Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the African continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around Africa (and the world!). This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Botswana and fellow blogger.
Jessica Walker – Age 29
Where are you from?
[Editor’s note: Jessica is one of almost 1,000 Alaskans who have served in the Peace Corps!]
What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in Botswana in the Life Skills program.
What are the goals of your program? What’s your job like?
As a life skills volunteer, my service involves education at schools. While I’m placed at a Junior Secondary School (JSS), I also volunteer at a primary school. At my JSS, I focus my time on Peer Approach to Counseling by Teens (PACT) and we talk about things related to HIV/AIDS. We cover alcohol and drug use/abuse, gender based violence, goal setting, decision making, assertiveness, behavior change, and how to support those who already live with the HIV virus. At my primary school, my focus is on improving the kids’ English skills through English Club. We sing, write letters and stories, and communicate with my 5th grade partner teacher through World Wise Schools. I’m also working on two other projects, one at each school. The JSS needs an updated computer lab and the primary school needs a library.
What is your lifestyle like?
I have a cement house with a corrugated tin roof on a compound that I share with my landlord. There are three rooms: living room/entry way, bedroom, and bathroom. I have a sink in my bathroom and kitchen, but no geyser for hot water. The water is on about as often as it’s out. The electricity goes out a lot during the summer, and especially during storms. Things are pretty basic, but I don’t feel particularly wanting. I’m very pleased to have a ‘western’ toilet as well. There is a pit latrine on the back of my house, which is nice when the water is out, but also encourages cockroaches to crawl up through my ceiling and hang out in my house.
My diet varies, and I will be the first to admit that I don’t eat very well. I eat a lot of rice or pasta and will never eat off a plate when I can eat out of a bowl. I will occasionally eat the same meals two or three things for weeks at a time so I can avoid going to the store, even if that means I’m not eating vegetables or other fresh produce. I try to stay away from meat in general, but sometimes I get pretty intense cravings for beef mince (read: TACOS). I’m happy to say I’ve made them several times since my arrival. While I have access to fresh produce, the quality and shelf life is not always conducive to eating without complaint. This week I’m eating a lot of beans (chick peas, kidney beans) and rice. Last week it was tortillas, and cinnamon rolls.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service?
I feel rewarded every time a kid chooses to interact with me. I walk around my village sometimes feeling like a giant, and when they run up to me for a high five, it makes my day. Before coming to Peace Corps, I worked as a social worker for years. That experience has taught me that the interactions I have with people today – the smiles, the hugs, the words of encouragement and thoughtful conversations – are going to have much bigger impact on the lives of those I meet than the organized meetings, clubs, and lectures. They are things in Peace Corps life that can’t be quantified and reported on. I know I probably won’t see the impact of those things, especially before my time here is up, but the people here will. As Peace Corps volunteers, I believe we’re spreading seeds that take years to germinate and grow into trees of change, development, and progress.
What have been some of your greatest challenges?
Getting projects started has been a trial in developing everlasting patience, which I’ve never had in quantity. Even with my adjusted attitude, things usually take a frustratingly long time to get off the ground. But, when things eventually work out (like the English Club and the PACT club) I feel really encouraged to keep trying. There are many days I don’t feel useful, but the moments when I am overcompensate for those idle times.
My ideas of what “useful” is has changed. My ideas of what a successful day looks like have changed as well. If I have all the conversations with the teachers I mean to have, it’s a good day. Even if it’s just one of the six conversations I intended to have, it’s a successful day.
On a totally different topic, the Gaborone Dam, which waters much of southern Botswana, has recently dried up. We are now relying on a few other smaller water resources and reserve boreholes for all of our water needs. Our Country Director recently offered to reimburse us for storage buckets for this coming winter (dry season). I’m lucky to have a jojo (water container) on my property, but the remaining water sources won’t last forever and the situation has grown tense for everyone, volunteers and locals alike. Water conservation doesn’t exist in Botswana like it should, and compounded with water shortages like this one, it’s a growing problem.
Has PC service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
Joining the Peace Corps has been a lifelong dream of mine. One thing I tried desperately to do was to keep my expectations low. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into; I just knew I wanted to help. I wanted to be useful.
I’ve been in Botswana for about 16 months at this point. It’s crazy to think my intake is already on the count down to COS! I think as a colored person (one parent black, one parent white) I experience an interesting difference from those who are “just” black or white. Matswana (plural for people from Botswana) will look at me and know instinctively that I’m not like them, but they also don’t hold me to the same high standards of my makgoa (the local phrase for white) friends. I haven’t figured out if this translates into me being treated better or worse than my peers (regardless of gender). For me, it means that I have a head start dealing with adversity based on my skin color. The discrimination and harassment of volunteer life rolls off me like water on oil.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
When I was a teenager, the idea of Peace Corps put me on a path that was meaningful and not just about myself, but also about others. I knew the only way I would ever be happy is if I was serving others, and helping them achieve greatness in their own lives. I’m positive this will always be the most motivating factor in my life, no matter what I choose to do.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
Absolutely. I’m sometimes shocked by how little the Peace Corps is understood, not only by host country nationals but by people back home in America. I think there is this idea still that Peace Corps life is all mud huts and mosquitos; that idea may still be representative of some countries [Zambia], but certainly not all! Volunteers sometimes throw around the term “Posh Corps”, but just because I don’t live in a grass hut with only a transistor radio for company doesn’t mean that my service deserves a title of “posh”. It doesn’t matter where you serve: it’s hard being a Peace Corps volunteer. I am thankful for the opportunity to serve in Botswana. I know when I eventually go home, my appreciation for water and internet and reliable public transportation will bowl me over.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to PC or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
Applying: Talk to some friends, a recruiter, or some RPCVs. Personally, I will always say go for it, but you have to know: this is hard. It has been the greatest experience of my life, but it’s hard. Putting your life on hold while your family and friends continue to live theirs, is hard. Today, it’s hard because I’m in a tough emotional place. Ask me again in two weeks and I’ll show you another challenge. No matter what, Peace Corps can be tough for anyone and everyone.
Staging: I kept convincing myself that staging was “the easy part”. Then, I thought that pre-service training was “the easy part”. Now, I think everything after in-service training is actually the easy part. So get ready, and congratulations on your decision to serve!
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
My plans change literally every week. Some weeks I want to move to London (or San Francisco, or New York…) and write. Other weeks, I just want to go home to Alaska and be cold and with my friends. Still 0ther weeks I think I’ll figure out how to travel around the world for a year, or find a job I hate that pays a lot so I can adopt all the babies! We’ll see what happens next.
Want to learn more about Jessica’s Peace Corps service in Botswana? Check out her blog (and awesome photos!) here.