Rolling out the red carpet

•August 15, 2007 • 3 Comments

12 Aug. 2007

Congratulate me. Like such greats as Grace Kelly, Princess Di and Julia Stiles, I have grown up to be every little girl’s dream come true. I am now royalty.
Last Monday, I went for a visit to my final site, Menkhoaneng: birthplace of the founder of Lesotho. After Tsehlanyane National Park, Menkhoaneng is the most beautiful place I have seen in Lesotho. Good thing they’re both off the same dirt path. Menkhoaneng, the Place of the Monkhoana Trees, has mountains that curve and dip, and these deep valleys tapering into dongas. Although they move at a trickle, there are rivers aplenty flanked by trees, bare from the winter cold.
My primary assignment is to help a council of four villages build the cultural village of Menkhoaneng that showcases Basotho traditions and history around the time of King Moshoeshoe I. The council hopes to market the village as a tourist attraction while at the same time making it into a safe haven for Basotho culture. I personally feel that the difficulty lies in cultural compromise. Every villager I have met thus far is extremely proud of Menkhoaneng’s historical and cultural importance, but culture is fluid, especially in light of cross-cultural interaction, and with tourists comes possible cultural compromise. Since their heritage is so important to them, I hope to steer a path between exhibition/income generation and the integrity of Basotho culture.
Anyway, on the ride over, I was given the chance to change my Sesotho name, Pontso, which means “revelation.” It has a great meaning, but shares homonyms with Chinese that are rather unflattering. It was the chance I had been waiting for since the beginning of Community-Based Training. Yet the brainstorm on my ride over yielded no new possibilities, and I was met with a more pressing issue upon arrival—every Peace Corps trainee’s worst nightmare—there was nothing in my heisi (Afrikaans word used to refer to thatched roof houses in a square rather than circular shape).
Peace Corps has certain housing standards for every organization vying for a PCV. Up to that point, I was under the impression that I had basic furniture comprising a bed, a table, chairs and a gas tank to fuel a heater and stove. In the process of acquiring at least some of those items, my supervisor recruited both the community counselor and my ‘M’e (title of respect, she’s my ‘M’e in particular because I will be living on her family compound), who turns out to be the mofumahali (the village chief).
We drove to the family compound where the previous PCV had stayed, and for the next two hours, my ‘M’e, supervisor and the community counselor haggled for three kitchen pieces. I had been instructed to stay in the car with the driver, who was blasting Sesotho music. For some reason, all Basotho drivers love to set their music at a deafening volume. I eventually decided to get out and play with the puppy tumbling over the corn pile. Its mom came up to me several times and would jump on me.
“What do you want?” I asked. “Na u batla ho jaifa?”
So I took its paws and began to waltz. It was such a laughing riot for the herd boys and children that I thought for certain my new name would be “Dances With Dogs.” In Basotho culture, cats and dogs are valued for their functional roles rather than as companions. It’s not unusual to extend your hand toward a dog and have it shirk away in expectation of a beating. But my guess is that the previous volunteer, ‘M’e Peggy, must have set the precedent that people who enjoy playing with animals are not necessarily perverse.
For the next couple of days, I meandered around the community and made myself accessible. In almost every encounter, I was met with the comment, “u monyane!” I hoped they just meant I was petite, but really, they were remarking on how young I am at 22. Their previous volunteer was somewhere in her 60s. At the very least, I knew that the age difference meant there would be no comparison between us. However, my age also suggests my abilities because the Basotho value old age rather than youth. Whether it has to do with a life expectancy of 40 due to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, TB, &c. is questionable, as AIDS started its upward spiral only since the 1980s.
I had till Wednesday to settle on a name, as my ‘M’e had called for a community gathering to introduce its newest member and her newest daughter. She had wanted “Mpho,” which means gifts. I didn’t particularly like that name either. For the days I was at site, I introduced myself as Pontso with the qualifier that tomorrow I might be any variety of things, perhaps Lehapu Selebalo or Maquenya Selebalo: Watermelon or Fat Cakes. My ‘M’e suggested that my name be “Princess,” and for a bit, I thought it would be hilarious. Technically, for the next two years I am a princess as the daughter of the village chief. When else as an American would I ever again be royalty?
But ultimately it did not sit well with me. As much pleasure as I derived from the irony of the name, I think the American side of me kicked in—also ironic because I would never label myself patriotic. Unquestionably, I am blue-blooded, but since royalty does not exist in our country, the idea of having a name that indicates such sounded distasteful to me.
I am now spending my last couple of days in Maseru before we return to our sites. We swear in as Peace Corps—Lesotho’s newest volunteers on Aug. 15. Shortly following, I shall make the trek back to site as the newest villager of Menkhoaneng, Ausi Pontso Selebalo.


