Monday, August 24, 2015

Where Is The White Person?

I recently read an article posted by a guy who served in Africa in the Peace Corps. He mentioned how it was the first time in his life that he was a minority. For some reason that struck me.

It took me some time to put my finger on why this simple statement affected me in the way that it did. On the surface it is quite true. As a white person in Africa I am a minority.

While procrastinating writing this blog post I found myself looking up various articles on Wikipedia and stumbled upon this definition:

 A minority group has 5 characteristics:
1. Suffering discrimination and subordination
2. Physical and/or cultural traits that set them apart, and which are disapproved by the dominant group.
3. A shared sense of collective identity and common burdens
4. Socially shared rules about who belongs and who does not determine minority status
5.Tendency to marry within the group

This is, of course, just one definition of a minority group. Though it helped me to get an idea of where I was coming from. I don't deny that I am a minority in Lesotho. I just don't feel like a minority in Lesotho. Sure everyone stares at me constantly, little kids sometimes cry when they see me, and people often can't resist the urge to play with my hair or touch my skin. Why don't I feel like a minority?

I recognize that a big part of this is that I need to reframe my idea of what a minority is. After living in the United States I tend to associate being a minority with the unfortunate treatment of minorities:

Jim Crow Laws

"You're in America, Speak English"

"Irish Need Not Apply"

In Lesotho, and particularly in my village, I am a celebrity. 

Once a month I help my host mom, who is a village health worker, to weigh the children in my village who are under 5. The women love to hand me their babies to hold. I feel like the Pope. Sometimes they even fight over whose baby I will hold first. It's an intense and beautiful experience. 

I've timed it... it takes me 7 minutes to walk to the shop when no one stops me to talk to them. Which is quite rare. Instead a typical trip looks like getting stopped every few yards by: my neighbors who want to know what I will be cooking for dinner (and wondering when I'll be making some 'no bake cookies' to share again!), bo-ausi (young girls) interested in an impromptu photo shoot, herd boys who like to watch me play with their tiny puppies... and finally when I'm 10-20 yards away from the shop the bo-ntate (older men) outside drinking start calling my name. 

Recently I went to visit a nearby school to see if they need my help with anything. (And by nearby I mean a 4 hour roundtrip walk... everything is subjective.) I was hoping to have a quick conversation with the principal without interrupting the school too much. Instead as soon as I walked onto the school grounds everyone knew that I had arrived. The principal quickly organized an assembly for me to be able to meet the entire school. As soon as everyone was sitting in the classroom and had quieted down the principal asked, "Where is the white person?". She continued to ask this question until the students had expressed exactly where "the white person" was sitting. The assembly was wrapped up with impromptu songs and dances from the kids. 2 hours later I started the walk back to my much for a quick conversation.

A few weeks ago I walked to a nearby village and participated in a pitso (community meeting) where I introduced myself to the village. The villagers were all sitting on burlap sacks on the ground and the chief was sitting in a chair. I started to scope out a spot on the ground when someone grabbed my arm and pulled me over to where the chief had been sitting. The chief was now sitting on the ground as they told me to sit down on the chair... 

Any community event that happens there is a moment where everyone turns to look at me or other volunteers. Usually signifying that the event is being dedicated to us or that the speaker is talking about the white people in the audience. It's something that I will never be able to properly explain. I am reminded daily, multiple times a day, that I am white. And that my skin color makes me a celebrity in Lesotho. 

My Supervisor and I

Almost 2 weeks ago I was inundated with love from home and from Peace Corps volunteers here. I had a birthday! And what a fantastic birthday it was. People here don't really celebrate birthdays so I celebrated by cooking myself a pizza and a peach cobbler! I don't need no stinkin' electricity or ovens to make good food! Yeah thats right.. I made pizza and peach cobbler without an oven. I have skills. 

Trying to get bread to rise in my cold house

Makeshift oven


Peach Cobbler

The kids in my village have started spending more and more time outside of my house and visiting me. I love it!

Homework sessions in the front yard

Using my luci light to read

Playing soccer with my deflated soccer ball

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Ke Ausi Nthabeleng

Ke ausi Nthabeleng Ramatsasa
I am Nthabeleng Ramatsasa

Ke lula Ha-Mokhatla
I live in Ha-Mokhatla

I have been living in my permanent site for just over a month, and yet I find myself repeating these simple phrases every time I leave my house. When people ask me who I am and where I live, they are not asking because they don't know. They are asking because they love to hear me say it.

