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A man of many words. Profane, profound, loyal to a fault and a right rat bastard. I love the finer things in life: expensive cigars, cheap women and all the salted, cured meats I can eat. A friend to dogs, lover of humanity and despiser of people. If I were King the world would be a better place, because, well...I would be King! Oh, and I like ice cream.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

One Year In Peace Corps (Amended from Yesterday)

So today marks one year since I pulled out of Columbiana, looked across Arrowhead Lake for (what I hope) the last time and headed to Cleveland for the short flight to Philadelphia and the Peace Corps..

So today marks one year since I pulled out of Columbiana, looked across Arrowhead Lake for (what I hope) the last time and headed to Cleveland for the short flight to Philadelphia and the Peace Corps..

Ordinarily I do my year in review on January 1st. But this is a more significant date.

So what has transpired in the last 365 days?

First, the raw numbers:
Miles run-978 (My lowest since 1977, yet still on pace to hit 100,000 miles by my 60th birthday. I only have to average 2.5 per day, not as easy as it sounds, but eminently doable.)
Countries visited- five (South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and Swaziland, in that order)
UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited- Squat. (Not a good year for cultural and historical edification.)
Books Read – 113 (Not bad. Lot’s of alone time. Also explains why my Setswana is so bad. Ga ke bua Setswana sentle!)
Times I’ve ALMOST sold my house- Three (Last time was close. Within five days of the closing the buyer lost his job. Curses!)

So what else? Phew! Lots!

The reason my companeros and I came here is to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS. I doubt any of us had much of an idea how hard that thing is. You know, as bad as it was, AIDS in the US was brought under “control” relatively quickly. Certainly it could have been handled MUCH better (Read “And the Band Played On…”). But the Grim Reaper no longer hovers over every potential sexual encounter like he did in the late 1980s-early 90s.

Would that it were so easy here. We are up against so many variables it boggles the mind. Every couple months it seems a new focus arises. ABC (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condomize). Circumcision. Multiple Concurrent Partners. Sexual Networks. So far no magic bullets.

BILLIONS of Dollars, Euros, Yen, Yuan and Pula have been poured into this over the last 20 and odd years. Yet the problem ceases to go away. Or even get much better. Whole bureaucracies have sprung up around the banner of HIV/AIDS. I can’t even begin to keep track of all the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations).

I can’t be expected to understand it all and/or what it will take to make any difference.

I have to self-censor this blog because Peace Corps monitors blogs and what we say. But here is my current opinion (subject to change tomorrow. Or even this afternoon.):

First of all one must recognize that historically Africa has been a hard place to survive. I often say for untold millennia Africa has been a pretty easy place to wake up dead on a given morning. Bugs, snakes, Africanized bees, malaria, dengue, Yellow Fever, wars, big animals that like to eat you. Africa has it all. For 200,000 (or is it two million?) years evolution here has been developed to ensure survival of the fittest. I don’t want to go into everything I think that entails. But suffice it to say it’s a life-pattern significantly different from what we in the west call “normal.”.

The influence of the western world in Africa has only been for around 150 years, give or take. Most countries here were colonized by the “Great Powers” in the late nineteenth century. Independence came to Africa barely fifty years ago.

Two hundred thousand years vs. 150.

I speak of Botswana, because that’s what I know best. But I also think much of what I say can be extrapolated throughout alot of sub-Saharan Africa.

Things here may APPEAR familiar to us. The clothes are basically the same. The cars are the same, except for the whole “driving on the left” thing. Television pumps American style entertainment into living rooms. Internet, though not ubiquitous, exists. Coca-Cola is Coca-Cola (only with REAL sugar, not corn sweetener. Big difference!) Over all it kind of LOOKS like us.

But those things lie only on the surface. Underneath the skin “Survival of the Fittest” still calls the shots. Behaviours that ensure propagation and survival of the species still reign supreme.

We think we (Africans and westerners) are all driving together on the same road in the same direction. But my feeling sometimes is we are in opposite lanes, going opposite directions, both hoping to arrive at the same place at the same time. We will never understand each other. We CAN’T understand each other! The cultural gaps are too wide.

I seriously doubt that our two years here will make any critical kind of difference. Even the six or so years since Peace Corps was reintroduced to Botswana hasn’t seen much improvement. Most likely 20 years here wouldn’t make much difference. Am I sorry I came? To the contrary. I HAD to come! How else would I learn? It is in the best efforts of evolution that we try to help our fellow humans survive and thrive.

How will this all turn out? I don’t know. I’m a doomsdayer. I see the potential scenario for Apocalypse in every society, ours included (I had a ball with Y2K. Of course I was wrong!).

What happens if/when the HIVirus mutates and the Anti-Retro Viral (ARV) drugs lose effect? Or the Botswana government, in the current financial crisis, can’t pay for the ARVs? Or Zimbabwe melts down (even more) and war spills over the borders. What if. What if? What if!

Maybe a cure will be found. That would be a HUGE monkey wrench in a lot of careers! Sometimes I think history will judge us from a distance of a century or so and say “Those blind fools! Couldn’t they see how stupid they were? If only they had done X or Y or Z!”

I don’t write this as an indictment. My service here is no better nor worse than if I was digging irrigation ditches in Mongolia. I’m glad I came. Sometimes we must tilt at windmills. Don’t read this and say “Oh, Wigal is unhappy. He’s sorry he came.” I am very happy. I have learned a lot and have found my happiness here. Four years ago I was at the nadir of my existence when I happened to fly into Beirut, Lebanon and my life changed immeasurably (Yes, Joseph). For the better I think. Botswana also is having that same effect.

One of the very few things I can say in Setswana is “letsatse le langwe kwa Paradise!” Don’t worry. The Motswana never understand what I’m saying either.

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