Greetings from the Mountain Kingdom,
“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.
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
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. 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.
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!