Is Peace Corps a Non Sequitur?

•June 26, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I wrote this entry a while ago, intending at the time to spam all my friends and every listserv possible in the same rush of urgency that I was swept up in. Back in October, I had just finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and once more felt that familiar and unsettling thought emerge: The incongruity in the international action of that monolith known as the American government and the general goodwill that its citizens have toward other cultures, and what it all means. This time I was able to get it down in words.

This will be the last entry I post in Circle of Influence. I had wanted, originally, to add entries about a society struggling with Western wealth, the juxtaposition of extensive red-brick compounds towering over mud huts and tin shacks, the downfalls of both individualism and community-oriented societies, of women. But in all the empty days I’ve had since returning have been emotional matches that I’ve sometimes won and sometimes lost. It’s time to close this out. A year after I embarked on my Peace Corps service and five months after returning, we can finally consider this blog finished.

Is Peace Corps a Non Sequitur?
Written 17 October 2007

During training, I admitted to a friend that I have never been especially patriotic, so wasn’t it a little odd that I had always wanted to do Peace Corps? I wondered what it really meant to join Peace Corps, especially with the international perception of our government. “Too late,” she quipped. “You’re already in.”
Something didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. This organization was a misfit, possibly being one of the only undisputedly good things to come from the U.S. government. Since we had even considered applying to Peace Corps, we had practically been bludgeoned to death with the following: Above all, our presence is diplomatic. Regardless of personal failures or successes, the essence of Peace Corps is to represent the American people.
That’s it. No other guidelines. As volunteers, we learn to balance ourselves as individuals and as reflections of the American public, but I often wonder whether Host Country Nationals understand that each of us represent only a slice of our vast and varying cultures.
As Americans, we live in a country of dual cultural spheres, intertwined a la venn diagram: the corporate and political, and the more personal sphere that frays into thousands of subcultures. The latter we know as our daily lives, but in so many ways, it draws its sustenance from the former in what amounts to binary relationships: old money and nouveau-riche, yuppies and hipsters, bohemians and hippies, hawks and reactionaries. Even such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Habitat for Humanity and the National Rifle Association find their counterpoint or harmony in the first.
Yet despite ideology, every American has an inkling that our society is tinged. Regardless of its guile, beneath the surface, our country smacks of corporate-political collusion and a system that, at the very least, borders on imperialism. The power and reach of this partnership is too frighteningly vast for any of us to contemplate in its entirety because, despite sacrifices and redirected decisions–perhaps to buy a hybrid, to boycott Nike, to drink only fair trade, to question weapons of mass destruction—we are the nodes that hold this hyper-marketed web together. None of us believe we can extricate ourselves from this system and still live in America.

Corporate-political machinations still click their way out of America via keyboards and phone calls, but thousands of miles away, there are so many other things for Peace Corps volunteers to consider in our quest for cultural middleground. In the moment, similarities can go unnoticed or be taken as givens while differences take on mind-boggling proportions. The world is still turning and current events move on without us. But what can we do? We spend idle hours melting into ourselves to survive the Peace Corps experience. We pull our emotional selves through with small victories: constructing a bookshelf out of cinder blocks, improvising a candle holder out of a plastic bottle, chopping up chocolate bars in the absence of chocolate chips. We move on to bigger victories: starting libraries in local communities, helping a weaver’s group connect with an international market, extending service an extra year for the sake of a couple of promising students. Do these projects make an impact? I met a man in Maseru who works as a sales associate in a furniture store. He still remembers the Peace Corps volunteer who lived in his village when he was a child. One of my co-workers fondly recalled the Peace Corps volunteer assigned to teach permaculture at his agricultural college.
But then comes the bigger question: In light of American policies and international actions, and in light of the few number of Americans who complete Peace Corps tours, how would Peace Corps volunteers represented Americans?
It feels as though if Host Country Nationals were really to sit and think about it, there’s no other way to view Americans except as well-intentioned, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed idiots.
It took a collage of articles, images, radio casts and books to bring me to conclusions, of conversations, inspirations and disappointments all mashed together. Peace Corps volunteers, as individuals, eventually find a way to turn off their community’s ideas that Americans live “Days of our Lives.” But the American government—toppling and installing new regimes, brokering WTO power—which also represents the American people, is a reality and incongruity to the Peace Corps mission: representing Americans while also helping with sustainable development. In the campaign field and in office, American politicians continue to defer their responsibilities to the environment for their greed, they essentially put their responsibilities to us on the backburner for a brief carouse of power. The decisions made on our behalf rob nations of their resources and wealth and worse, of their survival and culture. Media paint sub-par candidates as heroes because we have no real heroes to play out our desire for a modern-day fairytale.

