Sunday, July 15, 2012

Going Home (?)

After more than two years, in two weeks I’m going back home, but in many ways I am starting over, leaving my home.  My life back in the U.S. is such an extreme contrast to my life here, it’s difficult to imagine them blending at all, being able to retain any aspect of my life here.  I’m leaving my thatched hut that has been my home for the past two years, leaving my host family, friends and neighbors, my community, to jump back into a world that they can’t even imagine.  Where KFC is no longer the finest dining option and every meal (actually no meal) includes papa.  Rationing water, carrying buckets from the river will no longer effect my every decision regarding washing, cooking and drinking.  Communication will no longer be a daily struggle, but neither will there be the same rewards of connecting with someone.  Farm animals will no longer be a topic in most of my conversations.  And gone will be the childrens' voices that I have gotten to know so well, calling my name.  And no longer will everyone I pass greet me, asking me where I am going and where I am from.  I will go back to anonymity.   Back to a place where there is no real community.  I’m very sad, and yet excited.  To see my family and friends that I grew up with again after so long away.  To eat the food I’ve been craving but denied for the past two years.

But it’s odd to think of me as being back in the U.S.  I’ve changed, been stretched and shaped to fit this new culture and way of life, my new home.  And the changed me probably won’t fit easily back into my old life.  But the U.S. is home and no matter how much I adapt or integrate, it will always be where I come from, haeso ke kae.

I am so lucky, going back to a great program at Cornell and a place that I love.  And supportive friends who kind of know what I’ve gone through and help me readjust.  But what if I have changed too much?  I’m worried about being resentful for all the Americans that are blind to the rest of the world and don’t realize the benefits they have. The mindless wastefulness and the sense of selfish entitlement that bothered me even before I had experienced this way of life.  The life of just getting by, that is about the community rather than the individual.

I’ve heard that when a Peace Corps volunteer goes back, it almost feels like you’ve never left.  The past two years seem to disappear, so far removed and so far away, almost like it never happened at all.  Except that you no longer fit in.  You see a side of things that is invisible to others, that keeps you apart from your friends and family, who love you but won’t want to hear about Lesotho in every conversation.  All of this makes me pretty nervous about my return.  And thinking of saying goodbye to my host family, who have been such an integral part of my daily life for the past two years, gets me all choked up.  And without any resources there isn’t much chance of them being able to keep in touch at all.  This really is goodbye.

But mostly I’m excited, to once again be on the move and start a new chapter of my life.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Eight Months for Oranges

It’s orange season again.  I’ve waited for it for 8 months, and man was that first orange good.  It comes right after peach season.  After stuffing myself everyday with peaches that grow in every yard here, and I was ready for an orange.  We’re also getting into cabbage season.  I never would have thought I’d ever get excited about cabbage, but cooked with a little oil and spice—yum.

One of the things I love (and can also sometimes get frustrated with) living in rural Lesotho is that I eat according by the season.  It’s just what is available, what things grow here (and in neighboring South Africa, such as oranges) and when it is ready to be picked.  There is something really satisfying about knowing exactly where my food comes from, and often the exact person who grew it.  It makes me the food taste better, and it probably does have more flavor since it doesn’t have to be shipped far.

 Being more connected with the growing process of my food sometimes means seeing the more gory aspects of food, especially meat.  Since I eat meat, I decided that I needed to be comfortable with the whole process of killing and butchering the animals I eat myself.  My convictions only lasted through killing one chicken (which I didn’t do very well…).  But I think it was enough to help me re-value meat.  In Lesotho the people certainly love and value meat or “nama”, the particular animal doesn’t seem to matter much.  And I have yet to meet a masotho who shied away from killing their own animals for that meat.  I think growing up distanced from the whole process is what gives me my typical American squeamishness about it. 

One of the biggest fears I have about returning to the U.S. is the abundance, something I never thought I’d dread.  Any food I can name (and many that I can’t) from all over the world will once again be readily available to me, along with countless processed foods with numerous and mysterious origins.  I’m pretty sure American’s food access and process used to be more like Lesotho, but now there is so much waste, so much over indulgence.  And Lesotho is changing too.  Most of my students eat a snack called nik-naks (imagine even more processed Cheetos) that leave their fingers constantly dark red and the school ground littered with the plastic wrappers.

