Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Life-Cycle of a Volunteer: The Six Month Hump

Among the first things that a volunteer learns is this:  we all go through very similar phases.  Typically, the first six months is the hardest portion of service for any volunteer.  Adjustments are still being made, the idea of years of service looms over their head, and often times they’re still detaching from their life in the states. 

I’ll take a second here to apologize for not having updated my blog in a long time.  The majority of my writings happen in moments of clarity inspired by something in my day-to-day life.  Unfortunately, those moments have been few and far between lately.  Over the last few weeks I’ve been sick, homesick, and dealing with a number of other issues.  My thoughts have been very jumbled, and I haven’t been able to find the motivation to write.  I haven’t felt that I’ve had anything of any real substance to say.  But, as you may have surmised, that has changed tonight.

Why is being a Peace Corps volunteer so difficult?  As I’ve said before, it’s not the lack of amenities.  Those are minor adjustments in the grand scheme of things.  I think I’m starting to recognize what is it that is just so difficult, but I’m going to try not to get ahead of myself here.

So I’ll start by saying this.  I’ve never really lived alone before.  There are some things about living alone that I love, but that’s far outweighed by moments of loneliness and frustration.  I was fortunate to have a great group of friends from a very young age.  Particularly, I think back to my years as an upperclassman at Wofford.  I lived with some of my closest friends and had such a fantastic community all around me.  I had very few moments of loneliness and isolation during my entire 4 years of college. 

My life now is a different story.  Even the busiest volunteers find themselves with a good deal of down-time.  We don’t have cars to travel, most of us are rather constrained financially, and we have fewer friends near by than we’re used to.  This leaves us with plenty of time for contemplation and reflection.  I would dare to say that after a few months, volunteers even get beyond that.  We’re stripped of community, coping mechanisms, and many of the distractions from our lives back home.  I would venture to say that at some point in the first six months, every volunteer is forced to take a hard look at themselves.  And I do mean forced.  We’re left alone with ourselves, which, when you take everything else away, can actually be pretty frightening.  We’re forced to confront the things about ourselves that we don’t like, as well as the things that maybe shouldn’t even be a part of our lives.  I can honestly say that I’ve never really assessed the things about myself that I do and don’t like.  It’s a challenging thing to do.  But when you have lots of time on your hands, it happens. 

There are plenty of things that I do like about myself.  I like the fact that I’m a highly analytical person.  It helps me discern why I feel the way I feel at any given time.  I like the fact that I thrive off of my relationships with the people that are closest to me.  I like the fact that I’m often times able to see the big picture and not just focus on the present.  However, all of those things are being challenged and I’m also forced to confront the things about myself that I’m not crazy about.  I never really realized that I had the ability to drive myself crazy.  Sometimes I have the hardest time letting go of things… 

Anyways, this is getting a bit tangential.  Let me just get to the point.  Peace Corps service is challenging because, as volunteers, we’re left alone with ourselves.  I think many of you would be surprised at the big questions in life that we never ask ourselves.  Who am I?  How do I really feel about myself?  What do I really want out of life?  Do I have the ability to achieve my dreams?  Even writing these questions down is daunting, because I honestly can’t say that I have answers for them right now. 

The redeeming fact about all of this is that I’ve come to a point where I recognize what it is that I’m being faced with.  My challenge is not immersing in a new culture, finding a way to make a difference, or getting used to an alternative lifestyle.  Those things may be challenging, but I’m confident that I can, and already am, doing all of that.  The real challenge that I’m faced with is coming to terms with myself.  It’s so easy to gloss over these big questions when you’re constantly surrounded with love and affirmation.  Take that away, though, and you may see that there is a lot that truly needs to be dealt with.

  “Mastering others is strength.  Mastering yourself makes you fearless.”  -Lao Tzu

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Morutabana Bakang

The first couple of months as a PCV can be kind of tough.  You have to get integrated into a foreign community, all the while trying to find direction for your service.  Unfortunately, many of us are plagued by having way too much time on our hands.  Don’t get me wrong, after PST a little time to myself was welcomed.  But the appeal of time to myself quickly diminished.  After a month or so, I was confronted by a question.  Why am I here?  I think about all of the things I’m missing out on, and I’m forced to question whether it’s worth it.  And it’s hard to get up in the morning if the answer is no.  So my goal as of late has been to turn that no into a yes. 

