Friday, November 21, 2014

Leaving Lesotho

 This season has been one of clarity and transformation, truly one of the best of my life. I'll always be grateful for my Peace Corps experience.

   When I applied for the Peace Corps nearly three years ago, my recruiter said that my application wasn’t strong enough. At the time, Peace Corps was suffering from budget cuts--resulting in few service opportunities--so in order for me to be competitive, I had a lot of work to do.
   My recruiter advised me to take formal language classes, do more volunteer work and get more teaching experience. I had three months to get my act together. And I’m glad that I did.
   My experience in the Peace Corps has been some kind of everything –mainly awesome—and I’m forever grateful for this season of growth, service and for the rich and rewarding relationships that I was immersed in these days.
   It’s hard for me to believe that my time in Lesotho is up, though. Today is my last day of service and I am boarding a plane to America.
   I joined Peace Corps to be of service to others, my way of thanking God for all my blessings. I didn’t know what to expect in Lesotho, or what I was doing as I taught and served.    
   Funny thing is that I learned and received way more than I taught and gave. I lived with a selfless host family who wrapped me with tender arms of warmth, protection and love. My host siblings –those little chocolate nuggets—and my host mom, colored my life, kept me sane and ultimately alive during my time here.
   I worked with model Peace Corps staffers, supportive Peace Corps volunteers and open-minded teachers who nurtured my vision and guided me to some kind of greatness that I rarely felt before.  I daily saw children – my beautiful, brilliant students—who embodied what resilience truly is. My life brimmed with hope and meaning, even when my American bank account fell below $25 USD.
   Alas, this milestone did not come without sacrifice. Every day, the sun acted as my electricity. Sometimes, a baby wipe became running water. During brutal winters, fleece blankets posed as central heating. The list goes on: bed bugs, diarrhea, bad transport, lack of customer service, psychopathic teachers, and homesickness.
   Back home, I missed many engagements and weddings and births and birthdays. Haven’t seen my loved ones in two years, and they were the ones who truly allowed me to live out this dream with their words of encouragement, unwavering support, care packages, cards and letters. My peace and bliss here were always their anxiety and concern stateside.
   To their delight, I’m coming home soon.
   I’ll be a much better version of myself than when I left, for *I* developed in a developing country!! Ha! 
   This experience has pressed a reset button in my life. My vision, purpose and passion are clear. And this all-encompassing season in Lesotho helped me to get there.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

What I Will Miss About Lesotho

 I will miss the children of Lesotho the most.

   Lesotho will always have a special place in my heart. It is the place where I finally felt that I was enough as a person. The place where I discovered my passion and purpose and how to combine the two. The place that changed my life for the better. For those reasons alone, I'll always have love for The Mountain Kingdom in the Sky, and there will be many things that I will always miss about Lesotho land.
   I'll miss the children, who were little pebbles, my rocks who unknowingly kept me grounded and lifted me when my spirits were down.
   I'll miss my host family, who held me down and lifted me up for two years.
   I'll miss the Peace Corps Volunteers, who heavily supported my craft project and water pump.
   I'll miss Peace Corps Lesotho staff, who were open enough to take chances with my far-left thinking and ideas, and guided me and doled out unwavering support.
   I'll miss village life: climbing that mountain to get home. Pumping my water. Boiling it to drink and bathe with. Cleaning my produce in my dish water. Washing my panties and socks in my just used bath water. Bucket baths. Pee buckets. Latrines. Talking freely about poop with other Peace Corps Volunteers. Reading by candlelight. Wearing the same clothes over and over and over again like I'm in college. Eating beans and rice so that I can have enough money to backpack all over southern Africa. Peace Corps parties. Surviving and thriving on $200 USD a month.
   My host siblings. Them karati-kicking the front door shut. Listening to Famo music, South African house and classic Brenda Fassie music.Washing my dishes on the stoop behind my host family’s latrine. Wrapping beautiful pieces of fabric around my waste. Playing UNO and reading bedtime stories by flashlight. Scrambling to grab my solar chargers right before a big rainstorm. Seeing the Peace Corps Land Cruiser roar through my village. The kindness of strangers, especially that of Basotho womenMy host mom’s warm, soft bread.
   Baking cakes for the kids on Sundays. Allocating at least one day every two weeks or so to charge up all of my electronics.
  Donkeys. Cows. Wheelbarrows. Aloe trees. Mountains. Malealea Lodge. Maseru. Mafeteng. Craft markets. My students, who taught me more than I taught them. Good teachers. The Basotho, who taught me true generosity and kindness. Living off of the land. Pink and purple sunsets. Dirt roads. Clear air. Quiet moments. Solitude. Serenity. Peace. Giving a piece of my core. Peace from my core. Peace Corps. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Backpacking throughout southern Africa!!!

