Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Loss of Light

I hear the laughter of little boys outside my door. Putting down my book, I go to the open door and find four boys between three and six. They are all carrying sticks. Three are laughing at the one who has just nabbed a peach out of one of the peach trees on my lot.

Culturally, I know that he should have asked before coming into the yard and taking peaches. But, this is my first weekend in my new village and admonishing small children is not the first impression I want to make. Instead, I great the boys and ask them what’s up.

The continue to giggle and start moving towards the road. When it is clear they are not going to speak Sesotho with me and they are moving on, I head back inside.

Twenty minutes later, I pop out again, this time to retrieve my solar lights. I had hidden them in the tall grass two feet from my open window to charge them up. It is Sunday and I do not anticipate being able to charge them again until Saturday as my new job will have me working a forty-hour week at an office.

Instead of three Luci lights, I find only one half eaten peach.

My heart stops. I immediately know what has happened and even know who did it. But I do not want it to be true.

It is clear that despite my speaking to them in Sesotho, these young boys have determined that I am an outsider. Because I am an outsider, it is okay to take my belongings.

Image result for luci light
A functional Luci light.
Photo from
I immediately go to my neighbor’s house. He gets up from an afternoon nap and goes looking for the boys while I go to the security guard at my work’s compound to see if he recognized the young boys.

Sadly, he did not see them, but he reminds me that my next stop needs to be the village Chief’s house. I had been there on Friday for a second introduction, so I know where I am going.

Thanks to travel and jetlag, I have not had more than three consecutive hours of sleep in five days and am using my sunglasses to try and hide my tear-rimmed eyes as I walk the fifteen minutes to the chief’s house.

As I travel, a young man stops me and asks how I am. When he hears my story, he tells four other people before accompanying me to the chief’s house.

At the chief’s, we share my story again and she sends people off to get the villagers who assist with crime prevention. Once they here the story, they escort me home. As we walk, more and more young men join our parade.

My neighbor comes out to greet us and then hands me my three lights…in dozens of pieces. Although it has only been ninety minutes since I spoke to the young boys, they have managed to create confetti out of my lights. My sleep deprived self does not have the emotional reserves to deal with this reality. Despite public tears being uncommon in Basotho culture, despite being surrounded by more than a dozen men I do not really know, I look at the broken lights and lose it.

One of the drunk young men tries to reassure me that everything will be okay as I walk into the sorghum growing tall just behind my house. When I have collected myself enough to return, the village leaders tell me that my neighbor is going to identify the four boys and I can rest in my house, which I do.

My demolished lights at the feet of the village chief.
Thirty minutes later, we return to the chief’s house, followed by the parents of the boys. The chief determines the parents will need to pay for replacement lights and lets everyone present know that I am an important member of the village and need to be respected the same way that she is.

As the young men walk me home, they keep reassuring me that my lights will be replaced, the actions of these boys are not the way of the Basotho, and that the boys are troublesome and will be disciplined.

As I reenter my home, I cannot help but think about how this would never have happened in my old village, but at the same time, I realize that I have met and been supported by a number of villagers that I may not have otherwise interacted with.

I am frustrated to realize that my evenings will be dark until my solar lamps are replaced-I have candles by no candle holder and I have the LEDs and battery from one of the busted lights, however, it works more like a very small flashlight now that the other pieces are gone. I am more frustrated by the realization that now I feel less secure in my new community. I am hesitant to leave my door unlocked when going to the back of the lot to use my toilet or to leave the windows open when drawing water; even though I can see my house from the water tap. The sad thing about this simply theft is that it brought more darkness into my home than just the lack of light. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Return to a New Home

My new, rounder, thatch roof
After my home leave was more than doubled by emergency leave and a medical issue I needed to deal with before returning to Lesotho, I finally returned to my African home on the first of March.

Except, it was not my home. My real home is a rural village in Butha Buthe with my host mother and four brothers. In my real home, everyone already knows my name and calls out greetings across absurd distances. In my real home, everyone knows me and I know them. In my real home, the young children come running to greet me repetitively until I am out of range.

