Monday, May 16, 2016

How's Africa?

When I was living in Utah my friend Eric and I jokingly began brainstorming a way for me to be paid to travel the world. I'm not a talented photographer, I’m not an especially gifted writer, and no one in his or her right mind would pay me to eat my way around the world. .  . Instead we decided that I would need to get paid to travel the world and rant about various topics. If there’s one thing I do often, it’s rant! (Just ask me how I feel about my Chacos falling apart) Surprisingly this blog has had very little ranting. So perhaps it’s about time I started honing that unique skill.
Friends and family let me start by saying that we love the support that you send to us while we're here. Through letters, texts, visits, phone calls, and even through reading our blogs! We appreciate all the questions and interest in what our life has been like living in Lesotho for the past year. Your questions show us that our blogs, conversations, and Facebook posts are truly living out Peace Corps' Third Goal:

"To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans."

Or said simply, you’re allowing us to “Bring the World Home”. I think because, as Peace Corps volunteers, we’re aware that we’re trying to bring home an entirely new culture we try to be patient with those various faux pas that our friends and family commit. Though I’ve come to realize that if we don’t correct you… who will?

Therefore, I've been talking with current Peace Corps volunteers in Lesotho and we've come up with the 19 things it's hard for us to hear from loved ones back home.

I’ve thrown in some pictures from the last few months for those of you who only ‘read’ my posts to look at the pictures. (cough Alyssa cough)

     1.  "How's Africa?"

This is one of the things that people say that drives me crazy EVERY TIME! Take a second and check out this picture showing how many different countries can fit inside the continent of Africa.

Crazy, eh?

I live in Lesotho, a tiny country that is a part of the massive African continent. A continent that is made up of 54 different countries! I'll never be able to answer the question, "How's Africa?" any more than you would feel comfortable answering the question, "How're The Americas?" or "How's the Northern Hemisphere?" 

When Basotho ask us about America we take pains to explain that America is a very large country and therefore the weather, food, and terrain is very different in different areas. We struggle to answer, "Does it get cold in America?" while our friends/family back home are asking us, "How's Africa?"

How we feel when you assume it's always HOT in Africa

I understand that when traveling we often characterize the places in which we are going by talking about the region or the continent:

“Backpacking through Europe”

“Spending 2 months in South America”

“Traveling in SouthEast Asia”

The biggest difference between these common sayings and asking a Peace Corps Volunteer, “How’s Africa?” is that we’re not traveling. We are living in a country for 2 years. We’re working hard to integrate, learn a language, understand a culture, and hopefully do some good for the communities we’re working with. Instead of asking us an impossibly vague question that we will never be able to answer (at least not in this 2 year service…) ask us a specific question. Read our blogs or look at our pictures on Facebook and ask us to expound on these things.

     2.  "So you live in South Africa?"

To be fair, the easiest way to explain to people where Lesotho is, is to say that it is the tiny country completely surrounded by South Africa. However, Lesotho is it's own independent country. South Africa and Lesotho are two very different countries with different cultures, languages, governments, and struggles. Assuming I live in South Africa leads me to wonder if you're actually interested in learning about my Peace Corps service. 

     3.  "Luh-so-tho"

As volunteers we've spent plenty of time talking about what getting our invitation to serve in Lesotho was like. For most of us, one of the first things we did was Google Lesotho. Followed shortly by clicking on links teaching us how to properly pronounce Lesotho. (Hint: Lay-soo-too)

What I’m trying to say is that we don’t expect everyone to immediately be able to pronounce Lesotho correctly. However, you now have a friend/relative/loved one serving in a different country. Learn how to correctly pronounce that country’s name. Once again, it’s a way of showing us that you truly care about our lives here, we don’t find it humorous when people insist on mispronouncing a place we’ve committed to living and working for 2 years.

     4.  "Your life is so simple and romantic!"

Why do we love to look at small villages around the world as living a simplified and romantic life? Why is it assumed that having less ‘things’ equals simplicity?