Sadly, my work at the Xhosa clinic is not your typical Peace Corps work.  Or maybe it’s just not what someone might envision when they go through the process of joining the Peace Corps.  My role at the clinic primarily focuses on systems strengthening and information management.  In other words, the medical staff is good at practicing medicine, but bad at organization and management.  I spend a lot of my time organizing and developing policies, working on performance development plans, and making sure the patient records are properly organized, stored, etc.  Outside of that, I’m trying to help delegate different tasks to encourage sustainable growth.  This isn’t exactly the fulfilling type of work that I signed up for.  That may sound selfish, but I have to find a way to be satisfied with what I’m doing.  Unfortunately the needs of the clinic and my needs don’t quite line up.

The beauty of our roles as PCVs is that our jobs are very loosely defined.  Our primary work may be kind of structured, but we all take up secondary projects that can be anything we choose.  I’ve spent some of my spare time getting to know the staff at Xhosa Primary School.  Today I was at a meeting with the guidance counselors in which we were discussing how we might acquire textbooks and a few computers.  While I was there, I met a teacher by the name of Rosemary (she has a Tswana name, but it’s too long and difficult to pronounce for me to memorize.  Her words, not mine.)  Rosemary told me that she once worked with a PCV who helped teach her students to speak English.  Essentially, the novelty of learning from an American helped the students to engage in the material and become proficient speakers.  Long story short, I start teaching English tomorrow.

Personally, I love the philosophy behind this opportunity.  If you were to walk around my community for an hour, you would realize that an American is a true novelty here.  It can be irritating at times, like when I get hit up for money on a daily basis.  But, for whatever reason, almost everyone I pass wants to speak with me.  This is especially true once I speak to them in Setswana.  I love that I can use this novelty to my advantage and help some students learn English.  Being proficient in English can take you a long way in Botswana, and it’s typically a good indicator of someone’s level of education.  This isn’t always true, but I think there is a pretty strong correlation.  I’m hoping that this new project will help me feel a little more fulfilled in my day-to-day life.

On another note, I really miss home.  That seems like a funny thing to say, because it’s been true ever since I left.  However, the nature of it changes.  At first, I mostly missed good food and hot showers.  You get used to that.  I still miss those things, but I don’t think about it all that much.  However, I will tell you this.  If you want to know how you feel about something, go with out it for a while.  If you want to know what you’re really passionate about, separate yourself from your life (as you know it) for some time.  I can tell you that there is a short list of things that I’ll never stop missing as long as I’m here.  These are the kinds of things I think about every day: baseball, snowboarding, camping in the mountains, sitting on the beach at night, my hometown, etc.  Of course a number of people are a large part of this too.  There are certain people that I tie to anything that I’m passionate about.  The people aren’t just another aspect of my life back home that I miss, they’re part of everything that I miss.  Being away can really teach you how much you take for granted.

On the same note, I find myself taking certain things for granted here.  Sometimes I think too much about the things I miss from back home and how much I look forward to going home one day.  What I fail to do is think about what I appreciate about being in Botswana.  That list is much shorter, but it’s growing.  I’m fortunate to have a beautiful scene right outside of my house.  During the day, Mahalapye can be kind of mundane.  But at night, the stars are probably the best I’ve ever seen.  If you really sit outside and watch, you’ll see a number of shooting stars in a short amount of time.  Over the last week, I’ve taken a liking to just sitting on my back step at the end of the day and stargazing as I try to put things into perspective (can anyone guess where I’m sitting as I write this blog?)  I know it’s a cliché thing to say, but sitting under the stars really makes me feel very small.  The beautiful part about that is that it has a way of making my problems seem just as small.  And two years doesn't seem quite so long anymore...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Truth in Cliche

Since I’ve been here, there has been one phrase in particular that I’ve heard over and over.  “Your Peace Corps experience is what you make it.”  This is something that I recognized to be true, but also took to be very general, almost cliché advice.  However, over the past few weeks I’ve grown to find that to be truer every single day.  It’s so true that it doesn’t just apply to my service as a whole, but it applies to every single day.  I’m realizing that more often than not, the kind of day I have is directly related to the kind of choices I make.  Recognizing that is often the first indicator of what kind of day I’m going to have.

