Sunday, April 22, 2012

“Ke tla nna mo Botswana dingwaga tsepedi."

“I will stay in Botswana for two years.”

Time is an interesting concept; some weeks seem to fly by while others drag on, and some weeks can seem both long and short simultaneously. This was how I felt as my first full week in Botswana came to a close. How could it be that I had already been in Botswana for a full week? My process in applying for the Peace Corps literally took years, how could it been that I was finally here? Many of the other trainees in my group have had similar experiences, some had placements cancelled the day of surprise parties, some had their placements cancelled multiple times, some had been placed on over 3 continents before finally becoming a part of Peace Corps Botswana. I do not want to say that this was the case for every volunteer, some had a seemingly flawless process, but you would be hard pressed to find many such volunteers. We all came with different backgrounds, degrees, attitudes, expectations and aspirations and we ranged in age from 21-64. Regardless, we were all here together.
PST (Pre-Service Training) is an interesting experience that can vary from country to country. In most countries PST is a three month process, however for Peace Corps Botswana the process has been condensed into two months (for a multitude of reasons). However this means that our days are full and long with topics ranging from language, cross cultural etiquette, safety and security, medical, HIV/AIDS biology and epidemiology, technical information, etc.
One point of pride that Peace Corps holds strong and fast to is the focus on language acquisition and the effectiveness of their teaching methods. For our language classes we are split into groups of no larger than 4 trainees and matched with an instructor. Language clusters, as they are termed, are all run slightly differently depending on the learning styles and speeds of each group. After the first three weeks of language lessons the clusters are then restructured based on the results of a practice LPI (Language Proficiency Interview). Language clusters for our first three weeks are based on the location of host families’ homes to make logistics easier. We meet daily at the home of a fellow trainee’s host family to have our language sessions. I have found that Setswana, while much easier than Mandarin Chinese, is challenging in regards to pronunciation and grammar. I have also found that I have to be much more vigilant to not mix up words as I speak, for example using Chinese, German or Spanish words mixed in with Setswana. However in general I am finding my Setswana to be progressing at a slow but steady rate.
PST general sessions are run in a large group format, and due to the cancellations of posts in Latin America in January 2012 (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) our training class, Bots 12, is larger than usual consisting of 45 trainees (we would soon become 47, then 46 but that is a story for later). Our first week of PST covered general topics such as Personal Security, the Peace Corps Approach to Development, Sexual Assault Awareness, Cross-Cultural Etiquette Role of the Volunteer in Development, and Common Illnesses/ Malaria. While all very informative being such a large group can make such sessions difficult to get through, and very impersonal. I know that I personally cherished our language time where our small group of four was able to get the one-on-one attention we needed for language learning.
One session from our first week of PST that really stood out was the session on Cross-Culture Dating that really had many volunteers laughing and learning. Our Language and Culture Facilitators (LCFs) spent the session teaching us dating and flirting habits of the Batswana…and some were very surprising. I learned that if a Motswana shakes my hand and simultaneously rubs their finger on my palm that I’ll be drawing my hand away! This session while fun, was also very informative as many in our group (not just the women!) have received numerous ‘marriage proposals’, some as jokes yelled from passing cars, and some very much serious proposed by mothers, aunts and the men themselves in as strange of places as church! In my first week I’d received four such proposals, my responses have varied from laughing them off, to coming up with a preposterous bride price of 200 cows, to telling them I’m too young to be burdened with a husband. All of which have provided much amusement to the asking party!
Speaking of church, my first week in Botswana wouldn’t have been complete without attending my host mother’s church with her. She attends the Zionist Church, and let me first be clear that I am in no way well informed about the history of the church or its structure, I can only speak to my experience. Upon arriving at the church at 11 am on Sunday morning my host brother Thato separated himself from my host mother and I, and I would soon learn that this was because as with many formal functions in Botswana men and women are seated separately. The congregation however was predominately female, from my estimate about 75% of the congregation being female and 25% male. We had arrived fashionably late, as per usual with my host mother, and we slipped into a side pew on the women’s side. As I glanced around I realized that every woman in the congregation, excluding me and one other Peace Corps trainee in attendance had covered their head, most with a head scarf, some with hats. While I realize that as a foreigner and newcomer my failure to dress appropriately would be overlooked, nonetheless I spent the majority of the service feeling somewhat subconscious. I had made such an effort to cover my shoulders, and wear a long dress…alas I’d learned for next time. The service was full of singing and dancing, with a large portion of the service dedicated to praying for the sick. For this portion (more than one-third of the overall service) those who were ill were seated in the center of the sanctuary while the rest of the congregation gathered around praying, dancing and singing as the church elders, pastor, etc. prayed over each person individually. As the service finally drew to a close I spent the last half hour or so playing with the children outside as the church members held a members only meeting.
When the week finally drew to a close I was both surprised at how quickly it had flown by, as well as how long it had dragged on. With the first full week down, I had at slightly more than eight to go before I would be able to call myself a Peace Corps Volunteer.

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