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One Year!

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.”

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A Long Walk Through Lesotho

It’s taken me far too long to post this one, but the telling of this story was important to me and I didn’t want to muck up the details.  I’ve enjoyed every stage of brainstorming, jotting, and editing on this one as it allowed me to reflect on and relive the journey again and again.  So here it is!  The tale of three hikers, five days, 50 miles (or so), 11,000 feet (or so), two lightning storms, one hail squall, and the adventure that became the perfect metaphor for the Peace Corps volunteer experience.

Pre-Journey: Christmas Day or “Learning to accept, and roll with, last-minute changes”

My phone blipped with the received text message as my friends loaded the table with the steaming dishes we’d spent all afternoon preparing together.  Thousands of miles from home, different groups of volunteers gathered in each district of Lesotho to celebrate our friendships and take some of the sting out of the inevitable homesickness during the holidays.  It was also a time of preparation, and meeting up with travel companions, as most of us would take advantage of the slowness of the season and leave for vacation destinations on the 26th.  A large group of volunteers were headed to the beaches of Cape Town and an epic New Years party on notorious Long Street.  Looking to experience a little more of the country I was still getting to know, and wanting to save some vacation days for my sister’s upcoming arrival (what up, Laur!) I decided to join a group of four volunteers, and one Masotho guide, who were making the legendary trek from Sehlaba-Thebe National Park in southern Lesotho, through the Drankensberg mountain range (or Maluti Mountains), and down the infamous Sani Pass into South Africa.  After seeing the photos in my district’s resource center of past volunteers on gorgeous mountain tops, walking through fields of wild flowers, carrying large packs, and smiling next to the “Sani Pass” destination sign, the hike was somewhat of a right-of-passage in my mind.  I was geared up and ready for views of a lifetime, but the blinking red light on my BlackBerry was about to throw a wrench in my plans.

Amidst the merriment and glow from my comrades, I let out a sigh (and maybe a minor profanity…) and caught eyes with Philip, one of the four other volunteers who was up for the Sani Pass extravaganza.  One of our other future hiking buddies had fallen ill, unable to leave in the next few days, and the other two volunteers, who we were supposed to meet up with the following day, had followed suit.  They suggested that we postpone the hike… indefinitely.  It took Philip and I all of two minutes, looking at our packed bags, assessing the equipment we’d borrowed and all of the food we’d bought and had already packaged, to decide that if there was any way to still do it with just the two of us, we’d “what the hey” go for it.  While it was a happy night, and a Christmas I’ll never forget, in the back of my mind I was distracted with the hope that my vacation plans weren’t ruined.

In agreement that, either way, we should postpone the trip by one day to assess our options and make a new plan, Philip and I travelled to the camptown of Qacha’s Nek to meet the Qacha’s Nek native, Ntate Nkhooa, who had previously agreed to be our guide through the Malutis.  We wanted to first see if he was still up for the adventure with only two lehooa (that means “white folks” in Lesotho) instead of five.  Ntate Nkhooa had an infectious smile, and was the first relief in our debacle.  A counterpart to another volunteer in Qacha’s Nek, he worked as a martial arts specialist and was the owner and manager of Lesotho’s only Snake Park.  Hmm… the man who was offering to lead us through the hike of a lifetime was a trusted companion of our friends, trained in defense AND the management of deadly creatures one might encounter in the wilderness?  We were sold!  His enthusiasm for the adventure was just an added bonus, and we happily re-wrapped our minds around the upcoming trek.  It was time to head to the real starting point, Sehlaba-Thebe National Park.

Day 1:  Public Transport to Sehlaba-Thebe or “Laugh off minor inconveniences, and allow them to make you that much more appreciative of life’s little luxuries”

While we expected the start of our journey to be in Sehlaba-Thebe, the road to get there will always be considered the beginning (and maybe the foreshadowing) of what was to come.  In previous blogs I’ve described a typical bus ride through Lesotho.  I’ve also given a description of the dirt road that stretches from Qacha’s Nek camptown to Sehlaba-Thebe; the same dusty path that leads past my village and serves as my running trail.  Combine these two ingredients and you get one heck of a way to spend five hours.  I’ve often giggled at the site of the Sehlaba-Thebe bus, crawling and coughing it’s way up the steep and narrow road from town to the national park.  It resembles an all-too-giant caterpillar as it awkwardly creeps past village after village, stopping at pre-determined, but unmarked, “bus stops” to drop off and pick up passengers along the way.  Becoming a passenger on this bus, especially during the holiday travel season, provoked an all-together different kind of laughter; the kind that results from tried patience and the recognition of the sheer ridiculousness of a situation.

The vehicle was packed, and not comfortably so, with people upon people upon people.  Every seat, standing space, and leaning crevice was occupied.  It was a struggle to stay upright, let alone not to encroach on the personal space of anyone around us.  In fact, there was no personal space.  Noses in armpits, awkward brushes of hips against groins, and the inescapable odor of those who could not hold their bladders for the duration of the trip were just a few highlights of the experience.  But enough of those details… we were eventually lucky to get seats and enjoy the sun setting over the mountains, which were noticeably larger in size and grandeur as we got closer to our destination.

We arrived after dark, and were greeted by Bruce and Lin, a married Peace Corps couple living in the remote Sehlaba-Thebe area (they had to ride that bus every time they wanted to go grocery shopping!), and the intensity of our relief at being off of that bus was matched only by the height of their hospitality.  With head lamps, they led us confidently through the darkness to their cozy rondavel.  A full course Indian meal, complete with hot tea and brownies for dessert, was accompanied with our hosts’ unforgettable warmth, friendship, and conversation.  We pitched tents in their front yard and admired the panorama of stars before we rested up for the beginning of our hike the next day.  After a warm shower (hallelujah!) and a breakfast equally delicious as the dinner we’d experienced the night before, we were fresh, happy, and on our way.

Day 2:  The Hike in to Sehlaba-Thebe National Park or “Hey you! Get over yourself!  Burdens are lighter when they are shared, so stop acting like a rockstar and ask for help when you need it.”

As if they hadn’t already shown us enough kindness, Bruce and Lin arranged a ride for us from their home to the gate of the national park, and we set out towards the lodge, in the center of the park, where we’d arranged to camp for that night.  The first hour was easy.  I felt free and adventurous, taking in the already spectacular beauty of our surroundings, and was still feeling strong from a good night’s rest and the shower (a PC volunteer will never again under-appreciate a hot shower…).  But, when our guide insisted he knew a shorter way to the lodge, we ventured off the beaten path of dirt road used for vehicle access.  Walking over steeper inclines and uneven ground, I began to feel the full weight of my pack.  The real hike hadn’t even begun!  This was the “easy”, warm-up, wander through the park, and I was already hurting?!  Panic set in.  Maybe I hadn’t thought through this adventure!  Maybe I wasn’t up for the challenge of the days ahead!  Or…maybe my pack was just to heavy.

As I lagged further and further behind, it was obvious that the two men in my party were reading the worry and exhaustion on my face.  They kept asking “How’s it going?” or “Do you think that pack is too heavy?”, but stubborn and determined to not be branded “the weakling” of the crew, I spent the next hour insisting it was fine and I just needed to get used to it.  But when we stopped for a rest, and I noticed how exponentially more wiped out I was than the other two, I accepted the fact that I was out of my league.  “Um…” I forced out the words through gasps as I was still catching my breath, “…so…maybe my pack is…too heavy.”  Ntate Nkhooa just gave a “no problem” grin, and we redistributed my load.  This was my first indication of just how strong our guide really was.  He loaded his bag with most of the food Philip and I had brought for ourselves, and Philip took most of our cooking equipment.  Relief!  I put my pack back on and instantly felt more confident.  If the guys were okay with taking more of their share of the load, which they graciously never complained of in the many steps to follow, I could do this.