Last week it rained all day Tuesday so I was able to collect enough water to go on a clothes/bed sheets washing spree. I spent at least 3 hours Wednesday hand washing clothes, blankets, and sheets in my front yard. Not to mention the energy on Tuesday that went into collecting rainwater and finding different places to store it around my house. Simultaneously boiling kettle after kettle of water, letting it cool down, and then putting it into my water filter so that I would have water to drink.

Washing sheets and blankets is ZERO fun

Right now? Simple sounds like running water, a washing machine and a dyer!

I bathe while standing in a bucket, I use a pit latrine, and in the summer I’m woken up at 4am by roosters crowing and donkeys braying. Is this your idea of romance?

Last weekend we had a Murder Mystery party in our camp town. I walked 25 minutes to the spot where my taxi stops almost every morning at 8am. At 9:45 my taxi arrived, late from transporting people to a nearby village for a funeral, and eventually squeezed 21 people in the 15-passenger van. On Sunday, because there is no transportation in my village on Sundays, I walked the 3 hours back to my house. 

Only photo I have from inside a taxi.
It happens to be one of the most comfortable rides I've had
Aka only time I can realistically get to my phone

Simplicity sounds like owning a car and being able to have the autonomy of deciding where I go, when I will leave, and when I will be arriving.

Living in Lesotho comes with it’s own struggles and tribulations. My struggles now are different than they were when I lived in America, and I’m not sure my struggles are any “simpler” or more romantic” in one place than the other. 

Trying to find a way to keep my Moroho fresh

     5.  "That's just like when I was abroad in [insert any place other than America that is not at all similar to Lesotho]!"

I would like to make it very clear that I am not trying to take away from anyone’s study abroad experience. I didn’t study abroad during University and still wish I would have made the time to do so. Living abroad for any amount of time is a feat in itself.

That being said, studying abroad is a VERY different experience from Peace Corps. Just as you wouldn’t want me to compare a 4 week trip in Ireland to living and attending school in Ireland for 3-6 months, don’t compare your study abroad experience to living and working in a country for 2 years.

It should go without saying that this is even more annoying when the countries/cultures are not remotely similar.

Mosotho cat

     6.  "Have fun on your trip/travels!"

This is something that some of us heard while preparing to leave the country through medical visits, leaving jobs, or goodbye parties.

When I moved to Utah for a job with a year commitment no one said, “Have fun on your travels!” It was understood that I was moving to a new state and would be starting to build a life there, regardless of how short a time it may be. So why, when leaving to live in Lesotho for 2 years, would someone tell me to have a fun time ‘traveling’?

I can see that the finite nature of this experience lends itself to seem like more of a ‘trip’ than moving to another state. In two years our service will be over, and it’s not likely that we will choose to live in Lesotho indefinitely. However, we have still moved for 2 years. This is not a ‘trip’. We are learning a new language, a new culture, and building a life here.

     7.  "I know someone going to Kenya/safari/studying abroad in Africa!"

If I told you that I was moving to Nebraska would you tell me about your dentist’s son that lives in Canada? What about your friend’s daughter’s boyfriend that lives in Texas?

Probably not, right? Neither of those places are very relevant to Nebraska and I don’t actually know this person so we’re not going to put in the effort to meet up.

It feels similar when you tell us about the distant person you know who will be traveling to the continent of Africa. While I’m happy for this person, we already talked about how large the continent of Africa is! Chances are you know someone, who knows someone who is coming to this continent for something…

     8.  "You're so lucky! I wish I could travel and live abroad like that!"

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I could rant about this one for hours. Easily. Actually, I’m surprised it’s never had a post completely to itself.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, so I won’t pretend that ‘luck’ has nothing to do with where I am. I’m lucky that I was born healthy with no major disabilities, I’m lucky that I was born into a family that promoted traveling and that had enough money for me to work and save money without me having to work to support my family, and I’m lucky that I happened to be born in a country with seemingly limitless opportunities.