But, right before I returned to America in December, I left that home. Now, my new home is an adorable rondavel with fancy aluminum windows and a windowed door. It has fresh yellow paint and clean, shiny linoleum over cement. The thatch is clean and does not leak. Physically it is a huge improvement over the heise I have adored for two and half years.

And yet, as homey as the house is, returning to a country that feels so much like home but a village that feels so foreign is not quite the same as coming home. My comfort in Butha Buthe allowed me to forget the first sensations I had when I arrived in Lesotho and that village. The awkwardness of needing to ask questions in broken Sesotho in order to figure out where the store is or when a taxi would be coming were so far behind me, I had dismissed them entirely.

A panoramic photo inside my home. It's magazine-ready!
By coming into my new village, I am gaining a new appreciation for the challenges of Peace Corps service. A popular tagline is that Peace Corps is “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” While I do not think it is the toughest job I have encountered thus far, the reality is that entering a community in a different culture and trying to integrate is a profound challenge.  Apparently, even after gaining a profound comfort in the culture, language, and country; that challenge is not diminished.

In my new community, children are still awed by the idea that I can speak to them in Sesotho slang. Instead of interacting, they giggle. Adults either glow over my ability to speak or reassure me that I will be even better in Sesotho soon, unaware that I am speaking to them in mostly English because that is the language they began our conversation in. I was to wear a crown that highlights my time spent living and working in Lesotho before I came to this new village. I want them to recognize that I am not fresh off the plane.

Despite those frustrations, I am discovering some wonderful universal truths about village life in Lesotho:

When you have a problem, even strangers will jump in to help.  
Somehow I, along with many other PCVs, recently missed the warning that our bank would be completely offline for three days over a weekend. This meant that our ATM cards were useless pieces of plastic-our accounts were completely inaccessible so we could not even use the cards as credit or debit cards. I had gone to town expecting to withdraw cash, so I did not have money to buy my food for the week, pay for my hair appointment, and pay for taxi rides home and back to town again in the future. I mentioned my challenge to two guys who immediately offered to drive me home to make sure I got there safely. It was only about 7km out of their way, but still an incredibly generous and caring thing to do as well as a wonderful reminder of my favorite Basotho idiom: Motho ke motho ka batho.

Society is social.
In my old village, no one had electricity and most people cooked outside on open fires. Although I am still living without electricity, more people in this area have access to electricity and the ability to live their lives indoors. Despite this, they still spend time every day walking through the village or sitting outside greeting neighbors as they pass. They still take the time to stop and chat with one another, even when they do not know each other.

Rocking my Seshoeshoe dress just before moving
into my new home.
People love to see their culture embraced.
When I first moved in and met the chief, I worse a Seshoeshoe dress. When I draw water, I carry it on my head to bring it back to my house. Since that meeting with the chief, countless people have commented on how nice wearing the local dress is. When people greet me and I am carrying my water, they comment nonstop on how I am Mosotho.

As Moshoeshoe Day approached, people were ecstatic to find that I know exactly who King Moshoeshoe I was and his significance in the history of Lesotho. They especially love when I note that I am following Moshoeshoe, who was in the Butha Buthe region before he moved to the mountain that hugs my village.

Peace Corps has a great reputation.
Within a day of moving in, I learned that my house held a PCV named Mariah over a decade ago. I have learned a lot about Mariah since then. For example, Mariah, also known as Ausi Rethabile, did not like country music and was from the west coast.

In many ways, Mariah has paved a path for me. Because villagers loved her, they welcome and love me.  They remember her while reassuring me that I belong. Because Mariah integrated well and worked hard in this community, they understand my presence differently than if I were their first volunteer. It does not matter that it has been over a decade since she lived here; she has made it easier for me to develop relationships that recognize my role as a PCV. Considering I am here for a shorter amount of time, I really value the role she is playing in my own integration. This was something I had not experienced in my village in BB because I was the first volunteer that had lived among them.