The fact is, at the end of two years, Peace Corps volunteers return to American or move on to other things. Have Peace Corps volunteers done their part in making a difference? You betcha. But what does it mean, some ask, when volunteers profess a philosophy of international cooperation that is limited to two years abroad?
It isn’t the act of leaving that suggests abandonment, it is whether our society as a whole is about to change things after some of us have seen close-up the consequences of our decisions on the international (really, local) level. At that point, it isn’t only the Peace Corps volunteer’s responsibility to fulfill a commitment to the rest of the world. Peace Corps tours cannot possibly outpace the actions of the American government, American companies, American “national interests.” It is up to the rest of America—American citizens—to back us up. Peace Corps tours only take on their full significance if Peace Corps volunteers represent a promise: That all our actions, government or personal, will be a representation of our goodwill and the next generation is going to change things.

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•June 12, 2008 • Leave a Comment

My reasons for leaving are personal and will not be divulged in this entry. The purpose of this entry is both for therapeutic reasons and also to give others a taste of what it could be like to experience culture shock the other way around: in your own country.

Here’s what I’ve learned about readjusting: It comes in waves. It’s not often clear up front just all the things PCVs must readjust to, and a lot of it will ultimately depend on our own values and interests, what countries we served in and what habits of mind we developed as a response to our placements. In the first couple of days I just felt off-kilter in knowing that I was different but also being hyper-vigilant in what obstacles I might face during readjustment. This is some of what it’s been like thus far.

The first couple of days after coming back wasn’t anything earth shattering. At first I just felt indignant about how often everyone wanted to take me out to restaurants, simply how often we ate out. As we neared the end of each meal, I’d glance around the table and notice all the partially filled or untouched glasses of water. Thinking what a waste it was, I’d check my own glass and pour any remaining water into the Nalgene I still took everywhere. Walking up a hill on a very narrow strip to fill a 5L bucket had made water very precious to me. I was still in the habit of letting dishes pile till they brimmed over the basin to get the most out each wash.
The most immediate and striking difference I noticed in myself had to do with news media. BBC News, The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review were my home pages for three years prior to Peace Corps, and now I just couldn’t wait to navigate away from them as soon as my web browser opened. NPR was probably what I missed most during my time abroad. It had been my soundtrack, the first noise to wake me up in the morning and the last as I set my alarm on sleep mode before bed. One of the other volunteers knew that I didn’t have a radio, and when she COS-ed, she left me her low frequency radio. I spent hours coaxing the dial back and forth, screaming with joy when I finally found a garbled reception of Voices of America. It was as close to international news as I was going to get, and I missed NPR fiercely. I had even asked my boyfriend to send me CDs with podcasts of my favorite radio shows but those came far in between. He had also assigned himself to sending me a couple issues of Mother Jones every month.
Several layovers, 20-some odd hours later and over 9,000 miles away from Maseru, my access to news had 180-ed. The paradox here is that many volunteers serve because of the chance to have a better understanding of the world, but while we pedal through our service, we’re also almost completely deprived of outside information. Americans are often typified as being the least globally conscious of the Western world, but regardless we are constantly plugged into networks of information. I knew as I got off the plane that I could once again drench myself in news, but now I wasn’t certain I was ready for it. This 24 hour-access, CNN world seemed more an assault on my senses than anything else.
These were perhaps the easiest things to get over. Then I moved to Portland, OR.

