Orphans and families unload UN food aid, Dalewe.
Recently, I showed a copy of a photo of New York City to a shopkeeper in my town. He asked me, "But how do people get up into such high buildings?"
I mentioned elevators, and he became very animated, saying, yes, he'd once seen an elevator in the capital city, Maseru. Then he described how it looked, and how it felt to ride in. His eyes were gleaming. Moments like these humble me. They make me feel the weight of the embroidered garment of privilege and opportunity that I wear.
In November 2006, I left my home in Madison, trading a wonderful, decently paid job with the state Department of Public Instruction for the opportunity to volunteer two years with the Peace Corps. I am posted in Lesotho, in southern Africa.
Lesotho is a tiny country, about the size of Maryland, with a population of about two million. It is surrounded on all sides by South Africa, the continent's richest country. The wealth of South Africa is a magnet for the men of Lesotho, who travel there to work in diamond and copper mines, and for Lesotho's handful of professionals, who go to be teachers, lawyers, nurses and electrical engineers. But most women venture no further than the nearest grimy camp town, and most children have never left their village.
I sense desolation in the tired red soil, the wispy corn plants, marching in bedraggled rows like defeated soldiers. Yet the beauty of this country is breathtaking, and it comes in 360-degree vistas. I can stand in any high place and see ranges upon ranges of mountains in all directions, vast open valleys through which a river trickles.
In Madison, it is summer, lush and green. In Lesotho, it is winter, brown and windy. Before the missionaries and Boer settlers came, the Basotho people wore animal skins to keep warm. Now they wear beautiful blankets, whose designs are based on English mill weavings of the mid-1800s, evolved over the decades since to be uniquely Basotho. The blankets come in patterns dominated by a single color, and have intriguing names meaning, for example, blanket of royalty, heart of the chief, or thigh of a woman in labor.
Basotho blankets are a distinct part of my winter landscape. They adorn bodies in dozens of ways - as swaddling to hold a baby on its mother's back, as a work skirt for women in the fields, as a riding cape for shepherds, or as mourning wear at funerals.
Here in Lesotho I'm assigned to do teacher training for a distance education program through the country's only teachers' college, Lesotho College of Education, with its main campus in Maseru.
In the U.S., distance education calls up images of prerecorded instructional sessions, with accompanying workbooks. At this end of the world, distance education merely means that the students are a great distance from the home college. They travel physically to the college twice a year for in-residence workshops and exams, and otherwise travel physically to district weekend workshops, which I coordinate at a local high school.
The distance education "students" are 2,000 primary school teachers, most with little more than a high school education, all uncertified. They've been recruited into practice because one-third of Lesotho's teachers have died of HIV/AIDS.
Tiny as it is, Lesotho is the world's number three country for HIV/AIDS, per capita, with 266,000 adult men and women living with AIDS. Nearby Swaziland and Botswana hold first and second place, respectively. Even amid the AIDS pandemic, in 2000 Lesotho introduced free primary education across the country, and this year is increasing the number of its secondary schools. It is also subsidizing high school fees for orphans and textbook fees for high school students.
Yet primary schools in my rural district of Quthing are poor. Windowpanes are missing, and children shiver inside, never taking off their coats during the school day.
Classrooms are crowded. In one first-grade class, the tiny tots sit on paint cans. In second grade at another school, children sit in small plastic chairs with broken legs, so instruction is often interrupted by kids spilling onto the floor.
In still other classrooms, pupils sit on the dung mud floors, or crowd together on benches. Students wear school uniforms, which are often too long on them in first grade but with mending and re-mending, hemming and re-hemming, are far too short for decency by grade 7.
In classrooms, children are quiet and well behaved. In fact, they're too well behaved. Asked if they have any questions, they reply, "No, ma'am."
From first grade on, Lesotho students are taught English as well as the national language, Sesotho. In my district, there are also children from Xhosa and Sephuti families, and they typically struggle to learn two new languages simultaneously.
On the playground, the children noisily run and laugh, flirt and tease. They are happy to play soccer with a ball made of wadded plastic bags, jacks with small stones, and jump rope with ropes woven of mountain grasses.
Because many of the classrooms have broken windows, textbooks and other books are kept in the principal's office, the only room that's locked. I become exasperated when I see that these books are dusty and unused. Because it's troublesome to send children to retrieve the books, to pass out and re-collect, teachers often go without. Later they complain to me that using the textbook slows down learning, as the children read slowly and poorly.
