Thursday, August 13, 2015

Top Ten Surprises After One Year as a PCV

One year ago today, I swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer with these seventeen amazing individuals!
It has been exactly one year since I finished Pre-Service Training and swore in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer. The year has been everything I expected and more than I imagined. Peace Corps service has not been without surprises. Here are the Top Ten things that have surprised me during my first year of service:

10. I polish floors
I do not think I had ever polished a floor before moving to Lesotho. Here, I find myself on my hands and knees polishing at least every other month. Keeping the linoleum on my dirt floor clean is a constant chore. I sweep more than daily to remove the sand that blows in and the dust that falls from the thatch roof. This all moves much easier when the friction is reduced thanks to floor polish. Of course, that reduced friction also turns my floor into an uneven skating rink for a few days, but that is just part of the fun!

9. I live here!
This one is a bit of a cheat as I was stumped for a tenth surprise. But the reality is that every day I cannot help but wonder at the roads my life has taken. I am amazed that I live in this beautiful country filled with wonderful, welcoming, and generous people. It is as if I awake every day expecting it to be a dream, but it is not. It is my actual life!

8. Easy Weight Loss
Everyone I spoke with before Peace Corps warned me that women gain weight in Peace Corps while men typically lose it. This is obviously a broad generalization but is believed to be due to the high starch based diets found in developing nations. In my case, however, I have lost weight with absolutely no effort. My activity level is pretty much where it was in America or lower, however, cooking for myself for the first time in over a decade is probably contributing. I also believe not thinking about it helps a lot. In America, women are bombarded by ideas of how they should look and their value in all ways is at least partially dependent upon their looks and what they wear. In Lesotho, this is significantly reduced, people look how they look and wear what they have. Since I have only a small mirror, I spend very little time thinking about how I look. If it were not for the scale at the Peace Corps office and my tape measure, I would have no idea I have lost around fifty pounds. Of course, this could also be due to wearing all the same clothes I brought with me. Sadly, this also means that said clothes are ill fitting and less flattering. I now roll my skirts to avoid stepping on them, my skinny jeans are saggy jeans, and shirts now resemble tents. But, since I only see these thing in pictures, I am finding I do not really care!

7. Phone Dependency
When I was sailing, I would turn off my phone for weeks at a time. Once I switched to dry land, I still was prone to leaving my phone behind or keeping it on silent. I could get away with charging it only two to three times a week. Now, my phone is a constant companion. I am quick to reply to WhatsApp messages and phone calls. Some of this is cultural as the Basotho expect someone to stop a conversation to answer a call. But some of it is also that this phone my connection to friends and family around the world. Some days, it is the only English I experience. Every day it is a chance to keep up with things happening in the lives of people I love, people I am going years without seeing.

6. I Don't Miss Much
I do not often miss places or things. There are moments I think, “Ooh, I would love to get sushi right now,” and I definitely would miss brewed coffee if my friends and family did not keep me incredibly well stocked thanks to amazing care packages. But, for the most part, I am so content with what I have here that I do not miss home. When I am headed to the big city (Sarcasm...Maseru is only big in the tiny context of Lesotho), I try to brainstorm a list of supplies and foods I should buy as Maseru has so many more options than Butha Buthe. But, when I walk into the comparatively larger and well stocked stores in Maseru, I quickly become overwhelmed. I cross most of the items off my list without purchase and walk out content with only one or two treats like chocolate chips, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, or a spice only available in the capital.

I have tried to convince myself I need to buy new cloths that fit, but similarly, I walk into the stores, become overwhelmed, and decide my oversized clothes will do for another year. In one year, I have purchased the following clothing: slippers, one skirt, dress shirt, one t-shirt, two tank tops, and two traditional Seshoeshoe dresses.

I truly expected part of the hardship people discuss before Peace Corps to be missing things in America-showers, driving, shopping, electricity, machines, diverse restaurants and food-and I was astonished to learn that I only miss the friends and family I have left behind. 

5. I Crave Time with other Americans
My first few months after swearing in as a PCV, I was quite content to spend all of my time in my village. Seeing other PCVs in town was nice, but not necessary. Now, a year later, I find myself desperate to spend time with the same people I would brush off to spend a quiet day in my community. The longer I am here, the more I appreciate times with other volunteers. It is not just that these are incredible individuals with a sense of adventure and purpose like my own. It is also the ease of spending time with people who understand my cultural reference points. While I am old enough that most of them just look confused when I start talking about Punky Brewster, they know much of the same music, television ads, movies, and so on. As my grandfather would say, we share a cultural IQ that allows us to enjoy easier camaraderie and jokes.