Headed into the park with a lighter load.

Headed into the park with a lighter load. Photo credit: Philip Drew

We took our time, and still arrived at the lodge with much of the day left to set up our tents, relax and dip in the gurgling stream near our campsite, and explore the astounding rock formations, greenery, and Khoi-Khoi houses of the area.  We even took time to stalk a pair of large, ostrich-like, birds from a great distance, believing for too long that they might be the elusive baboons we’d heard often hid in this part of the country.  It was during this time, wandering over grassy knolls and sitting in the sunshine among wildflowers, that we settled in as a hiking team, getting more comfortable with the idea of relying only on each other for the next few days in a wilderness somewhat unknown.  Yet on that day, if I had had any idea of what was to come in the trek ahead, strong hiking companions or no, I think I would have taken a few extra minutes to savor and appreciate the majesty of the scenery…and pack up my stuff to head home.  At that point, on that night, as I was lulled to sleep by an acoustic guitar and Bob Dylan lyrics (sung with a slight Afrikaner accent by fellow campers) I never would have imagined myself capable of the what we were to accomplish tomorrow.

Ntate Nkhooa, our trusted guide, enjoys the afternoon in Sehlaba-Thebe National Park. Photo credit: Philip Drew

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A Khoi Khoi house!  Built into the sides of caves and rock formations, ancient natives of Lesotho used these structures as shelters.  Sehlaba-Thebe National Park has preserved many of these still-standing homes.

A Khoi Khoi house! Built into the sides of caves and rock formations, ancient natives of Lesotho used these structures as shelters. Sehlaba-Thebe National Park has preserved many of these still-standing homes.

Chit-chatting inside a Khoi Khoi house

Chit-chatting inside a Khoi Khoi house

Sehlaba-Thebe

Sehlaba-Thebe

Sehlaba-Thebe

Sehlaba-Thebe

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Ntate Nkhooa climbs one of the many rock formations in Sehlba-Thebe National Park

Camping spot in Sehlaba-Thebe

Camping spot in Sehlaba-Thebe

Evening at campsite.

Evening at campsite.

Day 3:  Devil’s Knuckles and The Six Slopes of Sabotage or “You are capable of more than you imagined”

I woke up early with an anxious buzz that made it difficult to force down a complete breakfast.  I watched horses, against a backdrop of purple and orange tinted mountains, eating their morning meal as I ate mine.  The sun was rising, illuminating the first leg of our journey which had been pointed out the day before by Ntate Nkhooa.  For some reason, while the majesty of the three peaks overlooking the park’s outer limits was not lost on me the day before, the idea of difficulty in hiking over these mountains, renowned as “Devil’s Knuckles” was… until the time came when we were to pack up our tents and walk towards them.  I took a deep breath, gripped my pack, and put one foot in front of the other.

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Good morning!

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Morning view of Devil’s Knuckles

View from campsite of Devil's Knuckles

View from campsite of Devil’s Knuckles

Ntate Nkhooa looks over the start of our journey, Devil's Knuckles.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Ntate Nkhooa looks over the start of our journey, Devil’s Knuckles. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Before attempting Devils Knuckles. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Before attempting Devils Knuckles. Photo credit: Philip Drew

We hiked through the park again, passing the same stone structures we had rambled through before, and arrived at the base of the “knuckles”.  My heart beat faster, more from anxiety than from physical exertion, as we started our ascent, but as the terrain grew steeper and the grass grew higher, relief set in.  This was not so bad!  I was doing it!  The guys remained ahead of me, but I was keeping up.  There was no path carved out in our climb, and I often gripped grass above me in the steeper parts to help steady myself.  When we reached level ground, and worked our way around the first “knuckle” my inner monologue said something like, “Booyah, tough girl!”, and I was able to look up and realize what was in front of me.  An ocean of endless mountains and valleys stretched and reached out around us, overwhelming all that we could see with shadows and shades of different greens.

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Stopped for a rest in the green.

Walking over Devil's Knuckles

Walking over Devil’s Knuckles

Walking over Devil's Knuckles

Walking over Devil’s Knuckles

Walking over Devil's Knuckles

Walking over Devil’s Knuckles

View from Devil's Knuckles

View from Devil’s Knuckles

Photo caption:  I was ecstatic to realize, early on, that we had a guide who felt the need to stop and appreciate what we were seeing as much as I did.  I was not only grateful because I could catch my breath and rest, but because I never once felt, during the entire adventure and struggles, that I had missed or under-appreciated anything we had the opportunity of a lifetime to see.  Before we began the descent of the first “knuckle”, we took a minute to rest and do some such admiring.

After the first “knuckle” had been tackled, I still felt strong and relieved at the ease with which we’d hiked, but my back and ankles ached.  As we were doing much of the hike on a sideways slope and on a non-path terrain, it felt as if I was turning my ankle a bit in the same direction, and putting weight on it at an awkward angle to steady myself over and over again.  The idea of doing two more peaks was daunting, but doable.  By the time we’d finished all three of the “Devil’s Knuckles”, I felt accomplished and buzzed, the way a person feels after a good hard workout.  I was exhausted and relieved at the open, slope-less field of wild flowers we were now hiking through.  Ntate Nkhooa pointed out the various cattle posts and herds nearby, and it struck me how incredibly far away we already were from anything resembling civilization, and how remarkable it is that men live out there for months at a time to watch and graze their livestock.

Flatter ground and open fields near cattle posts.

Open fields and wild flowers

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Wild horses grazed and barely noticed us with slight skepticism

We walked a good deal more without stopping, and although it was fairly level ground it was still a challenge to keep up energy after all the slope conquering we’d already done that morning.  I was grateful when we decided to stop for lunch, and I remember comparing the jelly-like feeling in my legs, and the satisfying burn in my lungs to that of the feeling I’d had after running my first half-marathon.  I also realized, as we sat and ate, and then laid down for a brief snooze, how incredibly close to the sun we suddenly were.  I was thinking we had covered a great deal of ground, and had to be somewhat close to the place where Ntate Nkhooa had planned for us to camp that night, when our guide sat up and told us it was time to get moving.  He then pointed over to the land in front of us, and casually mentioned that we had the hardest part of the entire hike to complete before we could camp.  Philip and I looked at each other with unease… hardest part?  Wasn’t what we just did kind of hard?  And weren’t we already feeling like we couldn’t do much more?  Then I shifted my gaze to the masses beyond his pointed finger and let out a hopeless gasp.  Six monstrous slopes lay before us, and had to be passed by sundown.

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This was a daunting view… The six slopes we had to conquer before the end of the day. Photo credit: Philip Drew

It was on this leg of the hike that it began to occur to Philip and me that maybe Ntate Nkhooa had either overestimated our physical capabilities to be closer to his own (the man was a mountain dominating machine!) or had understated the difficulty of the hike to make us worry less… As I watched him float across the treacherous terrain ahead of me, I was both frustrated with his lack of guidance and astounded by his speed.  It wasn’t long before he was out of my sight range, behind the curve of the next slope I had yet to even start.  I was in a rough place.  The heat beat down on me as I became painfully aware of how far I had to go and how little ground I’d covered.  My right ankle protested every step as I trudged on across the slant, and it wasn’t long before I felt as though I couldn’t put my full weight on it.  The ridge was so steep that I could grip clumps of tall grass above me to help pull myself along, without bending over too drastically.  I started to count the number of times I fell down (9!), optimistically hoping I’d be in the right frame of mind to laugh about it later.

