Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Steven Williams, August 26, 2020

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:04 - Introduction / Joining Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: Today is August 26th, 2020.

Segment Synopsis: Steven Williams was a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana where he was in the youth development sector and was evacuated for COVID-19. Williams grew up in Prince George’s County, Oxon Hill, Fort Washington, and Forestville, Maryland, close to Washington, D.C. His education led to being self-motivated. In high school, he learned of Peace Corps. At Salisbury University on the Maryland Eastern Shore, he majored in Conflict Analysis Dispute Resolution and Communication, minoring in Philosophy. One instructor had been a Peace Corps volunteer. A teacher from Italy fostered interest in global experience. He graduated in 2018 and applied to the Peace Corps. The response took about six months. In 2019, Peace Corps accepted him. He asked to go where he could help most in youth services, having mentored youth. He knew little of Botswana but wanted to go to Africa and so researched the culture and language as he completed medical and legal clearance. In July 2019, landed in Botswana. He mentored elementary and middle school students. In Wicomico County, Maryland he had been paired with children who were having problems, especially students of color, who were in a minority.

Keywords: Application process; Applications; Applying; Assignments; Attitudes; Background checks; Botswana; Childhood; College majors; Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19); Excited; Friends; Friendships; High schools; Legal paperwork; Minorities; Motivation; Placement; Relationships; Returned Peace Corps Volunteers; Schools; Undergraduate education; Waiting periods; Washington, D.C.; Young people; Youth centers; Youth development

Subjects: Botswana; COVID-19 (Disease); Childhood; College campuses; Conflict management; Higher education; Language and culture; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.) Africa Region; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Botswana; Schools; Teachers; Washington (D.C.)

GPS: Dominican Republic
Map Coordinates: 19, -70.666667
GPS: Botswana
Map Coordinates: -24.658333, 25.908333
GPS: Prince George's County, Maryland
Map Coordinates: 38.83, -76.85
GPS: Oxon Hill, Maryland
Map Coordinates: 38.803056, -76.989722
GPS: Fort Washington, Maryland
Map Coordinates: 38.743611, -77.010278
GPS: Salisbury University
Map Coordinates: 38.345556, -75.605833
GPS: Washington, D.C.
Map Coordinates: 38.9101, -77.0147
GPS: Italy
Map Coordinates: 43, 12
00:10:16 - Pre-service training in language and culture

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Partial Transcript: Let's move on to your, uh, pre-service training.

Segment Synopsis: Pre-service training began in the capital of Gaborone, Botswana, for a week. They were told what was expected of volunteers. There were several sectors among the 75-80 volunteers. There was introduction to the language and culture and to getting to know each other. They took bucket baths. The cohort was separated. Life skills youth development volunteers went to Ramotswa, the first group to train there so everyone was excited. They met their host families. His host family welcomed him. Training lasted 3 months, half in Ramotswa, with a curfew that limited travel. The restrictions were humbling. He had few expectations. He learned to cook from his host mother. He went to local schools. There were a few opportunities to get to know the community. Language courses were in host homes for groups of 4-5. They practiced those skills with fellow volunteers and in the community. Cross-cultural training was in being immersed with the host family. It was life-changing. He looked to be non-judgmental to maximize his benefits of the time there. Sitting in the house with his host mother was a big part of the experience. His host brothers took him to stores, to games, and to church. For his birthday, the family gave him a party. He greatly appreciated experiencing a collective society where everyone is connected. He learned about indigenous nomads of the area. He learned their history of colonialism and holding on to their culture, where local chiefs work alongside the larger government. The people appreciate the past while preparing for progress.

Keywords: Adaptability; Adaptation; Adjustment; Assumptions; Attitudes; Botswana; Changes; Children; Cohorts; Community involvement; Conversations; Cultural training; Culture; Emotions; Excited; Expectations; Food; Friends; Friendships; Host brothers; Host families; Host family; Host mothers; Host sisters; Language skills; Language training; Languages; Learning; Local languages; Local people; Locals; Older people; On-site training; Post-colonial; Pre-service training; Relationships; Roommates; Running water; Schools; Social life; Training; Training centers; Youth development

Subjects: Acculturation; Botswana; Communication and culture; Emotions; Families; Food habits; Friendship; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal communication and culture; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Language and culture; Language and languages; Lifestyles; Non-governmental organizations; Nonprofit organizations; Older people; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Botswana; Schools; Social norms; Volunteers

GPS: Ramotswa, Botswana
Map Coordinates: 24.866667, 25.816667
GPS: Gaborone, Botswana
Map Coordinates: -24.658056, 25.912222
00:23:56 - Technical training

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Partial Transcript: What about the technical aspects of your training in preparation for youth development?