If you read my previous post, Africa's Begging Bowl Leaks, you know that I was really struggling after my initial site visit. I didn't know how I could be of service in such a tiny village with no structure. I'll admit I still don't have the answers to many of the questions I had but I feel incredibly lucky to be so welcome in this village by these beautiful happy people.

Ntate offering me a gift to welcome me

I'm currently reading a memoir by Susan Herrera called, Mango Elephants In The Sun, detailing her experience in Cameroon with the Peace Corps. I am not necessarily enjoying the book but a few quotes have stuck out to me.

They'll laugh at my buckets. They'll laugh at me. What did I really imagine the Peace Corp would be like? Not like this. Nothing like this. I feel white.”

I don't want to be an outsider; I don’t want to be full of fear; I don't want to resist this adventure. I want to become a part of this desert, this village, these people, these laughing children. My body is filling with Africa's spirit.”

I am the first Peace Corps Volunteer to live in my tiny village. While visiting a school recently the principal laughed at the children who were too afraid to speak to me, trying to reassure me she said, “They've never seen anyone as white as you!”

I am aware of my white skin every time I step outside my house. I cannot do anything without attracting the attention of people in my village. Regardless of what I am doing I am constantly being stared at, it's unnerving at times. I often need to remind myself that when my villagers see me doing something they are watching a white person do it for the first time... fetching water from the tap, kicking a makeshift soccer ball with the kids, cooking, holding a baby, burning trash, planting vegetables in my keyhole garden, buying eggs in the shop, washing laundry... Even speaking Sesotho with villagers provokes laughter from everyone.. some of them have never heard a white person speak Sesotho before!
Bo-'m'e in a nearby village 
Welcoming me after a pitso (community meeting) introducing me.

Nearby riverbed that is currently dry

Pump n Play

Kids play on the "merry-go-round" and pump water without even knowing it

Primary School

Traditional thatched roof

Looking back towards my village from the school

The feeling of “separateness” is intense at times and yet I also recognize that I am incredibly lucky. My village desperately wants to get to know me and to help me feel welcome! Just about every community event that I participate in involves the community trying to welcome me with dancing, singing, and food.

Life in the village has been slow this month because the schools are currently on winter break. So couple weeks ago I joined my supervisor and counterpart at a primary school near me to teach life skills to the children in nearby villages. The children were separated into groups based on their age ranges. I bounced around from group to group to hear what they groups were being taught. Everything from teaching the youngest how to wash their hands to talking to the oldest group about different income generating activities they could participate in. After Peace Corps' training I often felt overwhelmed when thinking about “life skills groups”, I thought we were expected to create these groups. So it was refreshing to find that these groups already exist in some form in my community for me to work with.

Teaching the kids life skills

Different groups

Littlest ones

After each of the groups were done with their lessons they each sang a song in Sesotho for me. I'm continuously surprised at how well everyone can sing here in Lesotho. It really does lead me to believe that everyone is capable of singing well. I often dance with the kids and bo-'m'e but I'm still too self-conscious to sing around them. Something that seems to baffle everyone!

In my last job working in wilderness therapy we talked to the clients about allowing themselves to be 'present' in the moment and to not worry about 'future information'. Generally clients were not told the time, the schedule for the day, or even how many miles we would be hiking. While I see the merits in such an approach I'm not sure, as a staff member, I ever truly understood how this must have felt. Though I'm getting a taste of my own medicine now! Not being able to speak Sesotho or English well enough with my supervisor and counterpart often means that I have no idea what we'll be doing for the day when I leave my house. We could be walking 2.5 hours to another village or walking to visit someone in a house near me. I also have no idea how long activities, such as the life skills groups, will last or what we will be doing afterwards. It's a serious lesson in patience, allowing myself to trust the process, and going with the flow!

In this particular instance I wasn't waiting too long before I was ushered into the nearby church and told to take a seat on the bench facing the rear of the church. I was alone in the church but I could hear everyone talking excitedly outside. Eventually many community members began filing into the church, and I knew that we had moved on from the life skills groups. Sure enough the community had arranged for 3 young girls to perform traditional dances for me as bo-'m'e sang. After the concert I was ushered away again into a small office and given food. It is so important to this community that they welcome me properly. I am so incredibly lucky to be placed in this village.

Singing for me

My house is a typical concrete house with a tin roof. It was given to me outfitted with all sorts of furniture, far more than Peace Corps requires, that leads my house to feel really cozy and comfortable. Making this house a home has been a process that is not going to happen overnight and yet it feels more like mine everyday. I have hit the jackpot by having a water tap right outside of my house, it's often dry but everyone assures me that it will be running in the summer. I've learned to fill up multiple buckets every time it is running to last me awhile!

