My name is Janice Bonsu, a Master of Public Health student at the University of Pennsylvania. This summer, I am in Gaborone (read: ha-bo-ron-ee), Botswana volunteering as a trial monitoring coordinator for a pediatric gastroenteritis multi-site randomized control trial. Our aim is to investigate whether targeted antimicrobial therapy in children produces significant benefits in growth or mortality.
This isn’t a “best places to see” blog post. I began my summer in Sunyani, Ghana, visiting my family for what was one of our largest gatherings to date. I packed for Ghana as I’ve always packed for Ghana; even in “winter” Ghana is a balmy 80 ºF. In late May, I said goodbye to my family who stood puzzled as I boarded a flight to Botswana. They were confused by my decision to conduct research in Botswana rather in Ghana. “Go with God,” my grandfather said, “and remember to bring the results back home.”
I knew I would be tired and hungry when I landed in Gaborone, especially after a 12-hour flight that left me stranded in Qatar for a day. As I disembarked the plane and gingerly drew in the 38 ºF night air, I realized that Botswana would be unlike any experience in Africa that I have had.
Since that evening, I like to think that I’ve adjusted to life in Gabs with a bit more grace. If that is, in fact, true, then it is entirely due to my coworkers and the other Penn students whom I have come to know. The Penn students are a diverse mix of Master of Public Health students, medical students, PhD students, residents, and nurses. Though we’ve all become close friends, I am proud to say that we have not clung to each other at the expense of making new friends in Botswana.
In a country where, from appearance, I seem to be a familiar stranger, most people are disappointed when they learn that I don’t understand Setswana. My coworkers have become my core support group. They are a passionate mix of people from all over Botswana: Mma Moorad is a Mokwena from Molepolole and Oarabile is a Mokgatla wa-ga-Mmanaana from Thamaga. Ikanyeng is a Motawana from Maun and Letang is a Mongwaketse from Kanye. And rounding out the group are Mbabi, Boswa, and Charity who are Kalanga from Gweta, Makuta, and Tsamaya. More than just translating for me and teaching me phrases in Setswana, this team has given me people to call home. They have also enabled me to grow a deep appreciation and understanding for values that I also share as a Ghanaian.
Pride in cultural values and identity run deep in Botswana. So much so that when I set out to write this entry and shared my draft, my coworkers encouraged me to include their tribal affiliations. The significance of trial identity has also been important in our research study. For example the cultural practice of botsetsi differs between the various tribes in Botswana. Botsetsi is a practice in which after a mother gives birth to a baby, there are restrictions for what she can and cannot do, who may or may not visit her, what food she can and cannot eat, etc. Some tribes practice botsetsi for two weeks while some practice it for as long as three months. As we are working in a pediatric research study, knowledge of cultural traditions such as botsetsi has proved to be invaluable.
As the majority of my family lives outside of the United States, traveling has always been a part of my life. However, this trip to a country that I have no familial attachment to has revealed to me the common strands that run through all of us – Ghanaian, Batswana, American, and other. If I had to give advice to another student, I would encourage them to find what motivates them and travel. You learn about yourself when your normal routine is disrupted and you must listen and navigate in a world that you do not understand.
Though the most overlooked sight in Africa is the people, I would be remiss if I didn’t leave you with a photo I snapped of Bots’ national animal, the zebra.