Philip was a true blue friend as I struggled and swore my way across one slope and then the next; keeping me in his sights and checking in every so often to make sure I was still moving on.  On the second slope (as I was beginning to wonder how close the nearest helicopter pad might be…in case I needed to be air-lifted out of the “Six Slopes of Smack-downs”) he shouted back, from the other side, that he had finally spotted Ntate Nkhooa.  He was on his way back towards us, pack-less.  It was then that I realized our guide’s strategy and was grateful for his previous abandonment.   Awaiting my arrival to the third slope, the guys shifted packs.  Philip took mine, the lightest, and Ntate Nkhooa carried Philip’s.  When our guide had carried Philip’s to where he had laid his own, he came back to pick up my pack from Philip.  In this way, he ferried all of our bags, one by one, across the six peaks and invariably did the whole leg about 2 1/2 times in the same amount of time it took me to do it once!  He was endearingly worried about our condition and did everything he could to make the hike easier on us.  My trust was officially restored in him, and I was grateful to have him as our guide.

Thinking back on that one leg of the trip, it feels like it took the entire five days.  In fact, it only took five hours…but after an entire morning of hiking, it put our total trek time up to about eleven hours in one day.  By the time I came off of the last slope and on to level ground, I could barely stand, and I was using a walking stick (affectionately carved by Ntate Nkhooa) to support my over-turned right ankle.  Now, looking at pictures, the land we settled on to after the “Six Slopes of Suck” wasn’t level at all, but the slope was so much less than what we’d conquered that it felt like stepping on to a bowling alley.  I assessed the rest of my condition.  Achey limbs, sun blisters, and what seemed like a mild case of heat exhaustion.  In the morning I’d be able to appreciate the magnitude of physical challenge that I’d just accomplished, but at that moment I just needed food and rest.  The guys were princes that night.  Though they themselves were wiped out and also in need of recuperation, they set up the tents and cooked dinner, monitoring me closely to make sure I was simply just exhausted.

The tents were set up in just the nick of time.  It wasn’t long before we heard the not-so-distant rumbling of thunder.  The skies darkened beyond their early evening color.  We had gotten to low ground and were in the least dangerous place possible as the summer storm crashed in a panoramic symphony of light and sound around us.  Usually terrified of lightning, I think I may have been too exhausted to be afraid.  Or maybe fear was engulfed by the once-in-a-lifetime experience of sitting front row in nature’s own spectacular arena, watching something I didn’t feel like I was supposed to see.  As the expanse of mountain and valley, shadows, and light, changed shape with each burst of lightning, it wasn’t the first time on that trip that I realized how small I was in an overwhelmingly large world.

I stayed warm and dry in the tent, and the storm quickly passed.  While I drifted into much needed sleep, Philip approached the tent flap from outside and said something along the lines of, “I know you’re exhausted, but you’re going to hate yourself if you don’t see this”.  I mustered the energy to come outside to see the most majestic post-storm rainbow stretching over the mountains of Kwa-Zulu Natal province of South Africa (the region we had been gazing into all day from the cusp of Lesotho’s most outer-limits).  It was the perfect ending to the first-day hike that had nearly kicked me into submission.  “If it means I get to sit on the edge of the world, and view Earth’s hidden splendors like this,” I said to myself, “I can totally do this again tomorrow.”

Finally finishing the Six Slops of Sabotage!  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Finally finishing the Six Slops of Sabotage! Can you find me? Photo credit: Philip Drew

End of day rainbow.  Photo credit: Philip DrewEnd of day rainbow. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Good night, moon. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Day 4: Watching the (hail) Ball(s) Drop on New Years Eve or “Put your trust in your counterparts to do the job you’ve asked them to do”

I awoke on New Years Eve (we had to remind ourselves of the date!) with the same resolve with which I had gone to sleep: “I will do this”.  But the first few steps out of the tent were cautious as I wondered if my ankle would agree with my mental commitment.  I took a few uneasy strides and noted the mild stiffness and soreness, but was relieved that it had significantly improved from the night before.  If I didn’t repeatedly step on a downward side slope for another day, I was confident it’d carry me to Sani Pass.  Oatmeal was followed by hot tea, and then we were up and at ‘em!  Buzzed from the notion that I was not a limping, invalid weight for the guys to have to drag along, I was ready for a fresh day of walking.

We had slept at the base of the daunting pass we were now supposed to climb.  It was no relief of intimidation from the previous day’s slopes, but tackling it first thing in the morning on fresh legs, I am now certain, is the only way I would have made it to the top.  I was also relieved to now be climbing straight up a mountain, instead of along it’s side.  Motivated by Ntate Nkhooa’s reassurance that this was the last leg of “the hardest part”, and the reward of what we were sure was going to be an unreal view into South Africa, we pushed on with fervor.  We were not disappointed when we reached the top.  From here, we were even able to look back towards the ridges in Sehlaba-Thebe and gape in astonishment at how far we had come the day before.

First thing in the morning, we ascended this from our camping spot on the far right plateau.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

First thing in the morning, we ascended this from our camping spot on the far right plateau. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Reaching the top!  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Reaching the top! Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

We descended into a valley, and soaked up the relief of flatter ground.  Taking in the majesty of the surrounding mountains walling us in, we were bombarded with a surprising sight.  Covering ground at a startling speed, two hikers were barreling down the back of a nearby mountain, headed our way!  After what felt like a week (though it was one day) of seeing nothing but back country and each other, we were slightly taken aback to meet the family of Afrikaners who were friendly, talkative, and maybe a little more sure of where they were going than we seemed to be.  In talking to them about where they had been and where they were headed, Philip and I realized that maybe our guide was not as sure of the route as we thought he’d been.  The family pointed in the direction of “Bushman’s Cave,” the destination we thought we had been trying to reach, and we discovered we were neither walking from or towards the same course they were pointing. Ntate recognized our skepticism and promised us that though there was some confusion, we were certainly headed towards Sani Pass.  Convinced of his good character and reliability, I put my full faith and trust in his guidance.  Besides, far from any civilization, and faced with the impossibility of going back the way we’d come (there was no way I was going to do another round of the Six Slopes of Satan!), there was no option but to continue forward.

Ntate’s promise, that the first steep ascent of the day was the last of “the difficulty” in our journey, was another overestimation of our physical capabilities.  We conquered not one, but two more upward mountain climbs that day, before we started looking for a place to stop for lunch.  It was just after noon when we reached the top of our most recent climb.  Breathless and sore once again, I noticed the calm, assessing, concern on Ntate’s face as he looked across the expanse of mountain and valley.  I saw his source of contemplation.  Moving clouds.  Mountain mist.  Thick and gray, it seeped and swam it’s way over the mountains ahead of us, blanketing their peaks from our sight.  I was surprised, but not disappointed, when Ntate decided, “I think we need to start looking for a place to stay for the night.  This mist is going to be a problem.”  After an already six hour hike, I was pleased for the chance to rest up, but I wasn’t sure why Ntate Nkhooa was so worried about a little bit of fog.

Stopping for water, halfway up a slope.

Stopping for water, halfway up a slope.

Mountain mists creep in...

