Friday, January 19, 2007

Final Thoughts

Since I'm leaving Botswana on Sunday, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my time here. The more I reflect on these memories, the more sense they seem to make as one long story. The catch is that this story is told in emotions, which makes it hard to pin down the right words. I'm going to give it a shot, and hopefully nothing gets lost in translation.

There are many people that think internships such as mine exist so that the volunteers can feel like they're saving the world. I can't speak for all interns, but I can say that in my case, this experience was about saving myself. The past six months have enabled me to grow in ways I didn't expect. I've exchanged my analytical tendencies for embracing ones, after realizing that by comparing cultures, one will be seen as superior to the other. It is only through experiencing a culture as its own separate entity that it can truly be appreciated.

I've never really been a person that prioritized money or material goods, but living here has shown me that they're even less important than I thought. I've seen so many people get by, and be happy, on so little that living in our two-storey house in Gaborone can be embarrassing. As always, there are people that are possessed by the allure of ownership, which can lead to negligence of actual needs, and crime. I've had three phones stolen since I've been here, but I've only gained friends.

The biggest lesson I've learned has led to my greatest regret. This internship has opened the door to do more development work, but the thing that bothers me is that I needed this internship to become interested. There are so many other problems, so much that can be done, that I've ignored. It's not like this is my only first-hand experience working in development. In 2004, I participated in St. FX's Service Learning program in Guatemala. It was only during Spring Break, but it was an introduction to what's being done around the world. In the months following my group's experience, we'd receive e-mails telling us what's going on and what can be done. We did our best to stay informed and to respond, but as time went on, these emails went unread. I originally thought I was the only inconsiderate one, but I later found out that the other 10 group members did the same thing.

What is it going to take for us to rid ourselves of this "out of sight, out of mind" mentality? I'd like to think that six months is enough time to firmly ingrain it in my mind, but who knows what will happen in the next few years?  All I can do is devote myself more fully to this cause than I have in the past.  I have a feeling I'll do better this time.

If anyone who reads this is thinking about pursuing a future in development work, I would advise him/her to remember that firsthand experience is only one way of achieving that goal, and that there are as many problems at home as there are abroad. Volunteer, teach, give, just do what you can to help. One person isn't going to change the world, and that's exactly why there are so many of us.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Confession

Tomorrow, I'm beginning my Christmas vacation. I'll be spending a week in Cape Town, South Africa, followed by Christmas in my friend's village of Mahalapye, then about a week in Mozambique. My roommates and I have decided that for our Christmas break, we're going to be "tourists," but I keep having the feeling that we've essentially been tourists all along.

Sure, I've been working at an AIDS organization, and I've been to rural villages and seen things that not many North Americans see. At the same time, my vision of Botswana has been skewed. Not every person living with HIV/AIDS becomes a motivational speaker, not every rural community has programs designed to raise education and alleviate poverty, and not everyone you meet is only interested in you as a person. I know that Botswana isn't a nation of disease-ridden people gasping for their last breath, but that doesn't make the way I saw things any less wrong.

I can write about the thousands of people who are living in poverty, but the fact is that up until recently, I haven't really seen them. The villages I had seen earlier were mainly agrarian. While the community members didn't have much, they survived from the crops and livestock they kept. On Sunday, I made a trip to Old Neledi, a small village within Gaborone, to attend a concert. I had been there once before for an album launch, but I wasn't as affected by the place as I was on Sunday.

The transition from Gaborone to Old Neledi is like driving into a wall. One minute, we're riding through an industrial zone, with car repair and other shops lining the highway. The next minute, we're on a twisting, sand-covered road, driving past 8'x10' houses with half-buried tires used as fences. Freedom Square, the venue for the concert, also acts as a soccer field and playground. The playground consists of a couple of broken swing sets, a merry-go-round, and a seesaw. The ground is littered in broken glass from the patrons of local bars, but it doesn't deter the kids from playing barefoot and shirtless. While this would almost constitute abuse at home, there is seemingly nothing wrong with this scene. The children are happy, and the downtrodden feeling that you would expect is thoroughly lacking. Old Neledi isn't a World Vision commercial, it's a group of very impoverished people living their lives as well as they can.

