In which Emily learns how to… deal with street harassment

I get a lot of attention around here. I’m taller than most Basotho, including men, I dress in clothes that clearly mark me as a foreigner, I walk faster than everyone else, and oh right I’m a white lady. It’s normal for Basotho women to get harassed in the street, so what I deal with is just a fun bonus over a pre-existing layer of casual objectification. To be fair, I don’t only get attention from men. Women of all ages apparently feel that they have the right to comment on my body, to my face.

I’m not going to lie to you, this feedback has been almost exclusively positive in nature. My particular brand of curviness hits much closer at the Basotho gold beauty standard than the American. Plus there is a stereotype that all white women are thin, based on the images of Americans Basotho have seen in magazines and movies, so people are extra-jazzed when they see me, breaking all of the supposed body-type rules. Yes, I have been called “fat” here, frequently, even by my doctor, but it is always as a compliment or at least a good-natured observation.

The essence of body image is so different in Lesotho than in America. A Helpful Chart!

America Lesotho
Losing weight = good. A goal.

 

When talking about goal-setting in my Life Skills classes, my mind always jumps to weight loss when thinking of examples. And I’m not even trying to lose weight!

Losing weight = unhappiness.

 

A Mosotho woman told me that after getting married she gained weight. When her mother saw this, she was offended, asking her things like “Did I not feed you well? Were you unhappy as a child?”

Full figure = a problem.

 

If the question is not how to lose weight, it’s how to conceal it. How to dress yourself and pose in photographs to appear slimmer.

Full figure = desirable

 

This conversation happened:

Nun I live with: Mpho (my Sesotho name), are you losing weight?

Me: I don’t know, Sister, maybe.

Nun: You look okay, but don’t lose anymore.

 

Gaining weight = laziness, emotional distress, letting down your guard

 

When describing someone gaining weight, it’s always phrased as an unfortunate result. Like “After x happened, she gained some weight.” It’s never seen as a normal thing that happens to people.

Gaining weight = Not a goal, but women aren’t trying to gain it in the same frantic way American women are trying to lose it. More seen as a sign of prosperity and generally thriving.

This conversation happened:

Doctor: You have lost weight since your last physical.

Me: Ok.

Doctor: Don’t worry, it will come back.

Thin figure = healthy, desirable, physically fit

 

Thin figure = illness, even AIDS

 

Part of fighting HIV stigma is debunking the myth that you can tell who has HIV by looking at them. There is a common myth in Lesotho that whoever is skinny is HIV+.

It would be easy for me to say that, because I ‘rank’ higher here than in America, Basotho have it all figured out and Americans need to get on board with this way of thinking. But I won’t say that. I do think that on the whole Americans obsess about weight loss to an unhealthy degree, but body insecurity affects everyone, especially youth. If there is a big moral, it’s that beauty standards are cultural and therefore arbitrary. My personal take (you are reading my blog, so you inherently asked for it) is to be who you are, do what feels good, and try not to stress about it too much.

So now we know why I get a lot of attention. Now for how I’ve learned to deal with it.

Street harassment comes in many forms in Lesotho. Foreigners, especially white ones, are frequently asked for money or candy. This is another source of annoyance in my day-to-day life here, but has a different root cause and will not be addressed in this post. I’m talking about garden variety, person-on-the-street-giving-unwanted-verbal-sexual-attention harassment. Here are the strategies I’ve used to cope

More pony trek!

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External

  1. This is the instinct that comes up when a stranger yells at you, and trusting it is usually an effective way to get said stranger to stop yelling at you.
  1. Yell back. Yes, I have done this. As with most things, doing it from a place of for-the-fun-of-it is a lot more pleasant than doing it from a place of anger. You run the risk of people thinking you’re crazy (which is an atrocious double standard, by the way), but it is pretty cathartic. I’d never condone street harassment, but yes, I can understand that yelling in public could be fun in a subversive way. Because I’ve done it. And it is.
  1. Not in your head, but out loud. Smile, outwardly, not because some jerk is telling you to, but because the person yelling at you is making a fool of themselves. The whole premise behind street harassment is that the object will be so overcome (by what even? Pity? Desire? Gratitude? Still haven’t figured this part out) that they will overlook the disrespect they are being shown and show the harasser some form of favor by talking to them, acknowledging them, or, according to some requests, giving them their phone number. The notion that this would ever succeed, and yet is attempted by so many, is absurd! Sometimes I can’t help but laugh.

