You Put Your Right Foot In

For years, I’ve admired the owners of every bumper, laptop, and water bottle that have sported the sticker that boldly inquires, “What if the Hokey Pokey really IS what it’s all about?!”.  As a Peace Corps volunteer, we are told that during our first three months at site, we should focus on the single and overwhelming task of integration into our communities.  Now, at the end of my second month in the mountains of Qacha’s Nek, the Hokey Pokey question has taken on a whole new sillyness, and a surprising amount of appropriateness, as I’m realizing what an incredibly valuable tool this hand clapping, rump shaking, fool-of-myself-making, song has been to the first few weeks of my service. 

Surrounded by seven children under the age of fifteen, on winter break from school, it took less than one day for the Hokey Pokey to be introduced, and all of five minutes for it to become the new favorite pass-time of the kiddie clan.  It turns out shaking it all about and turning ourselves around is wildly entertaining in any language.  It was an instant hit, and the perfect ice breaker, leading to other songs, dances, and games of futbol (that’s soccer, for all yee Harrisburg Heat fans), volleyball, and cards, that even the older kids could get in to (ok… so the Hokey Pokey is NOT what it’s all about for cool, high school boys). Dancing, singing, and playing led to high-fives, hugs, and small talk.  Small talk and hugs led to conversations and trust.  In the first five weeks, my Lesotho family and I busted through the awkwardness of the language barrier and started to get comfy.  When I felt homesick or out of place, I needed only to open my front door to the yard full of kids, and my attitude changed immediately.    By the time the children were returning to school, I was feeling more than accepted as a new member of the family.  I was welcomed by all…. except for one…

It took a few days to get used to the new sounds of home once the kids went back to their studies.  Shouting, laughing, and the occasional tantrum (they have those in Lesotho too!) were replaced by the ebb and flow of wind gusts, the clump of four year-old Thabang running or falling in the dirt, his lone, high pitched voice yelling, “Koko!” while knocking on my door, and his adorable one-sided conversations with his one year-old cousin, Lerato…who stayed as far away from my house as possible.  The poor girl did NOT trust this new caucasian stranger who was all of a sudden part of her home.  She screamed and cried when I picked her up, and actively ran away (you have to be motivated by real fear to run when you’re on wobbly one year-old legs!) when I talked to her with soft, friendly peace offerings.  I was heart broken and perplexed.  Yeah, okay, the first white person sighting was probably a little overwhelming, but I wasn’t used to having this effect on kiddos.  It was a huge obstacle in my full family integration plan.  

The magic started on one of the first warm mornings of the year, a couple hours after her older cousins had gone to school.  I had just solved the mystery of a brand new kind of silence.  At the realization of the absence of clumps, giggles, and “koko”s, I went in search of Thabang, praying he hadn’t been trampled by one of the animals he LOVES to chase out of our yard (seriously… every foreign cow, horse, and goat be warned.  The kid may be small, but he is a territorial terror, and he and his stick mean BUSINESS.)  I found him passed out in the sun, comatose, with all but his dust covered toes under a blanket.  Yard guarding is exhausting stuff.  Relieved I headed back to my house, to find a surprising and, not so subtly, shocked visitor.  Lerato’s face fell at the sight of me, ready to unleash the fury of tears, as she realized she was alone and defenseless in the enemy’s own hut.  Here was my chance… make or break time… I reached for the only weapon I could think of in desperation.

Here goes…“You put your right hand in…You put your right hand out…”   No tears yet… “You put your right hand in, and you shake it all about”  Wait, was that a smile?  “You do the Hokey Pokey, and you turn yourself around…”  Is she really taking steps TOWARDS me?!  “That’s what it’s all about!” (Clap clap clap clap clap clap)  Are those HER giggles?!  Is that HER clapping?!  

Too afraid the spell would break if I stopped, I kept going through both arms, legs, hips, backside (that’s the politically and one year-old appropriate term), head, and whole self with Lerato clapping and giggling right along.  The song ended and I pushed my luck, reaching out my hand to forge the final truce.  Her tiny fingers held on to mine as we walked the whole length of the yard, hand in hand, to my ‘M’e, working in her garden.  “Jooeeey!” ‘M’e’s smile and relief spread across her face as she sighed the celebratory Basotho expression in disbelief.  I was officially accepted by one and all.

