XXVII. Penpals Conclusion & Soaking It All In

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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.

 

Penpals Conclusion

Form Es

Some very excited students with their letters

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:

And a few photos:
– – http://imgur.com/a/it7Re
Soaking It All In

Lekker Braai

A Lekker Braai

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!

XXVI. Matheko on the Move & A True Afrikaner Experience

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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.

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Intermittent pauses to hold discussions on the science being presented in the movie

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.

Inside Story Lesson Plan: PDF | doc

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.

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A different type of audience

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.

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Fascinating geological feature found outside the farm

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!

 

Thanks as always for reading. Baie Lekker!

XXV. Kindles Round 3 & Renewable Energy in Lesotho

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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

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Standing with the Country Director and Director of Programming and Training who oversaw the 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)

IMG_20150421_185711~01Since 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.

Renewable Energy                                            

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.

A man sells photocopies powered with solar energy in the marketplace

A man sells photocopies powered with solar energy in the marketplace

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!

XXIV. Penpals Round 2 & Conclusion of Football

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Lumelang bakhotsi le lapala,

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After school calisthenics

“Hey Kopano, mariha ea tla!” (Winter is coming!) is the oft-repeated phrase I’ve been hearing from villagers this past month. The classic line from Game of Thrones rings true here and nighttime temperatures approach freezing. I have dreaded memories from last year as there’s no possible way to truly be warm in the depths of an unforgivable mountain winter. Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep moving by organizing a second round of penpal letters from my students at TTHS to Maine West High School. The first round was a resounding success and this time we’ve quadrupled the amount of correspondences for maximum effect. Football season came to its conclusion and I was able to retire from Lesotho semi-pro soccer as a winner.

 

Penpals Round 2

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Artifacts I included with the package

Exactly one year ago  I reached out to a former colleague at Maine West High School to see if she and her fellow social science teachers would be interested in a personalized penpal exchange. Of course they were thrilled at the prospect as was I. The letters on both ends proved to be marvelous and the format encouraged discourse focused on cultural learning. Using the same prompt and format, we decided to have another go at it; this time increasing the amount of matches by 4x. No doubt this is a massive undertaking. 200+ students is no easy task. On this end it was fun but extremely hectic. The students are optimistic and above all excited to begin this correspondence. As I only used Form E (seniors) last year, this is a new experience for the Forms C-E that I included.

Here’s the prompt they followed:
PDF

I received word of a successful arrival, so we are halfway to completing another successful exchange. I’ll write about the arrival of the responses in May’s entering assuming we stay on schedule.

 

Conclusion of Football

Final game was played in a thunderstorm

Final game was played in a thunderstorm

The single most unifying experience here was playing in the Thaba Tseka circuit league for Little Roses FC. Since August I was the main tender of the net, practiced nearly every day with my teammates, and posted 2 clean sheets in 14 total starts. What wild ride it was. At the beginning I had no idea what to expect having not played outdoor ball since high school. Africa soccer is a different game. Definitely more physical and a lot more intense compared to the previous levels I’ve played at. Being the only white guy in the league came with its challenges. The fans of the opposition were pretty relentless with their chants and songs. However, my teammates always rallied around me, and we functioned as a solid unit throughout the season. The majority of the players were young; some were even students of mine at the high school. Speed and ambition do not always overcome plain experience though, and because of this we struggled to find our stride from the onset of the season to the conclusion. Nevertheless, there were only a handful of few blowouts- the rest of the games were neck-and-neck. We finished with a 4-10-4 record and 8th place out of 12. Obviously the team had higher aspirations when the season started but I think we all agree it was a fun ride. As they continue to gain experience I’m confident they will steadily improve in the years to come. Walking off the field after the 90’ on my final game was a sobering experience. I was recruited on a whim, enjoyed every single minute of play, and finished with 3-2 win in a game played through a massive thunderstorm.

 

As always thanks for reading. I officially have 4 more in-country entries left. Khele!!!

XXIII. Abseiling & National Elections

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Greetings family, friends, and subscribers,

February is in the books and I’m currently left with 5 months of service remaining. Because of this I’ve rehashed my effort to see the entire country while launching a few more small projects to further any potential impact I’ve had here. Super Bowl weekend was one to remember as I repelled 630ft (192m) down a massive waterfall. A few weeks later national elections swept through the country and I visited a rally to see the former prime minister campaign in Thaba-Tseka. The poll was successful in that peace was maintained throughout the process, much to the relief of Basotho citizens and PCVs alike.

Super Bowl & Maletsunyane Falls

On February 1st I was able to watch an NFL game for the first time since Super Bowl XLVII in 2013. And what a game! Thankfully it wasn’t a blowout, and since I had no rooting interests it was great to observe a quality matchup between New England and Seattle. Watching it at 2am was a new experience, but coffee and Baileys proved to be an effective tonic to enjoy the entire duration of the game.

1-Maletsunyane Falls

Maletsuyane Falls – Semonkong, Lesotho

The main purpose for this visit to Semonkong in the district of Maseru was not only to watch the big event, but also to visit one of the most scenic waterfalls in the world. Nestled into a valley is Maletsunyane Falls– a fascinating and unique geological feature to the region. The Maletsunyane River falls over a massive 630ft (192m) cliff down basalt rocks formed in the Jurassic period. This entire area is beautiful and very well preserved. It is Lesotho’s most popular tourist site and Semonkong Lodge offers a wide range of activities like horse-back riding, fly fishing, and abseiling. I was invited  to do the latter and graciously accepted the offer of a visiting PCV’s parent. I’m normally not one for high-adrenaline stuff like this. However, bearing in mind that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I didn’t really have a choice now did I.

On the morning of the 2nd of February, 5 other volunteers and I completed our 3 practice trainings of repelling down a 100ft (30m) cliff. Seemed simple enough. However I will say this. Going over the edge of the main waterfall is something I cannot transcend into words. Have a look:

– – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bi5zBUWcPjc

Needless to say it was the most exhilarating experience I’ve ever had. Dangling in the air that high up and surrounded by beautiful nature is a mental snapshot I’ll never forget.

ABC Rally

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ABC Rally in Thaba-Tseka

After the attempted coup in August of last year, many resolutions were mandated by SADC (South African Development Committee) in an effort to restore stability to the fractured government of Lesotho. The main action to take place was to hold an emergency national election two years ahead of schedule. This election was to re-seat the entire parliament as well as form a new ruling body in the state house. The main protagonists of the coup were temporarily expelled from the country for the months leading up to the poll. These months saw massive rallies take place all over the country, with 2 main party coalitions vying for the majority vote. They were ABC and DC, with the former being the incumbent. As such the sitting Prime Minister Tom Thabane -who had to flee to South Africa during the coup- did the most campaigning through the election cycle. I attended one of his rallies that took place a few minutes from my home in Thaba-Tseka. Here’s some photos I took that day:
– – http://imgur.com/a/rct8V

And a short video of the event:
– – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vgt2fxaxzKw

The election passed without incident and with DC winning the majority, they will head the new government. There are still some uncertain months ahead, but the politicized military is aligned with the new body which will be heading the state. This means the chance for another coup is relatively small.

Election results | More Information

 

Hard to believe this 2 year journey is almost complete. The next few months look be an exciting finish. With a little luck and some hard work, all projects should wrap up accordingly. Perhaps I could literally ride off into the sunset? Nah, that’s too cliché. I’ll settle for everlasting friendships and sustainable projects J