This was originally posted in 2015 while I was serving in Peace Corps Botswana as a Life Skills Volunteer. Unforuntately, before I returned home my website crashed and I lost all the blogs about my service. It’s been a goal to put them back up, and I’m finally in place to do it. Upon rereading it, I realized this blog about the Sojwe GLOW Camp is not understandable from an outsider’s position and several edits were made. If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a Peace Corps volunteer, please visit peacecorps.gov. All opinions are mine and do not reflect the governments of Botswana or the United States of America.
The Night Before the GLOW Camp at Sojwe, Botswana
I was supposed to meet me friend in Lepephe, just across the road from Sowje. It was dark and wet. My Setwsana was not so good. Asking where we were would only give me an answer I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t see the road through the fat rain drop and foggy breath on the windows. Instead, I trusted the driver knew where I was going. That he knew where he was going.
Eventually, the bus stopped, and the driver yells, “Legkoa! Tsayama!” White person, leave!
I step out of the bus into a village I’ve never seen, and still cannot see under the rain and the darkness. Villages in Botswana don’t have street lights. I grab my bags, and maneuver my umbrella as I start swinging my head this way and that, looking for someone who is looking for me.
When Selemo calls out my name, I sigh in relief. She’s just there, where the light is breaking through a window. I rush inside out of the rain, settle down my bags, and inquire about the facilities.
“Um, I would let you use my bucket but…” she says and I cringe. No indoor plumbing. Not unexpected, but not particularly welcome. It’s night time, and that’s when the cockroaches choose to escape their dungeon.
When I come back in, there is chicken on the stove and a dog curled up under the dining table. I hardly remember the conversation as I drift off into sleep, listening to the rain bounce like rocks off the tin roof.
The Next Morning
The Glow Camp in Sowje, Botswana was the second I’ve attended thus far, and it was about as different from the first as anyone could expect. GLOW Camps were originally started in Romania and stand for GIRLS LEADING OUR WORLD. It’s a fast paced 2-6 day experience (depending on time and resources) where campers learn important life skills like how to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS, how to say no to drugs, alcohol, and negotiating sex and condoms. The sessions cover important topics that aren’t covered at home, and aren’t allowed to be covered at school.
As with all GLOW Camps I’ve ever heard or participated in, the regular issues with transportation and timeliness still remained a problem at Sojwe. Somehow, I don’t know that will ever change in the history of GLOW camps. The youth were instructed to meet at the school by 10, and a bus would be by to pick them up by 11. Around, 2pm the bus finally arrived. We sat under the shade, desperately deciding if we had enough time to run back for more silty water, more food, more naps, or if we should just wait. If we missed the bus…
I played dozens of hand clap rounds, and even learned a few new patterns and songs. Those hand clap games I think must be one of those universal languages.
Eventually the bus came and took us 7km down the road to Sowje. The road was hot and dusty, showing no signs of the previous night’s downpour. To speak of the rain, it is always a blessing. If there is rain, there is usually water from the tap.
This GLOW Camp was very different from the previous one I attended. There something new was the way the sessions were taught; instead of several PCV’s splitting the sessions and the counterparts facilitating, student teachers from a local college led the sessions. I think this may have a profound effect on how GLOW camps are run in the future because it furthers the agenda of sustainability. The teachers can see how the students respond differently than they would in class. They have an opportunity to take these skills into their careers and pass it on to their coworkers.
It’s possible that the reason the test scores are so low in Botswana is not because poor students, or poor teachers, but poor teaching methods. Having student teachers have a hands on chance to lead engaging workshops that students will actually learn from to apply these lessons later on in life is career changing for them, and life affirming for the students.
That of course being said, I believe it was the first time something like this was attempted and some glaring issues did arise. As the role of the volunteer was previously to lead session and do all of the work, we suddenly found ourselves with a lot of downtime. The student teachers were very organized with their sessions.
There was little interaction with the youth during sessions because we didn’t feel welcome to join. All of the lessons were being taught in Setswana which is so important. But as the language barrier for volunteers became an issue, we chose to sit out instead.
