Sunday, November 11, 2012

Heart Wide Open

I am getting myself ready for my trip back to Botswana. It is an emotional time. I have left my heart there, in so many bits and pieces, strewn about among the people I came to know and love during my 14 months.  Living among so many kind and generous people despite their poverty was an awakening. So many of them have such hard lives and will always have a rough time of it. Yet day to day they are happy, they are loved by their family and communities. The comparative simplicity of this sometimes leaves me at a loss to understand how one can possibly get so distracted with things that don’t matter here at home. Yet we do. We do.

Life can get so complicated. We get so caught up in the modern conveniences, the ease with which most of us live our lives in the US. TVs, phones, computers, “I” this and “I” that. I love my new job and the people I am working with. The community I work within is so full of people trying to make things better for people here in Humboldt. It is truly an awesome place to live for so many reasons. I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be.

Yet I still am drawn to something back in Africa. Something hard and cold, despite the constant heat. Something so warm and kind, despite the harshness. Many people are just surviving, day in and day out. Some do it honestly, some don’t. Some give everything to others and some are plotting how to take it from the unsuspecting. Yet even when I felt and feel targeted by this, I know no one is doing it simply because they can. They are doing it because they feel they have to. I get that better, as a bleeding heart liberal, than I get how the multi-millionaires at home seem to be so harsh, just because they have figured out how to do it.

Oh, the children in Africa. Their innocence cradled in their cold, calculating survivalism. The teenaged girls who befriended me, caught between childhood and becoming women. They wanted to play and not worry about anything, but already, as young women they worried about everything. About food, about being able to stay in school, about being attractive to boys. All the normal hormonal stuff, but with the added veil of HIV.

I love how happy my host family was, despite real economic challenges. My four sisters, quiet brother (hell, he had no choice), his beautiful two children and crazy, lovely, fun girlfriend, my 13 year old niece…my mother, just 2 years older than me and so 100% loved and respected by her children and grandchildren.  Then there is my uncle, who isn’t really exactly my uncle at all but I think the best friend of the patriarch, who died a few years ago.  And cousins…everyone is a cousin. My family in the US could take some serious lessons….

I wrote to my Batswana sisters and told them to pretend I was in charge and “ordered” them not to buy me any Christmas presents….last year they did anyway and I hope this time they listen to their big sister.  Money needs to be spent on food, shelter and transportation, not gifts for me. They have already given me more than they will ever be able to replicate, just by welcoming me into their home and helping me with my homesickness and culture shock when I first got there.  I owe them forever and I intend to repay them constantly for the rest of my life.

And then there are the people with disabilities who I worked with, trying so hard to help them figure out how to advocate for better lives, how to organize together. I feel like I failed them because their efforts sometimes seemed to fizzle without my constant pushing, but they had to learn to do it for themselves, not because I was pushing….the fine lines in the sand….I am fearful about what I will find within their efforts and lives because I can’t do more for them in any big or meaningful way. And I am so frustrated with the Botswana government that won’t simply grant the one group the access to the well they so desperately need to start growing food and raising life stock.

I am excited and fearful about seeing my young friend Erto, who finished his club foot treatment after I left. I am worried that his mother isn’t sticking with the ongoing treatment, which requires he wear a brace 23 hours a day for 3 to 4 months… The group that helped me organize his treatment is now moving forward working to bring this treatment to other children in Botswana and I hope I can be involved and get Rotary involved. It is such a no brainer to fix this birth defect early, before it intrudes on a child’s life in real and life altering ways.  I can’t wait to see this child – who would always wave at me happily when I left his yard, but hide shyly when I would arrive. He was just messing with me. I hope now to see him mess with me by running away from me – laughing hard.

I also had a friend there who I worry about most of all. He is so smart, so kind and so utterly unable to move himself forward in his work life. The young men there often spend their lives holding their breaths and putting on a good hopeful face, until they exhale, finally and exhausted, hopeless and full of alcohol. Stomachs and pockets empty, no future in sight. They can drink cheap booze and find momentary comfort in the arms of an equally fearful young woman, who hopes perhaps her options and life will get better if she finds the right fellow.

No, it is not like this for everyone in Botswana. Don’t get the wrong idea. There are people in college, people working hard, making a difference and all that. But there just doesn’t seem to be room for that many people to rise up above their circumstances. The resources needed to truly help people do this aren’t getting to the right people at the right time.