It seems healthier, and certainly more satisfying to eat things locally grown/made, and in season, and I’ve truly enjoyed eating this way for the past 2 years.  But I still get cravings.  I miss fresh fish, and nuts, and chocolate, and oddly enough toaster waffles, and I’m not sure I’d be able to turn them down if they were shipped to my local shop here.  When I go back home I’m going to try to eat locally and seasonally, have a garden and shop at the farmer’s market, but the self-will required in daunting.  But after waiting almost a year, those first oranges were so wonderful, definitely worth it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

One Love?

When teaching about preventing HIV, probably the main issue we volunteers come up against is multiple concurrent partners. Many people I’ve talked to here say it’s just part of the culture, which sounds like an excuse to me. But the longer I’m here the more I believe it. The Basotho were traditionally a polygamist society, and some men in my village still have multiple wives, though it’s not very common anymore. The society is built around the community, most men and women spend the majority of their days socializing. Most work, such as women washing laundry in the river or men building a house together, are still very social activities. Rather than focusing on the individuals or immediate family members, life centers around neighbors and extended family as well. It’s more about the unit, which includes extended family and close neighbors, more than any of the constantly changing individuals in it. And in Sesotho men are called ntate, which translates to ‘father’ and ‘mme is used for women, meaning ‘mother’. To great someone in Sesotho, you always address people, even strangers, as family. I think that says a lot about the culture.

I still teach about having only ‘one love’ and being faithful. But I think I’m being influenced as well. Cheating used to seem horrible, but now it seems common place and acceptable, and divorce wildly unjustified. We are supposed to be teaching ‘behavior change’, but it often seems impossible. Better to focus on using precautions and protection rather than trying to get people to completely change their lifestyles, and be faithful to only one person their whole lives. If it wasn’t for HIV, I don’t think I would see the point in teaching about ‘one love’ at all. I still personally believe in having only one partner, but see less and less of a point in teaching about things that seem like western moral standards. In the U.S. we have technology and nice houses and more money, but from what I’ve seen it doesn’t make Americans any happier than the people of my rural Basotho village, with its social, communal, family structure and love for one another. The longer I’m here the less worthwhile I see in emulating any aspect of American culture here. And with modernization and electricity, I’m afraid my lovely little village is coming closer to it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Village Security System

I was cautious about writing this entry because I don’t want to give the wrong impression about Lesotho and its people. It is a very peaceful country that revolves around the village communities. The focus of this entry is to show the very old, traditional justice system that is still in place in my village, one that relies on the community structure. It is not meant to dramatize an attempted burglary, which can happen anywhere. And in fact has happened to me in my American suburban home.

I had just come back from a wonderful week-long girls’ empowerment camp and was exhausted. I was napping when I heard a rustling at my window. Someone was moving my host mother’s flower pots. It wasn’t my host mom, who was working in the fields and had taken my dog along with her. When the guy at my window started to open it I got up to tell him to go away. I felt perfectly safe; I have bars on my windows and doors. When he was me he jumped over a wood pile and ran away. I thought ‘that’s odd.’ Then I noticed the lock on the bars was gone. I started to get really nervous, he had been here before and had broken the lock. I went through my stuff, but nothing was missing. The guy wasn’t very scary and clearly only wanted to steal something, not hurt me, but I felt very alone and worried. I am almost never alone here and it is usually such a treat, but at that moment I just wanted to be around people. I called the Peace Corps security officer and within half-an-hour several of my co-workers from Maliba lodge and Matt, my closest peace corps volunteer were at my house. I instantly felt much better. My host mom came home with my dog, and was furious. At first I thought she was mad at me, but it seems that it was just her anger at the situation was spilling out in rapid Sesotho. There might not be the same gender equality here as in the States, but there are some real strong women. No one would mess with my host mother, I’d be more afraid of her wielding a pan than of any burglar. A couple of hours later the chief of my village, the chief of the Tsehlanyane area, and the district police arrived. I felt very protected. And that was the start of the local justice system in motion.

My host mom woke me the next morning at seven, telling me to get dressed. The village crime committee was at my door (I didn’t even know we had one). The chief and several other well-respected men in the community had lined up four suspects. I hadn’t had breakfast or brushed my hair, and I was following them all over the mountain to the suspects’ houses to see if any of them had the clothes I seen the burglar wearing. It was odd meeting their mothers, who joined our procession. I was pretty sure I knew who it was, his hair, frame and clothes were just like those I remembered. And he seemed especially nervous. This procession is part of the system, to publicly shame those who might be guilty and discourage any further crimes. Your standing and reputation in the village is such a vital part of life here.

