Kim Sherman's Reports
Kim Sherman, Grinnell Corps: Lesotho 2000-2001
Report 1Kim Sherman
Greetings from Lesotho! It's been an amazing and challenging two months here in St. Rodrigue. As I sit down to write this report, I can hear cow bells and roosters, the beating drums of Cadets (a cross between high school cheerleaders and marching band), South African Christian rock blasting from a neighbor's radio, and children banging on our kitchen window.
"We are visiting!" they shout.
All of these sounds remind me of how many changes I have recently become accustomed to (I can now sleep peacefully while cattle stampede past my window) and how many I have yet to adjust to (the steady stream of visitors at our house continues to challenge my desire for a little privacy). In short, I'm alternately enchanted and challenged by the experience of living and teaching here.
From the beginning, I was blown away by the beauty of this country. As our plane descended over Lesotho and I looked out the window at the mountains and the green green grass, a lot of my initial jitters turned to excitement. While I had become pretty attached to Minneapolis, my home for the "semester" following graduation, I suddenly felt good about leaving the city slush and gray skies for this beautiful greenness beneath the warm South African sun.
At the airport, we were greeted warmly by the two nuns, one of whom was Sister Florina, the principal at St. Rodrigue High School. From the airport we went to Emmanuel Hostel, a convent in Maseru where the sisters run a school/home for pregnant, unwed girls and women. There were six of us traveling together: the three fellows (Brandi Christie, Betsy McCallon and I) along with George and Sue Drake, and Doug Cutchins from Grinnell's new Office of Social Commitment. We were all tired from the long trip and grateful for our comfortable beds and kind hosts.
The next day we went briefly into downtown Maseru, Lesotho's capitol. While the city suffered considerable destruction during a coup in 1998, most businesses were still intact. It was comforting to see that anything we might need in the way of food or supplies was probably available in Maseru.
From Maseru, it was a long, winding, bumpy but beautiful drive through the mountains up to St. Rodrigue. There had been so much rain during the summer months that in some places rivers were gushing right over the road. As we approached St. Rodrigue, more and more people waved frantically at the van shouting, "Me Sue! Me Sue!" Word of the Drakes' return had spread and their old friends and acquaintances were clearly ecstatic to see them again. Most of the photos and video footage I had seen of St. Rodrigue had been shot during the dry winter months. So again, I was struck by how green and lush everything was when we arrived.
The house where the three of us now live in is spacious and comfortable, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, dining room and a big entry room. We have cold running water, a gas stove, and a few hours of electricity at night. Best of all is the garden which some neighbors and students helped us to plant. Yard salad is a staple in our diet. While routine chores involve more work here than they do at home (hand washing clothes, heating up water for baths), I think we all feel comfortable with our living circumstances.
During our first week here, the Drakes helped us to become acquainted with the community while the nuns continued to welcome us and help us move in. We hiked up "Drake" Mountain, and visited the local shops, where basic food and hygiene items are available. The nuns invited us to many wonderful meals up at the mission.
Being Jewish, I hadn't hung out with nuns much before coming to Lesotho. As I had always imagined nuns to be solemn and severe, I was struck by the sweetness and sense of humor of the sisters at St. Rodrigue. Occasionally, we now go up to the mission to watch soccer matches on t.v. with the sisters. I get a kick out of seeing all the habits bobbing up and down as they cheer for their favorite team.
By the time Doug and the Drakes left us, we all felt comfortable in St. Rodrigue and excited for the year to come. During the rest of January we had lots of time to explore and adjust as school wouldn't start for awhile (we don't know exactly when). The three of us hiked a lot and enjoyed afternoon soccer games with the local herd boys. We even played net ball and frisbee golf with the pregnant women up at the health clinic!
After a couple of weeks of free time in the mountains, we naturally became increasingly anxious to learn more about our teaching responsibilities. We kept asking for basic information. When did school start? What would we be teaching? Could we see the books? By the third week in January, we had no clear answers. On one occasion we were told school started on the 24th and on another we were told the 28th. As an American I think I have a pretty low tolerance for ambiguity. As both of these dates approached, I felt frustrated by my inability to prepare for the coming school year.
Around the 23rd, Sister Florina met with us to give us our class allocations. I would be teaching language, maths, and literature in form B (second year of high school). I was happy with this variety of classes and I was especially excited to teach a literature class. I asked for the books.
"I will write that down so I do not forget to give you them" said Sister Florina. She smiled sweetly and shook my hand.
I didn't understand. The books were 10 yards away in the store. Why couldn't we get them now?
As it turned out, I wouldn't have had much time to look at the books anyway as the next three days were consumed by the task of creating the timetable. Sister Florina gave the three of us and Ntate Shungu, the only teacher who was back from summer break, the class allocations for the seventeen teachers plus Teacher X, who had yet to be hired. It was up to us to take these allocations and create a schedule. I now have a much greater appreciation for those who work without the aid of computers! Creating the timetable was like trying to solve some horrible L-SAT-type brain teaser: Sister Claudia can only teach at time X on day Y, but Caroline can never teach geography on Wednesday afternoons...
To complicate things further, the teachers had decided to eliminate the last period of the day, which meant that there were more classes than there were slots on the timetable. So it was up to the four of us to decide which classes would have fewer than the government mandated number of meeting times.
We struggled with the timetable for three days before arriving at a version free of clashes (no one was scheduled to teach twice during the same period). By this time however, about half the other teachers had returned, and everyone was upset with their schedules and allocations. On the morning of the 27th, the teachers had a meeting in the staff room. It opened with a heated discussion as to when classes were scheduled to begin. Yesterday? Today? Tomorrow! Next Monday! Apparently the students had been told to go to class that day (the 27th) so they just sat in rooms with no teachers all day long. I was amazed that they actually stayed and sat quietly for six hours.
Following the meeting, the teachers pulled out their whiteout and went to work on the timetable, kicking off a series of whiteout timetable battles which continue into the second month of school. Malerato, the head of the English department introduced herself to Betsy, Brandi and I and proceeded to grill us on our credentials. She wasn't impressed. She would change the allocations Sister Florina had given us. She preferred for us to share English and Lit classes with her and other teachers rather than for us to teach our own. So we were back to square one. Classes started the next day and we still didn't know what and when we were teaching nor did we have all of our books. We decided that we would just walk around to different classes, introduce ourselves and maybe make name tags with the students.
By the following Monday I had a schedule which I decided to follow, accepting changes as they came. Two weeks into the school year Malerato decided to teach the poetry class which she had originally asked me to teach. The meeting times for my other Lit. classes were shuffled around a lot too. Meanwhile, more and more students were registering every day. After a month, there were sixty-six students in my maths class and fifty-five in my English and lit classes. I was relieved when Sister Florina decided to divide the B's into three classes. My maths class is down to a more manageable forty-one students, although my English and Lit classes are still huge at fifty-four students.
The recent resignation of a science/agriculture teacher has once again sent everything into disarray, as class allocations and the timetable must be reshuffled to fill in the gaps. I've picked up another maths class, but I can't start teaching it until we have a new timetable as my current classes conflict with the meeting times of this new maths class. Sometimes I fear that the school year will slip away without ever having really started.
On the other hand, I'm finding teaching to be an energizing experience. The students are very enthusiastic. Every time I ask a question they all snap their wrists and shout, "Choose me! Choose me!" It's a constant challenge to come up with activities which involve as many students as possible. Maths is particularly tough to teach as there is a wide range of skills and experience within the class. Some girls are struggling with basic arithmetic while others are ready for algebra. In general, the students need a lot of practice doing mixed applications and doing word problems which challenge their reasoning skills. I hope to elaborate more on the specifics of my classes on curriculum issues in my next report.
Outside of school, I'm still enjoying lots of outdoor activities. It's incredible to have mountains right in our back yard. We've also expanded our garden to satisfy our appetite for yard salad.
Brandi and Betsy are endlessly entertaining and supportive. The three of us get along well, although we barely knew each other before coming to Lesotho. I'm grateful that the three of us have the opportunity to share this special year together.
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