On the bad days I often find myself slipping into a mentality where I see myself as influenced by my environment.  I feel like being here weighs on me, and I usually give in to some kind of escapism.  Usually this means that I retreat to laying out the couch and watching some type of TV show or movie.  On the surface, this doesn’t seem so bad.  But usually I’m just kind of hoping that the world around me will slip away for a while and that I’ll become unaware of my situation.  This often keeps me from doing anything productive.  And when I fail to do anything productive, the descent back into reality is always a painful one.  I become very aware of how far from home I am, and I don’t see the point.  What’s the point in being so far away from home and familiarity if you’re not going to do something worthwhile?  It’s become clear to me that this lifestyle isn’t sustainable, and I won’t be successful in my service if this is how I live my days.

On the good days I usually see myself as influential to my surroundings.  Usually good days involving running, working out, reading, writing, or doing significant work at the clinic or school.  These days are still very challenging, but I am often very thankful for the challenge; I would even say I welcome it.  These are the days where I feel like I’m growing, changing, and preparing myself for a better future.  I’m able to see the challenges to come as manageable, and I look forward to my future with great anticipation.  I typically find myself to be much more confident on these days.  Confidence goes a long way here.  One of my fellow PCVs recently wrote that “Peace Corps service strips an individual to their core.”  That being said, self-confidence is a necessity here.  If you don’t have it, you’re forced to try to develop it.  Otherwise, you’ll most likely be miserable. 

The problem that I’ve encountered now is that knowing about this pattern isn’t enough.  Living passionately will never be formulaic.  It’s still so incredibly easy to come home after work and simply give in to escapism.  If you really stop and think about it, life is full of ways that we numb ourselves.  There are many things in life that aren’t inherently bad, but when we give ourselves to them, they become crutches.  I’m becoming more and more convinced that living positively and passionately is a choice.  However, it’s not a simple choice.  It’s not choosing to run, write, and be productive.  It’s choosing to be proactive in pursuing whatever it is that will make you happy.  Unfortunately, we often mistake what makes us happy for what we most immediately want.  If that were the way to go, I would be seeing some of you in about 48 hours.  Sometimes being happy takes looking a little deeper.  I may not want to go for a run right now, but if I do I know I’ll feel better about myself, and I’ll get a little endorphin kick as well.  The bottom line is that I feel that trying to be happy takes being introspective, incredibly honest with ourselves, and having the will-power to make things happen.  Some days I succeed at this, and others I fail.  C’est la vie!

I'll soon be heading back to Gaborone for a few more weeks of training.  Although I'm not looking forward to 8 hours of sessions per day, I AM looking forward to hot showers, hot meals (that I didn't have to cook), and some quality time with my fellow PCVs.  I've been told that the period between swearing in and IST (the period of time that i'm now finishing up) is often the hardest as a PCV.  There is the large amount of time before you go home, your service is really ambiguous, and it can be quite lonely at times.  Right now I find that I have to tell myself to just put one foot in front of the other sometimes.  That may sound a bit sad, but when I think about it that way...every step is leading me a little bit closer to a future that i'm very excited about.  I'll still have my bad days, i'm sure.  But my hope is that, in a general sense, things will begin to get easier with each step I take.  

