Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the African continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around Africa (and the world!). This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Lesotho.
Jody Lewis – Age 24
Where are you from?
I’m from Tennessee.
What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in Lesotho (southern Africa) in the Healthy Youth Program under the Health sector. Lesotho now has the second-highest HIV prevalence rate in the world. Our project framework focuses on three main areas: Prevention and Sexual Health, Care and Treatment for HIV Positive Youth, and HIV Mitigation for Affected Youth. Each PCV is paired with a host organization that can focus on any number of issues. These host organizations can vary significantly, from a basic grassroots organization with very little funding or directiont o a well-established organization operating throughout the country. In addition to the Healthy Youth Program, Peace Corps Lesotho also places volunteers in the Education program, where volunteers teach primary English or secondary math.
What is your lifestyle like as a Peace Corps volunteer?
I used to live in a rural village with no amenities whatsoever – imagine four walls made of stones and a layer of tin across the top held down by tires. On sunny days it was an oven, but without the sun for solar power I could forget about communicating or reading on my kindle. I loved the romantic idea of rural life without electricity, running water, or English speakers that most volunteers want to experience, but trust me when I say that the novelty wears off after a while — it becomes normal and you get used to it.
I have since moved sites and now live in a traditional thatched-roof rondavel with electricity and a water tap right outside. I share a pit-latrine with my host family, use a bucket to bathe in, and keep a second bucket for late night bathroom runs. I think some PCVs can understand the challenge of moving to a site after a previous volunteer has been there. Expectations are already set in the minds of many people in the community and they expect you to be just like the last person. It can be a challenge getting them to understand that each American is an individual and can be completely different from one another (2nd Goal).
The traditional foods of Lesotho is papa and moroho. Papa (popular in many African countries but sometimes made from different grains) is made from maize meal and water and has the consistency of grits, and moroho is any green veggie (spinach, rape, pumpkin leaf, etc.) that is cut very small and usually cooked with a tomato or two. [Editor’s note: Papa is the Lesotho version of Zambia’s nsima, and moroho is their version of Zambia’s relish.] Recently I discovered that adding peanut paste to the moroho adds lots of flavor and nutrition. Sometimes my host siblings and I will make banana bread or a dessert by making a homemade Dutch oven by placing a metal bowl on top of a tuna can inside of a closed pot. I don’t buy meat because it’s expensive and there is no way of storing it. To get my meat fix (but also stay in my budget), I try to limit myself to buying plate food, which has papa, moroho and either pork or chicken, to only once a week.
What is the country of Lesotho like?
Lesotho is the most beautiful country you’ve never heard of. Many people have never heard of Lesotho before and the ones that have most likely pronounce it as “Leh-SO-tho.” The correct pronunciation, which I didn’t learn until I arrived, is “Le-SOO-too.” The local language is Sesotho, and the people are called Basotho (or Mosotho, if singular) — all following the same pronunciation.
Historically, Basotho are a peaceful people comprising 99.7% of the population — it’s like one big family. Greetings are a big deal here and everyone greets everyone. I thought this was a little obnoxious when I first arrived here, but it’s nice now because whenever I’m around strangers it’s the custom to break the ice and start off on a friendly note. Lesotho is pretty rural outside of the capitol, Maseru, so most people take part in subsistence farming, animal husbandry, or small shops. Many other people also depend on remittance, or sending/ depending on family members to send money back home from the mines of South Africa where many Basotho work. Just like anywhere in the world, everyone is their own individual and aside from the common qualities of being generous, friendly, and prideful of their culture, all Basotho are unique in their aspirations, personal history, and values. If you want to see more of the Basotho , another PCV and I created the Instagram and Tumblr pages @HumansofLesotho in order to share the individual voices of Basotho with people back in the US.
Fun Lesotho Fact: Lesotho is known as the Mountain Kingdom or the Kingdom in the Sky, and for good reason. It has the highest low point of any other country in the world and it snows quite regularly during the winters.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges?
I have been in Lesotho for nine months now. I think a lot of PCVs share common struggles no matter where they serve. The difficulty of public transport, the impossibility of anything being on time or going according to schedule, female PCVs been harassed incessantly (and males too, sometimes), and at times wondering why we are here and if we are actually making a difference. The last of these has been the hardest struggle for me to grasp.
After I was sworn in as a PCV and moved to site, my life was flipped up-side-down. I felt welcome in my community, but anything past a greeting seemed to be an unrealistic demand of what they wanted me to do or buy for my villagers. Three weeks after moving in, political unrest broke out in the capitol and all PCVs in the country were evacuated to South Africa for three weeks. The return was even harder for all of us — especially the newer volunteers who were just getting settled in at site and the ones who were to COS (Close of Service). No one in our community knew where we had gone or why, and my community had completely lost their trust in me — if I ever had it in the first place. This is why I was relocated to my current site, which I think is absolutely perfect.
The most rewarding part of my service has been me realizing that I will most likely not make a huge difference in my community…and that that’s okay! Most of us forget that two of the three goals of Peace Corps is about cultural exchange, and that’s why most PCVs will tell you that their greatest successes are the friendships they developed during their services. I have to agree that this is the most rewarding thing for me, too. I decided to stay at site for Christmas and New Years. We had family members visit from all over Lesotho and South Africa. We ate and danced all day long for a week, ran a 10k race together, and had a great time partying late into the night. I had one of the best Christmas holidays I’ve ever had, and I am now part of a new family here and that’s something I am very proud of and consider a huge success.
Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I think anyone who joins Peace Corps with specific expectations will undoubtedly have them trampled. Having goals like meeting new people, learning a new language, or reading 100 books by COS are great; however, having specific expectations for what you will be doing job-wise or what your living situation will be like will only set you up for a high probability of disappointment that things will not work out that way. You can either decide to go with the flow of things before you arrive to country, or be forced to once you get here and realize that almost nothing goes according to plan or works out the way you see it in your mind.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I joined Peace Corps for many reasons — some a tad selfish and others a little more altruistic. I love traveling and seeing what the world holds. To me, Peace Corps was a way that I could spend time in another corner of the globe getting to explore new places, learn a new language, become part of a new culture, and grow in ways that can never be measured. These reasons definitely still apply! I plan to attend graduate school after my COS (close of service) to study Public Health, so I also thought that my service could be a great real-world experience in my field.
In reality, though, I actually do very little under my project’s framework as a health volunteer since I mostly work with farmers. That is a valuable lesson in what’s relevant to public health: you cannot force a community to do even the most ideal project if they are not interested in it [Editor’s note: so true!]. Sustainable projects come from do something that locals will take ownership of after I leave. I think I’m learning lessons and skills that will still be relevant to obtaining my MPH.
The project I am most committed to right now is introducing peanut farming to Lesotho. Though this project lies within another sector’s framework, this is something my community actually wants. I also see it as being a sustainable project with important long-term health and economic benefits. I am a strong believer that who we are and who we desire to be today can change over time, so I’ve always had an open mind about my future and where I’m going. I value traveling and learning above all; so as long as I’m doing one of these things, my life is good.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
Most definitely! As a PCV we learn how to navigate life with essentially no direction, and how to make things happen with nearly no resources. If an RPCV has never traveled before their service and decided to never travel again afterwards (which I highly doubt), I think this person would unequivocally have gained invaluable knowledge and learned many things about the world. Traveling and spending time in a culture completely different than your own is, as Mark Twain explains it, “…fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and small-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s corner of the world all one’s lifetime.” I think it would be interesting if a RPCV became president some day.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to PC or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
I would tell that person: don’t think you’ll do all of these novel projects and completely change your country of service. Pack lighter than you think you should, and if you don’t wear it back home, you won’t wear it there. Unlock your smart phone BEFORE leaving, and take advantage of those Peace Corps discounts and buy a solar charger or a rain jacket. Also, eat as many milkshakes as you can before leaving — I’d kill for a peanut butter fudge and chocolate Oreo milkshake right now!
Many people think Peace Corps is only for White, Ivy-League young people. What has your experience been like?
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
I will COS around August of 2016. Since I won’t be able to go right into grad school, I’ll have a year off. I look forward to traveling for a while before I go back home, and then I plan to travel the states for a while hopefully couch-surfing with other RPCVs.
What else should people know about serving in the Peace Corps?
I hear lots of friends and people saying, “I wish I could do Peace Corps.” It sounds so oversimplified, but I always answer with the question, “Why can’t you?”
Your fear of the unknown is the only thing keeping you from doing it. You just have to do the online application, which is now WAY easier to complete than when I did it, and you can now select the top three countries you want to go to! Just take some time to fill out the application, see where you are placed, and then decide if you want to do it — people may think this sounds too easy, but it’s really not. Life is about going out in the world and seeing things, so stop wishing you could do it and just do it!
[Editor’s note: Amen Jody! You can check out my similar thoughts here.]
With my last point in mind, Peace Corps is not for everybody. People who join are in different points of their lives and everyone joins for a different reason. Whether it’s as a resume builder, because you want the non-competitive eligibility status, a break away from reality, to learn a new language, to find yourself, or to just prove to yourself that you can do it, we all have our different reasons for being here. I’ve seen some people decide to extend their service or continue working as an expatriate after their service ended. I’ve found that for some people it only takes 12 months to reach their personal goals. Others may have only wanted to live outside the US for six months, or found out that Peace Corps wasn’t for them, and therefore made the decision to ET (early terminate). My point is that people join for different reasons and stay for different lengths of time. In the end, we all grow and learn something about ourselves and are better individuals for it.
Many prospective volunteers struggle with having a relationship back in America while serving abroad. What are your thoughts on long distance relationships in Peace Corps?
Before I left I couldn’t find any positive stories for people with a significant other who wanted to join. So, here’s one!
I have a girlfriend back in America—she’s actually in Costa Rica right now for a few months— and I think many people in relationships question whether or not they should join Peace Corps. Honestly, no one can answer that but you, but here’s my take on it. My girlfriend and I were dating for 18 months before I left for my service. We are open and honest about everything and we both agree that for us to be happy together we must be happy individually and follow the dreams we’ve had long before knowing each other.
For me, that was Peace Corps. Had I not joined because I was in a relationship, I wondered if I would regret it or blame her later in my life. I’ll be honest, it was hard having no electricity for the first five months and having schedules that conflicted because of the time difference. It was even more frustrating when we had a scheduled time to talk but the network was down or something came up. We stay in pretty good contact via email, but sometimes we go over a month without talking or seeing each other via Skype. It can be rough and there’s simply no way around that if you decide to be in a long distance relationship during your service. However, remembering that this is only a phase and that it will not last forever helps a lot. I know that making it through this will, in the end, strengthen our relationship. If you are in a relationship and thinking about joining Peace Corps, it is possible. I know RPCVs who made it work.
Want to read more about Jody’s service in Lesotho? Check out his blog!