In the town of Mt. Moorosi, I live in a small thatched-roof hut. The walls are thick, plastered with a combination of dung and mud, making it cool in summer and warm in winter. I have no electricity or running water. I held off using my pee bucket until the nights got bitterly cold, enjoying looking up at the crystal clear low-hanging stars and constellations during my nightly trips to the outhouse.
My rondaval sits next to the house of 'M'e (Madame) Mabokang, a primary school principal. A strong woman in her 50s who's raised six children without a husband (he left for South Africa, though she's never divorced him), she walks two hours to her school in the morning, and two hours home after sunset, every single day. She's taught me to cook over the fire outside.
Women like 'M'e Mabokang make frequent trips to find firewood in the hillsides, further eroding the already bare landscape. She also burns cornstalks as cooking fuel. She is one of few in the neighborhood to own and occasionally use a solar cooker, made by students at the vocational school across the river.
Inside, with a gas heater, my rondaval is cozy. I spent two days out of gas, however, and was sobered by the chill, realizing how many people around me cannot afford fuel. They warm themselves just with their blankets, sitting beside smoky fires, inside or outside of the house.
Younger female Peace Corps volunteers receive constant marriage proposals and comments of sexual interest and admiration. As a 50-plus, however, I'm often called "Mommy" or "Granny" or its Sesotho equivalent, "Nkono."
Greetings are very important. As I go to town or down my little dirt road, I greet everyone in Sesotho: "Lumela, Ntate" (Hello, uncle), "Lumela 'M'e" (Hello, madam). There are different hellos for girls, for boys, for children, for babies. And it's not enough to say just hello.
"How are you? Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Did you bring me back any candy?" If it's an acquaintance, you do the three-grip handshake, and chat awhile.
Greeting everyone slows my day. People often talk about slower lifestyles in poor countries, but they seldom explain the richness this gives a day. I have effectively traded a 90-mile-an-hour lifestyle for one at 40 kilometers-per-hour (about 25 m.p.h.). But, going slower, you see much more.
The Basotho lifestyle effectively forces one to make friends, to know one's neighbors, to respect the elderly, to play with children. I used to spend two-three hours a day reading my e-mail. Now I spend two-three hours a day talking with neighbors and passers-by, amusing people with my primitive Sesotho.
And I walk. I've lost 20 pounds, mostly from walking uphill. I walk uphill to town for groceries; I walk uphill to the post office to get mail. I hike up the hill to the high school, which has electricity, to recharge my laptop and cell phone. After a bumpy van ride, I walk up and down hills, to far-flung primary schools to do teacher observations. As I walk, I enjoy the vistas, the circling hawks, the curious children who fall into step with me.
There hasn't been a day I've regretted leaving my job. There hasn't been a day when I haven't been amazed by what one learns in a culture so distant from Madison's.
On the other hand, I hate not being fluent. I regret all the jokes I can't understand. I miss the amazing connections of the Internet. And I hate going to the pump.
Mornings begin at the pump. Because I don't like getting water, I'm not present every day. But sooner or later my three buckets are empty, and I toss on a jacket (others are wearing their Basotho blankets), and head out in the morning cold and blackness toward the common neighborhood spigot. I stumble through two barbwire fences.
Grumpy, chilled and half-awake, we're sometimes as many as 30 women and a couple of high school boys. We wait for the water to start to dribble from the spigot - usually about 6 a.m. - then, in the order that we've arrived, we fill one bucket. When everyone's filled one, we start filling our second buckets in the same order.
With a 10-liter bucket or 15-liter can full to the brim, a woman carefully lifts it to her head, and walks, balancing it perfectly, back uphill to her hut. As I carry two sloshing buckets in my hands, women yell after me, "Put it on your head! Put it on your head!" "Yeah," I mutter, "and break my friggin' neck!"
The day I brought a little bucket to begin my on-the-head training, women laughed till tears rolled down their cheeks. The idea that a full-grown woman can't carry a bucket (or pots or firewood or a car battery or a suitcase) on her head is inconceivable. Even with my baby bucket, the water sloshed onto my hair and trickled down my glasses. That was even funnier, and the laughter trailed after me all the way to my hut. Defeated, I resumed my pail-lugging method, and my neighbors resumed calling after me, "Put it on your head!"
For the last 15 years, when South Africa built a magnificent dam in Lesotho's highlands, there's been a water shortage in our valley. We need more wells; the world needs more water. Lesotho's population has actually decreased due to AIDS, so it's a matter here of less water, rather than more people. After 30 minutes, the water at our pump stops running. I may or may not have more than a full bucket.
