A view of Mochudi, a suburb of Gaborone

A view of Mochudi, a suburb of Gaborone
A suburb of Gaborone in July, 2008

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Episode one: Coals to Newcastle?

Greetings (Dumelang)!

Welcome to my blog about living, teaching, and traveling in Botswana with twenty three students enrolled at one of the liberal arts colleges that belong to the Associated Colleges of the Midwest.  I am usually an associate professor of biology at Colorado College, but starting soon I will be the visiting faculty director of the ACM Study Abroad Program in Botswana.  This position is made possible through a collaboration between ACM and the University of Botswana, through the Office of International Education and Partnerships.  I have visited Botswana twice, but only for brief periods of time.

Why go to Botswana?  Ostensibly, I am going there to teach.  Specifically, I will teach a course on the biology and public health of malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS.  Surely there could be no clearer example of “bringing coals to Newcastle” – my expertise in these subjects pales in comparison to the expertise of healthcare providers, microbiologists, and lay people who have lived their entire lives in sub-Saharan Africa.  Fortunately, I am aware that it is something of a fiction that I am going there to teach – while I will teach a course and direct some undergraduate independent study projects, I am clearly going to Botswana to learn.  

And there are plenty of things to learn about.  For example, did you know that Botswana has almost never been at war?  Meanwhile, the U.S. has been at war for most of my lifetime, and indeed for majority of the years of its history.  Books for tourists and other non-Africans make much of various conflict-avoidant cultural traditions in Botswana, as do books Motswana write about themselves.   One celebrated Setswana way to resolve conflicts is to find a solution that leaves everyone reasonably happy, honor intact, rather than winner-takes-all strategies such as simple majority voting. One wonders what a faculty meeting organized around these principles would be like, let alone an entire country!

I’m also very excited to learn from my colleagues at the Faculty of Nursing. Many Batswana, certainly including most nurses, see health as a human right.  This idea is an alien concept throughout most of the U.S..  How does this view affect policy decisions, or day-to-day interactions between clients and healthcare providers?  With few exceptions, I have almost no personal experience with serious illnesses among people “in the prime of life.”  It is, frankly, hard to imagine – even though I have read so very many books about just this.  Nurses in Botswana have also been at the forefront of devising practical methods for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Botswana, and have disseminated those methods to other countries.  I look forward to learning more about how these practices and policies have come about, and about their benefits and limitations.

I can only hope that the Batswana I meet will graciously accept my coal, teach me Setswana ways of knowing, and enable me to discover some actual gifts to leave behind in gratitude.

A view at the University of Botswana, July 2008

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