4. Bra Stuffing
I have always been a well-endowed female. While movies and books are filled with pre-teen girls stuffing their bra to look a bit older, I am the one whose fourth grade school picture highlights that I should have been wearing a bra. (Mom, please do not scan and share said hideousness!) Thus, I have never stuffed my bra nor used it as a storage device as I filled up all usable space in my bra. However, here in Lesotho, my chest is considered small. As I wear skirts often, my bra often serves as my only available pockets. Any given day, it holds at least two of the following: toilet paper, keys, money, phone, pedometer, hand sanitizer, notebook, pen, camera, gum, etc. It helps that I find I now have a lot of extra space for all these goodies thanks to number eight.

3. Health without Wealth
Before leaving for a life in rural Africa, I anticipated living on hand sanitizer, vigilance about washing my food and hands, finally stopping my nail biting habit, and torturous rounds of illness. While I do occasionally wash my hands and use hand sanitizer, the reality is that with less effort spent on sanitation and less facilities for sanitation, I am healthier than I have ever been at home. In fourteen months, I have had two small colds, two minor injuries worthy of medical care (Remember my trip to the ER?), and only minimal GI issues. Other than my first two months at site, I have barely even needed the band-aids that Peace Corps supplies us.

It is not just me either, for the most part, the Basotho that are part of my every day life are also incredibly healthy. One of my brothers has been a bit more accident prone lately, marking the first two times I have seen anyone in my family bleed and the first time one of them has visited a doctor.
I clearly arrived with a preconceived notion that living away from all the pristine and overly sanitary opportunities in America would lead to more illness and more problems, but the reality, for me at least, is quite the opposite.  

2. Proud Ameri-sotho
In America, a lot of people spend time talking about how hated America is by the rest of the world. While I have not necessarily witnessed this concept during my travels in the Caribbean, Central America, or Europe, it still impacted my perception of America. Here in Southern Africa, however, whenever people learn I am from the United States, they are envious. The immediate response is either “I want to go there” or “Take me with you when you return.” Even when I note that life in America is not easy either, people still want to be there. America is their dream.

As Lesotho's political situation has unraveled in the last few months, the United States has threatened to cut off certain funding if the government does not take action. Many Basotho have shared their fear of this happening. They see America as the leader of all positive international involvement in the country. They worry that if America pulls funding, other countries and NGOs will follow the US's lead. Since most groups followed our direction when we left briefly last September due to the Coup, their fear is understandable.
Even as my pride in being an American increases by being here, the best complement I receive from villagers is “Ua Mosotho”. When I do things that are culturally considered to be Basotho, they are thrilled. Women in my village love to yell at people who try to speak English to me in town, making sure it is understood that I am a Mosotho, I speak Sesotho, and I am a child of Lesotho. Being that integrated and loved is a crowning achievement for me.

1. Reliance on Help
I have always been an independent person. My mother still jokes about my independent nature as a child. American culture embraces and encourages such independence. Here in Lesotho, accepting help and even seeking it out are encouraged. It is nothing to go to a new town without having a clear picture of where I need to get. The expectation is that when I arrive, I can ask people for directions and trust the answers I get. If I am unsure of how to deal with a situation, rather than trying by myself, I need only ask and Basotho are ready to help-such as with that rat I had a few months back and its siblings my brothers have since trapped. This is not because I am an American or a Peace Corps Volunteer, this is simply the way culture works here. People ask for help and would be surprised if it was not given.

I am always amazed by the amount of trust and help I need to succeed here. Coming from a culture where we are encouraged to deal with it on our own, asking for help can be a challenge for me. Sometimes I would rather stay in my hut and do nothing than go to a new place where I know I will have to rely on the help of strangers, but every time I ask for or receive help, I am awed by how wonderful it is. While I know that returning to America and keeping this new-found part of me will be a challenge, I hope I can. Giving and receiving help is an amazing way to keep connected to people, whether you know them well or not. And the reality is, most people are genuinely good people who only want to help out their fellow human.

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