I have been writing this post in my head over and over again trying desperately to make sense of my feelings and therefore write a straightforward blog post. I'm not sure that this post will be straightforward or direct, I myself have gone back and forth with my feelings the last couple of weeks.
When I started this blog (back when Alyssa and I were traveling Southeast Asia..) my hope was that this blog could serve as a journal of sorts. So here goes nothing...
The beginning of June served as a busy time for us as trainees. On June 3rd our permanent site placements were announced! For many of us the last few weeks have been full of anxiety, excitement, disappointment, hope, discouragement, and a general feelings of being overwhelmed. My permanent site will be in the district of Mohale's Hoek, which is located in the south of Lesotho. I was hoping for a rural, if not remote, site and it seems that I got what I wished for. Though I'm also reminded of the saying, “Be careful what you wish for”.
The weekend after our site placement announcements we were set up in a beautiful new lodge to attend a Peace Corps workshop. The workshop was our first opportunity to meet and spend time with our new supervisors and counterparts that we will be working with for the next two years in Lesotho. It was also (for many of us) our first hot shower since arriving in country April 22nd!
View of our room at the lodge from the outside
From the inside
Our supervisor is generally the person that oversees the work we will be doing with our main organization and primary project. Our counterpart is generally the person we work most closely with. They are the one that we work with to ensure that our projects are sustainable and will continue once we leave.
That first afternoon I was incredibly anxious to get to know the two women I would be working with, after greeting them both in Sesotho I switched to English in an attempt to get to know them better. There were some questions, written in English, at the front of the room to help us. Unfortunately, I realized pretty quickly that my counterpart didn't speak English.. at all. My supervisor seemed to understand more English but our conversations were halting and difficult.
I went to dinner that night feeling defeated. I had warned myself many times to not have expectations going into my site and meeting my supervisor and counterpart. Yet, more and more, I'm realizing that we all have expectations, it's impossible not to. I had expected that I would be able to communicate readily with at least one of the women I will be working most closely with... and it was disheartening to learn that this wasn't the case.
The next couple days of the workshop were considerably easier once I knew what to expect, I began to look on the bright side, that now I would have no excuses to not learn Sesotho.
One of the activities that we did with our supervisors and counterparts was to go over a tentative schedule of what our days will look like at our sites. I listened to my friends chat amiably with their supervisors and counterparts around me as my supervisor and counterpart consulted each other in Sesotho. After some time they explained to me what my work in Mohale's Hoek would look like. I will be working with different support groups in the area that represent each neighboring village. Half of the groups meet one day a month and the other half of the groups meet a different day of the month. I waited patiently to hear what else I would be doing with my org. Slowly I realized that my supervisor didn't have anything else for me to do... while all around me I listened to how busy my friends would be, it was sinking in that my supervisor had only two days of work for me... a month.
Once again I was devastated. During dinner that night Corinne talked about the music classes she would be teaching at a prestigious boy's school, Sky talked about working with two of the most motivated and driven people at our workshop (never mind that they're both younger than 20), and Austin talked about how he's already found himself over booked with expectations for him to work at a newly created gym and teaching technology at a tech school. My father has always praised me for my work ethic and yet here I was.. with only enough work to keep me busy for 2 days out of a month.
I found solace in talking with friends who were going through very similar situations. Together we all commiserated while also trying to help each other to keep up a positive attitude.
After three days of electricity, hot showers, and hanging out with close friends we departed with our supervisors and counterparts to stay at our new sites for a few days.
My new site is in a rural village very close to the South African border. I'm about a 50 minute taxi ride away from the camptown where I will do the majority of my shopping and hanging out with friends. There are 5 schools that I will have the opportunity to work with in various capacities, a clinic that I may partner with, and 11 villages that are all within a 2.5 hour walk from my house.
I struggled the entire time during site visit. It was honestly the toughest time I've had since arriving in Lesotho and for the first time I found myself questioning whether or not I made the right choice. I hated not being able to properly express myself to anyone around me and really struggled with not seeing how I could possibly have enough work to keep myself busy. I was mad at Peace Corps for not giving me enough structure to be able to successfully complete projects, I didn't see how my time at Peace Corps would be a success if I stayed in this tiny rural village.
It's easy for me to gloss over the fact that the bo-'m'e in my village gave me an incredibly warm welcome when I arrived. They may not know what I am going to be doing in their village but they are happy to have me! In order to spice up a post that is going to be quite wordy I will intersperse pictures throughout.