I’ve wanted to live in Portland for quite a while. It was one of my goals in college to live in a place where I could bike or walk to work. I had first gotten the idea of living in Portland when one of my musician friends told me what a great scene it was for music. Gradually I heard about the bike culture, how environmentally conscious the city seems to be. Most of all, it was a small town feel in a big city, and that was that. It made it into my Top 25 of things to do.
What a time to move though. Almost immediately the change took hold. I noticed I was afraid most of the time. Of people. Of men. Of the canvassers standing on street corners.They were the worst. “Smile! Why don’t you smile?! It’s such a lovely day!” In fact, it was overcast and grey with a chance of showers on your umbrella-less ass, I wanted to say.
My instinct was to glare, and I’m afraid that the homeless standing in front of the grocery stores got the worst of it. After all this time I had been looking down everywhere I walked, trying to get from Point A to B as fast as humanly possible. Making eye contact for me had been largely disastrous in Lesotho. It was asking for trouble. But here were people who pleaded with their eyes and the only thing I could think of to protect myself was to glare. I always managed to look back on the ground before that glare came to complete fruition, but there it is. Glaring at the homeless. The poor and hungry.
But the worst days, and they came six days a week for more than a couple of months, I was afraid to go outside. It was a big deal for me. I spent hours beforehand drumming myself up. When I finally walked out the door, all I could feel was panic. My cheeks were burning and I wanted to move as fast as possible. Could everybody tell something was wrong with me?
I was especially afraid of men, and it was a distinct sense of fear. Of sheer and utter terror, actually. I didn’t want them to look at me. I wanted to be a flash, a blur that they couldn’t take notice of. The bike was my invisible cloak. Too fast to be noticed, too fast for details. Walking with a familiar crowd was a bit better, but I was still too scared to look side-to-side as we went down NW 21st. I was afraid, I once tried to explain, of how they would look at me. That look in their eyes, of arrogance, of cockiness, as though they thought they owned me. I felt suspicious of every male I had not previously known well, even of some acquaintances prior to Lesotho and good friends of friends. Prior to all of this, I had spent seven months constantly dealing with the topic of sex. Gender. Being a nontraditional female in Basotho culture. Men had beckoned to me across the fields. They had told me they’d go “easy” on me because I was young. They had tried to touch me and take photos of me. Some had berated me for my ethnicity while simultaneously proposing marriage. Get my number. Followed me. Insisted that we would have a sexual relationship in the future. Handed me big sticks to “think about at night.” Chased me across fields. Some of them were coworkers.
Women did this too. They often told me how I would be stolen by a man and forced to become his wife; my pleas would be useless in a court of law. They proposed for their absent sons and brothers.
In all cultures we have habits of courtship. Flirtation, if you will. But I had never been in a culture where I felt first and foremost as a sexual object. So naturally, I was afraid of men.
One way to look at dressing up is as a form of flirtation. This is true of living in Northwest Portland: east of the West Hills, west of the Pearl and sandwiched between 21st and “Trendy-Third.” For me, “dressed up” meant beyond sweat pants and a nondescript t-shirt. More than just a hoodie. Putting on clip-ons, for instance, was my version of dressing up. Seeing everyone walk around all nice and pretty, sometimes I just wanted to look nice too. But I thought I noticed more men turning their heads, and that frightened me into a baggy sweats submission.
I felt socially awkward. I didn’t know what to say to anybody anymore. Each night I went out, I made what I thought was a string of social blunders: Not talking enough, bringing up inappropriate subjects with people I didn’t know intimately, blurting out awkward sentences. A lot of this was probably in my head, but I was not used to being shy and silent. I had always been known for being able to talk through any situation, and that made me want to pluck up my courage all the more and force myself to speak.
I was so fragmented. Shattered and broken. I didn’t know what I cared about anymore. What issues, larger than myself, was I willing to fight for? I had no purpose. I had no personality. I would never be normal again. Never have the same energy again. I wanted to hide. People were enervating and I had lost all the things about myself I had once treasured.
My days were empty.

