these are the tales of a current Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Lesotho, Southern Africa

THIS BLOG DOES NOT REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE US PEACE CORPS, THE US GOVERNMENT, OR ANYTHING ELSE EXCEPT FOR MY OWN THOUGHTS AND BELIEFS

Remember those chicks from a while back… the slaughter is about to begin #peacecorps #lesotho #nugzfordays

Remember those chicks from a while back… the slaughter is about to begin #peacecorps #lesotho #nugzfordays

Know your status. Get tested today #HIV #AIDS

Know your status. Get tested today #HIV #AIDS

Ask me about VMMC! VMMC reduces male risk to contract HIV/AIDS by 60%!!! #beinformed #HIV #AIDS #peacecorps #lesotho

Ask me about VMMC! VMMC reduces male risk to contract HIV/AIDS by 60%!!! #beinformed #HIV #AIDS #peacecorps #lesotho

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Updated wish list of care package items
- socks, socks, and more socks, (lightweight hiking socks, regular black ankle socks)
- pictures of you and me or handmade crafty things for me to hang up in my rondavel
- coffee, tea, gatorade drink packets
- cliff bars, snack foods,
- purrell, purrell, purrell
- thumb drive with new movies or music that I would like
- a small amount of chalkboard paint
- friendship bracelet packet from Walmart for my kids

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Tuesday evening last week I took the last taxi home from Maseru. As I just finished looking for my keyhole in the pitch black, I turned my key and unlocked the burglar bars. Two bo’m’e shouted “Stabo” as I started walking through my doorway. I dropped my things and quickly ran back out. I was greeted by two women from the neighboring village. Their Sesotho flying off their tongues was giving me a headache but I decide to see what they were trying to tell me. “Bashemane,” the women said repeatedly. As I attempted to ask them to speak slowly, their faces lit up with laughter. I appreciated their patience they gave me, but one woman quickly gave up and kept on her journey home. The other woman, however, was not intending on leaving without me telling her that I understood. I began to pick out a few words here and there. Hosasa-tomorrow, kamora-after, sekolong-school, bashemane… I figured I’d get to that later. By putting 2 and 2 together, I realized this Bashemane was something that was going to happen tomorrow after school. I gave the ‘M’e a smile and told her I would see her tomorrow, unprepared for what I would experience.

I immediately ran inside and asked my ‘M’e what Bashemane meant. She laughed and told me that it was the village celebration for the newly returned men from the initiation school in the mountains. Initiation schools are like fraternities mixed with bar mitzvahs. There are a totally secret and traditional rite of passage for Basotho boys to become men in the culture. No one knows what exactly happens at these schools but it is known that the boys go into the mountains for 3 to 6 months in the springtime. Rumors are told of circumcision, fighting, and a test proving worthiness of initiation.

At the discovery of the meaning of Bashemane, I eagerly awaited for the next day after school. With my camera charged and ready to go, I walked to the next village with my ‘M’e as a cultural ambassador to make sure I didn’t do anything that wasn’t acceptable. At the sight of my arrival bo’m’e screams and cheers filled the air. The last thing I wanted was the extra attention.

I was given a seat in the front row from a tent covering the chanting men. All I could see a circle of individuals covered red blankets swaying back and forth as their voices projected to the crowd. My ‘M’e signaled for a Ntate to come over and asked if I could take pictures of the event. The puzzled man looked horrified. He thought I was some “lekhooa” or foreigner who was passing by and wanted a picture to exploit the culture. After explaining that I was member of the community, he was shocked by my knowledge of Sesotho. As soon as I got the okay, he organized the men to stand before me so I could take a few photos.

I couldn’t help but want a few personal headshots. I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and figured I could just wait until the end of the celebration. I was wrong. So very wrong.

The men resumed their chants under the tents and formed a semicircle with the chiefs leading the rituals. People were coming over to the side to reveal gifts to the various men. The chief signaled for me to come over to the group. I immediately regretted ever bringing my camera. While waiting for the man to introduce me into the semicircle, my heart began to pound. He told me that my gift would be the picture. He guided me to the center so I could capture the moment. As I looked through my lens, I could see the faces of the men as they chanted, snarled, and swayed to the voices. They were covered in traditional blankets, with beads and necklaces all over their bodies. Their faces were painted with red as their white eyes glared at me. I realized the power of the moment. A foreigner had been invited to experience such a pinnacle moment in the Basotho cultural. Needless to say, the pictures say it all.

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Back in the states, I had a few jobs that my colleagues and I would joke about everything included in our jobs that didn’t seem to fit under the title of our job description. For example; at a glance of my job description as a camp counselor, you wouldn’t see that I would have to be an expert of captivating the attention of 10 rambunctious middle schoolers at all hours of the day, you would just read “must work well with children.” As a member of a team of Orientation leaders at my university, you wouldn’t know that I would be working over 20 hrs per day during a highly intensive week long program for first year students, you would just read, “must have flexible working hours.” And as a Peace Corps Volunteer, you would only see that my professional job is to be a Primary English teacher at a rural school in Southern Africa. But just like my previous jobs, this too has a flexible job description that you have to experience in order to understand.

