One of the most difficult parts of traveling and subsequently living in another culture is minimizing ones expectations. The past three and half months, and really the last six weeks that I’ve settled into living in Francistown, has tested this mindset. There is so much beauty here in Botswana. This obviously includes the profuse amounts of wildlife: elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, hippos, zebras, gazelles, crocodiles and every other African animal one sees on nature programs on PBS. This beauty also extends to the Batswana. Their families are rich in tradition and have a level of support that makes one question the ethical decisions of many westerners to place their elders in care facilities. With all that said, tackling HIV/AIDS in Botswana tests one’s patience.
I’ve definitely been tested over the past couple of weeks with regard to reassessing my contribution to this massive health problem. Sadly, HIV/AIDS has grown to be more of a problem then merely encompassing health. Botswana has approximately 1.8 millions people, covering a landmass that’s the same size and contains a similar geographical landscape as Texas. The land is hard, dry and doesn’t allow for much agricultural endeavors. As a result, Botswana imports a majority of its food from South Africa. These facts and many more test the economic viability of Botswana. So, my expectations of “helping” to build capacity have to take a step back and look at other components of this culture. Essentially, I have to find out why complacency and apathy towards this chronic disease is so high. While I work on this issue I’ll also try to tackle some income generating projects and skill based programs (such as time management, household budgeting and goal setting).
I have been matched to work with The Mother Theresa Resource Center in (Monarch) Francistown. For a number of years, the Roman Catholic Vicariate of Francistown has owned property in the Monarch area of Francistown. It has hosted a number of initiatives ranging from computers to sewing and weaving to a sports center. Unfortunately, they were not sustainable. Since the decline of these programs the vacant site became heavily vandalized.
Directly next door to the Monarch site (called “Boswa”) lie an old abandoned gold mine. A few years ago, on a site visit to view the damage at the Monarch site, the Bishop observed local children sliding on cardboard down the side of the hills created from the excavations from the shafts of the mine. This was their only recreational outlet. The bishop decided to use the Boswa site as a youth center for children in the area.
In the past year, with the support of outside benefactors and supporters, the Catholic Church has revitalized the site. This included securing the buildings, refurbishing the interiors with power and plumbing and clearing the yards and playing fields of accumulated debris (rocks, broken glass and sticker bushes). Along with the youth center on this site, future plans call for a new convent and church.
A little background: The Monarch area of Francistown is a very poor and neglected area of the city (think South side Chicago in the 80’s or the North end of Portland thirty years ago). Monarch battles for having the highest infection rates of HIV/AIDS in Francistown; not to mention throughout Botswana. Over the years, the government has been slow to provide social services to the area. In response to a very obvious need for an outlet for the local children and teens (many of them orphans), the church has set in motion a plan to establish a resource center for the community, specifically targeting OVC’s (Orphans & Vulnerable Children). The church does not have the financial capacity and human resources to tackle this project alone; only by empowering the local community and other affiliated care givers and social service resources can this program be successful and most importantly sustainable.
The Boswa site/center has been renamed The Mother Theresa Resource Center (MTRC) and over the past six months has been actively pursuing partnerships in the community, specifically geared toward programs for OVC’s. The target groups for MTRC are twofold – “after school” groups and “out of school” groups. In both cases, there is a need for full-time supervision on site and especially for the latter group. This is where my role begins as a Peace Corps volunteer. We’ve been working with the following groups to develop and implement programs at MTRC: District Commissioner, S & CD office, Monarch Kgosi, WMSAC (Ward Multi-Sectorial AIDS Committee), The Kings Foundation, SOS Children’s Village, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Youth Center Network, Youth Health Organization (YOHO), Tshesebe Outreach Project (TOP Banana), and the Catholic Vicariate of Francistown. We are also working with the District Commissioner’s office to purchase sporting and playground equipment, computers, and other supplies needed from a P50,000 grant (roughly $8,000 dollars).
Now my role: even though I am a “volunteer”, I am taking on the role of Site Coordinator for MTRC until we can find, fund and train a Motswana to take over. Ideally for me this will happen in the first six months of me being here. Its very important for the community to see this center and the programs we host as being run by a Motswana instead of a “Lakoa” (a white westerner). Nevertheless, my role encompasses program development (psycho-social programs, sporting activities, trainings and workshops, art classes, and anything else deemed as a need by the community). Also, I am working on identifying other stakeholders in Francistown and around Botswana to help with long term funding initiatives. Even though MTRC falls under the umbrella of the Catholic Church, we are registered as an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) in Botswana. One current hurdle is setting up MTRC with this structure in mind: board of directors, budgets, strategic plans, marketing and funding strategies, program development and establishing operational mechanisms/tools.
I have one co-worker or what we call a “counterpart”. His name is John Curtin. He’s a very accomplished gentleman with long ties to the Catholic Church and Botswana. He holds dual citizenships in Canada and the United States. He’s a self-funded volunteer who’s been living in Francistown for the past year and a half. Aside from being very accomplished professionally, John has a huge heart and is deeply motivated in helping the OVC’s in Monarch.
As I previously mentioned, I’ve struggled with my expectations as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. I remember telling myself before leaving the states to drop all expectations of what my life would be like for two years in Africa. I made a conscious decision to not role play in my mind what my day-to-day would look like. Throughout my first two months of Peace Corps training, PST (Pre-Service Training), I continually pushed back my hopes and goals for once I got to my site; wherever that may be. The interesting thing is that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t unload these thoughts. Among these was the idea that in two years I would accomplish so much and my presence and accomplishments would be felt for years to come. As selfish as this sounds, I think we as Americans, and especially those of us who apply to become a Peace Corps volunteer, are conditioned to see the Peace Corps and really any international development work as some saving grace for those we intend to live and work with. Though this wasn’t my motivation for becoming a Peace Corps volunteer, I would be deceiving myself if I didn’t say that I really hoped to accomplish something grand. Grand in relation to what I believed I would achieve in two years back in the states.
My sites are now set a lot lower. I’m referring back to the experiences I’ve had over the past twelve years. These include the jobs, education and trainings that I have been involved with. So, for those of you who are familiar with my time at Holiday Home Camp, Hostelling International, Dept. of Transportation in Oregon, IFSS, MMSD, ALPHA and even as a drama coach, I think you’ll begin to hear about me utilizing some of those experiences to develop income generating projects, tackle behavior change and to work on the basics of community/cultural identity here in Monarch. But, in the meantime, I’m setting the expectations bar a little lower. Time moves slower here. Resources, such as access to the internet and computers, printers, copiers are hard to come by. Where as in the states, I could throw together a workshop in a couple of weeks it might take me several months just to make sure an agenda is typed up and people in the community not only know about it but are continually prompted to attend. It’s definitely been interesting to think of the things I took for granted!
Yes, the past couple of weeks have been difficult emotionally as I assess and reassess why I am here. Every day I have to reassess what I hope to get done in a given week, in my first three months and by this time next year. However, the one thing that hasn’t changed is how positive and supportive all of you back home have and continue to be!