I have clear mental movies of my first few weeks in Qachas Nek as a newly sworn-in Peace Corps volunteer. In one flashback, I’m standing on the side of the bustling main road of our camptown. I’m entering a food coma from the the first of many meals at Kebu, the small eatery that I now frequent every time I’m in the mood for heaping portions of roasted chicken, homemade steamed bread, and ginger beer. In the memory, I’m surrounded by a few of the other volunteers who live in my district. These are the people who would soon become indispensable parts of my Peace Corps family and support system, but I’ve only just met most of them. They’re talking about their thoughts and feelings about their own phases of service as I’m just beginning mine.
One volunteer talks excitedly about the mid-service training and “reconnect workshop” that he has just completed with the group of volunteers that arrived exactly one year before me for the same Community Health and Economic Development (CHED) program. He’s telling me how time seems like it is flying, and how he hears that, for most volunteers, their second year goes by even faster. I could insist, based on how clear this memory is, that this scene took place no more than three months ago. However, last week, while I was helping out with the training of the brand new group of volunteers who arrived in Lesotho this June (exactly one year after my own group’s arrival), that same volunteer left his friends and family in Qachas Nek, closed his 27 month-long service, and boarded a plane for the United States. I am now a “seasoned volunteer”, and my own mid-service training and “reconnect workshop”, with my own group of CHED volunteers, is quickly approaching.
So guys…umm… WHEN did a whole year happen?!
Most volunteers can’t count the number of times we’ve been asked, both in America and in our host country, “How long will you be there/here?” We’ve gotten used to the common reaction that sounds something like, “TWO YEARS?! That’s SO long! Why SO long?! How will you DO that?!” Admittedly, I also can’t count the number of times my own inner monologue joined in on that same chorus, “TWO YEARS…Can you do this? Can you stay?” Throughout my first few months at site, though I was constantly surprised with how content I was feeling in my new home, the thought of two, full years was somewhat daunting. I knew I was happy and excited at the present time, but would I feel that way for my entire service? I got to know my host family, my neighbors, my new co-workers and community. I learned more of the language, and settled in to an unstructured, but comfortable routine, and I waited for the thrill and novelty of my adventure to wear off. I worried that fear and insecurity would eventually set in. Welp…one year in and it finally did…but not quite in the way I had expected.
It happened one evening, not too many weeks ago, as I was sitting in my family’s cooking rondavel. We sat on long wooden benches around a fire, heating a black iron kettle filled with boiling water and maize meal. My host mother stirred the pot with a long and smooth stirring stick, the width of a broom handle, making the mixture thicken to papa, the main staple food in Lesotho. My young host sister, Lieketseng, was sprawled lazily on her stomach, feeding the fire with cow patties and corn husks, and poking at it leisurely with a long twig. Across the room, my other sister, Palesa, was seated in front of a large basin and cutting board, washing and chopping greens from the garden. Two of the littlest children were snoozing under thick blankets, resembling two small mounds of laundry on the floor, rising and falling with their snores. 3 year-old Lerato cuddled in my lap, her eyes fluttering with the onset of sleep. Another sister, Rapelang, sat behind me. Perched on a higher stool, she combed her fingers through my hair, and began to braid one long twist down my back as she recounted some of the events from her school day.
Just as my own eyelids were beginning to feel heavy, the cozy atmosphere was broken by my host brother, Liteboho, who stumbled in from the evening chill and grinned at me with pure mischievousness. He held something small in his hand, and pulled it up in front of me before taking a bite. “Nama?! Meat?!” I asked with overplayed interest. He nodded and began to giggle while he chewed. “Nama ea eng?! What kind of meat?!” I pressed. Nama is a rarity in our houses, and I knew it had to be something strange for only him to be eating it, without sharing with everyone else. The girls began to laugh as the other boys came in from outside, with whatever they’d been cooking over a small fire in the fields. “Ausit Thato,” laughed Rapelang. “They’re eating mice!”