Each day I wake up, put on a shirt and tie, and get ready for another adventure as a Primary English teacher in the Peace Corps. That title is jam packed with anecdotes of success, failure, and all things in between. As mentioned before in a previous post, some days I feel like I’m the best amateur TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) teacher that has ever existed. And some days, I feel like I shouldn’t even be given the title of “teacher.” That one day a week when my confidence is decimated by a classroom full of 10 year olds. I’m not proud of those moments but I do recognize the lessons that they teach me. When I fail at my job, there are very little personal repercussions that follow me when I exit the classroom and walk back home. While I might experience discomfort and a blow to my confidence, I can always continue my life as I have before. But when I fail at my job, I have exactly 95 reasons for why I can’t give up. If my the success of my work was measured solely from the results of my students, clearly I wouldn’t be seen as “effective.” Thankfully, my job is more than tests and grades. In the classroom, I get to be the cheerleader, the supplier of energy, the spark of motivation. I have the opportunity to get my students excited about learning English and hopefully I can get them to understand the value of an education. Any teacher will tell you that their job description could never include all the tasks and responsibilities that come with their title. A teacher certainly wears many hats indeed! Some of my favorites include being a life coach, to entertainer, assistant drama director, professional book reader, amateur artist/calligrapher, creator of engaging lesson plans, role model, gate keeper of the school supply closet, fun master, encourager, energizer, daytime parent of 95 children, and most importantly as my principal puts it,”a bridger of hope.” I can see my resumé years from now with a title that no words will ever be able to do justice for the job I had as a “Primary English Teacher.” Instead I’ll have to put an asterisk next to it with the disclaimer, “only ask about if you have sufficient time for a good story or two.”

Doubt and Survival in the Peace Corps

what-i-learned-in-the-pc:

If you ever want to know the internal conflict and struggle of self doubt that Peace Corps Volunteers face on a daily basis, read this

Peace Corps service is something that can rock you to the very core of your being and shake your it until they’re so scrambled you can’t tell your dreams from your nightmares. Why did you even come here in the first place? What was it that told you it was a good idea to leave everything to do…

Source: what-i-learned-in-the-pc

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After school activities have been going on for a few weeks now. Everyday, after lunch, the kids participate in a variety of things that include: singing, drama, running, or dancing. I have been assigned track coach, English drama assistant director, and now I even help out with singing. Although apprehensive at first, I am loving every moment.

In Lesotho, all over the country, there is a HUGE track event that happens on Moshoeshoe’s Day. My school is participating with almost 15 schools. Our track is the lines from a dirt soccer field that students run around a variety of distances. Time is not measured. Students run barefoot. Girls run in skirts. The younger students cheer on the victors as they come sprinting down the field across the finish line. As track coach, I do the best job that I can in Sesotho to encourage the runners, give them a few tips, and teach them the importance of warming up, stretching, and cooling down. To see the joy that comes from these kids when they run is nothing short of inspiring. “I want to run like you,” an older boy told me. “I want to be a marathoner.” At the sound of the whistle, they’re off, running together with smiles all around.

Although Metolong doesn’t have an official choir, you wouldn’t know it from the way these kids sing. The Basotho have this incredible ability to harmonize any song without any effort whatsoever. Just like an acapella group back home, each student is assigned to a group depending on their pitch or singing ability. (Not sure what to call it) They range from Soprano to Alto, Tenor to Base. On singing days, I sit back as I have my own personal concert in front of me. One day a teacher wanted to see if I could sing a certain set of notes. After I finished she encouraged me to join singing with the boys coaching them as best as I could. I was never much of a singer back at home yet here all since of stage fright has vanished. I guess moving to a foreign country for two years will shatter any comfort zone you have made for yourself growing up. And so I’ve been singing with my students after school, not really knowing what I am doing. But, surprisingly I’ve been told that I can sing pretty well. And so long as people aren’t complaining, I guess I can’t be too bad right? On day after practice, my students surprised me with a song about me in Sesotho. After I teacher translated it for me, I was in awe. “Ntate Stabo, you are our love, where ever you go we go. In times of doubt, hardship or trial, we are there with you.” And cue the waterworks.

Drama is insanely difficult to teach in another language. Imagine reading something that you have no idea what you are reading then be expected to act in out. Exactly. It’s almost impossible. Almost. After hours and hours and hours of practicing. Memorizing lines, pronouncing words over and over again, and assigning staging and movement, we were making progress. Then a few days ago, my principal tells me that the ministry decided to change the drama used for the competition. So we are back at square one. Can’t help but laugh it off and work that much harder to prepare for the play quickly approaching in 2 weeks!

The attitudes of my kids towards me has been nothing short of transformational. I can begin to see that through the challenging activities that we do after school, I have been able to develop my relationship with them. I can finally escape the role as a teacher and become the mentor and role model that I’ve always wanted them to see me as. Through the daily stretches with the boys, through the songs in Sesotho, through the hours of acting, I can finally see that I am not only setting the foundation for my service at the school but that I am earning their respect, I am earning their love, and most importantly, I am earning their trust. 

