The Inside Out Project

Nearly two years ago I started a photography project with a few women I was getting to know in my community. We called it, "My Hair, My Identity." 

From the moment I arrived in Thaba Tseka I noticed one important thing a lot of women were changing and had control over - their hair. I made the mistake of re-asking a few Basotho women their names whom I had met multiple times simply because I did not recognize them. Although I had seen them the week earlier they had since changed their hair style! Nete’s hair was no longer short but firey red, and braided at the roots. Resilisitsoe’s hair went from long and dark to short braids swirling on her head with a small bun in the back. I realized a women's choice in hairstyle..  braids, extensions, natural, buzzed, etc. more often than not it is a personal choice and it is empowering. In a culture where women do not have a loud voice, their hair is a form of self expression, beauty, creativity and change. Throughout my service I continued taking photos with my counterpart and closest friend, Retsepile Moiloa, and we eventually chose the target of 50 women. We sometimes walked around Thaba Tseka for hours to find women willing to pose for us.  In Retsepile and I's discussions with each woman about her hair, they described feelings of happiness, “fresh,” relieved, “fantastic,” and a new sense of confidence and pride for their own beauty. 

I find it helpful when I photograph to envision a destination for my photos. After taking the photos, we brainstormed different messages and ways to exhibit them. Remembering a TED talk by the artist JR and his international art movement, the Inside Out Project , we submitted a group action in hopes that they could be pasted on the streets in Maseru - large, powerful and in plain view. 

I had observed in my community a large amount of gender inequality in that gender roles and traditions attached to the Basotho culture are strongly engrained from a very young age. This made the project hold more importance. For example, in grade school, boys play soccer and girls wash school uniforms. A girl who is on her period or who falls pregnant is usually forced to stay home from school, while boys are expected not only to finish, but to obtain a higher education. In contrast, I witnessed many boys who had to drop out to tend to cattle or seek employment to help their families. Women also experience domestic violence and a statistically higher rate of HIV for a variety of social and biological reasons. But, these are the negatives and this is one side of the fight in Lesotho. Recently there have been some positive legal and political changes to protect women from such maltreatment, but they are slow to be implemented, not strictly enforced, and many people do not know they exist. Women need to know they have rights and control over their own lives. These rights need to be promoted, if not fought for, to break the cycle of abuse rather than being afraid of change. Of course, there is an emerging population of women and men who are publicly standing up for gender equality and engaging the community in empowering one another. My Hair - My Identity, was meant to identify people doing just that and communicate our message through the power of photography. 

The event grew to the collaboration of 10 different organizations hosting music, poetry, hair stylists, a documentary, activist speakers and more. Colorful, fun, and unique, it was more than an activism event, but a celebration. Through donations, pledges and selling colorful hair extensions we raised over 4000R (~305USD) to donate to CCJP's on-going efforts working with heightening security at girls' boarding schools in Lesotho and ensuring they are safe. We also spoke on the radio and on TV Lesotho about our exhibition and event following.

After a successful day of entertainment and raising donations, truly our main objective of the photo series/street art pasting was to exhibit confident, empowered and beautiful Basotho women on the streets of Maseru, turning the community inside out and for this day (and maybe weeks after if they are still pasted..), making it all about woman. Our hope was to empower women all over Lesotho (and the world!) to love themselves more and take control of not only their hair, but their lives. 

My Hair - My Identity, Maseru, Lesotho

2nd Action: BO-AUSI BA NA LE TOKÉLÓ HO HANA (Girls have the right to refuse)

We also did a  pasting sponsored by the Inside Out Project with my students in Thaba Tseka. Our group action highlighted girls' rights to refuse or say no to anything they do not want to do. In our classes we discussed examples such as sex, drugs, alcohol, forced labor, or fulfilling unwanted gender expectations. We pasted the photos appropriately onto the walls of the Child & Gender Protection Unit at the Thaba-Tseka Police Station and printed smaller versions for the girls to take home. Our hope is that people passing by will see the photos and take action for gender equality and the rights of all people, or just think about it! 

Tsamaea Hantle

In Sesotho, we do not have a word for Goodbye, instead we say "Tsamaea hantle," which translates to "go well." Today, I find myself leaving Peace Corps early, three months before my intended COS (Close of Service) date. I am sitting on an airplane coincidentally next to a fellow RPCV, although his service ended over 52 years ago (Colombia 1963-1965). I asked him what his favorite part was..


"Oh, well.. I liked riding the horses. We would ride horses to meetings at villages nearby.. well I don't know if you could call them meetings. We didn't get much done. But I enjoyed it. I guess it was life-changing." 

I read back to the blog detailing the month I spent in Maseru waiting for my house to be finished and ready for move-in. The anxiety I felt then seems funny now as I wrap up my service, although it is what led me to the decision I am making today.. a battle between two jobs and two locations. Since I swore in as Peace Corps Volunteer there has been a conflict, both in my head and geographically, of where my organization exists and the work I do there versus where I was placed and the obligation I always felt to serve that community. For the first year of my service I productively did so; organizing a BRO camp, teaching Health at primary schools, coaching volleyball and more. However, there was never a moment where I didn't feel pulled in another direction to serve another "site" or work. That was my Peace Corps assigned organization in Maseru, my supervisor and the people who asked PC for me to be a part of their work. Traveling to and from Maseru was then only wearing on me slightly because I felt empowered by all of the work I had created in TT, regardless of my organization being there. Nevertheless, I continued to juggle two jobs by writing grants, proof-reading research or reports and planning advocacy events in Maseru versus teaching youth and working with the radio in Thaba Tseka. And in the end, neither of these felt as productive or professional in my work as I was wanting to be and I continued finding new opportunities to fill that hope.  


