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Czech Republic

Bokang Maswabi: Everything you need is here

Bokang Maswabi:

Everything you need is here


What first made you decide to come to the Czech Republic?

Actually, I didn’t really choose to come here, I was sent on a scholarship to study medicine. In 2003 there was no medical school in Botswana, so the only way to train doctors was to give people scholarships to go and study abroad. So about 14 of us were sent to study in the Czech Republic. I didn’t know anything about the Czech Republic before, so when I heard I was going to study here, I had to go and find out about it.

Do you remember what your first thoughts were when you discovered that you were going to the Czech Republic?

Well, everyone said “where is this, what is this?” Someone mentioned Czechoslovakia, and some of us who liked football remembered a bit about a team from there, but that’s all we knew, that they were quite good at football – apart from that nothing, except that it was in Europe. To us, Europe was one homogenous entity, and so we thought it would be more or less the same as what we saw on TV from other European countries, there would be lots of big buildings, trams in the streets, and it would be cold, there would be snow – before I came here, I had never seen snow in my life – and there would be lots of white people.

When you arrived, was it really like that?

It was really like that, and maybe worse, because it was a cold we couldn’t have imagined, about -5, and for someone who has never experienced less than 3 degrees, minus 5 was really terrible. In the first six months or so I lost about 10kg, due to food, the cold, and also the fact that in winter the nights are really really long - it took us a long time to get used to that. And of course, there was the different language, we had to adapt to almost everything… but it turned out well!

Do you think it helped that you came together with other people from your country?

Absolutely, yes, because in the beginning the learning curve is really steep, there are so many things that you don’t know, so many things that you have to get used to, and the workload at medical school was heavy, and the learning method was new to us. So it was definitely good that there was a group of us.

What were the hardest things about moving to the Czech Republic? Were the Czechs welcoming? Was it easy to find somewhere to live?

When we were students we had some accommodation pre-arranged, so that was OK. But when we arrived we had a huge amount of culture shock, in the sense that almost all the things we saw were different. The Czechs, in contrast to the Batswana, are very quiet people, almost silent - it’s possible to be in a train or tram with fifty people and it’s completely quiet. This was very strange for us. Also we found that when you need something here, you really need to know what you want, because if you do not exactly say what you need, people tend to say “I don’t know what you want” and that is it. We were used to a system where you could just say “I’m looking for something nice for my mother”, and somebody would help you. I wouldn’t say the Czechs were as welcoming as some people I have seen in other countries, they are very private people. We had to get used to that.

At first, we didn’t know the language at all, and unfortunately we got lost a lot, because we needed to ask directions, and people didn’t understand us, and they were a little bit impatient. It’s a little bit better now though, I have been here 11 years, and I feel things have changed a bit.

You were studying in English, I suppose?

Yes, we studied in English, though we also had weekly Czech lessons for three years. But those classes were in medical Czech, so that we could understand the hospital patients. Outside in the streets, it was almost useless.

Do you go back to Botswana much?

I have been to Botswana at least once every year, recently twice a year. I usually go in December because it’s summer there, and the festive season. My family has been living in England since 2006, so it’s easier for me to see them, because I can easily get a ticket and go to London for two or three days. But they’ve never been here; it’s too difficult for them to get a visa. Usually, I go there and then we go to Botswana together.

Tell me a bit more about what you’re doing now.

My research is about mechanisms of cancer resistance, and why we can’t cure some cancers, only subdue them for some time, before they come back, and with resistance to the previous treatment. We are trying to find out how the cancer cells change to be able to resist the drugs we use. Specifically, we are working with non-Hodgkins lymphomas, blood cancers.

When you started studying medicine 11 years ago, did you have any idea where it would lead you?

I thought that after six years I would be a doctor, and I would go home, and work in a hospital or clinic. But of course as we learnt more, we learnt that there are many types of doctors and that as well as working in clinical services, you can also do research in medicine. I felt I had a little bit more affinity towards the research and the teaching, rather than treating patients every day. So I chose this path started talking to people about how to continue in research.

Do you think you’ll stay in the Czech Republic for some time, or do you have plans to move elsewhere?

I will definitely move - I think I have stayed here a long time. I might see if I could join my family in England, or maybe go back to Botswana, but definitely I feel I want something new for a few years. I have been here almost all my adult life.

You must have many friends here now, too?

Yes, I have; some are studying, some I work with, and some I just happened to meet. The biggest group are the Batswana, and the second are the Czechs of course, because I work in quite a big department, and the year I started the department took on a lot of young students, so we formed a bit of a community.

What do you think is the best thing about the Czech Republic?

The thing I love about the Czech Republic is that it’s like a much better developed version of my country. I like the space, that there are not too many people around, and I really love the seasons, and the activities that go with them. I live in a city, but my friends who live in Sydney, or London, or Dublin complain about life being very expensive there, faster, and more stressful. Life here is really relaxed. People are happy: they work, but not too hard, or even if they do, they still go out and enjoy themselves in many ways: skiing, going to their cottages, swimming, walking in the countryside. It is a beautiful country, especially in the summer. I also love Prague, and it’s history - once you discover what everything means, who did this, who built this, when that was built. It’s not too modern, but everything you need is here. It’s a really nice mix.

Do you have a favourite place in Prague, or a place where you go to get away?

In Summer, I love the parks – Letenské Sady, Vyšehrad, Stromovka. In winter unfortunately I don’t much like the cold, though I am used to it now, so I stay indoors, or go to the cinema.

At what point did you find out about EURAXESS? Did you already know it when you were a student?