It is pretty neat to see the way that individual volunteers are remembered by their communities. I take pride in being part of an organization that leaves such a positive impact. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Lessons from my Father

In the summer of 2014, a Peace Corps peer’s father passed away suddenly. Considering my own had been battling cancer for seven years by then, it was a reality check for me. The next day, I wrote this in my journal:

Our welcome packet [for Peace Corps Lesotho] made no pretenses about the death we would face in Lesotho. The stark words said, “you will make friends and they will die during your service.” Although honest, they did not really prepare me for the three deaths in the training village that have happened in the month we have been here or for my language instructor and my host mother to both leave the same weekend to attend family funerals.

What about the suddenly too real possibility of a family member or friend passing away during my service? In the States, I felt mentally prepared for the possibility. I remember my Peace Corps interview two years ago and acknowledging something catastrophic occurring within my immediate family being the only reason I could anticipate terminating my service early.

Last Thanksgiving, when I said goodbye to Grandpa for the first of three times I thought, “This might be the last time…please God, don’t let it be.” In March, during my visit with my father, ha asked, “How do you feel about going away with me sick?”

My answer, which clearly pleased him, was, “It’s been seven years, life cannot be on hold forever.” While that answer still rings true today it feels like a bigger sacrifice right now. It is more than twenty-four hours of lonely travel to get home.

The Peace Corps response to my peer’s situation has been great. Once she heard what had happened, they got her on the first available flight home. She gets two weeks of emergency leave before she needs to discuss returning with Washington.

I cannot help but wonder, were I her, would I return? Mid-service, I think I would give returning a try. But, right now, during training, I genuinely do not know if I would. Would two weeks out of training leave me ill prepared for the future in Lesotho? Would I have the stamina to deal with training and integrating while also mourning and coping? Would I be abandoning my family in their hour of need? It is hard to say what I would decide. I can only pray it does not happen and offer my deepest condolences and support to my friend and her family.

Family dinner shortly before I was to
return to New England.
Two and half years later, this journal entry has become real. Although he had more energy and vitality than when I left for Lesotho, my father passed away suddenly just before Christmas. Thanks to providential timing, I spent a week visiting an active and (relatively) healthy father during my home leave. Then, just before I was to say goodbye for nine more months, the story changed. Instead of laughing together, well wishes, and teasing about having not written a blog post all month, there was an ambulance, ICU, exhaustion, and tears.

Throughout it all, I could not help but wonder in awe at the timing of it. The entire situation is one I would rather never face, but a few weeks earlier or later and it would have felt so much worse.

Despite that, I am now facing the same questions I asked when my friend’s father passed away one month into my Peace Corps experience. Although my training is complete, I have just moved villages and am back to needing to get to know people, my community, and a new job. Do I have the stamina to do those things while I mourn and cope with my new reality? Am I abandoning family when I am needed?  I have some incredible and wonderful friends in Lesotho-some Peace Corps, some Basotho-are they the people I need supporting me through this? Are they physically close enough to me to even be capable of supporting me?

Despite these questions plaguing me, I know I will return. Grief, mourning, shock, and sorrow are not an excuse to abandon life. And the reality is, my life, for now at least, is in Lesotho.

So, I will continue to embrace the life that made my father proud. I will continue to write about it as I hear him tease me whenever I lapse. I will continue to explore the world and seek the adventurous paths that made him as envious as he was proud.

Throughout my service, every time someone else has faced a family emergency, it has been an unwelcome reminder that life in America continues and life includes wonderful moments but also terrible ones.

For those of you who never had the opportunity to know my father, here are my words from his ceremony a few days ago: 

Playfulness and Wisdom Embodied
My father was many things before he found his place here on Sanibel. He was a sailor, a ski instructor, a classic rock buff, a teacher, a road biker then a mountain biker, and even a professional model. He was ahead of his time, successfully selling car phones in the late 80s when not even movie stars had them yet.

When opportunities arose, he was the first to say, “well, maybe that will actually work.” This attitude led him on many adventures like sailing a racing boat from Antigua to the US. My dad’s attitude and mindset holds many life lessons for us. I am going to share only four.

