My First Meeting with the Mountain Kingdom

3rd Photo Series: A Change in Seasons & Altitude (+ Guacamole)

The Combi (van taxi) gently swerved left and right around the winding road as we made our way deeper into the mountains to my future home. We had left the Camptown of Mohale’s Hoek and departed onto a dirt road nearly an hour ago. 

Where the hell am I going?” I thought as my friends, Shoprite, electricity, and wifi all became further and further behind me. 

It was the end of the day and our Combi grew more crowded; stuffed with passengers and numerous items from town that you could not find this far into the mountains..chips, candies, buckets and large bags of oranges squished between people.  As for me, I luxuriously sat with much needed leg space in the front. I quickly became aware that I had snagged the best seat in the van as the mountain scenery unfolded in front of me with small villages tucked into each valley below. The mountains here have a horizontal geology, similar to the maroon bells in Colorado. Recent snowfall jaggedly capped the highest peaks and every second we drove further away from town it became more breathtakingly beautiful. My camera winced at the opportunities of dozens of picturesque moments that took place right outside my window: a group of school children holding hands walking home from school, women washing their laundry in the spring water below the road, and herd men directing their cattle across the never ending fields. Until now I had not fully understood why Lesotho is called The Kingdom in the Sky. 

This is the Peace Corps 

Wasakar by Oliver Mtukudzi, a Zimbabwean Musician, was blaring from the surprisingly high tech stereo system. Every other part of the van was falling apart (most likely due to the harsh conditions of these bumpy dirt roads). The Ntate that was seated next to me made conversation in Sesotho. Although, he didn’t speak English he understood me and I him. And I really liked this song.

This is living - feeling connected

Ntate Posholi sat directly behind me watching my overstuffed bag. We had just had our last warm shower, our last big warm meal and wifi connection at the Thaba Bosiu Cultural Lodge where the Peace Corps held our Counterparts and Supervisors Workshop.

I must not be the first foreigner they have seen. I am new to them, but not incredibly exciting it seems. They still stared, long and hard, as I passed.

My mind drifted back to the weekend we had just left behind us. The 23 new Healthy Youth Volunteers and their Supervisors and Counterparts all in one room, meeting one another, discussing ours and their roles, explaining the large amount of complicated Peace Corps Policies..It was not the relaxing, fun weekend I had thought it would be..but for the first time in two months I had running water and electricity. 

My first experience with my future ‘co-workers’ was not the most facile introduction in the room. I learned later on that Katie and Amanda were right there with me with an enormous language barrier between us and our new work. It was calming to know I was not the only one struggling, however, most everyone else's co-workers spoke English and the room was loud over other groups engaging in productive conversations about their past and future work. We attempted to answer the questions that were laid out for us: who we are, what we hope to do together, what we did before, what we were excited about, and 3 things we have in common, only to immediate realize that my Sesotho and their English levels did not match - not even close. If Peace Corps lack of information had not already left me tremendously lost I was now becoming increasingly less optimistic as to what these next two years would be like.

“lilemo tse na?” -How old are you? My counterpart asked me. Instantly regretting the words that came out of my mouth, I replied “Ke na le lilemo tse 22” - I have 22 years.  

I should have lied.

In Lesotho you are thought of as a child until you are either married, or move out of your house. Because I was going to be living with a family and was not married I am, in fact, a ngoana, and that is what my Counterpart, ‘M’e Moploko, proceeded to call me. Already frustrated this had hit my nerve. A person being called a child in the US is without question an insult and in that moment I felt insulted and I willingly ignored the cultural differences because of my frustrations. In both languages I explained I was not a child, that I had been working since I was 13, and had finished University. I suddenly felt I needed to prove myself. This was not the warm, excited and supportive welcome I had hoped for..the one all Basotho usually give us Baithaopi (volunteers). Why was she so unfriendly? Nudging me and telling me to sit down, accusing me of taking her pen. What had I done? 

