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

In which Emily is very much in-demand

Khotsong!

Since writing last, my work pace has picked up quite a bit! In July my counterpart and I attended a pitso, which is the equivalent of a town meeting that is called by the chief. At this pitso my counterpart introduced me to the village and announced that I would be happy to work on any community project as an advisor. This was a great experience as now most people in my village know why I am there, know that I’m not an English teacher, and best of all know my name and can stop calling me Ausi Lekhooa (White Girl). The chief of my village speaks zero English but has said some very kind things to me through translators, basically that he appreciates my presence and commitment to the village. The result of this pitso has been a parade of groups of villagers dropping by my place and requesting help with a variety of projects. I am endeavoring to become an expert in everything from beekeeping to mushroom-growing to selling handicrafts in order to be of use. It’s exciting to be so popular in my village and have work to do; now the challenge is prioritizing and setting realistic expectations.

In other news, last week PC Lesotho had an All-Volunteer Conference in which all 80+ PCVs came together, attended a development panel, had group discussions, and, most importantly, put on a talent show. Here’s me and The Band performing that crowd-favorite, “Wagon Wheel”:

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I’ve started working with a local org that offers orphans and their care-givers sewing training. One of the crafts they make are these adorable stuffed animal dogs out of traditional seshoeshoe fabric. The sales keep the training program in business and help the care-givers support their families. My counterpart calls them “puppies”. Here is one of the puppies I sold at All-Vol, sporting another volunteer’s IGA handicraft product, seshoeshoe bowtie, or bowshoeshoe:

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Bowshoeshoe are available on Etsy here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/BowShoeshoe. If you are interested in ordering a puppy, leave a comment below!

Here you can see me in the audience of a skills-sharing session about doing youth camps with very limited resources:

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Camps on life skills and gender equality are a popular PC project, but often require sponsorship by businesses or grant money in order to pay for food, chaperones, and other materials, making it a major endeavor for the PCV and counterpart. Here, PCV Superstar Beth shared her experience putting on a day camp in her village with zero sponsorship/outside financial support.

Lastly, here is a picture of the motley crew of PCVs that came together to celebrate American Independence Day, or 4th of Ju-braai, as I dubbed it (braai is South African BBQ):

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Explaining Independence Day to Basotho is fun because Lesotho was also a British colony for ~75 years. We had a wonderfully multi-cultural evening that included potluck food, beer pong, and explaining Cards Against Humanity to Basotho. Looking forward to Lesotho Independence Day on October 4th!

One more thing: I am working on a project with PC Lesotho’s Diversity Committee to make lesson plans about diversity in the US. We are collecting photos and information about a range of people. The lesson is going to show students different pictures of people, let them make assumptions, and then show them how diverse each person is. The idea is to break some stereotypes about Americans. We won’t use all the profiles, but are trying to get as much diversity as possible. If you can help or get someone else you know to help, I would really appreciate it!

I need a picture (of just you) and the answers to the following (feel free to leave any of them blank):

Name:
Age:
Gender:
Hometown:
Ethnicity:
Job:
Education:
Marriage Status:
Children:
Religion:
Favorite musical artist/song:
Favorite sport:
Favorite food (and description, if necessary):
Fun fact:

Email me your answers and photo if you’d like to participate or have any questions/suggestions: eabrown204@gmail.com.

That’s most of what I’ve been up to in the past month and a half. That, and the grant for the chicken coop project I mentioned last time. The next few weeks hold another training, this one in Grassroots Soccer, vacation to the McGregor Poetry Festival near Cape Town, and hopefully getting this grant submitted and approved. Thanks for reading!

In which Emily gets back in the game

It’s official! I have been re-sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho. My flight back over was a best possible scenario in that all the seats in my row were empty so I even got to LAY DOWN and sleep (yes!). After arriving I was picked up and brought to the PC office in Maseru where I checked in with various PC staff, then proceeded to the guesthouse to sleep off some jet lag. The next day PC drove me down to my site for a triumphant return. My room was just as I left it, but clean (my counterpart snuck in the day before to sweep, dust, and wax the floor. She’s a saint.). Unfortunately one of my four host-nuns was transferred to a different convent in my absence, but I found the other three as warmly welcoming as ever. After saying hi to them I trotted down to the school to find my counterpart. I found her in the library, where we had a brief hug-fest and exclaimed over and over how happy we were to see each other.

About a week and a half in our Country Director Wendy stopped by my camp town to officially swear me back in. Since my medical separation meant I closed my service (or COS-ed), this is technically a brand new term of service. A few PCVs from nearby came to witness this inauspicious occasion in a heartwarming show of support. I did repeat one sentence incorrectly, but hey so did Obama. Swearing in is a little strange because the oath we take is the same oath used for every government position, from a Senator to a soldier. So there isn’t anything about peace, only about protecting the Constitution from “all enemies, foreign and domestic”. In any case, I’ve said it, I’ve signed it, and now I’m officially back.

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This week my counterpart and I attended a PC workshop about designing and implementing a project. We are looking forward to realizing the project we first decided on when I arrived last year, which is a poultry project to support the orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) that attend the primary school at my site. My training group completed this workshop in February, so I went with a group of Education volunteers that swore in shortly after I left. It was an opportunity to get to know the PCVs in that group, and it turns out I’ve got some new great new neighbors to hang out with!

Returning to Lesotho feels wonderful. It’s strange that returning home to America felt so unsettling and unfair, whereas returning to this incredibly foreign land felt like I was righting a wrong in the universe. As before, day-to-day things move slowly as far as work goes, but overall my work feels cut out for me. Also as before, there are some amazing people in this country, both Basotho and American, and I’m looking forward to spending the next eighteen months working with them.