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Unpacked and Alone, In Botswana

By Pete Vernon

April 29, 2016

As I walked through the pre-dawn darkness past the mongooses dotting the fields of my new home, I remember thinking that it was cold. In my imagination Africa was not supposed to be this cold.

Forty-eight hours earlier I had been in New York, sweating through the late-June heat, packing up as much of my life as I could fit into three suitcases. The city had been home for four years, and though it and I were not quite done with each other, I felt that we needed a break. On the plane ride across the Atlantic I read Joan Didion, which was a terrible idea, and lamented the life and city I was leaving behind. Like her, I could remember, with a clarity that still makes something in my chest constrict, the moment New York began for me, but couldn’t figure out when exactly it ended. Like her, I fell in love with the city in summer and decided to leave several Aprils later to decamp for a warmer locale.

Looking back now, over three years filled with friendships and familiarities in a sleepy city that never offered the extremes of New York love and depression but did provide stability and a sense of belonging, I struggle to find the person that I was in those early days. Unsure of myself, dazed by my surroundings, desperately longing for the life I left, chilly mornings and dusty afternoons blend together leaving me mostly with snapshot memories: sitting on a bench beneath an acacia tree at 3 AM, staring up at the southern sky while talking to a girl eight thousand miles away; hiking a rocky trail to the top of a mountain on the outskirts of town and returning to the car parked in a nearby supermarket parking lot to find our phones stolen; standing in front of a classroom of students and feeling very out of place.

I wasn’t sure what I expected Africa to provide; it was enough at first that it was simply not New York. My first full day in Botswana was also my first day of work, teaching history at a high school in the middle of Gaborone, the country’s capital city. Arriving the afternoon before, while the students were away on holiday, meant that my first hours were solitary ones. I wandered the dirt paths of the campus, overwhelmed by trees I didn’t recognize and trying to adjust to air lighter, dryer, and dustier than what I was used to. I lay awake late into the night, unsettled by the time shift and the silence outside my window.

As I struggled through my transition and spent too much time alone, solace came, as I expect it does for many teachers, in the form of students. The great and terrible thing about teaching is that no matter what happens in your own life, the kids will always be there waiting for you. This was true for me in New York, and I found it true again in Botswana.

I had expected some sort of orientation period, a chance to get acclimated to the school and perhaps a slow handover of classes from the previous teacher. Upon arriving for my first morning staff meeting, however, I was handed a schedule and pointed in the direction of my first period class. I hesitated and asked what I was supposed to teach. “Didn’t you get the package we sent?” asked Abdul, the gregarious South African head of the history department. The blank look on my face must have been answer enough because he quickly continued, “Eish, damn BotswanaPost. It’s okay, we’ll get you caught up this afternoon. Don’t worry, hey? The kids are great.”

On the last point he was absolutely correct. As I stumbled through the first few days trying to get caught up, they were understanding, accommodating, and – as I came to know over the next three years – hilarious.

When I recently asked several of those students what they remembered about the beginning of my time in Botswana, I received a variety of answers with one common thread: my apparently hyper-American appearance. “The first couple of days you really looked like a tourist when you walked around campus. The wide-brimmed hat and the backpack and the red sunburnt skin didn’t help you fit in very much,” Nicole said. Onalenna went even further: “Ask every African about the American starter pack and they will give you the exact same answer. It involves a 1.5-liter water bottle, sun glasses, a pair of shorts, an old sports team shirt, and takkies (sneakers). They always look like they are going to go on some wilderness survival hike for twelve days. That’s how you dressed every time you weren’t working. So my initial impression was: Oh no, another one.”

In hindsight, their impressions cut deeper than they probably knew. For a long while, I did feel like a visitor there, and apparently didn’t hide it as well as I thought I had. One of the students I came to know the best said, “Your first few weeks I could tell that you really missed home. You often talked about how you couldn’t wait to go back.” Perhaps she was especially perceptive, but she was right. I had left New York, but hadn’t yet given up the idea of the city as home. It would take several lonely months for me to accept the decision I had already made.

Botswana does not compel immediate reaction. My love for the country began far more subtly than my experience with New York. The early days were rougher, slower, dimmer, than that first summer in the city. The beginning of my time in Botswana is filled with memories of dark, lonely evenings, balanced by brief moments of light in the classroom. At the end of one of my lessons that first day, three girls came up at the end of class as I was packing my things. “We just wanted to say welcome,” Saira said as her friends nodded. “We’re happy to have you here.” They seemed so gratuitously kind that I glanced around to see if they were being sent up by other students to sarcastically mess with the new teacher. But they were sincere. And, for a moment, I was happy to be there, too.

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