Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cultural excursion of Southern Botswana

            Last weekend, the University of Botswana took the international students on a cultural excursion to the surrounding area of Gaborone. On this excursion we were introduced to the practices of the traditional Kgotla in Botswana. We also spent the night at a cultural lodge, and took a ride around the Mokolodi game reserve. This trip exposed us to some of the traditional practices of Botswana that have helped shape the culture and society here. We also got to see the landscape and wildlife that make the country the beautiful attraction that it is.
            First things first, when you go to see a Kgotla, proper dress is required. It is seen as a sign of disrespect to dress immodestly when visiting a Kgotla. Now, apparently I mistook the ‘modest’ request for ‘dress up’ because I seemed to be the only person, especially male that decided to dress up for this event. But no matter, better to be too respectful than not enough I suppose; and I sported my shiny black shoes with pride.
We boarded the bus at 8:00am, and set out for the village of Kanye, which is about 90km southwest of Gaborone. While most of the students were fast asleep for most of the ride, I couldn’t help but seize another opportunity to take in the land of Botswana. A good conversation with my seatmate also worked wonders in the effort to remain awake on this early morning drive. The skepticism that had grown in me about the beauty of Botswana as a country as I researched the country prior to my departure has all but been obliterated after only a few excursions around the Gaborone area. The land of Botswana in the Gaborone area is that of large rolling hills, which could almost be referred to as ‘little mountains.’ In addition they are covered in richly green trees and grass. We did, however, learn that many of the vegetation here have evolved painful defense mechanisms, including thorns and fiber glass-like material which causes painful rashes.  
Upon our arrival to the Kgotla in Kanye, we were directed toward the area where meetings and trials are held. We were all seated, with a stern warning not to enter the elevated stage area, as this was reserved only for a select few. Our host then explained to us some of the more traditional practices both historically and contemporary that involve the kgotla. The term kgotla can refer both to the meeting place, as well as the meeting itself. Basically a kgotla is a public meeting, where, traditionally, a tribe or village would gather to discuss issues. It is headed by a kgosi, or chief, but discourse between all those present is allowed and encouraged. Because this represents the traditional form of governing in Botswana, it is said that the transition to a contemporary democracy was very smooth due to the history of acceptable discourse. Although they are traditional, the kgotlas still exist in practically every village and work in concurrence with the government of Botswana. Many minor disputes that arise in a community are still resolved through a kgotla. The interaction between the two forms of governing is something that is still not completely clear to me, and which I hope to learn more about throughout my time here.
Our next major stop on this trip was a visitation to a pottery workshop. Here a small group of Batswana create hand-made pottery, which they sell both in a local shop, as well as on a larger scale to the government of Botswana. It was interesting to watch as they explained the process of creating this art, and then demonstrated to us several of the steps, including forming the pot on the pottery wheel. While in general, there was not much here that is truly unique to Africa, the touch and smell of clay always reminds me of home so I especially enjoyed this visit. Thanks Mom J
Next, we visited a site in the country where rock paintings that are estimated to be around 2000 years old have been discovered. Our tour guide walked us around this cliff and pointed out the shapes to us. At first glance, I could not see the shapes and was starting to think that the ‘paintings’ may be nothing more than natural coloration of the rocks. However, once I got close, the shapes became clear and animals could be seen in several locations around this cliff. After the tour, several of us climbed to the top of the cliff and were able to catch a beautiful view of the Bots countryside.
The day culminated with an overnight stay at a cultural lodge, where tents and huts were prepared for us to stay. In addition, the lodge was set up as a traditional village, where we were introduced to some Botwana dances, games, and traditions. One game which was particularly interesting was some sort of hybrid between tick tack toe and chess. Played on a sheet of metal with a board chalked in and rocks used as game pieces. My first and only attempt at this game was a success as I beat a local Motswana, although two of the older men played more of the game than I did, so I can’t really claim the victory. As the evening wore on, the rain came and sent us scrambling for cover. We were able to wait out the rain under a pavilion and stay relatively dry. The rest of the night was spent socializing with local and international students, making new friends and getting to know others more.
The next day we visited the Mokolodi animal reserve. Upon our arrival we were served with champagne and orange juice, with a choice of mixing our having the drinks separate. It was an interesting welcome to an animal reserve in the middle of a country area. After introductions and drinks, we loaded onto the tour trucks, and began our drive around the park. We saw many interesting animals on this drive. The most common animal of the park is the impala, of which we got many great views. We also saw kudus, zebras, and wart hogs. The lone cheetah of the park is kept inside a fenced area, so a good view is rare unless a special tour is given. We were lucky enough to spot the cheetah, however he was laying in the grass and our view was far from clear. In my research of this country prior to departure, I read about the danger of kudus in driving at night. I read that sometimes kudus will jump into your car, causing an accident. By this description, I was under the impression that these were some kind of small rodent-like animal. To the contrary, kudus are large moose-like animals that have massive vertical leap abilities for an animal of this size. The tour-guide told us that these animals can jump 3 meters high, and are attracted to headlights of cars, which they try to jump over at night, hence the danger. Obviously this is a much greater risk than was conveyed in my guidebook. It also makes the danger of deer in Nebraska seem almost trivial
After the tour of the park, lunch was provided to us near a lake in the park. Unfortunately, the rain came again, and this time our only cover was the tour trucks. Fortunately the trucks were equipped with water-proof tarps, however the rain still soaked the edges, forcing us to huddle toward the center in vain attempts to stay dry. Once the rain had finally slowed to a drizzle, the drivers decided it was okay to head back to the welcome area of the park. This was quite an interesting drive, as the driver had to keep a good speed so as not to get stuck. Trying to take pictures of the after effects of the rain on the park was also quite the challenge, as major bumps jolted me quite severely on this high speed exit of the park. Despite the grungy feeling of being partially soaked from the rain and then getting on a bus with 50 other rain-soaked students, the experience of seeing the exotic animals as well as simply enjoying the rain and its affects on the park was well worth it.
Once we left the park, we finally returned to Gabs, where we were free to shower, sleep and recover from a long and exciting weekend.