Mountain mists creep in…

Headed downhill once again, light rain started to sprinkle us, and I noticed all of a sudden how drastically the temperature had lowered with the incoming cloud cover.  Ntate Nkhooa spotted what he believed to be “Bushman’s Cave” and we set up our tents in the crevice, cut along the side of the rocky ridge.  After our discussion with the other hikers, Philip and I were not convinced that this was actually the infamous “Bushman’s Cave”.  We were, however, amazed again at the site of one of Earth’s hidden vistas, and happy to be warm and dry, no matter what the accommodation’s name.

Our feelings of content changed to enormous relief when, not long after our tents were set, sleeping bags unrolled, and lunch cooked, the mist moved in among the rocks around us.  Realizing what an impossibility it would have been to hike through this ground-level fog with no visibility or sense of direction, I suddenly understood why Ntate had been in such a rush to find our sleeping spot.  This was not the first or last time I would be reminded of what an asset our guide was to this trip.  As if to further verify that we were in good hands and doing the right thing by hunkering down early that day, the fog soon brought with it a torrential hail storm!  Safe and restful in our tents, we watched yet another show from mother nature from the view of our little hole in the mountain-side.  As an added perk to our rest stop, Philip collected some of the marble sized hail balls, and I now had ice to put on my still-sore ankle!

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

View from our camping spot during the hail storm.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

View from our camping spot during the hail storm. Photo credit: Philip Drew

It was the strangest way I have ever spent a New Years Eve.  We found small ways to acknowledge the holiday, like eating chocolate pudding (a real treat after a couple straight days of oatmeal and beans!), making resolutions (we WILL make it to Sani Pass!), and accomplishing a few personal firsts (when you gotta go, you gotta go… whether or not you’re on the side of a cliff in a hail storm!).  While we all managed to sleep right through midnight and the first few hours of the new year, it still felt like we had properly celebrated.

Our New Years Eve camping spot!  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Our New Years Eve camping spot! Photo credit: Philip Drew

Day 5: Walking on the Wild Side or “Integration and immersion is invaluable”

Whether it was the promise of a brand new year, or the extra full evening of rest we’d had the day before, we awoke the next morning before dawn and started the day’s hike with a calm confidence.  Any doubts about our ability to make it the whole way to Sani Pass were erased, and we settled in to a nice pace up and over passes once again.  I lost count of how many mountains we had scaled (or how many times I continued to fall down…), and was able to enjoy the stunning scenery of the uninhabited wilderness of Lesotho.  I was doubtless that many outsiders, like us, had been lucky enough to experience this side of the country.

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Good morning! Photo credit: Philip Drew

Good morning! Photo credit: Philip Drew

We made up for some of the time lost the day before, but after two consecutive days of thunderstorms, we weren’t positive that we’d have a clear afternoon to continue.  Our fears were confirmed when we reached the top of a pass and caught a glimpse of the incoming afternoon mist.  Unwilling to lose more progress if we could help it,  Ntate Nkhooa looked towards herds of cattle in the valley below us and made the decision to enlist some outside help.  Not only were we going to experience Lesotho’s back country scenery, we were going to meet some of it’s back country natives as well!

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Cattle posts and incoming mists. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Cattle posts and incoming mists. Photo credit: Philip Drew

The Basotho herdboy is a commonality in all parts of the country.  The younger men of the family leave their houses early in the morning with the family’s sheep, cows, or goats, and spend all day in the fields to supervise their grazing.  They return with the herds before sundown.  Yet after the three days it took us to arrive to these certain valleys, it was clear that these herdsmen had a different daily experience than most of the men I’d met in my own rural village who had the responsibility of watching their livestock.  These men were days journeys away from their own homes, often spending weeks away from their own beds, families, and regular meals.  They lodged at cattle posts and lived on small supplies of maize meal and eatable plants they could find in the fields.  The herds they watched were often not their own family’s wealth, but one of many droves owned by someone else, wealthy enough to have others do the shepherding.  With their worn and weathered clothing and their obviously over-worked bodies, these herdsmen carried with them their own subculture of Lesotho.  They even used a different language.  Our guide, having worked as a herdboy in similarly remote areas of Qacha’s Nek when he was younger, knew the dialect.  While the shepherds greeted us with genuine smiles and friendly ease, asking them for help would not have been easy, or even safe, without Ntate Nkhooa and his familiarity with the traditional culture.

Herdboy.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Herdboy. Photo credit: Philip Drew

For three hours we walked through heavy fog, unable to see more than twenty feet ahead of us.  The herdsmen, jovial and talkative, knew the way without seeing the terrain ahead, and for once we were following something resembling foot paths.  We were even escorted by the shepherds‘ dogs who were protective of their masters and,  upon seeing our acceptance by the Basotho, flanked us all like secret service men.  Though we were damp and tired when we finally stopped for lunch and conversation, I was able to relish in what a different kind of traveling I was doing than at any other point in my life.  No sand, ocean, or real relaxation, but I was certainly seeing the world.

Herdsman in the mist.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Herdsman in the mist. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Misty trekking.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Misty trekking. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

A roll in the muck and mist! Photo credit: Philip Drew

Herding through mist.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Herding through mist. Photo credit: Philip Drew

When we had reached the other side of the cloud we’d been walking through for so long, we could finally see the expanse of valley around us and our friendly shepherds said farewell.  We could also see, unfortunately, the dark thunderheads covering the sky.  Our afternoon thunderstorm was right on time, but we weren’t in the best place for stopping. We were on a steady downward slope and were surrounded by cattle posts whose herdsmen may not be as welcoming of squatters as our helpers had been to guide us through and away from their land.  Ntate worked his magic yet again, and made friends with the herdsmen of the territory, but we spent too long looking for an ideal place to camp.  Before we’d set up our tents, the rain was upon us.  Sheltered on lower ground, we made camp in the middle of the storm.  We spent the night soggy and (for remarkably the first time!) grumpy.  After previous nights of good conversation, laughter, and new friendship, little was said before we all drifted off to uncomfortable sleep.

Day 6:  Arrival at Sani Pass! or “At the end of the day, brush off every frustration and celebrate every victory!”

The morning brought with it clear skies and welcome sun!  We took some time to lay our belongings out to dry, and it wasn’t long before we were able to pack up our things without the added weight of water.  With the brightening of day came the brightening of our moods.  We knew today would be the day we would arrive at Sani Pass!  Following level footpaths through more pastured valleys, we had an easy morning walk.  We crossed a small river, and I dawned my socks and shoes to feel the cool water over my bare and battered feet.  Ntate pointed out the few peaks before us that stood between us and our destination.  The final push was upon us, and though we’d be at Sani by early afternoon, we had the last and largest ascents to do before we got there.

We met a pair of younger herdboys who were walking to Sani Pass as well.  Quiet but friendly, they agreed to show us the clearest way.  It seemed again as though every time Ntate would tell us we only had “one more climb”, we’d reach the top to see yet another peak before us.  When we finally reached the top of our highest mountain, an ascent of 1500 ft, we took our last break to enjoy the splendor of the wilderness over which we had just walked.

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Largest slope conquered!

Largest slope conquered!

