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I leave my house for work and get called over by two village women awaiting their chance to do business with the chief. The first smiles...

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

My Heroes: Three Inspiring Basotho Women

Throughout my Peace Corps service, I have constantly been amazed and impressed by the strength, passion, and commitment to community I have seen in Basotho women. Whether the women of my former host organization, my host mother, colleagues, or friends, I have been awed and learned so much from these women over the past four years.

Today, it is my pleasure to introduce you to three incredible, strong, inspirational women that I have had the luxury to work with and befriend over the last few years. 

PONTSO

Some of the GLOW 2015 Leadership Team:
Sarah, me, Pontso, and Megan at the end of camp.
I first met Pontso in 2014 at Camp GLOW [Girls Leading Our World]. I was immediately drawn to her enthusiasm when addressing the campers during a career panel. She passionately spoke about getting her Masters in Sociology and the challenges she had overcome in her life to get to that point.

Over the next year, we worked together regularly on the planning team for the 2015 Camp GLOW. She was invaluable in ensuring the most vulnerable girls were included in camp and that we created the most dynamic and applicable topics. During camp, she again blew me away with her readiness to help out in every way imaginable, on top of taking care of her own responsibilities.

Since then, we have transitioned from work partners to friends. It has been fascinating to follow her journey. She is a manager with the Ministry of Social Development. She has applied and been accepted to multiple international programs including participating in the World Festival of Youth and Students in Russia last year, was a 2017 Young Global Changer chosen as part of The Think Summit in Germany, the African Union’s Youth Volunteer Corps (like Peace Corps but for countries in the African Union), and most recently the US’s Mandela Washington Fellowship which is the top opportunity through the US State Department’s Young African Leaders Initiative started under the Obama Administration. She was also honored as one of Africa's Brightest Young Minds in 2017! 
A recent newspaper article about Pontso's volunteer development work. 


In addition to these great opportunities, she continues to volunteer her time to improve the lives of Basotho people. When she was living in Masuoe, an area on the outskirts of Maseru, she became passionate about the impacts of climate change on the local environment. Even though she has moved from that community, she is working with community members, empowering them to work to improve the impact of soil erosion and safety on their community. 



LERATO

Lerato and I goof off together
after teen club in 2016. 
Lerato works at Baylor College’s Pediatric HIV Clinic, where she provided support to patients and coordinates the Teen Club Support Group for HIV positive youth. She is a firecracker of a young woman. At teen club, her bond with the members of the club was constantly evident. She challenged them in positive ways to embrace their situation and take responsibility for their own health.

In addition to being great at her paid job, Lerato is also an outspoken HIV+ advocate. She regularly gives talks around the country sharing her own story and challenging stigmatization of HIV. She was first diagnosed with HIV in 2007 as a teenager. When she shares this story, it’s hard. She does not shy away from her mother’s negative reaction and the loneliness and isolation she felt when she first found out she has HIV.

Voting via SMS for the Finite Awards will finish before the
Ceremony and Gala in August of 2018. 
Thankfully, her story does not end in 2007, with heartbreak. Lerato is a strong and healthy woman. She adheres to her Antiretroviral Therapy. She and her mother repaired their relationship. She has twin daughters who are now seven and HIV negative as a result of successful Prevention of Mother-To Child-Transmission. She uses her experiences and challenges through motivational talks and to help the teens she counsels and supports. 

Last year she helped organize a large and unique HIV testing event. It involved a fun walk, motivational and educational speakers helping to de-stigmatize HIV, HIV testing, and lunch. Almost four hundred people participated in the event with 154 being tested for HIV. 

This year, she is a finalist for the Survival Heroes category of the annual Finite Women Appreciation Awards, which is an award offered by Finite Magazine in Lesotho to women. I, for one, definitely think this is a well-deserved nomination and wish I was still going to be here to attend the Gala with her in August!

LINEO

Lineo and I strike a pose in traditional and modern
cultural dress at the Cultural Day she organized.
I met first met Lineo because she was a counterpart for my fellow volunteer, Nick. She is a faculty member at Leribe Agricultural Skills Training Center. In addition to this, she is incredibly active in the community. She planned and coordinated a huge Cultural Day for the school and local community in 2015.

Last year she qualified for and participated in a regional YALI [Young African Leaders Initiative] Summit in Civic Leadership. She has made the final rounds for the Mandela Washington Summit twice in recent years. Currently, in addition to working to improve agricultural efforts and food security if rural areas of Lesotho; she also spearheaded a project called Barali (daughters in Sesotho).