The best is when you can make eye contact with a bystander and share the laugh with them. Think a “can you believe this guy?” eyebrow raise/eye-roll. It’s like it proves both to yourself and to the harasser, that even as someone attempts to objectify you (an inherently othering, alienating act), you can make a genuine, positive connection with someone else (an inherently empowering act). Sharing a joke zaps the victimhood right out of the air.

Internal:

  1. Be annoyed. It is annoying when you can’t just be left to go about your business in peace. Since I’ve been in Lesotho, the issue of street harassment seems to have gained some traction in the social consciousness of Americans, this and this being examples.

This is so encouraging, and I’m glad that all the distress has bubbled over into a conversation and, hopefully, a change in behavior. But realistically speaking, Lesotho is not at that point. Rape culture is so prevalent here that I could not get morally outraged, or even mildly annoyed, at every warranted provocation without feeling severely unhappy, all of the time. One day women everywhere will not have to compromise on this issue. In the meantime, my preferred responses:

  1. Take the compliment. Wait, hear me out! Do I believe that harassers are, at the heart of it, trying to reach out and tell me something I might actually be interested in hearing? No, of course not. Harassment is a practice in power, a manifestation of male privilege that has everything to do with asserting dominance to an audience of by-standing males and nothing to do with courtship, communication, or compassion. Furthermore, I know I just said that beauty standards are an arbitrary construct, but I’ve been hit on enough times when sunburnt to a crisp, drenched in sweat, visibly hungover, wearing amorphous clothing, you name it, to know that my attractiveness, whether objective or subjective, has no bearing on whether or not I get harassed that day.

But once a harasser has said something to me, and I’ve heard it, that remark is mine now, in my head, to do with as I please. And if I’d like to be told that I’m beautiful at that point in time, I’ll use the harasser’s remark to do that. It’s not the same as listening to or believing a harasser, because the motives and meaning of the message are both ascribed by me. I tell the high school girls I work with that they should never wait for someone else to tell them that they’re beautiful. I tell them that, if they need to hear it, they should literally look in a mirror and say the words out loud: “You are beautiful.” The way I see it, taking the compliment from a harasser is like doing the same thing, but with a puppet instead of a mirror.

  1. Feel nothing. I strongly believe that we have the ability to choose how we feel about situations. Every day I choose to not let harassers get to me. Their attempt to victimize me has everything to do with them and their messed-up decisions, and nothing to do with me or how I want to feel that day. In one ear and out the other.
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This is a cartoon I drew for the PC Lesotho monthly newsletter on behalf of the Gender Equality Lesotho (GEL) Committee

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More pony trek! Photo cred for these to my very talented friend E.M. Noseworthy

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In which Emily gets some perspective

Over the next eight weeks, I’ll be packing up my life here in Lesotho and preparing to head home. For good. By the time I COS, I will have spent a collective 30 months in Lesotho. Two and a half years, which I have spent entrenching myself in life and service in this strange, magnificent little country. On one of the last days of my pre-service training, our then-Director of Programming and Training Eric Goldman described living in Lesotho as a jigsaw puzzle. Every day we would figure one bit out, fit in one piece, until, by the time of COS, we had a complete picture. Solving the puzzle of how to live is what is wonderful and challenging about living in a foreign country. David Sedaris decribes this really beautifully in this interview with Rick Steves (side note: My two favorite middle-aged white guys ever? Maybe. Definitely up there. Them and Joe Biden.)

