Friday, December 01, 2017

It Could Have Been Me: World AIDS Day

Happy World AIDS Day!

24.9% of Lesotho’s population currently is infected with HIV. Think about that for a moment.

It is absolutely mind blowing to look around yourself at a meeting, party, football match, or funeral and think that statistically one-quarter of the people you are looking at have HIV.

http://bethspencer.blogspot.comSomehow, as I consider this, it does not shock me then that in one of my four years in Lesotho I had a possible HIV exposure.

Within minutes of my potential exposure to HIV, I was desperately trying to control the runaway adrenaline in my body as it caused my legs to twitch while rationally reminding myself through Google and memories from Peace Corps trainings that I still had ways to protect myself from the virus.

As I researched PEP-Post Exposure Prophylaxis, I struggled to contain my panic. Everything I read warned that PEP is difficult and has many side effects. There were many reports noting permanent liver or kidney damage. There were even more highlighting that patients were unable to complete PEP due to side effects and therefore would still end up HIV positive. Reading these reports, I was terrified and furious at the series of events that put me in this position.

PEP is actually one of two options available to prevent HIV infection. PEP typically consists of taking Antiretroviral (ART) medications for 28-30 days, depending on the type of medications taken, after a single incident of possible exposure.  The simplest explanation of how it works is that the ART medications prevent HIV replication in the body until all cells that may have been exposed die off.

The alternate option is for people at consistently high-risk exposure to HIV. This is called PrEP or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis and consists of ART taken throughout the period of high-risk (e.g. having a long-term sexual partner who is HIV-positive). Scientifically, it works the same way that PEP does, however, the person must continue to take it correctly until a month after exposure risk ends.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Dino Printing

Dinosaur footprints in Morija, Lesotho

Peace Corps Lesotho http://bethspencer.blogspot.com200 million years ago Lesotho, like much of the world, was home to dinosaurs. There is even a dinosaur named after Lesotho: the Lesothosaurus. This dinosaur was a small, agile, herbivore, traveled on two legs, and would have been about thigh high on an adult human.

Thanks to a geography that includes a lot of visible rock formations, fossilized footprints are scattered throughout the country today.

Over the last six months, I have finally had the opportunity to visit two of these sites.

Morija Prints
Somewhere up there are some dinosaur footprints...




The first of these adventures was in Morija, a village in Maseru district. Along with three fellow PCVs, we set out early on a Saturday morning in April, mostly to beat the sunny heat. From my friends' house, it was a vertical climb to reach the prints. As it was late autumn, we were under constant attack by my least favorite thing about Lesotho--a weed called Blackjack that clings to clothing.




Monday, October 23, 2017

Peace Corps' Bang, A Response

Children at a local school perform plays they wrote
highlighting gender norms. The focus and measurements for
the lesson was connected to gender and culture, however,
teambuilding, creativity, and improved comfort speaking
English publicly are all unmeasured and unreported
outcomes as well. 
A week ago, Thomas Hill published the blog "The Peace Corps: A lot of bucks for very little bang?" In his piece, he claimed that Peace Corps, if it continues, should stop being a program of the US government and instead be funded privately. Over the last week, I have dwelled on the words of Mr. Hill. I hesitated to write a response, as I did not want to draw more attention to a post I disagree with and assertions I believe to be unfounded.

His argument is that Peace Corps is nearly twice as expensive per person as Fulbright Fellowships and has not shown itself [historically] to be effective in development efforts. Mr. Hill asserts, "the program’s co
st ($410 million annually) coupled with its inconsistent development track record and the agency’s insistence that it operate independently from U.S. foreign policy should raise questions for Congress about whether an entirely taxpayer-funded model is sustainable and a good use of limited resources."

It is important to note that the 2016 fiscal year budget for Peace Corps, at $410 million, still comprised only 1% of the federal budget for that year. Cutting or changing the funding system for Peace Corps will do nothing to alleviate excess federal spending. It would be the equivalent of trying to decrease the health risks associated with smoking by throwing out two cigarettes from every case smoked. Additionally, Fulbright Fellowship costs are reduced due to direct support from hosting governments and organizations.