Segment Synopsis: The focus of technical training was HIV-AIDS awareness and prevention. The training was at a primary school, for volunteers to know how to speak on the topic in the culture where communication is not head-on, especially with children. Volunteers learned what the government wanted while allowing personal experiences and personalities to apply; they learned how to track progress, and they were speaking the language as much as possible with diverse groups to integrate in the community. The staff was Botswanan and current volunteers who described their stay. The training was sufficient, yet there could have been more language preparation. Restrictions hindered knowing about life at night and travel as adults. Obstacles did show what could come during service.

Keywords: AIDS (Disease); Adaptability; Assignments; Awareness; Barriers; Botswana; Challenges; Children; Cohorts; Communication; Cultural differences; Cultural training; Culture; Expectations; Human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS); Language training; Languages; Local people; Locals; On-site training; Peace Corps staff; Pre-service training; Schools; Technical training; Training; Training centers; Travel; Travel bans; Youth development

Subjects: AIDS (Disease); Acculturation; Botswana; Childhood; Communication and culture; Culture; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal communication and culture; Language and culture; Language and languages; Peace Corps (U.S)--Botswana; Schools; Social norms; Travel

00:33:42 - Impressions of site in early visit

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Partial Transcript: Very good. L-let's move on to your assignment now. Where were you posted?

Segment Synopsis: Williams was posted in the north in Moreomaoto (along the Boteti River), the first Peace Corps volunteer in this very small village with a population of maybe 500. He had gone there on a site visit to meet stakeholders and lay a foundation. The nearest volunteer was about an hour away, 10 hours from the capital and 10 hours from the training center at Ramotswa. It was above the malaria line. Maun, an hour and a half away, was the closest city for shopping.

Keywords: Botswana; Cohorts; Distance; Expectations; Isolation; Local people; Locals; Malaria; Rural areas; Site visits; Travel; Traveling; Villages

Subjects: Botswana; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Botswana; Travel

GPS: Maun, Botswana
Map Coordinates: -19.983333, 23.416667
GPS: Boteti River
Map Coordinates: -21.2711, 24.7949
00:38:19 - Communication

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Partial Transcript: What about, uh, communication with Peace Corps? How often, uh, did you communicate with them or did they visit?

Segment Synopsis: After swearing in, the area did not have prepared volunteer housing. Then it took 2 days to travel for an October arrival. Communication was by phone only. He was friendly with Peace Corps staff and could reach out as needed. The country director sent weekly Facebook and email updates but technology was an obstacle. With public transportation by van he could go to Maun for Wi-Fi. Communication within the cohort was tight-knit for the 20 volunteers in the youth development sector, via WhatsApp, which is still active.

Keywords: Botswana; Friendship; Interpersonal relations; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Botswana; Travel

Subjects: Botswana; Friendship; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Botswana; Travel

GPS: Maun, Botswana
Map Coordinates: -19.983333, 23.416667
00:45:55 - Reactions at site upon arrival

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Partial Transcript: Um, [what] was your initial reaction to the people and the environment when you arrived?

Segment Synopsis: During training when he had visited his site, there was a bus break-down. He was welcomed by his second host family as a son. This was unexpected and good. He shared with them about American culture, debunking impressions they had learned from television. They connected about music, dancing, movies, and books. They were shocked at him since the typical American volunteer is a Caucasian female and he is an African American male. They were still accepting and he repeatedly had to explain himself and his mission. He wanted to educate his American family and friends since few in the U.S. have heard of Botswana. The give and take in the village was fun. He wanted to create a foundation so Moreomaoto would invite future volunteers to help progress. In training, he had shadowed another volunteer for a week. Later, he had a house by himself, which was liberating. The host family father was second in charge of the village and he often worked with him. Everything was nearby. He visited the family often. He was called "Kabo," meaning "gift from God."