So, as I prepare for this trip, I know there is no possible hope of returning to Botswana, picking up all the pieces of my broken heart and bringing it back full again. I will have to figure out how to live this side with a heart that is broken. A heart that is broken wide and very permanently open.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It is hard to believe I have been home now for almost 5 months. I have settled into a new routine, a new place to live, a new job, new many new things coupled with the old habits of many years. Yet despite this newness, not a day goes by that I don't think about my life and experiences in Botswana. Whether it is about the young girls who frequented my home to listen to music, play games, cook treats, or swing in my hammock, or the friends at work, the members of the support groups I worked with, my Peace Corps buddies, my wonderful host family, a very special friend, or the hot and crowded buses. A big part of me is still there and will always be there.

They say Peace Corps changes a person and I know this to be true. I thought it was more about a rite of passage for the 20 somethings and that it would lead them to grow into even more exceptional people than they already were to even make it to Peace Corps. But it changes everyone, no matter what demographic you represent when you are taken on for the challenge. I still don't know what all these changes mean for me. I am still feeling them and thinking about them and trying to figure it out. I didn't know it would take this long, but I realize now it will take much longer than I ever imagined. I am exactly the same person I was before I left to go there. And in almost every way possible I am also exactly not that person. I am not entirely sure where that leaves me. But I know where it points me.

I have not allowed myself time to write since I have come home. The daily writing I did while in Africa has been supplanted by both true, hard work and simple, idle, meaningless "busi-ness." This meaningless component is driving me mad and I realize now it must cease. I have stories I still need to write down here. Even if no one is there to read them, I have to write these people down, so that they are not forgotten. I have to write these stories down, so the me I found is not forgotten.

If you are there to read them, as they come, thank you.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Erto Update

As you may know, I am back in the United States, working as Executive Director at the Area 1 Agency on Aging. While I left Botswana a year early due to family concerns, I am still working closely with my friends in Botswana and South Africa on a very important project.
If you read my blog regularly, you know about the story of Erto (Arto) who has two club feet.  You may have already contributed to the cause.  If you already have donated, I want to thank you again and update you on the project.   If you haven’t already donated, I am hoping that you will take the opportunity to do so after you read this update.
Erto was just under 1 ½ years old when his mother first carried him to the fence around her compound to show him to me and ask me for help in treating his feet. At that moment, I was devastated, because I didn’t see any way I could do anything to help this beautiful child.  But I knew that if I didn’t do something, he would end up like so many of the disabled children in Botswana: uneducated and left either at the family’s cattle post; possibly physically abused and neglected or sexually assaulted. His choices in life would be minimal. I kept thinking, “what if he is smart enough to do something really incredible in his life, like discovering a cure for HIV, but doesn’t get the education simply because he can’t walk?”
Peace Corps Volunteers are trained to never give up, so I researched and found a group in South Africa called STEPS that helps find children just like him the treatment they need and we put his story on their web page to raise money.  Finally, a week after he turned 2 years old, I joined him and his mom as he made his way to Johannesburg for his first casting. Typically children receive 6 to 8 castings at weekly intervals and then have a small surgery to release a ligament in their heel. Then they wear a brace 23 hours a day for a number of months, then only at night after that for up to four years. The treatment is very effective for younger children, infants especially. For children Erto’s age, the treatment takes longer and is not a 100% guarantee.  Still, the physician felt he was a good candidate and is donating much of his time to the cause.
The money raised so far has gone toward the weekly seven hour bus trip one way from Otse, Botswana to Johannesburg, taxi’s to the doctor’s office, diapers for Erto (the casts must stay dry) and food for the trip. We also had to purchase Erto and his mother’s passports, pay for x-rays and cover some hotel stays before a wonderful woman in South Africa agreed to provide housing for them one night each trip.
 Erto has had five treatments to date and still needs 3 or 4 more, depending on how his body is progressing with the changes the casts are causing. After that, he will need the surgery. Miraclefeet, a group in the United States, has agreed to pay for his brace.
We are so close to having all the money we need for this, but still need $1500.  If you would like to help, you can do it two different ways. The first is to go to my blog (you are there!) and click on the photo of Erto and his mother Cathrine. It will take you to a web page where you can donate. If for some reason it doesn’t work, or you don’t want to put all your credit card information out there and sign up as they ask, you could make a donation by sending a check payable to me and I will go on line and make the donation directly. My address is 923 H Street, Apt. 3, Eureka, CA 95501.
Because of our efforts with Erto, STEPS is now getting ready to move into Botswana and train local medical personnel in the Ponseti Method to treat clubfoot so the beautiful children of Botswana don’t need to travel quite as far for treatment. For some children, it will mean the difference between getting treatment or not. It will mean the difference between a life spent walking and running, or a life spent simply watching the world go by, or worse.
Even $50 or $100 goes a very long way over there and you will be part of a group of wonderful friends of mine who are reaching out to help a small boy halfway across the world. Any money raised beyond his needs will help other kids just like him. It will make a tremendous difference in their lives. I thank you in advance.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Erto Update

