November 23, 2008

Post one, AFRICA (Lesotho)

Disclaimer: this post in no way represents the thoughts or opinions of anyone but me, and  does not represent the Peace Corps in any fashion.

Lumela Bontate le Bome!

Ok so first I'll start with a bit of a travelogue, then I'll move on to information about training and my life in Lesotho, the kingdom of the sky.

I arrived at the Sheraton in Philadelphia on November 11th for training, after my girlfriend Danie and my friend Adam dropped me off. There was some initial confusion about my room, I was initially assigned to a room that already had an occupant, which I expected, however, he was not a Peace Corps Trainee. After a little bit of working I was set up in a nice room and met my REAL roommate, John. We made our way down to the conference room and started socializing with the other Trainees going to Lesotho. A few hours of training and setting up scenarios and we were free for the night so I dragged the group to Dock Street Brewery, where Danie works, and we ate and drank very well (so well that people still talk about how great it was).

We got up the next morning and took a bus drive from Philadelphia to NYC, during which the bus driver clipped the mirror off the bus in the Lincoln tunnel (why he took us through Manhattan to get to JFK we will never know). We arrived very early for our flight and waited a few hours to check in, before finally boarding our 18 hour flight, with a stopover in Dakar. We talked a lot on the flight and watched a lot of movies, and the general consensus was that everyone was trying to watch "one last movie" or flush the airplane toilet "one last time"... only later would we find out just how many amenities we would have during our training.
We made our way to the shuttle from the Airport in Johannesburg (known to locals and cool Americans ;-) as Jo'burg) to the hotel that was about a block away. Jo'burg is definitely dangerous, and as PCTs (lots of acronyms here, this is the government) we are not responsible for ourselves yet, so we were not allowed to walk the block (it's not THAT dangerous, the government is just THAT overprotective of us... which is a GREAT thing).

We cleaned up and went to the hotel's restaraunt (again, we were not allowed to leave the hotel until we were to fly out the next morning) and had our second set of taxpayer beers (THANK YOU EVERYONE!) this time they were local to South Africa, and the brand, Castle, isn't half bad. The buffet was amazingly good, we ate our fill and crashed hard. Some people chose not to sleep on the plane ride so they could better adjust (me) and other people stayed up (there's a 7 hour time difference for those of you keeping track) and were miserable the next day when we had to depart at 4am local time.

We made it to the airport, waited a while for the place that sells coffee to open and made our way to check out, when John, my roommate from the first day, discovered he'd lost part of his ticket (he just finished filling out the paperwork that will get him reimbursed the $150 it cost him for a new ticket... this will be even more unfortunate when I finish this section of the story). We flew in a small plane for about an hour and arrived to just about Maseru and circled for a little. The pilot made a garbled announcement about "unreliable equipment" and after a little bit of confusion, we received clarification that the plane was fine, just that clouds were preventing a landing (theres no radar at the airport and the area around Maseru is covered in mountains, so it would have been treacherous to land and we were all greatful the pilot relied on his thoughts).

We wound up back in teh same hotel and made a lot of jokes about groundhogs day (the movie) and repeating the incident step by step, including convincing John that he had lost part of his ticket again (he didn't, but it sure made us laugh!)

Once we arrived back at the hotel and opened our luggage, a lot of people realized that their stuff had been pilfered, a few volunteers lost hundreds of dollars worth of stuff. Someone had clipped my lock but did not steal anything, so I was very lucky (I had put all my electronics in my carry on as Jo'Burg is relatively notorious for this kind of theft, so be careful if you ever swing through).

We landed in Maseru and were greeted by a relatively large party that was screaming and had made signs and the thing that overwhelmed us the most after our initial greetings was the silence. We were in the middle of the largest city in the country (by far) and at an airport and you could have heard a pin drop. The scenery is beautiful here and there are mountains everywhere. I hope to be able to get pictures to you guys soon, but I have yet to steal a flash drive to put them onto a computer at the internet cafe (which is where I type this, right off of Kings Way).