As volunteers, we made the active choice to do something hard, scary, and exciting. Telling us that we’re lucky to be in this situation has a tendency to take away a bit of the empowerment we feel, as though Peace Corps is something that happened to us.

I made the choice to join Peace Corps, and the choice to save money to travel before, during, and hopefully after Peace Corps. If you’re reading this blog there’s a decent chance that you too could make this choice.

     9.  "Oh god, that sounds terrible!"

Sometimes this is a perfectly acceptable thing to say to a Peace Corps volunteer. Recently I found 
myself caught in a rainstorm while visiting friends in another district. I had been gone for multiple days so I didn’t have an umbrella, raincoat, or pack cover. My friend Aline and I found ourselves waiting for at least a half hour in the rain for a hitch back to our district. A couple hours and two hitches later we arrived back in our canptown, soaked and freezing cold. It was a Sunday so I was facing the prospect of having to walk the three hours home in the rain so that I could be home on Monday to teach GRS in the schools. Oh god, it was terrible.

Worse than this burr filled lamb!

I would suggest taking your cue from us on whether the story we’re telling is an appropriate time for this sentiment.

When telling you about the time that we went to a funeral that lasted 6 hours, I don’t find it appropriate to say “That sounds terrible!” The length of public events in Lesotho can be difficult and the experiences are so much more than that!

If we’re telling you an experience that we’ve had that we find funny, or indicative of our life here and you respond with “that sounds terrible!” It leads us to wonder what we’re doing wrong in describing this event to you. How do we properly explain that this wasn’t terrible at all! It serves to deepen the chasm between our two different worlds.

Instead ask us questions. My guess is that it won’t take long for you to be able to determine whether we’re trying to share a terrible, growing, or funny experience.

Not a terrible experience
Siting in the sun, waiting for a hitch, listening to Beyonce's new album...
Also we don't actually hitch by sticking out our thumbs

     10.  "I could never be gone that long. I'd miss my friends and family!"

Honestly, initially when I heard this I felt terrible. As though this person was telling me that I don’t miss my friends and family.

We miss our friends and family immensely. And we’ve made the important and difficult decision to follow our hearts and do what we needed to do. Hoping that our friends and family will understand that we are doing something that truly makes us happy. Some of us even left significant others in the States. These weren’t decisions that were arrived at lightly.

Luckily we're making friends and family here too

     11.  "Papa sounds horrible! I could never eat it everyday!"

It’s funny to me how much this one bothers me, and how much I feel the need to stand up for the 
staple food in the Basotho diet.

As volunteers we are incredibly lucky that we can choose to eat meals that don’t involve papa. Our monthly stipend, though laughingly little by American standards, allows us to live at an income above what many of our Basotho counterparts make. Most Basotho eat papa as the main component of their meals everyday. Even though it's nutritional value isn't much to write home about; it serves it’s purpose by staving off hunger and filling the belly.

Check out my friend Beth’s blog post about papa and how important it is to the Basotho culture. As Beth states:

"A lesokoana is a stick used exclusively for stirring papa. When stirring with the papa stick, the verb in Sesotho is ho soka. That’s right, papa is so important that it gets its own kitchen utensil and it’s own verb for stirring."

Overall, we get it you’re, most likely, in America. The land of all the food choices. We know. Stop rubbing it in.

     12.  "You're doing so much to change the lives of the people you're working with over there!"

This is quite possibly the most important ‘thing not to say to a PCV’ and it’s also the least talked about. Even among PCVs ourselves.

It’s nice to think that we’re changing lives here. That all the hardships, adversity, and loneliness are worth it because we’re leaving changed lives, villages, and measurable impact in our wake.

Lives are being changed, but they may not be the ones you’re thinking of. Our lives are changing, the lives of Peace Corps volunteers.

I don’t want to insinuate that those around us aren’t appreciating our work here, our efforts. I also don’t want to imply that our efforts in Lesotho and elsewhere around the world are devoid of impact.