While that was my most defining Hokey Pokey moment, it was not my last!  The song and dance proved even more valuable in many other community “firsts” including the day that my site mate and Peace Corps partner in crime, Peggy, (hey, Peggy) decided to initiate me into the wonderful world of Lesotho Primary School by leaving me alone, for ten WHOLE minutes, in a room with 50 first and second graders.  The Hokey Pokey was my only chance at survival.  It proved valuable as well, in my first day at the local health clinic.  On Tuesdays, the staff hosts HIV testing, CD4* count collection, and ARV* distribution days.  I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to help the staff with administrative and organizational duties, to meet more of my community members, and to see, first-hand, how the HIV epidemic is effecting so many families in my area.  

*HIV 101:  The CD4 cell is the white blood cell, and crucial component of your immune system, that is attacked by the HIV virus.  When the virus lowers the amount of CD4 cells in your blood to a dangerously low amount, you are at higher risk of terminal infections from any other virus or bacteria that may enter your body because your immune system cannot fight them off.  When the count is this low, your status progresses to AIDS.  Thus the importance, if you are HIV positive, of having your CD4 count checked regularly.  ARVs are the medications used to keep CD4 counts high, and keep the virus from destroying the immune system.  They do not cure HIV, but they keep the virus at bay.  Many HIV positive people are able to live long, healthy lives by taking these medications regularly.    

One of the hardest of my experiences so far as a volunteer, was discovering how young so many of the HIV positive patients are.  One patient in particular, a young girl still in primary school, arrived to have her blood drawn for a CD4 count.  The recently diagnosed pre-teen sat in the exam room with a straight face and a positive attitude.  Given what most people in her culture consider a death sentence, she was calm and collected, digesting the information, and learning how to fight and live.  I was so touched by her strength and outward fearlessness, that I almost forgot she was just a child, until the nurse pulled out the needle to start the blood collection.  Tears welled up immediately, and when the nurse moved forward, she leapt away.  You can guess what provided the perfect distraction.  There were no giggles and no clapping along this time, but the blond lady twirling and shaking herself around the small room was enough to pull some attention away from the needle in our brave girl’s arm, and complete the collection with the strength back in her face. 

That’s what it’s all about (clap clap clap clap clap clap).

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New Address!

As always, thank you SO much for the letters, packages, and emails! It means a bunch to get pieces of home! Please send future mailings to the address below. Fret not if you’ve recently sent something to my former address! It will still get to me, but may just take a little more time. Thank you!! Lots of love to you all!

Anne Schultz, PCV
PO Box 372
Qacha’s Nek, 600
LESOTHO (Southern Africa)

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A Change of Names

Bust out the Lesotho maps, folks!  It’s time to find my current location, and my home sweet home for the next two years!

Before arriving to this country, I had every hopeful expectation (they tell you not to come here with those, but it’s impossible not to these days, thanks to Google Images and Facebook!) of living on the side of a mountain in a thatched roofed hut with no electricity, no running water, and little contact with anyone outside of my small Basotho community.  It’s not everyone’s ideal adventure, but I daydreamed about the challenge of integrating into a community so immensely different from my own at home, and living a lifestyle much more modest than the one I’d been lucky enough to have become accustomed to.

In training, you become close to the same people from whom you may be placed on opposite sides of the country.  You meet current volunteers serving in a variety of different sites and settings, and you visit them, learning about the potential communities you may work with, the different houses you may live in, and the variety of projects you may decide to pursue.  It’s necessary and exciting, but is overwhelming and certainly enough to make us all revise our expectations and desires as we realize that we have options to be more or less connected, more or less comfortable, and closer or further away from those we’ve come to rely on.

I don’t envy the small Peace Corps staff committee who were given the task of sorting our site placements.  They collected, approved, and distributed twenty-one site packets, each containing lengthily descriptions of where and how we would live, who we may build working and personal relationships with, and what jobs we’d be expected to do with a specific organization or community group.  Twenty-one potential sites were chosen for twenty-one potential (we hadn’t sworn in yet!) volunteers.