After a year in Lesotho, I sometimes think nothing will surprise me, but this certainly caught me off guard. Liteboho read my two-second facial expression of disgust before I could gain my composure, and he lost his own in fits of laughter. “You don’t want to try it?” he teased. Rapelang explained, “Girls don’t eat it, Ausi. Just the boys.” I gave Liteboho a faux, hurt frown and told him I was only disappointed that he had cooked meat and had not offered me any before he ate it all himself. I threatened that next time I would just sneak in and take some without asking! He laughed harder, “Ausi, if you steal my meat, do you know what I’m going to do?! I’m going to put the mice in your bed! But not cooked ones! Live ones! They’re going to crawl on you like this!” His fingers tickled the air around my face and neck, making my skin crawl, and I shivered with dramatic exaggeration. By this time, everyone in the mud hut was convulsing in giggles. I absorbed the ease of the evening, joking and talking with my family, but when the laughter died down, and the conversation turned quiet and cozy again, my inner monologue hit me with an all-at-once, fear-inducing question…and it wasn’t, “Can I stay?” Looking around the room, in the smokey glow of fire light, I was panicked. “How will I ever be ready to leave?”
This week, on August 6th, was the one year anniversary of my fellow CHED ’12 volunteers and my swearing in ceremony. It marks an important milestone in our services, as we celebrate all we have accomplished in a full year as Peace Corps volunteers, and also the change from counting up the “Days We’ve Stayed” to counting down the “Days Until We Leave”. Whoa…. We now officially have less days to spend in Lesotho than days we have already spent here. Suddenly two years seems like no time at all, not only personally, but professionally. The question, “Will I be ready to leave?” is loaded with feelings of attachment to the people and ways of life of which we’ve become such a part of, but it also carries feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty about our work and sense of accomplishment. “Will I feel like I’ve done enough? Will I be satisfied with how I’ve spent my time here? Will I have made enough of a positive, sustainable impact?”
Work-wise, the first year has been a crash course: International Development 101. I had heard from a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), before I left for Lesotho, that most volunteers (in any country) spend their first year of service really getting to know their communities, gaining their trust, and understanding underlying issues that may hinder productivity; issues that may not be so obvious to a newcomer. I now understand exactly what she was talking about. We learn lessons the hard way, watching projects fail before they even begin due to so many factors we hadn’t considered or recognized, like inner-organization politics and personality clashes (“Oooh so those two DON’T get along?! But it’s culturally inappropriate for anyone to tell me that? Got it.”), scheduling conflicts (“Oooh so I scheduled that meeting for the same day as a community futbol tournament, and THAT’S why no one showed up…Got it.”), communication breakdowns (“Oooh so it’s culturally polite to say “yes” even when you’re really thinking “no”, and so he didn’t agree with what I was saying at all. Got it.”), and even weather (“Oooh windy days mean dust storms and no walking, so… no meetings? Got it.”). Our “Oooh” moments build up, along with our patience, our senses of humor, and the trust in us from our communities, so that we can spend the second year better planning around and ahead of these potential conflicts…at least that’s what I’m hoping. Stay tuned for year two and validation of this theory!
While large-scale productivity takes time and perseverance, we’ve learned to celebrate our smaller victories, both personal and cooperative, and to never undervalue the positive changes we’ve made in little, and maybe more sustainable, ways. We treasure the conversations we’ve had with Basotho that have provoked careful consideration, from all participants, of cultural differences and surprising similarities, our life decisions, health, and future aspirations. Sometimes the triumph has been just to create a safe space where these discussions can occur, for some people, for the first time. Or maybe, once in awhile, these conversations may lead to something bigger like a friend finding out their HIV status, going back to school, or making other positive changes in their lives.