(The article I mentioned is by Ross Szabo.  It’s well worth the read if you have a free  moment.  It may be primarily about Peace Corps service, but there is definitely something in it for everyone:

Monday, July 11, 2011

Walden via Botswana

‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is do dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.’
                                                                                    Henry David Thoreau-Walden

I’ve said before that many people join the Peace Corps for reasons far beyond the perceived altruism.  The reasons vary from person to person and situation to situation.  Personally, I think there is a lot to be gained from being so far removed.  I am relatively sure that it’s of no surprise to many of you that the pace of life is much slower here.  It offers plenty of time for contemplation and reflection, which, as an extroverted-introvert, I take full advantage of.  I feel as if I’m in a position to take the necessary time to evaluate many different aspects of life; both within society and within my own life.  Being far removed from your own culture allows a certain perspective that people rarely experience otherwise.  Although Thoreau, and Transcendentalism in general, can be a bit exaggerated for my taste, it does a fine job of expressing the belief that we don’t always evaluate our own lives as much as we should.  I’m of the opinion that we’re a part of a culture that has learned to busy itself with a lot of activities that are, in the end, meaningless.  Unfortunately, I’ve integrated into a culture that shares this trait.  Botswana doesn’t share the break-neck pace of the American lifestyle, but it has a seemingly infinite amount of bureaucracy and a fascination for social hierarchy.  Needless to say, this often causes me great frustrations.  One of the primary reasons that I left America was to separate myself with this endless cycle of busying oneself with the American Dream.  I appreciate the themes of solitude and self-discovery in Walden, and it’s something that I’ve been searching for since I left.  Unfortunately, this is a difficult task in a society that, in my opinion, is obsessed with it’s façade of social hierarchy.  It turns out that separating oneself from society is a rather difficult task.  After all, most people are a direct product of their environment. 

So, it seems that despite being thousands of miles from home, I’m still set against my surrounding culture.  At the heart of solitude and self-discovery, there is a search for truth.  What I’m finding is that, much like the bureaucracy of my new culture, there is a lot of meaninglessness to work through in order to approach matters of truth.  I think Thoreau says it best:

‘Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality and say ‘This is’, and no mistake. . . be it life or death, we crave only reality’

Recently, I was standing at the top of a hill (or should I say THE hill) in a village called Kumekwane.  I watched closely as life went on below.  I saw the cattle grazing, children playing, and adults walking up and down the dirt road.  It was as if life was moving forward, but nothing was really happening.  It was a very organic type of experience, and I came to the realization that life will always move at the same pace.  We may find meaningless work to busy ourselves with while in search of the American Dream, or we may find ways to circumvent responsibility and do nothing of any consequence; both are merely our own poorly constructed facades.  I’m beginning to think that shaking off these constraints is key to really living life.  Either construct is working against the natural order of things.  I’m hoping that this realization will help me to rid myself of the realms of my life that are meaningless, to busy myself with what is meaningful, and in doing so, become ‘awakened’:

‘We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.’

Beethoven-Fantasia in D Minor

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Correction on my address:

William Blakely Ruble
Box 3470
Mahalapye, Botswana

NOT Private Box.

Also, hand sanitizer is another great thing to send!


Monday, June 20, 2011

Finally a PCV!

Well, I’m officially a PCV now.  I moved into my house in Mahalapye about a week and a half ago.  And, as I suspected, everything has changed.  I’m no longer subject to the ‘go, go, go!’ mentality of PST, and I no longer feel like I’m being treated like a twelve year old.  I have time to do things that I enjoy now (reading, writing, socializing within my new community, etc), and I’m much happier.  I suppose I’ll start with work and then move on to play…

