Incognito International

Corinne Gaston

Dumela! It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been in Botswana for two weeks. I’m finally falling into a routine which is a relief; this past week, classes started at the University of Botswana and I found myself much more on my own. The first week was spent almost entirely with the directors, student volunteers, and other international students in CIEE. We had a number of orientations, dinners, and field trips, including an overnight stay at Mokolodi Nature Reserve, which I’ll talk about later. But this past week, reality hit me; I’m not on vacation with twenty-something other Americans. I’m really living in Botswana for four more months, and in a home stay, not dorms.

I found myself waking up feeling homesick, sad, and out-of-place. Little things, like the difficulty of adding a class at UB would upset me seemingly for no reason, but I realized it was due to being submerged in a completely different culture and country. I’m adjusting and struggling along the way. I knew that choosing Botswana over someplace like England or Spain would be a challenge and I’m getting that challenge. I will not give in to anxiety or homesickness, but I won’t ignore them either. I want to use those feelings and that energy as productively as possible and push myself further when I’m afraid to. Pretty soon I’m going to make a list of goals for myself.

When I arrived in Johannesburg, I knew at least one other CIEE student was one my flight to Gaborone (Gabs) and ended up meeting a several. A CIEE student volunteer, Gaone, met us at the airport with a huge banner. We went to the Oasis Motel where we met the other students, spent the night, had dinner, and got to know each other a little. Flash forward a week and we were like a little family.

I tried not to have any expectations for Gaborone, because I knew it would differ from them. But the city, the country, and the people have surprised me anyway! The airport was small, but quiet and very state-of-the-art. And Gaborone itself is such an eclectic mix of traditional/rural and modern. In more technologically developed areas, I’ve seen gorgeous buildings and fancy hotels with chic bars and restaurants that could be nestled in Los Angeles or San Francisco. But in Gabs I’ve also experienced traffic slowing down because a herd of goats was wandering across the main road. In different Blocks and Phases (neighborhoods) some houses have walls, gates, and security fences, while others are made of simple cement and brick. There are dirt roads everywhere.

Everyone back home keeps asking me to sum up Gaborone, but it’s so difficult. I can only think of a collage of sensory images: young women and men on their Blackberries, the makeshift food stands that pepper the sidewalks where inside women prepare stews and meat over small cook fires to sell, the smell of fat cakes frying, the gorgeous sunsets, cattle, chickens, donkeys, and the occasional horse grazing and wandering on the side of the road, school boys buffing their black dress shoes on the bus, gypsy cabs, kombi drivers vying for customers, American music playing over the radio, numerous shopping malls, instant coffee, sugary drinks, older women balancing ridiculously large parcels on their heads, women who carry their babies swaddled onto their backs, wet laundry hanging out to dry, clubs that draw foreigners with their To 40 hits, the crunch of dirt under my shoes, backyard braiis (barbeques), people shamelessly cutting in line, the dogs barking and howling all through the night in my Block, looking up and seeing the Milky Way right above me, food vendors selling Russian sausages outside the small gate at UB, and “the station” where I have a hunch all buses, taxis, and kombis in Gaborone eventually return.

Where I live with my host family in Block 9, there are paved streets, dirt roads, and alleys between the cement block walls surrounding some houses. There is cattle old cattle dung off the side of the road in some places. I walk though one alley near my house to get to the street where the kombis gather to pick people up. In the alley there’s a pile of branches and debris where I can here lizards scurrying as I walk by. When my host sister first showed me how to commute to UB, she told me I could use the alley during the day, but that I shouldn’t use it at night because a woman was attacked in it. This made me incredibly nervous on my third day in Botswana and first day in my homestay. The thought of a sexual assault made me sick to my stomach. After a week, I got the hang of my commute and traveling back at night. I feel pretty safe, but I obviously don’t risk the alley after dark.

The kombi drivers gather by a park across the street from a group of new flats. Kombis are basically vans that fit fifteen passengers plus the driver, but during busy hours, up to eighteen people will squeeze in. You’re pressed up against strangers, and I was warned against pickpockets, but I haven’t encountered anything like that; people generally minds their own business. The drivers also wait until they fill up before taking off. Each one has a different route, and so far, I only know where three go out of possibly dozens.

Walking around Gaborone, I don’t get nearly as many stares as most of the other international students since I’m black and many people here think I’m Batswana. A lot of folks will speak to me in Setswana and are then surprised by my English and American accent – I never really had an accent before; it’s cool. However, I was really frustrated at first when I wasn’t recognized as a foreigner on sight, because I was just as foreign and out-of-place as the other international students, but most people couldn’t see that. I wanted some of the special attention others automatically received such as people coming up to say ‘hi,’ introduce themselves, ask questions, and generally treat them nicely when they spoke a few words of Setswana. I really don’t get that attention from anyone. Sometimes I get it when I speak or specifically tell people my name, which is hard for a lot of Batswana to pronounce. I am essentially an incognito international.

Now I’m starting to embrace it; it’s nice not being stared at everywhere I go. I can blend in. And when my Setswana gets good, who knows? Besides, on the upside, being an incognito international forces me to be less shy and more outgoing when it comes to meeting people. I’m definitely an introvert who has had trouble approaching strangers in the past and now it’s one of my goals in Botswana to be able to walk up to strangers and talk confidently with them without feeling timid or awkward.

I have a lot ahead of me. Hopefully I can find a way to do some independent research, a part time internship writing for a reproductive health organization, and some significant traveling outside Gaborone on top of schoolwork and making friends. It’s going to be a busy semester.

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