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Approaching Sani!  Last few climbs with herdboys.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Approaching Sani! Last few climbs with herdboys. Photo credit: Philip Drew

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We conquered one final, smaller slope and descended down to a wide pasture of grazing goats, sheep and donkeys.  Hallelujah and Yahoo!!  Across the damp field we could see the small town and border gate, as well as the infamous Sani Lodge where we were sure we’d find a celebratory drink and a warm meal.  Elated, we ambled our way across easy grass and gravel road, taking pictures and enjoying the final steps of our long and  laborious adventure.  The value of, not only what we’d just accomplished, but what we’d had the rare opportunity to experience, was not lost on me in that final simple stretch.  In over 50 miles, all at elevations over 9000 ft, in 5 days, we’d seen the most beautiful and remote parts of Lesotho.  We’d walked with the people who had made the mountain wilderness their home, and we’d gained invaluable understanding of their culture.  In my first six months of service I’d already accomplished the task of making my village in Qachas Nek feel like home, but this hike across Lesotho’s best kept secret was like getting to know the true and genuine colors of a new friend.  It gave me a more complete understanding of the country that I had agreed to serve.

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Last few strides to Sani! We passed grazing animals… little ones too!

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Last few strides to Sani, we passed grazing animals... little ones too!

Last few strides to Sani! Photo credit: Philip Drew

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Photo Caption:  The best burger and fries I’ve ever eaten, and a can of hard cider from the highest pub in Africa (true story!), solidified the completion and celebration.  We’d made it!

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Moshoeshoe’s Day!

On March 11th, Lesotho celebrates the death of the father of their country, King Moshoeshoe I.  To commemorate the event, students prepare traditional dances and songs and compete with other schools in performance and in foot races.  Moshoeshoe Games are a time of pride and excitement for all involved, and I enjoyed being a part of the festivities.  Below are some photos from the day.  Khotso! Pula! Nala! (Peace! Rain! Prosperity!)

The standard 7 girls compete in the 1200 meter race

And they're off!

And they’re off!

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Ausi Palesa (my host sister) representing her school in the traditional dancing

Ausi Palesa (my host sister) representing her school in the traditional dancing

Peggy officiates at the finish line!

Peggy officiates at the finish line!

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Boys dance teams usually carry these sticks as they stomp and sing

Boys dance teams usually carry these sticks as they stomp and sing

Grass skirts made from strips of plastic (usually from flour or maize meal sacks) are typical dance costumes

Grass skirts made from strips of plastic (usually from flour or maize meal sacks) are typical dance costumes

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A school choir rehearses in the school yard A school choir rehearses in the school yard

Abuti Liteboho (my host brother) leads his school's traditional dance team

Abuti Liteboho (my host brother) leads his school’s traditional dance team

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April 8, 2013 · 8:49 am

Lessons in Loss

Hey Anne fans!  A little prologue to this next post is in order as it’s not as light and happy as some of my previous ones.  It deals with the death of a young man in our village and some of the heavier topics in this great adventure.  While it’s a part of my service I felt necessary to share, please feel free to skip it or save it for another time.  As always, thanks a bunch for all the support!  You guys are the best.

 

It was one of the first days of the new school year here in village.  A typical Qacha’s Nek day in summer, we were experiencing three seasons in one day.  The morning was beautiful and perfectly sunny; the kind of weather you want to lay out in and soak up.  By noon, it was bordering on unbearably hot, when shade and the frequent mountain breeze are welcome friends, bringing relief and restoring the perfection of the sunny day.  Then, by 2 o’clock, the clouds had begun to roll in, darkening the sky with the foreshadowing of the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm.  By bedtime, after the storm had passed and the post-storm sunset had splashed the sky with a portrait of oranges, pinks, and purples, I’d be wearing three layers and cozying up with hot tea and a blanket for the chill of evening.

 

On this particular day, around 6pm, I was still weathering the summer day storm.  It was a doozy.  I know most of you think of me as Wonder Woman tough, Janis Joplin fearless, with maybe the perseverance of Katniss Everdeen (am I right?!), but some of you know that I turn into a hopeless, spineless, nail-biter at the sight of lightning.  Even before this awful day, my fear of lightning was one of my biggest challenges as a volunteer in Lesotho.  Lightning in the mountains of this country is no sparklers show.  It’s an awe-inspiring, goose bump raising, spiritual experience to watch the panorama of strikes against surrounding sky and mountains….one that I watch dutifully from inside…in my bed…under the covers.  While the chances of being struck by lightning are still low, thunderstorms are a serious safety concern in this part of the world, and are to be wary and wise of always.  With high elevations and the lack of taller conductors, like trees, it’s a good idea to be inside when a storm strikes.  Which brings us to the telling of a very sad event that brought me face to face with the reality of death and grief in Lesotho.

 

The rain was still falling and the thunder still crackling when I got the news. The teenage son of close friends was walking home in the storm, and had been struck and killed by lightning, not far down the road from his house.  A well-known and well-loved family in the community, it was a tragic night for everyone in our small village as we tried to wrap our heads around the instantaneous loss of someone so young and full of life.  The boy had been a member of the high school futbol team, and that evening, after breaking the news to my own family and neighbors, I was comforted to sit in my host family’s cooking rondavel with them and some of the teams’ players who lived nearby. 

 

Basotho are no strangers to loss and death.  In a country where the life expectancy hovers between 30 and 40 years, most teenagers have attended more funerals than some Americans do in their entire lifetimes.  In pre-service training, we are told that most people of Lesotho have a cultural stoicism that makes them more resilient to tears and less likely to show the pain of such loss on their faces.  We were even warned of possible reactions from Basotho in the case that we, as volunteers, may have public displays of emotion (the inopportune PCV meltdown is a necessary part of the volunteer’s experience; like gastrointestinal issues, peeing in a bucket in front of your peers, and going at least five days without bathing, it could be considered a right of passage in service).  Possible reactions include surprise, confusion, awkward back pats, and slow exit strategies.  This is not to say that they hurt or struggle any less with the deaths of loved ones, but showing grief in public is not usual.  So now, while I melted in to hysterics and struggled to gain composure at the news of tragedy for a family I had come to love for eight months, the people around me, who had known and loved them for their entire lives, sat quietly, spoke in hushed voices, said prayers, and discussed the family’s future.   

 

In all my months in country, I had yet to see a reaction to death that I was familiar with.  I had attended funerals and sung hymns with stone-faced grievers, and was certain that Basotho never cried.  I was also familiar with certain mourning customs.  In training, one of my fellow volunteers was staying with a woman who had recently lost her husband.  She was expected to wear black for four months, and not touch, not even to shake hands with, another man during this time.  After these months, the family hosted a party for their whole village to signify the end of their mourning.  The widow wore her brightest colors and shook hands with her male friends.  They slaughtered a cow, ate a large feast, and danced well into the night.  It was also at this time that the family was allowed to sell or move the deceased’s possessions.  I remember the sounds of celebration as men drove the husband’s car away to be sold.  There were certain mourning protocol to follow depending on the person who had passed and their relationship to you.  To me, grief in Lesotho seemed so controlled and organized.  It was hard for me to fathom putting a set time-frame on a person’s mourning.  I couldn’t understand how everyone stayed so calm while experiencing such pain, and I was concerned about what the physical or mental effects might be for such intense emotions left unexpressed.  

 

Then, the day following my village’s tragedy, my ‘M’e and I walked to the family’s home to visit.  At a loss for what to do or how to help, I decided to follow my own cultural instincts.  I brought food, and arrived with the intention of doing household chores or running errands as needed.  It was here that a new window into the grief and loss of Basotho was opened, and so many of my misunderstandings of their culture were clarified.  Expecting stoic family members and quiet prayers, I entered the house, and was completely blindsided with emotional disorder.  The boy’s grandmother, who had treated me like her own daughter since my first day at site, was so wrought with tears that it was difficult to even pull her in to a hug.  The boy’s mother, unable to control her grief, was hidden, her wails muffled under blankets on a mattress on the floor.  A few close friends hovered near to the women, praying and weeping openly.  I was dumbfounded, all at once feeling over-assuming and ignorant.  I had been so convinced that Basotho never showed emotion, yet here I was in a room so dense with grief, that it was impossible to feel anything but sorrow.     

