XVIII. Attempted Coup D’é·tat, PCL Consolidation, & Ebola

Basotho ba Ntate ba Moshoeshoe ba na le mathata. Eish.

As some of you may have read in the news: Lesotho is in fact in a period of turmoil and unrest. It doesn’t come as a surprise to someone living here as local analysts have been predicting dire instability since June for reasons I’ll explain in this post. I chose to not write about the political climate in previous entries in the hope that it would get resolved before any type of escalation occurred. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case and it couldn’t have come at worst time in my service. Of course my personal work pales in comparison to what’s at stake for the nation.

Attempted Coup and Consolidation of Peace Corps Lesotho Volunteers

As soon as I accepted my invite to Lesotho back in February of 2013, I immediately began researching the geopolitical workings of the Southern Africa region. Just like anywhere else in the world it’s ripe with complexity which requires a historical perspective to truly gauge the current climate. Without delving too much into it, I think it’s important to understand that political instability is a tell-tale sign of a developing nation. Lesotho has a long history of coups and political upheavals with a majority of them being peaceful in nature. Most of them were born not in a lust for power, but rather to remove oppressively corrupt leaders.

I’ve often mentioned in this blog how the Basotho are an incredibly peaceful culture. The nation was literally founded on a single leader (Moshoeshoe) unifying multiple Sotho tribes; not through battle or conquest, but rather peace. As such, the Basotho have always held their peaceful nature as a source of pride. It’s a cultural perspective like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced. That’s why it’s incredibly painful to see massively corrupt government entities acting beyond the will of the people.

UN-GENERAL ASSEMBLY-LESOTHO

Prime Minister Thomas Thabane addressing members of SADC

The current unrest is a result of a few key players budding heads. In 2012 the government held elections which went on without a hitch. For the first time in the country’s history, a coalition government was formed by 3 main parties. This was a big step forward for democracy in the nation and the world was quick to pat Lesotho on the back for creating a multi-party ruling government. However, it didn’t take long for the pieces to unravel. The military (Lesotho Defence Force) is led by a man named Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli. The LDF is loosely regulated and this unchecked atmosphere allows them to operate almost independently from the government; essentially becoming the law unto themselves. General Kamoli aligned himself with one of three parties as well as the Deputy Prime Minister, Mothetjoa Metsing. In recent months, the parties have accused Prime Minister, Tom Thabane, of making backdoor deals without consent of the parliament. These accusations of abuse of power upon Thabane prompted parliament to form a plan to oust him constitutionally by enacting a vote of no-confidence. Worried by this prospect, Thabane suspended parliament for 9 months in June.

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Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli

This move would be akin to the president suspending Congress to avoid impeachment. Obviously this didn’t sit well parliament and factions began to form, further leading to unrest. It all came to a boil on Friday, August 29th when PM Thabane dismissed General Komoli and appointed a new Lieutenant General to command the military. The PM’s rational for this was based around accusations of corruption in the arena of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Komoli could not be prosecuted for his alleged crimes if he remained commander of the military, so instead of accepting dismissal and facing trial, he instead staged an attempted coup. PM Thabane learned of the impending coup and sought refuge in South Africa hours before the military showed up at his state house. The new lieutenant general he appointed was also paid a visit by Komoli’s forces who shot up his house for 30 minutes before learning he also skipped town. In total, 130 high level government politicians and workers fled to South Africa by the following day. The military raided 2 police stations in Maseru, removing all weapons and uniforms from the police. The commander of the police was aligned with the Prime Minister, so Komoli saw them as a threat. As a result, police forces throughout the country abandoned their positions and went into hiding, including in my town of Thaba Tseka.

Without police on the streets, one would think rioting and looting would take erupt in places without a military presence. However that wasn’t the case. The country continued on as if nothing had happened in the capital. This is a testament to the nature of the Basotho. I can only imagine what would happen in a major city like Chicago if every police officer suddenly vanished for a week. Chaos and anarchy would certainly ensue.

