International Youth Exchange opens 4-H’ers eyes to wonders of Africa |

International Youth Exchange opens 4-H’ers eyes to wonders of Africa

Shawna Barr holding one of the bowls. This one she bought. Photo by D.F. Duran by Karina L. Fabian

Middletown, R.I.

During her six-month stay in Botswana, Shawna Barr ate worms, baked chocolate chip cookies in an oven that normally housed cockroaches, and fended off so many marriage proposals, she was known as the “40-cow bride.” She also helped grow spinach, went to aerobics and communicated with her family over e-mail. When it all balanced out, Shawna said Africa wasn’t all that different from home.

Shawna participated in the International 4-H Youth Exchange Program (IFYE), which sends selected young adults to another country for six months. IFYE representatives are 19-30 years old and must have a 4-H background and at least a college education to apply. Applicants are chosen based on attitude, adaptability, and rural experience. The top two applicants get their choice of one of 30 nations, where they will live and work with several host families for three to six weeks at a time.

Shawna, who had just graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies, said the program attracted her because she would actually be living with people in their own homes.

“It was a chance to study and really live the culture,” said Shawna. “Other programs keep you together in groups, so you’re still kind of on the outside. This (program) really puts you inside the culture, and that attracted me.” She added her favorite quote from the IFYE program:

“Travelers see mountains, museums and human masses, and mimic a country’s culture. IFYEs pass through front doors of homes to live as brothers and sisters. Thus, culture engulfs them.”

Shawna selected Botswana because she wanted to go somewhere completely different. Despite the extensive study required by the program, she still entered Africa with some misconceptions about the lifestyle. Even as they were landing in the city of Gaborone, she was craning her neck, looking for animals and other wildlife. “I thought I’d be fighting off lions in my backyard,” she said.

Another pleasant surprise was the frequency she was able to bathe. “I expected to take one bath a week. It turned out they bathe twice a day during the winter, so they were cleaner than I was,” she said. She did miss taking showers, however. She also found she hadn’t packed quite right; the winter was cooler than she expected when she’d packed her t-shirts and shorts, and she needed to buy a fleece coat while there.

Her only misconceptions were in terms of lifestyle, however. “I really didn’t know what to think about the people (before I left). We always see the extreme versions from television, National Geographic, but I found we’re really the same. We laugh, we cry.”

She found the people to be friendly ” sometimes very friendly. She had so many marriage proposals while there, her host families joked that she was a 40-cow wife. (Cows are still offered as a marriage dowry by many families.) Her first marriage proposal came her first day in Gaborone, during her two-day orientation.

“We were sitting in the plaza outside the hotel, and two guys from the market came and asked if they could get their picture taken with us,” she said. That led to conversation, which led to her first marriage proposal. Still, she said, it’s nothing to get puffed up about. She attributed it to the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the people, the novelty of her fair skin and blond hair and the fact that the Botswanan president is married to a Englishwoman.

Of course, there’s also the misconception that all Americans are rich. One of her host families took her to an urban development meeting for their village, partly in hopes she would be able to purchase the 20 tractors they needed. At nearly all the towns and villages where she stayed and spoke, she had to dispel the notion that all Americans are rich.

Of course, comparing lifestyles in the U.S. to those of most of her host families, she is indeed rich. Several of her host families lived without electricity and cooked over an open fire. Sorghum or corn porridge was the staple of the mornings, and bread was baked in pots with ashes covering them to preserve the heat. In one village, neighbors had an oven, and she treated them by teaching them to make banana bread and chocolate chip cookies. Of course, the oven didn’t get used very much and had become home to cockroaches, so Step one was to smoke them out and clean the oven.

Fortunately, Shawna comes from a farm background, so she doesn’t have a weak stomach. This also came in handy when eating the native food, which included phane worms harvested from the mopojane trees and soaked in salt to preserve them.

“If you don’t think about eating a worm, it’s okay. You just can’t think about it,” Shawna said. One of her families gave her a large bag as a souvenir, and as she travels around Colorado talking about her experiences to schools and clubs, she usually eats a worm as part of her presentation.

She also called on her farm experience as she helped several farming families with the chores and observed and helped with 4-B activities. 4-B is the Botswanan equivalent of 4-H, though it’s generally limited more to agriculture and gardening. Shawna helped with 4-B projects in which members tended their own small plots of crops. The major crops of the area are spinach, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, beets, rapeweed and chimolia. She also attended a 4-B fair and got to see competition in traditional dance. This was the one place where she saw the costumes and props so often associated with “native Africans.” Normally, people wore t-shirts, jeans and skirts. Two of her host parents were involved in 4-B: one, a former national 4-B board member, and the other the equivalent of an extension agent.

About the middle of her time in Africa, she took a two-week vacation and safari. Her sister and her grandmother joined her, and they hired a guide recommended by her hotel. In addition to seeing the Africa she’d originally expected ” with lions and hippos ” her guide took them to his home village and treated her to a taste of life there, even teaching her and her sister some native dancing.

Shawna had been keeping touch with her family her entire time in Africa ” often by e-mail. She said her parents were nervous about her travel at first, although her mother, Barbara, was a little relieved she hadn’t decided on the peace corps. Her father, whom she described as conservative, stay-home farm-type, had a difficult time understanding why she would want to live so far away. A wistful smile crossed her face as she recalled an e-mail he had sent her telling her how proud he was of her and how he wished he could visit and share the adventure with her.

Six of her host parents were teachers, so she spent much of her time observing and helping at schools, most of which were similar to those in the U.S., with desks, blackboards and curious students. Because of the language gaps, she often limited her talks to who she was and what America was like. “Mostly, they wanted to hear me talk,” she said.

The people had many questions and misconceptions about the U.S. She said they often asked if black people lived in the U.S., and if they and whites got along. They were also amused greatly by the last presidential election. “We’re this big, technical nation and we’re going to hand count votes. There were a lot of jokes about that,” she said. There was also a great following of former president Clinton, in part because he was the first president to visit Botswana. “They thought he was a very honest man. I didn’t say much (about that),” she said.

At her last stop, she stayed with a family that had a 16-year-old daughter. They spent much of their time just playing ” going to village aerobics and having long conversations under a tree ” and that was okay. “Time is much slower. Things didn’t get done as fast by our standards,” she said.

Now that she’s back in the U.S., to fulfill her obligation to the state (which paid for her airfare to Africa) she spent last spring traveling Colorado, sharing her experiences with others.

“I feel like I learned a lot more from (my host families) than they learned from me,” she said as he hugged her photo album close to her heart. “We have a limited view of world relations because of lack of information. It’s opened my eyes to the world.”


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