 

Extended family, friends, neighbors, and even less known acquaintances came to cry with the family.  The whole community took turns knocking on the door to come in, sit, and grieve.  For three days from sun up to sun down, the family was flooded with visitors, wails, tears, and mournful prayers.  That first day, overwhelmed and heartbroken, I sat briefly with my hands in my lap and searched for a way to react.  My eyes drifted in to the kitchen to the sink filled with empty dishes and the stove top filled with food untouched.  “Have either of you eaten?” was all I could think to say to the boy’s grandmother.  She shook her head.  I went into action mode to deal with a loved one’s pain the way our culture tends to deal with it…by staying as busy as possible.  I reheated the old soup on the stove and made tea.  I helped the boy’s mother sit up and steadied her while she ate.  I washed the pile of dishes, and tidied the kitchen counters.  My own ‘M’e helped me by washing the family’s clothes and blankets and hanging them out to dry in the sun.  I wish I could say I only did these things to help, but the truth is that I selfishly couldn’t sit still in a room so saturated with anguish.  It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Looking at the other visitors, I was frustrated that no one seemed to be doing anything but sustaining the family’s sadness.  I kept hearing my own mother’s voice in my head saying, “They need rest. They need food.”  Why wasn’t anyone helping them?  It took the rest of the month for me to realize that they actually had been helping, in a way that I was not capable of doing myself.

 

In a few short days, the family would attend their young son’s funeral with composure and strength.  After only two weeks, one woman would be back to teaching a room full of ten year-olds, and the other would be attending school again to continue a much needed education.  With only a short time allotted to dwell on the pain and the loss of a loved one, the community had come together to make sure it was properly and thoroughly expressed.  Help didn’t come in the form of cooking or cleaning.  It came in cathartic encouragement and the ability to lay their grief to rest with the one they had lost, so that they would be able to resume their lives, do their own laundry, and make their own meals.  In the days following his funeral, I was humbled to see the boy’s mother and grandmother back to their usual routines and positive outlooks.  My frequent visits would find them tending their gardens, grading papers, or even helping their neighbors with their own losses and struggles.  I was greeted with smiles and inquiries about how my life was going.  Life is short, but it is shorter in Lesotho.  I am certain that while his family is no longer in mourning, the boy’s loss will be painful for a very long time.  I know that he is missed each and every day, but I have also come to realize that Basotho mourning customs and traditions are not ways of forcing families to quickly forget those they have lost, but to help them to remember to live. 

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Going Places

Running has always been a necessary, stress relieving activity in my life. And by “always” I mean never…until college when I joined the rugby team and, motivated by the case of beer at the end of our ritual team trail runs, I found my stride, and a new love in life…ENDORPHINS! Exercise, in general, is my ultimate grumpy pants cure. I can count on knowing when I’m not being my sunny self, when someone (sorry, Mom) not-so-subtly asks the question, “Anne…have you been on your run today?”. I leave as a tightly wound anger ball, and come back sweaty, red-faced, and cool as a cucumber. So, it’s not a big surprise that during my Peace Corps service, where new challenges and frustrations are ever-present parts of life, I need to get movin‘ from time to time! I knew that running would be essential to my mental health, but I had no idea how much of a part it would play in my service.

Running isn’t really “a thing” in my host country. While some Basotho compete professionally (did you catch the four Lesotho athletes who competed in the summer olympics last year?! Three runners and a swimmer, who gets extra props for going pro in her sport in a land-locked country where EVERYONE is afraid of water), you don’t see many locals out on a daily morning jog. Especially in more rural areas, exercise is already incorporated in every day life. I am constantly surprised by the strength and endurance of Bo’M’e (Basotho women) in my community. Here’s a tip: When walking anywhere with a ‘M’e, particularly longer distances, never agree to take what she might refer to as “a short cut”. This usually means that instead of ambling quietly along the longer, yet somewhat level, dirt road, you’ll be off-roading to your destination and climbing that large and looming mountain ahead of you. You’ll be thinking of that gradual downward slope of dirt road that goes AROUND the mountain as you’re awkwardly sliding down it’s steep backside, while your ‘M’e glides along gracefully in front of you. She may look back from time to time to chuckle and make sure you’re not caught in the brush or falling to your demise. Sometimes she’ll do the whole hike with a heavy object, like bundled branches or kilos of flour, balanced perfectly on her head and still, just as gracefully, make you look like a giraffe on roller skates. After “short-cuts” like these, or walking an hour or two to school and then home every day, or herding cattle through the ravines and river beds, or tromping miles through rough terrain to collect and carry firewood, the idea of putting aside time to run up and down mountains understandably seems a little silly. This is why I am always surprised and excited to get positive, supportive reactions to my own running routines.

My first run in Lesotho, during training with two other Peace Corps volunteers, was memorable. Our training village was a little more used to seeing crazy Americans running through the cornfields and up the dirt roads surrounding our houses as they’d hosted the training group the year before us. There was an excitement to their spectating, and even active participation. It was as though they’d been wondering, from day one, when this was going to happen. On our first outing, we were surprised to be joined by a pack of cheery children, about twelve to start, that ran with us, bare-footed and giggling around the loop of dirt and maize around our village.

It was a peppy beginning, but the group dwindled as we continued further from our homes. When we reached the curve of trail that turned us back toward the direction we’d started from, we were on our own, and the altitude (ok, and maybe the ten cookies I’d eaten at tea time earlier that day…) set in. Huffing and puffing, I looked for a point ahead to start walking. Instead my gaze fell on the group of bouncy kiddos in the distance, waiting for us on imagined sidelines, far down the trail. Before we knew it, we were greeted again with huge smiles on the young faces eager to rejoin the stampede back into village. Talk about a second wind! Seeing the youngsters waiting on the side of the road, like our own cheering squad at the end of a race, put the notion to walk out of my mind. Hearing the sudden surrounding “thump thump” of bare-feet on dirt road, as they all jumped back into the pack, was an inspiring, “keep it up!”, kick in the pants.

My first run in my own village in Qachas Nek was a completely different kind of memorable. My host community is one of many in the 6 hour stretch between the camptown of Qachas Nek and Sehlaba-Thebe National Park, accessible by one, not-so-weather resistant, dirt road that winds through the houses and farmlands hidden among majestic, mountain peaks. Intimidated by the rocky road, altitude, and unavoidable hills, running was not the first thing I did after unpacking my ipod and sneaks. When I finally did get the courage to go, I woke up at a chilly 5am. My early bird strategy was to avoid the parade of school children that make their way to elementary and secondary schools from their homes in distant villages, sometimes hours away. Accompanied only by rooster crows and the distant cow bells of herds beginning to rise, not even the sun was fully up and at ‘em. I had the road and the mountains all to myself, and I was finally able to take in the amazing beauty of my new surroundings.

