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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...

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.




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.