And since the PCV’s didn’t lead any sessions, there wasn’t a strong sense of community between the youth and the volunteers. Outside of sessions the youth took to immediately playing in the fields and kept themselves entertained. It seemed like any attempts to start activities failed due to failures in communication between the session leaders and PCV’s, and the students. There were several missed opportunities to create important relationships; PCV’s with the students, and the student teachers, and the students with the student teachers.
For the whole first day of the Sojwe GLOW Camp, we weren’t even sure if would make it to the second, let alone the third. Despite the previous night’s rainfall, all of the taps were dried out. With over 30 children, and 10 adults, we had enough water for cooking, but not bathing.
Re Batla Metsi Thata – We Need Water Now
At night, the children and student teachers slept in the dorm rooms. The volunteers slept on tables and floors in the teacher lounge. It was a stress filled night that had my back sore from the cold concrete, and my mind buzzed from the termites that had awoken from their homes, attracted by the lights from the opened windows. Too hot to keep them closed, but too buggy to keep them open, we struggled to find relief that night.
Ultimately, though, I rate (at least the first one as it was the only one of three happening in a row, I attended) as successful. While there were communication issues (let’s be honest, there always are) and a couple of meltdowns where water is concerned (let’s be honest, there always are), the kids had a great time. Much of the rope was jumped. A movie of indiscriminate taste was watched. Football was played in the halls. Important things about health, life, drugs and alcohol, assertiveness and HIV/AIDs were learned. Tags of names were colored and colored and colored again, and the last day ended with a lovely poster asking to bring an end to HIV/AIDs, and piñatas to boot.
Never mind the stress and the fear and the frustration of schedules not being followed, constant miscommunication, and being pushed to the brink by friends and strangers alike to reach a goal that has no name.
I sat in the office, mentally packing my bags. Why was I even there, I wondered. I wasn’t being used. I felt superfluous. The longing to get on a plane and just. go. home wormed into my mind fully for the first time in my service. I didn’t have to stay. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t remember why I joined the Peace Corps in the first place.
And then I looked up.
Posted right there above the office I slept in the night before, the reason I chose to serve in the Peace Corps. To fulfill my need to serve my country and be apart of the global conversation on international development. But mostly, I wanted to help.
With renewed vigor from the gentle chastising, I made myself useful at our GLOW camp instead of waiting to be used.
Around midnight, we were informed the water was back on. It was a sweet relief to know the camp wouldn’t end early. The next day, the cooks heated up a huge vat of water in a cast iron cauldron reminiscent of Hocus Pocus. For us volunteers, it was just one of many issues that managed to solve themselves. For the youth, it was just another day.
The girls painted their hands in a glorious array of designs. Yellow fingers, polka dots, flowers in palms. Hearts everywhere to show their love. You as a volunteer have to encourage these things because I think no one here ever does.
And when we went left the GLOW Camp to the home village, I had a lovely conversation with a young girl whose life has been forever changed. We talked about this and that. What she wanted to be when she grew up. She told me she felt stronger and smarter after the GLOW Camp. Her eyes were so wide with possibility the sight of it made me weep.
As we parted ways, I tried to instill some last desperate seeds of support and love. “Be the change you wish to see in the world. Never stop learning. Always ask questions.” Only time will tell if they take root.
4 Benefits of Joining the Peace Corps
You may or may not know this about me, but I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. My service ended in 2015, and readjusting the United States has been… nearly as adventurous as my 27 months in Botswana. I always wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, but until I got there, I didn’t really understand just how it would change my life. I’d like to share 4 benefits of joining the Peace Corps with you today.
You learn new ways to communicate
In Botswana, even though I learned the local language, Setswana, I had a hard time using it. I wasn’t confident. Remembering conjunctives was hard. We developed what we called a “village voice”, which is a practiced and stressed version of english that we hoped made it easier to be understood.
I never pronounced my village’s name right, even though most everyone else couldn’t say it at all.
When the little kids would rush up to me, I would say “Dumela, bana” and give them a high five, or a hug. I lived for those days.
My coworkers at the school thought I was bossy. I think maybe they didn’t know the word assertive.
