Saturday, September 23, 2006

Peace Corps Lesotho

Nine Hills To Nambonkaha

After accepting my invitation to volunteer in Lesotho three weeks ago, I received a reading list from the Peace Corps regarding living in Africa and the African AIDS epidemic. Of these books is one beautifully written travelogue by former PC volunteer, Sarah Erdman, called Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village which I recommend to everyone who reads this blog.

The book highlights Erdman’s experiences as a nurse and public health official in a remote village in northern Cote D’Ivoire. After only three months of medical training, Erdman finds herself thrust into the village of Nambonkaha where she’s expected to improve the mortality rate and affect sustainable solutions to widespread medical problems such as AIDS, malaria, and infant malnutrition by educating the inhabitants. Tradition, superstition, village politics, and a frequent lack of personal accountability often play an adverse role in her campaign to promote positive change in this world marked by witch doctors, polygamy, female genital mutilation, and the non-existence of prophylactics.

Despite the slow pace at which Nambonkaha trudges towards modernity, there is a distinctly African life force in the village, which, to some extent makes life in Cote D’Ivoire more appealing than the hustle and bustle of western society. Death, an all-too commonplace occurrence, is a cause for celebration, and tradition allows that the windowed families and the sick are always taken care of. Erdman never really juxtaposes the respective societies, but things such as the installation of electric street lights or the replacement of the daily tok tok-sound of mortars and pestles with that of an electric mill seem to sadden her despite each modern amenity’s obvious benefit to the community.

Aesthetically, the book is fantastic. Erdman possesses a very beautiful and unpretentious style of writing, and even those who have no interest in the culture and politics of a rural African village would find the book rewarding. The book is divided into easily digestible chapters replete with the tiny cliffhangers, which, for people with my attention span and glacial reading-speed is much appreciated. Erdman and all of the characters whom she describes are incredibly likable, and this book—even with is moments of sadness and frustration—totally pumps me up for my own experience beginning in two short months.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Peace Corps Lesotho

Destination: Lesotho

After days of agonizingly waiting for my mailman to deliver the packet informing me of where I would likely be spending the next 27 months of my life, I finally received my invitation from the Peace Corps on Saturday, five days ago.

Destination: Lesotho.

My Reaction: (…) (…) ..Why Not?

I admittedly knew little about Lesotho before Saturday. From my African Politics class during college I knew that the country was fully enclosed within South Africa, for it used to be a part of South Africa. I remembered that it was relatively dinky in terms of landmass. I vaguely recalled something about Zulus fighting the Xhosa (was that right?) at some point or another somewhere around that area.

I still don’t know a whole heck of a lot about Lesotho—much less why they thought that I would be a good choice to go there—but the more I read about the Mountain Kingdom, the more appealing the post and my duties there are becoming in my eyes.

Here is a brief synopsis of what I’ve read (just from memory):

Geographically, the country is situated in the mountains. The lowest point of the country, 1400 meters, is higher than any other country’s low point, and the mountains reach nearly 6000 meters.

Lesotho is in the southern hemisphere; therefore it will be summer when I arrive there in November 2006. I talked to a Peace Corps placement officer today on the telephone, and he told me that I had better pack warm clothing there for the winter (May-July), because it gets extremely cold at such high altitudes. Malaria is not endemic, because the climate is mostly temperate, ranging from 30-90 Fahrenheit in most places.

AIDS is endemic with a prevalence rate of nearly 30%. The placement officer on the telephone today gave me a list of AIDS-related books to sift through, but he told me that no amount of research can really prepare someone to witness that sort of human suffering first-hand. (The placement officer had spent two years in Lesotho and two years in Zimbabwe) An average person there can expect to live 34 years. The other main illnesses are water-borne, and not only are we supposed to boil are water for at least 3 minutes before using it, we are strongly advised against wearing contact lenses because of poor water/sanitation.

The people in Lesotho are called the Basotho, and the Basotho speak Sesotho. The Basotho are somewhat conservative according to my literature, and professionalism is regarded highly. This means: no piercings, I will need to wear a tie (note: not tie-dye) to work each day, and I’ll have to get a haircut before I leave the states—maybe. I know very little about the Sesotho language, but the man on the phone today said that it is extremely difficult to learn—much harder than German or French anyway (his words)—and the language has three clicks. Cool!