So I’ve spent two-and-a-half years putting this puzzle together. Everything from the-standardized-taxi-fare-is-fifty-cents-cheaper-in-my-district-than-everywhere-else-in-the-country-for-no-discernible-reason to the ins and outs of the complicated chief/sub-chief system my village boasts to exactly which grocery stores sell avocados and when is in there.

One of the big pieces was realizing that social media and having an online presence are not a priority for me. What initially felt more like a stressful homework assignment than a connection to home is a pursuit I, for the most part, abandoned early on in my service. As a result, this blog has proven rather paltry. If you’ve been following and have been disappointed, I’ll just say that I was occupied with my puzzle. If you want to hear more about my service, reach out to me. I’d be happy to have a real-life conversation with you.

That being said, I have some final thoughts, perspectives, stories, and photos I’d like to share. In the weeks until I fly out, I’m going to post something about the bigger, more important pieces of my puzzle (and some pictures, because no one likes a blog that’s only about feelings). I’m calling it How to…, because it’s about how I learned to do things.

Enjoy.

 

Photos from a visit from U.S. friends over New Year’s:

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Is this a dinosaur footprint?

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Close enough!

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Me in front of the convent where I live

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Pony trek

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In which Emily schools and gets schooled

Let’s talk about Life Skills.

The majority of my job is either teaching Life Skills, or doing the logistical work that will put me in front of a group of youth, subsequently allowing me to teach Life Skills. While every day is different, if you want to know what it is that I’m even doing in Lesotho, the answer is, for the most part, teaching Life Skills.

So what is Life Skills? Life Skills doesn’t have an exact corresponding subject in American school. During my educational experience, the topics I cover in Life Skills were covered in everything from DARE to health class to debate club to classroom visits by Mrs. Russell, our elementary school guidance counselor.  We talk about things like how to communicate effectively, how to have high self-esteem, how to set goals, how to resist peer pressure, and how to deal with puberty. We also talk about more technical things like drugs and alcohol, sexual and reproductive health, and employability skills.

Why these topics? The stated goal of my Peace Corps program, Healthy Youth, is to mitigate HIV infection among young people. Sexual and reproductive health is a shoe-in, then, but the other topics can also reinforce the resistance youth have to contracting HIV. Think about it: Youth are most likely to contract HIV by having unprotected sex. Youth are most likely to have unprotected sex because of peer pressure, drug and alcohol use, low self-esteem, etc. Youth who choose not to have unprotected sex are more likely to be employed, have goals for the future and be working towards those goals (hence prioritizing their health and safety), be assertive communicators, etc. It’s a socially holistic approach to keeping youth AIDS-free.

I teach Life Skills in several different settings to several different groups of students. One of these groups is a Form A class at a local high school. Form A is equivalent to 8th grade. They are the A1 class, meaning the highest-achieving students (Lesotho has no problem with educational tracking). I get an hour and twenty minutes with them once a week, during which time I try to keep them as engaged as possible. Lots of activities, games, and song and dance breaks break up the heavy doses of #realtalk.

I hosted a Peace Corps trainee for a few days for Host Volunteer Visit (HVV is a way for trainees to see what daily life is like at a Volunteer’s site), and she gamely agreed to take some photos of me in action with my Form A class. Enjoy!

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In which Emily returns to her camp roots

When you take up residence in a foreign country with the express goal of introducing some amount of change, you have to tread carefully. Critics of the Peace Corps and other forms of foreign aid ask what the difference is between what we’re doing now and what European imperialists did in Africa over the last few centuries. What gives us the right to move in, set up shop, and proclaim that we know better? How do we know that our version of a better way of life is the right one? These are questions I ask myself all the time. I do believe that I have something to share with Lesotho. I also believe that this form of foreign aid can work, when those involved are both tactful and reflective. Being tactful here means being respectful of your host country’s culture. Every message, every project either has to fit within a country’s existing culture, or put gentle pressure on it from the inside. For example, VMMC campaigns in Lesotho often run into the challenge of confusion over the difference between VMMC and the traditional form of circumcision practiced at herd boy initiation schools. Instead of discouraging boys from attending initiation school in order to avoid being circumcised incorrectly, these campaigns explain that traditional circumcision does not offer the same medical benefits that VMMC does. They don’t try to discredit tradition. Instead they stick to the facts and scrap unnecessary value judgments.