Return to Lesotho

On September 22nd, Peace Corps Washington HQ deemed the security situation in Lesotho safe enough for volunteers to return. This was primarily based on the knowledge that the police had returned to their posts and maintained a presence of order in the villages throughout the country.  I arrived safely back in Thaba Tseka on the 23rd. My friends and colleagues were bewildered at my unannounced absence for 3 weeks. As part of the consolidation protocols, we were advised to not inform anyone of our whereabouts. So you could imagine their surprise upon my arrival. It felt great to be back. My cat Motse was stuck inside (with plenty of food and water) for 3 weeks and could be more joyous for my return. I resumed playing with Little Roses FC and continued my other projects for TTHS and Matheko. I’m currently trying to secure some funding to start a HIV educational movie screening project which will mark the first time in over a year I will have a chance to work with my host organization.

Quick Note on Ebola and Mainstream Media

Prior to service, one of the prospects that intrigued me was the chance to get out of the “bubble” of America and take an external view of the country in the contrast of an entirely different culture. Back in January of this year I caught an article on allafrica.com that noted Ebola had reappeared in West Africa and there was a significant outbreak potential in the region. I decided to do some further research on the deadly virus and found it to be very similar to HIV in that it can only be transferred from human to human via bodily fluids. The only difference is how one virus immediately attacks the system while the other lays dormant for some time, slowly reducing the CD4+ T-cell count until becoming AIDS.

My revulsion for mainstream media and American politics doesn’t leave much room for objectivity in regards to assessing said institutions from abroad. Regardless, it’s rather evident that fear-mongering dominates the 24/7 news cycle of Western civilization. Whether it’s xenophobic reporting of a tiny fraction of Islamic cultures, isolated violence spun into racial controversies, or a virus affecting 0.000001% of the world’s population (8,000÷6.7b), there always seems to be a looming catastrophe on the horizon to report on. This method retains the most viewership and therefore is the most viable economic model to deliver content to the public. Furthermore, it only gets worse when you add political bias and motives within these “news” networks. Politicians and pundits only add to the fervor by making inflammatory remarks with much conviction about the other side which increases the polarity within American society. Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of this counterproductive combination is how amidst all the banter, facts are lost. Science takes a backseat to diatribes and the result is ignorance being perpetuated.

MAIN--Ebola-MapPeace Corps is still operating in countries like Togo and Ghana. As previously alluded to in this post, Peace Corps Washington puts volunteer safety above anything else. Consequently if they felt the risk was too high for Americans serving in West Africa they would be immediately pulled out. . Rationality, fortunately, has been maintained for the time being and service continues unabated for those volunteers. Peace Corps programs in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea have been suspended until the outbreak can be contained However, when I read about politicians promoting paranoia by calling for travel bans from Africa, it makes little to no sense. Should we really prohibit some of the best doctors and nurses in the world travel to the area that needs it the very most? I’ve been living in a country for 16 months where HIV has a 23.7% infection rate among the population. The virus is transmitted in the same manner as Ebola, so should I be allowed back into the states?

As with any epidemic throughout history, the poor take the brunt of the casualties while the affluent- in this case the nation of America- will develop cures and protocols for containment once it has breached its institutions. This particular epidemic will not go away, in fact it has persisted since the virus was first discovered in the 1970s. Unless of course the poor developing nations are provided assistance from a consortium of nations with the resources to combat the problem. This is a challenge for humanity. The Ebola virus doesn’t recognize the imaginary lines our species has drawn across the planet. There is no sense in finger pointing, political posturing, or paranoia. We have the scientific capabilities to address this problem at the epicenter. Now is the time for rational action.

XVII. One Year of Service, Completed Computer Lab, & Little Roses Football Club

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August marks exactly one year of service. What a whirlwind it’s been. Every day has proved to be a new adventure in this foreign land, which hardly seems foreign at all anymore. Chartering into the deep unknown on June 6th, 2013 has proven to be the best decision I have ever made. The experience thus far has been difficult to transcend into words, but I do appreciate those of you who have taken the time to read my monthly attempts to describe what it’s like living in this great country. They say a PCV’s service starts to take its true shape at the one-year mark and that certainly rings true for my experience. The computer lab I’ve wrote about in previous posts has finally been completed. On top of that, I recently began playing for a semi-professional team in Thaba Tseka for the Lesotho Football Association.