We walked for over an hour to the Tsehlanyane chief’s place where the suspects pleaded their cases and I told my story. It was narrowed down to two (because of their distinct hair) and I had to stand in front of them and point to the one I thought was guilty. This was by far the worst part, worse than the attempted burglary. I was pretty sure who it was, but what if I was wrong? I had been pretty non-committal so far, but it’s hard to be evasive when you point. Being part of the village community here you know the family of the person you are accusing. And you have to look them in the eye when you accuse them. The chief and villagers kept telling me not to be afraid, that I was safe, I can point to the culprit, but that was not what I was afraid of. The whole innocent until proven guilty beyond a doubt is a very American concept and ingrained in me, it is not the same out here. After I reluctantly pointed at the guy I thought was guilty the chief and committee discussed the case alone. They called us back in for their verdict, I had held it together pretty well until then. They forced handcuffs on the guy I had accused, who was sitting next to me, and I burst out sobbing, he later did too. My crying in public (which is rarely done here) was more upsetting to them than that I could be ruining a man’s life. But they knew his history, that he’d stolen before, and the justice system and that his punishment would not be too severe. There was more discussion and the police arrived in couple of hours.

The police asked what I wanted to do. If I wanted to press charges and go to court or to settle out of court (aka the police officers taking him to the station and giving him a serious talking to). I chose not to press charges. I was relieved that I wasn’t going to ruin this guy’s life or see him beaten (which I’d seen happen to an accused rapist, though I have to admit I wasn’t a bit sorry about that one). The whole incident was solved with the cooperation of the whole community, and no one got hurt. I got to see how a system like this has worked over the centuries, where police are far away and community members take care of each other. So many of my friends and neighbors came to check on me and asked how I was doing. I feel very safe. The people are the security system here, and I feel much safer than I would with any electronic one.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Public Transport

One of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of living in rural Lesotho is taking the public transportation. It shows how much a person can adapt, something that used to drive me crazy now seems perfectly normal and OK. But I’m lucky, being on a nice paved road, I don’t have the bumpy, often nauseating mountainous dirt roads that many other volunteers do.

What took the most getting use to was the speed. The driver usually drives leaning out of the window searching the hills for possible customers. Often a woman will be across the river or up a hill and we all sit and wait for her to take her sweet time to get to the car. Some people do rush, but it sure does not feel like the average. Even when we are off, on our way, we usually don’t go any faster than 20 kilometers an hour (12.5 mph) for the first 30 km. I’ve been passed by maize-laden donkeys, old men walking with canes, and one time a toddler, toddling down the road without pants on. For an American use to efficient, quick cars and buses, this was very hard to get used to. But as I’ve come to see, in Lesotho what’s the rush?

Another unpleasant part of the ride is the volume of the music, which would be painful even if I liked the music. And I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of the local music, famo. It’s something like shouting-rap set to accordion and bass. I think I would like it more if it was ever played at (what I consider) a normal volume or if I understood what they were saying. I usually just catch the name of a town or some local reference followed by the names of some farm animals.

The average public transport is a khombi. They are the size of a van and seat 15-16 people, 3 across except for the poor people in the back where they are squeezed 4 across. Getting a seat by a window is key, because you can control that window and the airflow. Even though it can get very hot and sweaty in the crowded khombis many people prefer to keep the windows shut, afraid it will cause them to catch a cold. Again something that doesn’t make sense to me and my American mentality.

Most of the khombis that work in my area are not in great shape, many are older than me. On one trip a door fell off, on another a window flew off (luckily it was a plastic replacement one). On a particularly memorable trip the khombi broke down and for some reason only worked in reverse, instead of paying another driver to take us, our driver drove the remaining 10 km to town all in reverse. One of the worst trips was when the driver drove the last part of the trip to my village with the front passenger seat flipped up, hammering something on the engine with a rock as he drove. It still broke down every few kilometers and I ended up grumpily walking the last bit home. But if I’ve been waiting for over an hour for a khombi I am thrilled when it arrives, no matter what shape it is in. And I have never been cheated on the taxi fare.

My favorite part of the khombis are the names. Many have large decal names on their windshields. The best (in my opinion) are: Slow Motion, Sorry Guys!, Later!, Dinosaur, and Cure Ball (misspelled curve ball). And the khombi named Nice One, really is a nice one.

To determine if it will be a good ride, for me there are three criteria: 1) a good seat by a window (and not squished, they often overcrowd the 16 seat khombis, one time I counted 26 people); 2) a good speed (faster than a donkey); 3) a good music volume (or better yet, no music). When I get two of the three I consider it a good ride, and all three—well it’s just wonderful.