Thursday, August 7, 2014

Last Days in Botswana

I sat on the earth, now warmed by the sizzling fire, outside Lorato’s house. I could sense my time in Botswana was coming to a close, but I still forbade the thought to manifest itself in my mind. This had been my home for the past two years, how could I simply pick up and leave? I turned to look at the kids who were playing and screaming, the same kids who had approached me as children with fervent curiosity 25 months earlier.  I had watched them grow, we had been there for one another during the extreme highs and the deep lows of life and now it was as if I had to accept that I may never see them again.  I had said many goodbyes before, but there was a sense of permanence to this one that it pierced my very soul. 

I fondly recollect my first few weeks at site and how I locked myself in the house, praying for the days to pass more quickly.  Everything had felt so scary and new and each step outside my front door was the bravest thing I had done that day.   Feelings of self-doubt and misdirection established themselves deep in my mind and I questioned my very decision to join the Peace Corps. 

It wasn’t until I slowly gained my footing that I began to fly.  As the previous entries in this blog entail, I had an inimitable experience and I think it is still too new to process and explain its longevity in every aspect of my life. I think as the newness of all of these changes wears off, I will finally be able to reflect upon my time in Bots and all the people who impacted my life; but for now, let’s fast forward.

The thing I remember most about my last weeks in Botswana was how quickly everything passed.  On the third of May, my clinic organized a farewell celebration.  As a team, they all chipped in and bought me a gorgeous, hand-made, traditional German-print dress. The night before, I was expecting my friends Claire and Ketnie to come over so we could have a nice, calm dinner.  Before I knew it, my house was exploding with people bringing cooler boxes with different types of alcohol, music was playing, and everyone was dancing! It felt like the haphazardness of all the people in my house resonated throughout the entire village and at long last, the crowd slowly dissipated and the three of us filtered into our beds.
Part of the hot mess that infested my house that night!

The next day, we were up and about early enough to prepare ourselves and walk over to the clinic, where the event was supposed to start at noon.  11:50am struck and only one or two of the individuals responsible for setting up the party had arrived.  Since we were all feeling a bit sick to our stomachs, we decided to go my coworker Thabang’s house and take cat naps. Around 2pm we were informed that the party was ready to start. As we walked into the clinic compound, Lentho (my friend and coworker) told me I could not sit down until they "sang me in". I waited as my friends got settled and then the entire Home Based Care staff as well as some women who worked for the Ipelegeng government program all lined up behind me and started singing, "Kitso ya rona, ngwana ya Gobase" (Our Kitso, child from Gobojango). As I tried to swallow my surprise, I was then approached by Mma Lenatsho (the child welfare nurse) who opened up a plaid blanket and fastened it across my shoulders.
The group of ladies singing me in

This was quite the display of respect. Later, as we were all eating, Lentho informed me that the blanket was to symbolize their constant embrace of me as I have embraced their culture as my own. 

Here I come!
The blanket that was fastened over my shoulders as a sign of respect.
The rest of the party consisted of dancing, speeches, and a delicious array of traditional foods including goat meat, sorghum, thopi (bojobe jwa lerotse), and the most delectable phane worms I've ever tasted. They even unveiled the tree vase wearing "WE <3 KiTSO" painted on its face in white.

The painted tree planter

Later that night, a handful of other volunteers came to celebrate and we ate some more, played some drinking games, and danced to a local dj's rhythms. The entire party was an all-around success and it would not have been possible without the assistance of all of my colleagues as well as my amazing boyfriend Duncan.
Only some of my amazing colleagues.

I opened my eyes again and was brought back to the speckled stars overhead and the smoke billowing into infinity from the fire. This time I was not in Gobojango, but rather at Duncan's family home in Nlapkhwane. I looked around reminiscing about how I spent my first Christmas on my own on this very compound, biting back the swelling lump in my throat as everyone wiped the sweat off their brows and sang the Carols I grew up with during my childhood; the same ones my cousins were probably singing at that very moment. During that time, I wanted nothing more than to be with my boisterous, rambunctious family in the nipping cold of Colorado, but I now realized how fortunate I was to spend the holiday and this time in Botswana. In Africa. On this compound I learned how to plow and harvest peanuts with Duncan's mother. I hauled water and took my first official bucket bath with the guidance of his sister, and I learned yet another language (Kalanga) by playing with his nieces and nephews in the soil. 
Duncan's niece and nephews in Nlapkhwane
This isn't to say that the whole time I learned these things was sunshine and roses. Just as I struggled to learn how to adjust to an ever changing, constantly new environment, Duncan and I had to adjust and readjust ourselves to make sense of what we had...and what we now have. In short, being with him has not only brought out my strengths and confidences, but it has also dredged out my fears and self-consciousness. I feel like it is rare in life to find someone as patient and willing to learn so much about you, and we are still discovering the balance. Just as I'm not quick to forget the feeling of satisfaction after bathing with a bucket of fire-warmed water, I am in no place ready to close my eyes to the effort we have put into this relationship, or to the amount of love and support I feel, even after all this time and with all this distance. 
We've come too far to say goodbye