Barali is a project to decrease school dropouts due to early pregnancy. Working with local Child and Gender Protection officers, she visits area schools to teach young women about their sexual and reproductive rights ad HIV. As she gets to know the young women at specific schools, she works with local leadership to combat the challenges these young women face such as early marriage, gender based violence, etc.

Through Barali, she is fostering dialogue, working with many local partner organizations, and empowering adolescent girls to have the confidence to make their own decisions. She held an event in May to encourage girls to be bold enough to buy their own condoms; something most young women in Lesotho are hesitant to do. Over five hundred local youth participated in the event.

I cherish the moments we steal to reconnect
now that we live further apart. It is always
inspiring to hear what Lineo is working on. 
Currently Barali is hosting a campaign called “Hear My Story” which is sharing stories about women who have had abortions. Abortion is illegal in Lesotho, so women and girls who feel they must have one typically do not have them done by medical professionals. They are often dangerous and lead to medical complications. Seeking medical care after an illegal abortion can also lead to prosecution. The effort of this campaign is to highlight the challenges, stigma, and desperation that women and girls encounter as a result of becoming pregnant.

Even Lineo’s facebook page has become a tool for discussion. She often starts conversation about the impact of perceptions on our sexual health. It’s truly amazing to see the way she fosters important dialogue about culturally sensitive topics on social media.







Saturday, May 26, 2018

Note to Self: Peace Corps Lesotho Edition

I recently saw an interview of Gayle King on The Daily Show about her new book, Note to Self: Inspiring Words from Inspiring People. The book is based on letters to a younger self that people, mostly celebrities, have been asked to write. I was inspired to use the concept to reflect on my own growth and experience living abroad in Lesotho as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the last four years. So here goes:

Dear 2014 Beth, 

You are about to embark on an incredible experience. Stop worrying about what you are going to pack and stop wasting money on clothes to last you for the next two years. They literally sell clothes on the street in Lesotho. Do not fret about the investment in quality footwear though, you will wear out four pairs of shoes in the next few years. Also, the solar panel is a brilliant investment.

Instead, keep doing what you are doing. Maximize your time making memories with family and friends before you go. Invest in them as those relationships will sustain you through more than you imagine in the next few years. You are about to experience more happiness and pain than you knew was possible.

Just a typical day in Ha Rasekila at work with the
women in the community group.
You are worried about loneliness, feeling like an outsider, and isolation. You are going to let this fear motivate you through long language lessons. Even after you have a passable command of Sesotho, keep studying and learning. You will never regret taking the time to learn and practice the language. It is one of the greatest ways to show respect, bond with people, and to be professionally effective.

When you finish training and it is time to buy things for your new home, please buy the kitchen table you dream of. Do not let anxiety about surviving on the small Peace Corps living stipend keep you from this splurge. You will want that table for longer than you plan to be in Lesotho.

People will wonder at how you live without running water or electricity. In reality, going without those things is not what makes Peace Corps challenging. Spending money on data for Whatsapp calling and voice notes is always worth it. This is not a travel adventure. You will spend longer removed from your American family and friends than anticipated. Maintaining those relationships is worth the absurdly small investment in data bundles.

Remembering to stop and enjoy the goofy moments of life
with my great friend Luwi. 
Despite all the warnings in mandated Peace Corps security sessions, most Basotho are only interested in talking to you and welcoming you. Do not be stupid about your safety, but do not close yourself off either.

You will be in Lesotho a long time. In the end, your closest friends and supporters will be the host country nationals you get to know. Invest more time and energy in those relationships sooner instead of in the comfort of American peers.

Drinking Ricoffee (instant chicory root coffee) for the first six months is not worth the savings. Stock up on filter coffee that one time you shop in the capital. It is not integration to deprive yourself of this small luxury.

Take more photos of the everyday moments of your life and fewer photos at events. Some day you will return home and want to share the mundane aspects of life with people.

Trips home to visit family and friends are always worth the travel time, jet lag, and money. You will get to meet your infant goddaughter, see your ailing father, and keep relationships strong even after you decide to double down your PC service. Learn from the Basotho culture and put people first when you friend calls to announce and celebrate her engagement, promise to attend the wedding right then instead of changing your mind six weeks before the wedding.

Your house will be your comfort zone and break from the challenges of living in a foreign language and culture, but get outside of it! Walk around the community and greet people, go to community meetings and events, do your chores outside. Loneliness is of your own making. There are a ton of people just outside your door eager to welcome and befriend you. With time, your community will become your comfort zone. After you move away, returning to see them will be the best homecoming you can imagine.