Remember: never take things personally. It's not always about you or what you did.

I was near tears as we walked to dinner. Fellow PCVs rambled on about their jobs in excitement. Corinne would be teaching music and life skills at a school in the North. Her counterpart, another teacher at the school, is from Uganda, he is terrible at Sesotho and a total jokester. Sky is partnered with the most passionate Mosotho I have met yet. Tsepho is a 19 year old boy who has, on his own, recently started his own NGO called Hands of Life. Its' goals are to get youth cycling, thinking about their health and building mental well-being. At 19 he has rode all over Lesotho and South Africa, funded his organization and received a large amount of bike donations. He is the first and only repair shop in Lesotho. Austin is working at a Technical Institute helping start and manage a recently built gym and health club that was started by another PCV who is about to finish his service. He will also be teaching business courses. 

I, productive Alicia, who always has her try-hard pants pulled up real high was lost and admittedly, really disappointed. In myself for feeling this way, and in the Peace Corps for what seemed like a lack of organization, explanation and structure. 

Was I ready for such a challenge?

We watched the Sandlot that night and ate a superbly delicious dinner..All was right for those 3 hours. Even the most difficult times here can be momentarily pushed away as our minds exist between two worlds. Basically, the Peace Corps experience is one hell of an emotional roller coaster. 

The next day I decided to wake up before the sunrise and climb Thaba Bosiu. It’s something about putting in a good effort to see the sunrise that changes your attitude so drastically, beyond the natural beauty of it all. I think it has to do with waking up before everything else does and watching your whole world slowly become alive feeling as though that moment is all yours. I walked into breakfast with a more positive, head strong attitude, ready for whatever challenges were ahead. I sat next to ‘M’e Moploko at breakfast. We didn’t say much, but the air felt a bit lighter. That day she warmed up a little and my Supervisor let me in on a bit more of his English skills. We were not going in depth, but we were breaking the surface. Later, I had a conversation with Peace Corps Staff asking for more information on my job and site. Little did I know my counterpart had switched last minute and the new one who had seemed so unfriendly the first day had no idea what was going on and was totally confused. No wonder she was asking about chelete ($), calling me a child, and unfriendly. 

Misunderstanding leads to some unnecessary intercultural conflict. Lessons learned.

We closed the workshop with the telephone game sending 2 sentences down each side of the room. One was in English and one was in Sesotho, however both were completely differently by the time we had finished, and one had even completely switched languages. Corrine’s Ugandan counterpart had changed one sentence to “We are one,” while austin’s supervisor had changed another to “Re tla ja neng?” (when are we going to eat?) The room burst in laughter, but we were all really starving. 

I looked around me at the diverse room full of American volunteers; Americans from ancestries all over the world, some who are old and some who are young, some wanting a ‘relaxing’ two year adventure, some looking for a start to their careers, but all eager to make a difference in the world. I looked at a room mostly full of Basotho; Basotho from every district in the country, who are motivated and hopeful to help their country and to change their own lives. 

I was ready to leave on my own with Ntate Posholi and ‘M’e Moploko. 

We arrived in the village of Sekiring mid-day. Sekiring is tucked on the side of the road against the mountains with 15 homes that make its entirety. There is one small shop and it is just beyond the larger village of Mpharane, where there is a clinic, high school, police station, and a few more houses. That is the one you would find on a map. 

My community partner (the people that asked for me to be here) is the Mpharane Community Support Group. Wednesday afternoon our group held a four hour meeting in which they only spoke Sesotho. In fact, everyone in my community only spoke Sesotho. My brain was aching by the end of it all. I would live in a yellow rondavel with a blue table and green chairs. We have two cats, two dogs, five rabbits, two goats, and a lot of chickens. In the home there is Ntate Posholi, ‘M’e Mamakhabane, two orphans, a boy and a girl, and ‘M’e Mamakhabane’s daughter.. During my visit I met the police, the clinic nurses, several community members and the chiefs of mine and other surrounding villages. I tried to imagine the work I could create as I shook hands with the principal of the local high school and he told me, “they really needed me. Kids listen and talk to someone who is new and different,” and my Supervisor said it broken English that he, “wasn’t sure what I would do. He thought I would just come in and do stuff.” 

