31 January 2009

My address and some photos

Some have been asking for my address and I've been quite unresponsive. Apologies. But now that I'm going to give it to you, you are obligated to write me : )

Michael Arnst
c/o Batsirai Chidzodzo
University of Botswana
Block 134-D
Office #039
Private Bag 0022
Gaborone, Botswana

A fellow CIEE-Botswana friend's blog

I'm not the only blogging in Botswana, and it would be a disservice to all if I didn't spread the word of my friends' blogs.

That being said, check out Jeremy Shea's blog at jeremyshea.blogspot.com.

Much more than me, he has added a lot of media like video and pictures of our first few weeks in this great country.



Since I arrived in Botswana I have been invited to three traditional dinners, and the menu has been pretty much the same: seswaai, pap, matemekwane, morogo, watermelon, roasted corn, and chicken.

So now for a bit of translation:
Seswaai - heavily salted and shredded goat (and sometimes beef) meat along with intestines

Pap - similar to grits, it is very thick porridge made of maize meal or other ground grains. It is the Southern and Eastern African (where it is called "ugali") equivalent of mashed potatoes, i.e. it goes with everything

Matemekwane - a large, softball-sized dumpling that is a self-contained meal when topped with any kind of sauce

Morogo - If Popeye were Motswana, this would be his thing. This spiced spinach dish is absolutely scrumpious.

Roasted Corn - Just what it sounds like, except it is maize, not sweet corn. In case you didn't notice, I skipped watermelon since some things don't need translation.

Chicken - I've discovered two things are universal: (1) Chicken with rice and (2) nobody likes repetitious cafeteria food.

Now, while I have quite a bit of goat here, I am still acquiring the taste for it. It's a bit gamey, and according to the Finnish students, it's a perfect stand-in for reindeer. What I refuse to acquire a taste for, however, is mopane worms. Named for the mopane trees on which these caterpillars feast, it is a great source of protein for many Africans, but my few tastings of them left me with a very buggy taste in my mouth of which no fizzy drink could rid.

Speaking of drinks, I have to mention that many people here drink soft drinks, affectionately known as "fizzy drinks". Along with many flavors of Fanta, there is also ginger beer (a very gingery ale and by no means an alcoholic drink), Iron Brew (an African Dr. Pepper of sorts), and Pine Nut, which, contra its English-language implications, contains no coniferous seed extract. It is just shorthand for Pineapple-Coconut, or in bartender vernacular, pina colada.

This post is by no means an exhaustive account of Botswana gastronomy, but I have to leave myself some material for future blog posts. Up next, some more pictures of my travels and an update about the student demonstration situation here at UB.

Tsamayang sentle (go well)!

27 January 2009

The Lost Poems

Okay, so I lied on two accounts. The last post was supposed to be a couple of Langston Hughes poems in honor of Obama's Inauguration and this post was supposed to be about goats. So to clear everything up, here are the promised poems and next time will be about goats, I swear.

NB My favorite lines come in the beginning of "America" and I can hear them in Obama's speeches.
You are America.
I am America
America— the dream,
America— the vision.
America— the star-seeking I.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me aint’ been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps


Little dark baby,
Little Jew baby,
Little outcast,
America is seeking the stars,
America is seeking tomorrow.
You are America.
I am America
America— the dream,
America— the vision.
America— the star-seeking I.
Out of yesterday
The chains of slavery;
Out of yesterday,
The ghettos of Europe;
Out of yesterday,
The poverty and pain of the old, old world,
The building and struggle of this new one,
We come
You and I,
Seeking the stars.
You and I,
You of the blue eyes
And the blond hair,
I of the dark eyes
And the crinkly hair.
You and I
Offering hands
Being brothers,
Being one,
Being America.
You and I.
And I?
Who am I?
You know me:
I am Crispus Attucks at the Boston Tea Party;
Jimmy Jones in the ranks of the last black troops marching
for democracy.
I am Sojourner Truth preaching and praying for the goodness
of this wide, wide land;
Today’s black mother bearing tomorrow’s America.
Who am I?
You know me,
Dream of my dreams,
I am America.
I am America seeking the stars.
Hoping, praying,
Fighting, dreaming.
There are stains
On the beauty of my democracy,
I want to be clean.
I want to grovel
No longer in the mire.
I want to reach always
After stars.
Who am I?
I am the ghetto child,
I am the dark baby,
I am you
And the blond tomorrow
And yet
I am my one sole self,
America seeking the stars.