You have to integrate in your community and it starts by being active, and showing up. Some days all I did was sit in a room, and read a book. Quite often, those days were more meaningful to my co-workers than the days I actually worked.
You get to explore a place entirely different from the United States
I admit my lack of traveling during the Peace Corps was my greatest regret. I found a place I liked, and I went there three times, instead of going somewhere else.
But I did get to see Namibia. And I got to see these things:
Many times Botswana would remind me of home. Oh, you have a car? I too have a car. You have a tree? I too have a tree. I see you have a dog. Yes, I know dogs. And then other times, they give you directions like, “and then you turn left at the robot” (and the t on robot is silent) and it takes you a solid twenty minutes to realize they mean the stop light.
Making a promise to keep the 10 expectations of a Peace Corps Volunteer and actually meeting the expectations are two very different things.
It is a lot of pressure to be an example of America. I am one person. And I am not you. You are one person, and even though we’re both american, you and I are two very different people with different ideals, life experiences, and even different ideas on what it means to be an American, and how to accurately be a representative of our country.
I think Core Expectation #3 is probably the hardest part. Even though I had it relatively easy, even my hardships became unbearable. I stayed through it, but I wonder a lot if I should have. My friends have horrible stories about bats living on their ceiling. I had a fairly persistent cockroach infestation. Some didn’t have electricity until the middle of their second year. My friend, just a village down the road from me, didn’t have running water for over 18 months.
No, the living conditions weren’t the hardship that became unbearable for me. It was my health.
You learn just how strong, resilient, clever, and passionate you can be
If you’ve been in the Peace Corps, you know exactly what I mean. I am a totally different person now, than I was before. The Peace Corps transformed my entire life in ways I’m still discovering. I’m not as shy, or quiet. I used to have a hard time standing up for myself. I didn’t want to stand out in a crowd. And I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do with my career and my life.
Today, I speak clearly with my own voice. I am the best advocate for my health. I regularly make fun of myself in front of large groups, and I’m here, guiding millennials into the next phase of their careers.
See if the Peace Corps is right for you.
Thank you for reading this post. If you want a free checklist to be considered as a strong applicant to the Peace Corps, sign up to get FREE access to the Millennial Life Skills Vault.
When in Namibia, do not rent a Mercedes. He is a prima donna, and he will let you down time after time. This is the Ballad of Charlie Victor.
This is a blog post from during my service about my trip with some friends to Namibia. My blog crashed, and while I still have the stories and the photos, the post itself was lost. If you missed it last time, I hope you enjoy it this time. Go shapo!
THE BALLAD OF CHARLIE VICTOR
Pro tip: Do not hire a Mercedes to Namibia. It will only leave you broke.
Charlie Victor was sleek like a yawning cat after a nap, and when the girls first laid eyes on it, they were smitten. When was the last time they had sat in something so nice, so luxurious? As volunteers, it was a good chance it was the nicest car they would be acquainted with a very long time. One in particular could recall hearing Taylor Swift’s ever present voice and lyrics race through her mind; “I realized the blame was on me… I knew you were trouble when you walked in.” but knew heeding the warning would be fruitless. For starters, she didn’t drive. Besides, when Charlie Victor winked at them in the sunlight, their combined hearts and loins were set aflame. This was a car made to drive in comfort and style what with its silver body, black leather bucket seats, a GPS, smelled brand new and had the most delicious air conditioning.
Their trip just got a touch of class.
Charlie Victor traversed through South Africa first, to reach their first stop at Fish River Canyon. On the way, Charlie Victor was held up a few times by police officers. Before the girls had even left the country, a police officer caught the driver making a U-turn and they pulled into them, forcing them onto the curb, yelling in Setswana what Charlie Victor assumed was, “What are you crazy Makgoa doing? Don’t you know you cannot do that! Eish, what a problem you Makgoa drivers! We should teach you a lesson, so pull over.” Upon pulling into the next side street as instructed, the police sped off into the night. Lucky for Charlie Victor, no ticket was issued, but its tire did sustain a small bump that reminded it of a cartoon concussion.