We went over some basics at the center and took a trip downtown with our Basotho teachers (Basotho being the name for the native peoples). They took us past stores and showed us where to buy phones and stuff and then told us we'd be going to a Shoprite. I thought to myself how funny a coincidence it was that I used to work at a grocery store named Shoprite in America. It turns out that it's part of the same chain and has the same slogan (the ALWAYS in yellow script comes to mind). I would even go so far as to say that it's better stocked and cleaner than the one I worked in, which I find incredibly funny.

Since then it's been a blur of classes and taking tours around the city and learning and practicing the language. We eat breakfast at 7am, start class at 8, take an hour break for lunch and dinner and have two 30 minute tea breaks (I no longer drink coffee and only drink decaf tea if you want to include some good stuff in a care package ahha.) and class usually wraps up at about 7, and sometimes we get an hour before dinner to run downtown and send out some emails and stuff.

The language is very interesting and very beautiful. The structure is very very basic and intuitive and the only real struggle I have (and many others have) is pronunciation. There is a click noise that's made whenever you say the letter Q, and all sorts of other noises that you have to make with different letter combinations that really make it difficult to pronounce let alone at the speed the natives do it.

The other day the ambassador came to visit and delivered a great speech and invited us all over for Thanksgiving. I'm assuming my mother will be forwarding this email to my relatives (who should email me back so that I can add them to my list, and again, feel free to check out my blog where Ill be posting this stuff as well) so I would like to apologize if I'm not able to give a call on Thanksgiving (its very very very very expensive to call out here and I don't know if I'll be able to get a cell phone before then (its not real expensive for you to call me with a card, and it costs me nothing to pick up the call you've made)).

Last night we partied with the PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) and the ambassador's daughter and it was a lottt of fun and we all bonded and danced outside in the rain and there was a lot of beer (essentially $11 american for 30 beers). On a slightly related note, the stuff here seems dirt cheap compared to American things, it costs me $.25 american to send a letter home, a can of coca-cola is about $.30 american. While we're all still thinking about money by American standards its easy to buy all sorts of crap (one of the PCTs bought plastic dart shooters and we've been ambushing each other with them for the past few days) but money will seem a lot tighter once we've switched over to local currency.

We have training for another 7 weeks or so, and we have a lot to do. On Monday I will be heading out to Qacha's neck (pronounced with a click at the beginning) which is a 7 hour taxi drive (yes, I will be riding a taxi for 7 hours, and yes, in USD the roundt rip will cost me about $35) and as far as any volunteer can go from Maseru. I will be hanging out with "Cardboard" Chris Collins For monday and tuesday and return Wednesday. I believe I'll be observing him teach and just getting to know how day to day life goes. I'm very excited as I feel a little trapped in our current schedule, and the fact that I have to sign out and stay in groups every time I leave and that I can't go out after 6pm. I start CBT (Community Based Training) in a few weeks, which means I will be going to live in a village for a few weeks to experience what it's like and continue my lessons with one of the Me's (Pronounced May and it translates as Mother, but is how all older women are addressed). Then I come back and get my assignment, which I'm assuming because of my size and the fact that I'm a male will be far away and in the mountains (that they're sending me there for my site visit is relatively indiciative of where I'll be).

We had a visit to a real school a few days ago. The people here LOVE white people, the kids were all dancing and singing "Lahua" which translates as white person, but does not contain negative connotations (anyone who is not white... and even some people who are and is not Basotho is called MaChina, and there is a little bit of derogatory implications in that phrase). Everyone here sings all the time, we've learned all sorts of songs and dances and everyone does it any time they are happy, it's very beautiful and makes me wish America was a little more into singing like that.
I want to point out before this next section that as a PCV I have the best medical coverage EVER. They will helicopter me out at the drop of a pin, they will give me any medicine I need at no cost (including something that will stop HIV from being contracted if taken within 72 hours of exposure... heaven forbid I have to help an injured person who's bleeding, at least I know I'll be safe from the virus). They evacuate us if there is any sign of concern in our area or in the general government (Lesotho is very stable in this sense) so I am not concerned about any of these things, and I don't think anyone else should be either.