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Back at JMU, in the office of Orientation, there was a quote that my supervisor always said, “flexibility is key.” She always loved to stress the importance of thinking on your feet in the event of everything going wrong right before your eyes. She never served in the Peace Corps, but I can assure you her word would rain true with PCVs across the world. Flexibility is such a critical character trait to possess to be a successful PCV. I have already had to remind myself of this little fact numerous times at my site while teaching.

Teaching has been… interesting to say the least. As I’m sure with most Education (ED) volunteers in the first few months, I have faced way more obstacles than I was initially expecting when I first walked into the classroom. 

Despite all the hours put into lesson plans to make sure I’m catering to each different learning style, I just keep forgetting that I’m not back in America and there are other factors that affect my students on a personal level.

Half of my students are OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children)

A few of my students have visible disabilities

Many of my students have undiagnosed learning disabilities

and then there’s the language barrier…

At my school, I was assigned to teach English to grades 4, 5, and 6. I soon discovered that my job was going to be a lot more complicated than what I was expecting. I spent the first few weeks initially observing my classes to gauge the English ability of my students. I was not prepared in the slightest.

In Lesotho, Grades 1-3 are taught completely in Sesotho except for English. Starting at Grade 4, everything is switched and the classes are taught in English. You might be able to see where I’m going with this. As a Grade 4 teacher, I have a group of students who have never had a full day taught in English, and I am their first teacher to teach them under these new circumstances.  I quickly discovered the major flaw in the system. While kids are being taught in Sesotho in the lower grades, that leaves one hour per weekday to learn English. That is in no way, shape or manner an adequate amount of time to grasp the basics of such a rigorous language. Students are supposed to be gaining the foundational skills needed to advanced to the next grade level and thus begin to master the English language.

What do I mean by foundational skills? I am talking about handwriting, phonics, reading and comprehension, basic English phrases, and vocabulary. Since every grade is taught completely in English after Grade 4 up to the University level, it is absolutely essential that these kids are given proper instruction in English. To not do so is robbing them of their future.

I have kids in my Grade 4 class that do not know how to read. Most students struggle with basic pronunciation and handwriting. I have a few students (about 15 out of 52) who are performing at a sufficient level ;however, they possess the vocabulary of a student in Grade 1 at least according to the syllabus. I have had to abandon plans to teach life skills at the moment because my students cannot speak English yet along be taught a subject completely in a foreign language with vocabulary they don’t understand in Sesotho.

I have had good days where I finish all my objectives of my lesson, when I speak absurdly slow and my students understand my English, when a student raises his/her hand and asks a question (IT’S A BIG DEAL), or even when a student says the wrong answer and I shower him/her with praise.

I have bad days when I question my purpose for being here, when my entire lesson is introduced with one question and my students tell me they don’t understand, when I have to teach my lessons completely in Sesotho so that my kids can comprehend what I’m saying thus robbing them of their educational opportunity to learn English, when my lesson plan crumbles before my eyes, when I lose my patience and storm out of the classroom to get some fresh air.

It is in those moments that I remind myself that “flexibility is key.”

I take a deep breath, turn around, and walk back into the classroom.

  • Question: We love your PCWeek photo! With your permission, we'd love to share it on our social media sites! - peacecorps
  • Answer:

    Yes of course! My name is Matthew Merritt and I am currently serving as a PCV in Lesotho, Southern Africa

Peace Corps Week 2014 #peacecorps #lesotho #america #pcweek2014 @peacecorps

Peace Corps Week 2014 #peacecorps #lesotho #america #pcweek2014 @peacecorps

At the conclusion of the Tae Kwon Do Tournament, 16 hours later straight through the night, Team Askies won GOLD in almost every category, including my black belt wielding sister, resulting in an evening i’ll remember for the rest of my life #peacecorps #lesotho

At the conclusion of the Tae Kwon Do Tournament, 16 hours later straight through the night, Team Askies won GOLD in almost every category, including my black belt wielding sister, resulting in an evening i’ll remember for the rest of my life #peacecorps #lesotho

Proud new owner of 150 chicks… possibly thinking about making some chicken nuggets next month #peacecorps #lesotho

Proud new owner of 150 chicks… possibly thinking about making some chicken nuggets next month #peacecorps #lesotho

The future Olympians of Lesotho. These girls just sprinted 100 meters while barefoot and while wearing skirts. #peacecorps #lesotho #girlpower

The future Olympians of Lesotho. These girls just sprinted 100 meters while barefoot and while wearing skirts. #peacecorps #lesotho #girlpower

Don't join the Peace Corps

what-i-learned-in-the-pc:

You heard me. Don’t do it. I’m telling you, it’s going to break your heart.

The Core Expectations for Volunteers states you are expected to “serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship, if necessary…” What it doesn’t state however is…

Source: what-i-learned-in-the-pc

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