Peace Corps volunteer's life in Botswana: hard, but happy

Join the Peace Corps, see the world, and serve humanity. It can sound romantic from the depths of a well-sprung American armchair. But when you get right down to it, few Americans would probably be willing to change places with 23-year-old Sam Miller as he lives right now.

Sam comes from Crawfordsville, Ind., a small town like his present home of Shashi. But the similarity ends right there. Shashi is a dusty, hot, sprawling village without any shade or much charm. It is on the edge of Botswana's main north-south highway. Mud-brick houses with straw or tin roofs cluster around hard-baked dirt yards. The inevitable black cooking pot sits on a smouldering log, and clusters of children mingle with mongrel dogs.

Shashi's main street boasts several stores opposite the railway station. In front of them, children play among tethered donkeys and women sit next to tiny heaps of potatoes and tomatoes, hoping for a sale.

For the past year, Sam has lived in two small rooms in an African compound shared by several families. Yet in some ways, Sam is fortunate. His landlady, Jessie Reid, is a large, genial woman who is genuinely concerned with Sam's welfare. Her compound, swept daily, is immaculate. The hard seat beneath the tiny central shade tree proves refreshingly cool. Lots of people live here, and Sam is still unsure of their relationships to each other. An elderly grandmother lives in a dark back room. Several mothers with various children are visited by husbands who appear to live elsewhere, some of them probably in the work hostels near the mines in South Africa.

Sam's rondavel has the traditional thatched roof. Inside, there's a single bed, a table, a chair, and a sideboard. The windows have no glass, but are closed in by wooden boards, and he uses paraffin lamps or candles for light. He cooks breakfast on a ring in the hut next door, but takes his main meal - mostly beef stewed with a kind of cream of wheat - with the families.

''I like it here - it's friendly and peaceful,'' Sam said. He admitted, however, that the first six to eight months were difficult. He was very lonely and on the verge of giving up. Then suddenly, he said, he came to terms with his loneliness. His grasp of Setswana, the local language, improved.

Sam is probably 1 of only 5 among the 80 to 100 Peace Corps workers in Botswana who have attained a fair degree of fluency in the language. He says that many of the others are teachers forbidden to speak anything but English - in the hopes that students will then pick up the Western tongue more quickly.

''To be happy in the Peace Corps, you must be busy and know what you're aiming at, what you're doing,'' Sam said.

For a long time, he said, he didn't. His job was rather vague. Sam was to promote the crafts of Botswana: the exquisite basketwork and the wood carving and the beautifully shaped clay pots. How to do this was mostly left to him, although Sam is actually employed by Botswana Crafts, an organization helped by the governmental Botswana Development Corporation and by American aid.

''Basketwork is a lifesaver for Botswana,'' Sam said. ''It's the most important grass-roots industry in the country. Women do it, and it's the only source of income they have in many parts of the country. In times of drought, such as these, when cattle herds dwindle or have to be sold off for very little, then the weaving often becomes the families' main income producer.''

Botswanans in rural areas may earn only $40 a month as handymen and general farm laborers. So when the best basketmakers can bring in $400 a year, it represents a sizable income.

Sam has tried to promote other crafts. On a visit to a village nearby, he found one of his potters. A fragile-looking older woman, she squatted on a piece of wood in the blinding sun near her hut, shaping the clay. Her equipment consisted of a battered enamel bowl with the bottom knocked out and a piece of wood to smooth the wet clay. An exquisitely shaped, thin-shelled pot swelled from under her stroking fingers. Later she would bake it, using only the bark of a certain tree burning in a shallow pit scraped out of the sandy soil behind her cooking hut.

''I'm not sure whether to encourage her to paint a new design or leave her to do her usual geometrical border,'' Sam said. ''It's the usual problem: I'm not sure where or to whom I will sell the pots and therefore what taste I am trying to cater to.''

Now that Sam has become used to, and even fond of, his life in Shashi, he is about to move. His destination is Nokaneng, a little town on the western edge of the Okavango swamps - so remote that it is approachable only with four-wheel vehicles down a track that can only be described as horrendous.

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