XX. Soccer, Durban Holiday, and a PC Thanksgiving

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Happy Holidays my friends and family,

Milestone post  #20. Only 8 more entries left? Yikes. Summer is here and there’s a noticeable energetic vibe emanating from most of the townspeople. Everyone is outside; either tending to their gardens or having leisurely meetings with friends or family. Sports matches are in full swing and I’ve been having a blast playing in the main attraction: Bolo (soccer). A close friend travelled a great distance to see what the hype was all about. We toured through Lesotho and South Africa, covering a total of 700 miles. Upon returning I celebrated Thanksgiving in a truly grand manner with my fellow Thaba Tseka volunteers.

Bolo

Pregame tunes

Pregame tunes

The weekend of the 15th was loaded with matches. The fixtures couldn’t extend beyond  this date because the league officially enters the transfer window and break is called for the holidays. They follow the same exact format as FIFA leagues wherein the season is broken into two legs; the 2nd resuming in mid-January and going through the end of March. My team, Little Roses FC, current sits in 5th place after a string of draws and loses knocked us down from the Top 3 in November. The gaffer (manager) seems to be confident in our chances of making a run in the 2nd half. The competition is stiff and that certainly won’t be an easy task. However, the team along with myself are up to the challenge. Most importantly we’re having a good time out there. And I’m in the best shape I’ve been since high school. Playing at this altitude will undoubtedly be an advantage upon returning stateside.

Durban Holiday

The planning started around March. A close friend looked up the prices for a round trip from Chicago to Johanusburg and was surprised to find the tickets literally half the price he was expecting. I was very excited at the prospect of traveling around the region with a brother who has never been to the area, let alone the continent. And that’s exactly what we did. Having been to Durban with the parents and sister a few months back, I was thrilled to hit up the true nightlife of Durban while also spending some time in Lesotho.

We met in Bloemfontein on the 13th and spent two nights there before departing for Thaba Tseka on the 15th. I had a game the following day so not only did he get to experience the epic views from the ascent to TT, but also the mayhem that is football day in Lesotho. Unfortunately Little Roses FC got smoked that day, but that didn’t take away from the experience. We left for Durban on the 17th but took the Katse/Maputsoe exit out of Thaba Tseka. This passage is arguably the most beautiful part in the country. Perhaps it’s a bit of homerism on my part, but my opinion is not unfounded. Have a look at these stunning views:
– – http://imgur.com/a/brMqr#0

Mountain backdrops

Mountain backdrops

From here we traveled to Clarens for the night. It’s a quaint little town with heavy Victorian influence. We really enjoyed it. Before leaving we played a round of golf and had lunch at a German microbrewery which also featured some amazing Boerewors. Then it was off to Durban. Thanks to Airbnb and Uber, we saved a huge chunk of money on lodging and transport. Durban nightlife is like nothing I’ve ever seen and we had a blast meeting folks from all over the world. The entire trip went down without a hitch and it’s safe to say we plan to travel back at some point in the future.

 

Thanksgiving

3 course feast

3 course feast

Once again another traditional holiday was celebrated in the presence of fellow American volunteers. It’s always interesting since we’re all in the same situation. I suppose the best way to find comfort being so far away from family is to make the experience as close to home as possible. With that in mind, a HUGE feast was prepared using the best combination of ingredients we could muster. Unfortunately turkey wasn’t available so 2 entire chickens were prepared instead. Then all the proper side dishes were whipped up by a few excellent cooks. Stuffing, mashed potatoes, salads, even a walnut cobbler made the table. This was by far the best meal I’ve had in Africa. Celebrating with the second family of PCVs was a great time as well. I can only hope Christmas will prove to be the same.

 

As always, thanks for reading. May you all have warm and joyous holidays with your friends and family. My next post will describe the events of the public service games, and of course, Christmas in Thaba Tseka. Cheers!

thaba_tseka_thanksgiving

XIX. HIV Initiative & LDF Jazz Concert

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Ke thabile ho khutile toropong le lapang ea ka,

Often times I reflect upon the where and what service was for me in the immediate year prior. I remember October of last year quite vividly. I had just been introduced to principal and fellow colleagues at Thaba Tseka High School. My Sesotho comprehension was proving to be a key ingredient for deep integration into the village of Thaba Tseka, and I was well on the way to laying the foundation of everything else that was to come. Fast forward one year. Save for a brief interruption due to security concerns and now I couldn’t be more satisfied with how everything has panned out.

HIV Project

HIV education has been an objective that has eluded my service so far. Not really sure how to approach a health subject such as this, I began to look at the vast amount of resources available to volunteers through Peace Corps, PEPFAR, and UNICEF. They seemed well and good, but none really fit into the style of teaching I’ve become accustomed to in this culture. Development work is already hard enough… teaching about private matters to children in a respectful and sympathetic manner demonstrated to be an entirely new challenge.

One thing that seems to be common for children and young adults across the world is their love for media entertainment. This is way when I came across the movie Inside Story, I became instantly intrigued. A most exciting method of education is to intertwine health knowledge within a well-produced movie plot. This particular movie is about a rising football star who’s risky sexual behavior leads to the contraction of HIV and nearly costs him is career. He’s able to overcome the challenge through various realizations and support, and this is the exact message we are trying to get across to the youth here in Lesotho. What a perfect formula. Relatable and entertaining content with subtle, yet effective, life skills education embedded within.

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Project Poster to be distributed around town

One of the available resources available at my nearly abandoned and defunded site (Matheko) is a very large auditorium. The idea is to show monthly screenings of educational movies, starting with the aforementioned flick Inside Story. The high school owns a projector and screen, so that’s covered. The venue has plastic chairs so that’s sorted as well. The only thing needed would be loud speakers. With the local affinity for dance music that shouldn’t be a challenge at all. Getting youth to show up will be simple as well. Advertising at the school of 700 will surely bring them in. And to ensure attendance, I plan to offer refreshments in the line of popcorn and juice from concentrate. Each session is expected to cost about $50. A development project is only successful if it can be sustainable, so after establishing the ebb and flow of the screenings, a small $1 entrance fee for people 12+ years would allow for cyclic screenings.

Thanks to a wonderfully generous donation from my brothers in the St. Mary of Vernon Mens Club, this project is fully in the works and just about ready for action. I’d like to offer my most sincere thanks to them for their continued philanthropy. With the students out for Summer/Christmas holiday, the first showing will come January after they return. Needless to say, my colleagues and I are very excited for this opportunity at a new approach to life skills education!

 

LDF Jazz Band Concert

IMG_1170The Lesotho Defence Force jazz band made played their annual show in Thaba Tseka on October 26th. Last year’s event was a blast filled with different styles of local live music, the featured LDF Jazz Band, and lots of dancing. This year’s show lived up to last year’s precedent. Ballroom dancing, Famu (genre) music, jazz, and refreshments were the highlights. During my time here I’ve embraced the local dance. It’s fun seizure-esque style groove that involves a lot of shoulder-jerking. Getting up in front of the crowd is always a delight… and spectacle. The Basotho are shocked to see a foreigner knowing the precise moves of what I call the Shepard Groove (jiva joa loka molisana). The Jazz band even let me get on the drums for a minute to jam alongside them. Overall it was another memorable night here in the Mountain Kingdom.

Here’s a short video compilation of the various acts:
– – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnO8_aUQnOk

I’m sad to announce retirement from ever performing the worm again. It’s been my go-to dance move since 8th grade but busting it out recently has become increasing painful. It was a good run and I’m delighted the final act was in front of 100 enamored Basotho.

 

Until next time, salang hantle!

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Moonrise over the Central Range

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!