In which Emily says goodbye

The first goodbye was at the end of training. I had a good relationship with my host family- they were extremely kind to me and we never had any problems with the exception of the morning of swearing-in when I had a minor disagreement with my host mom over whether or not I would wear a seshoeshoe (traditional dress) for the ceremony. Half-way through training we started cooking for ourselves which meant I spent less time with my family, but there was always some chitchat when I got back from sessions at the end of the day. Nevertheless, I was surprised when, after the ceremony and photos, my host mom started weeping into my shoulder. Touched, I gave her a big hug and promised to visit when I could.

When I got to site, there were four nuns living at the convent where I live: Sisters Giratta, Bridgitta, Alice, and Agatha. When I came back from med-sep, Bridgitta had moved back to the mother house. She was very elderly and they had more comfortable facilities there. I saw her once there while attending the funeral of another nun I did not know. Even though it had been over a year since I had seen her, she greeted me warmly, calling me “Mphonini,” an affectionate nickname for my Sesotho name. Within a month I was back at the mother house attending Sister Bridgitta’s funeral. She had been so kind to me in our limited (by both time and language) acquaintance. I was very sad to see her go.

I said goodbye to my cohort last July. It was tough because I liked those people a lot and I knew it would be a long time until I would see them again. But I was so in love with my job and my life in Lesotho that I didn’t even think of following them back to America.

I had a counterpart that I’ve written about on here before. Her name is Puseletso. We had a great working relationship for most of my first year back after med-sep. Puseletso never explicitly disclosed this to me, but I’m pretty sure she has HIV. One time she showed me her garden in which she was growing a certain kind of spinach she told me she had heard was good for people living with HIV. Another time she told me why she lived alone- she had a husband but he lived in Qacha’s Nek, a distant district, working in a mine. I asked if he visited. She shook her head, looking strangely guilty. “When we are together, we only fight,” she told me. An absentee, abusive, HIV+ mine-worker husband is practically a cliché in Lesotho. These conversations, paired with her frequent illnesses and visits to the hospital in town and the prevalence in Lesotho (23% of adults) lead me to believe that she is HIV-positive. Once or twice she had disappeared for a few weeks, reemerging visibly healthier than I had seen her last, saying that she had been ill but was feeling better and was “ready to work!” So when she disappeared a little over a year ago, I wasn’t too concerned. But then weeks turned to months and she still hadn’t come back. Her phone number was disconnected. I tried not to jump to the worst conclusion, that she had died and no one had told me. Five months later she called me up. She told me she had been ill but was feeling better and was “ready to work!” We met up the next day to make some plans for our projects. She looked like she had aged several years in the time we had been apart. I went into this meeting with caution. Before her absence we had been working toward opening a skills training center, or at least that was our original, stated goal. But as time had gone on, her focus had gotten blurry, saying we needed to start scholarship funds for the OVCs, and that we needed to get donations of toothpaste and lotion for them, and that we could present these donations in a big feast ceremony, like we had done at Christmas. Scholarship funds and donations of toiletries are not bad things, but I had been operating under the understanding that we were working towards the skills training center, which, when up and running, would be financially self-sustaining. Going around to the same businesses, with the same donation request letters, time after time, is not sustainable. This is how most charities in America operate- on donations only. But in Lesotho, charitable giving is not as well established, and, with no tax rebates, not as well-incentivized. PCVs are only supposed to work on projects that have an element of sustainability, and I did not see that in Puseletso’s plans. One of the last times I saw her before her absence I pointed this out to her, explaining that we needed to start an income-generating activity to support the OVCs. She nodded along, but it was in the way Basotho do when they are telling you what you want to hear. So going into our reunion meeting, I decided that if Puseletso wanted to pursue an IGA, I would help her. But if she just wanted my help printing letters and standing behind her as a token white person while she begged shop-owners for donations, I was out. We sat down together and I asked her what she had in mind for the future of CISP. “These OVCs, they are needing scholarships. We must write some letters.” I sighed inwardly. I explained to her that I was not able to help with fundraising efforts for unsustainable donations. She slumped back in her chair. “But you will return to America soon.” In six months, but sure. “When you are in America, you will not forget us,” she said, smiling. I knew what this meant. She was referring to an idea she had floated by me on occasion before, which was that when I went back to America I would fund-raise there on behalf of CISP. I had always gently shot this idea down before, as I have no plans to commit to starting a 501(c)3 for this one-person operation in my village, especially when that one person up and disappears for months at a time with no notice. I deflected by playing dumb. “Of course I will not forget you. I will miss you all very much.” I told her that I was still available to facilitate sessions on business skills, health, and life skills (what I had originally agreed to do with her). She replied vaguely that maybe she would get the OVCs together for a workshop during the upcoming school break. I said I would be happy to help out. But we both knew that this workshop would not materialize. When we said goodbye that day, I knew we were parting ways for good. I was happy to see that she was in good health, but at this point in my service I didn’t have to scrounge for work with people who only saw me as a source of income. Puseletso had moved to a different village when she had gotten out of the hospital, so I knew I likely wouldn’t see her again, expect for maybe passing in town. This has proven true.