It’s hard to describe just how complete this feeling of despair and struggle was. There’s really no way to over-dramatize it. I’m still trying to figure out how it began to change.
It had been four months since I returned and I was still struggling. I wrote to my boss and asked her if it was normal to take as long as I had to readjust. Peace Corps Medical gives three vouchers for counseling for all COSers. I hadn’t used any because they are essentially useless. Three sessions? Three hours: One to explain what happened to you, one to explain how you felt, one to explain where you are now. And where are you by the end of it? In the same place with no advice and three hours of emotional energy wasted. Maria assured me that four months was fine, that of course I felt scared. I had been in a country for seven months adjusting to completely different cultural cues.
One day I was talking to a good friend online. She was traveling around Europe and had just stopped in Istanbul. What’s it like? I had always wanted to go there. The idea of figs, apricots, spices and beautiful mosaics enchanted me like they’ve probably enchanted the rest of the world. I asked her a string of questions about her favorite stop thus far, including what most shocked her.
“Well, the biggest thing has been how hard it is to swallow all your feminist bents when all the men are like, ‘Yes please’ and whatever when you walk by them. They just want you to buy their shit, but they’d never never dare say so much as an unsolicited ‘how are you?’ to a local woman–or an obviously Muslim/Middle Eastern woman. So mostly you just want to turn around and go ‘Fuck you, Buddy, lay off!’ but you know they won’t get it.”
Her experience began to sound like my own.
“You cannot people-watch, it’s impossible, except for kids and women,” she said.
And suddenly it clicked for me. That’s the difference. Ours is a people-watching society. It’s okay to look at other people in our culture and not feel like they expect something in return because we all do it. In my mind, that was the beginning. When things started to be okay.

This is not to say that Lesotho wasn’t wonderful, but recovery is always from the bad stuff, the bad marks on your credit line that follow you for years. I had days there when I asked myself whether I wasn’t lowering my standards of happiness and days when I felt just how welcoming the culture could be. My experience is a conglomeration of internal and external factors–my convictions, their cultural homogeneity, Globalism exacerbating racial tensions, my sex and gender, their perceived gender roles and ultimately, the needs that I must address to remain happy and functional.
I look at the pictures of other PCVs sometimes and wish I could see Lesotho the way they do and the way I once did. I have people and things I miss. Like the wind plastering me to the top of the haystack of rocks behind my house. Like the bells konking together as the sheep climb the hills. Like one of my coworkers from the Ministry of Environment who spent a lot of time telling me about his travels to Israel and what the Basotho have to learn from them. My ausi, who wants to become a doctor and was shy the same way that I became shy. The volunteers who offered their time to me, to catch me up on permaculture. My teachers, who spent some of their personal time tutoring me on language because they wanted me to reach the “advanced” level. Like my ‘m’e, who shares the same birthday as me.

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‘M’e Majimisi Machai

•May 28, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I left Lesotho for various reasons, compounded and cinched by the fact that I was developing health issues due to the high elevation. I was told that these issues would begin to reverse upon coming back to the States but would only worsen if I stayed in Lesotho. When I left, the one thing I regretted was not being able to say goodbye to ‘M’e Jimi, the interim Associate Peace Corps Director during CHED ’07’s training while PC-Washington was busy cutting through red tape to ferry Maria (current APCD) over.
Two things that I was known for in the Peace Corps office were being the “daughter” of the chief of Menkhoaneng, which gave way to “Princess” as my nickname, and an over-exaggerated love of chocolate. Especially Cadbury Hazelnut and Rum & Raisin. And Biscuit. And Fruits & Nuts.
‘M’e Jimi was visiting the States, and upon her return to Lesotho, she found me gone. She wrote this email, never asking for any explanations, and it meant a lot to me. Ke ntse ke u hopola, ‘M’e Jimi!

Lumela Ausi,
U phela joang? Ke maketse, ke tsoa li holiday ke fumana u le sieo. So how are you doing? I was all excited and brought you some mofao from the States – your favorite chocolate at least the real one this time cheehe! Anyways I hope and think for whatever decisions you came to for returning to the States are good for you, as you know I will always support you.

It was really nice working with you, and thanks for all your effort and dedications during your work in Lesotho.

Keep well

Translation of Sesotho:

Hello, Ausi
How are you? I was surprised, I came from holiday to discover you had left…

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Re: “Too Many Innocents Abroad,” by Robert L. Strauss (Op-Ed, Jan. 9)

•January 17, 2008 • 1 Comment
Published in The New York Times: January 9, 2008
The Peace Corps finds itself less and less able to provide what the people of developing countries need — at a time when the U.S. has never had a greater need for their good will.