26 January 2009

The Epidemic

So far I have been pretty far removed from the Africa found in Hollywood movies. Botswana, with an annual GDP per capita slightly over US$16,000, is a wealthy country by many standards. That statistic is higher than parts of Eastern Europe, all of Africa outside of South Africa, and many regions in Asia. Some of the university buildings are newer and nicer than those of Johns Hopkins, including the library and Faculty of Business building. Yet, there is something under the surface. It is an almost Hollywood twist, actually.

It's the shark under the Jersey Shore waters in "Jaws". It's HIV/AIDS.

Almost one in four in Botswana is living with HIV/AIDS, and the life expectancy has dropped to around 40 years. There is a public awareness campaign, while many Batswana complain that the disease is still mum's-the-word among the populace.

In his 2008 State of the Nation address, the current president, His Excellency Lt. Gen. Seretse Khama, said:
Through the proactive leadership of my immediate
predecessor, Former President Festus Mogae, we recognised that
we could not afford to ignore the scourge of HIV/AIDS in the blind
hope that it would somehow leave us in peace. Because we turned
away from denial, today there are many amongst us who would
otherwise not be here. We can take comfort in the fact that through
vigorous outreach efforts, today over 110,000 people are now on
ARVs, while we have reduced mother-to-child transmission of the
virus from infected females from about 40% to 4%.

Sir Seretse Khama heads a government that has been tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana with the help of diamond wealth (wisely spent on anti-retroviral drugs) and US foreign aid. One of the more ironic legacies of Bush is that his one success is right here in Botswana, not in Iraq or Afghanistan. Almost single-handedly, Bush increased foreign aid directed at Africa's HIV/AIDS crisis to unprecedented levels. The President Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief (or known by its sexier name, PEPFAR) was a 5-year, $15 billion commitment which was subsequently renewed by congress last year.

In order to see both the good (non-profit orphanages), the bad (the number of orphans), and the ugly (the sores on some of the orphans' legs), we began our volunteer work at an orphange in the neighboring village of Tlokweng. The SOS Children's Village there helps children orphaned by the AIDS scourge and does wonderful work. It is a home, a school, and playground for dozens of kids and host to many volunteers like our CIEE group.

Saturday morning we piled into the kombi (an oversized van) and arrived at SOS 'round nine and worked with the children until noon. It is truly exhausting work, as they have boundless energy. I was huffing and puffing, one child climbing on the back, one on the front, and one more needing help with his math homework. My clothes got dirtier in those three hours than the first three weeks in Botswana!

Without a doubt, however, we are all looking forward to going back in two weeks.

I hope to become a bit more serious with this blog. That is, writing more regularly. The next post will be about the food eat and I'll give you a one-word preview: GOAT.

Without further ado, go grab your popcorn and enjoy the feature presentation: a cute picture of Batswana children.

22 January 2009

The New African President

Here's my first post from a new side of history. For the past couple of weeks, Batswana have asked me if I come from the "Land of Obama," an almost inverted reference to my location in the "Land of Obama's Ancestors." The students at UB tell me that they are in a do-or-die competition with the other regions of the world, all of which wish to claim Obama as their own president. But what surprised me was the subdued excitement surrounding his inauguration . . . on Tuesday they looked at me incredulously, as if to ask, "Hasn't he been president since November?" Yes, maybe he has, but the moment lost none of its impact on the American students here.

In order to continue, I must quickly jump back. Last Friday, my CIEE group along with the four students here with the Associated Colleges of the Midwest were invited to the US Embassy for a briefing on security and lifestyle issues here in Botswana. There was nothing said that was scarier than my security briefing back in Baltimore freshman year. The most interesting tidbit is a variant of Texas justice here called African Street Justice. Example: man grabs my backpack, I yell "thief!", people in street run after said thief until he finds a policeman to protect him from the mob. Moral of my story: I still have my backpack.

I digress. While at the Embassy, we discussed the upcoming inauguration and one of the staff generously invited us to her home to watch it on a big screen. Thus we return to the original subject of this blog.

We arrived at her practically palatial home, strategically placed across the street from the Botswana Vice President's home. The meal was quite American, with a great helping of meatballs with veggies and dip. Some peri peri chicken kabobs stayed off my plate, due to their intense heat, although they might have warmed me up while watching everyone shiver in frigid January temps.