The only positive aspect of Peace Corps that Mr. Hill acknowledges lays in cultural exchange. He acknowledges that cultural exchange going both directions is Peace Corps' greatest strength, however, he trivializes the fact that this comprises two-thirds of the mandate of the program as set forth in the Peace Corps Act of 1961.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

A Royal Birthday Celebration

At the top, LDF on parade. On the left, the King, Queen, Princesses,
and Prince promenade and wave. On the right, my favorite performers
do flips. And at the bottom, young men perform a traditional dance
while wearing the yellow for Mafeteng.
July 17th marks the birthday of his Majesty, King Letsie III, King of Lesotho. As such, it is a national holiday here. Every year, the official celebration of his Majesty's birthday changes venue so that each of Lesotho's ten districts can participate in the excitement.

This year's birthday celebration took place in Mafeteng, the district just south of the capital. Since it was less than two hours from my house, I jumped at the chance to join the party.

The public ceremony was nearly four hours long. It began with two Lesotho Defense Force [LDF] helicopters and an airplane flying over the stadium. The helicopters each had a Lesotho flag flying underneath them. There were ceremonial shots fired, but as an integrated Mosotho, I was not yet at the stadium when this happened. I say the helicopters and heard the shots during my walk from the taxi to the stadium.

The first portion of the ceremony was dedicated entirely to showcasing LDF. The band played and marched, three ceremonial units also marched. It was an impressive site and I took photos like a tourist seeing my first giraffe on safari.

The paratrooper's parachute includes the Lesotho flag.
Following the LDF parade, we were treated to my favorite part of the day. Despite it being cold and incredibly windy, two different teams of four paratroopers glided directly onto the field. Thanks to tracers, we could watch in awe during their approach. For anyone who has been to Blue Angels air show in the US, this may not seem that impressive, however, keep in mind that in Lesotho our airspace is empty most of the time. Occasionally low flying military or private helicopters cross our paths, drawing even those of us accustomed to air travel outside to wonder at who is going where.

After the paratroopers, the final aerial excitement was a low flying salute by a single plane. A friend and I had been catching up and therefore not listening to Sesotho words the announcer was speaking. We, therefore, were blown away when the plane drowned out our conversation by flying thirty feet over our heads!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Oops! I did it again!

Over three years ago, I arrived in Lesotho and I fell in love...not with a person (sorry gentlemen and Aunt Betsy who is convinced I will come home engaged!), but with the country, its culture, and its amazingly open, welcoming, and friendly people.

Last year, when the close of my Peace Corps service approached, I politely said, "Kea hana!," or I refuse. I extended my service and stuck around for an extra year as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader. 

For me, the first two years of my service were overwhelmingly wonderful. Living in my rural village, working with villagers in Sesotho, experiencing a new culture...none of it lived up to Peace Corps' tagline as "The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love." 

Although my "job" itself still is not difficult, this third year, by comparison, has been a lot tougher mentally and emotionally. I said goodbye to the PC volunteers I was closest to as they returned to America. I spent July to December traveling constantly back and forth between Peace Corps trainings and my village. My brother left suddenly to work in the mines. I then had to say goodbye to my beloved Basotho family and villagers. I spent more time in the US than anticipated when my father suddenly passed away at Christmas. I returned to Lesotho ready to integrate into my new community only to face security issues while readjusting to life without my father on the other end of the phone. 

I cried only twice during my first year here, whereas my third was punctuated by emotional moments in both Lesotho and America. 

Despite these challenges, I cannot imagine being anywhere else. The things I shared a year ago when I announced my extension are just as valid today as they were then. 

And so, with glee, I am happy to share that I've done it again!

I have once again extended my Peace Corps service including my work with both Peace Corps and Sentebale until April 2018! 

Five Reasons I Can't Leave Lesotho

Monday, July 03, 2017

Wildlife and Waterfall: 5 Days in Victoria Falls

My friend and fellow PCVL, Catie, and I are walking down a road chatting away and scoping out Baobab trees. When we had been closer to the river, I had startled Catie by pretending I saw a giant crocodile approaching, causing her to scream. Suddenly, glancing past her, I stopped short...instead of jumping her, I whisper, "Holy crap! That's an elephant."

Because I had jumped her earlier, Catie didn't believe me. But once I convinced her her to glance to our left, she too saw the giant back end of an elephant, not thirty feet away from us. We didn't even pause for photos, too nervous about being that close to an elephant without the protection of a car. We speed walked away whispering jokes that ultimately led to our Instagram hashtag of the trip: #HowWeDiedToday.

Catie and I spent our first few days in Victoria Falls avoiding the town's namesake. We spent far more time checking out wildlife than the falls.

We went to a private resort to watch vultures dining...
Just a hundred vulture friends pushing each other around for a scrap of cow.

We enjoyed a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River upstream from the falls...
A hippo yawn is an impressive sight!