Will the real Pontso please stand up? Yup, that’s my name… (Early July)

Let’s get one thing clear: Africa is damn cold. Freezing, in fact. Imagine being scrunched up in a cold-weather sleeping bag with three heavy Aranda blankets piled on top. When I wake up at 6:30 in the morning, the air is still nippy at 37 degrees—inside. Unless I can remember high school physics to convert thermal energy into kinetic energy (I came up with the brilliant plan to create a heat-distributing fan powered by thermal energy from our gas-powered heaters), I will be dragging my heater everywhere like a dog on a short leash.
As far as I can see, Lesotho has been an agrarian society for quite a long time. With the onslaught of missionaries and other foreign influence coupled with the onset of globalization, the system seems to be buckling. It’s like watching a fight between an industrial and agrarian society. Who will reign supreme (sorry, I couldn’t resist)?
We are currently in community-based training, where we live in villages with Basotho families. The national outfit seems to be gumboots for men, boots for women (and a skirt), beanies and—their trademark—the traditional Basotho blanket wrapped around as a thick cape. Those things are very warm, and good thing, too. The other night, it snowed. In Africa.
My 11 year-old abuti (brother) would have made the perfect ad for Save the Children the other night. He was warming his hands against a paraffin lamp because they didn’t have enough paraffin for their heater and the store was understandably out in light of the sudden snowfall. His clothing was of little help in that freezing evening; his gumboots and pants had begun to resemble Swiss cheese.
But it’s nothing like Save the Children depictions. If you click on the television, it’s fairly obvious that Africa is showcased in the bulk of nonprofit ads. Scampering through them are emaciated children wearing rags and burrowing through piles of needles in search of toys. Narrators talk about orphans and vulnerable children, how at 90 cents per day, Americans can cover school fees and provide clean water. Narratives of Africa eliciting pity and guilt have become familiar to our international consciousness.
But being here, it becomes fairly obvious that there is little to pity, even in light of different societies. I remember my high school psychology teacher once sharing that in the days he was a limousine driver, he noticed that the rich think we of any other class are another species entirely. Similar, right? What I want to call into question is how we’ve embedded this scale to evaluate other people’s living conditions. We often forget how over-sanitized, over-immunized and under-tenderized we are to the forces of nature. The human body can handle a lot more than we give it credit for, just as a person living in California can feel as cold during a 45-degree winter as a person in Ohio at 25 above zero. Otherwise, how else would the Basotho have made it through so many winters?
It gets complicated when you then consider what we’re doing here. Yes, I would personally prefer the thermostat set at 75, and I think the stereotype (at least I assume it is such for PC) is to want to offer instantaneous relief when we see those in pain. How does that really help? We’ve inflated the pain they feel. It’s hardly noticeable to them and once at a certain threshold, a great many things are relative.
Consider the Basotho and dish detergent. It’s something that we Americans take for granted but is relatively expensive here. Basotho would rather spend their chelete (money) on other things, but when they do acquire a bit, they gun through it rather than spacing it out. Amenities come from economic wealth. When economic wealth increases, each culture decides its preference of amenities and their importance. Each culture adjusts to their choices with time.
When people immigrate to more economically wealthy countries, invariably, even at the lowest end, they often have more amenities at hand than they would have wherever they are from. It’s about understanding relativity, cost of living (what that means) and what is standard.
It’s interesting, though, realizing what constitutes rich in another country. One of the other trainees in Youth & Small Business Development, Abuti Thabiso Semethe (we all got Sesotho names) lives with a family with a water pump in their front yard. They don’t have to walk to the EU-funded pump across town to fill up their water buckets. Their roof is made of concrete and overlaid with a corrugated metal sheet, which means that the morning following snowfall, his tin roof did not rain on him. That’s right—it rained in our rooms. I must also admit that I found myself feeling jealous of his sibling’s soccer ball. A good number of families also have solar panels. Ultimately, though, the lack of electricity, running water and flushing toilets are the easiest things to adjust to when we take into account that cultural integration and cross-cultural communication will become crucial to our two years here.

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~ by dennetmint on August 5, 2007.

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