I try to practice being tactful and reflective in my work constantly. The way this has manifested is that I restrict projects I take on to things my community asks me to do. Luckily, my community is active and thirsty for knowledge. They’ve asked me to consult business cooperatives, help get a chicken coop constructed, teach computer skills to herd boys, and financial literacy to high school students. None of these projects has come from me- they always come about because I was approached by a member of my community.

On the one hand, this way of conducting my service is very rewarding. Peace Corps puts pressure on Volunteers to organize events in honor of “holidays” that raise public awareness of certain issues, like World AIDS Day. I have not taken on any of these because my community has not asked for them. It feels good to be certain that you are meeting an actual need and not projecting your own, or PEPFAR’s, agenda.

The flip side of this is that I don’t always get to do the projects I want to do. My passion doesn’t lie in computer skills, business management, or agriculture. It lies in music, it lies in sports, and it lies in helping kids become leaders.

BUT. A couple weeks ago, I got to experience the culmination of a four-month long planning endeavor that WAS both a project that was a needed and a project I felt passionate about. Peace Corps worldwide has a program called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). GLOW can take several different forms, but in Lesotho Volunteers have had success in planning GLOW camps. Camp is a bit of a foreign concept to Basotho, so we often had to describe it as a “workshop.” As a former camper and two-summer camp counselor, I am a HUGE fan of camp. I could wax poetic about camp forever, but I think anyone who has been to a camp or worked at a camp would agree that camp creates a special bond between people. When you’re talking about serious issues like sex and gender and abuse, that bond is essential to creating a safe and open space for discussion. GLOW Camp Mohale’s Hoek was made up of a million meaningful moments, most of which I didn’t even grasp fully because they were in Sesotho, but here are some numbers:

  • 53 high school girls, ages 13-22, from 17 different Mohale’s Hoek high/secondary schools
  • 15 teacher/advisers, all women
  • 4 Basotho counselors
  • 7 PCVs
  • 2 Co-directors (my buddy Aline and myself)
  • 4 days and 3 nights
  • 1 meeting hall
  • 9 sessions (Positive Communication, Healthy Relationships, LGBTI, Sexual and Reproductive Health, Contraceptives, HIV Myths, Unplanned Pregnancy and Support Services, Career Preparation, and Self-Defense)
  • 9 shared meals
  • 2 HIV testers
  • 43 people tested for HIV
  • 1 scheduled dance party
  • 5 impromptu dance parties
  • 1,000,000,000+ energizers and songs
  • 1 group cheer: “Go Glow!”

Aline and I began talking to school principals to recruit for the camp in April, we started arranging the logistics in May, and we intensively trained our counselors starting in June. It was amazing to see all of our planning come together, but for me it was even more special to do a project that focused on empowering women.

This was one of those times that a project put needed pressure on cultural norms. Gender roles in Basotho culture are quite restrictive, especially for women. This has the affects one would expect, such as men having more career options, women acting deferential in social situations, and a proliferation of domestic violence. But it also has dire consequences that might be unexpected to Americans – in Lesotho, HIV disproportionately affects women. Of the approximately 290,000 people living with HIV in Lesotho, almost 60% are women (http://www.unaids.org/). Women are more susceptible to HIV for anatomical reasons, but also for social, gender-related reasons. Because of this GLOW Camp, I know that 53 high school girls in my district know how their body works, how to practice safe sex, how to talk to their partners about safe sex, and what to do if they are at risk or suffering from abuse. That’s a great feeling.