When I first came, EURAXESS didn’t exist yet, but about two to three years ago, they contacted me to ask if I need any help with my visa. So the next time I needed to renew my visa, I came to EURAXESS and it was a big help – firstly having someone who speaks English to help with the forms, and secondly, being able to make an appointment and be there for just 15 minutes; before, getting a visa meant going in the morning to get a ticket, and queuing up the whole day waiting for your turn. It’s a pity EURAXESS discovered me so late, it would have been really nice if they had helped me earlier!

When you first came, did you have any trouble with your visa?

Oh yes, we had trouble almost every year. For the first entry, the process took four months, so we arrived a month late. The other problem was that when we went for our visa appointments, they didn’t speak English, so we had to try our broken Czech, and sometimes they didn’t understand, and would tell you to come again later with someone who can translate. This was after you had queued for a long time. A lot of people failed their exams because of that, or chose to go to the exams instead of renewing their visa, and then got expelled from the country. Thankfully that didn’t happen to me, but it was a big stress for all of us. We have to apply for a new visa every year, so there are always a lot of people at the office.

Thank goodness EURAXESS can help! Do you think there’s anything that EURAXESS could do to help researchers more?

I can’t think what else would make it better except much longer visas, but that’s not something EURAXESS can do!

How is the communication with Charles University, are they supportive as well?

Yes, it’s excellent. If I need anything I just tell my department, and they arrange it. They are very helpful. Sometimes people are helpful, but they don’t know what you need – but at the university they are experienced in working with foreigners, so they know what is necessary, which makes it quite a pleasant experience.

If someone was coming from Botswana, what advice would you give them?

To be ready for a very hard time at the beginning! The most difficult things here are the visa, and finding good, cheap accommodation. It’s important to be patient, find something cheap at first, and then gradually look around for something that will suit you better. And then I usually give some advice from experience, about particular things like banks and mobile phones. The general advice I would give is just to be ready for a lot of new things – new food, new language, new people, and a new way of doing things, a different mindset, these are very different here compared to Botswana.

How do you feel about the coming year?

2015 will bring new things for me – it is my final year here, but I’m looking forward to it. I have to defend my dissertation, and then (hopefully!) I will graduate. Then for the first time in my life I won’t be a student, so I will need to find a job, decide where to go, whether to take a holiday first, and so on. It’s a big year for me, a new era of my life.

Would you like to find a job that includes teaching as well as research?

Definitely. One of the reasons I stayed in the Czech Republic was that I had the opportunity not just to study here, but also to teach, and do research, or work in a hospital. You don’t have to be only a teacher or only a scientist, you can find a nice balance of both. In my research, I work on problems that exist in hospital, so I am in contact with patients and their consultants, and it is very useful to have that connection between the research and the practice. So I hope I will find somewhere where a similar collaboration is possible.

Maybe EURAXESS can help you to find a position!

Do you like Czech food?

I have some favourites of course, but almost all of it is an acquired taste! For example, this chleba, the big one, I never could understand how people could eat it. But the sausages, and the goulash and dumplings are really nice, I loved them from the beginning. I had to get used to the sour cabbage of course, I didn’t know why someone would put vinegar or this bitter taste on cabbage! The baking is also a little bit different from what I was used to – I eat cheesecake here, and I eat cheesecake in Botswana, but if I put them next to each other, they are quite different things. They both have cheese, but otherwise they are rather different! But I have grown to like many of these things.

At home, do you still cook some traditional dishes from Botswana?

Well, it’s difficult to get some of the ingredients here – we have to bring it ourselves. There used to be a South African shop which sold some of the things, but they closed. Some things are the same, of course, but even the beef here is a bit different: the meat is really lean, whereas in Botswana when you go to the butcher they cut a cross-section, so you have some of the sinews, the fat, a bit of the bone, and then the meat. And also, usually we would buy meat that was killed yesterday, and eat it today, whereas here, most of the meat available is less fresh, at least unless you go to the smaller individual butchers. But the chicken is the same, and there is a lot more pork here, which I love – we don’t have that in Botswana, there is absolutely no pork meat there. I’m 60 percent Czech, as they say at my workplace! And of course when you’re in Prague you are exposed to cuisines from all over the world, so you can find more or less whatever you like, or just enjoy combining them.

Do you like the beer too?

Oh yes! There is really good beer here, and an excellent attitude towards beer, too. In Botswana there is very strict alcohol regulation, which causes much more difficulty – there is a lot of alcohol misuse in Botswana, and it is very expensive. Here everyone is much more sensible with the beer. And in general, in fact, there is a very conservative culture in Botswana, whereas here it is a very liberal society – if someone wants to smoke weed here, or have crazy hair, no one is bothered.

You mentioned there are not many Southern Africans here. Have you found it strange to be in such a minority?

Well, there is very little knowledge of Africa and African countries among the Czechs. It was not so difficult at the beginning actually, I suppose because I was studying in English and with other English-speaking foreigners, but once I started to work more with Czechs, I found that even among the more educated Czechs there was surprisingly little familiarity with Africa. They would say to me, “ooh, you’re from Africa – have you tasted elephant?” And I had to tell them that except in the zoo, I have never seen an elephant! Or they would say “I heard some African music yesterday, do you know it?” and it is some strange Egyptian music or something – most Czechs only really know North Africa, from their holidays. Some people do not know much at all about Southern Africa, even about Mandela – they only know his name – and they are not really aware of the size and variety of the African continent. But it’s good that I can tell them about it – it just takes a lot of time!