   During my time in Lesotho, I've been fortunate enough to backpack all throughout the southern Africa region at places like Ladybrand, South Africa.
   Here are other places I've visited:

Allover, Lesotho:

I'm here with my girl Rachel at the highest pub in Africa at Sani Pass in Mokhotlong, Lesotho. I've been to every district (state) in Lesotho except for two.

Durban, South Africa: This was my very first vacation as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I really liked the beach and the culture of Durban, the place Gandhi called home for nearly 20 years.

Bloemfontein, South Africa: I stayed in and out of Bloemfontein for medical and vacation. It's a nice city with lots of shopping and things to do!

Cape Town, South Africa:

Here's footage of the clouds blanketing Table Mountain during my trip to Cape Town, South Africa. It's an old video but I've finally uploaded it. Enjoy!

Clarens, South Africa: Clarens was a nice little weekend getaway. The town is cute and quaint and filled with lots of little specialty shops.

Mapoto and Tofo Beach, Mozambique: Moz was niiiiiice, especially the beach and the fresh seafood! 

Swaziland: I stayed in Lobamba about a 10-minute taxi ride from the capital, Mbabane.

   I traveled very cheaply, spending at least $300 USD on each trip. That allowed me to splurge on tasty food and cool crafts.
   My favorite places? Cape Town and Mozambique and Swaziland.
   I loved Cape Town for its diversity and vibe. There was something for everyone. And there were times when I felt like I was in New Orleans or Miami. Or Brooklyn.
   Mozambique was thee perfect getaway because I went the week after school had let out for winter break. It was a cold one and it was so nice to just chill on the beach. I loved Mozambique's tropical atmosphere, scrumptious seafood and the fabric!
   And I was just impressed with the infrastructure of tourist-friendly Swaziland.
   Traveling throughout this region was a dream, and satisfied my wanderlust!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tips for a successful International Development Project (Part 2)

    I've worked very hard during my Peace Corps service. As a result, my school has received an income-generating craft project, a business plan, skills, a bank account, a Gmail account, a library and a water pump.
   What many of you don't know is that all of these projects came with hefty price tags: frustration, meltdowns and at some times, doubt.
   I didn't always work with some teachers who valued what I brought to the table. In fact, they constantly questioned my presence, experience and education. Very passive aggressively, of course.
   It hurt but I had to  grow up and put things in perspective: I work for myself, the children and most importantly, God. That mindset, along with support from post staff, helped me to succeed in a hostile environment.
   If you are an aspiring Peace Corps volunteer or international developer, you might come across these situations, especially if you work with small micro enterprises.
   Here are some tips for you:

-Murder your counterparts: Some of the people you work with might piss you the hell off! They might question your skills and credentials, try to make you feel like you're nothing. They might even be jealous of you. They might talk negatively of you in the mother tongue while you are in the room one minute, then compliment your hairdo the next. Hmph. Off with their heads! Besides, murder looks good on your resume.

-Hold your breath: In developing countries, everything runs on time. Time is money and money is time. What takes one day to do in America takes one second to do in the Third World, especially when it comes to service projects. So hold your breath. It's the key to life.

-Don't have fun: F-U-N. What's that? What's the point? It's just a three-letter word, OK? Don't do it. Life is much more colorful without it, and your service project will be, too. Fun is nothing but a bunch of F-U-N-K.