Every quarter we fill out a VRF (Volunteer Report Form) where we are encouraged to look at our work quantitatively. How many youth (boys/girls and what ages) have we taught a new skill, or how many youth have successfully changed an unhealthy behavior. I understand the importance behind 
the VRF and I get depressed for a day or two each quarter while trying to fill it out. Looking back on the quarter quantitatively I often find myself thinking, “Is that all I’ve done??”

When I take a step back and look at things qualitatively I often feel better about my service and my impact in this country. However, it’s important to me to try to explain to you that my impact isn’t large, measurable, or maybe even long lasting.

I will come away from this experience with far more than I’ve given. And I’m very slowly coming to terms with that. The more I hear others trying to encourage me about the large impact I’m making and the lives I’m changing the more it leads me to feel like a fraud.

Meet us where we are in this process. Allow us to talk about the small moments in our week that have been momentous to us and most importantly let us talk about our failures, struggles, and doubts.

Not everything in our life is glamorous

     13.  "I could live without electricity no problem!"

My Dad said a version of this while he was visiting me in back in March and I don’t think he’ll mind me picking on him! At the time that he said this we were spending two nights in my village without electricity. The statement ‘ruffled my feathers’ but at the time I couldn’t figure out why and therefore I let the comment pass.

Consistently moving my solar charger around to try to get the most sun.

I realize now that as volunteers we sometimes we make our lives look too easy. The blog posts we write, the pictures we post on Facebook, and the way we talk to friends and family back home often leave out many of our small daily struggles.

We spent about 36 hours in my village before we left to go to the camptown hotel. During that time my parents realized they didn’t miss TV, they saw my Luci solar lights being used to easily light my house, and watched me charge my phone once or twice from my solar charger.

There was a lot they didn’t see. Such as the times that we return from a 6 hour funeral and just want to unwind by watching a movie or a couple episodes of Game of Thrones to find that our computer is dead because we planned our TV show/movie watching poorly this week. How we need to strategically place the Luci lights in the windows so they’ll get enough of a charge to be able to light the house during the dark days of winter. Or how on a cloudy day we have to choose between listening to a battery draining podcast or ensuring that the phone has enough battery to get us through the day, since it’s literally our connection to the world outside of our village.

I know that not every volunteer in Lesotho is living without electricity and I think we all make our Peace Corps life look too good sometimes.

Having my gas run out on a very cold and rainy day

Luckily my village helped me get the gas canister home

     14.  "Oh you're joining Peace Corps? I could never do that!"

Here’s the opposite of the previous one. Just as it’s hard to hear people back home insinuate that our lives are easy here, it’s difficult to hear people make our lives sound like they’re impossibly hard.

In a lot of ways our lives are still pretty similar. We have jobs, families, friends, travels, hardships, pets, and excitement. It’s just different now. Instead of assuming that Peace Corps is something automatically impossible, ask us questions about our lives here. Help us to help you to connect to our new life.
We play board games too!

     15.  "I hope you don't date one of them, you'll get AIDS."

Sometimes Peace Corps volunteers get flak for coming home and being too concerned about being “politically correct”. Suddenly we don’t find offensive jokes funny anymore. Try to be patient with us and ask us questions about where our perspective is coming from.

Most likely it’s coming from a place of being educated on a topic. Maybe HIV/AIDS jokes are funny back in America (please tell me they’re not!) But they’re not funny here. We’re living amongst a population with the world’s second highest HIV/AIDS rate. There are funerals all over Lesotho every Saturday. It’s an epidemic and the longer we live here the more we watch neighbors, coworkers, and friends die from complications of HIV/AIDS. The more we hear the excuses people give for why that person died because HIV/AIDS still has a crippling stigma associated with it.

Educate yourselves on HIV/AIDS. Ask us questions about this epidemic, we have learned A LOT here and are open to talking about it. It is not a joke, laughing matter, or something to be tactless about.

Heading to the funeral of someone I worked with and respected immensely

     16.  "Drought? HIV/AIDS? Where can I donate money?"