I taught life skills, financial literacy, employability, and sexual and reproductive health to a youth cooperative club at St. Stephen’s High School. St. Stephen’s is a prestigious private school, and you could tell. The students there were smart, focused, and respectful. About eight months after my return from med-sep, the adviser to their club asked me to meet with his students once a week after school. It was my first regular gig as a PCV, and I was over-the-moon to have something fixed on my schedule. A few months later I started coming twice a week so more students could have access to the sessions. Basotho aren’t quite as schedule-obsessed as Americans, so every once in a while I would show up after school and it would turn out the students couldn’t meet with me that day because there was a sports day (field day), trip to Maseru, holiday weekend, etc. This kind of thing happens all the time in Lesotho, so it didn’t faze me much. This April it happened a couple times in a row, then I was away for a week, so almost a month had passed since I had seen the adviser. When I finally tracked him down to ask about the rest of the school year, we looked at the calendar together and realized that I wouldn’t be able to meet with the students again because they were already in exam prep. I blinked. It was the first work thing I had that ended because of my COS, and I hadn’t even realized.

My students at Mohale’s Hoek High School, whom I’ve posted about on here in the past, gave me a goodbye I can only describe as frenetic. I was about five minutes late when I walked into class last Tuesday, and clearly they thought I wasn’t coming because my entrance was greeted with literal shrieks of joyful relief. We did our post-test, then I tried to give them a Dead Poets’-style inspirational speech about their futures without me. No one was paying attention. One of them raised her hand as I looked out at them, exasperated. “Ausi Mpho, we want to play.” Ok, fine. I guess I’m only here to teach them games. Actually, I’m pretty okay with that. We played games for twenty minutes, I led them in a rousing round of kilos, then I started packing my stuff up. “Ausi Mpho, may I hug you?” Haha, sure, I replied. Cue every girl in the class shrieking and mobbing me. It was like they were trying to start a dogpile, but were too short to find the correct pivot point? I had them get in an orderly, single-file line, which they leaped into, jumping and squeaking all the while. Again I foolishly imagined giving warm hugs and meaningful farewells to each student. Again, this did not happen. Each student jumped on me, some hanging on my neck, too busy shrieking and giggling to hear any inspirational words. I laughed and gave in to the chaos.

I had promised my training host family that I would print pictures of us for them, but when I got to the stationary store in Maseru, it was closed. In honor of “African Heroes Day”. Of course. I wasn’t completely empty-handed, though. As always when visiting them, I brought a bucket of KFC, which is something of a delicacy here, and a bag full of clothes I wanted to give to my host sister. People ask me for things all the time here – money, a job, sweets, my banjo, my bicycle, my sunglasses, my phone number. But these people, my host family, had never asked me for anything. Not once. Not every PCV has that experience. They were happy to sing songs and play UNO and scold me for not speaking better Sesotho and ask me about the weather in Mohale’s Hoek as if it was a distant land in another hemisphere.  I wasn’t sure how to put my appreciation into words, especially Sestotho words, so I decided to trust it to actions. I colored with my little host sister, promised my other sister I would call from America, and shared a very awkward hug with my host dad (hugs are not common in Lesotho, especially between men and women. I think he was kind of freaked out.). I looked back at the village until the taxi went around a bend in the road.

Here are pictures from the BRO (Boys Respecting Others) Camp that we put on at the end of April. It’s the boys’ counterpart to GLOW Camp. 57 campers, 11 advisers, 9 local counselors, 4 days of GTs.