The next day in South Africa Charlie Victor’s driver was solicited for a bribe to get out of a fake speeding ticket. Charlie Victor loved feeling the breeze against its silver physique but would never encourage its driver to get too carried away. It was outraged when the Police officer flagged us down, asked for a bribe to get out of the 400-rand ticket, and its driver gave a performance of a lifetime, “I’m so sorry sir, I didn’t know I was speeding! This Mercedes is a problem! We did not want it, it was the only one they had. We wanted a Toyota, we are poor Peace Corps Volunteers! You know Peace Corps? Here are all of my papers. Ah, this Mercedes, it wants to go fast, but I just want to go safe. I didn’t know, I didn’t mean to. We are just poor volunteers. You know volunteers? We don’t make any money. This car was the only one they had.”
Didn’t want it? They didn’t want it? But they rented it, didn’t they? They already had given its tire a concussion and they had only been on the road for less than twenty-four hours! Charlie felt its hood get hot as it idled in the heat. It took a second, before it was able to control its temper and they drove off.
It was then that Charlie Victor really started to pay attention to the conversation inside the car. It heard mock British accents, “Charlie Victor, you are a naughty boy, aren’t you? Do you like going fast?”
“Charlie Victor, would you like some Grey Pupon?”
“Hello, I’m Charlie Victor. My ride is better than yours.”
“Hello, I’m Charlie Victor here to say, damn girl, yous a sexy bitch.”
“Hello, I’m Charlie Victor here to say, your mum is an ice cunt caught in a tropical storm.”
Upon hearing the filth coming out of the mouths of the ladies driving it, it started plotting its revenge. How dare they give a clearly German machine a whiny British accent? How dare they make ninety-year-old Romanian Grandma give it directions! The humiliation was complete and completely undeserving. Did Charlie Victor not get out of all three incidents with police?
Unfortunate circumstances led Charlie Victor to having a third meeting with a police officer in less than twenty-four hours. While yielding to oncoming traffic, another minor accident was caused by yet another police officer. It was totally the officer’s fault, but that’s neither here nor there. Charlie Victor’s mind was made up. These girls would pay.
Luckily, the girls arrived to Fish River Canyon, ticket and injury free. Charlie Victor sighed at finally taking a breather at the end of the sixteen-hour journey. The girls and the car slept through the night until the next day when they drove it up to the canyon. Charlie Victor sat there dutifully, while they pranced and took pictures and threw things and screamed into the canyon to hear the echo.
While sitting dutifully, Charlie began in earnest to begin its revenge against the assignation of its character. Charlie Victor could think of nothing better than to end the lives of all five girls.
The next day it was time to leave, and Charlie was a bit worried about nourishment. It noticed the girls had plenty to eat, but it wasn’t well until close to lunch time that his grumbling stomach was fueled. It nearly felt like running on vapors, but it was just one more reason to plot against the girls.
There was another short stop where the girls got out, talking excitedly about local art, and even caught the tail end of a short program that encouraged donations from the audience to help support the kids who sang and danced on stage through school. While the attendance of school is free in Namibia, students must pay to take their exams. Because of high poverty rates, many students will not get a chance to sit their exams, and thus not move into higher education.
Leaving Mötlhare was like crossing through a veil. The road ends as suddenly as the town edges and gravel is all that remains for the next 400 km. Upon entering Serisem Canyon, Charlie Victor knew it was time to enact its revenge. Before the next stop, Charlie Victor decided for the assignation of its character, the only fitting punishment was death.
Charlie Victor was mildly surprised to hear the radio go quiet, and the heavy use of breaks as it skirted silently down the curving canyon roads. For 20 km, the road bent and twisted beneath its tires. Charlie Victor realized it was silent, not because the road was relatively terrifying for a driver in a rental car, but the view awed its passengers into stunned contemplation. Charlie Victor couldn’t blame them. The mountains looked like giant rocks, dark brown and maroon pebbled on top of each other, as though a Titan long ago popped a squat and hadn’t been eating enough fiber and was probably dehydrated because back then they didn’t realize the optimal intake of water would be significantly higher for a Titan than a mere mortal. Since then, the wind and the sand had brought new life to the area but when the droughts came, the landscape changed once more. Not a single car passed as they all made their way down into the valley. Charlie Victor knew that one good bounce on the back tires would cause it irrevocable damage, and the girls might lose their lives, but its character would be avenged. It thought about it and saw a good rock up ahead that might help it out, but at the last moment the driver avoided it and Charlie Victor was glad. It didn’t want to end upside down on the cliff side of one of the most stunning places any of its drivers had ever taken it.