-Eat your counterparts: If you can't murder them, eat them! My recommendation: dice up one jerk and throw in a three-legged pot with one litre of water. Add seven tablespoons of Mrs. Dash seasoning and enjoy!

-If all else fails, listen to Pharrell Williams' "Happy." It'll ruin your life.

NOTE: I wrote the above post out of frustration one brutally cold winter. It's strictly satire, OK? No one was murdered, eaten or died during the process of my service project. I did not hold my breath, well, I did, but only when teachers were using the pump for the first time. And I did have some fun.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tips for a Successful International Development Project (Part 1)

   When I first got to site about two years ago, my school said that their main need was a water pump. They thought that it would be a good idea to use profits from an income-generating craft project to make the pump happen. They were right. In July, my school got its water pump. They worked hard but they didn’t attain success on their own. Peace Corps volunteers, staff and their friends and families bought lots of jewelry to help make the craft project and water pump a success and a reality. I am forever grateful for their support. I’ve compiled a list of things that helped me and my school to have a successful international development and/or secondary project:

-Respect the culture. Respect and accept the Basotho culture as much as possible, even if you don’t agree with it. Time, for example, stressed me out but I came to accept that meetings would never start on time. Also, I’d push my school to work on grant applications at least three months before the deadlines so we wouldn’t miss out on good opportunities. Work little by little, one step at a time, and respect the culture.

-Let your counterparts have ownership of the project. Simply put, let go. This will be hard to do but you must let your counterparts do most of the work with you and Peace Corps’ guidance. This is a great way to create sustainability for any secondary project. Everyone has something to contribute and focus on people’s strengths. And help people help themselves. Guide them, and then back off.

-Find a healthy balance of communication. Initially, my American assertive aggression didn’t always mix well with the Basotho’s passive aggression. To solve this problem, I’d discuss sensitive matters with my principal before staff meetings and afterward, let her say it to staff in a way that wouldn’t offend them.

-Learn to work around difficult people.  People aren’t always receptive to change, and they won’t always fall at your feet neither. You’ll want to kill the haters (read: psychopaths) at first, but then you’ll learn to just work around them. Haters are going to hate but let them hate and let your work speak for itself. Forgive them and continue to do the work.

-Put energy in all of the right places. Your counterparts will feed off of your energy, whether it is negative or positive. Check your attitude and emotions. Feeling down? Go put all of that negative energy into a grant application. Or a business plan. Or a Facebook page. And see how far your project will flourish.

-Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to Peace Corps, those books in the Maseru VRC, the Basotho and other volunteers if you have questions. Learn as much as you can. Research. Read. Ask questions. Utilize all of your resources.

-Know your role as a teacher or youth advocate. That comes first. Your project shouldn’t interfere with your primary duties.

-Engage the kids! Utilize the skills and talents of the children as much as possible, especially if you want to maintain and sustain your project. They’ll be excited to help in any way so incorporate them into the project as much as possible. This also creates sustainability.

-Know your intent. Know exactly why you are doing the project. Really think about it. Is it for you, the children or the community? You’ll come back to this when days get tough. And this will determine how much commitment and support you get from your counterparts.

-Have a sense of humor. Sometimes things will happen and all you can do is just laugh!

-Don’t compete with other volunteers. Help each other! Bounce ideas off of one another. Your volunteers will be your strongest support system.

-Have a life outside of your project. It’s important and healthy to have other interests and hobbies outside of your secondary project so you don’t go insane.

-Focus on small victories! It’s OK if your project doesn’t work out because there’s a myriad of factors that go into project success. Just focus on other things. You can make an impact in so many other, smaller ways. Tutor. Teach ESL classes. Hold art classes. You don’t know who you’re impacting just by being here. So don’t be so hard on yourself. Do your thing! You can make an impact in smaller ways through smaller projects.

-Have fun. Take advantage of all of this creative control and freedom that you’ll likely have while working on your secondary project.

-Be thankful for the opportunity! Gratitude is always the best attitude so be grateful for this unique opportunity to serve people and make a difference.  