I have now been back here for 14 days, but am still working on projects in Botswana, especially regarding my little friend Erto. He is in the middle of treatment and we are really pushing to get the money needed to provide transportation to and from Johannesburg for his treatments.  He and his mom travel by bus for 6 hours on Monday, spend the night and get the new casting Tuesday morning, spend another night then travel back to Botswana by bus on Wednesday. The accommodations are donated by a very generous woman, but the bus trip and the taxi from the bus terminal to this woman's home, along with money for food, and money for diapers, cost about R1000 each trip. That is less than $150. A fortune for many over there but for some of us, not so much.  So please, if you haven't been able to donate via the web page before, click on the photo and try again, it seems to be working for people now. If that doesn't work, let me know directly at and we can figure something out. The doctor is donating his time, the brace he will need to wear is being donated. Practically everything is being donated and with YOUR donation to help with this piece, we will get him walking and running soon.  After seeing what happens to children who are disabled in Botswana, I simply can not let this one go, and I know you probably feel the same. 

In other news, my job is crazy but all I can say is that my Peace Corps training to deal with change as a constant, along with some of my life experience, is making everything feel okay so far.  Well, except for how darned cold Eureka is right now.  What the heck???!!! I promise once I settle into my new apartment and get a new computer of my own I will catch up on some of my lost blogs. If I can read my scribbles....

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Home is Everywhere the Heart Is

If you didn’t know it, I have come home. Specifically, I have left my new home and life in Botswana to return to a new life and home in my old town of Eureka, California.  It wasn’t an easy decision to do this, but there were family concerns that pushed me in this direction. When I was then also offered a great job as the Executive Director of the Area One Agency on Aging, a post that has been vacant since last fall, I felt it was time to head west. My chest hurt so badly and I couldn’t stop crying as the driver from my workplace drove me the hour north to the Peace Corps office in Gaborone.  He must have thought I was nuts.  Gratefully, the staff at the Peace Corps office treated me kindly and with compassion and while they were sad to see me go, they supported me in my decision and that made all I was feeling at the time a bit more tolerable.

My PCV friends and my host family were all incredibly supportive and kind, as were one or two very special friends who I miss terribly. I want to thank everyone who has been reading my blog during my adventure and who has sent me cards, emails, boxes and obviously kind thoughts throughout the duration. I could not have managed without even one of those emails, cards, boxes or thoughts and I thank you all. I will probably continue to post blogs as I sort out my experiences over the last few months which I was unable to post due to lack of a computer.  I need to do this for myself and will be happy to have any readers along for the ride.

 It is now exactly almost to the minute seven days since my plane touched down in San Francisco after a 30 hour trip from Gaborone, Botswana.  In the last seven days I have: bought a smart phone, a smarter car (okay that has a 5 year loan involved), visited my step mother, traveled 150 miles in SF Bay Area Memorial Day stop and go traffic (okay, not for the entire time, but most of it) with my mom to visit my sister in law and see my niece in a play, travelled a further 150 miles to my home town to see my two sisters, and one of their families (husband and my two nieces), moved into my BFF and family’s house temporarily after snagging some stuff stored at my sisters, signed up for my old gym, did the initial hiring paperwork at my new job,  searched for and found an apartment, saw my old boy friend, gotten a post office box, mailed a package to Botswana, visited my tenants and three different neighbors from the hood, bought living room furniture, run into various old friends, tried new restaurants and rediscovered old ones, been fed and loved by friends and family, received a big box from my brother with all my business affairs neatly returned to me…and who knows what else….

In the next day, I will get a massage, go to my Arcata Rotary meeting, see my doggie Nevada, have a lunch business meeting at the Ingomar, then dine there again for dinner (luckily they have nice food and it was not to be avoided, although extravagent compared to my recent lifestyle).  Saturday I will move some stuff into my new apartment, go rowing on the Bay, go back to the gym to learn my new workout, and go to Arts Alive in Eureka. Sunday is a day of rest before I start my job officially on Monday.