Keywords: "Non-stereotypical American"; "Stereotypical Americans"; Adaptability; Adaptation; Adjustment; African Americans; America; Americans; Assumptions; Attitudes; Autonomy; Black Americans; Blending in; Botswana; Buses; Cohorts; Community; Conversations; Counterparts; Cultural differences; Cultural exchange; Culture; Customs; Dancing; Differences; Distance; Emotions; First impressions; Host brothers; Host families; Host family; Host mothers; Host sisters; Houses; Housing; Learning; Living alone; Misconceptions; People of color; Perspectives; Relationships; Rural areas; Site visits; Sites; Skin color; Social interactions; Socializing; Stereotypes; Transportation; Travel; Traveling; Villages

Subjects: Acculturation; Botswana; Communication and culture; Culture; Culture shock; Emotions; Families; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal communication and culture; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Manners and customs; Minorities; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Botswana; Social norms; Travel

00:58:28 - Typical day in Botswana

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Partial Transcript: Um, why don't you go over the sort of, uh, if there is a, a typical day, but go over your--what your job was like.

Segment Synopsis: Williams says he worked in a primary school with good people. The sense of urgency is different in Botswana, with little diligence about timing, so understanding scheduling meetings took a little time. School began with a 6:50 assembly for the equivalent of pre-K to 13 to 15 year olds. His home was about 10 minutes away. He had no running water. Most teachers there were women. Students sang and did a presentation then cleaned classrooms until breakfast. The staff included eight teachers and seven others. The school year consists of terms from January to March, April to July or August, and September to November, with breaks in between. He sat in on classes or planned. He discussed plans with his supervisor. He helped upper-level classes because they spoke more English. He also worked with the youngest students, helping with coloring, tracing, and introducing English. He went to the clinic and library which was a cultural center or communicated with the Kosi board--the local government. He got to know the community by walking around, interacting in football, talking to the elders, going to small stores, and joining an aerobics club. School ended around 3:30 to 4:30. There was a trade school (a CITF) for older students which certified graduates for employment. At dusk, he would wind down or try to communicate with people in the U.S.

Keywords: Acclimation; Activities; Adaptability; Adaptation; Adjustment; Age ranges; Botswana; Career paths; Careers; Children; Classes; Classrooms; Communication; Community; Community involvement; Counterparts; Cultural differences; Daily routines; Distance; Emails; English (Language); Flexibility; Housing; Jobs; Kids; Living conditions; Local people; Locals; Older people; Plans; Running water; Rural areas; Schedules; School systems; Schools; Social interactions; Villages

Subjects: Acculturation; Botswana; Careers; Childhood; Community health services; Food habits; Language and culture; Lifestyles; Older people; School management and organization; Schools

01:12:17 - Accomplishments / Lessons learned

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Partial Transcript: I know your service was cut short. You were there only about six months as a volunteer. But what, what do you consider your accomplishments over that time period?

Segment Synopsis: Williams worked to build a relationship with the community so that they would ask for another volunteer. He made a schedule that he could pass onto the next volunteer for going to school and the library, and visiting the local leaders. The biggest successes were growing relationships. He had one big event, a resume building workshop, where 50+ attended; most were vocational students. Many left with copies of their resumes. A major lesson learned was the "psychology of sitting," or functioning at a slow pace. There are many people he still calls family. He learned appreciation of life in the U.S. Running water, washing machines, air conditioning, and private transportation can easily be taken for granted. He is grateful for his experiences and learning to focus and not give up. There was a big impact on him and those he met.

Keywords: America; Assignments; Attitudes; Botswana; Community; Contributions; Cultural differences; Learning; Living conditions; Peace Corps directors; Personal growth; Perspectives; Running water; Rural areas; Schedules; United States; Villages

Subjects: Botswana; Careers; Communication and culture; Emotions; Friendship; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Botswana; Schools; Social norms

01:23:08 - Diversity in service / Young African American male in Botswana

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Partial Transcript: I'd like to, uh, cover two other, uh, pieces now of your service. One is diversity and then, uh, we'll talk about the evacuation.

Segment Synopsis: As a young African American male, Williams felt he could be a leader for youth. He shared his experiences, saying that the U.S. is not all glitz like the movies. He could show that there is inequality. He knew he was privileged, and showed how there are privileges in Botswana. The government there pays for education, whereas he had to get grants and scholarships. The community there cares for everyone, not letting anyone starve, whereas there is much homelessness in the U.S. He saw how he lives in a global society. In the U.S., there is a media bubble with skewed news that includes little information about other places. He debunked negative stereotypes about Black men in the U.S. Williams says that diversity is needed in science, health care, and all areas in both countries. He could appreciate their sense of the past while working for the future. He told them they have a voice and they matter. They are future leaders for whom anything can happen with hard work.