This is as Peace Corps ‘Africa’ as it could get.

As a part of the Healthy Youth Program our primary goals and objectives are:

-HIV Sexual Health &HIV Prevention (Educating youth on sexual reproductive health and contraceptive methods, safe sex practices and other HIV prevention techniques, such as Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision, promoting testing and counseling for HIV, treatment adherence etc.)

-Care & Treatment for HIV Positive Youth (ART treatment advocacy, treatment and adherence support groups, caregiver support and training, improving care services etc.)

-HIV Mitigation for Affected Youth (mitigation of psychosocial and socioeconomic impacts of HIV, preparing youth for adulthood and the world of work, life skills classes, youth clubs, sports teams, emotional health, career and goal setting, psycho-social support etc.)

After three days in Sekiring it was time to return to training. Unlike my easy, breezy and beautiful combi ride into the mountains, getting out proved quite the task. Inside the comfort of my yellow rondavel I had not felt the 30 degree foggy chill of Lesotho's mountain winter.  We waited for the taxi on the side of the road for nearly 45 minutes. Once inside, we drove ten minutes to Mpharane where we proceeded to wait another two hours for the taxi to fill up with more people. I have not figured out why yet, but Basotho do not like to open car windows. Boy was it stuffy and we were all steaming it up with our heavy breath like two teenagers making out at a drive in movie. I had to hop out, despite the cold. The fog had still not cleared and I could not see the mountain tops like I had days earlier. Mentally exhausted, frustrated, confused, and overwhelmed I was ready to get back to the comfort I had found in Ha Mothebesoane. We had finally left and I was in the back now squeezed between a young boy and an older man. All three of us were angry at the other for being so uncomfortably close, while knowing it was not our faults. We had finally reached the paved road where I switched taxis to make my way North. And there Aline and Katie were. Katie was in a very similar situation to myself and the sight of one another eased our minds.  We did not have to say anything to know how badly we had wanted to leave our villages and re-access how we would handle what now was ahead of us. I have now began to realize how important the other volunteers are in this two year experience. We continued North picking up more volunteers from their site visits along the way. We switched taxis again in the capitol two hours later and 7 hours later I hopped out in Ha Mothebesoane. 

“AUSI LIMPHO!”

My brother, Rapelang, ran up to me with the biggest hug. If it only took me 7 weeks to become so close to one kid in this village, I know I will be OK building relationships in the next one. Like all things in Lesotho, they take time.

Basotho actually say, “Ha ho na mathata..” - There is not a problem, or in reference to Africanse Hakuna Matata, it means no worries.

We are on Basotho time now. And in the Peace Corps, time is incredibly important - to integrate, to develop, to learn, and to be sustainable. 

This morning I woke up to white. It had snow a small amount, but the air was not so cold. It was beautiful. The morning golden light shined on the earthy tones of the rondevals, corn fields, and dirt paths. The sky was bright in patches of blue with white and shades of grayish clouds in between. Today had marked change.

A few hours later I was informed I’ll be switching sites with another volunteer who needs to be at a lower elevation. Scratch everything I just wrote about Mpharane, I’ll now be going to Thaba Tseka realllllyyy high in the mountains to work and live. Right now, I do not know much else, but I ‘swear in’ as an official volunteer in two weeks so I am sure I’ll get more information before then. Let's hope so! Honestly, compared to other international work experiences I know, if you want a challenge the Peace Corps is like getting pushed into a river, butt-naked, in the middle of winter, blind-folded, with your feet and hands tied together, and trying to swim. Here's to swimming!

Ohhhh Peace Corps.