I stumbled upon this piece a day late, so I don’t know that my letter would be considered for publication. Here’s what I wrote:

To the Editor:

Robert Strauss wrote, “young volunteers lack the maturity and professional experience to be effective development workers in the 21st century.” I was one of those young volunteers, a tour I chose to cut short but hardly because I was inexperienced. I thought exactly what Strauss wrote when I was in Peace Corps training, wondering what I had to offer those I would eventually serve. Within my several months as a Peace Corps volunteer, I realized that as Americans, we like to do things big; we equivocate titles, status, and big machinery with legitimacy and effectiveness. Part of development means working to a point where development workers are unnecessary. PCVs are not replaced at certain sites indefinitely. The focus should be on empowering and equipping host country nationals to help their communities, not setting new precedents that cannot be met once PCVs no longer travel through.

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Letsatsi le leng le le leng (Each and every day)

•December 28, 2007 • 3 Comments

On the bad days…

…people scream “hieee!” and “ni hao,” and even those who have been educated ask whether all the Chinese are convicts and Lesotho acts as China’s Australia. A priest insinuates that you have no religion because you’re Chinese, and when he’s informed you are an American, he suggests that faithlessness is embedded in your genes.

…assuming your nationality, men on the kombi blame you for their lack of economic opportunity all the while proposing marriage. Then they stick their fingers between the seats to try to touch your ass.

…it is not a question of resources, but people come to your doorstep to beg for food and money, knowing you have none to spare. It continues to the point that you feel too scared to leave your house.

…co-workers sexually and verbally harass you, and you have nowhere to turn as you weigh the detriment to yourself versus the community you serve.

…those from other NGOs threaten their help to you and your community because you refuse to abuse your privileges or the policies that govern your opportunity to be in-country.

…a gaggle of bo-ausi, growing in number, trail you for an hour while whispering and giggling to themselves, unable to pluck up enough courage to actually communicate with you.

…after holding a pitso (community gathering) in which you promise the community you will try your best to serve them and ask for help during the life of a particular project, people grumble that you have no immediate solutions for starvation or subsistence farming and counter with the question, “how do you expect us to work without compensation?”

On the good days…

…a 7-year old girl finds fifty lisenti (equivalent to 7¢) and offers to buy you a drinki from the local shop.

…after hearing through the grapevine that you were pursued by a bunch of herd boys across an empty field, a ‘m’e accompanies you two hours to your destination. Upon reaching a stream heightened by recent storms, she takes mental note of your sandals to her gum boots, squats and commands you to jump on her back.

…following a wet trek back to site, you place your hiking boots on the porch for later clean-up. An nkhono sees your muddy shoes sitting out, stoops down and, with only her fingers and the puddle in front of her, she wipes them clean.

…without solicitation, several little boys gather stones 30 pounds each for two hours to help construct your keyhole garden. One of the bo-ntate gives you a couple bundles of thatch he had meant for building his rondaval.

…the kombi pulls over on the side of the road, backs in and out for the perfect angle. The driver gets out and personally lifts a man limp from HIV/AIDS from his seat to his destination.

…after returning from a smoldering 4-hour roundtrip, a ‘m’e invites you in and pushes a new umbrella into your hand, warning you that you need to be careful about getting too much sun.

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Living in Lesotho: First of the series in three sketches