Keywords: "Non-stereotypical Americans"; "Stereotypical Americans"; "Stereotypically American"; Advantages; African Americans; America; Americans; Assumptions; Attitudes; Awareness; Barriers; Black Americans; Blending in; Botswana; Choices; Communication; Community; Conversations; Cultural differences; Cultural exchange; Culture; Differences; Difficult; Discrimination; Diversity; Diversity in the Peace Corps; Empowerment; Encouragement; Friendships; Inclusion; Learning; Mindsets; Misconceptions; News; People of color; Personal growth; Perspectives; Relationships; Schools; Skin color; Social interactions; United States; Young people

Subjects: Acculturation; African Americans--Social conditions; Botswana; Culture; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal communication and culture; Lifestyles; Minorities; Oppression; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Botswana; Race discrimination; Race relations; Schools; Universities and colleges

GPS: Botswana
Map Coordinates: 24.658333, 25.908333
01:33:58 - Relationships formed in Botswana / Relationships with Peace Corps in Botswana / Cohort diversity

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Partial Transcript: Um, I wa--I was--a lot of--I was helping, uh, my supervisor, Bofadile, write his dissertation.

Segment Synopsis: Williams says that person-to-person relationships were important. He helped one person with his dissertation and since leaving received messages of an upcoming wedding. His presence made a difference by giving ideas as a co-facilitator, helping people reach their potential in ways they wanted. With the Peace Corps local staff, being African American allowed more transparency. They shared information about the local culture. He is friendly and got along with everyone. They shared and learned from each other, among all racial groups. He shares that what is on the inside matters more. He wants to exude positivity. Volunteers in the cohort included almost 80 people. About 70 were female, 5 African Americans. Of the 30 in the life skills sector, 4 were women, and 2 males were African American, with 5 males in total. He says that people gravitate to those who are alike and he was closest to the other Black man in his cohort. He looked for opportunities to connect.

Keywords: Acclimation; Adaptability; Adjustment; African Americans; Americans; Attitudes; Black Americans; Blending in; Botswana; Cohorts; Contributions; Conversations; Culture; Diversity in the Peace Corps; Empowerment; Encouragement; Friends; Friendship; Learning; Locals; Peace Corps staff; People of color; Relationships; Social interactions; Young people

Subjects: Acculturation; African Americans--Social conditions; Botswana; Communication and culture; Culture; Emotions; Friendship; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal communication and culture; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Minorities; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Botswana

01:44:28 - How this short service influenced him

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Partial Transcript: What about, uh--I know you talked about [Montessori and] your own independence and identity, did your limited experience, because it is limited, it was still the six months, plus training, maybe nine months, um, was there enough time that you feel that your experience may have had some influence now on your identity?

Segment Synopsis: Williams was laid back but became more aware of the world through his Peace Corps service. He is more into planning for the future and acceptance of his current position. Knowing he is young reminds him to be patient and to be still during the pandemic, and to look forward to see what opportunities will bring room for growth. He views himself more as a global citizen who values travel, authentic culture, and bringing others with you. His sense of self wants to help those who impacted him in Botswana, as well as family and friends here. He looks to travel to Botswana on his own.

Keywords: Adjustment; America; Americans; Assignments; Botswana; Coming home; Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‑19); Future plans; Goals; Identity; Personal growth; Travel; Traveling; United States

Subjects: Botswana; COVID-19 (Disease); Emotions; Families; International travel; Travel

01:50:02 - Experiences of disbelief about America

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Partial Transcript: Um--(clears throat)--any experience, uh, or any form of (??)--nation, during your period there, from other volunteers, staff, Botswanan?

Segment Synopsis: Williams says he was called a liar when talking about the U.S. or saying he was American. He was stigmatized in sharing because other volunteers could not relate to his experiences. If something was not meant to purposely hurt him, he accepted it as a lesson on how others think. He knew he represented America as a volunteer, also as an American, a student, and an African American male. He says he knew that a person of color must work harder. By himself, he was not noticed in the community but with another volunteer he was a spectacle. He could be charged more in a taxi until he could assert the correct fee. The same thing could happen to anyone in a different environment. The discrimination was from locals disbelieving he was not from there. Those were learning opportunities, not offenses.