The Chief came to greet us on horseback
Showing off their skills with their horse
Bo-'m'e dancing and singing
By the end of my visit I was looking forward to getting back with my friends and being able to talk to them about my fears and doubts, I was also looking forward to being able to speak English and to understand what was happening around me! Unfortunately meeting back up with my training group was equally overwhelming, I once again found myself comparing my site and site visit to that of my friends. And I found that talking with others that were going through a similar situation often only served to bring me down instead of helping me to stay positive. Misery does love company, eh?
My first night back in the training village I turned on a TED Radio Hour podcast to listen to while cooking. I chose an older episode, called Haves and Have Nots, that I assumed I had already heard before and therefore would take little concentration to listen and cook at the same time. Instead I found myself continuously pausing the episode to jot down notes and ideas that kept coming into my head.
Children joining in on the dance after school
Choir from a local school I visited
Performing a traditional dance
If you haven't listened to this episode before I highly suggest looking up Ernesto Sirolli's TED Talk, he chronicles his part of aid relief work in Zambia with the Italian variant of the Peace Corps. It's absolutely hilarious regardless of whether or not you're interested in aid relief.
Strangely enough his talk pumped me up immediately, even though it could be perceived that he negatively portrays the Peace Corps:
“I really thought that it was one bad project that will never be repeated, which, I think, is what the Americans in the Peace Corps are thinking right now. That they are in a bad project, but it's unique. So what they do, they don't tell anybody what they've done because there must be lots and lots of good projects out there. But if they had the chance to go and find out what their colleagues are doing around Africa, they will discover that, in fact, failure is the norm."
Right? Not something you would think would motivate me and instill a sense of hope and passion but Sirolli goes on about what he thinks needs to change:
“I decided, when I was 27 years old, to only respond to people. And I invented the system called Enterprise Facilitation where you never initiate anything, you never motivate anybody, but you become a servant of the local passion. The servant of local people who have a dream to become a better person. So what you do, you shut up, you never arrive in a community with any ideas and you sit with the local people. We become friends, and we find out what that person wants to do. The most important thing is passion.”
As I said before I think I had listened to this podcast previously, and had surely listened to Sirolli's TED Talk previously. While sitting at home in America this probably seemed like a no-brainer to me. Of course I would listen to the local people instead of having the audacity to come into a country with ideas of my own. And yet... it's already happening. We're now 9 weeks into our stay in Lesotho and this culture is starting to make more sense to us. Instead of looking around with wonder at this unknown country we're starting to feel more comfortable, we're starting to feel at home. With that feeling of comfort the ideas on what needs to be done are beginning to pour in.
Our first session with Peace Corps after returning from our site visit trainees talked one by one about what their visit was like and what they would be doing at their permanent sites. Many of us began by talking about what we saw that needed to be done in our communities or organizations. Sure we need to talk with the local people, but look at those roads! No one has electricity! They need a better way to get their projects out there! Of course, the local people might agree with us. If we talked with them they may have expressed these exact same needs... But we haven't talked with anyone yet... And we already have ideas of what needs to be done.
As Sirolli explains, as Americans we see fertile land next a large river and we assume we need to teach the people to grow crops in this fertile valley. We need to save these people from hunger. Yet without asking anyone why they haven't been growing crops in this valley, without talking to anyone about what they need, we are only setting ourselves up for failure. “If you arrive in country with arrogance and you don’t listen to the local people, you don't ask, you are going to have your pride chewed off by the local hippos.”
Sirolli draws on a popular proverb by saying, “you will never solve the problem of poverty by giving people money – you must teach people to fish.” This has always spoken true to me and now it conveys a new meaning to me. We see a man who is hungry and assume we need to teach him to fish. Yet slowly I'm realizing that there is so much more that we need to learn.
While visiting my new site I was plagued with feelings of doubt. Even when I tried to remain positive I struggled with intense fears of what my service would look like...
Will I be able to handle this?
Can I possibly intergrate successfully into this community?
Will I ever learn Sesotho?
Will the children respect me?
Does anyone here speak English?
Will I be seen as only a money provider?
Will others view my service as a success?
Will I view my service as a success?
Does my village understand why I'm here?
Does my village want me here?
Will I make friends?
My father praises me on my strong work ethic, how will I honor him here?
Will I be able to stay in touch with the friends I've made so far?
Why am I here?
As I said my site is incredibly unstructured, which lead to many feelings of doubt and uncertainty. Listening to friends talk about what they'll be doing at their structured sites was not helping to alleviate my fears. And yet after listening to this podcast I found myself getting pumped to be working at such an ambiguous site. Organizations can offer us structure and resources, which at times I'm going to desperately be wishing for, but I'm beginning to realize that they are often too stuck in Western ideas of how things must be done. So much of my friends time at these structured sites will be spent trying to understand their roles in these organizations. It will be much easier for them to miss the opportunities to support meaningful, innovative work in the community.