I've written before that I've felt like I fit in very well here. I've realized that while I may do a better job than some Canadians, I still fit in as a Canadian. By "virtue" of that, I will never understand what it's like to live in an area like Old Neledi, where poverty, HIV/AIDS, and crime are rampant. Old Neledi isn't an exception to any rule; it is one of many similar communities found throughout the country. I can sympathize with, but I cannot empathize with a child who has had both parents die from AIDS, is living with an aging grandmother, and does not go to school. The situation is just too dire for me to have any clue how I would deal with it, nor how the many people in Botswana deal with it every day.

I haven't written this piece to make anyone feel guilty, it's more an admission of my own mistakes. I've tried too hard to see Botswana as a nation flourishing in the face of HIV/AIDS that I've ignored the reality. When I finally began to see things as they truly are, as a complex web of wealth and poverty, sickness and health, and joy and grief, I hid behind the faceless statistics of places I had never seen. I'm just relieved that I'm starting to see the big picture before it's too late.

Monday, December 04, 2006

HDR vs. BMW

Recently, the UN released its 2006 Human Development Report (HDR).  Of the 177 countries surveyed, Botswana ranked 131st overall, by factoring its respective ranks in life expectancy, literacy rate, school enrolment, and gross domestic product per capita.  For Botswana, the life expectancy is 34.9 years (176th), the literacy rate is 81.2% (79th), school enrolment is 70.7 (96th), and the GDP per capita is US$9,945 (58th).  It was also announced that 50.1% of Batswana (people from Botswana) live on about US$2.00 per day. 
 
It is clear that HIV/AIDS is one of the main contributing factors to Botswana's low ranking.  Its affect on life expectancy leaves Botswana at the bottom of the list, just barely beating out Swaziland, another country that is being decimated by HIV.  The two numbers that stick out in my mind, though, are the GDP and the amount of people living in poverty.  Botswana's GDP per capita beats out both the Russian Federation and Mexico, but over half of the people here live on about $730 per year.  In a country of only 1.7 million people, that equals staggering disparity.
 
The fight against AIDS is so multi-faceted that it's sometimes easy to ignore something as prevalent as poverty, especially in a country like Botswana.  With free testing and ARVs available, and cross-country awareness and prevention programs in place, it seems as if everything is being tackled.  These initiatives are necessary,  but poverty is an issue that cannot be swept under the rug.  There is no straight-line strategy for beating HIV; one must look at the situation from all angles. 
 
Botswana is a nation obsessed with status.  Last week, President Festus Mogae bought an ad in one of the local papers, urging Batswana to stop spending their money on expensive cars.  While this is true, with many Batswana neglecting their own nutrition and safety to pay for high-end vehicles, Mogae failed to see the big picture.  Government officials demand to be treated with so much reverence that they promote themselves to god-like status.  When these people expect lavish meals and special treatment to attend a poverty awareness even, like October's Stand Up campaign, it is inevitable that they will be emulated.
 
To the untrained eye, the parking lot of the Ministry of Health building can be mistaken for a Mercedes-Benz parking lot, with the occasional BMW thrown in.  Ironically, the Ministry building can be found across the street from the Immigration Office, where every day, hundreds of immigrants from Zimbabwe, Zambia, and other surrounding countries attempt to extend their stay in hopes of finding a job in Botswana.  
 
HIV may not stem from poverty, but it would be foolish to ignore poverty's effect on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana.  With poverty comes a lack of education, poor nutrition, and an increase in the desperation with which people try to make ends meet.  Botswana is not a superpower, but it is one of the wealthier countries in Africa.  It has the resources to mitigate poverty and, hopefully, drastically decrease the rate of HIV infection.  First, we'll just have to convince the president that maybe it's time for a round of government pay cuts, and that Toyota makes a pretty decent car.   

