Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Chaperoning a Youth Exchange

Back during the first week of December the U.S. Embassy hosted a youth exchange program.  Fifteen high school students from Botswana and fifteen from Zimbabwe were involved, along with six teachers from each country.  The first two days were spent in Francistown in Botswana and then the following two days the entire group was in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.  Last night I went to an event at the U.S. Embassy and as I was speaking to someone about the exchange I realized I completely forgot to blog about it.  I did put up a video from Siyaya, one of the groups that performed, but I never talked about the exchange itself.

The theme for the exchange was “Conservation, Health and Economic Opportunities.”  I was asked by Amanda, my Public Affairs Officer at the Embassy, if I would come along and do a session on tourism since wildlife protection, water and sustainability were all part of the agenda.  I agreed and since I was invited to come along for the entire week to help out I figured, why not?

Overall the exchange was exhausting but a lot of fun.  When the group was on the Botswana side of the border we stayed on a nature reserve where we went on a game drive:
Had a presentation by CDC about nutrition and sexual health, did a career panel with a number of community leaders, and did community service projects.  My group was responsible to cleaning up a community center, which included collecting, installing garbage bins and planting trees:
As with any event, there were a number of funny (and at times, frustrating) hiccups along the way.  For instance, the contact at the nature reserve agreed to arrange a bus to pick up the Botswana kids to drive them an hour to the reserve.  I was standing at the school with fifteen kids, six teachers and at least two dozen pieces of luggage when a combi pulled up playing deafening reggae music.  A combi, for those of you less familiar is a family sized van which holds about 10-12 people VERY uncomfortably.  You cannot fit any luggage or really anything larger than a purse which can sit on your lap in a combi because everyone is squeezed in so tightly.  I calmly called Amanda (the Embassy PAO in charge of the Botswana portion of the exchange) and asked for permission to take matters into my own hands.  Once said permission was obtained the person at the nature reserve realized he made a grave mistake and I would be all over him to get this right until the minute we departed for Zim.  I guess it is the event planner in me.

I also took one for the team when, just as we were getting prepared to start our very first session, I discovered, quite painfully, that there was a huge wasp nest directly over the door.  So you basically couldn’t get in or out without being attacked.  Apparently wasps are my kryptonite, because those stings all over my back, neck and shoulders lasted about three weeks.

But, one of the best/worst funny moments happened on the first night at the reserve.  The kids and teachers were actually camping on the reserve.  The rest of the Embassy staffers (myself included) were staying an hour away at a hotel in town.  We were so exhausted that first day and desperate to get back to our hotels in order to get some sleep.  After driving 45 minutes from the campsite to the gate of the reserve we had to stop in order to open up the gates.  I jumped out of the SUV, ran up to the gate to find it chained and locked.  Keep in mind it was about 11:30pm and there was no cell phone reception in the reserve.  I turned around to the two vehicles anxiously watching me and shook my head.  They thought I was kidding.  After searching around the shed next to the gate we found a key and managed to let ourselves out.  No such thing as a dull moment in the wilderness.

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