Lesson One: To take the mundane or everyday and make is fantastical.

Christmas Cookie Bonanza during my visit.
Dad looked at every moment and a possible adventure. Simple activities became more entertaining due to his outlook and humor. Even something as rote as leaving a voice mail became an adventure with my father. I don’t recall ever hearing the boring, “Hey, it’s Dad. Call me.” Instead, my messages were at least “Elizabeth, it’s your father calling…” [in a deep British accent] and more often they were long comedic sketches utilizing a variety of voices. This attitude of taking something simple that happens all the time and using it to have fun and make people smile is one I hope to carry with me for the entirety of my own life.

Lesson Two: Taking care of ourselves and setting boundaries is critical.

Dad taught many of us, at all ages, how to successfully set boundaries in both professional and personal settings. He valued the need for personal space and time, even if it would only be used for life maintenance like laundry and dishes. As a result, he taught us to change our own language to preserve that time. He coached us to effectively stand up for ourselves while still being friendly and open.

Lesson Three: Sometimes you just need a better story.

Dad was a huge fan of telling a good story and he had a million of them. Over the last few weeks, my sister and I have recounted many times he encouraged us to “tell a better story.” One of my favorites occurred when I was in college. I inherited the family love of sailing and a galley accident on the boat I worked on had burned my arms and face. When Dad called to check in, I lamented the horror of returning to college with my arms bandaged like a mummy and having to tell people the injuries came from something so lame. Instead of telling my 21-year-old self how silly my worry was and reminding me how lucky I was in the situation, Dad encouraged me and told me I needed a better story. He then wove an amazingly detailed story about how the cannon I had been firing misfired. Dad elaborated on how I had been thrown clear across the deck by the blast. “But you wouldn’t believe it,” he said, “somehow in all that, my shoes were still right where I had been standing before the cannon exploded, not even singed!” He told me that would befuddle most people and that if the quicker ones figured it out and asked what really happened, I could just reply, “eh, galley accident” and leave it at that. They already had their gripping story so I would not need to elaborate. I don’t know if I ever actually used his story when I returned to college. What I do know is that I felt a lot better about the whole situation and that his story has served as a reminder that my own outlook and story impacts the way that people perceive me.

Lesson Four: When we live in God’s will, He blesses us in unimaginable ways.

Dad found blessings from God everywhere he went. Even in the last decade, when he had struggles to face daily, he saw God’s blessings. When Dad was younger, he had one movie he watched with regularity, only in order to see a beautiful sailboat. He dreamt of sailing on that boat. He, obviously, knew it would never happen and gave up that dream.

Years later, when he was selling the car phones I mentioned earlier, he bumped into a couple. The husband was upset because he had to make an urgent phone call for work, but there were no pay phones. Dad jumped in-as only my father could-and mentioned his car phone. Soon, he and this man are driving around to find a signal. Once they found it, Dad gave the man some privacy in the care to conduct his business.

Phone call completed, emergency averted, the man was full of gratitude. As they drove back to the man’s wife, he asked Dad if he sailed. A few days later, Dad found himself walking onto the very yacht he had watched in that movie as a child. A vessel he had practically forgotten about. Through doing something for someone else, God had blessed him by giving him a dream he had dismissed years earlier. While some people would be quick to write the whole thing off as a coincidence, Dad was instead quick to see God’s hand and to give praise.

I am grateful for these and many other lessons that my father taught me. My father’s world was a place everyone wanted to be. Anything and everything was a possibility. There was only adventure. Everything could be turned into a smile or laugh, especially with the right story. There were no strangers. Everything connects in unexpected and wonderful ways and God reigns, loves, and blesses. My father’s world was a beautiful place despite hardship. I know our own are less bright without my Dad in them, but I hope that we can all carry his lessons out in our own worlds. I hope we can all live with the perfect blend of playfulness and wisdom.

Happy Birthday Dad.
A birthday dinner ten years ago.

 Did you miss the link to the obituary? It's hiding in the text, or you can find it here.

You should choose as your life's work whatever feels the most like play.
-Harvey Oxenhorn