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Good news

On Monday, I went for my first ever HIV test.  It wasn't because I had done anything that put me at risk, but I've been working in the field of HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention since August, and I've felt like a hypocrit because I didn't know my HIV status.

 
The voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) centre is about a minute's walk away from where I work.   My roommate Graham and I arrived around 7:30am to beat the rush.  There were a couple of people ahead of us, but it only took about half an hour before it was our turn to get tested.   In Botswana, they use rapid-result testing (it has only recently been approved in Canada), which detects a certain antibody associated with HIV, and results are found within 15 minutes.   Although I knew that I had to be HIV negative, I was still a little bit nervous.
 
I couldn't help thinking about all the times I've cut myself here, or played with all the kids in my neighbourhood who seem to always have scrapes and scratches.   I have, and promote, all the information that says transmission is virtually impossible through those means, but for some reason I couldn't help wondering if maybe I was going to be the exception to the rule.   After the wait, I looked at the results and found that, as expected, I'm HIV negative.  Although I knew what the results would be, I was still relieved to actually see them.
 
Then I started to think.  If I had actually been worried that I might be HIV positive, would I have had the strength to go and get tested?   I'd like to say that I would, but it would definitely be difficult.  I looked around the lobby at the people waiting to be tested.   How many of them were getting a routine check, and how many had come to see the repercussions of a one night stand or broken condom?  I'm not trying to justify people that don't get tested, but imagine how hard it would be to have your whole life turned upside down, and in most cases drastically shortened, because of an accident or mistake?
 
I have tremendous respect for those people who have made mistakes and are still brave enough to be tested.   I've already written that most of the work now being done is on prevention and behavioural change.  What has been lacking, and I'll be the first to admit it, is a way to recognize the people who have been tested, found out that they're positive, and ensured that they would not infect anyone else.   These people help work towards prevention, by indirectly stopping countless other infections.  Of course, with confidentiality being paramount with regards to HIV testing, their names couldn't be posted in the paper or anything.   At the same time, it is important to think of these anonymous people and realize that they are working as hard as anyone to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Ups and Downs

Last Thursday, Graham and I flew up to Maun, in the Northern part of Botswana, to see the Okavango Delta.  The delta is much more lush than most of Botswana, and is home to crocodiles, hippos, lions, elephants, giraffes, and pretty much any other animal you can think of, except tigers.  Maun is the closest town to the delta, so it was where we stayed for the weekend.  We woke up too late on Friday to catch a safari; we didn't know, but they leave around 7am.  As a result, Friday was spent lounging around the hotel's pool and exploring Maun.
 
We had a safari booked on Saturday, for 7:30am.  We drove in an open-topped truck for about two hours to the delta.  On the way we saw a herd of zebras, some wildebeest, and a buffalo, along with all kinds of birds.  Compared to the other safari we'd been on, in Mokolodi, this was already better.  You kind of have the feeling in Mokolodi that the animals are on display.  In the delta, you're definitely in the wild. 
 
The truck finally stopped at the beginning of the delta, and there we saw what are called "mokoros," which are hollowed-out tree canoes.  Graham and I got in, and our guide, Prince, pushed off.  The water at this part of the delta isn't very deep, so the mokoro is driven like a gondola, where one person stands and pushes off the bottom with a large stick.  We had only been in the boat for about 10 minutes before we saw about 5 hippos.  We couldn't get too close because they're pretty aggressive, but we were still only about 100 feet away.  We couldn't see them that well because they spend most of the day in the water, but it was still hilarious to see their heads pop up and spray water out of their nostrils.  After going through the delta for about another hour, we finally reached land.
 