We invited teachers from each school for sustainability purposes. Every Peace Corps project is supposed to incorporate an aspect of sustainability. So how can GLOW continue after Aline and I are gone? All of the sessions were either led or assisted by Basotho, so the talent and know-how is there.  But what about logistics? GLOW was funded by a grant from PEPFAR that is only available to Peace Corps Volunteers. Funding for a project like this can be community-sourced, but certainly not as much funding, and only with a huge amount of effort on the part of the organizers. GLOW Camp might not be able to happen in Lesotho without PCV assistance, at least not yet. In the meantime, we shot for sustainability in a different model- GLOW Clubs. On the last day the campers made plans  to form a GLOW Club at their school with the support of their teacher who attended GLOW Camp. The idea is that they can share what they learned at GLOW with other students at their school and keep the girl power going. I’m optimistic about the future of these clubs, and Aline, the counselors, and I hope to visit some of them in the coming months.

Thanks for reading this epic of a post! Check out the pics:

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In which Emily becomes the family photographer

It’s been a while, blog! My excuse is that my camera was not working for a while, something that I couldn’t get fixed until I went to Cape Town, which happened last month, and now I have some pictures, making the whole blog endeavor worthwhile. So here we are! Thanks for sticking with me, folks. 

For my re-debut, I thought I’d share something that happened to me last week. My loyal counterpart, Mapoloko, and I are in the final stages of a chicken coop-construction project. Last Tuesday morning, we agreed to meet at her house to review a quotation. Just before I left to walk to her house she called and asked me to bring my camera. She didn’t say why, but I had told her that I had gotten it repaired in Cape Town so I figured she just wanted an impromptu photo shoot. Basotho LOVE having their picture taken, especially the kids, so this was not out of the ordinary.

Mapoloko and I finished our business pretty quickly, after which I asked her what she wanted my camera for. “It is the baby’s birthday!” she said. By way of explanation, Mapoloko’s toddler grandson has been living with her while her daughter finishes university. This little boy is very beloved by his family, as you can see in the birthday party pics I took:

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The birthday boy!

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Nkhonno (grandmother) getting the kids in line

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Cutting that cake

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The moms put frosting on all the kids’ faces. They were quite nonplussed

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Contemplating his lollipop

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Mapoloko and her daughter

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The mom and the baby

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Uncle helping his nephew with his shoe

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Mapoloko loves kids!

In which Emily gets really grassroots

Greetings readers! First of all, here is an awesome video about PC Lesotho that some PCVs made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BrhwW2sIec&feature=youtu.be

Down to business. I would like to dedicate this blog entry to telling you all about one of my secondary projects, Community Innovative Skills Program. As a PCV I have a primary assignment through my host organization, but the work for this hardly fills a work week so I am expected to find some secondary projects in my community.

After being back at site for about a month, this secondary project literally came knocking at my door. Or rather, the project manager and now my counterpart, ‘M’e Puseletso, came knocking at my door. She told me that she had worked with a PCV who lived in a nearby village a few years ago, and that Peace Corps had directed her to me when she inquired if there was anyone in the area currently. I was thrilled to be sought out, and we started working together right off the bat.

Community Innovative Skills Program, or CISP, is a small center where orphans, vulnerable children, and their care-givers will be instructed in employable skills like sewing and baking. As Volunteers we describe projects like CISP as “super grassroots” because it has no funding from NGOs or donors. My work for CISP consists of spending one day a week with Puseletso pounding pavement in town asking for community donations in order to get the resources we need to open. Once classes are up-and-running, CISP will operate on dues paid by the students and the income generated by selling things the students make. Some of the products will be embroidered pillowcases, dresses, stuffed animal dogs, and muffins.

As with all fundraising, there are ups and downs. Sometimes business-owners agree to do things like sponsor students, provide equipment from their stock, or fund the purchase of materials. Sometimes they refuse. Sometimes there are other setbacks, like when an oven was donated, but we were not able to get a truck to transport it to the center for months. Another time a shop owner agreed to donate a cabinet, but when we went to collect it his shop had been robbed the night before and he had no stock left.

