Monday, June 13, 2011

Frustrated & irritable, touched & humbled

Guest blog by Kate Spike ’93, assistant professor of English
Kate served as the faculty advisor for the cross cultural experience to Botswana in May 2011

Our group, especially my daughter Molly, received an enthusiastic welcome from the village children upon our arrival in Pitseng.

It’s hard to believe that less than two weeks ago I was in Africa. In the days since my return, the shock of returning to what was always familiar has left me wondering if this adventure that consumed three weeks of May was just some kind of hyper-realistic dream.

Of course, physical reminders such as pottery from outside Gaborone, sand that refuses to be removed from my shoes, and 7 DVDs of collective pictures and videos assure me this was no fantasy. Likewise, intangible mementos --the Setswana songs still cycling through my head, the sense that the world is somehow smaller-- bear witness to the fact that this experience truly did take place and that I have been changed by what I have encountered.

Since our return on June 1, I have often been asked that impossible question: “What was it like?” I find my favorite response is to ask for an adjective and then tell them how it describes my time in Botswana. This trip is infinitely hard to describe and impossible to summarize in any meaningful way.

On the face of it, things are quite straightforward. I, along with the trip’s founder, Tim Lind, my soon-to-be-seven-year-old daughter, Molly, and 10 extraordinary Bluffton University students set off on May 10 bound for Pitseng, a Botswana village of about 1,000 people, to participate in a cultural and linguistic immersion that would last for two weeks. We were in home-stays for the duration of our time in the village, and while amenities such as electricity and indoor plumbing were in very short supply, none of us would lack for attention as our mere presence brought out our village families and neighbors -all eager to talk, shake hands or just exchange smiles with us.

Let me be clear, lest I over romanticize this experience: This was hard. Despite years abroad in various countries and contexts, these two weeks in the village asked things of me that I had not faced before. Most days were hot and the nights and mornings often very cold. The food was abundant but usually very different and not always appetizing (two words: sour porridge). Sleep was frequently punctuated by the sounds of donkeys, cows, and chickens.

Our morning class sessions provided us with enough language to start conversations that we had no means of finishing. We blundered along, making mistakes and miscommunicating, misunderstanding and being misunderstood. At times, each of us was frustrated, irritable, tired, confused and hungry.

And yet…we were also touched and humbled by the ways in which our host families opened their homes and hearts to us and by the way this tiny village has committed to partner with Bluffton University since 2007 to offer this very real window into the blessings and the challenges that make up their lives. Connecting with -laughing and singing and talking and working and serving and sharing with- the people of Pitseng is at the heart of what this richly rewarding cross-cultural experience is about.

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