There, Prince took us on a bush walk.  At first it looked like we weren't going to see much, besides all the different animal dung that Prince pointed out.  Eventually we saw some elephant tracks, so we started to follow them.  We walked up over a little hill, and we almost walked right into an elephant.  Well, not really; it was probably about 70-80 feet away, but it was still pretty close.  We watched it eat a little bit, then it turned and looked at us.  It gave us a little fright, especially since we were just standing there, out in the open.  The elephant then just turned back and continued on his way.  On the walk back to the mokoros, we saw a couple of other elephants in the distance, and a few baboons.
 
When we left on Sunday, it was looking like this was our best weekend yet.  That changed when we landed back in Gaborone.  When I got my bag back from the luggage area, I opened it up to find that my phone had been stolen.  In case anyone is keeping track, this is the third phone I've had stolen since I've been here.  It's been pick-pocketed twice, and now once out of my bag.  I don't even know why I had it in my bag, I think probably because I didn't want it stolen out of my pocket at the airport.  Anyway, I told the guy at the main desk about it and apparently Air Botswana's policy is that they're not responsible, even though only about 3 people touched my luggage between Maun and Gaborone.
 
That got me thinking: we spent the weekend in Maun, and met a ton of people, none of whom came close to being a threat, even though some of them didn't even have jobs and were visibly living in poverty.  Then, my phone (which is the cheapest one you can get, so I don't even know why someone would want it) gets stolen by some guy that works with Air Botswana.  I don't want to sound like I'm from St. Olaf or anyting (do Golden Girls references still fly?), but I would assume that by checking my luggage, that would ensure that it will by safe.  I can understand lost luggage; things can get mislabeled.  But for someone to open my bag, fish through it, and get my phone is inexcusable. 
 
And another thing; this it the third time it's happened to me.  I don't know if I have a big target on me that says, "Steal from me," or if I just have bad luck, but three times in three months is almost unbelievable.  Some people might say that I have to learn to not trust anybody, but that's a lesson I will refuse to be taught.  Maybe I'm an idealist, or maybe I'm just stuck with my small-town sensibilities, but I will always give people the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe I'll have to replace a few things every once in a while, but I will not consider it a fault to be trusting of other people.  I'm not talking about picking up hitch-hikers on a deserted road with eerie music playing in the background, but I am talking about being able to have faith that people I deal with on a daily basis will treat me with the respect I give them.  It's disheartening when things like this happen, but not so much that I will lose my trust in people

Ups and Downs

Last Thursday, Graham and I flew up to Maun, in the Northern part of Botswana, to see the Okavango Delta.  The delta is much more lush than most of Botswana, and is home to crocodiles, hippos, lions, elephants, giraffes, and pretty much any other animal you can think of, except tigers.  Maun is the closest town to the delta, so it was where we stayed for the weekend.  We woke up too late on Friday to catch a safari; we didn't know, but they leave around 7am.  As a result, Friday was spent lounging around the hotel's pool and exploring Maun.
 
We had a safari booked on Saturday, for 7:30am.  We drove in an open-topped truck for about two hours to the delta.  On the way we saw a herd of zebras, some wildebeest, and a buffalo, along with all kinds of birds.  Compared to the other safari we'd been on, in Mokolodi, this was already better.  You kind of have the feeling in Mokolodi that the animals are on display.  In the delta, you're definitely in the wild. 
 
The truck finally stopped at the beginning of the delta, and there we saw what are called "mokoros," which are hollowed-out tree canoes.  Graham and I got in, and our guide, Prince, pushed off.  The water at this part of the delta isn't very deep, so the mokoro is driven like a gondola, where one person stands and pushes off the bottom with a large stick.  We had only been in the boat for about 10 minutes before we saw about 5 hippos.  We couldn't get too close because they're pretty aggressive, but we were still only about 100 feet away.  We couldn't see them that well because they spend most of the day in the water, but it was still hilarious to see their heads pop up and spray water out of their nostrils.  After going through the delta for about another hour, we finally reached land.
 
