RPCV – Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Why is referred to as “returned” and not “former”? Well, from the very beginning we were told that Peace Corps service lasts a lifetime. The all-important third goal of the organization, as decreed by President Kennedy, is “to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans”. This goal can be realized in many different ways in the years after service. I found myself hitting the ground running in this respect by receiving an invitation to speak to the World’s Cultures students at my former employer- Maine West High School. I also received a similar invitation to discuss the Peace Corps with the St. Mary of Vernon Men’s Club. In addition, the month of August was filled with joyous reunions with friends and family. Many stories and experiences were shared, and the scope of disseminating information about the beautiful Basotho culture became very clear.
Maine West High School (MWHS) was an integral part of my service. Through twodifferent rounds of penpal letter exchanges, a strong connection was formed between my students at Thaba-Tseka High School (TTHS) and the World’s Cultures students at MWHS. I maintained contact with the Social Sciences department throughout service, and by the conclusion I was offered to come in and speak to the very students my pupils at TTHS were corresponding with.
It goes without saying that spending two years teaching Basotho students about computers, science, and American culture was a vast learning experience for an instructor. Transferring those skills to an American audience took some extra thought and planning. However, in the end it was a valuable experience and the students appeared to be highly engaged. I left 10 minutes at the end of each period for open dialogue or questions. The lessoned learned from this was to allot more time at the end in the future!
In total, I presented to a different class for 9 consecutive periods, totaling over 500 students. It was exhausting but very much worth it! Judging off the level of participation and the questions the students presented, it was clear they it was a subject they found well worth their interest. This ultimately creates a positive experience for everyone involved. Personally, it was highly satisfying to teach pupils about the Basotho culture. I look forward to giving similar presentations in the future!
St. Mary of Vernon Men’s Club Presentation
In much the same manner as the MWHS presentation, I was invited to speak at the St. Mary of Vernon Men’s Club as well. This particular exhibition was intended to bring home the story of the project they funded to provide seed money for an orphan to create a sustainable car wash business. A different audience, to be sure, so it was nice having a bit more freedom to discuss perhaps the more unsavory sides of the developing world. It’s one thing to describe the effects of poverty and widespread disease. But to explore the roots and contributing factors sometimes will illicit content that can be deemed inappropriate for a school audience.
The presentation was a success and it was great to describe the experience and answer questions to gentlemen of the club. And while time between post-college and Peace Corps was but 2 years, it was plenty of time to establish an appreciation for the club’s work and a pleasure to be involved with.
My next and final post on this blog will come on the one-year anniversary since closing of service in Lesotho. It will detail the transition back into the United States, the doors Peace Corps opened professionally, and most importantly, the lessons learned from living and working with the Basotho for 2 years as well as the continued sustainability of projects started in the country. I also have lofty ambitions for what will eventually become of the all the content posted here since June of 2013.
Lumelang to all my family, friends, and subscribers,
It is with a most bittersweet feeling I write about my Close of Service (COS) from Peace Corps in Thaba-Tseka, Lesotho. Where did the time ago? It seems like yesterday when I was writing about accepting my invitation to serve in the Mountain Kingdom. It has been an eventful 26 months, to say the least. The culmination of such a profound experience was capped off by a pair of wonderful farewell parties in Thaba-Tseka- one hosted by friends and the other thrown by my host organization. I took the opportunity of traveling back home to stop through Italy and San Marino while visiting a friend. This was all capped by a subtle return to home in Chicago, USA.
Not a ‘goodbye’, but a ‘see you later’
I cannot overstate how difficult it was to bid farewell to some of the closest friends I’ve ever had. A specific few truly can be credited with showing me an entire new perspective on life and culture. For that I will be forever thankful. As the months and weeks came to a close, all focus was set to ensuring my exit would be met with a proper mokete (Sesotho for party/gathering). The final hurrah was planned for July 4th (fitting) and went off without a hitch. We invited a handful of volunteers to join us for what would turn out to be the biggest party I ever attended in the country. The dual event to celebrate American Independence Day and the close of service proved to be a wonderful platform for a perfect gathering. A guest house was provided as the venue by a friend, while another friend purchased a pig and sheep for the BBQ.