Under this very thick layer of busi-ness my psyche is grappling with the changes and how easily one can physically go from a place like that to a place like this.  My heart is still so strongly tied to the work I was doing there and the people I grew to know and even love and I don’t want to lose hold of my dear friends, my colleagues and my host family there who were all so terrific to me.  I refuse to buy a television until after the elections at least. I am so selfish of my own quiet time and will need it more than ever as I process my experiences of the last 14 months.

I don’t want it to all become a blur. I know it won’t, but every day I spend driving a car and not sweating on a bus takes me further away from the reality of that experience. I eagerly await mail of any kind from my home there, and am hoping the teenage girls I left behind will hold up their end of writing to me, so I can hold up my end of being a support to them as they move through their tricky and challenging lives.

I wait for news about the well my Rotary clubs are working on there, and know I will need to tenderly “harass” my Rotary friends that side to keep them moving forward against the bureaucracy that is Botswana governmental offices.

I eagerly read my Bots 10 family’s facebook postings, hoping all is well in their world.  I hold my breath awaiting word that the cats, Sisi, Pudi, and Makibikibi have found their ways to their new homes and haven’t in the mean time totally driven my friend Tija, who is fostering them, to distraction or worse.

I have pictures of people in my mind and heart that I can flip through whenever I need to help me remember the good times I had in Botswana.  These are the same pictures that will help me plan my trip back to that land that was a new home for me and now always will be.

I am still the person I was before I left the US in March 2011. And yet, I am so not that same person.  My PC friends know, or will know sometime soon, what I am saying.  And I guess the rest of you will know that too.  Thanks again for taking this journey with me.  Ke tla go bona. Salang Sentle ditsala tsa me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I am typing this directly into the blog since I have a few free moments....our first trip with Erto to Jo'burg to see the doctor was a success - he came back with two fully casted legs and appointments for the next 6 weeks. At the doctor's office, we met a woman who was kind enough to offer  housing for Erto and Cathrine over the next two months - they just have to buy their own food and diapers for him, since he can't get the cast wet.  She will make sure they get to their appointments. So now, we are just having to pay for bus fares back and forth from here, but she won't be going every week, taxi fares from bus station to this lovely woman's house, food and diaper money.  There will be a small surgery later on and I am still hoping there is enough money for that. So now, if you have wanted to donate but just didn't do it yet, or you want to donate again, this would be the time. click on the photo of erto and his mom on my blog and it will take you to the web site.

We had a lovely trip to Joburg by the way. much better than one would expect with a 2 year old on a 6 hour bus ride. He got cranky on the way back (so did I, actually because the bus would start beeping every time it slowed down and that with his crying and the bumpy road..) but I realised after a while that he was just bored (just like the rest of us) and I handed him my cheap 10 pula bracelet and it kept him serenely quiet from there on out. wish i had done it 2 hours earlier. told his mom he is bored and needs entertainment, just like the rest of us. only difference is he will scream bloody murder when he is tired and we adults don't get to.  More to follow. but  got to run.  Thanks for listening.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Erto Update

