“I love you!” “I love you!” “I love you!” Although a relatively new member of the community, I am often told that I am loved at St. Rodrigue. In fact, I am serenaded by “I love you”s every time I walk the short distance from my front door to the gates of the convent. The tiny students of the St. Rodrigue Primary School, who use this short distance as their playground, have never yet lost a chance to practice their favorite English phrase on me.
On most days I shout back, “I love you too!” and then laugh to myself all the way to class. On other days, I think silently, do you really? At my most heartless, I have on occasion muttered, “Well maybe I don’t love you!” The Primaries, although they don’t know it, are most often subjected to my day-to-day sentiments about life and work at St. Rodrigue.
In writing this second report from the Mountain Kingdom, I wish to give you a more detailed account of my reflections than I give the Primaries on a daily basis. As I do so, I hope to show you a glimpse of my life at St. Rodrigue and the joys and challenges of life in Lesotho.
The Girls, Teaching, and Team-Teaching
A sea of blue: blue skirts, blue shirts, blue sweaters. Some short, some tall, some standing out and brimming with confidence, others choosing to melt into the crowd. During class time, it is easier to get to know the individuals who form this sea of blue.
In my first term at St. Rodrigue, I have been assigned to teach the 8th graders and 10th graders, commonly known as the Form As and Form Cs. The Form As, new to the world of high school yet already more familiar with St. Rodrigue than I am, are divided into 3 sections on the basis of merit and are the girls I see, teach and scold everyday. The Form Cs, older and wiser, are a less excitable bunch, mostly quiet but always aware that the first national examination they will appear for is around the corner. The subjects I have been given to teach are Business Education, a watered-down version of economics that I team-teach with a staff member, and Guidance and Counseling, a subject recently introduced to the curriculum by previous Grinnell Corps Fellows that I teach alone.
A typical week of teaching Business Education to the Form As begins with a lecture supplemented by notes, given by either my team-teacher or me. As the week progresses, our students work on the questions we assign them to assess whether they have understood the material.
It is often difficult to judge the academic abilities of Form A students for most of them have previously attended primary schools where English was either not taught well or not taught at all. In St. Rodrigue, these same students are suddenly thrown into a world in which all their teachers speak to them in English, a world in which they are expected to read and learn from textbooks written in English, and a world in which they are punished for speaking Sesotho to each other at any time outside their Sesotho lessons. Teaching these students and assessing their progress is thus not an easy task, for while I suspect that quite a few of them have the right ideas and responses, their difficulty and lack of confidence in articulating their thoughts, both verbally and on paper, gives me no concrete evidence of their understanding.
In teaching Business Education to the Form As, my team-teacher and I have developed a good relationship. We share teaching responsibilities equally, and our methods of teaching are similar which is helpful both for us and for our students. The process of team-teaching has so far been enjoyable, and has come with an unexpected benefit: a friend in the staff room. While the atmosphere in the staff room can sometimes border on indifference, my team-teacher is ever curious, asking me questions about my family, Indian customs, college life in the United States, and my plans for the weekend. In return, I learn about Basotho customs, about how my team-teacher’s baby daughter was recently baptized, and about how, when the first rains come to Lesotho this year, my team-teacher and her husband will hold up their baby to the sky so that she can be blessed by the rain.
In Guidance and Counseling classes later in the afternoons, I find myself alone in a room full of excitable teenagers who mostly can’t wait to be done with classes for the day. As difficult as they might be to control at these times, teaching this class alone is beneficial in many ways. As there is no pressure of a test in the subject, the atmosphere is more relaxed than in Business Ed. Classes. Additionally, as I am the only teacher present in the room, the girls are more carefree and, when confident in speaking up, open to discussions. It is through these more personal class periods that I have gotten to learn about my students, their thoughts on HIV and pregnancy, and their aspirations for life after high school.
In the middle of term, one particular class period with Form A1 began with a conversation about the responsibilities of Basotho village chiefs, progressed into a discussion about the number of male chiefs in Lesotho compared to female chiefs, and finally spiraled into a class-wide debate on whether men are stronger and more capable of gaining employment than women.
“Stronger how?” I asked this room full of high school girls in a country where more girls than boys attend and make it through primary school. My question was met with noses wrinkled up in thoughtful confusion. “Mentally stronger, physically stronger, why stronger?” I prodded. At this, the majority of the class, those confident in their English speaking abilities making up in volume for their less confident classmates, hastened to inform me that men have more muscles than women and so must naturally be the stronger and more capable sex. Two girls out of a class of forty-two reasoned, after some time, that since “brain-size” was not listed in their Biology textbook as an anatomical difference between men and women, then perhaps both sexes had equal intellectual capabilities. This novel idea was entertained with much suspicion until the bell rang, much to the relief of those who had volunteered it.