I should add here, that the purpose of the Peace Corps Community Health and Economic Development (CHED) Project in Lesotho, is “to engage Basotho youth, adults, and community organizations in activities that contribute to Lesotho’s positive response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”  I can’t speak highly enough about my training group (Have I told you all how GREAT we are yet?!).  With twenty-one different backgrounds in a variety of fields, including health-care, farming/agriculture, food security, engineering, international development, youth development, accounting, business, HIV/AIDS education and awareness, and social work, there are an impressive number of ways we could each decide to fulfill this goal at the site we are posted.

We were asked to rank our top ten and bottom three preferences and write essays to explain our choices.  It was a tense week, and I found it really difficult to decide where I would be most content.  Tempted by comfort, and the fear of being so isolated from my new friends, I put what might have been my first choice, before coming to Lesotho, (working with a community support group in a more remote and mountainous area), as my third.  The rest of my top five choices were less rural, and my number one choice was a site in the middle of a camp town on an orphanage compound with electricity and running water. It was within walking distance to a large grocery store, and there were easy transportation options to other volunteers.

Now, sitting at my own kitchen table, in my thatched roofed rondavel, boiling the water I fetched this morning from the tap across the field, and occasionally distracted by the luminous snow capped mountains outside my window, I am more than content with Peace Corps decision to not place me at my first or second choice.  That’s right, folks!  This gal has found her side of the mountain!

My round hut has been cheerfully painted sky-blue on the inside, and sits in a small village about an hour and a half East of Qacha’s Nek camp town in the Qacha’s Nek district of Lesotho.  Upon my arrival, I was touched and relieved to be greeted with songs and ululations by the ten women and two men who comprise the Basotho Support Group with which I will be working over the next two years.  Their goals are to provide support to orphans, vulnerable children (children living with or effected by HIV/AIDS), the elderly, and other vulnerable populations through activities such as sports, arts, life-skills, reproductive health education, basic hygiene techniques, HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment literacy, care and support, gardening, and income generating activities.

Fresh off the boat…err…land rover, the group showed me into my house where we sat in a large circle and had our first official meeting. Each member introduced themselves individually with a hug and an expression of appreciation. I was then introduced to my new host family!

My rondavel shares it’s front yard (a large garden with six large plots and eight peach trees) with an elderly woman and her TWELVE energetic and affectionate grandchildren, aged one to twenty-two. I was flabbergasted to see the family in it’s entirety when I joined them for dinner that night (the group just kept growing!). They all sat cozy and giggling around the cooking fire, patiently repeating their names as I tried to learn all twelve (I’m gettin’ there!).

My new host mother, a devoted grandmother with a warm smile and a charming sense of humor, gave me a new name.  I will miss the sense of pride I felt when hearing, “Reitu!”, but on that first day at site, I knew my new name, Thato (TAH-toh), was fitting. In Sesotho, Thato means love. 

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And They’re Off!

Happy August, Anne Fans!

I’m so sorry July came and went without a blog update.  The month was a blur of Sesotho cramming and final training assessments, but I’m ecstatic to be writing to you, no longer as a Peace Corps trainee, but as a certified and solemnly sworn in (no, Dad, no profanities were used during the ceremony, yuk yuk yuk) volunteer!  

I was honored to be given the opportunity to speak (in Sesotho!), on behalf of my training class, and to give our thanks to the Basotho community, families, friends, and teachers who had not so effortlessly devoted their time and energy to getting us to that podium.  I have joked about my nerves on that day, and the countless possibilities to mispronounce a word and change it’s meaning to something wildly inappropriate, but the opportunity to address the people we have come to love so wholeheartedly, and the  prideful and approving exchanges with my language teachers afterwards, will forever be high on my life list of proud moments (right up there with playing the piano upside down at the James Gettys Elementary School Talent Show, wink wink, you remember that?!) 