-Flourish in the dysfunction. You will have to function in dysfunction and flourish. This is a very difficult thing to do but a very important life skill that will always stick with you.

-Be transparent. Be honest with people. No one likes a liar. Or a thief. Or a phony.

-If all else fails, listen to “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Yeah, it’s cheesy but who cares. This song got me through some rough days.

   The truth is that working on this project was one of the toughest parts of my service because of cultural differences, money issues and haters (read: psychopaths.) Still, the school and I soldiered on to success and the rewards have been very fruitful. There are many factors that go into having a successful international development/secondary project and hopefully, some of these tips will help you.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Story Behind My School's Water Pump

A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into making this water pump a reality!

The Story Behind the Pump
   Every day during lunch break at school, I take a brisk stroll past the 6-foot tall red water pump located on school grounds. I watch as my students, many of them orphans, carefully pump water into their bottles and lunch boxes. They used to hike half a mile up the mountain next to their school to fetch water from the springs. Or, they’d bring water from home, if their villages had pumps or taps. Now, they have a much more accessible source of water with their pump on school grounds. And over the past two years, they worked very hard with their teachers to make it happen.

Success and Resourcefulness
   When I first came to Lesotho in 2012, teachers at my school kept admiring my earrings and necklaces. I offered to teach jewelry-making classes. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I must do a service project with my community involving some kind of skill or training. When teachers said they needed water and wanted a pump, we all decided that’s where the craft classes would come in handy: we’d start a craft project and put profits toward the pump. With Peace Corps’ guidance and permission to invest $200 USD of my own money, I started the project.
   Every Tuesday and Thursday after school, teachers and I held craft classes on jewelry making, crocheting and manicures. Later on, we added classes on economic development and financial management to help strengthen the business management aspect of the income-generating activity. Within about a few months, we opened a bank account, created a Facebook page and wrote a business plan.

Bringing the Pump to Lesotho
   We placed our marketing materials all over Maseru, the country’s capital, and in our shopping district. We partnered with area businesses to increase sales, and used local and available resources to save money. For example, students and teachers used old matchboxes to house earrings.
They also made beads and jewelry using candy sold in village, old magazine paper, and clay from the mountain next to our school and the national fabric of Lesotho. Our items were sold all throughout the village, and country, thanks to friendly Basotho and supportive Peace Corps volunteers and staffers.
   We participated in the Peace Corps Partnership Program, which helps volunteers and their counterparts to design and manage community projects. This meant that we had to raise $500 USD or 25 percent of the cost for our pump, which would total about $2,000 USD. We did it easily through fair trade business conducted on our Facebook page and through other volunteers and their families back in America.
   My friends and family also donated to the project when Peace Corps put it up on its website. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group from North Carolina fully funded the project. We spent our portion on pump expenses. Work on the water pump started in July and was completed in August. Students made small thank-you gifts and notes to our donors and supporters and we sent those out shortly afterward.

Growing Pains
   This project was not easy. I worked with a group of three women teachers who didn't initially believe in the project. Sometimes the money made from American orders was spent on other things, even though I encouraged teachers to save their 25 percent of the partnership. I was accused of underpaying for jewelry and not bringing in enough profit from America (project revenues totaled around $1,100 USD.) The women often talked about me in Sesotho while I was in their presence; said I was an unqualified teacher, and questioned my presence in Lesotho. (This is the importance of knowing the Mother Tongue of the country in which you live and work!!!!!)
   Honestly, I wanted to murder a few of the Black Mambas I worked with. I couldn't always make sense of the difficult times. But this is where I had to grow up. The Peace Corps made an exception to make this project work, and I sacrificed so much. We all did. You see, the pump was for my students, many of whom are orphans. If I would've quit, it would've been their loss. So the teachers and I had to put our differences aside to come together in order to make the pump a reality.

