Looking back to the first time I seriously considered serving in the Peace Corps, in September of 2002, it is pretty stunning to consider the various directions my life has gone leading up to this moment: Swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This marks not only the end of an intense ten weeks of Pre-Service Training, but the end of a life wondering “what if I did that...”
Our last week of training was filled with trips to Maseru to get our bank accounts settled, tour the Peace Corps office, buy supplies for our new homes, and conclude training sessions. In the midst of this, we also had our Sesotho Language Proficiency Interview [LPI] to determine if we had indeed learned enough Sesotho in ten weeks to survive on our own. I went into my exam exhausted. I probably should not admit this, but I had basically stopped studying five days earlier, satisfied that I would pass and unwilling to pressure myself into being the best speaker any longer. My exhaustion stemmed not from training, but staying up until 1 in the morning socializing the night before. My exam took about half an hour, during which time I spoke Sesotho with a lovely woman, telling her about my background, my future site, training, that I like to cook, and much more. I spoke...a lot. But I left knowing that I had not spoken my best Sesotho and that I could have done better.
When the results of our exams were announced, we were thrilled to learn that everyone had passed. Some of my peers had struggled to learn Sesotho, so this was great news. My friend Jody did the best on the exam, earning himself a score of Intermediate High with a Star and the responsibility of speaking at our swearing in ceremony. I, along with four others, scored Intermediate High. When I think of how much more comfortable I am with speaking Sesotho in ten weeks than I was after two years of high school French, it is rather stunning. And my high school French teacher was phenomenal!
The morning of swearing in, we got an extra hour before we needed to meet the bus. I used this time to clean and pack as we would be heading to sites the next day and I still had much to do. My friend Jenea came over to finish getting ready. For the first time since reaching Lesotho, I pulled out earrings and make-up. I donned my Seshoeshoe (se-shway-shway) dress and dashed outside to dump my bathwater feeling self-conscious as it is more fitted than most of my clothes.
My anxiety about how looked dissipated the second my host Me saw me. She began shrieking and dancing, telling me I looked beautiful. Her reaction was better than any full length mirror and upped my confidence for the day. She then lent me a kobo (blanket) and helped me put both it and my head scarf on correctly. I was now ready for a Basotho-style celebration.
When we arrived in neighboring Ha Taaso, the village we had attended most of our training sessions in, there were multiple tents set up around the building we had been using as our school. The inside of the building had been transformed into a nice dining area for the feast after the ceremony. We were given plates of chicken and stampo to tide us over for the morning as we milled about and took pictures together.
Finally, our training director and country director gathered us to share the schedule of events and words of wisdom for the day. More pictures were taken, we were given water, and we met the new Charge d-Affaires for the US Embassy in Lesotho. John McNamara is an RPCV and was particularly excited to be swearing us in. He arrived in country after we did. I thought it was neat to be the first group of PCVs he has met in Lesotho.
And then it was time to start. Our seats were in a bit of an odd spot. The tent we were given was to the side of the podium and had walls on three sides. While this kept us warmly protected from the winds, it meant we could not see or be seen by the Basotho during most of the ceremony. It would have been lovely to see their reactions to some of the various speakers during the 2+ hour ceremony. I cannot recall every speaker that we had or the many words of wisdom and congratulations they shared. It was a long but special ceremony with dozens of speakers, a few songs, and even a time to receive parting gifts from our host mothers.
When Charge d'Affaires McNamara got up to swear us in, we finally left the shelter of our tent. As a group, we swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers. We then were each called forth individually to receive recognition and handshakes. The many Basotho present cheered as no Americans can for each one of us as we went forth and received our papers and handshakes before posing for a quick picture.
Other highlights included Jody's speech in Sesotho (so glad it was not me!), when we sang a song in Sesotho and the keynote speaker, a minister in the Lesotho government. He must have been educated in America, as his English did not appear to us to have an accent (unlike most Basotho English, which is accented with British and Sesotho at the same time). His speech was wonderfully entertaining and stressed how special it is for us to be from a country that takes its wealth and success as reasons to help in the international community. He charged us with being proud of our country and proud of ourselves for our work here in Lesotho. Throughout his speech, he fluidly alternated between English and Sesotho so that everyone could enjoy his words of wisdom.
After the ceremony concluded, we were sent into the building for our feast, which was quite a feast. One of the Healthy Youth volunteers from last year's training group works with teen mothers. Her teen mothers had catered the entire meal and done a tremendous job of it too. VIPs were fed inside, while there was also a feast outside for the rest of the guests.
As things settled down, we left and headed to the nearby bar for a celebratory drink. I was excited to get home, however, as I had some gifts to share with my host family. I loved being able to give them things that I had brought or made for them and felt a bit like Santa giving with no expectation of receiving anything in return. My host father, however, could not accept this, so I was given a traditional Basotho hat they had made. It is something that I will treasure always.
The next morning was surprisingly challenging. Saying goodbye to my fellow volunteers was not that difficult as we are all able to communicate on WhatsApp and know we will see each other repeatedly over the next few years. Saying goodbye to my host family after another late night of socializing, however, was more painful than I had anticipated. After we had loaded my belongings into the back of the truck, I hugged my Me and shook hands with my Ntate, grateful for the sunglasses that hid the tears that threatened to fall.
As we drove away, I could not help but feel I was leaving Tsitsa prematurely. Usually, when I leave a place, I know that it is time to go and while the goodbyes are difficult, the act of departure is not. Driving the now familiar road in the reverse of our path from the airport ten weeks ago, I reflected on the changes and growth in myself and my understanding of this country and my own role in it. After an hour or so, I felt better about leaving Tsitsa and began to gain excitement for my arrival in my new village.
By the time we reached my district and sites began to look more familiar again, my usual sense of optimism and capability had returned. As we pulled off the main road, I began smiling at the school children as they walked home. Finally, we pulled up to my house. There were a handful of villagers there to unload the car. I was only allowed to carry the eggs into the house. Everything else was taken care of for me, reminding me of both my welcome in this community and how much they have done in order to ensure that I am happy here.