It was a blustery day, and our host mothers had spent all night (I heard my ‘M’e creep in next door at 6 am!) cooking the after-ceremony feast (the first time I have had a cow slaughtered in my honor…) and setting up the large white tents that were now billowing in the chilly breeze.  A sea of Basotho blankets sat in rows beneath the tents and spilled out of their flaps as all three training villages were in attendance.  Groups of school children, our host brothers and sisters included, were dressed in their uniforms and sat in ordered clusters along the periphery.  Our small group was arranged in rows next to the head table of Peace Corps staff and distinguished guests (the Ambassador regretfully couldn’t make it, because she was meeting with Hillary Clinton… I guess that’s an okay excuse…).  

The ceremony moved quickly through various speakers and presentations.  There were a few traditional musical performances (including a couple of traditional songs sung by our training group that were therefore not…so… traditional.)  And then we were called to stand in front of our communities as a group, to take the oath to serve our country as Peace Corps volunteers.  We were then announced, one-by-one, and given our certificates.  Each time a name was called, shouts and ululations would go up from a specific seat in the crowd, and a jubilant ‘M’e would run out from under the tent and wrap her arms around the newest volunteer.   It was impossible to not feel pride and joy for each hug, and a rare feat to have all twenty-one Americans who got on the plane together in New York, swear in together in Lesotho!  We ALL did it!

And then came my fifteen minutes of Lesotho fame!  

**ACTUAL fame, because the ceremony was broadcasted on national television later that night and EVERYONE in Lesotho (well, everyone with a television!) saw me speak six whole paragraphs of gratitude in Sesotho!  “Everyone” included Thuso (which means “help” in Sesotho), the friendly (and coincidentally helpful…) salesclerk in the Lowe’s style hardware store (alright, Lewis clan, don’t get too excited but they DO have do-it-yourself building project stores over here!!).  He recognized me as “Reitumetse: the American girl who tried to speak Sesotho on the news last week” among a few other strangers who stopped me on the street to offer congratulations and inquire about my service.**

I’d received a request (Hi Mom!) to post it, so here it is!  The speech in it’s English form…. Ahem:

Likhomo, Basotho!  

**”Likhomo” means “cows”!  I was appalled when my language teacher suggested this as my greeting, but apparently it is not an offensive opener, but references the value of the people one is speaking to, since cows are so valuable in this country.  Whew!**

On behalf of my Peace Corps training class, I want to thank you all for being here to share this very happy day with us.  We are grateful for your presence, as today’s events would not have been possible without you all.  

As brand new Peace Corps trainees, we arrived in Lesotho on June 1st, 2012 with high hopes of helping to accomplish the Peace Corps’ mission: to promote world peace and friendship.  We left our homes, our families, and our friends in America, unsure of the life we would find in what we’d heard of as “The mountain kingdom in the sky”.

Jooe! 

**Common Basotho expression of happiness or relief**  

We arrived in Moshoeshoe’s country, and were welcomed with ululations in Tsitsa, Ha Tsitso, and Ha Taaso.  With open arms, we were immediately and graciously welcomed into your homes, your families, and your communities.  This warm and joyful welcome will remain the foundation of the success of our service in this country.  

We are proud of Peace Corps Lesotho, our chiefs, our teachers (who sacrificed their time and stayed with us in the villages for nine weeks, leaving their families behind), and our host families and neighbors who have embraced us as some of their own.

We thank you especially for your patience as we stumbled through Sesotho, and your enthusiasm to teach us how to play, cook, clean, and live as Basotho.  Since we Basotho say, “New water replaces the old,” we are proud to have found lasting friendships, families, and a new home here in Lesotho.  

Now as we prepare for the next step in our journey as volunteers, we appreciatively carry the knowledge and the support you have given us to each of our new homes throughout the country.  We are a small group of 21 volunteers, but with the help of the Basotho people, we intend to bring a big change in the development of Basotho lives and Lesotho as a whole.  

Kea Leboha (Thank you)

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My ‘M’e

My 'M'e

Helping us with our garden project!

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June 23, 2012 · 4:37 am

Arrival in host village

Arrival in host village

Half of the welcome committee!

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June 23, 2012 · 4:34 am

Oh, good morning!

Oh, good morning!

View from my front door.

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June 23, 2012 · 4:32 am