I returned to Lesotho in November eager to finish up projects I had started earlier that year and hopeful to create new ones as the end of Peace Corps seemed incredibly near now. 75 large portraits from the Inside Out Project waited for me in the office when I arrived. I went to Mokhotlong to finish painting the Touching Tiny Lives Safe Home and returned to Maseru and then Thaba Tseka to make plans to paste the portraits. I will post another blog soon to detail all the exciting, frustrating, and truly awesome aspects of these street art projects! 


Tired of the drive up and down the mountain and unstructured scenario with my organization, I made an attempt to find a solution that I thought would help me continue working productively and in good mental health as a PCV by moving to Maseru. Unfortunately, safety and security regulations prevented this from happening.. SO, I started to apply for jobs.. in America, in South Africa.. In Indonesia.. For many reasons a large part of me was not ready to leave southern Africa and when the opportunity came about to work as the Communications Coordinator for the NGO Thanda, I could not pass it up. 

I'll be home for 3-5 weeks to sort out my visa then back to continue working in a field I am so passionate about and to contribute direct skills to an organization I believe in. And hopefully, to travel more of southern Africa :) 

Peace Corps service may be one of the most unique experiences I ever have. I am so grateful for the people and friends I worked alongside, the beautiful beautiful mountains I lived in, and the culture I will never forget. I will always miss the pink flowering peach trees, the smell of those swirly Thaba Tseka makoenyas, the cheerful greetings from my students, and maybe even the "Guard" geese on my compound. I asked myself a lot during my service if my work matters in the bigger scheme of things. I wonder if the person I was 23 months ago would be happy with what I've accomplished. And I think she would. Her eyes are much, much more open. My work does matter, because I could not do what Peace Corps allows you to do working from a desk in the U.S. (not at such a young age at least). Every day I spent in Lesotho I gained more cultural sensitivity, work experience in things I had never imagined I would be doing, and developed a deeper passion for people by understanding the complexities of poverty, or just human struggle and where I fit into the working world of development. These two years taught me more than my bachelor's degree ever could have, but more on that later. Point being, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. 

Kea leboha. 

Khotso, pula, nala! Lesotho! 

 

During my Peace Corps service I have made this three hour + trek over 30 times from Thaba Tseka to Maseru and back. Sometimes, it took me ten hours by taxi. Sometimes, I stubbornly sat in the rain to wait for a hitch while taxis drove by. More often than not, a really nice Mosotho picked me up and chatted with me winding up/down the mountains in their car. This was my last trip.

Re-painting the Touching Tiny Lives Safehouse

One night I spent 13 hours straight painting in the Dusk nursery. For a break, Brandy and I crazily danced around to Mumford and Sons and I hit my head on the wall; my first thought was whether I had smudged the fresh coat of blue paint. I lived at Touching Tiny Lives for a total of two months in two different time periods, a trip to the U.S. in between. This was enough time to watch new babies join the Touching Tiny Lives Safe Home and to see some graduate with full bellies, reunified with their families. I grew closest to a child just shy of two years old, Wenzile. Much older than the other children she contently drew on a piece of paper and I painted numbers onto the playroom wall. I sometimes played Takalani Sesame (Sesame Street South Africa) on my computer for her and the other children while I painted a blossoming peach tree, tediously stenciling flower after flower. Children Wenzile's age served as the inspiration for the playroom designs. I wanted to paint something that promoted learning and interaction, so the older children are always learning and the caregivers are motivated to create a stimulating environment. We also focused on a relaxing environment in all aspects that embodies the mission and ideals of Touching Tiny Lives.  

I blogged about Touching Tiny Lives in an earlier blog post titled, One Tiny Sock, where I had spent a week at TTL creating a video for their 12th anniversary. 

& this video describes the purpose of the TTL Safehouse 

The goal of the project was to repaint the entire safehouse/office building. Glossy yellow paint drenched every single wall, alarming both the eyes and the mind. The playroom had artistic black and white designs that were creative, but overwhelming. I first became an expert in interior design, then in interior paints, then a muralist. Leave it to Peace Corps to give you opportunities to lead projects you would not be able to do otherwise. Buying the right materials and resources was continuously by far the hardest part of the project with multiple trips to South Africa and budgets redrawn. We brought all thirty staff members together to clean the walls, move furniture, tape, and paint big surface areas. There were numerous unforeseen details, like repainting the trim, ceilings, varnishing the wood,  etc., that took up more time. Before I left in September, we had finished the first two nurseries, the paint in the playroom and hallways, but none of the designs. When I returned in December we finished designs in the playroom and other details. We also made chalkboards to identify a specific child's crib with their name, age, and weight. This was previously written on crinkled paper that would lie beside the crib. Brandy and two new volunteers, Nastasia and Emma, are currently building a bookshelf and drawing new child development posters.

And finally, before and after pictures of the entire project!

Dusk, Nursery 1

Rainbow Butterflies, Nursery 2

The Giving Tree, Playroom & Hallway

Creativity is a never-ending mental process that is both empowering and unlimited. I hope my time spent at TTL, through creating with others and the art that I left behind, will inspire new ideas in everyone at TTL, especially the babies:) 

A shout to awesome Momma Carter for donating the alphabet, world map, and animal decals!