GROUP PIC 1

Errbody

FAME

Co-direx plus counseling staff

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talent show movez

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Gumboot dances

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Never been able to resist a dance circle

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In which Emily learns how to keep in touch with people

As I made my way through a college with a healthy geographic diversity and summers spent on the West Coast and abroad, all the while accruing friends and acquaintances who claimed every part of the world as home, I realized that I was not good at keeping in touch. I can scroll through slews of Facebook friends (#humblebrag) I haven’t spoken to since the last time we were face-to-face months, now maybe years ago. This used to be very distressing to me. When would be that happy time when all the people I card about lived in one place, where we would be neighbors and visit and drink coffee and pet each others’ dogs? That would be adulthood, right? Not so much.

But as I got older, I further realized that no one is good at keeping in touch. Gone are the days when people would write pages of epistolation, just for the sake of being friends. Even doing this once a year, only at Christmas, seems somehow gauche.

I think for the most part Facebook is to blame. People can reasonably expect to know things like where you’re living, what your job is, what your pets look like, where you go to grad school, by being friends on Facebook. But reading about someone you know on Facebook isn’t the same as keeping in touch. It’s a completely passive exercise. Someone posts something for an audience of everyone, aka no one in particular, and someone else reads it, alone, with no obligation to reciprocate or react, at all. The poster doesn’t know who sees their post, and the reader can read without the poster knowing they did so. It’s like someone standing on a table in the middle of a party with a blindfold on and earplugs in, proclaiming,

“I think my cat is cute.”

“I went to Seattle with my girlfriend.”

Westworld is a great TV show.”

“I was disappointed in the new Star Wars movie.”

So how to turn this active? How to reach out to that person standing on the table, gently remove their earplugs and blindfold, and tell them that I, too, think their cat is really cute, and that I, too, was disappointed in the latest Star Wars sequel? How to keep in touch? And where does this leave someone like me, who is an ocean away from decent wifi and has no area code in their phone number?

I’m not going to say that I turned it all around and became great at keeping in touch. But here are some tips I’d like to put out there, especially for my generation of flakey millennials.

  • Figure out who you actually want to keep in touch with. Keeping in touch does require some amount of effort, so be discerning, and be realistic. I keep a list on my wall above my desk, and put a check next to each person’s name when I write them a letter. It’s not creepy, it’s organizational!
  • Know that they way you keep in touch with people will vary depending on the person. Some people I have random, fun text conversations with. A couple people write me physical letters. One friend likes to send me tacky postcards. One or two I exchange long, chatty emails a few times a year. One friend hates typing, so we Skype every few months. One friend and I exchange ranty-y, 10+-minute-long voice notes over WhatsApp at least once a week. Find what works for you and that person. Be creative.
  • When you are the person who has more access to wifi, data networks, electricity, etc., take a page out of the Peace Corps handbook and be patient and flexible. I can tell you that with no electricity in my home, my phone is frequently out of battery, and when it does have battery, I’m not going to drain it with something like a video call. I can tell you that, with a 6-7 hour time difference with only the East Coast, live phone calls, video chats, and texting convos will be tricky to arrange. I can tell you that wifi in Lesotho is scarce, meager when it’s there at all, and never available in a private space. I can tell you that whereas data networks are improving all the time, even in Lesotho, know that while you’re cruising on 5G or 6G or whatever number-G, in my village the best you will ever get is 3G and every time the wind blows drops to something called “Edge” (1G? ½G? What does G even stand for, anyway?). And finally I can tell you that the powerhouse of a phone you are holding in your hand (or wear on your wrist or inside your sunglasses or however it works these days – Can you tell I’ve been gone two and a half years?) as you read this, whether iPhone or otherwise, can run technological circles around what I’m currently rocking. The most popular phone among PCVs in Lesotho (popular due to its low price tag) is the Samsung Smartkicka, lovingly nicknamed the “Shitkicker.” I can make phone calls! There’s a calculator! I can Google things! That is the end of the exciting features list. I’m not writing this to complain. I’m writing this because I know it’s hard to know what your expectations of your distantly-placed friend should be. My advice: low. The burden is on you to download the messenger app that works for them, or send them pics instead of videos. If you can’t meet your friend where they are vis-à-vis communication methods, you’re essentially saying they’re not worth the effort. In sum, I’m only going to say this once: WHATSAPP TRUMPS FB MESSENGER. EVERY TIME.
  • Tell your friend what is happening in your life. I think many of us fail to keep in touch because we don’t know what to say. It’s like we’re appearing on a late-night talk show- we don’t want to show up unless we have a funny anecdote. But here’s the thing: if all you’re giving someone is what’s especially amusing or big-news important, they’re not going to have any context to put that in. If you tell your friend you got a promotion at work, they’ll be much more excited for you if they know you’ve been hoping for that promotion for months and you’re really sick of your cubicle-mate.