Erto’s second birthday was April 25th, though he won’t know it, because birthdays in this family probably don’t get celebrated with much fanfare. Just another day to mark the passing of time and a child’s getting bigger and needing more food to survive. 
But this didn’t stop me from offering to have a small party for him – nothing fancy. A store bought black forest cake (with strawberries on top!), whole milk and oranges from the tree in my garden. They should actually be called “greens” because no one waits long enough for them to get orange before they want to eat them, so I figured I would take some to this family before all my neighbourhood kids had taken care of them.
It dawned on me a few months ago that Erto’s reception of me over time had turned from gleeful giggles, smiles and waves to a seemingly random response combining one or two of these or pure disinterest and even crying.  Maybe he knows I represent this medical procedure we are plotting on his behalf, but I doubt it.  More likely, he likes me most when I come with food, but since he doesn’t always know if I have food when I arrive, he acts happy until he knows for sure, then he gets disinterested.  How can a child at 1 ½ years have already figured this out? 
But looking back, he was great when we had cookies when we got the passport photos – he even let me hold him.  Then as I passed their house more often without cookies, his interest waned.  But on his birthday, he must have sensed something was afoot, because he was smiles from ear to ear and back again. He even shook my hand to greet me. Very cute.
His siblings and a few neighbourhood kids were equally expectant and courteous so Cathrine must have talked up the party. She might have been disappointed when I didn’t arrive with gifts for him, but I just didn’t have enough money for that.  Still, she was gracious enough not to ask.  The reason I will do this type of thing for her family, other than because I just love Erto, is because she have never asked me for anything except help for her son and her kids don’t ask me for things either. They have nothing, but they are polite to me and do not beg. When I leave, I will be giving her as many of my household items as she can use, especially the blankets and towels.
So I pulled the cake out of the bag, stuck some candles in it and lit them. The kids were sitting quietly around the room; only Erto, his mom and grandmother had chairs to sit in. He stared at the cake with wide eyes. I tortured the other kids by making them sing “happy birthday to you” a few times before we actually cut the cake.  They never quite got the song right, but we tried. Here, the tradition appears to be that you take icing off the cake and put spots of it all over the birthday kid, so Erto sat there with icing on his face.  Better him than me.
I told Cathrine to make a wish when she blew out the candles for him and I made a wish when I cut the cake. I am thinking both of us wished for the same thing for young Erto.  I then tortured the kids again by asking them, “who wants cake?” before I would give anyone a piece.  Like duh, who doesn’t want cake? 
I left the extra unopened litre of milk for them to use later, along with the hand towel I brought to clean things up, since she didn’t really have one of those either. I gave them a bag of oranges and invited Cathrine to send the kids to see me the next day after work to get more oranges.
I left around 5:30 and I am not at all sure what, if anything, these kids would be getting for dinner. Cake, milk and oranges certainly wasn’t enough, but at least it was something different.
Meanwhile, we have a date and are making plans to go to Johannesburg for the first doctor’s appointment on May 8th.  They talked about flying Cathrine and Erto there, then wanted me to fly with them, then realized there isn’t enough money to do that. So now, we are looking at a 6 hour bus on Monday the 7th, an overnight in Jo’burg, an appointment at 1 p.m. the next day, then a 6 hour bus ride back to Gaborone leaving Jo’burg at 4 p.m. and an overnight in Gaborone before a bus ride back to Otse the morning of the 9th.  With a two year old who only likes me when I feed him sugar. 
This isn’t a vacation. A six hour bus ride with a two year old, an overnight, a taxi to the doctor’s office, waiting around for appointment, appointment, taxi back to bus station, waiting for bus then six bus ride to Gabs, overnight there and then bus to Otse.  I am putting in my bus time, to be sure.
After this appointment, we should have a treatment schedule. There will need to be more fundraising or connections made to pay for his accommodation there in Jo’burg because travelling back and forth via bus every two weeks with two full length casts on his legs just doesn’t make sense.  I will be sending a letter to the Rotary clubs in the area to see if anyone will help us.
The good news is that a local physical therapist is attending a Ponseti Method training this weekend in Cape Town and will then intern with the physician in Jo’burg at his casting clinics to learn how to do this properly.  I am not sure he will be ready to treat Erto in Gaborone, but the next children that come along will benefit from this. My friend Tshepang, who has a child who has been successfully treated, is leading the local charge to bring awareness and find resources to make all this happen.  We are scheduled to speak to the Rotary Club of Gaborone on June 2 and maybe will get some donations from them to help as well.
Given all we have been through, I am cautiously optimistic. I won’t sing and dance until he starts and then completes treatment and he can sing and dance with me. 
Meanwhile, I visited Susan, another volunteer in a village a few hours by bus north of Gaborone and met a 13 year old girl with two club feet, much worse than Ertos and never treated.  She has a wheelchair which is too small and can’t walk at all. She prefers to pull herself around the compound than using the chair, and had open sores on her ankles where the calluses split open.  I will have to ask the Ponseti people what they think, but I have a feeling she is too old for this treatment. Yet maybe there are other options. Apparently she had boots or braces fit for her in Gaborone last June, but no one went to pick them up for her. Who knows if they will still fit.  Susan spoke to clinic nurse and mother about following up on these things.
This young girl is smart, you can tell by talking to her, but hasn’t been to school because of her feet.  She is able to care for herself (she is incontinent because a surgery she had must have nicked a nerve somewhere). She needs to be in school but like so many other disabled children, is kept at home and hidden because people don’t know to push for school or equipment. There are three children with Cerebral Palsy living in one small village near Susan who spend their days on the ground. They need wheelchairs, but because they can’t care for themselves, are unlikely to ever get into a school here. The mothers of these kids don’t know what they should do, so do what they can. Some people in the villages here believe that a child becomes disabled because of something the mother or father did when the mother was pregnant (not just drugs or drinking, but any number of acts unrelated to how a foetuses cells would divide and grow can get blamed on the parents, mostly the mother.) Well that is all for now. Off to get ready for my fun trip.