One Year In: Losses and Gains

I can’t believe I’m about to write this sentence: as of today, October 7, 2016, I’ve been living in Lesotho for a year. 

I’ve been thinking for a while about how to talk about this landmark. This isn’t an easy year to summarize. I’ve celebrated some of the most joyful days of my life, I’ve made it through some of the most painful days of my life, and I’ve also had a lot of days that were just… normal days. 

I’m going to attempt to summarize the last 365 days with two lists, documenting what I’ve lost and what I’ve gained. Here goes.

Since I set foot on Lesotho soil one year ago…

I’ve gained confidence as a teacher. I used to psych myself up before every class. Now I just walk in, chat with my students, and begin to teach… No problem. Of course there are still challenging days and challenging students, but I no longer wonder if I can do this job. I’m doing it! My relationships with my students are the most consistently happy part of my life here.

I’ve lost most of my anonymity and privacy. I can’t walk out my front door without being watched, spoken to, yelled at, and judged. Sometimes this feels like a loving community has my back, but sometimes it feels too hard to leave my house. Closer to home, I’ve struggled to set appropriate boundaries with my host mom, and I often end up feeling either smothered or taken advantage of. 

I’ve gained the knowledge that I can, indeed, share a house with my biggest fear. Before moving here, I learned that giant spiders live in thatch roofs like the one I now have. Of course, my house seems to be one of the most spider-infested in Lesotho’s history. I’ve killed 31 thatch spiders (many of which are palm-sized) in my house… And counting. I’m still terrified every single time I see one, but I’ve lived to tell the tale!

I’ve lost ease of communication. Language and cultural barriers continue to make even basic conversations with neighbors and colleagues challenging. Meanwhile, the longer I’m away, the more difficult I’ve found connecting with loved ones at home.

I’ve gained the ability to be simultaneously both lonely and happy. At first, the hardest time of day was night, when I was alone in my house and alone with my thoughts. Nobody leaves their homes after dark in my village, and I had no electricity or roommates to distract me. I’m still conscious of my alone-ness during the night hours, but I no longer feel so frequently sad about it.

I’ve lost five students from my classes. One to early pregnancy, one to traditional boys’ initiation/circumcision school, and three for unknown reasons. No matter the circumstances, it’s heartbreaking to see students drop out before completing primary school.

I’ve gained an appreciation for aspects of United States life that I never thought I’d miss so much. Customer service, efficient public transportation, dishwashers, cheese. Enough said.

I’ve lost my reliance on heat in the winter. Just give me a few Basotho blankets, a cup of tea, and a window to watch the snow falling on the mountains.

I’ve gained several hundred marriage proposals. Male attention in Lesotho puts US catcalling to shame. Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence that saps my energy, patience, and faith in human men. Some days I can laugh it off. Some days I feel so vulnerable and powerless that I break down in public.

I’ve lost any kind of fashion sense. Long dresses with hiking boots. Jeans with a blanket wrap. Chacos with everything. 

I’ve gained a new perspective on development work. It’s one thing to read about development theory and discuss case studies at UCLA. It’s another thing altogether to speak to local friends about their experiences living in poverty and witness the successes and failures of organizations/governments to work effectively. 

I’ve lost my reputation as “the one who’s always running late.” I may not usually be on time, but “Basotho time” makes me look prompt by comparison.

I’ve gained new vocabulary. Even when speaking English, I find myself using Sesotho words like “feela” (only), “che” (no), and “ho lokile” (okay).

I’ve lost my patience, time and time again. Usually I keep it together, but if my school forces my students to miss my class one more time because they need to walk two hours home to shave their already-bald heads, I’m going to scream.

I’ve gained a world of knowledge about HIV/AIDS. And hopefully, I’ve been able to pass much of that knowledge along to my students!

I’ve lost my vegetarianism. Basotho chicken, served with papa and moroho, is something I can’t say no to.

I’ve gained an appreciation for the size and diversity of Southern Africa. I’ve encountered so many perspectives, languages, cultural practices, and landscapes within Lesotho and on trips to South Africa and Swaziland. Talking about Africa, or even Southern Africa, as a monolith is so misleading and confusing.

I’ve lost my name. And gained a new one! Keke really feels like my identity here, and even some of my PCV friends call me that.

I’ve gained lifelong friends. Is this the cheesy ending to my blog post you all expected? Well, it’s true. Despite our differences, my host mother cares for and protects me fiercely, and I love her for it. The teachers at my school fill my workdays with laughter, and I confide in them. The other Peace Corps Volunteers I serve with have shared their homes, pee buckets, advice, compassion, and love – enough to make my best days better and my worst days manageable. 

I have over a year remaining in my Peace Corps service. I have no wise words about what’s coming – the only thing I can reasonably expect is more ups and downs and surprises. Stay tuned! 


4 thoughts on “One Year In: Losses and Gains

  1. You communicated tha well to your family, I feel your joy, but hope you know we are with you when you are lonely, harassed, or smothered(or have to kill another huge spider).Kate had some helmet? Spiders that scared her to death when she did American Student Volunteer work in Australi,your cousin the brave biologist.
    Kate is going back to night school to get her Masters and credential who!!! So much love is with you every day. Also I’m going in for noninvasive back surgery,laser on Oct.18. We found a great Neurosurgeon in Santa Barbara, I’m happy because I hurt like a 90 year old right now.


  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences and being so honest. Your honesty about yourself and your situation is what will sustain you through another year. Telling it as it is takes so much less energy than trying to spruce it up for us onlookers. It also gives you the opportunity to be validated. I only know you through your mom and a brief “hello”, but I can say from following this blog that you are a very large minded and brave human being. I met a couple who are in their 60s. They just recently returned from 2 years in the Peace Corps in Botswana. They had both served in the Peace Corps when they were in their 20s. The experience had been so broadening, so profound, that they had seized the opportunity to do it again at the end of their careers. Keep up your good work and who knows where your life may take you (even 40 years from now!)


  3. Though I hear from you via our What’s App group daily, I’m always amazed when I read these summative reflections of yours: 12 months, hundreds of proposals, 31 thatch spiders, 6 students who have left. What you don’t say – what you CAN’T say is the number of children who have touched you in such a deep way that your life will never be the same after these 365 days. Teaching does that to you. You’ll notice a shy smile or read a passage in a book or find a note tucked away, and that child will be with you again. And it goes both ways. Somewhere in your classes there are children who think differently about America and Americans because of you. There are girls whose ideas of self and personal agency are changing because KeKe is their teacher. There is someone in your class now, I guarantee you, who is falling in love with literacy and with the notion of travel because of you. I am so proud of you, of your resilience and your ingenuity and your sense of humor. I am so grateful for all you are teaching me, (and my friends and our extended family and my colleagues.) You make friends for life, Jill, and these PCVs and Basotho friends will live in your heart and in your memory forever. And you know I hope they come and stay with us so we can know them, too!


  4. Sending SO MUCH love and strength your way, Jillian. You are one of the most AMAZING human beings we know. I see your Mom in you, through your writing, your perspective, your love of what you are doing. Keep up the fantastic work you are doing. Wishing you love, safety and 365+ days of new adventures to come.


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