   So, that’s the story behind the water pump. Despite all of our differences, everyone came together to pull it off. I learned just as much as I taught, and more importantly, the school — especially the kids — accomplished their goal.
   The kids were a part of a creative solution to a problem that plagues Lesotho and many other places in Third World countries—lack of water. They did it with no electricity, wireless access and a lot of determination.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Death of a Dog and the Treatment of Animals Here

My dog, Lion, used to follow me everywhere, even to school. Sadly, he was recently poisoned to death by one of my neighbors.

   My host mother kept calling his name.
   "Lion!" She'd scream in her nasal voice. "Lion!" 
   I told her that our family dog, Lion,  had probably ventured off with the boys, who’d gone down the mountain to grind maize early that morning. It’s not unusual for Lion to follow the family when we leave the house.
   “Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “He’ll come back.”
   But my host mom knew differently. Lion had not eaten his breakfast or drank the water she pumped for him that Saturday morning.
   “Something is wrong with Lion,” she said.
   A little while later, she found Lion splayed out on the ground nearly 30 feet away from our home. He was sick. Poor thing had vomited, excreted and blood was streaming out of his testicles.
   My host mom tried to nurse him back to good health with milk and a mixture of alcohol and water (a common way to cure poisoning out here.)
   Unfortunately, Lion did not make it. He was 8 months old.
   This wasn’t the first time he was poisoned. Several months ago, he was poisoned but he survived that bout.
   It’s common here for some people to poison dogs, cats and other animals, especially if they are angry or jealous with someone.
   And animal abuse is rampant in Lesotho. Some Basotho beat their animals to keep them from venturing into other peoples’ yards, where they could potentially be poisoned.
   That’s what my host family thinks happen to Lion. We even suspect who did, it but with no real proof, nothing can be done.
   “God will take care of them,” my host mom said of the perps.”And I will get more dogs.”

Friday, November 14, 2014

Swaziland (Part 2: Lots of Pix and Video!)

 I'm getting ready to go on a game drive at the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the best parts of my Peace Corps service.The park is buffeted by Mount Zimeba, where deceased members of the Royal Family are buried.

   One of my favorite parts of this trip –and during my entire Peace Corps service-- was the Mliwane Wildlife Sanctuary, a 15-minute drive from the lodge. It’s one of three game parks in the country, and a real treat to visit.
   Here’s how my visit went:

Saw this colorful southern tree agama:

I saw nyalas, an antelope species:

They were roaming free around the reception area at Mlilwane. 

The scenery here was absolutely stunning!!

They had plenty of crocodiles, which are also known as or flatdogs or tingwenyas:

OK, this was a scary moment for Narin and I! Mary decided to turn into Steve Irwin when she spotted this bad boy from the other side of the pond. She found the trail that led to his presence and snapped his photo, all but 5 feet away from him!! I was scared as crap but followed suit!! Mary walked back but I ran away after I got my shot. Didn’t want for the croc to see me play paparazzi!  

OK, this was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen in my life. Just peep this video and you’ll see why:

This was another one of my favorites. We were just walking on the trail, minding our business when we came across a herd of zebras and antelope species. We immediately stopped and got quiet. The herd was about 10-15 feet away:

Here's some video footage of my zebra encounter:

Lonely monkey:

I’m sorry but these warthogs were so freaking ugly!!

Here is a kudu:

They are the third largest antelope species in the world, according to the tour guide, Secelo.

Here is a blue wildebeest:

He is called “blue” because of his black tail and mane.

My tour guide was Sicelo:

I think he was having an off day. You usually can tell when someone’s not their best.

Here are some other places I visited during my time in Swaziland:

Here is a scene from a taxi stop in Lobamba:

Here is the King’s office:

Again, he’s a highly controversial figure because of his politics and lavish lifestyle.

I visited the Swaziland National Museum:

Here, I learned a lot about Swaziland’s history and culture.

Here is an example of a traditional village that was on display at the Swaziland National Museum:

The houses are called beehives.

Currency in Swaziland is called emalangeni:

It’s equal to South African Rand. I loved the scalloped-edge coins.

The Internet Café in Mbabane offered video games and had many happy customers:

There were many, many paved roads!!!!!!!

This was a nice treat because Lesotho has lots of dirt, rocky roads, even in the capital, Maseru.

