine.)

An Op-ed by Ambassador Gavin published in the Patriot on Sunday: Botswana’s Greatest Resource

Botswana is a magical place. Its people are warm, friendly and engaging. Its countryside is among the most beautiful in the world. And since independence, its leaders have used not just diamond wealth, but also integrity and a commitment to investing in people to build and sustain Africa’s most successful and prosperous democracy. 

For over two and a half years, I have been privileged to serve as the United States Ambassador to one of the world’s great success stories. My tenure in Botswana has reinforced my belief that this country’s potential is vast. With the right decisions and the hard work of its citizens, Botswana can continue to prosper in an increasingly globalized economy; its democracy can continue to mature: its institutions can continue to set and meet the highest standards for integrity and efficacy. I also believe that Botswana can continue to be a force for good in the world far more influential than the size of its population would suggest. 

For all of these reasons, I have devoted much of my tenure here to engaging with Botswana’s youth. Youth make up the largest segment of Botswana’s population. They represent Botswana’s potential. They are Botswana’s future. As President Obama’s representative in Botswana, one of my jobs is to translate his commitment to youth around the world and into concrete support for Botswana’s young people. My government has done, and will continue to do, a great deal. From the Peace Corp Volunteers assigned to scores of towns and villages throughout Botswana working with young people on life skills to the exchange programs that have sent Batswana youth to the United States, we are engaging with young people in Botswana and working to support them every day. My embassy has set up a Youth Advisory Council to discuss issues impacting youth. We will send 25 talented, young Batswana to the United States to participate in President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. We have worked with the Government of Botswana to gather more data on the challenges young people confront. We support young entrepreneurs, and we have devoted millions of dollars to helping Botswana’s orphans and vulnerable children. 

Last week I had the privilege of interacting with hundreds of youth throughout southern Botswana, in locales as diverse as Moshupa, Mabutsane, and Sekoma, on a “Youth Listening Tour.” I heard firsthand from groups of 15-24-year-olds about their personal dreams, their aspirations for Botswana, and the challenges they face. These conversations were similar to the many other discussions I have had with Botswana’s young people over the last 30 months. In all of the exchanges, I have found that in many ways Botswana youth are like their peers everywhere in the world. They want to participate in society at a local and a global level; they want the exposure that comes with travel or attending school overseas; they want to make a difference in their communities; they want to find meaningful jobs in the private sector that allow them to save for the future and start families. 

But in addition to revealing these laudable, even inspiring, aspirations, many of my conversations with young people around this country -- and with their passionate Batswana advocates in the health, education, and social work communities -- have exposed deeply troubling problems. Girls – often very young girls – talk about relentless sexual pressure from adult men in their lives. Youth describe feelings of isolation and worthlessness; far too many feel that no adult in their lives will listen to them or take them seriously. Regardless of gender, young people often describe a violent, even hostile environment at home and at school that seems completely at odds with the peaceful, gentle culture that celebrates botho and values the contribution of each individual. 

The often painful anecdotes of young Batswana are backed up by data. Adolescent girls continue to be infected with HIV at far higher rates than their male counterparts. Stubbornly high malnutrition rates among children (13.5% of Batswana children under five are underweight; 26% are stunted) persist despite Botswana’s robust social safety nets, and those closest to the issue acknowledge that neglect is a very real part of the problem. Results from the Botswana Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey of schoolchildren, funded by the U.S. Government and conducted in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Skills Development, indicated that violence is a very common presence in the lives of young people. Over one-quarter of respondents had been involved in a physical fight in the previous year that required them to seek medical treatment. 13% of sexually active students identified rape as their first sexual encounter. 

Of course, these indicators point to the need for broad social mobilization to give parents and caregivers the knowledge, skills, and support they need to ensure children are not left behind. Botswana’s schools can also play a critical role in beginning to turn some of these numbers around, but today, too often, they are part of the problem. I have heard this directly from the young people with whom I have spoken. I have also heard tales of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by teachers and school administrators from civil society and traditional leaders. In some cases, the perpetrators were never charged and remain in their classrooms to this day. Many countries, including my own, have established and implemented policies designed to prevent violence in schools. These policies include universal school-based violence prevention education for students. They also include education for parents in order to improve parent-child communication about sensitive issues including sexual health; annual training for all school personnel; a code of conduct for all school personnel; and lastly, standard operating procedures to respond to breaches of conduct by school personnel. 

I hope the Government of Botswana will make similar policies a priority, and hold teachers and school administrators accountable for implementing them. Botswana’s schools must also provide their students with the knowledge and tools necessary to live healthy lives, and to set and achieve life goals if they are to contribute to the country’s future success. Botswana’s Life Skills program, which the United States Peace Corps supports, is designed to accomplish this, promoting positive identity and self-esteem, positive communication, decision-making and critical thinking skills, goal setting, and emotional health. But Botswana can do more to make Life Skills work for its young people, by implementing Life Skills as a standalone, testable curriculum rather than trying to infuse it into all subject areas – which too often makes Life Skills an afterthought. 