Let me also add that you should never refrain from telling a friend about your life because you think they’ll find it boring, even if they’re doing something like living in a developing country as a PCV. Hearing about everyday American life is exactly what I want to hear about, as someone living in a developing country as a PCV. Everything is so foreign all the time, often a jolt of home is just what I need. Plus, boring things are inherently interesting when they happen to your friends, because they’re happening to your friends.

  • Share media. In order to avoid the “Here’s my life_____,”- “Cool, here’s my life _____,” rut, find something you and your friend can share. Read the same book, or listen to the same podcast. I’ve even watched a movie with someone, while Skyping (pre-Peace Corps, of course). Is your friend a desolate PCV with no internet access? Download some media and mail them a USB drive. While I was in training my very dedicated friend Ann would include a hand-written page of funny posts from Tumblr in every letter which we could then joke about later. Find a thing you both like, and then like that thing together.
  • Try to visit. Like actually though. Relationships grow through shared experiences, and the more memorable those experiences, the closer friends you’ll be. Having friends in far-away places makes traveling more fun and more rewarding. My host-mother in Paris used to encourage me to “Profitez-bien!” which means “Take advantage!” Make the effort of keeping in touch worth it by making the most of your separation. And of course, at the end of the day, there’s nothing like a real hug from a real friend.
  • Let go. Some of the people I tried to keep in touch with while in Lesotho did not reciprocate. If you tell someone clearly that you want to hear from them and how they can reach you, they have to take it from there. It’s tough when you get no response, but not every friend is meant to be forever. My litmus test was to ask, are you just treading water with this person, or is the act of keeping in touch feeding your friendship?

And now, some pictures from when my friend Elly visited last year!

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Bo-Kaap neighborhood in Cape Town

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Looking at Table Mountain from Lion’s Head

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Lion’s Head

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Right before shark-cage diving

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Rugby

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The only sign in my village that says the name of it! It’s on a cell tower

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Maletsunyane Falls at Semonkong

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Hiking to the bottom of the falls

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African penguins!

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Approaching Cape Point

In which Emily learns how to let go of needing recognition

There have been plenty of times during the past two and a half years when I have gotten more credit than I deserve.

  • From my supervisor: “You are very busy, I know.”

(when scheduling an appointment)

Meanwhile, this conversation is the only actual work I’ve had all week.

  • From a youth cooperator: “We would never have had this success without your guidance and support.”

(after telling me that his co-op planted a hectare of potatoes)

Meanwhile, the last meeting I had with this cooperative was months ago, when they told me they were putting their project on hold due to the drought. We never discussed potatoes.

  • From a teacher at my primary school: “You are very generous to sacrifice two years during which you could have been earning money.”

(after I explained what Peace Corps is)

Meanwhile, my college degree qualifies me for zero practical things, I was lucky to get the job I had between graduation and Peace Corps, and in all likelihood would otherwise have spent these years at an unpaid internship.

  • From you, probably, at one point or another: “Emily is a good person because she is helping needy people in Africa.”

(NB: Africa is not a country. I was in Lesotho.)

Meanwhile, I didn’t have any work today so I napped and re-read Harry Potter. You’re welcome for my valuable contribution, people of Lesotho.

Basotho culture tends to favor telling someone what they want to hear over blunt honesty, hence all the (what comes across as) sucking up.