I’ve just started my second week working at the Xhosa 1 clinic.  Our first two months at site are dedicated to doing a community assessment, so the tasks start off very basic and the more complex programs come after In-Service Training.  So far, I’ve done a lot of data entry, as I’m the only one at the clinic (that I know of) that is fluent in the use of computers.  I’ve spent a good deal of time entering results from lab tests, primarily CD4 cell counts and viral loads, and filing the hard copies of this data.  Apparently these results have just been piling up over the last year or two, because a few of the results have dated by to ’09.  This goes to highlight that monitoring and evaluation is not one of Botswana’s strengths.  This may also explain why there are so often problems with issues like funding and adherence.  The levels of accountability are very low.  Aside from data entry, my counterpart has spoken with me about helping them with some upcoming project, but the details are a little sketchy at the moment.  Also, I have a friend/colleague in the community named Mpumi who has approached me about helping out with a safe male circumcision campaign.  Outside of the clinic, I’ve met with some of the major stakeholders within my immediate community.  In particular, I met a local Kgosi (headman) who publicly introduced me to a large group of community members (which is why at least once or twice a day I hear ‘Hey Bakang!’ from someone I don’t really know…).  I also had a brief meeting with the staff at the Xhosa Primary School.  I’m particularly interested to check out the state of their Life Skills classes and see what programs they have in place to address prevention and support for children affected by HIV.  The headmaster mentioned to me that the school has a large number of OVC’s (Orphans/Vulnerable Children), so there is definitely a lot of potential for programs at the school.  I’ve only been at my site for a few weeks, but I already see a lot of potential for strong programs.  Now I have to see if I can find passionate people to work alongside, and also a little bit of funding. 

As I just moved to Mahalapye, I don’t have a whole lot going on outside of work yet.  That’s been a very good thing for me, though.  The pace of life has slowed down a lot, and I’ve had a lot more time to focus on myself.  I’ve gotten a good bit of reading done over the last couple of days, and I feel more relaxed than I have since the day the Peace Corps called me to tell me that I had an invitation on the way.  There are a number of volunteers in close proximity to me, which is nice, but I’ve been able to make a few non-PC friends in the community, which has been encouraging.  I suppose that makes it feel a little more like home.  My house is on a family compound, which I was very opposed to when I was in PST, but I’m actually very thankful for now.  Different family members have come to check on me multiple times to make sure I’m settling in well and that I have everything I need.  They also invite me into their home occasionally to share a meal with them.  I’ll never turn down a good home-cooked meal!  They also respect my privacy, which goes a long way with me.

Over the years, I’ve spent a vast amount of time thinking about Peace Corps service.  PST was a really rough experience for a variety of reasons, but it really challenged my preconceived notions about what Peace Corps service would be like.  Luckily, PST is a thing of the past and I’m finally a volunteer.  My service is different than I anticipated in a lot of ways, but the essentials are a lot like I had hoped.  The people at my clinic seem to appreciate me being there, and are very excited to work alongside of me.  We’ve established relationships based on our individual strengths and the realization that we can be mutually beneficial.  Although I’ve only been doing data entry so far, the work itself means a lot more in the bigger picture.  Having that data on the computer means easier access and quicker assessment of ARV regiments.  The clinic becomes a little more efficient and, in the end, can take on a little bit more.  I’m not saying this to boast in myself in any way, but to just point out that something simple can be much more fulfilling because there is a bigger picture.  Being so far away from home can be so incredibly challenging sometimes, but a sense of purpose goes a long way in making it manageable.  Don’t get me wrong, I would hate to be stuck entering lab results into a computer for two years.  But, I think that if data entry can feel a bit more meaningful, how much more meaningful will bigger projects be?  I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.

Some people have asked about care packages, so I figured I would address that now.  First off, I have a new address for my site:

William Blakely Ruble
Private Box No. 3470
Mahalapye, Botswana

Now, for ideas of things to send:

-Magazines of anything I’m interested in (Travel, Snowboarding, Martial Arts, Outdoors/Adventure, etc…) 
-Easy Mac/Doritos (awesome combination)
-Books (Just ask what I want at the moment, I’ve got tons in mind)
-Sour Parch Kids (delicious)
-Mixed CD’s with good new music
-Things to decorate my house (pictures, notes, things that remind me of home, etc)
-Trash bags (hard to find here…)
-Dried fruit
-Any other kind of delicious food
-Cold medicine (I’m not sick, but it’s hard to find good stuff here)
-Ask if you need any other ideas, I’m sure I’ll think of more…

Thanks in advance to anyone who sends anything.  Getting a care package is a huge morale booster! 