•November 18, 2007 • 2 Comments

22 Sept. 2007

Since arriving at site, I have attended three mekethe. Mekethe are feasts that people throw, sometimes because of something special and sometimes for no reason at all. The whole village is invited, and they serve food from noon till evening with plenty of leftovers so that a mokethe could even spill into the next day or day after.
Usually on the night before, the hosting family will slaughter a cow or sheep. Although nama (meat) is the showcase of the next day’s festivities (Basotho love their nama), other side dishes and staples include all of the following: rice, semp, papa (like white polenta, only ground finer and looks like mashed potato), bread, carrot salad, beet root salad, moroho (usually Swiss chard or cabbage), sauce and either mashed potato or a potato salad. Every once in a while, there’ll be mokopu, a mashed butternut squash that takes hours to prepare well. Leading up to the coveted feasting time, the bo-ntate will chat and smoke outside while the bo-‘m’e are preparing each plate inside. At the first mokethe I went to, blue plastic dishes tiled the floor, and their geometry was reminiscent of a bubbling ocean splashed with thick oranges, choppy greens, yellows and striated browns. There were at least 40 dishes sitting in wait, and as each one was served, another took its place so that at least 100 people must have been fed during my hour and a half in attendance.
After the meal, two men entered the kitchen—truly the women’s domain—with the lingering smell of an unspliced joint they had smoked earlier. After paying their respects to the matron, they proceeded to spoon out snuff, followed by chewing tobacco, into each ‘m’e and nkhono’s (grandmother) cupped hands. I refused my share, to which one of the bo-‘m’e scolded me, why didn’t you just take it and then give it to me? And yet, of the 10-15 bo-‘m’e and bo-nkhono lining the bed where the matron and some young children sprawled, I saw only one of them snuffing it up. The rest divided plastic bags into pieces to wrap up their drugs, almost like party favors.
Next, they brought out the joala—Basotho-brewed beer. Joala is made mostly from ground sorgum, and as it takes no combination of big machines, unfathomable heat or any closely guarded secrets, most everyone makes it. It’s thick and actually a bit sour. The combination of texture and flavor masks the taste of alcohol, but regardless, it is disgusting.
Around 4:30 is when the bo-ntate have had enough joala to loosen up. The crowd will clear an area near a patch of 3-5 cast-iron pots, where food has been cooking all day, and someone will break out the radio. Basotho music is full of cow bell chimes and an overemphasized beat layered with a male vocal performing what closely resembles a recitative. But screaming. And on the dance floor are many more men than women who, if you can believe it, dance worse than the stereotypical white person. I had to stop and ask myself, am I really in Africa?
The second mokethe I attended was on the same day as the first, and the third was about two weeks after. A t the end of each day, the same, extremely plastered woman approached me.
“This is my husband,” she told me, pointing to a skinny man standing nearby. In both instances, they were heading home. In the first, my ‘m’e and I were likewise heading home. After some unintelligible jibber-jabber, she grabbed me and kissed me on the lips. Twice. As though grabbing breasts weren’t already an awkward enough expression between women in this society, now a schnockered woman was also slamming me into her lips. After the last feast, there was an urgent knocking on my door, and there she was, as belligerent as ever, and her husband in the shadows. Thank God for Peace Corps’ requirement of burglar bars, I thought, because there’s no way she’s comfortably forcing her lips through those.
Every time I have prepared to go home from a feast, the host or hostess insists that I take something despite how much I might protest: I already have food that will spoil, I can’t finish a whole loaf of bread before it goes bad, can’t I just take half? Not an option. Their generosity is stunning and is a relief where everyday, I’m stormed by requests for food, money, candy, &c. despite my cries that I have none of these things, at least none to spare. I’ve taken to telling people that sweets are bad for the teeth, I never cook and that I’m just as poor without a salary—to the disbelief of all.
The best feasts have been when I have a relationship with the hosting family. As the Peace Corps volunteer, I’m expected to “grace” each mokethe, but it’s the best to see how the family members protect me from drunk bo-ntate and their banter, or how the hosting ‘m’e, who has been serving others all day, finally sits down to her own meal at 5 p.m. and how clear it is that underneath her exhaustion, she’s beaming.


26 October 2007

Ausi Thebello is such a cutie-pie! She’s been creeping up on our yard for the last couple of days, always so shy. She visited once with Ausi Lisebo, one of the primary school teachers. I asked her how old she was, and she started hiding different parts of her face behind her hands.
The girl’s four. When I ask her, “Ho joang?” (What’s up), she freezes and smiles.
Today, she sat at the edge of our yard in the cold staring as I washed laundry. After about an hour, she had summoned enough courage to stand at the corner of my house and babble something incoherent. Ausi Thebello (te-BE-lo, means “expectation”) picked up a FANTA pineapple can, came up to me and asked where my camera was. I told her I had no battery left, but if she’d buy me some, I’d gladly take her picture (my response to everyone).
“Shoota! Shoota! Joalo ka ena!” she said, bringing the brilliant yellow can to her eye. Talk about striking a pose. She charmed me and I instantly broke out the camera. Here was a four year-old teaching me how to work a shot!
I asked her if she wanted to learn how to take pictures.
“Tlelase ea pele,” I declared. “Etsa matsoho a hau joalo ka na.”
I spread my thumbs and index fingers, forming a box. Lesson one: framing. It took a while, and in the end, I don’t know whether she understood she should do the same for practice. My own very real camera died as I was recording her confused recitation.

