I have wanted to post about this subject for a while but was trying to figure out how I wanted to go about explaining this phenomenon. I would like to also say that this is not something that is specific to any one gender along the spectrum and could just as easily be titled "Weird White Person Syndrome." These phenomenon happen almost exclusively after someone has come to realize that I am not, in fact, a tourist because I speak Setswana and have been living here for two years (AS OF TODAY!)
I believe the main factors of these types of interactions are based on a few things: 1.) I am an EXTREME minority in this country, and even more so as a white Botswana resident who speaks Setswana, which makes me a bit of a fascination. 2.) The assumption that because I am white, I have certain access to resources that I may, or may not, actually have (white privilege is a whole different ball game here.) 3.) Even though I am a resident, I'm still a foreigner which means I am not completely subject to the rules of social etiquette; therefore I am an open ear to any taboo topics people feel they can't talk about with other nationals. And 3.) Because I work at a clinic, I must be a doctor...
This will be a blogpost in three movements; The Hilarious, The Heartbreaking, and the Heartwarming. I hope you enjoy!
The Hilarious: Sex and Candy
I live about 45 mins-1 hour away from the shopping village I get the majority of my groceries from (depending on how fast the bus/combi/hitch is going) and within that shopping village I pretty much always go to the SPAR store. I do this for a few reasons; it is close to the rank and the hitch spot, so I don't have to lug stuff around as much, it is clean and the staff are friendly, and it is right next to an ATM for the bank I have an account with in Botswana.
Because I go to the same place every time I go shopping, and because I go shopping once every two weeks or so, the majority of the staff at the SPAR know me by name, and have come to be friendly acquaintances. I often chat with these ladies about what is going on in my community, what I have been up to, and where I am coming from/ going to (if I happen to be traveling.) A few of them have tried the "you will take me to America with you", or "you will bring me a white man" to which I give the usual response: "If you get a visa and want to pay for the ticket, sure" and "if an available one comes to visit I will make sure to bring him by."
It is not unusual at all for any of the staff to approach me while I'm shopping and start a friendly conversation, so I was not at all surprised when one of the security personnel came up to me in the cereal isle.
Security Lady: "Dumela Tlotlo! Le Kae? (Hello Tlotlo [my Tswana name]! How are you?)
Me: "Dumela Mma! Ke teng, wena le kae?" (Hello Ma'me! I'm fine, and you?)
Security Lady: Ke teng (I'm fine) I want to talk with you about something. *Puts on serious face and gets a little more quiet*
Me: Okay, what would you like to talk about?
Security Lady: I think you might know about these things more, and I don't have anyone to talk to since it is *shakes her head*
Me: Okay Mma, you can talk to me, how can I help?
Security Lady: Well when my boyfriend and I are...*longest pause ever*...you know...sharing a blanket (common Setswana verbage for having sex)
Me: Being intimate?
Security Lady: Eh Mma. I am never *gestures to her pants* being so much wet.
I would like to point out that even though I have talked about masturbation with truck drivers, how to put on condom properly with village chiefs, and sex toys and their benefits with nurses, that asking about natural lubricant in a grocery isle while I'm trying to buy coffee still caught me a bit off guard. So I took a second or two to gather my thoughts before answering.
Me: Well Mma, there are a few ways you can fix that, but the fastest one may be to try and buy some lubricant. You can get it at the local pharmacies behind the counter and it costs about p50. I have a few free samples at my house that I can bring you next time I am shopping and if they work than you can try and find a place to buy more of your own. Does that sound like something you want to try?
Security Lady: Eh Mma! That would be great, thank you so much Tlotlo. You still need to give me American candy. (I had told her about when I went home for Christmas and she had asked for candy. Normally I turn people down for this but had agreed this time.)
Me: Eh Mma.
So low and behold, a few weeks later I was walking into the SPAR with a little bag with two sample size lubricant packets (thanks to a member of the support group who brings lube to all the meetings) and two Worthers caramel candies. I talked to her briefly about making sure she was using a condom, and that her and her boyfriend should get tested, and that having "warm up" time may get rid of the need to buy expensive lube since foreplay and anything but missionary sex are still new concepts in Botswana's sexual landscape, and wished her luck. I also said I could help her find a place to buy her own if she liked them, and that it was good that she wanted to have lubricated sex, since the trend of using "drying powders" is still something that happens here quite frequently.
All in all it was exactly the type of interaction that, in my opinion, is one of the biggest changing factors when it comes to Peace Corps Volunteers. These one on one conversations that truly have an impact and are easily followed up on. She wasn't in the last time I went shopping, but I'm going to ask her about it next time I see her. I hope everything was...slick. ;)
The Heartbreaking: No Cycle
Everyday I head to work, I walk down the main road of Ramokgonami to get to the clinic. Over the course of this walk I pass the crazy lady neighbors house, who seems to enjoy speaking to me in RAPID Setswapong (the regional dialect of Setswana) despite the fact that I don't know what she is saying, one bar, and the newly opened TK's butchery.
The butchery has been under construction pretty much since I came to Rams and opened up a few months ago. There are always a few people hanging out and many times there is some sort of dead animal carcass hanging in the tree. I always call out and say "hi" to everyone and then have to explain that the reason I don't come in is because I don't eat meat, but I hope they are getting a lot of business.
On this particular morning I called out, and a woman came out of the shop and told me to hold up. I recognized her from around but didn't know her name. She greeted me and then we got down to business pretty quickly, which is always an indication that a conversation is going to be serious since the cultural norm here is to have a 5-10min chat about each person's lives before getting to the topic at hand.
