Sunday, April 3, 2011


So far I’ve focused all of my posts on trips that I’ve taken and other things that I thought would be the best reads, but perhaps its time that I talk a little bit about what I do while I’m at school.

I’m taking four courses this semester – two of them are courses at the University of Botswana (UB), and two are run by our study abroad program director, Phoebe.

One of the courses that I’m taking at UB is the local language, Setswana, which I’ve mentioned before (and there isn’t much to update). The other is a course in human physiology, which I’m taking with my good friend Derek, who also goes to Macalester. The physiology course has been a growing experience not so much in the curriculum we cover but in learning to cope with a fundamental difference in grading rubrics and student-teacher dynamics between UB and Macalester.

I perhaps take it for granted that at Macalester professors are always willing to talk and answer questions and develop relationships with students. Moving to UB where there are 15,000 students (compared to Macalester’s 2,000) and being in a class of 150, the professors (one lecturer and multiple lab instructors) are swamped and on multiple occasions when Derek and I have tracked them down outside of class they have explicitly said, “don’t talk to me right now; maybe come back tomorrow.” That was a new one for me.

So as Derek and I try to adjust to a new system, the lack of communication with the professors has made it especially difficult. But we saw it as a challenge and continued to do our best work and attempt to connect with the professors. And we’ve had some success; at least one of the professors knows our names (doesn’t hurt that we’re the only two white kids in the class) and our grades have vastly improved as we have been molded into the UB grading system. We now know to never indent the beginning of paragraphs (“no scientists in Botswana indent their paragraphs”) and that if a question is worth 10 marks then the answer is expected to contain 10 separate statements of fact.

The two classes independent of UB are: The Biology and Public Health (BPH) of Tuberculosis (TB), Malaria, and HIV and the other is a guided Independent Research Project (ISP). Both are taught by Phoebe and have proven to be major highlights of the semester.

The BPH course is refreshingly rigorous. We get healthy loads of reading to prepare us for a three-hour class every Friday morning where we get into deep, scholarly discussions about pressing public health issues. Phoebe is a microbiologist by training, so often there are technical biology lectures and as a Bio major, I revel in them. A friend of mine put it well, when Phoebe gets into the Bio and starts talking really fast and covering a ton of interesting material, it makes you feel at home.

The course is broken down into three parts: for the first month or so we covered just about every possible aspect of malaria, then moved onto TB, and we are currently in the final unit on HIV/AIDS. The HIV unit has been made especially riveting, as there are a handful of local people in the class that have indispensable firsthand knowledge about behavior and trends in Botswana.

The course was brought to another level last Friday, as we had a guest speaker who was HIV+ and spoke openly about her status and how it has affected her life. She was inspirational, to say the least. She has taken an alternative approach to dealing with HIV, as she doesn’t take ARVs, but chooses to eat healthy and employ positive thinking to deal with the infection. She wryly said that HIV is the best thing that ever happened to her, and went on to explain that it has made her step back and think about what life is really all about. She volunteers with home-based HIV care services and spreads her message of positive thinking and healthy eating to all she meets. We all appreciated her talk, and I’m sure everyone learned a thing or two from her passionate words.

The ISP course has also been a facet of the program that I have been happy to pour energy into, as it one of the few avenues where I feel I can be really productive, and it’s one of the main things I’ll have to show for all of my time spent here. My research question is whether or not urbanization correlates with increased risk in sexual behavior among students at UB. I’m interested in this question because Botswana has an anomalously high HIV prevalence rate (it has the strongest economy and the broadest intervention programs in the region, yet has the second highest prevalence rate). So I want to see if a unique aspect of Botswana, its high level of urbanization, has helped create the anomaly.

My research is quantitative in nature and is based on a survey. So far 375 students have responded to the survey, out of a goal of 373, so I’m feeling pretty good about it. The next step is analyzing the data; I’ll let you know what I find. (There is a lot more about the study that I’d love to talk about – if you’re interested you should leave a comment or email me)

Saving the best (but most stressful) for last, I’d also like to give an update on the soccer tournament that Derek and I have been planning. After two frustrating months of trying to secure of venue and being maddeningly rejected and redirected by various places on and off-campus, we got the Botswana Football Association to let us use their national training field (which is right across the street) free of charge! I guess hard work really does pay off.

We also got the t-shirt completed last week, and will be filled in time for the tournament. The souvenir shop on campus has given us discounted soccer jerseys to serve as prizes for the winning team, and we’re hoping that the catering service that runs the cafeteria will donate refreshments.

The tournament is on Saturday, April 9th and is called “Lose the Shoes”, as the kids will play barefoot. It’s a 3-on-3 format and is a fundraiser for a local NGO called Stepping Stones International, that works to empower orphaned and otherwise at-risk youth. Kids from Stepping Stones are going to come to the event to help out and get to play exhibition matches with some of the UB students, as to create a tangible connection between the participants and the kids they are supporting. We’ve booked a student DJ and HIV counseling and testing services are going to be provided. As one of our committee members said last week, “I think it’s going to be a day to remember.”

I should have a bunch of pictures and news on the tournament by next weekend.

A side note: My flatmate taught me how to make phaletshe (pah-LAY-chay), which is a traditional food made of maize meal. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, but I’ve had it a bunch now and I’m hooked.

Chili beef and vegetable stew with phaletshe for dinner…


  1. Hi Mike! Well, I'm worn out just reading about your study load and all the time and energy you put into everything you do. You are amazing! We will be thinking of you especially on Saturday, the 9th, as all your hard work on the soccer tournament finally culminates. Definitely sounds like a day to remember! Looking forward to the pictures of the tournament and the outcome of the day. Also looking forward to seeing you in about a month or so! Are you still due home around May 15th? Sending our love ~ Rich and Kathy

  2. Hi Mike, Your dad would be extraordinarily proud of you. I can see many of the things he did in you. Organizing the soccer tournament with the proceeds going to the kids from Stepping Stones, and even the donated jerseys and refreshments.... I can just see Jim doing these things. Keep it up, it must be so rewarding. Africa will miss you. When I read about 'feeling right at home' after listening to detailed talks from Phoebe, I had to chuckle, you are a great student, a good way to be in life. I'm so very proud to tell people of your life abroad, and your fantastic blog. I'm not sure how many people read it, but I tell them about it. Look forward to seeing you in June!! Love, Cheryl

    From Sherry: Hey Mike, April 9th has dawned in Buderim, and wish, oh wish, that time travel existed so we could be instantly transported to your big day. I can picture CHeryl throwing balls in from the sideline (volleyball style), and I - well, I could collect money, talk, direct traffic, dance!! So, we look forward to hearing all...
    What a wonderful time you are having - I see a person standing proudly in the background, with his characteristic wry smile.
    Would love to hear about your findings in the survey.
    Ain't microbiology interesting?
    There is going to be such a talk-a-thon when we next see you - how about June 7th at D'Amico's with your Mum.
    I will think of nothing else all day except the soccer.
    Love as ever,
    Love from your # 1 (along with many others) fan.