Ausi Thebello helped carry my laundry in. She was cold, so I draped my blanket around her. She wanted to look at my books and found herself reading English and Thai upside-down, a skill I have yet to master. She asked me to play her music, so I played Ella Fitzgerald. I began to sing along.
“U rata ho bina?” I asked.
Ausi Thebello did not like to sing. She did, however, like to dance. I invited her to take the floor with a couple of random moves, a twirl. She smiled and jumped off the chair.
“Sheba! Sheba!” she cried, doing what resembled a hula dance. We traded moves for about 10 minutes before I started cleaning. She’d run in and out of my house, sit down and watch me clean, leap off her chair every once in a while and command me to “sheba” as she danced.
“Ausi!” I applauded. “U jaifa hantle! Brava!”
Then Ausi Thebello did a twirl. She wanted to dance just like me, she explained.


17 Nov. 2007

We couldn’t afford to do pizza, so we thought we’d go for one of those traditional Basotho dishes, where slabs of papa are stacked on high, flanked by a hunky side of nama. My friend and I entered a lijong (restaurant), our two other friends trailing behind, and I was immediately shocked: Here was a snake of a line connecting the front entrance, the produce section, winding around the food counter to the register and medicine cabinet, and composed entirely of Basotho. The ones dishing out the food—of which Basotho take great pride—were the most loathed group in Lesotho: the Machaina (Chinese).
It would be difficult to spot a storefront in Lesotho that isn’t owned by the Machaina or Maindia (Indians). These two groups run supermarkets, cosmetic shops, warehouses, hardware and furniture stores, and the Machaina are especially resented for also being factory owners. In fact, the resentment is so pungent that political parties have attempted their presence as a rallying point—expel the exploitive Chinese from the country. Basotho grumble that Chinese own everything, yet do nothing to boycott Chinese-sold goods or start their own businesses.
The resentment the Basotho hold has transcended nationality to encompass anyone who looks East Asian. Peace Corps volunteers of East Asian descent are at a greater risk than other volunteers of being physically assaulted in public, being harassed, becoming the target of petty crimes as well as having cries of help ignored.
Before we were even close enough to place our orders, a Chinese man standing behind the counter approached us.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“No, Ntate. We’re just waiting to order,” we replied.
Then he turned to me. “You look like you’re Chinese or something.”
Or something? This has always proven a puzzling question to me, one that I am not sure how to answer when any Chinese approaches or lurks behind me, as they often do from the novelty of my fresh face. When I enter their shops, I’m uncertain whether to greet in Sesotho, English or Chinese, not wanting to presume their nationality, already knowing that most Machaina speak a pidgin Sesotho and being uncertain whether they have learned English.
“She’s ABC,” my friend answered.
“American-born-Chinese,” I clarified.
Immediately happy to meet me, the man explained that he was the owner of the lijong, along with four of the grocery stores in Botha-Bothe Camptown. He was the president of Lesotho’s Chinese Society and also held high-ranking positions with many other Chinese-centered organizations. All his shops were ones that volunteers in Butha-Buthe District frequent. Excited to meet this entrepreneur, we joked that he should open a shop stocked with Chinese items—sesame oil, soy sauce, cellophane noodles—all the things we are used to as Americans, as well as an actual Chinese restaurant. We’d be his patrons, we declared.
“Can’t do it, no market,” he explained. But he handed us his business card; if we ever needed anything, including Chinese food, he’d gladly bring it from Maseru or South Africa for us. We were stunned by his generosity and, to top it off, lunch was on the house.
I returned home that day and reflected on all the times that the Machaina have been kind to me, protective of me since I arrived in Butha-Buthe District. Those in the bedding store who gave me R60 discounts. A girl at the supermarket who overwhelms me with candy and trinkets she thinks are pretty, even once presenting me with a clock framed by a porcelain shepherdess holding a cane. So she can keep you company up in the mountains, the girl had explained.
There is a definite current of animosity between the Basotho and Machaina, and as a look-alike, I’ve been swept up in it. But the thing is, despite that I am caught in the whirl, contemplating identity politics has never seemed more pointless in any place I’ve been. The irony, of course, is that it should be relevant when the majority of the country staunchly shares one ethnicity. Rather, what I often wonder is just where I fit in. As Basotho scream at me, speak in nasally tones, jostle me on my sprints through the taxi rank, I yell back at them, “Ha ke lechaina.” I am not Chinese. Why do I say it? Is it because I’m afraid for my safety, that I want to disassociate myself?
I was heading for a Machaina store once when I walked into a cluster of Basotho with a Chinese woman following close behind. “Lekhooa, Lekhooa (white person)!” some screamed. Others asked what my nationality was while the woman behind me was asked whether we were the same.
“Ha re tsoane,” she said.
I entered the store, which turned out to be owned by the same lady.
“Of course we’re the same,” she told me. “I just said we’re not because I didn’t want them to harrass you.”
But we’re not, I thought. I wonder, when I tell people I’m not Chinese, whether it is fear that motivates me to attempt an idea the Basotho refuse to understand or whether I make that distinction because I am trying to communicate a principle that will likewise be a waste of breath: Diversity exists, and physical appearance is not a meaning within itself.