We hired a local chef to attend and prepare the meat and bought 8 cases of beer. Indeed, we were going out with a bang. All told, 20 American volunteers were present along with over 50 of our closest Basotho and Zimbabwean friends. The evening consisted of dancing, speeches, and great memories.
Of course, thanks to technology I am still able to keep in touch. The same technology that allowed me to keep up correspondence with everyone back home. I suppose I’m fortunate to have served at a time when such technology was emerging in developing nations. The thought of not being able to stay in contact with such close friends is haunting. However, I can’t help but think of how many volunteers have had to deal with this aspect of COS in the past. Even still, once it becomes financially viable I will return to the Mountain Kingdom. And what a glorious return that will be.
Vacanza in Italia
One common event for Peace Corps Volunteers to do upon COS is to use their position on the other side of the world to have a short vacation en route to their home in the USA. Having never been to Europe and knowing that a very close friend of mine is currently residing and playing professional baseball in Italy, it seemed like the perfect destination to visit. Technically, he lives in San Marino, which is a country enclave inside of Italy- which is the exactly the same as Lesotho is to South Africa. In fact, only three enclaves exist in the world: Lesotho, San Marino, and Vatican City. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to visit the latter, but seeing San Marino was good enough. I wonder how many people have been to Lesotho and San Marino in their lifetimes. Perhaps none? My final day in Africa was July 15th when I began my trip from Johannesburg to Milan. The flight had a short layover in Abu Dhabi. Flying over the deserts of the United Arab Emirates was breathtaking. It wasn’t long before I was back in the air heading towards Milan. 14 hours after taking off from Joburg I reached my destination. In a matter of crazy coincidence, I bumped into a fellow volunteer I served with in Lesotho at the tiny Milan airport. He was picking up a friend right as I was arriving. The odds of this chance meeting must be incalculable. I knew from then on this was going to be a special visit.
From the airport I navigated the public transit system to eventually arrive in Rimini via train. The rendezvous with my friend was a special moment. From meeting while playing whiffle ball at the park in-between our parents’ houses to sharing a beer in Italy some 20 years later was a remarkable realization for both of us. I spent the next week attending his team’s games and practices. They even let me participate in shagging balls during batting practice. His teammates informed me of their great appreciation for my boisterous style of cheering on baseball. At first I was a bit confused by what they were referring to. But it became clear in the next game when I realized I was the only one yelling words of encouragement while banging my African djembe drum. Apparently Italians aren’t quite used to the ways of how Americans root on their team for their national sport. It was at this moment I realized how I’ll probably have an addiction to world travel for the rest of my life. After all, I had spent the previous two years immersing myself in a mindset of cross-cultural understanding. Perhaps this psyche will be everlasting.
Aside from the baseball, my friend and I visited the Guaita Fortress, the famous castle located at the highest point in San Marino. We also spent a day in Florence which was quite a treat. I had done some research prior to arriving and inquired about the possibility of visiting Museo Galileo to which he happily obliged. Florence seemed to be a big tourist destination- with good reason given the amount of significant artifacts from Italy’s substantial history. We were on a bit of a time crunch, so I was completely satisfied visiting Museo Galileo to see some of Galileo’s original telescopes and other significant instruments of science from the Renaissance era. So that was made top priority. It exceeded all expectations I had. To see the delicate intricacy and revel in the midst of such scientifically historical instruments left me speechless. Have a look at a few choice exhibits I found particularly captivating:
I extend my sincere gratitude to the many wonderful folks I met in San Marino and Italy who made the experience a memorable start to my post-service transition.
A humble homecoming
I landed in Chicago on July 24th. Flying in over the lake and city in mid-afternoon sent chills down my spine. My head was spinning at the level of infrastructure that makes up the city and greater Chicagoland area which was all visible from my window seat. I had never seen it from this post-Africa perspective, obviously. From majestic mountain vistas to a concrete maze in less than a week. It was truly beautiful. Seeing Chicago in that light brought my appreciation for city planning and architecture to a new level.
Since the modern security levels at airports are so tight, my idea of a cinematic greeting of family upon exiting the plane at the terminal was shattered upon realizing I wouldn’t see them until collecting my bags and heading out to the busy streets at the pickup point. I was delightfully met by my Mother and Sister who had a Chipotle burrito in hand. It was a joyous reunion, no doubt. My core feeling at that time was pure wonderment for some reason. Everything was familiar yet I couldn’t shake the premonition of being an outsider. I attribute this to being so humbled from the prior two years in Lesotho. Carrying this humility can be chalked up as one of the best things to take away from the Peace Corps experience.