One Year of Service in Pictures
– – http://imgur.com/a/TjHIb

Computer Lab

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Ntate Sello will run the computer lab after my service

After arriving at my site only to find out my government organization had zero funding, I had to find some actual sustainable work or be forced to enact the option of moving locations. I immediately felt comfortable in the community of Thaba Tseka, so I set out to scope the area for potential projects so it wouldn’t have to come to relocating. Fortunately an education volunteer still remained in the area right before he was due to end service and was able to introduce to the principal of Thaba Tseka High School (TTHS). I informed her of my skillset and was immediately registered with the Ministry of Education and approved to teach Computer Studies and Business at the school. With the school year winding down at the time, I opted to teach a single class to get the hang of things. One of my colleagues manages what was then a defunct computer lab. Once I saw the machines in halfway working order I knew I had found my primary project.

There were many challenges associated with making the computer lab functional. Firstly, only about 5 of the 20 wall outlets were functioning in the room. This issue quickly took top priority. By a stroke of fate, I met and became very close friends with an engineer for the Lesotho Electric Company and he agreed to fix up the room for no charge on his spare time. It took a few months to acquire the necessary components needed to have proper electricity flowing throughout the lab. During this time I was developing a current curriculum as the one the school had was from 2006 and extremely outdated.

Persistence pays- It took 2 months to fix the electricity and another 4 months to procure the necessary components required to make this a functional computer lab. Typing lessons will be starting shortly and the students are tremendously keen to get started.

Soccer with Little Roses FC

As the winter deep freeze began to wane, the talk of the town turned to the upcoming season for the Lesotho Football Association. Thaba Tseka is too small to host a premier league team so instead the 12 teams play in the B division. It’s possible to compete for promotion but the travel required to play across the country on a weekly basis is near impossible due to lack of funding. I expressed interest of playing to a few friends and one of them set up a meeting with a manager for a team called Little Roses Football Club. He said they were looking for a new keeper and I accepted a tryout without hesitation. After a week of training with the team, the gaffer informed me that I would be starting the first game on August 31st. Training continued on for the entire month of August. Every weekday consisted of drills, conditioning, and team building. It was clear these guys took the sport very seriously.

8-31-14_ttuI’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous on the first gameday. We were playing the Police team and they won the league last year. At least 200 spectators showed up to the pitch. Many of them were students of mine, and a persistent “Ko-pi-no” (my Sesotho nickname) chant echoed alongside their whistles drums. The festive atmosphere was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. After presenting our registration licenses to the officials, we did the typical ceremony which included the national anthem and entering the pitch with 2 lines. The deputy officer was also the captain of their squad and said “hello Kopano, you are welcome!” This was also a very kind gesture of gratitude.

The pitch is entirely dirt. I took some time to remove the larger rocks from the goalie box prior to the game. Regardless, the hard ground was still akin to diving on concrete. Our team conceded the first two goals. First one was a fast break that just out of reach on my right side. The second came from about 10 yards out in which I had no chance. As planned, I only played the first half so the other keeper could get some playing time in the opening match. We went on to lose 1-5 in an embarrassing defeat. However, the coach offered many words of encouragement while also sternly warning of continued defeats if the back 4 don’t start communicating more effectively.

All told it was a fascinating debut to the world of professional soccer in Africa. Unfortunately the consolidation of volunteers (too be described in the next post) effectively took me off the team for three weeks.  I’m eager to return and rejoin the squad as we progress through the season.

 

As always thanks for reading!

Thaba Tseka High School (bottom right)

Thaba Tseka High School (bottom right)

XVI. Family Vacation – Southern Africa

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July marked the 13th month in country and the true midpoint of service with 13 months to go. Winter break covered the entire month and is typically a time for Peace Corps Volunteers to travel out of Lesotho to escape the bitter winter. In Thaba Tseka, the temperatures were reaching the single digits at night. With windchills as low as -30F (-34C) at night, waking up to and seeing my breath in the house was a daily occurrence. The much anticipated visit of my family and subsequent vacation provided a much needed break from the meat freezer of a house.

 

Family Vacation

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My sister and mother with a Mosotho man

Back in September of last year I pitched the idea to my mother and sister to plan a trip to visit Southern Africa. After some careful planning they were booked and ready to visit for a 2 week excursion around the region I serve in. To make things easier, the trip was planned alongside my neighbor PCV’s mother. After some hiccups involving passports and Expedia, they finally arrived on June 24th. We spent our first night in Bloemfontein, South Africa and headed to Lesotho the following day. We spent the first night in our training villages of Berea. With no running water or electricity, we figured this would be a perfect way for our families to get a glimpse of the traditional rural life. The following day we left and headed up to our permanent sites in Thaba Tseka. From here I was able to take my family to see the school I teach at, as well as introduce them to the many friends and colleagues I see on a daily basis in the community. On the final day my Mom and I hiked up to the highest point in town at 8,000ft. Unfortunately my sister couldn’t make the ascent due to a sports related leg injury sustained a month prior. Overall it was a very rewarding visit for them in the town I’ve called home for over a year.

On July 2nd we headed back to Bloemfontein to spend the night and set out for the city of Durban the following day. Durban is a historic city on east coast of South Africa. 25% of the city is inhabited by Indians/Asians so the mix of culture is very unique. Using airbnb.com, we found a beautiful apartment overlooking the beach for $50/night. Quite a steal. Moreover, the Afrikaner family that was renting to us offered to lend their car for the weekend. This was after we informed them of our intention to attend the annual Durban July event. Their generosity knew no bounds and we were extremely grateful.

IMG_9977Durban July is a famous event in the Southern African region and is touted as “Africa’s Largest Horse Race”. The annual race was first held in 1897 at the Greyville Racecourse which has remained the home track ever since. This historic event is very traditional as it has roots during the British Colonial days. It was reminiscent of the Kentucky Derby; complete with a fashion show, vendors, and ceremonial events throughout the day. High society had a big presence, but there was a good mix of average locals among the crowd. An Indian fellow named Armaan sat in front of us and was extremely friendly- offering us Jamenson and deli meats during race intermissions. Having just received my tax return funded DSLR that my mom brought along, I was eager to get some pictures of the day. The fashion show had the theme of “old Hollywood”, and seeing the various costumes being modeled by the different cultures was very entertaining.

The main event, called the “Handicap”, was the 7th race of the day. It carried a R2,500,000 ($360,000) purse and getting in on the action was a must. Obviously I had no idea about which horses were the hot ticket aside from printed odds, so I used a bit of homerism and bet on Captain America to win. He was a 10 to 1 middle-of-the-pack pony and the jockey was draped in an American flag suit, so the choice was easy. Unfortunately he ended up placing 7th, but the main event was a thrilling display with a horse named “Legislate” taking the crown. There had to be at least 7,000 people in attendance. We secured a spot on the railing and had a front row view to the finish. Check out the video of the final stretch:

– – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15rTd7vcDYw

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Hippopotamuses in the St. Lucia Estuary

We left Durban a few days later after to finish up the trip with a couple safaris. Since this vacation coincided with summer break for the schools in the region, Kruger was completely booked when we attempted to secure reservations. Instead we made our way to Hluhluwe, also famous for game parks and other wildlife tours. After making another booking via airbnb, we resided in a Dutch couple’s guest house on their compound. They were also very friendly and hospitable; inviting us to watch the world cup final between Germany and Brazil. The first tour we took was on the St. Lucia Estuary to see the native Hippopotamuses.  Seeing these beautiful (and powerful!) creatures in their natural habitat was extraordinary. The guide informed us of the massive protection efforts in place as the ivory trade still leads to massive poaching of the species. The following morning we went on another tour in the Hluhluwe Game Reserve and got some up close views of the African Rhino and Giraffes.

On July 5th we dropped of the families in Johannesburg.  The vacation provided memories that are sure to last a lifetime. Being able to see this unique part of the word with my immediate family, a close friend, and his mother was a wonderful experience.

Here’s a photo album of the trip:

– – http://imgur.com/a/hEJI1

 

My next post for August will be a 1 year reflection of being a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Lesotho. I plan to post my favorite pictures and video as well. Thanks as always for reading!

XV. Child Prodigy & Kindles Round 2

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Ay kona, ho polile!

With school out and the students back with their families until August, I’ve been able to focus my recent efforts on assisting a child prodigy reach his goal of obtaining a higher education. Also the 2nd group of Healthy Youth trainees arrived on the 5th of June.  It’s been a pleasure to be apart of their initial integration and training. My group arrived on the 7th of June last year so this month marks the 1 year anniversary of being in country. The true mid-service date is the 12th of August (the day we swore in). I plan to write a comprehensive one year reflection for that post.

Child Prodigy

In late April the school held its annual science fair. The science curriculum is very well designed and covers topics such as geology, astronomy, physics, and so forth. All the subjects taught in American science classrooms are present here. I was invited to attend the fair and accepted without hesitation. Most of the students were very excited for this event- even if they weren’t participating. I was initially curious as to what would create such anticipation. Once I arrived it was quite evident.

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Scientist in the making

A handful of students used their informal expertise to create conceptual designs on paper and then turned those visions into practical models. The level of ability and detail was mesmerizing. All different kinds prototypes were on display. Most were using some form of electrical current generated by various sources such as car batteries or solar panels. One stood out in particular though. There was a big gathering of students around this boy’s project as he began to set it up. Everyone was clamoring for a spot to see it in action. As I approached the students made way so I could get a front row look, but I couldn’t figure out what his design was actually supposed to be.

Once it was setup he turned it on. To my surprise I began to hear a radio broadcast from Mexico. He fiddled with some knobs and suddenly it was South Korean. He had successfully built a shortwave radio using components he scavenged around town. I was completely taken aback by the level of intricacy and detail his radio had exhibited. This was a truly remarkable achievement and I was eager to speak with him regarding how he went about creating such a marvel. He is only 17 years old and was displaying technical knowledge on a very high level. This was just further evidence that great minds are born all over the world. It’s just that some people are fortunate enough to have the resources to foster their intellectual gifts; while others, like this boy, are forced into a realm of improvisation and creatively… the likes of which I have never seen.

This child prodigy deserves a shot at the big time. I instantly made it a new objective to seek out different avenues for him to expand his education. I made a plan to return the following day with my friend who is an electrical engineer.  The boy could speak English, but only a limited amount so I knew having a counterpart on hand would help facilitate a more meaningful discussion. I also decided to record the interview as it might help to showcase his practical knowledge to a wider audience. The interview was planned out in advance. We were hoping to achieve three basic things: Have him explain the shortwave radio, how he came into the knowledge of designing such a device, and what his personal vision of the future is. As the interview went on, it was apparent he completely understood the theory of shortwave amplitude modulation but didn’t quite have the English to adequately explain it. This is where my friend was extremely helpful as he was able to translate.

The video didn’t turn out as well as I hoped due to lighting and background noise, so at this point it’s only a rough draft. However, we plan to return after break and reshoot his explanation of how the radio functions. Once the video is polished, I will begin contacting organizations and universities that sponsor brilliant minds from developing nations. Getting a full ride to an American or European university would allow him to expand his creativity and give him the resources to realize his dream of becoming a scientist. At the end of the interview I asked him, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”. He replied, “I want to be in Lesotho, designing more efficient electrical systems to help the country move out of poverty”. Truly inspiring. I love the fact that he wants to return to his country even though he could easily find work elsewhere in the world for higher wages (assuming he gets a degree).

Here’s a few excerpts from the first interview. I will post the full interview (with subtitles) once it’s completed.
– – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wG8ssJAqowU

And an album of his project:

– – http://imgur.com/a/0Kjgz

If anyone has information on how I could best assist this child into obtaining a university education, please let me know!

 

New Healthy Youth Trainees Arrive

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Big smiles, big aspirations

The new group of Healthy Youth trainees landed in country on June 5th. Through some luck I was able to secure a spot as one of the volunteers to welcome them at the airport. This was entertaining because seeing their faces as they completed their 16 hour journey was very reminiscent of how I felt getting off that plane; utterly exhausted and unable to process what was actually going on. It only got better as we rode into their training villages for the welcoming ceremony. After the families announced which trainees would be staying with them, I decided to give a short impromptu speech to demonstrate my Sesotho. They played a critical role in establishing the foundation and really hammered in the basics of the language during the 2 months of training. So by doing this I was attempting to vindicate their efforts and further encourage to have the same approach with the new group.

“Lumelang bo_’M’e le bo_Ntate, le phela joang? Lebitso la ka ke Ntate Karabo Thamae. Ke luile le Morena ‘M’e Mathatho Thamae empa hono joale ke lula le sebesta Thaba Tseka. Biathaopi ba bacha ba thabile ho sala le lona. Rea leboha ka ea ho fana”

Which translates to:

“Hello Mothers and Fathers, how are you? My name is Mr. Karabo Thamae. I lived with the chief ‘M’e Mathatho Thamae but now I live and work in Thaba Tseka. The new volunteers are happy to stay with you all. We thank you for the generosity.”

They loved it. I was quick to shift focus back to the trainees as they had no idea what was going on. Over the next week I was tasked to lead sessions on the technology infrastructure in Lesotho and how they can best utilize it during their service. In addition to technology sessions, I also worked with staff to manage and distribute the Kindles as well. The last group that arrived (ED ’14) were the first to receive Kindles, and I described the project in this post from last October. The primary complaint with the Kindle DX was that it was difficult to read by candlelight. So Peace Corps Lesotho decided to go with the Paperwhite model this time around. So far the feedback has been very positive. The amount of paper saved by using the Kindles to present the training material is insurmountable!

 

At the time of writing this my mother, sister, and my neighbor PCV’s mom are on their way for a 2 week stay in Lesotho, Swaziland, and South Africa. Coming with them is my DSLR which I opted not to bring due to an ill-conceived notion that it would make me stand out. Now I realize that isn’t the case and can’t wait to start taking high quality pictures of this unique region of the world!

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Venus at dawn

XIV. Lesotho ICT Committee & a Car Wreck

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Greetings from the Mountain Kingdom,

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Roadside jam for some kids

“Ke tsatsi le monate hore e be ke ntse ke phela” has been my motto lately, and with good reason. It translates to “It’s a great day to be alive”. I was once again reminded of my own mortality; the 2nd close call in the past 6 years. Aside from that, I’m very pleased to announce the official designation of the Lesotho ICT Committee (LTC). As founder and chairman, it’s been a lot of work getting it up and ready- a process that began back in January. With the help of some dedicated volunteers, and with the launch already behind us, I am proud to say it has been an resounding success so far.

Lesotho ICT Committee

The idea for the committee was conceived during what’s known as
the “Phase III Workshop” wherein the volunteers are brought back to our training villages for site-relevant training. This occurs 3 months after swearing-in.  It was at this workshop in which our Country Director had a brief discussion on the various volunteer/staff run committees that exist. These committees serve as collaboration platforms for volunteers and staff to work towards a common goal which defines the committee. She presented all the current committees such as TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) and VAC (Volunteer Action Committee), at which point I realized there was a void.

I came to Lesotho with the initiative to leverage my Information and Communication Technology skills to better assist the people and organizations I work with. While the official framework of my job dictates a primary focus on HIV education to at-risk youth, I’ve found more successes in focusing on capacity building and economic development. As such, every secondary project I’ve started here has a heavy reliance on ICT skill integration. Peace Corps service is flexible enough to allow for separate areas of work so long as it’s in the best interest of the community.

The first step was to find volunteers who were interested in participating in such a committee. The next step was to create a draft charter that outlines the various goals and objectives. I began collaborating with other Peace Corps countries which already have an ICT committee in place. I’d like to give a shoutout to PC Namibia for all the documentation and assistance they provided for which I am very thankful. After recruiting interested members, it was time to start bringing all the elements of the vision together. With the draft charter submitted to staff and the first meeting scheduled, it felt as though all the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.

– – http://pcharpoon.com/pc/ltc/proposal.pdf

The first meeting was on the 3rd of May. We discussed our overall mission, goals, and member strengths. We also launched our premier project: to create a public “face” of Peace Corps Volunteers in Lesotho utilizing social media networks. The third goal that Kennedy laid out for us was to “educate Americans on the part of the people served” and this formed the basis for the project. Many volunteers put this third goal to practice by keeping a blog, like myself. And while blogs are great for writing a personalized experience, they don’t quite have the reach or influence that a collective blog would. I felt there was no better way to address this than by creating a volunteer-run Facebook page managed by the tech committee. So far it has been a resounding success. I don’t reveal any personal information in this blog but a PCV in particular should be commended for her efforts in managing the Facebook page. This has allowed me to focus my duties as chairman on organizing the next meeting and drafting our next project/initiative. Check out the page, and like it if you haven’t already! An official website is in the works.
– – http://facebook.com/lesothopcvs

Car Wreck

What can I say? I already knew when coming here that the biggest danger would not be violence or disease. No, it was clear that transportation would represent the largest risk to my personal safety. Those premonitions came to fruition on the 4th of May. At around 8pm the driver lost control of the vehicle and we plunged about 20ft (6m) off a small cliff into a river bed. Thanks again to Nils Bohlin, the Swedish inventor who designed the modern 3-point safety belt. His efforts  prevented serious injury or death twice for me now in addition to saving a countless number of other lives since his invention.

The committee’s first meeting was the day prior.IMG_20140504_210416 Per volunteer culture, I tried my level best to find a hitch back to my site in Thaba Tseka. I feel the need to explain why hitching is so important to volunteers as it played a critical role in my lapse in judgment. What’s true about a volunteer is that we get paid to live on the same levels as the local population. In concept, this makes the most sense as making a higher wage would create a disconnect between the volunteer and their counterparts within the community. It would also be counter-productive to integration. With that said, stretching one’s monthly living wage becomes a normal course of action. And one of the best methods to do this is by hitching rides as opposed to paying for public transport.

Hitching is relatively easy here, especially if you live in a camptown or have friends with cars. I’m lucky to fall into both of these categories so I utilized a ride offer on that Sunday. I knew the man who was driving as we had hung out a few times through mutual friends. He’s a nice enough guy.. bit of a drinker, but then again many men here are. He arrived an hour late to pick me up from the Peace Corps office and we were on our way by 4pm. He was driving the company car- a newer model Toyota pick-up truck. After stopping for petrol, we hit the mountain road leading to Thaba Tseka, but not before stopping at a bar. Drinking and driving is accepted here. It’s technically illegal but like many laws, it is rarely enforced. It also seems to have cultural roots. It was common for men to drink the local homebrew while trekking across the country via horseback. The times have changed but the culture hasn’t. I’m not here to pass judgment either way, to do so would be inappropriate for a foreigner of my status.

After one hour on the road, one quart turned into two. It doesn’t help that there are so many roadside bars on the way to TT. We were about halfway through the journey when he finished his 2nd quart. At this point I was weary of his ever-decreasing sobriety. I made the mistake of believing that his noted alcoholism makes for a higher tolerance. I later found out this isn’t true since alcohol is virtual always present in the blood of someone who drinks as much as he does. As we approached the final town before the 45-minute stretch back to the camptown, I was faced with a decision. In hindsight, it’s clear that I should have gotten out and lodged before continuing the journey in the morning. However, I opted to continue on with him, as his driving abilities were seemingly okay at that point. The social ramifications of ditching the ride also played a factor.

At about 7:30pm everything had changed. The Sun had completely set. It was a cold, dark, moonless night. I started becoming anxious when I noticed the driver was having trouble staying in his lane. You may be asking yourself why on Earth would I stay in the car, but there are many factors to describe here. I’ll keep it succinct by saying yes, I should have gotten out and made a new plan. My ultimate determination to continue on was a mistake, but it certainly wasn’t made in haste.

The man began driving very slow which is typical of an inebriated individual. This was a relief as it began to become painfully clear that he was in no state of mind to be operating a vehicle. We are not permitted to drive in this country but in this situation I would have had no qualms about taking over the wheel had the car not been a stick-shift, of which I have no experience operating. I instead chose to keep my hand no more than 3 inches of from the wheel and was in constant verbal communication with him. I turned up the music and killed the heat. If we were going to make it back safely, he wasn’t going to do it by himself.

It’s a good thing it was nighttime. I knew the cliffs were there, but not being able to see them kept my mind focused on the road and the task at hand. We were driving at the one of the highest points in this mountainous country. A winding cliffside road at an elevation of 7,500ft (2,286m) with 500ft (152m) drops which would lead to certain death. We approached a police car and I assumed they would take some sort of action once they observed his driving. Nope. In fact, they stopped to let us pass by putting on the hazard lights and pulling to the side. The driver pulled up behind them and wouldn’t move. I told him they were letting us pass and but he could barely reply with coherent sentence. So he proceeded to pull up alongside and stare at them. This was awkward. I rolled down my window to force some type of interaction. The driver muttered some Sesotho that I couldn’t make out and we continued on. The police followed for about 3 minutes before passing us. It was extremely aggravating that they followed so close, observed his driving, and did nothing about it. Not to mention their headlights blinding us in the rear view and side mirrors. The last thing my driver needed was a source of disorientation. The police eventually passed us and continued down the road. We would later pass the police vehicle as it was parked at a roadside bar.

This was a horrible situation… the stuff of nightmares… and I knew it all along. I was texting a few friends saying these very things. They knew the severity of the predicament but obviously could only offer moral support. I’m glad they did though because at that point all I could think about was the first car accident I experienced in 2008. Call it a PTSD flashback or whatever, but I was definitely in a violate state of mind.. Getting out of the car wasn’t an option. I would have had to walk 3 hours in either direction to get back to a town. It was dark, cold, and I didn’t have any spare food (another mistake).

Through a stroke of luck, we finally made it past the high-risk part of the drive and began descending down the mountain and past a small village. I had never felt so relieved my entire life. However, the jubilation was short-lived. Just as I was texting a friend about how much I’d like to punch this guy in the face, he veered off the road and I suddenly found myself vertical. I knew I was safe the millisecond we began the descent because the headlights reveled the ground  which we were about to impact. I braced myself as we landed in the river and came to rest in the upright position. The driver wasn’t wearing his seatbelt and ended up on top of me. I shoved him back to his seat and demanded he turn off the engine. Instead he stated his intention of backing out and getting back to the road. He then proceeded to ask me what happened, but not before I lunged over and removed the keys from the ignition. I told him to wait in the car while I got out to survey the situation. It was at this point I realized we went all Dukes of Hazzard off the side of the road.

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Thankfully the truck cleared the rocks

This is where things get cool. Before I could even look up, a group of villagers converged on the wreck and offered assistance in any way they could provide. The Basotho are a culture that are always looking out for each other and this kind of communal behavior has been observed many times. A younger gentleman jumped down to greet me and asked what I needed. I simply said “a cell signal”. He proceeded to usher me up the mountainside to a spot that can receive service. I phoned a local friend to come pick us up. He arrived about 20 minutes later and it was clear that Sir Drinks-A-Lot needed some medical attention for a gash on his head. Overall he was fine. I walked away with only a bit of whiplash. It’s remarkable considering what could have been.

We returned the next day since the police had to file a report. At no point did they ask me if the driver was drinking. I was prepared to tell them the truth, but since they didn’t present the question I wasn’t going to put myself in a position to reveal his crime. After the police completed their work, my friend was tasked with leading the effort to remove the vehicle for his company. Once again, “Rufus” was brought in to save the day. This is the 2nd time in 3 months I’ve been there while this truck earns its keep. I decided to document the proceedings once again. It’s fascinating to observe how the Basotho tackle problems such as this.

Here’s a video compilation:

And a photo album:
– – http://imgur.com/a/KIxru

I hesitate to describe the event as a “car accident” and instead opt for “car wreck”. His negligence put both of our lives at great risk. While I could have made better decisions to mitigate my personal danger, it doesn’t change the irresponsible nature of this man’s course of action. A mutual friend told me if I didn’t stay with him, there’s a good chance he would have never made it back. I’m inclined to agree. This experience coupled with the ’08 accident has brought on a sense of clarity. The lasting effect of these ordeals is not the event itself, but rather the constant thoughts about what could have been. For each wreck, I’ve played out every possible scenario a thousand times over in my head. I remember talking to a wise family friend after the first car accident when I remarked “well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?” to which she cracked, “Yeah, I’ve been hearing that my whole life. My question is, how strong do I have to be?!” At the age of 26, I’m starting to see where she is coming from.

 

Next month marks exactly one year since arriving in country. The new group of trainees is set to arrive on June 5th and I’m excited to be a resource volunteer during training in the following months. I realize the word count rises with each blog post. The verbosity is a reflection of the ever-increasing level of work, integration, and general life events that come after spending 11 months in a foreign country. So here’s a virtual high-five if you’ve made it this far. Thanks for reading and all the support!

And as always,
Sala Hantle!IMG_20140505_045911~01~01