Following the first twist of trail, my eyes searched ahead to see where the road would lead me, only to be met with a breathtaking sweep of ravine, enclosed by purple sky and shadowed slopes. Before me, the road bent again and disappeared around the next curve of mountain, but from where I stood, it seem to lead right off the edge of the ridge and into the abyss below. I had seemed to have found the end of the Earth. I was so taken by the views that I neglected to notice that the majority of the half hour I’d spent running was in fact, downhill…until I turned around. Oof! Winded and walking most of the way home, my pace was slower. The sun was now making her morning stretches across all I could see, and the children were starting their walks to school. The parade was beginning, and I was the main attraction.

In Lesotho, there is a common greeting, “U ea kae?” (Ooh -yah -KIE), that means “Where are you going?”. It is just as common, even from complete strangers, as “Hello” and “How are you?”. As an American who considers her whereabouts at most times somewhat personal (does the whole universe really need to know when I am on my way to the latrine?!), this took some getting used to. In a cultural fishbowl where we already felt gawked at and scrutinized, especially when we first arrived, it wasn’t always easy to tell inquiring minds what we were up to, every time we stepped out of our houses, without hints of frustration or annoyance. It wasn’t until this first run in Qacha’s Nek that I really understood that people weren’t prying into my business, nor did they really care where I was headed. They were just extending a friendly greeting. As the villagers began to start their days and join me on the road, asking me “U ea kae?”, I wasn’t sure how to answer. Using the few Sesotho vocabulary I knew I said, “Uhhh…I’m just running?”

Most of the children giggled at being spoken to by the new-to-town American, as they would have done no matter where I said I was going, and some of my older neighbors may have given away small glimpses of confusion as to why I would be running with no intention of actually getting anywhere, but for the most part my morning companions responded the same way they always do. “Tsamaea hantle! Kea Leboha, Ausi!”, they said with smiles. “Go well, and thank you my sister!”. It occurred to me then that I could have told them just about anything from, “I’m running 57 miles, RIGHT NOW, to cure cancer” to “I’m going to do my taxes”, and they would have extended the same level of enthusiasm and warmth. I took great comfort in that realization, and in the days to follow I stopped worrying so much about who I would run in to and what they’d want to know. In fact, my morning runs and walks became a fast track to community integration (well… besides the hokey pokey, wink wink). I began to see familiar faces, and my own became familiar to them too. People would ask me my name, what I was doing in the community, and how long I’d be staying, which was all information of which it was my job to make sure they knew in the first place.

Now, the more familiar my face has become, the more comfort and happiness I have felt in my new home…and it’s not just the endorphins! Now when I run, children no longer giggle from embarrassment and shyness. They cheer loudly and run with me, clump clumping in their dress shoes and school uniforms. The Bo’M’e, who tend the large field of maize next to my turn-around-point, pick their heads up from bending over their hoes to count my kilometers, shout the number, and tell me to run faster because I’m looking tired. My own ‘M’e has seemed to embrace my morning presence on the road as well. Passing her on her way to work in the next village, she never lets me go with a simple or shy “go well”, embarrassed over what the community may think of her strange houseguest. Instead she picks up her skirt, shouts, “Phakisa! Phakisa! Hurry! Hurry!” and runs along with me, swatting at my behind for a few strides, often steadying, with her free arm, the bucket on her head. It’s hard to keep a steady pace when you’re laughing so hard. My regular exercise has even brought opportunities and ideas for community projects from people who rightfully assume that the running girl might have some interest in sports, recreation, and health!

Some days (ok, many days) I still need the solitude of an early, pre-community parade, walk or run to clear my head, grab some “me time”, and prepare myself for the day. Still, on these mornings, I love the end of the workout that bleeds into the post-dawn, village commute. Everyone still asks, “U ea kae?” even though they now already know the answer will always be, “Good morning! I’m just running! Uena? (You?) Where are YOU going?!”

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Kombi Comaraderie

A few weeks ago, on my way home from visiting some friends in the northern part of the country, I had my first experience riding the bus that runs from Maseru to Qacha’s Nek. I had realized immediately, with a heavy heart, that my iPod was dead. An embarrassingly rookie PCV mistake to not charge it before the day-long ride could mean eight hours of blaring famu (lesotho rap music) with no respite. Don’t get me wrong. I love experiencing Basotho culture, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I can find value in almost anything with a melody or beat. However, famu is altogether a different beast, and one that I can only appreciate in small doses.

A typical famu tune usually begins with a few bars of solo accordion, which acts as a fair warning for the onslaught of thumping bass, a pattern of the same three to four measures of accordion on repeat, and then what sounds like one angry masotho shouting at the neighborhood kids for disturbing his begonias. Truthfully, the lyrics are always rapid Sesotho, and I am told they have deep political or emotional meaning, but all I can imagine is the impassioned rapper yelling, “GET OFF MY GRASS, YOU CRAZY KIDS, BEFORE I TELL YOUR MOTHER!”. If you’re lucky, you may get a chorus somewhere in there of slightly slurred Bo Ntate (basotho men) singing almost in unison, which gives the listener a feeling of camaraderie, nationality, and maybe an outdoor beer garden during the World Cup finals. Public transport drivers love their famu.

All joking aside, Basotho culture is rich with traditional music that I usually cannot get enough of. They use song (usually hymns) in every type of gathering, ceremony, celebration, and custom, and I don’t know any other country in which every citizen seems to know how to sing a plethora of songs, on the spot, in perfect harmony. Which is why, when the bus’s sound system miraculously switched gears from abrasive lesotho rap to soothing hymns sung by Zahara (Lesotho’s Whitney Houston!), I was shocked and intrigued to find the one masotho who could not carry a tune.

A typically unpredictable Lesotho transport experience was made even more special by the enthusiastic (that may be an understatement) ‘M’e sitting behind me who, for the duration of the eight hour excursion, could not sit still. It’s one of my favorite parts of traveling through this country, to hear Bo’M’e (basotho women) singing along reverently to hymns on the radio. Like most of the women around her, my antzy bus buddy knew every word to Zahara’s ballads. Unlike the rest of the surrounding chorus, she could not match pitch to save her life. The intensity of her tone deafness was matched only by the intensity of her enthusiasm. Every time a new song came on she’d stand up, throw her arms over the seat in front of her (which happened to be mine), and let out a few “Ey!”s and “Yaebo!”s. Her excitement never even wavered on the slower jams. This was the equivalent of yelling “Whoooohoooo!” during the intro of “Pachelbel’s Cannon”.

The added musical entertainment made the time fly faster as we twisted through the mountains of southern Lesotho. It took my mind off of the more unsettling aspects of public transportation. An hour in to the journey, I’d watched out the window as two men loaded a live goat in to the baggage carriage under the bus. My concern for the bewildered animal (and everyone’s luggage next to a goat with an anxious bladder….eeeew!) ebbed with the musical distraction, and before I knew it the goat was off-loaded, bleating and unsteady, but no worse for wear.

The unpredictability that is typical of public transportation continued after I arrived in Qacha’s Nek’s main town, and started the last leg of my ten hour journey on the taxi from town to my village. The rule for most Lesotho kombis (large, mini van, taxis equipped with comfortable seating for about fifteen people) is “We can always fit one more!”. You learn to get used to it, so I was not surprised or frustrated to be smooshed in between two large BoNtate, one ‘M’e, and three sacks of flour among my own luggage. In fact, I was content to not be carrying a live chicken, leaking paraffin container, or screaming child on my lap, and was settled in for the next two hour trip down the bumpy dirt road to home.