Okay, so it wouldn’t kill the girls and FUBAR its own body. It would just wait for a little longer. There was always a chance that once the blow out happened the driver could lose control and finish the work started by the machine bent on revenge. The voices of the girls echoed in the cab. Charlie Victor could hear 90-year-old Romanian Grandma still giving directions in her ridiculous voice despite the fact that it hadn’t made a single turn in 200 km.
Once they were well established in the valley, Charlie Victor knew the time was near. It looked out carefully ahead and snorted in disgust as Cheryl Lloyd grunted about wanting someone back for the millionth time. Finally the perfect set of jagged treads in the road met the back tires with a perfect force and Charlie Victor felt triumphant as it fishtailed on the abandoned gravel road. Switching off the warning for tire pressure, Charlie Victor let the girls continue for several feet until they felt it necessary to stop the car.
The girls were horrified by the left tire, which had completely blown out. The front tire with the concussion was showing deep wearing out, and there was a clear puncture hole on the back right tire. The lovely tour guides who stopped briefly to help change the tire thought they could make the rest of the 90 km trip on the back tire with the thumb nail sized hole as long as they didn’t travel over 20 km/h. And so they tried. For another twenty feet or so. Upon stopping again, they realized it was useless. The other tire was completely shredded as well, and now they had no spare. Charlie Victor had won, and it was sure they would never mock him again. It could feel the gravel against its rim and tried to shift uncomfortably but the driver remembered to set the emergency break. Charlie Victor supposed the inconvenience cause by the mild discomfort was worth the devastating effect the blow out of its tires had on the girls. Sure, they lived but based on the severe lack of road traffic, Charlie Victor didn’t hold out much hope for them. Smug with self-satisfaction of a job well done, Charlie Victor bathed in the setting sun.
Charlie Victor never imagined for a moment that they would leave it abandoned on the side of the road. It couldn’t believe the run of luck these idiot girls ran into after this mess. Charlie Victor was sure they would die from dehydration, starvation, or judging by the double wide fence in the background, ripped to pieces by leopards. Instead, minutes after Charlie Victor announced its victory, a lovely couple in a Jeep (which the girls immediately started wishing they had rented instead, much to Charlie Victor’s dismay) picked up the driver and took her to find assistance.
Moments later, another car stopped by, this time taking the blown tire that had been replaced with the promise to bring back two new ones (for the tire with the concussion would only get them so far) as long as we paid deeply from our Peace Corps lint lined pockets.
Perhaps an hour later, the driver came back with a rescue car, and the girls were whisked away. Charlie Victor was fumed as they drove away. How dare they not pay for the severe bullying and emotional trauma it’d suffered in just a few short days! They left Charlie Victor there over night, and the next afternoon after the tires had been switched out, they were off again. But Charlie Victor noticed something different about the driver. Before, she took to the gravel most ostentatiously, driving quickly with the music playing loudly and now she went slow, never above 60km/h and the music stayed quiet.
Charlie Victor felt a rush of victory once more. This time, it thought, they wouldn’t belittle the C200 anymore.
The girls felt the tension in the car rise as the pace of the trip slowed. The landscape changed from creviced maroon boulders to the beginnings of sand dunes. When they reached Serisem Camp several hours later, they were ready to relax. It was unfortunate most of the food was gone, and for some with dietary restrictions, finding more became a hardship. Charlie Victor was not aware of these new challenges, but felt the pressure from the inside of the vehicle build. As Charlie Victor waited for the girls in the lot, several people pointed and stared. At first Charlie Victor peacocked, believing they were admiring its sleek lines and sexy side view mirrors. It took a moment before Charlie Victor realized they were talking about it, “That’s the car that was abandoned on the side of the road. Seriously, who brings a Mercedes to the desert?” Charlie Victor felt the embarrassment creep across its axels, deep into the belly of its battery. Charlie Victor didn’t know what to do with this feeling but it knew nothing good would come from it.
