GABORONE, Botswana - It's hard to believe, but I'm more than halfway through my 10 week stay in Botswana. I arrived on May 11 and will depart for the United States on July 21. It feels like the past few weeks have flown by, yet the previous semester and my last days at Penn seem like they were years ago.
I am one of 11 undergraduate Penn students staying in Gaborone at the University of Botswana. Penn established the UPenn-Botswana Partnership years ago, initially for Penn medical students, but has since expanded the program to include undergrads interested in other fields of study. We are all placed at different internships around Gaborone, at craft stores, financial companies, human rights institutions, and orphanages. I am working at Stepping Stones International in Mochudi, a village just outside the capital city. Simply navigating public transportation to reach my placement every day has been one of the greatest adventures. Despite the journey, I'm really fortunate to get outside of Gaborone each day and experience the slower, quieter pace of village life.
Stepping Stones International was founded in 2006 by Lisa Jamu, an American from Salt Lake City. SSI is a holistic development program for orphaned and vulnerable teenagers in Mochudi. It's actually the only organization in Botswana that focuses specifically on adolescents. The core of SSI is the after-school program, which teaches life skills, study skills, leadership, and income generation, as well as offering psychosocial support and tutoring. SSI has also expanded to include outreach programs throughout the community, including several small businesses run by participants, caregiver workshops, a teen club for HIV-positive adolescents, and a peer education network. The mission of SSI is to provide guidance, counseling, academic support, and health education to teens who otherwise receive inadequate care. There is also a heavy focus on HIV/AIDS education, as the disease is a serious health issue in Botswana.
At Stepping Stones I have been working directly with the kids, helping facilitate sessions or just spending some time talking or reading. I've also been working with the directors to generate funding for the organization --researching corporations, writing proposals, and coming up with new projects. The best part, however, is that I've been tasked with incorporating sports into the organization. Soccer is huge here, but the students often miss out on after-school sports because they attend SSI instead. I'm organizing some Saturday clinics and developing a long-term plan so that other staff members have an organizational structure and activities to reference. I'm also running a sports camp during the first week of July (when the schools are on holiday), so that should be a lot of fun. I've been able to play some soccer with the older kids and I'm amazed by how creative and enthusiastic they are. At first they were skeptical about a girl playing soccer, but they welcomed me quickly and we've all had a great time.
Aside from working, we're getting a chance to explore Gaborone and the local attractions. We got to see Botswana play South Africa the other weekend in a World Cup 2014 qualifier. The Zebras came back to tie South Africa, which was very exciting. We also have an opportunity to travel and see more of southern Africa. We went camping in the Kalahari Desert and are going to Chobe National Park, Victoria Falls, and Cape Town in July. Overall, I'm having an incredible experience. I'm learning a lot about myself -- what motivates me, what frustrates me, what I value -- but I'm also learning to appreciate daily life from a different perspective. Africa has been full of new, exciting, and challenging experiences so far, and I can't wait to see what these last five weeks bring.