Reading our blogs, talking to us on the phone, or staying connected through letters you’re going to hear a lot about the different struggles gripping our country. Recently Lesotho has been getting a lot of media time about the ongoing 2 year drought that is devastating this country. 

We enjoy the educated questions that you’re able to ask after watching these programs or reading the articles floating around the internet and our Facebook newsfeeds right now. And it’s hard for us to hear you asking where you can send money.

Sometimes, it’s true; we might have an answer for you. When we are doing a certain type of grant we rely on donations from friends and family to fund the grant and begin work on our project. And I think we do a pretty good job of advertising this grant on Facebook, blogs, or through family members.

If you’re not donating directly to our grant or a friend’s grant, we would often prefer you don’t send money. We know what happens to a country when people pour money in without understanding where it’s going or how exactly it is going to help.

George Ayittey, a Ghanaian economist, in his TED Talk said:

“Africa’s begging bowl leaks horribly. There are people who think we should pour more money, more aid, into this bowl which leaks.”

We’re honored that our loved ones care about this previously unknown, to most Americans, country. Please, allow us to talk about Lesotho’s hardships without feeling that urge to pour more money into this struggling country.

     17.  "Are you affected by that Zika virus/boko haram/ISIS/natural disaster/coup/any other newsworthy event impacting the third world?"

While my family and I were in Cape Town there was a terrorist attack on the Ivory Coast. Concerned family members sent a text to my Dad and Kara to make sure that we were okay and to let us know what was happening elsewhere ‘in Africa’.

A couple days later I began ‘Googling’ various distances. Even though the Ivory Coast and Cape Town are both on the African continent, the Ivory Coast is 8,478km (5,268 miles) away from Cape Town. To give you an idea, the distance from Istanbul,Turkey to New York City is 8,065km (5,011 miles).

Yes, Istanbul is closer to NYC than the Ivory Coast is to Cape Town. If it’s appropriate to worry about us in Lesotho when there’s a terrorist attack on the Ivory Coast then by the same logic we should be texting loved ones in America when there are terrorist attacks in Istanbul.

We know, you’re worried about us and we love you for it. I’m just suggesting that before you get in touch with us to let us know to stay safe because of what’s happening ‘in Africa’, try googling the distance from that event to us.

Check out this helpful image of where Ebola was ‘in Africa’.

     18.  "I thought you would have finished that project by now..."

Talk about a low blow! We’ve all talked about Basotho time in one way or another. Time just works differently here, and different often looks like a lot slower. During our counterpart/supervisor workshop a Mosotho counterpart/supervisor put it best:

“For Africans time is something that has been borrowed from Western culture. You tell us that a meeting will be happening at noon. We hear that a meeting will be happening.”

We are trying to work within this culture to get things done, which means we operate on Basotho time. When it’s cold, when it’s raining, or when it rained yesterday and the river is too high… we will probably not ‘go to work’ that day.

Solid reason for deciding not to meet

I’ve been talking about a poultry project for months now. And I will continue talking about this poultry project for months, at this point I’ll be happy if the foundation for a poultry project is firmly understood by the women I work with by the time I leave.

We could come in with our American values and work ethic and bulldoze over our counterparts to get things done… but what would that really accomplish. Not sustainability, and that’s Peace Corps’ favorite buzzword!

     19.  "You should just come home!"

Sometimes we're going to call home crying. We're going to write a blog post full of doubt, frustration, fear and despair. We're going to question if we're having any impact at all here, and we're going to wonder why we're here.

Don’t tell us to come home. If we’re in a rough enough spot we’re going to want so badly to listen to you. This may feel helpful at the time, and it’s not. If we make the decision to end our service it needs to be on our own terms and not feeling pressured by loved ones back home.

We need people to vent to, people to cry with, and people to express our feelings of failure with. Help us by being a person who listens to us without talking about “coming home”.

At the end of the day, I'm so happy with where I am

Okay, rant over. Thanks for listening; I’ve been waiting to get this one off my chest for a while.