There, Prince took us on a bush walk.  At first it looked like we weren't going to see much, besides all the different animal dung that Prince pointed out.  Eventually we saw some elephant tracks, so we started to follow them.  We walked up over a little hill, and we almost walked right into an elephant.  Well, not really; it was probably about 70-80 feet away, but it was still pretty close.  We watched it eat a little bit, then it turned and looked at us.  It gave us a little fright, especially since we were just standing there, out in the open.  The elephant then just turned back and continued on his way.  On the walk back to the mokoros, we saw a couple of other elephants in the distance, and a few baboons.
 
When we left on Sunday, it was looking like this was our best weekend yet.  That changed when we landed back in Gaborone.  When I got my bag back from the luggage area, I opened it up to find that my phone had been stolen.  In case anyone is keeping track, this is the third phone I've had stolen since I've been here.  It's been pick-pocketed twice, and now once out of my bag.  I don't even know why I had it in my bag, I think probably because I didn't want it stolen out of my pocket at the airport.  Anyway, I told the guy at the main desk about it and apparently Air Botswana's policy is that they're not responsible, even though only about 3 people touched my luggage between Maun and Gaborone.
 
That got me thinking: we spent the weekend in Maun, and met a ton of people, none of whom came close to being a threat, even though some of them didn't even have jobs and were visibly living in poverty.  Then, my phone (which is the cheapest one you can get, so I don't even know why someone would want it) gets stolen by some guy that works with Air Botswana.  I don't want to sound like I'm from St. Olaf or anyting (do Golden Girls references still fly?), but I would assume that by checking my luggage, that would ensure that it will by safe.  I can understand lost luggage; things can get mislabeled.  But for someone to open my bag, fish through it, and get my phone is inexcusable. 
 
And another thing; this it the third time it's happened to me.  I don't know if I have a big target on me that says, "Steal from me," or if I just have bad luck, but three times in three months is almost unbelievable.  Some people might say that I have to learn to not trust anybody, but that's a lesson I will refuse to be taught.  Maybe I'm an idealist, or maybe I'm just stuck with my small-town sensibilities, but I will always give people the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe I'll have to replace a few things every once in a while, but I will not consider it a fault to be trusting of other people.  I'm not talking about picking up hitch-hikers on a deserted road with eerie music playing in the background, but I am talking about being able to have faith that people I deal with on a daily basis will treat me with the respect I give them.  It's disheartening when things like this happen, but not so much that I will lose my trust in people

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halfway there?

I've officially been in Botswana for three months today. I've touched on this in one of my earlier posts, but sometimes I get so wrapped up in my routine that I forget the real reason I'm here. I'm living in Gaborone to volunteer with the Botswana Network of AIDS Organizations (BONASO). While my work isn't going to change the state of AIDS in Botswana, it will, at the very least, help me gain insight into simultaneously the most hope-filled and heartbreaking situation of which I've ever been a part.

Botswana is a country of less than 1.7 million people, 350,000 of whom are HIV positive. Life expectancy here is 34 years; it would be 72 if AIDS was not a factor. These are not just faceless numbers, they are my neighbours, my co-workers, and my friends. AIDS has infiltrated every facet of Botswana's society, so much so that one of my colleagues at BONASO fell victim to it in August. Some might say that if someone at BONASO, who has all the information, can still become infected, how can we expect to help? The answer, in this case, is in the question. Information can only go so far. A box of pamphlets can't prevent a woman's husband from cheating on her, all the workshops in the world won't stop a rape, and a week of classes can easily be forgotten after a few drinks.
 
Information without action is just trivia.
 
 
Luckily, there has been a genuine movement in Botswana to shift focus from awareness to behavioural change. Programs are beginning to incorporate more than just ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful, and use Condoms), they are becoming full-scale curricula designed to equip Batswana, people from Botswana, with the skills necessary to make life(style)-altering decisions. By understanding the ramifications of their actions, the hope is that people will change their ways to save themselves, if not others. There's no guarantee that this will work all the time, but I'm willing to bet it'll be more effective than telling people to never have sex.