I hope all is well back in the States, as well as in other parts of the world that may be tuning in. I experienced my first clinic visit today, so my next post will finally enter into the issues of healthcare in Botswana well as my personal observations.

Stay well!

Our welcome drinks at the Mokolodi reserve
The Kgotla, with some international students checking it out

A view of the 'village' of Kanye

The international group trekking a forest

'Joe' shaping a pot

The finished product

The Kgosi of our cultural lodge performing a dance

This is the game I was talking about

Can you see the giraffes?

The countryside of Botswana

This is a kudu 

Impala posing for the camera

The beginning of the rain

A 'puddle' on the exiting drive. This was not here 2 hours ago

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Here is the whole CIEE group right before our hike

Every sunset is picturesque here

Here is my plate of traditional Botswana food. (Don't ask me for names)

A neighborhood in Gabs

Several of us at the top of Kgale hill

Gabs from the top of Kgale
Hills of Botswana

A traditional Botswana dance.


 Things are finally starting to settle down here in Botswana, and the initial culture shock has already began to subside. The first week has been very chaotic. For now, I will summarize the events that have unfolded since arriving in Gaborone.
            We arrived in Botswana at 9:30am local time, flying from Johannesburg on a small propeller plane. The first thing I noticed about Botswana from the plane is that it is, in fact, not flat at all. I had read and heard that Botswana was basically a flat desert. From what I have seen thus far, granted that I have not seen much yet, it is a green and hilly country. I would suggest that anyone who calls Botswana flat should take a drive across the plains of Nebraska or Iowa to find out what flat country looks like. After landing, the plane left us about a 100m walk to actually get into the airport, where we were able to claim our bags and go through customs. Luckily for myself, both of my bags arrived safely in Gaborone, a few others in the group were not so lucky however, and they had to go several days before their bags arrived. Going through customs in Botswana was exceptionally easy. I was asked “Do you have anything to claim?” I answered “No,” and I was through. Being my first international experience, I can only hope I find it this easy in the future! Next, we met Batsirai Chidzozo or ‘Batsi’ as we call him. He is our program coordinator and runs the CIEE branch of study abroad students in Botswana. He has been extremely helpful in taking care of our affairs at the University of Botswana (UB), and preparing us for living in Botswana (we would be lost without him). After the group had all been gathered, we were driven to the Oasis Motel, where we would stay for the first 2 nights. We were greeted here by Tanya and Nontombi, who are UB students who will be helping us throughout the semester. While the first day was simply spent relaxing at the motel, it was brutal nonetheless. After 32 hours with very minimal sleep, others and I simply wanted to crash. However, Tanya and Nontombi did their best to prevent us from sleeping at least until sundown.
            The next day we all attended a CIEE orientation at UB, which was directed by Batsi. Batsi talked to us about many issues of living in Gaborone. We then heard from several guest lecturers about the history of Botswana, and about the educational system in Botswana.
            One thing that has been grilled into us from the start of orientation is the ‘petty crime’ in Gaborone. While violent crime seems to be exceedingly rare, theft is still common. We have been warned to keep doors locked at all times, be aware of bags and possessions when walking around the city, and to simply be aware of your surroundings at all times. While this seems like common sense, after repeated warnings it has become clear that this is no small issue, and an increased awareness is necessary to stay safe.
            The next day, we attended a UB orientation for international students. Much of the information gathered here was repeated from the previous day, but there were some additional useful insights. Many of the administrative issues discussed here, that other international students have to deal with have already been taken care of for the CIEE students by Batsi.