When they finally reached the campsite inside the Sousselvlei Park, Charlie Victor felt something build deep inside. The light was fading fast, and the girls circled and circled, trying to find a spot, before finally settling on one near the restrooms. They chose an ideal location, really. Charlie Victor knew it was in trouble when the driver tried to drive all the way into the large campsite and quickly made it stuck in the sand. Charlie Victor watched as the girls piled out and started digging under its tires, and revved whiningly at the feel of the sand slipping away tickling between its treads.
Charlie Victor knew it had failed at once when it heard, “Hullo, I’m Charlie Victor, here to say that I’m a giant piece of shit that can’t do anything right,” and, “Charlie Victor, you fuckin’ stupid pansy ass fucking piece of shit car, I knew you were trouble from the start! You are a worthless trophy wife of a car and I wish we had rented a car with some balls!” Considering the highly feminist views of all the girls that rode inside, if they were using that kind of language, Charlie Victor knew the tables had turned again.
Charlie Victor tried to take comfort that it took four girls nearly thirty minutes to push and dig it out of the sand bank, but it knew that if it was a little less fancy and a little more rugged, this never would have been a problem and Charlie Victor might have stood a chance of earning the girls respect. Especially after all the trouble it went through to pop its own tires. Charlie Victor never thought for even one instant that the girls would find fault with it after the daylong detour and found itself quite disappointed that in the game of man vs. machine, it had lost once again.
Today, we have a #throwbackthursday post from when I was still in the Peace Corps. This short essay, the Benefits of Snow, was written because I was finally starting to feel homesick for Alaska. Botswana and Alaska about as different climes as you can imagine. Summer was just starting there, while winter in a Alaska was just settling in. Thanks for reading.
The Benefits of Snow
There’s not a whole lot to the benefit of snow, especially in a place like this. The roads are dirt, the animals would all freeze and die, let alone all the water pipes and if you think Anchorage or Denver is a slushy wet mess after a storm, consider the murky brown water of dirt, animal droppings and (male) humans peeing all over everything just because they can. And then walking ankle deep in it.
No, I’m pretty glad it doesn’t snow here. I would amend that statement for a simple respite from the cold however. I’ve always thought the most bearable thing about the cold dark winters in Alaska was the pretty snow that came with it. Snow makes even the ugliest buildings pretty (and Anchorage sure has its share of ugly buildings) and brings a particular glow to the night sky. Sure, trudging up hills and sliding down them when you meant to walk gracefully is a hassle, but for six or seven months a year, it looks like Christmas. Besides, you can always dress warmly and you only have to spend as much time outside as you want. A central heated building is only ever how long it take for you to get from your car to the door.
So, while I experience my first winter in the desert that is Botswana, I find myself thinking, ah yes. If only there was snow, I could endure this cold. Unfortunately, I know that to be false. My electric bill has tripled in the last few weeks; there are not always enough clothes to keep the body heat in and the cold out. These concrete walls and tile floors feel like ice in the morning. It’s (what I assume) like camping in November in the cabins at Hatcher Pass, only without using the stoves to keep warm. I didn’t expect it to be so cold here. They warned me, those past volunteers but I didn’t believe them.
If it snowed here, it would just make a mess of things. The roads would be slushy mud ruts (if the snow stuck at all; even the rain dries as it lands!) and I’m pretty sure all the livestock here is bred to endure the heat, not survive the cold. This is cattle country. Can’t have the dikgomo tip over because of a little ice. When I wake up in the morning and see the little clouds my breath makes, when I breathe in deep and it has that crisp wintry taste, a part of me rushes back to the days when I knew snow was inevitable. Instead, I peer my head over the covers to check the time and I just curl deeper into my blankets and wait until the sun is a little higher in the sky.
I sure do miss it, though.
Last month I composed a story entitled My Safe Space for the Peace Corps RPCV Story telling Contest. I didn’t make the finals, but I wanted to share it with you. It was a turning point for me in my service. So many days I asked myself why I was there, who was I helping, and was it really worth the life I had given up?