My personal observations about the inauguration are quite unimportant, as most of the New York Times op-ed writers have them pretty much covered. The only part of Obama's speech which stood out above the rest was his call for us to own up to our own faults. Perhaps that is merely the Catholic guilt in me searching for atonement, but I think we have a great moral teacher leading our nation, a person who will shape the way we view America.

On a more pertinent note vis-a-vis Botswana, Bush may have left office with historical disapproval ratings but one of his best legacies was/is his work right here in Africa. His unprecedented increase in AIDS/HIV funding has been felt in every corner of my host country, reaching beyond the pharmacies and research labs into the villages via the reintroduction of Peace Corps members. For this, we must be thankful.

In the next post, I'm going to put up a couple poems of Langston Hughes which I think are very prescient as well as at least one of picture of Botswana. It's hard to promise images because of the slow connection here, but I will try my darndest.


18 January 2009

A Thing Called Botswana Time

First off, apologies to those who actually are following this blog. It has been two weeks since I first arrived, and while my first week I plead the fifth since there was no internet, I am pretty much at fault for the lack of posts this last week. I intend on mollifying that by sharing some pictures from our cultural excursion this weekend.

My first week of orientation was pretty uneventful insofar as most of my time was spent unpacking, getting the lay of the land and hours upon hours of orientation. Tedious things like buying more toiletries, getting sheets, buying a new and temporary cell phone, etc. Other than saying my CIEE participants, as well as the twenty other international students (mostly from the States), are great companions, I think it will be more worthwhile to jump into this last week.

This post's title pretty much sums up everything around here: it's slow. From walking to class registration, we all like to take our time in this 95-degree heat. Remember that catchy song from "The Lion King"? Hakuna matata? "It means no worries, for the rest of your days." The students queuing up to add/drop classes in the first week will definitely tell you that they indeed have worries, you can't feel it. While we didn't finish registration until mid-week, classes "started" on Monday. I must emphasize the quotation marks, as lecturers and students don't really show up in the first week. The reasons are numerous, changing and insignificant. But all that free time allowed the students to prepare a demonstration and class-walk out.

The issue is student allowances. Botswana's students do not owe school fees and in order to encourage all to attend university, the government uses some of its diamond wealth to give UB (University of Botswana) students a living allowance every month. While historically these demonstrations have included weeks without classes, this one was only mildly disruptive. Most students avoided classes and lecturers just shook their heads during the classes that actually showed up.

If student riots in the first week isn't exciting enough, I saw zebras this weekend. Today, in fact, on safari. This weekend was UB's International Student Cultural Excursion, in which I took part and which included short trips to a missionary school museum in Mochudi (learn more in the link), rock art from Botswana's aboriginal inhabitants and an overnight in a "cultural village" which reenacts traditional Setswana dance and song in order to keep it alive. Upon leaving the cultural village this morning, we spent the afternoon at the Mokolodi Game Reserve just a few kilometers outside of Gaborone.

Tomorrow is the hopefully the real start of classes, with reading and studying to commence in earnest. This shall not interfere with my blogging as my laziness has, so please keep me on my toes by commenting and emailing me.


03 January 2009

Pre-departure reflections

I have a confession: I have a thing for early- to mid-20th Century poetry. And I'm confessing to you that my favorite poet is a lifelong insurance salesman, Wallace Stevens. He is a man of imagination, and I am man of big dreams. Sometimes big dreams confound people, especially those who retain their Midwestern sensibilities. This is why so many people ask me, "Why Africa?" My immediate and specific answer is part-white guilt and part-Human Development Index statistics. The larger answer is, a la Occam's Razor, simpler: Africa is a land of imagination. Ancestral worship and boabab trees. King Solomon's Mines and "the clicky language." 

My hope in going to Africa is to stretch my imagination, to allow me to dream even bigger, as big as the setting sun over the Kalahari desert. Of course, I realize that painful and deadly realities face the people of Africa, but there is always "new news". This is what Charlayne Hunter-Gult calls the stories of Africans shaping their own futures and remaking their continent, or in other words, the stories of imaginative minds tackling reality. So I now give you the goal of my semester in Botswana: I, Michael Arnst, hope to return to America wearing a sombrero. That's right, a sombrero. A figurative sombrero. 

"Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses -
As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon -
Rationalists would wear sombreros."

From Six Significant Landscapes, Wallace Stevens.

A brightly colored, rhythmic and extra-round sombrero. That's what I'll be wearing on May 15th, America, so get used to it!