What is most interesting to me is that almost every time we explain our organization to someone, they ask if an orphan they live with or know can join. The proportion of children in Lesotho who are orphans is unbelievable high compared to the U.S.

Puseletso has big dreams for CISP. She sees us renting more rooms, expanding to teach agriculture, hospitality, and other skills. She wants to get a truck so that we can instruct disabled people in the community who cannot leave their homes. She wants to start a scholarship fund for orphans at the local primary schools so they can go on to high school (primary school is free in Lesotho but high school is not). She wants to throw a Christmas party for the students and care-givers. She has even talked about running workshops to train instructors in remote villages. They are all excellent ideas, and I do my best to encourage her while remaining realistic of our capabilities.

Working with Puseletso is always eventful. She is probably the most energetic person I’ve ever met, especially in Lesotho where the pace of life is comparably slow. She is passionate about the work, though, so all of that energy is channeled into something wonderful for the community. She is also something of a hustler. She is always sewing things like seshoeshoe (traditional dresses) and school uniforms for someone in the village in addition to selling something or other out of her handbag. One time it was Tupperware. Another it was fish and chips. Lately it’s been herbal tea. It’s fascinating seeing her get random people on the street to buy tea from her. And they always do! Also, every time we get in a taxi she tells the driver that we only have M5, even though taxi rides cost M6 in Mohale’s Hoek. If they refuse, she berates them about the noble work we’re doing until they are guilted into giving us a ride. She’s incredible.

CISP is opening up for classes soon, and I’m very excited to see the work we’ve been doing put to some use. I will be teaching some classes in basic business skills and health, Puseletso will be teaching sewing, and another volunteer teacher will teach cooking and baking. We’ve got about 20 students on the roster. Soon these kids will be able to support themselves!

Here’s a picture of Puseletso with some rugs that were donated by a local hardware store (NB: Basotho don’t usually smile in pictures for unknown reasons):

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In which Emily makes some magic happen

It’s been about a month, and I have covered some ground! The two biggest things that occurred since last writing are GRS and vacation.

GRS!

What is GRS? It stands for Grassroot Soccer, and it is an organization based out of Cape Town that teaches youth about important issues like gender equality, HIV prevention, and more through soccer.  GRS is a wonderful partner to Peace Corps, and supports PCVs by providing training in how to teach GRS curricula.  In August I brought a Masotho friend of mine named Sketchaz to the GRS workshop to learn the GRS SKILLZ Girl curriculum.  SKILLZ Girl is the GRS program that teaches girls about gender equality. Soccer is very popular in Lesotho but traditionally male-dominated, so combining soccer practice with life skills lessons can be empowering to young women. I invited Sketchaz to be my GRS counterpart because she, like me, is a young volunteer passionate about social issues facing Basotho youth. Sketchaz was a rock star at the workshop, as expected, and this week we embark on our first 12-week intervention with a group of 20 high school girls.

GRS is all about having fun and high energy. Here are some pictures of us from the workshop:

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The group doing a ‘kilo’, which is a personalized cheer

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Being dramatical in a skit about abstinence

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Cheering for our team

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Doing an energizer activity

Showing off my soccer skillz

Showing off my soccer skillz

The following week I jetted off (and by jetted off I mean rode in a taxi for 8 hours, then took an overnight bus) to Cape Town for vacation.  After some usual travel snafus I met up with my good friend Susanna to head up to McGregor, South Africa to attend the McGregor Poetry Festival. I am a fan of poetry but had never listened to so much in such a short amount of time, and never in such a picturesque setting.  McGregor is in the wine lands just to the north of Cape Town, and generally considered an artists’ colony.  Susanna and I heard lots of different poetry, some in English, some in Afrikaans, some in Zulu, in gardens, an old church, a cozy library, and other visually stunning locations.  Being in South Africa feels a bit like returning to America because of how modern everything is.  That being said, it definitely has its own flavor and mix of cultures.

Me in McGregor

Me in McGregor