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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...

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Four Lesotho Reality Checks

Before moving to Lesotho, I was intentionally open-minded, setting very few expectations for what my life and Peace Corps service would be like. I am, however, human, so a few hid in the recesses of my mind, waiting to be blown away during my time in country. Here are a few of them:

Goat on a rock
Expectation: Life in Village is Bucolic and Quiet
Reality Check: Village Life is LOUD!
I do not know where the idea that country equals and peaceful began, but it is a sham perpetuated by artists and poets for centuries. The orchestra of sounds outside, and consequently inside, my hut at any given moment includes the calls of a menagerie of farm animals, the yelled greetings of people passing by, the load conversations occurring at the Chief’s office next door, my family members singing and talking inside their house, children playing, and-if it is sunny-the family’s solar powered radio thumping at full volume. My hut is usually louder than my freshman year dormitory! In the middle of the night and into the morning the chickens crow and dogs bark. In the morning and evening, the bells of the sheep and goats ring out as they leave for and return from grazing for the day, donkeys bray at random simply to be heard (Donkey in Shrek is not the only chatty donkey). Nothing about living in a rural village is quiet.

Expectation: Basotho people are shorter than many other people
Reality Check: Stunting is real
The internet fed me this lie before I arrived and it stuck, especially after I arrived and found my 5’4” self to be tall. But, there are many tall individuals, even in families that are predominantly short, showing that it is not necessarily a genetic predisposition. In the last year, I have learned more about stunting. Stunting occurs when young children  get enough to eat but not enough nutrient variety. The most visible impact of stunting is in fast decreased growth rates, however, it also impacts brain development decreasing capacity for critical thinking in adult years. In three Lesotho districts, including Botha Bothe, the stunting rate is over 40%. So, although the children we weight each month are, for the most part, within UN weight guidelines, they are not getting the nutritional variety needed to support true growth.  I now recognize that this is where the idea that Basotho are short stems from.

Expectation: In Lesotho, I Will Not Be Able to Buy Things I Want or Need
Reality Check: We Live in a Global World
When preparing to move to a tiny, land-locked, poor country in Africa, I mentally thought, I am packing for two years! After living on boat for a few months at a time, I could not help but use the same packing mentality I did when sailing: bring everything you need with you because you may not have the ability or opportunity to get it later. This is a foolish concept. First of all, it is impossible to pack everything one needs for two whole years anywhere in the world. Secondly, it is possible to buy almost anything in Lesotho and if not in Lesotho then in South Africa. The only true exception I have found to this so far is Spaghetti Squash seeds, which I was grateful to receive in a care package (although, yes, the care package coffee is better than what I can buy in Maseru...thank you everyone!).

As a large woman, I was worried I would not be able to find cloths that fit me, despite seeing heavy Basotho women in videos and photos of Lesotho, thus I bought and packed an absurd amount of skirts and tops for my two year experience-some of which I still have not worn. I listened to serving PCVs lament the frigid winter temperatures in Lesotho and packed multiple pairs of long johns, ignoring where these volunteers originated from and that I am typically warmer than others. I finally pulled them out two pair during my second winter in Lesotho, but I could have packed just one and been fine. All in all, I could have saved my money and bought much of what I needed here rather than stocking up on things in America in case I might need them in Africa.

A student shares a way to reduce
HIV rates in Lesotho on
World Aids Day 2015.
Expectation: HIV Will Be Visible Everywhere
Reality Check: HIV is a Silent Killer
Admittedly, there is signage about HIV Testing and HIV Prevention everywhere in Lesotho. As the country with the second highest HIV rate in the world, 24%, that is to be expected. At the same time, however, HIV itself is generally hidden. Thanks to stigma and discrimination, people do not acknowledge if they have HIV. Because HIV itself does not kill people, when someone dies from an HIV-related illness, only they illness that actually kills them is discussed as a cause of death. Many people choose not to take ARVs (Anti-Retro Virals) because they do not want people to know they have HIV. Others refuse to test because if they do not know, it is better than confirming they have it.

Within the Peace Corps Healthy Youth Project, much of our work is education related to HIV in hopes of overcoming these barriers to testing and treatment, particularly in youth. Unfortunately, behavior change and ending stigma are slow processes that will take significantly longer than the time any individual volunteer lives in the country. 

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