Water being scarce, rain is a godsend. In fact, Lesotho's national motto is "Khotso! Pula! Nala!" (Peace! Rain! Prosperity!), letting one know right away the national priorities.
This being the case, you'd think everyone would have rain gutters on their houses, but only rich people can afford them. At the first drop of rain, I streak out of my house with basins, bins, pots and pans. Water runs off the dusty tile roof of my 'M'e's house and I dance with glee, hauling it to my hut and pouring it in my big, plastic bathing basin.
When we don't have enough water, we omit jobs like clothes washing, or else we lug clothes to the muddy, barely-a-trickle river. Knowing what it takes to look sharp, I'm always impressed to see folks dressed up in immaculate whites and wrinkleless cottons.
French and English missionaries came to Lesotho as early as 1830, and it remains one of the most Christianized nations on earth. I belonged to no churches in Madison, but here I alternate between two: the big Catholic one with a vibrant, energized 200-strong choir of mostly high school girls; and the tiny Lesotho Evangelical Church up a steep hill, held in a dusty classroom, with a small, worn congregation that sings slow, sad hymns.
People in Lesotho, as in much of small-town America, are centered within the community. To church and school, add meetings called by the village chief and HIV/AIDS support groups, and your life is full.
My town, however, is lined with rows of unemployed young men. At night, bars are open (illegally) till 5 a.m. and music blares. Bottles are shattered. Fights break out. In recent months, four young men have been knifed and two killed; young girls are raped. Knowledge about condoms disappears in the drunken stupor.
I'm well locked into my compound by sunset each night, but I know that the schools, churches and HIV support groups are left to clean up every morning this mess that poverty, unemployment and alcoholism create by night.
It is the lack of infrastructure, a word that is so dull in English, that cripples life in Lesotho. There is no network of highways; there is one highway. There is no system for trash collection; one just heaves bottles, glass and food containers out the bus windows. Police don't direct traffic; they protect private property and take bribes.
Hospitals have long lines and few medicines. Clinics have no doctors and maybe just one nurse on Tuesdays. There are no land lines for telephones, hence no computers. Some people have cell phones, but no telephone directories. Small shops all sell identical goods: tomatoes, potatoes, socks, blankets. Streets have no sidewalks, no streetlights; you stumble in darkness.
At any moment, whether I've just taken a fall from trying to jog on a street, or whether I'm appalled at a lack of a public toilet downtown, I reflect on all the systems that Madisonians take for granted. To have infrastructure, you need to collect taxes. To collect taxes, people need incomes. To have incomes, you need to have jobs. To create jobs, you need vision, education, investment, political power, systems of accountability and enforcement, all areas in which Lesotho is sadly lacking.
Yet there are many ways that life in Lesotho is richer than life back home. Children are strong, independent and unspoiled. They happily help with household chores like cooking papa over the open fire, collecting firewood, carrying water from the pump. They feed the sheep, pigs, cows, chickens and donkeys. They care for younger sisters and brothers. Their playgrounds stretch for kilometers - they play tag in the dry river dongas, climb in the groves of trees, play hopscotch on the traffic-less roads.
Perhaps the combination of so many funerals from AIDS deaths and so much poverty gives Basotho people a sense of what is important in life: family, friends, neighbors, that meal, this day. There is a sense of kindness and gentleness. People share. People laugh, tease, joke. And always, there is the greeting: I see you, I acknowledge you, you matter.
For me, being in the Peace Corps is like being in a huge university, one that teaches ways to better understand the challenges of poverty and development. Though the emphasis is on creating sustainable projects that will survive beyond our two years here, most of us do not delude ourselves about making big differences in the lives of the elegant, wise people within deep cultures that we do not fully understand.
Our degree from this university includes courses in global complexity, contradictions and compassion. We have learned deeply about the importance of infrastructure. We have studied the dynamic of global injustice that keeps poor countries poor and rich ones rich. We have taken basic courses on the importance of reaching out, of sharing what we know and who we are. Our elective courses have shown us that cultural wealth has little to do with money. We will graduate with special degrees in humility, cum laude, with appreciation for a tough, beautiful place called Lesotho.
Tsumeya hantle (go well), M'e Lerato (Madam Love, Sesotho name) Madeline Uraneck
Madeline Uraneck, a Peace Corps education volunteer, can be reached at email@example.com(access infrequent).