So, it’s Sunday afternoon, raining slightly outside, and I started this blog last week and need to post something today or else this idea of mine will go absolutely nowhere. I mentioned last week all the previous letters and notes I’ve written, so I could easily just post an old letter to the editor I may have sent to a local paper at one point, or post one of my many old Facebook notes relating to the subject, but here I am standing over the woodstove in the kitchen frying up some bologna and, all of a sudden, I’m thinking about my time in Botswana, back in 2005.
I said last week I’d like to talk about when I was a child and how I was witness to the efforts of my own parents as volunteers, whether with the Home & School Association or local Kinsmen Club, and I certainly will, but please note it seems this blog of mine may not precisely follow any sort of chronological order. It reminds me of the first time I kept a journal and I made a point of picking any random page every time I made an entry until it was full.
In 2005 I was very lucky to be sent to Botswana on a Canada Corps internship through Xtending Hope, a partnership between the Town of Antigonish, ST. FX University and the Coady International Institute. It was set up in response to Stephen Lewis’ call for action to assist African nations hit by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Xtending Hope partnered with organizations in the two nations hardest hit at the time, Rwanda and Botswana. I applied for an internship (one of two; one to each country), which was 14 or 15 weeks, and was sent to Francistown, a township in the northeast of Botswana close to the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo. A good friend from university was sent to Rwanda.
Prior to this, however, we were off to Ottawa, for three days at the Centre for Intercultural Learning, or something like that, to learn about how to communicate effectively and respectfully in a new culture, how to recognize culture shock, both going to a new place, and returning home, and a lot of discussion about icebergs (there’s always more under the surface). I found this training session very helpful and of course we were there with about twenty others from across Canada who were being sent to various places around the world. It made the prospect of being alone in the middle of southern Africa a lot more bearable.
Xtending Hope was also sending a nurse from the local hospital who wanted to volunteer in Botswana, and she spent the three and a half months at a hospice outside Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city. Traveling together was, again, beneficial to me, as I didn’t have to feel alone on the journey. I remember vividly our twelve-hour stopover in London on the way when we took the tube downtown and found ourselves in Piccadilly Circus, and we ate Fish & Chips in a little pub on one of the side streets. I never sleep on planes so I was up all that night, all day in London, and then again for the flight to Johannesburg, and then from there to Gaborone. When we were picked up at the airport I was a complete zombie.
The next day, however, I was feeling excitement and trepidation as I boarded the bus for Francistown. It was a four-hour journey, and I was told I would be met by the people with whom I would be staying with, a family originally from Zimbabwe, a man who worked in refrigeration and air conditioning, and his wife who was a school teacher, and their two children. It was a long bus ride, perhaps the longest of my life. For the first time since learning I was going to Francistown by myself I now felt all alone. What really sucked was that I made sure to drink a lot of water and I had my Nalgene bottle with me, of course (they were all the rage at the time) and about thirty minutes into the journey I remember turning back to look for the washroom and discovering there was no washroom on this bus. There were numerous stops along the way but only at the halfway point, in Mahalapye, could you get off the bus to go find the washrooms. So I made sure not to drink a bloody drop of anything any time I had to take a bus ride in Botswana after that!
This could turn into a book if I keep going like this, so I’ll just say that I will indeed come back to a variety of points about my time in Botswana that I’d like to talk about. For example, I absolutely fell in love with my adoptive family and their children and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as peaceful in my life as I did living with them, praying with them, and laughing with them. I also arrogantly thought I was handling the transition into this new culture better than I really was, and I fell into a deep despair and found comfort in alcohol and by withdrawing into myself. And when it came to trying to make a difference (that’s what I was there for wasn’t I?) I became profoundly frustrated and angry, knowing little then about how naïve I really was.
What I wanted to talk about today was community, and how in this little nondescript concrete brick building, for a short time I became part of a community there called Kgotla ya Balekane (KYB). KYB was an adult recreation centre (fitness centre) for people living with or dealing with HIV/AIDS. In order to be a member you did not need to have HIV/AIDS but they required you get tested. The idea was to promote testing and reduce the stigma around testing. When I arrived the gym had one working exercise bicycle, some free-weights, and a number of workout machines, bikes and treadmills that were inoperable. The building was clean but bare. It had a manager, who viewed my arrival as an opportunity for him to take a vacation, and there were four members who dropped by almost every day.
I began by fixing two more of the bikes. The belts were broken so I bought two automotive belts from an auto shop and one of the members brought in some tools for me to use. The weight machines seemed in good condition but the cables were all snapped, so I bought some clothesline and started stringing them together again, and again another member helped me to hold the weights in place as I tightened the new cables. Then I tackled the treadmill. It just required a fuse, which was impossible to find but a member was able to take a household fuse of a close enough amperage and wire it into the circuit to get it going, and the track itself was torn, so I sewed it together with some thin wire (like snare wire). I also bought three large mirrors we hung them on the wall. Next thing you know the members were helping me tidy up a few things and rearrange the equipment, and voila… within a week we had a few new members coming in.
Almost weekly we were adding people and at one point the gym had people there almost all day long, young and old, men and women. What was funny was that no matter what day it was during the week, at the same time every day everybody stopped and went into the sitting room and turned on the television to watch an American soap opera. Every single person. I don’t remember if it was Days of Our Lives or Bold and the Beautiful, but I remember sitting down with my cup of rooibos and watching it daily with everybody else. And really getting into it too!
I was working out myself, feeling great, joining sometimes in the evening aerobics sessions that were led by one of the members. Their motivation became my own motivation, and for what I believed was a sad situation coming into the country I had a difficult time seeing anything but hopefulness and positivity. I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to crash hard as reality began to set in.
What I learned though is that all these people, from a variety of backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances, they were able to come together and form a community that they truly cared about based on only one thing they all knew they had in common: they all had been tested for HIV. Nobody was required to disclose the results of their tests. For all anyone knew, nobody was HIV positive. For all anyone knew, everybody was. What I found thought-provoking was the fact that it didn’t matter. They were just a bunch of people wanting to improve their lives by becoming and remaining fit and healthy. I was privileged to bring my past experience as an auto mechanic and backyard tinkerer to the group to show that repairing the equipment was possible just by using readily available materials (a background in Asset-Based Community Development also helped) but it was that drive and positivity from the members that made it all happen.
While I eventually had difficulties adjusting, and we’ll get to that eventually, I also made it through those difficulties. Botswana is a fascinating country and what I think made things a lot easier for me was that since it was once a British colony most people speak English, and the towns and cities are built in the sort of familiar way I was used to, with such amenities as supermarkets almost exactly as you would find here at home (maybe better because you can buy warthog bacon and antelope chops right beside your ground beef and chicken breasts). And one day I was browsing the aisles and I came across a small sausage-like package labelled “Paloney”. Yes, with a P.
I picked up two of them, I found some yellow mustard and some bread and I almost raced back to the kitchen at KYB. I longed for that taste of something familiar. I was basically eating chicken and rice or chicken and millet two or three times a day and the thought of a little taste of home was bringing a tear to my eye. You know that feeling when you put something into your mouth and you expect one taste but it’s not that taste. Well, Paloney, or at least the Paloney I bought that day, was nothing at all like I was expecting. So I went back and bought some chicken and rice. And that’s how I managed to start reflecting on my time in Bots today while frying up some ‘paloney’ for breakfast.