Now, let's fast forward my second (yes, that's right, SECOND) farewell party. I had never seen Lorato flustered before. In the two years that I had known this admirable woman, she seemed to always keep her cool and act as level-headed as a a buoey on water. However, the second we left the clinic party, she angrily shook her head and told me, "Kitso, you deserve better. You work with the schools and the community, not just the clinic. I am going to throw a better party, and this time, EVERYONE is invited!"
And so it went, the following weeks I visited some other volunteers and attended their farewell parties. It started to hit me that I wasn't only bidding farewell to my Batswana colleagues and family but my Peace Corps family as well.
Though we're all so different, we have so much in common


These same people who I had often leaned entirely upon for support and had been uplifted by their patience and understanding. Although I attempted to live every single moment to its fullest, I was shocked and overcome by defeat when I watched the time dwindling from underneath me. 
Peace Corps volunteers are some of the most fun-loving, open-minded people I've ever met
In those last few weeks, my dog Cleo had five puppies and I witnessed in horror as the slimy, breathing objects slid out from inside her. Lorato's nephew Jonjo had told me that if the dogs are not ready to be parents then they'll often eat their young, so I practically lunged at Cleo when she started snacking on their umbillacle chords. (Gross, I know, I'm sorry for the visual). The newborn stages weren't as fun, but the second the puppies became curious and started walking around on their unsure legs, I loved that my house transformed itself into a puppy hotel. When I was sick with pharyngitis, I only opened my door and allowed the little buggers to snooze and cuddle me on my floor mattress. Volunteers would come from kilometers away just to hug one of the smoochy balls of fur. And, now I had five gifts for the people who had impacted my life the most.

Almost as quickly as the first party came and went, the date for the second party snuck up on us. My closest friends Stacey and Claire came all the way from their villages to share the weekend with me. It was to be my last weekend in Gobojango, so an overall sentiment of nostalgia and excitement swept the compound. The morning of the party, I awoke with a start to hear a noise that i had grown accustomed to over the past couple years: the screaming of a goat being sacrificed for festivial purposes...only this time, the baying was right outside my window. 
I begrudgingly crawled out of bed and opened the back door of the house where I found three friends of mine tying a bleeding goat to the tree. "O tsogile jang, Kitso!?" (how are you this morning?). I lept for my camera and began snapping the gruesome scene.

On the other side of my house I heard laughter, as I turned the corner I was instantly surrounded by women clad in blankets, either stoking the fire, drinking tea, or cutting some sort of vegetable in preparation for the party. In the course of one night, my compound grew a heartbeat and life pulsed through the veins of its entirety; it stayed this way for the whole weekend. 

The party was beautiful. The amount of people that attended was plentiful, and the smiles that surrounded us were enough to make even the firmest face melt. People from every aspect of my work in Botswana attended; there was a speech by Lentho from the clinic, Claire gave a tearful account of our friendship, Sheriff a teacher from the primary school spoke, police officers and teachers from my shopping village of Bobonong stood in recognition, even the owners of the compound where I lived gave a heartfelt speech.

Trying not to cry during my speech
After I was awarded with beautiful clothes and gifts of money, it was then my turn to speak. "How can I be excited to go home when I have to say goodbye to my home in Botswana?" No words could encompass my solemnity at the thought of leaving, and my gratitude for the grand show of appreciation they had put on. 
They even hired a man from Semolale (the nearby village) to take us on a horse-drawn donkey-cart parade around Gobas.

Enjoying the ride
 When speeches had finished and the crowd started getting restless, Lorato and all the kids began serving the meals. I was honored to find that each server and usher was wearing a jersey that had been donated to the Gobas Big Sisters Football Club the winter prior. My absolute favorite part of the party was, as the sun set (and well into the night) we danced. Not just the adults, and not just the children, but everyone. Together. We laughed and danced in the cold moonlight and one by one people slowly filtered into their own homes as the night stretched deep into midnight.

We danced. And it was glorious.