My house

Pano of inside

Wardrobe of love, pictures of people I love from home
Letters I've received while being here

Sometimes random donkeys decide to come hang out

Watertap in front of my house

While on a walk recently with my tutor, Rethabile, she showed me the spring that women used to walk to everyday to get water for their households before taps and pumps were installed in 2013. We were at least a half mile away from my village. I assumed the women would use wheelbarrows to transport the buckets but Rethabile informed me that there were too many dongas (ravines) in the way to use a wheelbarrow. It took me a moment for this concept to sink it. I tried to imagine living here, only 2 years earlier, and walking a half mile back to my village with a 20L bucket on my head... multiple times a day.

Rethabile and her nephews


Looking out over the villages

Spring that women got water from prior to 2013

If you look closely you can see the beginning of my village through the trees
An idea of how far women needed to walk

Looking down on my village

A few weeks ago bo-'m'e helped me to build a keyhole garden in my yard. Keyhole gardens, or raised bed gardens, were all the rage in African Aid circles a few years ago. They were pushed pretty hard and now it's hard to find a family compound that doesn't have a defunct keyhole garden. I am no expert on keyhole gardens but from what I understand the raised bed and composting material in the center allow my vegetables to grow in a smaller area by keeping the soil loose and retaining more moisture. So far I have beet root, onion, and rape planted. I'm excited to have some fresh vegetables growing in my garden!

First layer of the keyhole: tins, aloe, bones, and leaves

Next layer: Ash

Composting section in the center of the garden


Next layer: Dirt

Next layer: Manure

Proof that I helped

Check out the baby on his grandmother's back


Ash, manure, and dirt layers are repeated until garden is complete

Transportation in and out of my village has been an adventure, albeit one full of serendipity. I've learned many important lessons along the way, though they tend to be learned the hard way! A few weeks ago I tried to leave my village on a Sunday morning with the intention of returning to the village that afternoon before it became dark. It took over an hour of walking down the main dirt road before I saw a taxi and yet I didn't really think anything of it. After spending some time grocery shopping and hanging with friends in the camptown I began the journey back to my village. Unfortunately, there were no taxis going back to my village in the taxi rank. Understanding my predicament a few taxi drivers worked to get me a lift to the junction of the main paved road and my dirt road. As the taxi left me at the junction I crossed my fingers that a car would drive past that could give me a lift, as the turnoff to my village was still 45 minutes, by car, down the dirt road. After walking for only about 10 minutes a truck started driving up behind me, I flagged it down and immediately began to relax and smile to see that there was a woman driving the truck. I opened the door and she immediately greeted me by name even though she did not live in my village! Soon after picking me up we turned off the dirt road into another tiny village, I wasn't sure where we were going but she assured me that we would be going to my village shortly. We stopped at the house of a chief in the small village and she quickly ushered me inside and into the room where the bo-ntate (men) and the chief were eating and drinking. She brought me a plate full of food as she sat down next to me. They wanted to hear about what I would be doing in my village and how I was finding Lesotho and my village, it was an incredible experience. After we finished eating the 'M'e I was traveling with helped me back into the truck and drove me right up to the door of my house. I often find myself trying to imagine these experiences happening in the United States...

Here are some pictures of my 1/2 hour walk to the main dirt road where I can catch a taxi to town.

Path I follow as I leave my village

Looking towards the road

Looking back towards my village while walking
My house is near the tall tree that is visible in the picture

Beautiful morning

Coming home one night to find that a typical dry section of slick rock was a newly formed river from the rain!

Dry section that turned into a river

Overall, my first month of service has been a smashing success! I'm learning to have patience with a culture that I am still getting to know and love. I'm also allowing myself to recognize that my number one job right now is to integrate into this village, so playing with kids, walking to the shop, and participating in photo shoots are exactly what I am supposed to be doing.

Me and Rethabile, my tutor

Rethabile (We are happy) and Lydia

Me and my host mom 'M'e Matselane
In the shop she owns

Kids in the village
They run over yelling and then get shy as soon as they're close

Lydia and her sister

Zebras at a lodge we stayed in recently for an All Volunteer Conference

Stephanie's first time ever seeing snow fall!
Who would have thought it would be in Africa?

Another quote from Mango Elephants In The Sun that begins to embody the feeling of discomfort that is involved in integrating into a community like this:

I want wings and to fly, but I don't want to suffer in the confining darkness of a cocoon and go through the process of becoming a butterfly. I want to skip a step and move my wings”

Spoiler Alert:
I got a cat!
Her name is Mokopu, it means Pumpkin