I will be leaving from the US with a group of 23 other volunteers, and after our 3-month training period taking place in the capital, Maseru, as well as in one or two other cities, we will receive our individual posts. I can expect to live in a stone hut with bars on the windows, a thatched roof, a single bed, and a stove with two burners. I keep reading and rereading the phrase every experience is different, but it seems to me that most places lack basic amenities such as indoor plumbing, electricity, and indoor potable water. Another phrase I’ve read quite a few times is outdoor open-pit latrine. I reserve final judgment until I am there, but I am honestly looking forward to the asceticism.

My main duty in Lesotho will be to work full-time as an English language and literature teacher in a secondary school. I really enjoyed teaching English last year in Germany, and I like working with that age group, so it will be nice to be back in the classroom. My other duties will include teaching health, nutrition, and life skills, organizing clubs and recreational activities, doing things to promote the education of the less-empowered females if possible, helping to create a sustain a viable school library, and working as a consultant for other English teachers.

I don’t expect to save the world. Much of the work that PC volunteers do is self-motivated, and I am looking forward to being able to define my own role within a given framework. I will have been invited to work inside a certain community by that community, itself, and a lot of what I accomplish—at least during the beginning of my service—will depend upon how helpful my supervisor and peers are.

More to come!
Peace Corps Lesotho

Waiting for PC-Invitation ..from 17 Aug 2006

It’s very late (or early, depending on how you look at it), and I’m bored, so I’ve decided to write a blog entry. I went to sleep last night at 11, woke up at 1:30, lay in bed until 3, and have been awake ever since. I know why I couldn’t sleep. I’m excited about finding out where and when I will be going to work in the Peace Corps—I should be finding that out very soon, I hope—but even more than that, I’m anxious about leaving again, this time for 27 months, and I find myself constantly needing to justify to myself why it is that I want or wanted to go so badly. My best friends and family never really gave me much flak about it, because they know how I am—that it’s not just sheer boredom that’s driving me. It’s great to have their support, because this is a big deal for me, personally, and I’d have trouble going without at least their implicit consent.

The most obvious reasons why I am so anxious and why I consider this to be such a big deal concern the distance and the fact that this experience will last 27 months. Yeah, I’ve spent over two years in Germany, but after having studied German for 6 years prior to going, I was in my comfort zone there soon after I arrived. When my aunts and uncles visited me in Germany in March and took me to France for two days, I was definitely not in my comfort zone, and I know that this is going to be 50x worse. The 12 countries where the PC could send me are: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Krgyrz Republic (I don’t even know how to pronounce that), Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Turkmenistan, or Ukraine. My best bet would probably be an assignment in a Russian-speaking part of the Ukraine since I studied Russian in college, but even so, there’s no guarantee that they’d send me there, and I only remember how to say, like, 6 words in Russian.

And about those 27-months.. that’s going to be really tough. Every other time I went away, I knew that I would be home within a year, so I was never too home-sick. During the 27-months I might only be able to make it home for my brother’s wedding, and it scares the bejesus out of me that some sort of family emergency could occur, and I’d be in bumfuck kyrgryrzyryzryrzzryr. [Spellcheck is informing me that I might have meant to type “jumbuck” instead of bumfuck. I looked up the word on merriamwebster.com, but apparently it’s only to be found in the unabridged version. shame] I joke, but I worry more than anything else about how horrible it would be if somebody got hurt or died while I was away.

Another thing that scares me about doing this is that the experience could somehow make me a broken, dysfunctional person. For instance, I’d come home and be incapable of communicating with anyone (I already suck at it), and then I’d go and live in a dirty shack without electricity or plumbing like Ted Kaczynski, all the while bitching and moaning about how the United States is egregiously screwing the rest of the world. That’s a worse-case-scenario for sure, but I do know that I would fall out of touch again with some of my friends, not because I want to, but because, that’s what happens when you leave. The most frustrating thing about being home now is the communication gap which has grown between my friends, family, and I, where catching-up is too much like small-talk, and talking about my experiences teaching in Germany is difficult, because people seem too annoyed or disinterested. Even my mom, God love her, wasn’t really aware of what I was doing in Germany until I showed her a scrap-book from the school that a bunch of teachers made for me before I left. I don’t mean that as a bash—I love my mom, and she does have a very active role in my life—but, that’s the way it goes. Maybe I’m too proud—the world doesn’t revolve around me, afterall—but I want people to be involved in my life. On the other hand, I have trouble connecting with what people around me are doing, because I don’t have a full-time job, credit, equity, much debt, a car, much responsibility (other than remembering things like that a cheese-plate only gets 10 crackers and garnish on top of the mustard cups), etc. I still like to chat about things like that, but I’m probably asking the wrong questions, who knows.