Please write me.  I want to hear from everyone about how everyone is doing, etc.  It should be really easy for me to get back to you quickly IF you send an email to me via  I can’t access Facebook all that often, and I can’t usually access my Wofford account, so make sure you send things to my gmail account. 

Ke itumetse, sala sentle!

Wolf Like Me-TV on the Radio

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

[insert witty title]

Have you ever had the feeling that time is standing still?  For the past 8 weeks, I’ve been trying to get past that very feeling.  Day by day I’ve been subject to many of the same frustrations.  It hasn’t been all bad, but the frustrations have a way of piling up when they are repetitive and constant.  Essentially, I’ve been subject to my own purgatory.  This idea of ‘two years’ looms over me every time I feel the weight of my frustrations.  Fortunately, in one (hopefully) short week, I’ll be upgraded from a trainee to a PCV.  Our swearing in ceremony will be conducted next Tuesday, and I’ll be freed from my metaphorical purgatory.  I understand that this probably sounds slightly dramatic, but I’m thousands of miles from home.  I think I’ve earned that right.

My hope in pointing this out is to give some insight from what I’m coming from and where I’m headed.  Last week, I spent a few days on Mahalpye, my home for the next two years.  I will live in a ward called Xhosa 1, which is just a short combi ride from downtown Mahalpye.  I’ll be working in the local clinic, and living about 1.5k away.  I’ve met a few of my co-workers, and even received my first task.  The staff in my clinic would like to learn how to use computers, and especially learn how to type.  Given that some of my first memories are of using computers (back in the days of DOS for you old folks!), I think I can do this.  These kinds of tasks aren’t typically primary tasks for PCV’s, but it’ll be a great introductory project that will help me get to know my staff and build a rapport.  Conceptually, my goal within the clinic is capacity building.  I want the organization and the people within it to acquire skills and systems that will help promote the operations of the clinic long after I’ve gone. 

I also have responsibilities outside of the clinic.  I’ll pick up at least one secondary project within the community.  Given that I have a background of working with youth, that may be one potential outlet for my secondary project.  However, both my primary project and my secondary project are subject to a needs assessment.  During my first two months at site my job is to meet stakeholders in my host organization and community and find out what the primary needs of each are.  After that, my task is to find ways to mobilize the community to solve their own issues.  Essentially, I want to act as a catalyst within the communities.  I could do my best to solve their problems, but then things would collapse when I leave in two years.  Successful PCV’s are able to push communities to not only solve their own problems but also improve their own systems and highlight new opportunities within the existing infrastructure. 

On a personal note, the challenges of being in Peace Corps and starting a new life have really pushed me to confront facets of my own personality that I’ve overlooked.  During my training we’ve talked a lot about the concept of sustainability.  Recently, I’ve been taking that concept and looking inward.  I’ve begun to realize that I have changes to make in order to promote my own sustainability.  Hidden within America’s Puritanical roots, there are certain concepts that have become societal norms that are very unhealthy.  The idea of charity is beautiful example.  Our concept of charity leads some overly-sympathetic people to self deprivation and borderline masochism in efforts to appease some needs within the community.  While this may be noble, it’s certainly not sustainable (except for your occasional saint).  Personally, I’ve found that I’m often easily burdened with what I feel are other’s expectations for me.  So much so, that I will sacrifice time I’ve set aside for myself to make sure that I complete what I feel are obligations.  This often leads to compounding stress and a lack of general well-being.  Lately I’ve had to force myself to set those expectations aside and do what I think is best for me.  Since then, I’ve felt more equipped to handle the daunting 2 years ahead of me. 

It’s funny how it’s so easy to learn about concepts like sustainability (or utilitarian concepts in general) and take them to heart in every way possible except for individually.  It almost feels as if we’re creating double standards within the construct of society.  It’s so easy to know what’s best for everyone and everything except ourselves.  In the past, I’ve considered myself the type of person who is ‘in touch’ with himself.  I’m just now realizing that there are a multitude of things that I really don’t know about myself yet…

I always wanted to be the type of person who always had more questions than answers.  And until now, I never thought about that in the terms of oneself…

Joseph Arthur-In the Sun