My Basotho family has been a huge part of my life and
experience. I am so blessed to have been welcomed
into their lives.
Never fail to appreciate the moments people invite you into their family or cultural traditions. Such love and welcome may come at bad times or with expectations, but it is such an incredibly unique honor.

You will spend a large part of the next four years being uncomfortable. In your first year, it will feel like a great adventure even if some days, you will lose the battle and hide in your house. Although you will gain experience and get used to a lot of things, even after four years, you will still have moments that you have no idea what is going on, what someone is telling you, or expected of you. That is just the reality of life in another culture. Embrace it because those uncomfortable moments often open you up to some of your greatest experiences. You are not moving around the world to be surrounded by the familiar and easy.

Right now, you have days that you question whether you are doing the right thing by moving around the world for two years. When you receive your Sesotho name from your first host family, you will be reassured that you are where you belong as they explain in great depth that your new name means "God's will." You will question everything again during your first extension when you are blindsided by incredible loss and ultimately you will recognize that every step of your life's journey was leading you to Lesotho.

With the two men who have had the greatest
influence and impact on my life in Lesotho. 
In the next four years, you will develop such strong bonds with new friends and family members that you will question how you survived over thirty years without these people in your life. You will spend more time alone. You will learn more about just how much American culture influences your own thoughts and reactions to the world around you. You will feel in love with so many aspects of Basotho culture and with so many people.

In four years, when it is finally time to return to America, you find yourself right back where you are right now. You will wonder if leaving home and going to the US is really right path for your life. Have faith. In another four years, you can write yourself an updated version of this letter. It will, undoubtedly, be full of reassurances and growth. Until then, embrace people and experiences. Make the most of every moment.

With love,
               Thato, 2018

Monday, May 07, 2018

Top Five Experiences of 2018 (so far...)


My girl Tizzy and I pose after camp ends. 

5: Easter Camp

My current position does not put me in direct contact with kids nearly often enough anymore. As a result, doing Community Camp over Easter weekend was one of my favorite moments of the whole year. We had nearly one hundred children for four days and it was so much fun to interact with and observe them as they participated in ropes course, life skills sessions, and a talent show. Equally inspiring was getting to work with such incredible camp staff and volunteers. I love getting to watch these amazing professionals model incredible youth development skills and I love building strong friendships with them. 

Kayaking in Mozambique

4: Mozambique

In February, my friend Katie and I went on my last big Peace Corps vacation: Tofo, Mozambique. Our prime reason for picking this spot was that it is one of the best places to see whale sharks. It took us three days of travel to get there from Lesotho and we unfortunately did not get to see any whale sharks, however, the trip was still wonderful.

While Katie got scuba certified, I spent my days relaxing and walking on the beach, writing, wandering through the small beach town, and reading. It was the most peaceful and least demanding vacation I have ever enjoyed. Tofo Beach is truly stunning. I also took some time to bird nerd on a mangrove kayaking trip.

3: Herdboy Health Outreaches

My host organization has partnered with the District Health Management Teams in three districts in Lesotho to bring health services to herdboys in rural areas. Herdboys or balisana are a unique population in Lesotho.

They are marginalized from typical communities and social interactions through a lot of unfounded stereotypes. In my experience, most herders are wonderfully caring and friendly men-some young, some old. Due to stigma and discrimination, however, they also often live isolated lives and therefore do not get access to most government services including health care.
At the health outreach in Ha Popa, Thaba Tseka: beautiful views, a crazy bumpy ride in the truck with my colleagues,
the "road" we traveled, and a group of balisana that insisted we take pictures together. 
So far this year, we have done a handful of health outreaches to encourage balisana to get health care in the future. By bringing the services outside of the clinical setting, we have seen larger numbers of herders accessing medical tests including BMI, tuberculosis, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and HIV testing services. Those that need additional follow up are being referred for additional medical care and the local clinics are following up to ensure that these services are received.

For me, these outreaches have also allowed me to get into more rural parts of Lesotho than I had previously visited. Our first outreach in Thaba Tseka involved a bumpy three-hour drive on something almost resembling a road to reach the village of Ha Popa. It was quite the adventure. The balisana there were so welcoming and fun to hang out with as they waited in line for their various health tests.

Grabbing a late lunch with my friend Pontso on a holiday.

2. Moments with Friends

This may sound like a generic cop out, but it is still true. Whether working or playing, I have had some of my favorite adventures with friends. The longer I live in Lesotho, the stronger my local friendships become and the more I cherish these relationships. The opportunities to catch up with friends over a meal or a football game is something I took for granted in the US. The reality is that making it happen between transportation challenges and rules that require I be home before dark make these moments much fewer and more precious.