Guidance and Counseling classes such as these are thus often open-ended, with no definitive conclusions being drawn by the class. Yet by broaching these subjects through the method of class discussion, the girls have a chance to learn by questioning their own and each other’s opinions, an opportunity that does not present itself in most other classes.
Life at St. Rodrigue
Outside of school, I spend my time walking around our village, volunteering at the local HIV Clinic, and attempting to increase the list of dishes I can cook, a list that was very small if at all existent before I arrived in Lesotho.
The HIV Clinic in our village was originally funded by the organization MSF that introduced many such clinics in Lesotho. As MSF no longer has a presence at the Clinic, the St. Rodrigue convent now runs it. For my part, I visit to volunteer in the Clinic’s pharmacy. This room, which contains months’ worth of medicines for people from surrounding villages, has a tiny window with a desk next to it. It is here that I sit dispensing and refilling medicines in the company of Sister Florina, who, in the middle of showing me how to read a patient’s prescription or telling me what a particular medicine is called in Sesotho, might also show me how to perform a short Basotho dance sequence. The patients who come to collect their packets of medicine from the little window are always surprised to see me behind the glass and often smile at each other in amusement after greeting me.
After long days spent at school or occasionally the Clinic, the evenings are a time to relax, cook dinner and read by candlelight. If we are in need of toilet paper or paraffin or other such essential household items, I like to walk to the shops located further up our hill where I can enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains. On these walks I come across students who live up the hill, or who come up to buy their own provisions. Many just like to walk up and down the hill as a form of evening entertainment before homework time.
Among the dishes that I have learnt to make at Bo-Grinnell, my favorites are pizza, lentil soup and bread. Our choices for food depend on the amount of produce we buy from the capital every two or three weeks. In the summer months, the absence of electricity and thus refrigeration spoils our produce relatively quickly, leaving us to try and be imaginative on the days that we have no fresh vegetables. In the winter months however, our produce lasts for ages with the cold weather being our refrigerator.
While I have grown accustomed to living without electricity in a far shorter period of time than I had expected, the act of lighting candles at dusk and blowing them out at bed-time sometimes makes me feel like I’m a character in a book or movie that was set in a different century. At the same time, I’m always aware that while I see the experience of reading by candlelight as a novelty, it is the daily reality for my students. While I can put my choice of fiction away for the evening if my eyes are feeling strained, the majority of my students don’t have the luxury of putting away their textbooks and forfeiting the few hours of study time they get.
And of course, life in Africa
Given my Indian citizenship, before my fellowship year began I was aware that I might not have as easy a time of visiting South Africa, Namibia or other countries close by as previous Fellows have had the chance to do. This has proved only too true in the previous months, for after countless visits to the South African Embassy, it turns out that the combination of an Indian passport and a Lesotho residence permit is not ideal when applying for visas.
A benefit of this situation is that through the process of applying for visas and reaching out to people who know more about the process, I have come in contact with a wonderful Indian family who live in Maseru. They have generously opened up their home to my co-fellow and me, and it is with them that we stay when we make over-night trips to Maseru. Through this family, I have also been able to meet other Indian families living in Lesotho, which I had not expected would be a possibility at the beginning of my year.
As disappointing as it has been to understand that I can’t travel outside of Lesotho, I have still been able to explore other African countries in unique ways.
When Christine and Laura, Grinnell Corps Fellows in Namibia, visit us for Thanksgiving, they bring stories of the sand dunes in Namibia and tell me about how these are formed through a process that begins with the soil erosion in Lesotho. At the Clinic, Sister Florina tells me about her time working for genocide victims in Rwanda. She tells me that she was once on a picnic at the site of a volcano somewhere close to the border of the Congo, when the volcano suddenly erupted, rudely interrupting her picnic and forcing her to flee with hundreds of other people.
And then of course there is our little library at Bo-Grinnell, filled with books of African history, works of fiction by Nigerian authors, autobiographies of survivors of the Darfur genocide. It turns out that experiencing other parts of Africa from within Lesotho is not difficult to do.
The past months at St. Rodrigue have thus been filled with students, colleagues, friends, books and of course, the mountains. While writing this report at an Internet café in Maseru, it occurs to me that half my time in Lesotho is now up. And so, to make the most of my remaining time, I will wrap up my report now, although slightly abruptly, so that my co-fellow and I can run to catch the mini-bus that will take us back to St. Rodrigue and back to the community that I am now a part of.