So I've heard a few scary stories about Maseru and the country that I'm going to share, but I want to warn that some people (my mother) may not want to read them, so read the following paragraphs at your own risk (I'll put some text in caps after it's done so you know you can read it).
Back to Maseru: There are apparently a lot of pickpockets and a few volunteers have had wallets and other stuff stolen. There are also a fair amount of muggings, both at gunpoint and knives and again, a few volunteers have had backpacks and other things stolen, but I am very vigilant and I'm all about traveling in groups during the day (there is NO risk of muggings during the day here, especially for a 6'4 male).

We had a few teachers come to my school the other day to talk about their experiences and serve as a panel. One of the teachers relayed a story of a time when a PCV was teaching in their school and there was a student riot. Teachers were beat with sticks and stones and cut and all of the money was stolen and kids were trying to set the buildings with teachers in them on fire. That made everyone more than a little nervous, but we all understand that this is the exception and not the rule. Also, the volunteer escaped early on and was told by his boss to evacuate the area immediately and he was reassigned shortly thereafter.

Apparently my Sesotho teacher (Sesotho being the name of the language) was hit by lightning on a trip related to PCTs. She's ok but has a scar on her head from it. Oof.

I'm sure I missed a lot in this email, and feel free to ask me whatever questions you have about me and my stay and point out things I missed. (I don't know if I mentioned that there are 19 other volunteers, two of which served previously and are in their 50s, but most of us are shortly out of college and in our mid twenties, they're a great group and I love them all, they're so much fun and everyone has a great attitude). I miss you all and I want to send a ton of love your way and I'd like to wish everyone a happy thanksgiving. I'll try to do this once a week if possible until I get to site, at which point it may be more difficult to do anything than write (SEND ME YOUR ADDRESSES AND ILL WRITE YOU, its dirt cheap and I'll have a TON of free time and love letter correspondences. I'm also not adverse to correspondence chess). I'll leave you all with a local phrase, "Ha Kena Matata" Which means no worries (for the rest of your days). It's our problem free philosophy. Hahah, ok that is a real phrase and people do say it a lot, and apparently Sesotho shares a common ancestor with Swahili (where the movie the Lion King got that phrase).

Love and peace and kisses,


jen lovely said...

brett, is sesotho pronounced so-so?

Allison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Allison said...

(Jen, it's "leh-SOO-too," "ba-SOO-too," and "seh-SOO-too.")

Hey Brett! Glad you're having a good time in training. Anthony and I miss Lesotho every day, so we hope you're loving every minute! :-)

I just wanted to mention that you might want to be careful about the word "lekhooa." Other PCVs and I argued a bit about this, but at least in the Mokhotlong district, the word is use for whites, yes, but also for other Basotho who thought they were better than everyone else. I made it a point that no one used that word about me...I'd usually respond "I'm not a lekhooa, my name is ___" (ha ke lekhooa, ke 'M'e ____." My conviction got even stronger when my Basotho friends responded in that way when others called out "Lekhooa!" They'd say the same thing...she's not a lekhooa, she's 'M'e Kao. And the point was for folks to not see me as different, but as one of them. I didn't think I was better than anyone. I think that was the main point. :-)

Anyway, have a blast, sala hamonate, le lumalisa bakhotsi ba rona!

Ka khotso,
-Allison (RPCV, '05-'07)

[edited to fix the Sesotho..I'm a bit rusty.]

david santos said...

Excellent picture and pretty colores!!! Congratulations!!!

Brett Michael Burk said...

Hey Allison, thanks for the heads up. I'm definitely still learning all about the culture and see the issues that other pcvs take with the term.