We met my grandparents at the municipal golf course where many hugs and some tears of joy were shared. Throwing a beer back with my grandfather will be a moment I will never forget. At that very instance I truly knew I was home.
The next post will focus on reflection and readjustment to life in America. As always, thanks for reading!
Lumelang kao feela lapala, bakhotsi, le batho ba lefatse
(Hello all of my family, friends, and people of the world),
This will be my final post written and published in Lesotho. My COS (Close of Service) date has been set for July 14th and wrapping up projects has been a main priority. Last month I wrote about launching a monthly educational movie screening project which was an outstanding success. I focused my efforts in June to wrap up ongoing projects at Thaba-Tseka High School. This included disseminating the pen-pal responses as well as shoring up any loose ends with the computer lab and curriculum. Admist the technical work being done, I didn’t lose sight of my friends and colleagues which made this Peace Corps experience truly remarkable.
Pen-Pals are an age-old traditional for schools to partake in. I never had the opportunity to participate in an exchange myself, but being the facilitator for children on the other side of the world has made up for that quite handedly. At first I wasn’t sure what to expect, or even how to coordinate such an effort. Thanks to the help of amazing teachers from Maine West High School, it was a resounding success as I’ve wrote about in previous entries. June 8th marked the final trade in what have been astounding correspondences. All told, over 600 students experienced a back-and-forth separated by 12,000 miles.
Here’s a video which really highlights the excitement of my Form Es:
The reality of the dwindling days in Thaba-Tseka hasn’t been lost on me. I’ve really tried to cherish every moment with the friends who have become my brothers and sisters over the past two years. They are well aware of my impending departure so the desire to enjoy every moment together is mutual. Because of this, many braais (BBQs) have been organized. Each weekend has not been wasted, and I only expect this to be amplified in July as I prepare my final farewell parties.
Next month will see my Close of Service and a trip to Italy before returning to Chicago on the 25th. As sad as it is to leave my home of the past 2 years, I’m equally as excited to see all my family and friends who have been so supportive throughout this experience. Until then, sala hantle!
As my completion of service quickly approaches, the reality of wrapping up projects denotes a shift in focus toward ultimate practicality and sustainability. I’m proud to have finally launched a project funded by the Mens Club at St. Mary of Vernon that has been in the works for a few months now. I also received an invitation to present Peace Corps at a meeting at the Rotary Club of George, South Africa.
Matheko on the Move
Back in October of last year, I first wrote about receiving a grant from my brothers at the Mens Club of St. Mary of Vernon. They generously answered the request as I began a new initiative to add an HIV prevention-education project to my list of service activities. One of the primary goals listed under the framework which I’m enlisted to is to have a strong focus on HIV education. As mentioned many times in this blog, the disease effects 1 out of every 4 Basotho and stands as the most detrimental influence on society. Half of Peace Corps Volunteers operating in the country fall under this PEPFAR mandate, myself included. However, due to circumstances beyond my control, my site (Matheko) never received its funding from the government ministry. I never got involved in the effort or politics to resolve this issue and instead focused my efforts on economic development; an area I’m better suited to instruct anyway.
With that said, I still wanted to do something. After attending a screening of the movie Inside Story, it became evident that this was the most effective tool I could employ given the circumstances of my site. This was a side project to stay busy during my downtime from Thaba-Tseka High School which enabled me to take time to arrange the essentials. Specific equipment was required to screen such a movie to a large audience. To make this successful, the project necessitated a projector and screen, speakers, popcorn, juice concentrate, cups, and cooking utensils. A lesson plan also needed to be developed. I tried searching the web for discussion topics only to find nothing. Given this movie’s popularity within Pan-African countries, it came as a great surprise that such material was lacking. Therefore, I will now post it here in the hopes others will stumble upon it.
With the help of TTI, TTHS, and a few fellow volunteers, we set a screening date for May 17th, 2015. I’m happy to report that everything went without a hitch! I led the intermittent discussions alongside my counterpart and a fellow volunteers. The Bo_’M’e Matheko staff helped in the kitchen. Bo_Ntate assisted with the physical labor of setting up the room to prepare for the movie. Overall we had over 75 youth attend the free screening and made the food costs back by selling popcorn and refreshments- just as planned. The hope is to do 1 screening a month and given the relative ease of the project, it looks to be sustainable for the immediate future. Have a look at a few photos from that day:
– – http://imgur.com/a/p0ru8
Rotary Club Presentation – George, SA
The World Wide Web is the single most important tool mankind has ever created. This network doesn’t recognize political boundaries and connects billions of people across the globe. One doesn’t need a passport to have a chat with someone in Japan, share a photo with someone in Serbia, or play chess against someone in Peru. I have been able to stay connected due to the massive proliferation of cheap mobile internet devices across developing nations. So many PCVs before me would have to wait weeks for their correspondences to arrive, if at all. I realize I’m lucky in this regard. However, what’s more telling is the potential it brings to cultures like the Basotho. More on this in my next post.
Since nighttime usually brings downtime, I downloaded and began to play a popular game called Clash of Clans starting in November of last year. It didn’t take long before it lived up to the hype. I joined a South Africa clan and quickly made friends with a couple guys in the clan chat. We’ve been talking quite a bit over the past seven months and one of them (in line with the anonymous nature of this blog, I’ll refer to him by his game handle: Wing Commander) showed great interest in the Peace Corps. He related it to his work for his local Rotary International chapter in a town called George, SA. He floated the idea of giving a presentation to his group at one of their weekly meetings. After mulling over the logistics, I realized this was a fantastic opportunity to visit the southern coast of Africa and be welcomed as an honored guest- allowing for a personal experience into Afrikaner culture as opposed to just a passing tourist.
Another friend & volunteer traveled along and we arrived to the stunning sunrise over Waboomskraal Valley. Wing Commander then greeted us at the bus stop and the trip was underway. We first took a visit to Herold’s Bay over a picnic of a delectable local delicacy: fish and chips. This bay was gorgeous- enough so that Ernie Els and his parents own a pair of houses on the beach. Under WC’s recommendation, I played 18 holes at my new favorite South African golf course, George Golf Club. It was visually remarkable as Afrikaners know how to appreciate the historic game. The meeting took place at 7pm later that night and the other volunteer and I gave our presentation as honored guest speakers. The reception was wonderful and it was a true pleasure to meet folks working for a great cause in their community. The following day we drove to the border town of Wilderness and observed the tropical flora which is unique to the region. This provided the most scenic views of the entire trip as we stopped at Leentjiesklip Beach and then the Dolphin Point lookout.
The time spent with WC and his family was too short and I hope to return in the near future. Everything described above is featured in this album:
– – http://imgur.com/a/zI1KG
Trip to Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, and Steytlerville, SA
The timing for the Rotary presentation couldn’t have worked out better. Speaking with another member of the clan (Gullinor), he informed me that he’d visiting his hometown of Steytlerville to celebrate his mother’s 70th birthday, parent’s 50th anniversary, and his sister’s 40th birthday. The dates all lined up harmoniously and the celebration was appropriately planned to an unimaginable level of extravagance. To even be invited to such an affair was an incredible honor.
The family’s history is worth summarizing as I found it thoroughly fascinating. Gullinor is a 12th generation Afrikaner, his Dutch and English family originally settling on some open farmland in the 1600s. Through the generations this operated as a family farm until an oppressing drought hit the area in 1986, prompting his mother to start a quilting business. This business quickly bloomed into a successful enterprise with a focus on goose down quilts and apparel. They still own and operate the farm, but it is no longer a family venture. His father is a scholar and earned his degree at Cornell University (and even attended lectures by my hero Carl Sagan!). One of the days he took us around town and described the historical landmarks of Uitenhage which was fascinating. Gullinor’s grandfather is considered one of the best Rugby players of all time and is well known in the realm of international rugby fandom.
The stay on the farm in Steytlerville was an amazing and memorable experience. We were welcomed as honored guests and were treated as such throughout. There was quite a bit to do on this 19,000 acre estate. Riding around in ATVs was probably my favorite activity. The house was built with heavy Victorian influence and still emanates that historical charm. Dinners consisted of freshly caught Snoek, Ostrich burgers, and rotisserie Lamb/Pig for the main celebration. After living on a very modest diet on the mountains of Lesotho, words simply cannot describe how heavenly each meal was. The entire experience was marvelous in every regard.
Below you’ll find an album of pictures from Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, and most of all- the farm in Steytlerville:
– – http://imgur.com/a/zeIjH
Of the 23 months served so far, May 2015 was hands down the best period during this experience. Finally getting to work with my host organization was a fitting closure to a service that is winding down. Delving into true Afrikaaner culture on family level was an unforgettable experience. It’s one thing to visit unknown areas as a tourist, but to be welcomed into the family in a literal sense is something I will be forever appreciative of. My only hope is to be able to pay it forward if either WC or Gullinor’s family visit Chicago- which is definitely a possibility!
Salutations to my family, friends, and subscribers,
This post marks Chapter 25! Looking back through the previous entries invokes all sorts of memories and emotions. It’s hard to believe there will only be 4 chapters left after the current. Lesotho Group 84 (Healthy Youth ’15) landed this month and will be replacing the one (L80, HY ’13) I arrived with. I had the pleasure of preparing their Kindles that they will be using throughout pre-service training and henceforth. The Basotho have been quick to adapt renewable energy and are poised to take full advantage of it now and in the future.
Conclusion of the Kindle Project
2 years ago when I arrived, the Director of Programming and Training at the time approached me about assisting to help design and launch a new pilot program that Peace Corps was implementing to reduce paper consumption. I was enthralled at the idea and concept and accepted without hesitation. One of my biggest apprehensions before service was not being able to adequately utilize my technical skills. However, this fear was quickly alleviated once the scope of the project was revealed.
I had never attempted anything like this before. Digital conversion to ebook format wasn’t as straight forward as one might assume (I know I did!). Fortunately, Google as always proved to be an invaluable resource as I worked alongside a fellow volunteer and a Mosotho staff member to complete the first round. Sustainability was always the center-focus since this recurring project would be continue beyond my service. I produced a handful of how-to documents with step-by-step procedures to ensure a proper reference repository was always available for whoever may continue after I leave. Just in case anyone stumbles upon this page looking for such tutorials, here they are:
– How-to: Create an ebook from a document using Sigil (PDF)
– How-to: Create a new library in Calibre and import a previous (PDF)
– How-to: Replace an ebook with an updated version in Calibre (PDF)
Since I was in Maseru to finalize the Kindles, Peace Corps staff asked me to be one of the greeters at the airport to assist in welcoming the trainees into the country and program. Having participated last year (and at one point been the subject), it was great to see their fresh faces as they landed and took it all in up until the point they met their host families. Their reaction of bewilderment and awe is priceless as I remembered the same exact feelings. Overall they are a wonderful group of eager volunteers and I believe they will lead a successful service; some picking up right where we left off as they replace us at our sites.
Wired electricity is still an emerging utility in the country and the majority of Basotho still live without it for a few different reasons. First, the mountainous terrain makes expansion a costly challenge for the nationalized electric company. Second, Lesotho imports over 90% of its electricity from South Africa making rates subject to tariffs. And finally, with an average daily household income of just over $3, it is not economically viable for much of the population. Because of the aforementioned reasons, utilization of renewable energy sources has skyrocketed across the nation.
The most widespread adoption has come in the form of solar panels as prices continue to fall dramatically. The various dams which are part of the Highlands Water Project produced hydroelectric power to the local villages. And Lesotho’s first wind farm has already broke ground in the district of Mokhotlong and should be at maximum output by later next year.
Personally I think this bears great significance to the future of the country. I believe you’ll eventually find developing African nations the first to adopt solar power on a widespread scale. The technology is vastly cheaper than it was even 3 years ago. They pay for themselves with cost savings in a relatively short period of time. I know my first house will be outfitted a modest setup. I encourage all my readers to look into the benefits of renewable solar energy. Much like my counterparts here in Lesotho, I think you will find it to be very cost effective!
Kindly enjoy this video I’ve been meaning to upload for quite some time now. These kids will be sure to put a smile on your faces! 🙂
Thank you for reading this milestone entry. May looks to be a treat as I come together with my group for our Close of Service (COS) conference. I will also be launching the long anticipated “Movie Night at Matheko” project sponsored by the St. Mary of Vernon Mens Club. Stay tuned to hear all about these exciting events!