The staff spends literally hours convincing us we’re not safe because we’re foreigners, but then insists we become one with our neighbors and for someone who is sometimes more literal minded than she cares to admit, this was a hard line for me to bridge.
Here is the video I sent in to the RPCV Story Telling Contest, and the text you can tell I was reading below.
My Safe Space by Jessica Walker
The plumber was coming on a Wednesday. I had very little notice to clean my house. I tried to make my bed and do the dishes. I picked up all the cockroaches that lay dead on my floor, a vicious reminder to those who would come into my house later of what happens when they do. I had just finished a load of laundry in the tub. Most of it was hanging on the line outside, but I knew it wouldn’t be okay to put out my underwear, so they dried inside.
I scrubbed the toilet, and when I realized the stain that was there long before I arrived, was going to take more time than I had available, I sighed and headed off to school for the day.
When I came home that afternoon, my landlady stopped me.
“Neo! Have you ever seen a clean house? I asked you to clean, and your house, it was not clean! I was so embarrassed to have the plumber over. I told you he was coming! I asked you to clean the bathroom, and it wasn’t clean.”
“I am sorry mma, I did the best I could in the time I had.”
“Neo. Come here.” She brought me into her house, to her bathroom. She pulled out a scrubber and got on her knees. “This is how you clean, Neo.”
Frustrated, that I hadn’t even had time to set my bag down, I nodded. There was nothing for me to do about it.
“I’ll do better,” I said. I just wanted to go back to my house. My safe space.
“Neo. You must clean that house! You see how I keep my house! I am too busy and it is clean. You must keep it clean or the Peace Corps will remove you from here. They will move you to a village without water, without toilets. Without electricity. Is that what you want? You have forty-eight hours to clean your house, or the Peace Corps will move you to the middle of nowhere with nothing and no one!”
The threat of eviction sparked an old fear I thought I’d long left behind. Those days when I had been homeless, and wasn’t sure where I would end up, how I would get to the next day, or where my next meal would come from. Suddenly I was blinded by the fear of the unknown, and being alone.
And so, I screamed back at her. “Okay! Okay! I’ll get it done! Leave me alone you bossy old hag!”
It was not my finest moment.
I finally made it into my house, and slammed the door, collapsing to the floor in a fit of tears. It was no longer a safe place, but a place that threatened my very livelihood.
It was particularly bad timing, this crying jag, because I promised a teacher I would meet her at the church in the middle of the village and take some photos for her. The church was in need of a roof. They had been building it for years, small donation after small donation at a time. The progress took so long that parts of the infrastructure were already coming apart, and it wasn’t close to being finished yet.
I could hear my landlady talking about me through my window, partly in English, partly in Setswana. “Why is Neo crying? What is there to cry over? Is she a child?”
Crying, publicly or at all is not common or acceptable in Botswana.
I grabbed my camera, and headed out down the red dirt road, tears still streaming down my face. My two favorite girls rushed up to the fence to get their high five hello, but all I could do through my tears was shake my head.
“Not today, bana.”
What would I do, I wondered. Where would I go? Surely, the Peace Corps wouldn’t remove me over a dirty house. Even if they did allow her to evict me, they surely wouldn’t make me switch villages over it, right?
As I passed the cow jail, the Kgotla, and then the little grocer, I tried to picture the worst case scenario. I would start over in a new village, perhaps one that another volunteer recently left, and try to finish out the next eighteen months there. I could do it. I would be alone, but I’ve been alone before. I could do it again. I didn’t spend ten years working to get enough experience to be accepted into the Peace Corps, just to give up when the house got too dirty.
A few teachers from the Primary school were at the church when I arrived. They saw my tears, and without any question, they wrapped their arms around me, and held me there. They gave me comfort, and they let me cry.
So I did.
These women, I realized were more than just teachers at the school. They were my friends. I wasn’t alone in my village and these women would be on my side in case of a fight. I wasn’t alone. It was one of those moments in life where you know nothing will ever be the same again. They saw me at my most vulnerable and accepted me with love and friendship, and in turn, my service became devoted to them and their school and their students. My safe space.