I’ve also noticed that my being a foreigner, especially an American, inspires an undue deference. America has provided a substantial amount of aid to Lesotho, which is no secret to Basotho. Every clinic, school, or government building that we paid for has a big sign in front that says “Provided by: THE AMERICAN PEOPLE,” or sometimes just “Provided by: AMERICAN PEOPLE” (which American people? Am I one of them? Would I know if I were one of them? Who would tell me if I were one of them?) The U.S. Ambassador and his role in this country are generally well-known. One time a Mosotho referred to him as “Our father.” So it seems that there’s some inferiority complex stuff going on in Lesotho’s national psyche. It’s not a difficult thought trail to trace:

The signs everywhere say we have necessary infrastructure because of Americans

This girl is American

 

She helped build this clinic or whatever

I forget what it is exactly she says she does here, but it’s something to do with fighting HIV, which is good

I want her to feel appreciated for building all those clinics and curing AIDS. Thanks, Ausi Mpho!

I feel weird and cringe-y during these conversations. No, this is not false modesty. I did not build any clinics or cure AIDS.

My Peace Corps experience has also hit me with the other end of this spectrum: lack of recognition. Due to the above stated reasons I tend to dismiss recognition from Basotho. The only sources I would pay any heed to would be my supervisor or counterpart, and any back-patting goes both ways with them, as they work with me in everything I accomplish. So that leaves my other bosses- Peace Corps. The nature of the system of Peace Corps is that, if all goes well, you don’t interact with staff very much. Under normal circumstances, a Volunteer who is resilient, resourceful, and integrated won’t need to rely on PC staff to fix problems that arise at site. Support from post staff comes in the form of resolving issues, so when you don’t have any, or you take care of them yourself, you don’t hear from them. I think this is a good system. I feel much more accountable to my host organization than Peace Corps, which is appropriate as my work affects my host community, not the office in Maseru.

PC Lesotho does have ways of congratulating PCVs who are doing successful projects. These usually come in the form of “shout-outs” in emails or our monthly newsletter. Shout-outs are fun and let you know what other PCVs are up to. I am not anti-shout-out. The problem with them is that they favor PCVs who are doing projects like putting on a testing event, or a gender camp, or a sports tournament. It’s easy to congratulate someone for something that can be summed up in one sentence. It’s like a verbal photo-op. Additionally, these kinds of projects usually offer the best literal photo-ops. However, they’re also the least sustainable kind of projects PCVs can do. Even if you strive for sustainability within the event (train counterparts to organize future events, seek local funding instead of a grant), it is inherently not sustainable because it’s a one-off thing. I have organized events like these (GLOW Camp, BRO Camp, Youth Forum), and I still consider them worthwhile, but I do not think they will have the longest-lasting impact out of my projects here.

It’s the not-flashy, not photo-op-y work that was the most important. Shout-out for figuring out the grant-writing software! Shout-out for looking over the account books of that mushroom-growing cooperative! Shout-out for facilitating a really great class discussion about whether sex is a right or a privilege! And oftentimes the little stuff was the stuff I was most excited about. Shout-out for helping one of your herd boy computer students to finally get the difference between right and left-click! Shout-out for memorizing all your students’ names! Shout-out for using a new word in Sesotho!

Grassroots work tends to be more about the small-scale, slow-moving projects. And the work I did during my service was very grassroots-driven. I did not receive any shout-outs from PC staff. At first this was discouraging. I knew I was doing good work – why couldn’t they see it? I’ve always gotten positive feedback from bosses and supervisors in my past work experiences. It was hard not to feel resentful towards the Volunteers who got shout-out after shout-out. It was hard not to feel resentful towards staff that seemed to be ignoring me. I had moments when I questioned whether I actually was doing a good job, and more moments when I considered dropping what I was doing so I could focus on planning a testing event, or something of that ilk. But then I had some important realizations:

  1. Focusing on a shout-out-bait project was not what was right for my community.
  2. Chasing results over accolades makes me a good Volunteer.
  3. Radio silence from staff means that I’m well-integrated, resourceful, and resilient
  4. Which is further evidence that I’m a good Volunteer.
  5. I am not a child who needs their teacher to validate their efforts in class. Do I really need a shout-out to feel rewarded by my work?

The answer was no, I didn’t. Bonus cool thing: When you value your own opinion of yourself over others’, you gain confidence in your judgment and abilities. Letting go of the need for recognition isn’t about being defiant or shitting on the accomplishments of others. For me, it was about straightening out my priorities, and understanding things as they really were.

Some students and I painted a world map mural on a wall at school:

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Painting the ocean

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Drawing the grid

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Painting: Day 1

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Day 2

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Day 3

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Day 4

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Day 5

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Day 6

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Day 7

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My supervisor with the map

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Day 8

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!

:

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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