With Rets'elisitsoe and his brother,
Ralethola (one of my best friends), after the
wedding. 

1. Weddings!!!

2018 has been the year for weddings. Every year I have been in Lesotho, I have attended a wedding or two. This year, however, I seem to be attending almost one per month!

First, there was my friend Rets’elisitsoe’s wedding in January. Here in Lesotho, the groom must be escorted into the church by a female family member. Due to some travel delays, Rets’elisitsoe’s cousin was running late and so my he decided that I would  be his official escort and sit in the front row for the ceremony. It was an incredible honor to be quickly adopted into the family of two of my closest friends in country and to then participate in the wedding activities at his house the next day as well.

Then, a few weeks later, my friends Tori and Mpho-who married in America-returned to Lesotho for the traditional wedding ceremony that takes place with the groom’s family following a wedding. Tori completed her Peace Corps service in 2015, so the opportunity to catch up with her after more than 18 months and to be a part of this special day was truly wonderful. 
With Mpho and Tori at their wedding celebration in March
The third wedding I attended was in my community, but for the sister of someone I have known, respected, and adored for the entire time I have been in Lesotho. It was fun to hang out with the bridesmaids before the wedding, join the convoy of BMWs for the trip to and from the church, and help out with logistics and serving during the reception. 
With my dear friend Ototo at her sister's wedding in April
To keep up the wedding theme, I just returned from another friend's wedding. This one brought me out to Quthing, a district I hadn't visited before that is about three hours south of Maseru. Even better, I traveled and spent the day with some of my favorite guys in Lesotho. For once, I already knew both the bride and groom and am so glad that I was able to be there for their special day.

In Quthing with some of my favorite guys; Tlebele, Moseli, Ralethola, and Matseli. 

All smiles with the groom. 


Monday, April 23, 2018

Homecomings


After a long day of travel and work with herd boys, my colleagues drop me off in the rural village that Peace Corps currently uses for trainings. As I walk to my home for the night, villagers greet me by name and excitedly ask about my life and work. When I reach the house, the family comes pouring out; giving me hugs and talking over one another to welcome me home.

Over the last two years, I have lived in this village for approximately twelve weeks. I have lived with this family for only four of those weeks. Despite this, returning to such warm and personalized greetings feels like a homecoming. Somehow, my return to this village, which has never actually been my home, gives me a greater sense of belonging that the village I have been living in for nearly eighteen months.

Christmas Dinner 2017 in Ha Rasekila with my Basotho Family
It reminds me of returning to Ha Rasekila for visits and holidays. After a month of challenges and feeling disconnected in my own village and community, this homecoming reminds me exactly why I fell in love with this country.

The Basotho are some of the most genuinely welcoming people. They are quick to welcome and adopt visitors-foreigner or not. One of the first statements said to a guest is always “Rea u amohela” or “We welcome you”. But the Basotho welcome is not limited to words.

When you arrive early for a wedding or a funeral, you are immediately given a plate of food to tide you over until the meal that follows the (lengthy) ceremony.

If you compliment someone’s clothing, they tell you they will give it to you.

And, when you stay somewhere for a while, they claim you as their own.

I will always cherish the moments in the taxi rank when a man would come to hit on me and my villagers would immediately shut him down, telling him “Ke morali oa rona!” or “She’s our daughter!”

As I prepare for my close of service later this year, I cannot help but think about the idea of home, belonging, and how these are defined. As I have struggled with feeling connection in my current village, it has been glaringly obvious that home is not simply the building one lives within. My rondavel is my sanctuary, but that does not provide the connection and sense of belonging that makes a home.

Home is walking into a place or community and being welcomed by people who know and love you.

Home is watching infants become toddlers and children become teenagers.
My favorite twins-they weren't walking or
talking when I first met them, but now they
are quick to talk and play and will enter
preschool next year! 

Home is knowing the paths around you so well that you can observe them changing over time.

Home is connection to people and the place.

Home is where you return to for holidays like Christmas and Easter.

And, home is hard to leave. In less than three months, I will finally close my Peace Corps service and return to my country of origin. I am excited to return to the US and make a new home outside of Santa Barbara, California, where I will be teaching English at a residential boarding school.

Saying goodbye to the relationships I have made in Lesotho, however, fills me with dread. Luckily, Lesotho is now one of my homes and I know that this goodbye will not be forever. 

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.