One of the reason's that I'm such a big fan of NPR's TED Radio Hour podcast is because it combines many different TED Talks and makes them easy to follow on the radio, without any visuals. One of the other TED speakers involved in this particular episode is Jacqueline Novogratz. She spoke about her definition of poverty and how she feels we need to change our view on poverty and those living in poverty:
“For me, poverty is a lack of choice. It's a lack of opportunity, and certainly, income is a piece of it, but is not the only piece. If we want to create a thriving world as we careen toward 10 billion, we need to move away from seeing the 3 billion not as hungry mouths to feed, but rather as innovators and entrepreneurs and teachers and songwriters. And the more that we see each other, then there is not only a moral obligation, but a financial, a political, an economic, and a social opportunity to build a world where we can truly flourish.”
This part of her talk hit home for me because it connected parts of Sirolli's talk that I really enjoyed. It is amazing how easy it is to see people living in poverty as only mouths to feed, or only as people who need our help and want aid. It seems that it is painfully easy for organizations and NGO's to forget that people living in poverty are talented beautiful people with their own thoughts, ideas, and passions. When working on such a large scale we lose out on the individuality that could be celebrated, even in cultures that don't necessarily acknowledge individualism.
Hands down my favorite LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator)
Teaching students the helium stick initiative
Overall, this episode served to motivate and excite me for the work I will be doing at my permanent site. It is easy for me to look at all the things I won't have or won't be doing at my site. And yet I am starting to see this as an amazing opportunity to do actual sustainable work in this tiny country. Maybe I won't be working on the huge outreach projects that some of my friends will be working on... I may have trouble at times pointing to the measurable work that I am doing at my site... and yet if I am able to appreciate the small moments and the one on one conversations, I am confidant that I will find that lasting change is happening.
I'm not going to change gender norms or how women are viewed in Lesotho, but I can have conversations with a young girl that show her the importance of respecting and loving herself. Maybe I won't have ground breaking meetings but I will have the time to sit and talk with community members one on one. I will have the time and energy to view people as innovators and entrepreneurs and teachers and songwriters. I will have the time to invest in “enterprise facilitation” and connecting people with passion to the knowledge and information that they need. I can spend days thinking of all the things I don't have, and during site visit I basically did, or I can look at the brilliant opportunity that has been handed to me.
Many of my days are probably going to be spent being... bored. And I'm slowly coming to understand that that is okay. I'm already trying to think of ways for me to structure my days in terms of integrating into my community. Maybe I will only buy enough eggs to eat for dinner that night or the next morning causing me to walk to the local shop everyday, stopping to talk to everyone on my way there and back. The first month that I am at site the schools will not be in session because they will be on winter break. Instead of catering to the impulse to be in my house with the door shut, reading, I will encourage myself to keep my door open or to even read outside in front of my house allowing myself to be open.
While trying to stay positive I'm also aware that it's important to not deceive myself, the first three months at site are going to be incredibly difficult. I'll be in what is officially called Phase II, though is more commonly known by volunteers as lockdown. Our focus is on integrating into our communities and nothing else. We're not supposed to leave our districts and encouraged to limit our time in our camptowns to grocery shopping. Essentially I think of this time as similar to the first couple months of University. Those who went home every weekend were often the ones that struggled with making friends and unfortunately dropped out. Phase II is our time to get to know our community, get out and talk to people, and to begin to make our house a home.
Another one of the speakers on this episode is George Ayittey, an economist who was born and raised in Ghana. His talk doesn't necessarily relate to my work in Lesotho, and yet he's speaking about poverty and aid in Africa. How could it not relate? Here's what Ayittey had to say that struck a chord with me:
"Now there are a lot of Africans who are very angry – angry at a condition of Africa. Now we're talking about a continent which is not poor, it is rich in natural mineral resources, but the mineral wealth of Africa is not being utilized to lift its people out of poverty. There are certain things that we need to recognize. Africa's begging bowl leaks horribly. There are people who think that we should pour more money, more aid into this bowl, which leaks. What are the leakages? Corruption alone costs Africa $148 billion USD a year. Capitol flight out of Africa, $80 billion a year. Let's take food imports. Every year Africa spends $20 billion to import food. Now back in the 1960's, Africa not only fed itself, it also exported food. Not anymore. We know that something has gone fundamentally wrong."
Winter is here
"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."