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Puleng (In the rain…)

•October 3, 2007 • 3 Comments

27 Sept. 2007

IMHO (In my humble opinion), Menkhoaneng is still the most beautiful place i’ve seen, second only to Tsehlanyane National Park in my few romps around Lesotho. As the Peace Corps volunteer, I am not only assigned to this village of 700, but many other villages in the area as well. Considering the plethora, i’ve chosen to focus on helping at least three other villages in Hlotse Valley: Mate, Ha Khabo and Lentsoaneng.
The peach trees started blooming a couple of weeks ago, adding much needed vibrancy to the drab yellows, browns and evergreens (there are pine trees, although not indigenous). In addition to these emblems of deep pink, yellow daisies are popping up all over and the willow trees are now shaggy with leaves.
In the last several years, Lesotho’s annual rainfall has been dropping to the point where last year, a full-blown drought was declared. Two weeks ago, the Menkhoaneng Council Secretary asked me, “Do you believe in God, Ausi Pontso?” Religion here is Christian and mainstream. Prayer is a daily part of Basotho life; they bookend every meeting, school day and workday. Ntate Sam had asked every person in his acquaintance to pray for rain two Sundays following, on Sept. 23.
God got the memo three days late, but when it arrived, the rain poured. Thunder roared for hours on end and lightning cluttered the sky. Those who had tin roofs set buckets under the gutters to collect water. Clouds bubbled over from the next stretch of mountains, and some of the closer wisps looked like kites melting into the sky. With a good drenching, all colors become lush, but in Hlotse Valley, it was really the reds that took center stage. Red brush stood at attention and pine tree nettle blended with broken grass to form a red, on-land plankton. Water, stained with red mud, plunkered down the rocky terrain as miniature waterfalls. Picassos and Klimts were illuminated in the cracked rocks. They were now as visible in the facades as the rose bud stamps, the little anime thought-bubbles and record grooves I see everyday, and were I an art connoisseur, I’m sure I would have spotted more.
The rain is not so kind to the roads. Hlotse Valley is incredibly hard to reach, making the task of attracting tourists to Menkhoaneng’s future cultural village even more complicated. After only a couple of hours of steady rainfall, the roads are saturated with enough water to transform it into mush. It makes transportation, even on foot, nearly impossible.
To the Basotho, this is a small sacrifice for long-awaited rain. In the past, the rainy season started in September and ended in April. What was once eight solid months of rainfall has been reduced to, at worst, half of what it could be. This poses a huge problem for a nation that largely practices subsistence farming and has not changed its farming practices in decades, despite new problems. The Basotho wait for rain to water their crops, employing no irrigation system or water harvesting practices. They do not know how to germinate their own seeds and sometimes do not have enough money to purchase them during planting season. They’ve used chemical fertilizer since the 1930s with no real understanding of its ill-effect. The most complicated farming technique employed is the burning of fields, which clears out brush and destroys diseases, but the Basotho do it out of tradition without realizing the point. The land is splotched with dongas due to overgrazing and soil has turned into dust. Yet, the most immediate threat to the Basotho is weather change. Since income in the villages is nearly non-existent, the Basotho will have great difficulty trying to deal.
The culprit? Possibly global warmingclimate change—in which case we are witnessing only the beginning of the onslaught.

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