She confirmed that I worked at the clinic and then said that she needed some help since she hadn't gotten a period in a while. My mind immediately jumped to pregnancy, since that tends to be the usual case of the missing period, but when I asked exactly how long, she responded "Since 2009."
I can not explain how big a deal having a child is here. It is pretty much the pinnacle of womanhood in a lot of communities and often times the only thing women aspire to do. In some areas a man and a woman must prove their fertility prior to getting married, and in many places the lebola (bride price) goes up depending on how many kids you have had. I've been told many times that because I am 24 and have no children that I am "not yet a woman" and that I should start on that soon. When I carried my land lady's daughter around on my back in the typical Botswana fashion a bunch of people in the community asked if I had, had a kid. An older female RPCV who was stationed near me had no children and was constantly having to explain that decision to those around her.
I asked if she had seen a doctor and she said that she had gone to the clinic and they had referred her to the Mahalapye Primary Hospital where they had done a bunch of tests and that nothing had come up. I explained that I could try and look some things up, but that I wasn't a doctor or a nurse and that she would have much better luck talking with a medical professional. She asked if I knew of any surgeries in South Africa or pills I could get from the US to help, and I had to explain again that since I wasn't a doctor, and didn't know what was wrong with her, that I wouldn't even know where to start.
In the back of my mind I wanted to tell her that this would leave her time to do other things, and that not having a kid didn't mean the end of her life, but who says that kind of thing? This would probably mean she would never be married, that her community may never recognize her as a full woman, and that the sacred gates to motherhood would never be opened for her.
I told her that I would ask at the clinic, and that I would be praying for her, and walked away feeling like I had failed a member of my community. It is times like these that I do wish I had all the answers, and that the US had some sort of magical pill to make medical problems go away. But I don't, and it doesn't.
Heartwarming: Toothpaste Buddy
I stick out when I am traveling around. I stick out to the tourists because I am sort of dirty looking, and I tend to be walking from or towards a bus rank or hitch spot, and I stick out to the locals because I am white, and even more so because I say "dumela!" instead of "hello!" This is not helped by the fact that I carry around a bright orange backpack and it is usually so full that I look like some huntched over dwarf who is bringing back her daily hull from the mines while singing "hi-ho." When the main two compartments of my pack are full, I tend to shove things in the water bottle pockets. I had to learn the hard way that though this is acceptable for certain things like socks, or flip flops, it is not so much for others like...cell phones, after getting one stolen a few months back in Mahalapye.
This time around I was just in Palapye for a few hours to pick up some food, and then go to Lindsay's house to grab a shower while I waited for my bus to leave, since my water had been out for about a month. I had therefore shoved a toothbrush and toothpaste into the side pockets since I like the feeling of being clean all over simultaneously and thought it would pair well with my first legitimate shower in weeks. I had just arrived from the bus rank and was cutting across the Junction's parking lot (it is the little outdoor center with a bunch of shops.) I'm heading for the little back path to get to Lindsay's house when a woman calls out for me from the driver's seat of a car.
Fatima: Ma'me! Ma'me! Excuse me!
Me: *turning around and walking back the window* Dumela Mma, le kae? (I like to greet people in Setswana a.) because it catches them off guard and b.) it kills the notion that I am a tourist pretty quickly.)
Fatima: I'm well! Would you mind if I borrowed your toothpaste?
This just made me crack up because it was just the most random thing in the world to happen and we both had a good laugh about it as I pulled out the toothpaste from my water bottle pocket and handed it through the window to her. She busted out a toothbrush from some pocket to the side of her and globbed a big thing right on there as I continued to laugh like an idiot in the parking lot.
She asked where I was from and where I was going, and said that she was heading back to Gabs where she lives. When I told her I lived in Ramokgonami, she asked what I was doing there and I gave her the whole Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching health schpeel. She was super nice, and incredibly friendly, so when she asked for my number I didn't hesitate to give it to her and tell her she should buzz me the next time she was in the area.
PEOPLE SHE IS SO CUTE! She proceeded to make sure I got back to Ramokgonami okay by texting me later that day. This was followed up by a phone call that weekend to see what I was up to and when I told her I was out visiting Janina near Bobonong, she wished me a happy visit. She called again a few days ago to chat and said that I MUST come stay with her next time I was in Gabs, and when would I be coming down? When she found out I am leaving Bots in July she offered to help find me a job so that I could stay, and when I said I needed something with a pay check and that it was probably time to see my family, she offered to find me a husband. When I told her I had no interest in a husband, or getting married any time soon, SHE AGREED WITH ME AND SAID SHE DIDN"T WANT TO EITHER!!!
Guys, guys...GUYS! If you have been reading this blog for any amount of time you know that the idea that a woman wants to hold off getting married so she can, in Fatima's words, "be free" is freaking unheard of and I was just so excited that I had made a new toothpaste friend. She also didn't ask me to take her to America, or find her a white man, or ask me to give her stuff (other than a bit of toothpaste.) It is something I am really going to miss about living in Botswana because I feel like it is the type of interaction that just wouldn't happen on the regular in the US.
Ultimately she just seems like a big ball of sunshine and I hope to be able to visit her next time I am in gabs or next time she is up in this region again.
I hope these case studies have been both entertaining and informative in giving you an idea of the symptoms and side effects of WWCS. If you or a loved one are experiencing any or all of these, or similar symptoms, you may want to consult a local on the possibility of you being a Peace Corps Volunteer, ex-pat, or foreign resident.
As always, hugs and smooches,
p.s. Happy two year in country anniversary to me! :)