Sometimes the victory isn’t even our own, but it’s one we can share in. On days when frustrations run high, I think of the day when my sister, Rapelang, came home from school waving her report card in the front yard. M’e brought the piece of paper into my house, hugged me, and pointed to her class rank…number 2! The accomplishment was all hers, but I can feel pretty darn good about the evenings spent with her, bent over candle light, English homework and cell diagrams, or baking cookies to practice fractions. I can add pride to the already sweet memory of spinning around the cook-fire with a volleyball, dizzying ourselves to understand Earth’s movement around the sun; the astronomy behind time zones and seasons. Other triumphs are more individual. My ego, back and biceps will never forget the three months I conquered without a working water source within an impressive distance (…neither will those forced to endure my adjusted bathing schedule and other water conservation methods…).
After one year, we’ve begun to count, not just the developments we’ve seen in our communities, but the changes we’ve seen in ourselves. My young host brother, Thabang, closely watches the chickens as they strut into our house out of the cold. He bends low behind them. When the moment is right, he snatches them, squawking and flapping, with his bare hands, and throws them into a vented burlap sack. He ties the end shut, and stashes the bundles behind the benches against the walls. The birds sleep peacefully, away from the dangers of the outdoors. This round-up routine used to make me squirm, close my eyes, and consider vegetarianism. But nowadays, I don’t flinch or leave when I see his stalking commence. I clap my hands when he grabs them all by himself, and I even hold the bag open for him as he shuffles them inside. Okay… so maybe the success of my service should not be measured by bravery around flying feathers… but it’s one of the many small transformations that I can already see in myself, and other volunteers, that make it easier to recognize how well we’ve integrated within a world that was once so uncomfortable and strange.
Against all odds, fears, misunderstandings, and blunders, we’ve developed new identities, as Americans “at home” in Lesotho, that cross cultures and contradict, sometimes even our own, presumptions. My fellow volunteers and I tease each other when one of us makes a comment like, “Ugggh… I’m craving some of my ‘M’e’s papa and moroho, right now.” We reply, “Ahhhche, uena! Now I am too! Have we been in Lesotho for too long?” We joke about our new behaviors and cravings, but the truth is that we are proud of the fact that the meal we once considered strange and unappetizing is now a comfort food that makes us happy. We pat each other on the back when, in Maseru, the bustling country capitol, we declare, “Despite the endless food options, movie theatre, and flushing toilets… I’m soooo ready to be in my rondavel, baking some bread, and wearing my tjale*, while everyone “koko”s** on my door and asks me where I’ve been hiding all week.” We revel in the fact that when we do return to our quiet villages, after a week away, we will genuinely feel like we’ve just come home.
*A tjale is a smaller, thick blanket that Basotho women wrap around their waists to keep warm. It’s more genius than a snuggie, and I am never living without one again.
** This is the Lesotho version of “knock-knock”. Unaccompanied by the physical wrapping on the door, Basotho ask to enter a house by simply saying, “koko!”
It was very fitting to have been assisting with the new volunteers‘ training the week before I turned “one” in Peace Corps years, as I got a clear glance at exactly where I’d been just twelve months before. Ready and willing to make their world a better place and to jump in to their new lives as volunteers, their energy and excitement was a wonderful reminder of why we chose to come here, and what we’d hoped to accomplish. It was also much needed evidence of how much we’ve learned and grown as individuals living in a country and culture, not so unfamiliar as it once was. Visiting my host family from training, and spending quality time with them, was more comfortable and easy than it ever had been during the two months when I’d first arrived. It wasn’t just a matter of better speaking their language. I now had a complete understanding of their culture, and had been pleasantly living a similar lifestyle for the last fourteen months. We were able to relate to each other in ways we couldn’t have one year ago. Talking with the trainees, I found myself answering questions about my work and my daily life with pride and confidence that surprised even me. When one trainee asked, “Can you see yourself coming back here to visit after your Close of Service (COS)?” I answered, without hesitation or doubt, “Oh, definitely.” “Wow… that’s so good to hear,” he confessed. My inner monologue breathed a sigh of relief, “Yeah… it felt really great to say.”