            In addition to the orientation sessions, we also began registration for classes at UB, which is simply not as efficient as U.S. systems. I began this process on the 5th, and was finally entered into the system on the 9th. For international students to register, we basically fill out a registration form that indicates the classes we wish to take. This is then turned in for advisors to actually enter the information into the system. The first week of class is also used for adding and dropping classes, so registration really will not be finalized until this Friday. Because of this, many students do not even attend class in the first week. The CIEE public health courses also will not begin until next week, so it will still be some time before I am able to write about my healthcare experiences here.
            UB took all of the international students on a trip to the outskirts of Gaborone, where we were introduced to traditional Botswana food. This took place at the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House (named after the novel series by Alexander Smith). A picture of the food was seen below. A couple of the more interesting dishes included: goat intestines, fried worms, and ginger beer. Apparently many of the locals eat the fried worms as a regular snack (one bite was enough for me). After the dinner, the cooks and other Batswana demonstrated several traditional dances. Then the international students attempted to show off our own cultures. Out of about 30 Americans, the Pledge of Allegiance was about the best thing we could come up with (plus the Dougy dance).
            The CIEE students also took one of our first excursions yesterday, which included hiking the Kgale hill (pictures below). Because the greater part of this hike was during the hottest part of the day, many of the students were not altogether happy with the decision to hike at the time we did. Still, the views of the city, the surrounding area, and the hill itself were beautiful.
            While the first week in Gaborone has been somewhat chaotic, all the preparation has gotten me excited for everything that will be happening over the course of the next several months. I am beginning to grow more comfortable with the city and culture here, and I am sure as classes begin and my tasks begin to materialize, time will begin to pass only too fast. I have been in Botswana for 1 week, stay with me for 17 more!

(Pictures will be coming, they take a really long time to upload here)

Sunday, January 1, 2012


“If I take one more step, it will be the farthest away from home, I’ve ever been.” – Tolkein/Jackson’s Samwise Gamgee
            “Remember what Bilbo used to say: ‘It’s a dangerous business…walking out your door, you step out onto the road and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Tolkein/Jackson’s Frodo Baggins

            Welcome family, friends, students, professors, colleagues, and interested followers. Many of you may know me, some of you may not. I hope that by the time this blog is finished and my current adventure has come to an end, I will have many followers of whom I will not have had the pleasure to meet. I write to you know from the Chicago O’Hare International airport, and I begin with a quote from The Lord of the Rings, a tale which has captured my imagination since I was introduced to it. If you are not a fan, I hope you don’t mind the occasional quote, when I feel it is appropriate to my journey. Once my plane leaves the U.S., I too, will be further from home than I have ever been (although my mode of travel will not involve a step). I am about to ‘step out onto the road’ and many unknown trials, as well as fortunes are sure to come my way. I hope you will follow me as I too try to ‘keep my feet’ on my new endeavor.
I will be studying in Gaborone, Botswana at the University of Botswana. Through the CIEE organization, my program will involve pre-health work, including volunteering in hospitals and clinics in Botswana. Many of our classes will then be directed around our experiences in order to facilitate our learning about the culture and healthcare of Botswana. I will do my best to keep this blog updated as often as possible, as I continue to find ideas and events worth sharing to my friends in the U.S.
I also would like to thank the Gilman International Scholarship, the Discovery Scholarship, the Christian Lieding Scholarship, the John E. Bowman Travel Grant, the Susan T. Buffet scholarship, and all other UNL awards I have received –without these funds, the financial strain of a trip such as this one would not be possible.
In addition, I want to thank my many mentors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as well as friends and family who have supported me throughout college and my life. Your support has helped inspire me to achieve all that I can, and to follow the path laid before me with courage. Thank you to all who have been involved in my life!
I hope you all will continue to follow me as I live and learn in Africa!