Keywords: "Non-stereotypical American"; African Americans; America; Americans; Assumptions; Attitudes; Black Americans; Blending in; Botswana; Challenges; Cohorts; Communication; Community; Cultural exchange; Diversity; Diversity in the Peace Corps; Identity; Local people; Locals; Mindsets; Misconceptions; People of color; Personal growth; Perspectives; Skin color; Taxis; United States; Villages

Subjects: African American--Social conditions; Botswana; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Minorities; Race relations; Social norms

01:57:30 - Increasing diversity of Peace Corps volunteers

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Partial Transcript: Any, um, closing comments to this section to this section that maybe we haven't covered that maybe you'd want to share about diversity as a volunteer?

Segment Synopsis: Williams says he hopes Peace Corps continues to recruit in different ways. He found out about Peace Corps by chance, and many people do not know it still exists. High schools, especially in predominately African American areas, should know more. Peace Corps is a service with benefits that will open doors, without risk to life. Returned volunteers could spread the word. Then they can have volunteers that represent the American diversity and they can debunk stereotypes.

Keywords: "Non-stereotypical American"; "Stereotypical Americans"; "Stereotypically American"; African Americans; America; Americans; Awareness; Black Americans; Blending in; Careers; Diversity in the Peace Corps; Peace Corps recruiters; Recruiters; Recruiting; Recruitment; Schools; Stereotypes; United States; Volunteering

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions; Careers; Minorities; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.) Africa Region; Race relations; Voluntarism; Volunteers; Washington (D.C.)

02:05:38 - Evacuation due to COVID-19

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Partial Transcript: I'd like to get in, uh, some of your, um, experiences with evacuation, also. When did you first hear about the coronavirus? Do you recall?

Segment Synopsis: Williams first heard about COVID-19 in December 2019 at an in-service training. At the last training in late January 2020, he could watch CNN where he saw information about Wuhan. The impeachment trial for President Donald Trump occurring at that time made other news less obvious. He did not think there would be any impact on himself. Wuhan was completely shut down so globally it seemed controlled. No precautions were in place in Botswana. It was one of the last countries infected. In the rural areas, there is little travel. He had returned to the U.S. for family reasons before evacuation, when almost no one was masked. He could say good-bye to a few people and communicated by WhatsApp with many. It was emotional to be uprooted. It was hard to stop abruptly, especially for those who had barely begun. He has tried to be positive and supported others who needed reassurance. He continues to communicate with his cohort. Peace Corps had shown them how to adapt and they are moving forward. He hopes for a reunion.

Keywords: Acclimation; Adaptation; Adjustment; America; Americans; Botswana; Career paths; Careers; Cell phones; Cohorts; Coming home; Conversations; Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‑19); Disappointment; Emotions; Encouragement; Evacuations; Friendships; Future plans; Global call for evacuation; Graduate schools; Jobs; Leaving; News; Plans; Re-entry; Readjustment; Social distancing; Social media; Support systems; Telephone calls; Training; Travel; Traveling; United States; Villages

Subjects: Acculturation; Air travel; Botswana; COVID-19 (Disease); Careers; Emotions; Evacuation; International travel; Interpersonal relations; Mental health; Stress (Psychology); Travel

GPS: Wuhan, China
Map Coordinates: 30.5934, 114.3046
GPS: Johannesburg, South Africa
Map Coordinates: -26.204444, 28.045556
GPS: Atlanta (Ga.)
Map Coordinates: 33.755, -84.39
GPS: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
Map Coordinates: 38.852222, -77.037778
02:24:35 - Peace Corps in his future

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Partial Transcript: Do you think you'd, uh, re-apply to Peace Corps, or?

Segment Synopsis: Williams says he would re-apply to Peace Corps but he has a young son, so it would have to be sometime in the future. He would like to help Peace Corps, especially as a recruiter, because he wants to do anything to help it. He sees Peace Corps as worthwhile in helping to be part of improving the global society, to experience cultures, and to bring that back to families and communities in the U.S. Peace Corps is one of the greatest organizations to him since it helps those who want help so as to elevate the world. He prays it will continue with an exponential increase of volunteers.

Keywords: America; Americans; Botswana; Career paths; Careers; Coming home; Community; Culture; Foreigners; Future plans; Influences; Perspectives; Recruiters; Recruiting; Recruitment; Travel; Traveling; United States; Volunteering

Subjects: Botswana; Careers; Culture; Intercultural communication; International travel; Interpersonal communication and culture; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Peace Corps (U.S.); Social service; Travel