Even Lorato got down and boogeyed!
Stacey and I humored a group of neighbors by drinking the traditional beer straight out of the bucket, and made another group double over with fits of giggles after showing them (and eating) the phane worms that I harvested myself.
It was a night that has permanently imprinted itself in my heart.
The following morning, the heartbeat pulsated again outside my window as the family and neighbors came from all over for tea and to help clean up. I walked into the sunlight and the smell of the fire boiling the bush tea filled my nose and I escorted Claire, Stacey, and Lissa to say their goodbyes. I stifled the swelling tears behind my eyes and watched them embark a minibus to Bobonong. It wasn't until I saw the bus get smaller in the distance that I really lost it.
Stacey, one of the most open-minded, joyful persons I've ever met
I arrived to the hustle of my home again, heaving with sobs and wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep the day away. Samantha, Jonjo, and all the kids weren't going to let that happen. They spent the day lounging around my house, watching movies, asking me if it were any other day.

After the party that they threw me the night prior, I didn't have the heart to ask them to leave...and thank goodness for that. My last full day in Gobojango was spent with the people I love the most, and I couldn't have imagined a better way to spend it.
Our final "fashion show"
Kesa (Loratos niece) walked me around the village so I could say my final goodbyes to shop owners and friends as the day yawned to a close. We couldn't look at each other once we realized that this was going to be my last official night in Gobojango. I hadn't even packed my clothes. My procrastination now meant that I was to get no sleep that night. 
I closed my eyes again. The heartbeat that once pulsated outside my bedroom window now lay as flat as an unmoving heart monitor. I looked around my empty house, the one that only hours ago was filled with curiosity and laughter. It now looked like a skeleton picked over by vultures. There was no longer any sign of Kitso in the house, just nameless furniture and characterless, eggshell walls. The day that I had dreaded was finally here and I didn't think I could manage to even stand, let alone to bring myself to say goodbye to Lorato and the kids. I had said many goodbyes before, but there was a sense of permanence to this one that it pierced my very soul. 
The day passed as if in a mirage. Opaque smiles and splashing tears filled my eyesight and I loaded my two bags onto the ambulance.
"So Kitso," the driver asked me after we had taken off, "are you going to miss living in this tiny village?" 
"Absolutely. I'm going to miss Africa. And the brief but constant reminders that I'm living here." I replied, looking out the window and biting my lip to keep from bursting into tears again.
"What do you mean?" 
"I can't explain it," I paused, "Africa moments". 
At the sight of me getting upset again the driver uncomfortably turned on the radio and shrugged me off, still not understanding what I meant by 'Africa moments'.
Literally moments later...(and I kid you not)...a black monkey with a white face jumped from an overhanging tree onto the hood of the ambulance, stared at us with wide eyes as if we had startled his afternoon, and sprung off disparingly into the bush again.
I managed a hysterical laugh through my sobs and exclaimed, "This! Like this! Africa moments!"
The perpetrator of my last African moment!!
Now that I've been gone for over 7 weeks, my whole time in Botswana feels like a very vivid dream. During that time I learned more about myself and the world than I have in my whole 25 years on this earth. I have met people who would offer me their shoes even if they had no clothes on their back, and I have fallen love with the diversity and lessons this life offers if one is willing to open their mind and be patient to learn them. I know there were days where I literally felt so lonesome I wanted nothing more than to be back in the United States, with all of her amenities and privileges...but those days in particular, where I struggled to learn to bake my own bread and roll my own pasta noodles, were what made this journey so unique. So significant. 
Lorato helping me clear my yard for the farewell party
Although I still feel the pang of permanence over those goodbyes I'm clutching onto the small shreds of hope that I will return. I still maintain contact with Lorato who tells me that many children, including Samantha (my adoptive "daughter") continue to visit my house with hopes that one day I'll answer their knocks. 
Samantha and Kamogelo at my farewell party
Home. This is the notion that I've been struggling with ever since that very first farewell party. Where is my home? Was I leaving or coming home? What does this simple word, that encompasses so much, even mean? 
 Home is not where my heart is, because I feel as if I leave bits of my heart scattered around the world, with every human who opens their soul to me and who I trust enough to do the same 
Home is not where I rest my feet because I'm in a constant state of motion.
Home I've concluded is everywhere that I am able to feel welcomed and at peace. 
Forever will I find solace in front if Loratos house, by the fire in Gobas. Or listening to the chatter and banter outside my bedroom window. Chasing after donkeys after ploughing corn in Nlapkhwane or simply listening to the cicadas in the Botswana bush. 
My home away from home: the Mmapetla household
  Home is my Africa moments. 
Until next time. 

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