I went out with a bang in Swaziland:

The hotel across the street from The Gables had a casino so of course, I went and had fun. I didn’t spend all my money because I had to get back to Lesotho, but I still had a good time!!

   Overall, I really enjoyed myself in Swaziland. There was so much to do and everything was affordable and reasonable. I spent about $400 USD during my stay there, money well spent.

Sources: Lonely Planet book and various Swaziland tour books and brochures.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Swaziland (Part 1)

 I went to Swaziland with my buddies Narin and Mary. Here we are after climbing Sheba's Breast.

Swaziland! Swaziland!
Take my hand!
Marry me now,
Oh, Swaziland!
   Ok, that was real, real corny but my recent trip to the tiny southern African country has me going goo goo gah gah.
   I found the country to be an accessible tourist-friendly place where English was widely spoken. The infrastructure, including many paved roads, accessible taxi ranks and abundance of electricity, really impressed me.
   Bordered by South Africa and Mozambique, the country has about 1.2 million people, and gained its independence in 1968. Like Lesotho, Swaziland was a British protectorate, and has a king, the very controversial King Mswati III. The country also has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world.
   I ventured the country in late September/early October with two PVC friends, Mary and Narin, the perfect travel companions.
   Take a peek:

-I stayed at the Lidwala Backpacker Lodge, a 15-minute taxi ride from the capital, Mbabane. The lodge is in the city of Lobamba’s Ezulwini Valley. It’s reportedly one of the fastest developing areas in the country.

The grounds of the lodge made me feel like I was in a tropical rain forest.

 -I climbed Sheba’s Breasts on my second day there. The storybook trail started behind the lodge and took about an hour to complete. I saw beautiful flora and took in spectacular views, especially at the summit. The mountain’s twin peaks are named after Queen of Sheba from Ethiopia.

 -After the hike, Mary, Narin and I went to the Ezulwini Craft Market, a 20-minute walk from the lodge. The market was covered in blue and spanned at least one football field. Of course, I was in heaven! Good thing is that I didn’t buy the entire craft market because I came armored with a list – and a budget! I wanted to have enough money for other activities later in the week. Yes, yes, my friends, I’m growing up!

The craft market was HUGE, unlike any other one I'd seen in this part of the world. I was happy. Real happy.  

A couple of other tidbits:

On food: I ate fruit for breakfast, and a lot of cheese and salami sandwiches for lunch and dinner. I bought these items from a nice shopping complex called The Gables, which was about a 30-minute walk from the lodge. I did splurge on a nice glass of wine and lasagna at a nice hotel on my last day, though.

On transport: I hopped on and off taxis when I wasn’t walking. They ran regularly until around 8 p.m.-ish. The conductors and drivers spoke English and were friendly. The taxis weren’t crowded like the ones in Lesotho, and one of them had a TV!!!! At the taxi rank in Mbabane, the line going past my stop at the lodge snaked around the building but moved fairly quickly.

On Language: The Mother Tongue of Swaziland is Siswati, and I spoke it as much as I could. (Out of respect, I always try to attempt to speak basic phrases in the language of where I visit.) “Sawbona” is hello. “Yebo” is the response. “Malini” is how much? Of course, the locals were happy that I at least tried to communicate with them in their tongue. I did like that Siswati had some similarities to Sesotho, the Mother Tongue of Lesotho. Swazis click on their c’s, while Basotho click on their q’s. And Swazis say “lalela,” which means listen, while Basotho say “mamela.”
I can go on and on and on about Swazi but this will be all for today. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow!!

Sources: Lonely Planet book and various Swaziland tour books and brochures.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Crazy Taxi Names!!!!

   Baby boy. 
   Some of the taxis here have names that make you go hmmmmm.
   Case in point:

School bus: 
This definitely is not the cheese bus I rode to school!

Rich and Famous: 
If I you were really rich and famous, would you ride in this getup??

 I don’t think any prince would be seen in this baby!

I’m not sure of who names these rides but don’t they make you think? What’s your favorite?