Just as we were about to turn off the main road from town, and on to the dirt one to the more remote villages of Qacha’s Nek, we were routinely stopped by a Lesotho police check point. Miffed by the extra two passengers in our vehicle, they made the driver get out and decide which two passengers would have to find alternate methods of transportation. Justly, the driver asked the last passenger who had boarded, as well as his own conductor (this is the young man, and business partner, responsible for collecting passengers’ fares, opening and shutting the kombi’s sliding door, and knowing where passengers need to get off) to get out. After the load was lightened, the police let us on our merry way with no more than a warning.

I was enjoying the extra leg room, but feeling sorry for the two men who now had to find their own way home, as we trudged up the first slope of the mountain road. Just as we were reaching the top, shouts went up from the back of the taxi. The car came to a sudden halt, then began backing slowly down the mountain. Following the other passengers’ gazes, I saw them. Two dark shapes were moving quickly on the road about half a mile behind us. They were sprinting. The two men who had been ejected a mile ago, were barreling down the dirt to catch us again.

Out of police check point range, they reached our taxi breathless and laughing and were greeted by the open car door and giggles from the already packed vehicle. That’s when it hit me. No one complained about the cramped space or the twenty extra minutes the whole ordeal had taken. Though at risk of a traffic fine, the driver never refused to let them back on. The runners were met with “welcome back” smiles and no hesitations. In Lesotho, there is a sense of camaraderie among complete strangers in confined spaces, knowing that at some point along the journey, you will most likely hit a few bumps in the road ahead.

Coincidentally, our fated taxi hit more of our own road bumps. So many, in fact, that our driver had to pull over to change a tire fifteen minutes before we reached home. I searched for rolling eyes, crossed arms, and disgruntled insults under passengers’ breaths, but I saw none of those things. What I saw were several of the male passengers patting each other on the back as they lent hands to help lift the car and steady the wheels. I saw women helping to pass a sleeping baby as his mother climbed out of the back seat to stand, watch, and joke about “the men at work”.

The same was true of the passengers sitting around my ballad-butchering, bus buddy. No one’s teeth were clenched and grinding. No one’s patience seemed to be tested, and no one glared at her intently before yelling, “Goodness, lady! Wouldja shut up already?!”. And why should they? After all, eight hours is a long time to be sitting in a small space filled with that kind of negativity. So what if she sounded like Scuttle, the seagull, singing “Kiss the Girl”? Her joy was infectious if you uncrossed your arms and let it wash over you. Besides, one voice hitting all the wrong notes is no big deal when fifteen others, with perfect pitch, join in to sing along.

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Anne of Green…Spinach!

The work of Peace Corps volunteers is varied and never predictable. No two volunteers are likely to have the same experiences, especially in the Community Health and Economic Development project. We arrive at our sites with assigned supervisors and counterparts (local community or organization members who work side by side with volunteers to make sure projects are sustainable after we leave the country), but most volunteers end up finding new projects and other people to work with. As we become integrated, build our own relationships, and discover the true needs of our communities and organizations, we find potential for development in places we may not have previously considered.

I was lucky to start my service with an organization ready and willing to get to work. The Kopanang Basotho Support Group is a collective of ten women and three men from my community, who meet once a month with a goal of supporting vulnerable populations in their villages. They especially hope to help orphans and children effected by HIV and AIDS. As a group with no money, and no previous project experience, I went in to our first planning meeting unsure of what to expect. What I found was an amazing group of citizens who genuinely care for their community, and who have a resource more valuable than money in the development world. They have motivation!

I know it sounds hokey, but no project is possible without people who are willing to work toward a common goal. In places where loss and disappointment are so common, motivation is not always so easy to find. We started a conversation about our goals and mission at that first meeting, and I was relieved to see the determination on each of their faces, but when we talked about the groups’ current resources, they laughed and said they had none. Then one elderly woman got very quiet, looked at me (not unlike the way your own grandmother might look at you before she told you, sincerely, that you really ought to get your sh*t together), and said in Sesotho, “‘M’e Thato…” (that’s me!) “…We have the hands. We have the strength. We need eyes.” She pointed at the center of my chest with her weathered forefinger and said, in perfect english, “We need you!”.

BADA BING! I was in love! I have heard in development work, and specifically in Peace Corps, that people lose steam and motivation doesn’t last. No matter what happens in the next two years of my service, I hope I never forget the initial spark in that room. In the months to follow, we moved forward to do great things as a new group. On their own accord (motivation!), the members invited a representative from the Ministry of Agriculture to come and discuss “how to be better support group members”, as well as ways to improve nutrition in their communities. Two other support groups from other villages in our area were also invited, initiating a unified support group network. Talk about a good start!

The groups discussed the importance of home grown and self-prepared meals with balanced, nutrient rich, ingredients. They talked about traditional recipes that were more nutritional, but had been discarded from the dinner table for more modern, processed dishes that had little nutritional value. They decided to organize a Basotho Cultural Food Day, where they gathered for a potluck style feast! Everyone brought foods made from traditional recipes (I thought my “traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich” recipe wouldn’t be appropriate, so I helped my ‘M’e make some basotho style bread instead…), to teach each other, and to take back to their own communities (You can see photos of this event on my photos page!). The event was a huge hit, and we all went home with inspiringly full tummies.

Following the Ministry of Agriculture’s first visit, and the discussion of how vulnerable children needed better access to better foods, the support group decided to begin a keyhole garden project in our community. A keyhole garden is a raised plot, constructed with a stone wall (about waist high), with an indent in one side where someone can stand and reach their plants with ease. It’s built this way, so the gardner does not have to bend or struggle to tend the garden. In this way, it’s easier for children, the elderly, and the sick, to grow fresh produce. The group set a goal of building gardens for the orphaned families in their community. Keyhole garden construction was part of our training as Peace Corps volunteers, so I was ecstatic when they asked me to help organize the project and teach garden construction!

From the end of September through the beginning of December, we constructed twenty new gardens in our community! More impressive than the perfectly shaped, perfectly planted keyholes (they were beeeeeautiful, folks!) was the pride and community volunteerism that went in to the building of each garden. Sometimes we would have fifteen volunteers, while other times we would only have three, but the garden was always finished, and always perfect. One day, we made a garden for an elderly woman and her two orphaned grandchildren. Only two other women showed up to help on what was one of the hottest days of the year. It took us twice as long as any other garden, but sweaty, dirty, and thirsty, we finished the whole thing, just the three of us, with smiles on our faces.

And then an amazing thing happened. Keyhole gardens began popping up in places we hadn’t built them! People were modeling their own gardens after ours. What’s more, members of the community, that weren’t even in the support group, began to show up to help. They donated their own seeds, their hands, and their time. One of my favorite gardens, built for a high school aged boy living on his own, was primarily built by three of his friends on the futbol team. When the garden was finished and it was time to plant seeds, we realized no one had brought any. One of the futbol players who was also a double orphan, living on his own, was hot and tired from shoveling all afternoon, but took off in a sprint towards his own house across the village. He came back, still sprinting, with three bags of his own seeds in his hands.

I never thought I’d come to Africa and spend so much time under a farmer’s hat, but it’s been one of the more therapeutic and pleasant surprises of my journey so far. I even have my own keyhole garden at home, where my spinach, kale, beet root, and carrots are thrivin’! (This is largely due to the fact that I get butt swats from my ‘M’e when I forget to weed and water…) To learn so much about growing what I eat, and to do it with such an engaged community, has been a real treat. Now, as harvest season begins and planting season is at an end, we are looking forward to new projects and ideas of how to help our community. Through the garden project came forward other motivated groups and individuals. I don’t want to give away future stories before they are ready to be told, but stay tuned to see what hat I wear next!

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