It is telling that the late Nelson Mandela devoted a great deal of his post-presidency passion and energy to children’s issues. His singular wisdom, experience, and vision led him to conclude that “there is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Children, he said “should be seen and heard as our most treasured assets. They are not ours to be used or abused but to be loved and nurtured and encouraged to engage in life to the full extent of their being, free from fear.” The truth is that too many children in Botswana are living in fear. Too many are neglected. Too many are exposed to violence or exploitation at home or at school. This issue, perhaps more than any other -- more than the scourge of HIV/AIDS, more than the difficulty of economic diversification -- imperils the future of this great country. It is entirely within Botswana’s capacity to address this threat. Doing so will require a sense of urgency; concrete, fully implemented policy initiatives; and energized partnerships among parents and caregivers, teachers and school administrators, police and social workers. The United States will be a reliable ally in these efforts. 

As for me, Botswana and its young people are now in my heart for good. For the rest of my life, I will be cheering you on.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Aileen's Wedding

Aileen, the PCV in the village next to me and my good friend, got married to her American non-PCV finance Adam last week in Letlhakeng.

We hung out at the Rural Administration Commission (RAC) for the officiant.

The actual ceremony was very Batswana in a room at the RAC, but they are MARRIED!

The happy couple and the officiants. 

They got serenaded  by everyone in the offices on their way out.

They had a nice reception at a little restaurant in Letlhakeng.

The bridal party. 

Speechifying in true Botswana style.

The only bummer was the bridal party hit a donkey on the way back from the wedding, which dented the rental car and caused a few hours of insurance and police report stress.

But we celebrated  more back at Aileen's place, including Jess making us all multiple smoothies. Congrats to the happy couple, who had to jump through a LOT of bureacratic mess to get married. PULA!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Wet Goat Files

When it rains, I often get a perimeter of goats around my house, trying to stand in the one foot of roof overhang so they stay (somewhat) dry. So I photobombed them :)

There were 4.

Then there were 6.

Then there were 8.

Hi. Can we come in?

You look dry in there.

Goat friends.

This one looks slightly stoned to me.

It's me again, Jim Bob the goat.

We are cute. Can we PLEASE come in?

I tell good jokes!

I can fit part of me in!

The only downside to this barrage of cuteness is that the outside of my house looks and smells like a goat crawl for a bit. 


Swakapmund is a beach town that looks like a little like an alpine ski resort without the snow. And with mostly Africans instead of Europeans, although there were a fair amount of European tourists.

Some of the architecture made me forget what continent I was on. 

Or if I was in a fairy tale.

We frolicked on the sand dunes, including sand boarding and quad biking.

Quad biking was a lot of fun, although it took me a while to remember I wasn't actually ON a bike, and to go faster on hills.

The dunes were gorgeous.

We celebrated the New Year with some Afrikaners we met sand boarding.

We spent a lot of time on the beach. Not in the water, which was recently in Antarctica and VERY cold, but just on the beach.

Quad biking on the dunes.

Our backpackers, which reminded us of a dutch attic.

We saw seals on the rocks by the beach.

So cute!

Kind of makes me think of PCVs at the end of a vacation. Exhausted, sleeping in a pile, and you still can't get everything to dry out properly.

But the adventure wasn't over yet, as our bus broke down on the way home. Because they forgot to fill the gas tank up all the way. 

Another bus came but couldn't help. Our driver hitched to the nearest village 130km away and got a few liters of fuel and hitched back with it... 5 hours later.

Then we had to figure out how to get the fuel INTO the bus, and obviously there was no funnel. So they used a Fanta bottle.

At this point, we and several Batswana nominated Liz to be the driver if the first one didn't return, but he did. So we got to Gabs at like 12:45am instead of 7pm, but we made it and it was an awesome trip, break down not withstanding. :)


This is out of order, but before Christmas in Tsabong we rode camels!
Intertwined camels. I love their expressions.

It's not that hard to stay on when they plod slowly around a rink, but when they stand up and sit down it's a bit precarious. 

Me and Lucky the camel.

Our group with Lucky.

Our group with a pile of camels in the background.

Lucky, free of the saddle.

Hey there.

Wild camels on the reserve.

We got a ride to the village with the army, the Botswana National Defense Force.

But seriously, how can you not love this face? :D


We headed north from Makopong and spent the night in Kang.

Then we hitched across the border with some truck drivers. We had to hide at police checkpoints a few times, but also had a good conversation with the truck driver about HIV for a few hours.

Most things were closed because it was between Christmas and New Years, and the city was deserted because people went elsewhere for the holidays.  We walked around the city for a few hours, winding up on the edge where we got a beautiful view. 

It honestly reminds me a little bit of a European city, with the architecture and the mountains in the background. 

Jess looking like a model

Me with Windhoek in the background.

We found a field of flowers and attempted to reenact the Sound of Music.

Saw a cool lizard (for Kate).

And then got on a Combi to Swakupmund, where we braided Ashley's hair to pass the time.