During my first few months in Lesotho, I heard something about myself that I never thought I would hear. Several times, I heard Basotho friends explain to others I’d just met, “she’s very quiet.” My family and friends are probably already snorting with laughter. They know me as loud (maybe even loudmouthed) and opinionated, even when it would be better to keep certain thoughts to myself.
During my first few months at site, I was quiet. The obvious reason is the language barrier – my Sesotho vocabulary is limited, so after a certain point, all I can do is listen. I think my quietness was also a conscious choice, though. I was acutely aware of my position as a newcomer to my village, and I wanted to take everything in. Even, and perhaps especially, when controversial topics came up, I chose to listen and learn, understanding that I would have two long years to decide how best to act.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the end of March and beginning of April were a bit of a rough patch for me. I was dealing with some unpleasant events at my site, but more than that, I was feeling detached from my community and my work. Things are slowly but steadily improving as I attack the attack-able issues, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about how to feel happier through reconnecting with my daily life. One conclusion I’ve come to is that it might be time to start speaking up.
Let me give you an example.
Months ago, I was on a taxi when I heard a bump and saw two children sprint away from the vehicle and into the mountains. They had thrown stones at the taxi when it passed. The driver pulled over, jumped out of the car, and chased the children until he caught them. He dragged them into the taxi, and we drove to the nearest bar. There, the passengers and the men who had been drinking at the bar collected around the children to supervise their punishment: they were beaten on the side of the road.
Corporal punishment is a touchy subject in Lesotho. It’s technically illegal, but in reality, it happens at most schools and homes in the country. The issue is complicated – it’s deeply ingrained in cultural norms about respect, education, and family, and it’s not something that can be fixed within a single generation. Peace Corps Volunteers receive training about how to react when we see it, and ideally, how to work with local counterparts to institute positive reinforcement instead.
On that taxi, when I witnessed corporal punishment for the first time, I did nothing. I was new to the community. I didn’t know anyone in the taxi, and they didn’t know me. I hadn’t begun teaching, so they had no reason to respect me for my work. I didn’t even know how I would communicate my thoughts in Sesotho, and I knew I was too emotional to make a rational argument. Ultimately, I decided it wasn’t my place to step in, so I stayed silent.
More recently, I arrived at school and heard my principal telling a group of latecomers that she was planning to beat them. Now, my school doesn’t often use corporal punishment, and I think her threat was likely empty. It didn’t matter. All the anger from the taxi ride came rushing back.
This time, I knew the children personally. This was happening at my place of work, where I had been proving my capability for weeks. I had a professional relationship with the adults involved. So, I chose to speak up. I had a conversation with my principal, in which I expressed my disappointment and told her I had ideas about different discipline methods that I would love to share with her.
To be honest, this conversation likely had no impact on my school. That’s ok. It’s the start of a conversation, which we’ll further by attending a Safe Schools workshop together in July. It felt good anyway. My personality is not to remain silent, and I felt more like myself to say what I felt.
I don’t want to stop listening. Up to the day I leave Lesotho, I think it’s important that I have my quiet moments, where I absorb, learn, and decide it’s not my place to act. But I also think that to get out of this funk, I have to start acting more like myself. In situations where it’s safe and where I might be listened to, I want to speak up. I think that might be a hard balance for me to find, but I’m going to work on it!
I want to end with some happier news. I’ve recently started working on a few new projects, and it feels good to throw myself into work that I care about. I’m running a “Remedial English” group after school on Tuesdays where I, along with a Mosotho teacher, tutor a small group of struggling Grade 6 students. Most of these learners have had interrupted schooling or have learning disabilities, and they need individualized help to improve their basic reading and writing skills. I’ve also started running weekly “forums,” which operate like informal Life Skills classes. In order to invite open conversation on sensitive topics, forums are divided by gender and students can speak in Sesotho. I’m also planning a series of mini-workshops to deliver to my co-workers that are based on Life Skills topics they feel less comfortable in teaching. Finally, my friend is applying for a grant to run a leadership/empowerment camp, and I’m going to help her plan it.
Throughout all the ups and downs, there are always small moments that make me incredibly grateful to be living this life. Via photo, here are a few of those: