This third report from the Mountain Kingdom is less of a quarterly report and more of a series of journal entries recorded through my year in Lesotho.
Now before you balk at the prospect of reading a report as long as any diary that chronicles a year in Lesotho would be, I should tell you two things: 1) I didn't actually keep a proper diary- my free moments were usually spent reading or staring at the clouds; and 2) I did record the timeline of my St. Rodrigue project, and the outcome of being uncharacteristically diligent in that exercise is the following series of entries.
At the St. Rodrigue High School for Girls, we, as Grinnell Corps Fellows, are assigned classes to teach or team-teach. In addition, we have the option of carrying out a project on the side that relates to our interests or that we think our students would appreciate and benefit from. Previous examples of such projects over the years include a drama club, a literary magazine, time spent volunteering at the local clinic. The idea for my project was born out of a conversation about our students' eyesight problems.
By the second week of my first term at St. Rodrigue, I had observed at least a few students in each of my classes who squinted or strained to see what I had written on the board. Although my attempt at teacher-like handwriting was admittedly poor, it surely didn't warrant so much squinting. Back at Bo-Grinnell, a conversation with my then co-fellow confirmed that my handwriting was not solely at fault. The results of a recent survey showed that about 24% of all St. Rodrigue students felt that they faced some sort of visual difficulty.
Given that St. Rodrigue accepts some of the most economically disadvantaged students in the country, it was not surprising that these students had no visual aids- many have never visited the capital city of Maseru, which is the only place to find an eye-care specialist. My project had presented itself: I would gather more information, make a proposal and take it to the numerous international donor organizations in Maseru in the hope that they would sponsor a doctor and provide the funds to procure eyeglasses for our students.
Late September: For the last month, I have been working on the proposal with St. Rodrigue's headmistress Sister Tsiki. This is a useful collaboration since I have never written such a proposal and Sr. Tsiki knows the lay of the land much better than I do. During the workweek, we discuss what to write and on the alternate weekends spent in Maseru, I make use of the electricity available to power my laptop and type everything up.
On one such weekend, I walk through the streets of Maseru, trying to find an eye-care specialist who can give me a cost estimate for checking the eyesight of St. Rodrigue's 400 students, plus an estimate of the number of eyeglasses they might need and the related costs. I step into the office of an eye doctor who is able to give me a rough estimate of these numbers and is also willing to provide his services and arrange for the spectacles.
However, as this is the estimate of only one doctor, I decide to wait until I can compare the cost of a single pair of glasses or a medical consultation with Sr. Tsiki and other spectacle wearing-colleagues, to check if I've been given a fair price. It turns out that I have.
October 15th: The proposal is ready, just in time for St. Rodrigue's mid-term break. I am in Maseru, ready to go knocking on the doors of the organizations that are located here.
A few days later: I've spent the majority of this break sitting outside a building that houses many of the main donor agencies. The security is so tight that I haven't yet been allowed to enter the building let alone meet with anyone to show them the proposal.
On the last day of break: I finally manage to enter the building and meet with the country head of a major multilateral organization. The organization is willing to sponsor this project, and I am told that the funds will come through in two or three months.
Three months later: The summer holidays at St. Rodrigue (December-January) have passed and school is back in session. I visit the country head again who informs me that the funds have not come through. The surplus they had expected in their annual budget didn't turn out to be generous enough to support our project. I am referred to another international organization housed in the same building where, upon meeting with their health specialist, our proposal is accepted, and I am told to call in a few weeks to finalize the details.
Mid-February: My calls have gone unanswered for a few days. When I finally get through, I am informed that, because I am an individual and not a governmental or registered non-profit organization, they cannot work with my proposal. They suggest I try and work the proposal through the government, which will in turn hand it to them. Sr. Tsiki and I agree that this idea is probably beyond our capabilities, but decide to give it a try nonetheless.
March: Through conversations with expatriates working in foreign public health organizations in Maseru, I learn that Lesotho's Ministry of Health is currently not working on any projects or entertaining ideas for new ones. The rumor is that government officials are awaiting the results of the upcoming national elections – elections that will decide which party or parties will form the new government – before deciding which projects they are willing to work with. Why so? Apparently, it matters which party comes into power; nobody wants to waste time on a project that does not help to curry favor with the ruling party. Back at St. Rodrigue, my Basotho colleagues are unsurprised at this turn of events. If officials at the passport office are so slow in providing passports to Lesotho's citizens, can officials in the Ministry of Health be expected to be any different?
April/May: The elections are going to be held in the last week of May and my fellowship year comes to an end in the first week of June. I've resigned myself to the fact that the proposal has seen its better days and that the time has come to retire the whole idea.
Although the eyesight of St. Rodrigue's students remains unchecked for the most part, the project did not turn out to be a complete disappointment.
The project afforded me the opportunity to spend time with Sr. Tsiki, who is a truly remarkable individual, one who cares deeply for her school- students, teachers, Grinnell Fellows and all. It also gave me an appreciation for the difficulties that individuals and organizations must face when developing their own aid-related projects.
Finally, although I personally never interacted with any local government officials for the purpose of the project and hence am in no position to comment on their effectiveness, the whole process did make me interested in finding out more about governance and politics in the country. My colleagues, M'e' Tohlang from the social studies department, M'e' Pontso from the science department and St. Rodrigue's librarian M'e' Makabello, spent a lot of time answering my questions and discussing the issues that they felt were at the heart of Lesotho's economic woes.
Some of my favorite moments at St. Rodrigue were during the election period in May- memories of arriving at school early in the bitterly cold mornings and being greeted by the Bo-Mme with some nugget of information or new political development that had been relayed from Maseru to St. Rodrigue overnight by radio or text message.
Elections aside, another event of note occurred during my last few weeks at St. Rodrigue. Sr. Tsiki received a phone call from a lady who offered to equip the school's assembly hall and other rooms with solar power. No cost estimate was required but Sr. Tsiki did need a sort of unofficial proposal to give to the donor, and so I got to exercise my new proposal-writing skills again. Sr. Tsiki hopes that with the introduction of solar power in the assembly hall, it will soon be a place where all students can study in the evenings, an arrangement that will be preferable to their current arrangement of reading by candlelight in the classrooms and dormitories. I was never able to find out the identity of this generous donor, and I might never see the solar-powered assembly hall, but I hope that the use of solar power instead of candlelight will help the eyesight of St. Rodrigue's students.