Bookmark and Share

Sechaba

•August 6, 2007 • 2 Comments

There are, apparently, two things that cannot be escaped in the world: pigeons and Coca Cola. Of the few billboards standing, every other is spouting Coca Cola. Paneled on every bar and lebenkele (shop) is a Coca Cola sign. Rather than alluding to American influence and globalization as the “McDonald-ization” of the world, I’d recommend adopting, “the world is cracking out.”
Having established Coca Cola’s limitless reach, I have to say that I’m surprised I haven’t yet seen McDonald’s. The international fast-food chain of choice in Lesotho is KFC. Literally, it has embedded itself as the national cuisine. In recounting the mugging of one PCV, another PCV explained to me, “well, he was carrying KFC.”
In Maseru, where we stay during the first and last weeks of Pre-Service Training (PST) and make weekly visits in between, there are few Basotho-owned storefronts. At one end of Kingsway, the vein of the city, are bank headquarters, Shoprite, Pep, fastfood—national chains, some of which come in from South Africa. Rather, most Basotho small businesses stake plot in the taxi rank in the form of booths or freight box boutiques and eateries. Vendors scan the streets and grab at would-be customers. They offer the standard tomato-onion-potato mix-and-match. Some sell mafielo, the traditional long grass broom. Others offer tailor-made lishoe-shoe, the traditional women’s dress showcasing puffy, Victorian sleeves. Turtle shells and hanging fowl mark the socially accredited chemists who sell traditional medicines. These tend to be the staple likhoebo tse nyane (small businesses) of any maraka a toropo (city market).
As I mentioned in another post, the traditional dress of the Basotho man is a beanie, gumboots and the traditional kobo. Ironically, both the gumboots and likobo (blankets, plural) are definitely manufactured in South Africa by South African companies. I do want to highlight that one thing I was extremely surprised about is the lack of variation from district to district, village to village. Bo-‘m’e (older women, mothers) and bo-ausi (younger women, sisters) dress alike, and tasks unfold in the same manner despite location. There are definitely different outfits, but a lack of diversity in dress and ethnicity. In a classically American tint, this is indeed negative, and many current PCVs are critical of Lesotho for it. In another light, it’s a fascinating opportunity. Lesotho is a country that is truly a nation-state. The people feel a strong sense of ethnic identity, and when encouraged by the government to don their traditional hats, they gladly do so in an effort to entice tourists. It is difficult sometimes to understand which traditions are inherently Basotho because so many of their beliefs have been encroached upon by European influence. At least to me, Basotho culture is not as vibrant as images of African cultures in general, mainly because the origins of these traditions are convoluted. Yet culture is always in flux, and as globalization increases, the different components and flavors of cultural distinction will probably melt away (at least slightly). What’s incredible is to witness a country whose people share a strong sense of belonging despite cultural fluidity.


Bookmark and Share

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

•August 5, 2007 • Leave a Comment

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.


Bookmark and Share

Arrival in Lesotho (Late June)

•August 5, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Now that I’m in Lesotho, I’m realizing that this will be the make or break for me in regards to my relationship with journalism. During my last four years (in college), I primed myself for a journalism that I imagined must exist, and nearing the end of formal education, I realized that although I love writing and all the exploration journalism affords, I’ve never seriously considered any other skill set in my possession.
I designed my academic focus, but journalism was not a clear-cut choice. I was lucky enough to enjoy my college career every course along the way (except science, and one anthropology class), but I was a waffling perfectionist when it came to stories. Interviewing and researching were one thing, but the closer I came to deadline, the more that fear began to pile. I took writing too seriously, and every article insinuated my potential.
For as long as I’ve wanted to do journalism, I’ve also wanted to do Peace Corps. In fact, even longer—since my junior year of high school. The reasons have changed over time. Initially, simply because it was something good to do. Then because I wanted to do something significant for others and myself. At one point, I figured it would help me decide between the fields of journalism and anthropology. It was also important to know how the majority of the world coped with an unequal distribution of wealth, and not just to read about it but to see it on a regular basis.
PCV personalities run the gamut, from recent college grads to professionals. In our particular class—Community Health & Economic Development 2007—the ages span 21-38. Our reasons for joining vary from needing a professional breather, wanting to make an impact, craving an adventure to initiating a career change. Our fears as trainees range from lack of favorite cuisines, personal safety, ability to communicate, and (in my case), keeping abreast of global clam-digs and, of course, the Iraq War. I’m the second biggest fan right after Rumsfeld. No one in particular is worried about the lack of electricity, taking bucket baths, using pit latrines or sunsets marking curfew. Those have been the easiest things to adjust to. Waking up to roosters crowing every hour after 3 a.m., seeing them have sex on your front porch, &c. seem more like rites of initiation.
Some people are worried about the lack of structure when we get to site, whether there will be something for us to do or if our job descriptions will fall through the thatches. We’ve heard of amazing PCVs who are nearly fluent in Sesotho and work on both the community level—supporting small businesses, youth, doing HIV/AIDS education—and the government level, writing bills and grants. We’ve heard of people being bored, the loneliness during the first three months in lockdown, when we cannot leave site. The way some people feel—that if they were going to do nothing, they could have stayed in the States or that what they’re doing abroad is not worthwhile enough to outweigh being home.
Here’s what I figured: I might or might not make a difference, especially a sustainable difference. I don’t expect to make any significant impact on anyone but myself. If I do, that’s icing on the cake. I don’t expect structure and if in fact I get to site visit in time to see my job description disintegrating, the Western College Program has prepared me well to assess needs, identify key people and support a project. If everything I’ve tried has not panned out, then I play hopscotch with all the various reasons for being in Lesotho: to do something significant, to learn, to see rather than read, to have a cultural experience, to enjoy an adventure. I think that’s what will get me through the next two years: learning the value of flexibility. Basically, I’d like to say that I have no expectations, but that might be because nothing particularly strenuous has happened yet. I’m certain they’ll take a more visible form as they confront me one-by-one.
I also realize that although we’re on a two-year timeline, I need to view what I’m doing as exactly what I want right now, which it is, but in a way that I’m not entertaining my experience a s a stepping stone to something else. Everything else after needs to be put on hold. My life is not on hold so that I can do PC. And for my future, well I’ve figured this: I probably won’t be rich at any point in my life. Right now, the concerns I had as I was setting up for graduation seem so far away. Even if I don’t follow my best case scenario—move to Portland, be a waitress and part-time journalist, go to NYU for Cultural Critique & Reporting—I know that I have enough ingenuity so that whatever steps I take following Peace Corps, at least I will be happy.


Bookmark and Share