In a country where cheating is a way of life, and AIDS is viewed by some as an inevitability, there is still a long way to go. Much longer than, say, nine years. The UN-created Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to eliminate HIV transmission by 2015, may ease hearts of the West, but they are a slap in the face to the people working in countries like Botswana. Putting a deadline on one the most valiant fights of our time is, at best, irrelevant. Watching the clock tick down is nothing but a reminder that this "goal" will not be accomplished. What's needed is a generous programming budget, readily available ARVs and testing sites, and the dedication required to beat this disease, regardless of how long it takes.

A person could read this article and think that working in this situation has made me jaded. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have seen so much hope in these three short months that I know an end is in sight. It will take a massive co-ordinated effort, but if the rest of the world could harness a fraction of the perseverance found here, AIDS will be beaten. I'm excited to see the progress that can be made even in my remaining three months.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Correction

I spelled Pharaoh wrong in the last post, but for some reason, I can't edit it.

I didn't forget about my blog

It's been 2 weeks since my last post, and a lot has happened.  The wedding in Mochudi was a no-go: my roommates and I were all really busy with work, so we couldn't devote the whole weekend to a wedding.  We've all been assured that there'll be another one somewhere before we leave.  We did manage, however, to make it to a Botswana Zebras versus the Egypt Pharoahs soccer game.  The game ended in a 0-0 tie, but everyone at the game was pretty excited, because the Pharoahs are the current African champs.  Botswana isn't really known for its soccer, so a tie game was just as good as a win.
 
Last weekend, my roommates and I went  to Johannesburg, South Africa, for a Jay-Z/Rihanna concert.  We had to get up at 5am to catch the bus at 6:30.  The bus ride took about 7 hours, including an hour and a half wait at the border.  The concert was a lot of fun, but there were a couple of casualties.   About 10 after we got into the Coca-Cola Dome, Graham's camera was stolen.  I didn't even really know that pick-pockets even exist, but apparently they do, and they're very good at what they do.  Not long after that, my phone was stolen, and I didn't feel a thing.  After being temporarily blinded by rage, we decided we might as well enjoy the concert.
 
The ride home was also not without a hiccup.  We woke up at 6:30am to catch the 8 o'clock bus.  This one was from a different company than the one we took to Johannesburg, and at the onset, it appeared to be much better.  The seats were really comfortable, the hostess provided chips and juice, and we got to watch a couple of movies from the Martin Lawrence Collection (no joke).  About 40km from the border, things changed. 
 
The bus was leaking transmission fluid, so we had to pull over to the side of the road.  The driver wasn't sure whether it was fixable, so he called a mechanic from Gaborone (about an hour away, excluding crossing the border).  We had to wait in the bus, with the AC off, until the mechanic got there, which took about 3 hours.  Keep in mind that we had been up most of the night at a concert, and it was our second day in a row of waking up  before the sun rose.  Plus, there was no time for showers in the morning.
 
When the mechanic finally got there, he worked for about an hour before deciding that he couldn't fix the problem.  We were given a partial refund and were told that we had to hitch-hike back to Gaborone.  There was a police blockade set up to help with the hitch-hiking.  We eventually got a ride from a South African guy who was going straight to Gaborone, so he was able to drop us off at our house.
 
The silver lining (for me, anyway) was that our co-ordinator from Canada, Tammy, was in Botswana for the weekend.  She had HER phone stolen somewhere along her travels, so she had to buy one here.  Phones bought here don't work in Canada though, so she just gave it to me to use for the rest of the trip.  It's a nicer phone than the one I had, so I kind of ended up on top.
 
The "ferocious rooster" I mentioned in my last post is really getting on our nerves.  He's grown so bold as to come into our backyard to crow his heart out.  He usually flies away when we go outside, but there are only so many times a man can run out into his backyard, pantsless, in the middle of the night.  If anyone has any ideas on how to get rid of this guy, or any suggestions on a proper sidedish for Horrible Rooster a la King, it would be much appreciated.

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