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. 

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