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Study Abroad and Domestic Study Away

Notes from Abroad: Rachel in Botswana, South Africa

Notes from Abroad is a new feature on the Off-Campus Programs website, in which we highlight small snippets of a student’s experience. This week’s feature is from Rachel Lertzman ’16, an Environmental Studies and Politics major currently studying abroad in Botswana, South Africa as part of the ACM Botswana program.

Dumela Dr. Speros (Hello Dr. Speros),

I have been in Botswana for almost two months now and boy do I have a lot to report! First of all, I am ecstatic that I chose to study abroad in Southern Africa. To be honest, I didn’t know much about the area prior to coming here—I have to admit that I didn’t know anything about South Africa except that Nelson Mandela was a highly revered political world figure. But from both my studies at the University of Botswana and my travels to South Africa in Johannesburg and Durban, I have learned a great deal about the brutal apartheid regime and the struggles South Africa is still facing today in the post-apartheid era.

But enough about South Africa, I am studying in Botswana after all! The University of Botswana is the national university of the country and is located in the urbanized capitol city of Gaborone (pronounced “hah-bah-rone-ay”). Although many people in Botswana still live in mud huts and will see wild elephants walking around in their backyards, Gaborone paints a beautiful façade for this developing country that fooled me into thinking that Botswana is a shining example for the rest of Africa’s developing nations. In some ways it is, but in other ways it certainly is not. In Gaborone, I’ll find running water in all the bathrooms, and there’s even public restrooms at the five different malls. I have hot water for my shower. The tap water is safe to drink. They sell Dove deodorant and Gillette shaving cream. I’ve eaten pizza, pasta, Greek salad, Indian curry, and Chinese food. I bought organic all natural shampoo and conditioner. I have seen multiple Mercedes Benz and Audi cars on the street. But if you were to get into one of those fancy cars and drive north-east for around 46 km, you would arrive in the village of Mochudi where a casual beer with dinner is too expensive and the local pizza joint that opened up got shut down because it was too “foreign” for the villagers. Mochudi is one of the largest villages in Botswana and is where I had the immense privilege of staying for a weekend in early February. I stayed with a loving family that was certainly not your conventional American idea of a family. There was Mama, her daughter Tshepiso, her daughter Lone, and two of Mama’s nephews. Both Mama and Tshepiso are single mothers which is quite common in Botswana because men do not like to commit to one woman, abortion is illegal, and there isn’t the cultural stigma against raising a child unmarried. I immediately felt like a member of the family upon my arrival and I developed such a strong relationship with them that I’ll be going back to visit again at the end of March.

However, my favorite part of visiting Mochudi was the learning experience. Although my host family’s home had two porcelain toilets, electricity, running water, a gas stove, a car, and cable TV, they were still living in poverty. They are supported financially by the government because Mama is already retired at age 55 and Tshepiso can’t find a job. She studied IT which is essentially useless when you live in a community with nearly no computers or wifi because there are other priorities to allocate your money towards. Their poverty included being bribed with food to vote for the President. Their poverty and everyone else’s includes taxes being raised for the past 5 years, but minimum wage staying stagnant. I met some children that did not have nice Barbie’s or Lego sets to play with, so instead they used their shoes as toy racecars. Living in poverty even just for three days made me appreciate my privileged American life and I know what I will take that appreciation with me back to the States when I return in June.

I’ve been doing my best to assimilate to the culture as best as I can. I have tried many delicious traditional foods and some traditional foods that I did not care for, such as Mopane worms and ox tongue. The only thing I’m averse to trying are chicken feet and chicken neck! I’ve been learning Setswana and I’m picking up on it fairly well thus far. I’ve found that the best way to know a country is to simply befriend the locals so I’ve made sure to develop friendships with many different students at the University. One of my favorite cultural difference is that everyone will say hello to you when you walk past them, whereas in the States most people will walk past you without even acknowledging your presence.

I am traveling to northern Botswana next week for our mid-semester break trip to the Okavongo Delta and Chobe National Park where I’m guaranteed to see tons of African elephants—which I’m enthralled about since they are my favorite animal! If you can’t tell, I love Botswana and I already know that I’ll miss it dearly when it comes time to leave. Thank you for helping me create the experience of a lifetime—my adventures and would not have been possible without your generosity.

Ke a leboga rra, (Thank you sir)

Rachel Lertzman