One of the beautiful gifts of this experience is observing how others want to be a part of it. Many people – family, friends, mere acquaintances and sometimes strangers – will reach out, looking for ways to help other volunteers and me. They send packages full of goodies for students, organize book drives and donate to projects. This creates a pretty great partnership. They have the means; I have the need.
Several months ago, a former RPCV, Scott, contacted me about doing a few projects at my school in December. What do you need, he said. I could think of a million things, but wasn’t sure what kind of resources he had so we tossed around a few ideas and settled on library shelves, paint for the library, an African map and fruit trees. We emailed back and forth planning as many details as we could thousands of miles a part, but I really wasn’t sure what to expect. We agreed that I would meet the group a few days before they started work on my project at another site and then hammer out the last details.
On Monday, I walked to the main road, hitched a ride to the junction where my road meets that of the one to Maseru and waited for his group. I bought an apple, cold drink and a few balls of fried dough and read, occasionally looking up for a bus full of Americans. I knew that I wouldn’t miss it. After a half hour, two big buses with bright-eyed Americans pulled over and picked me up.
Scott is a professor at Wittenberg University in Ohio, a college I hadn’t heard of until this week, and teachers several courses on southern African history and culture, including a few on Lesotho. He served from 1989 to 1991 as an agriculture volunteer in the Berea district and, as a Fulbright Scholar, wrote a dissertation on national identity in Lesotho. For several years – I can’t recall the exact number, but somewhere near 10 – he has brought students to complete service projects in the country. The students told me it was the biggest trip of their small liberal arts school.
When I first stepped on the bus, these 30 college students intimidated me along with their professor. It was the first time I’ve been around that many Americans who are not PCVs and I didn’t know how to act. At the work site, I spent more time conversing with the Basotho because that was more comfortable to me. Scott and I did talk Peace Corps and Lesotho, but his knowledge of the country is so beyond mine that I had to wonder what it is that I have been doing the last year.
Their first project was a Habitat for Humanity house for orphans. I helped dig a few holes and level dirt before leaving because of commitments in my own village. Two days later, half of them came to my site while the other half stayed working on the houses. On the second day of work, the groups swapped.
At my request, Scott bought big buckets of bright paint for the library and the university students wasted no time. They also built a shelf, started digging tree holes and used an iPad to sketch out the continent of Africa. By the end of the first day, the library was a beautiful purple with teal shelves, two trees were planted, a classroom was newly orange and a bright map of Africa with all the countries etched out towered over the schoolyard. More shelves came the second day along with another purple room and the rest of the trees were planted. The students even repainted a world map that’s been there for so long no one knows who painted the original.
News of the Americans got out quickly and I think nearly every child in village came to the school to get a peak. I was a bit anxious with that many children, some asking for money and sweets, and was nervous about how the university students would react, but they were amazing. They taught them tag, played games, learned Sesotho and took several photos. Some village children, including a few of my students, were even allowed to help paint, however, I am now nervous a group of Basotho parents are going to knock furiously at my door and demand an explanation for the paint stains on their children’s clothes (it will come off!).The students and the village children bonded immediately. Some would crawl into their laps or hold tightly on to an index finger, no matter what job needed to be done.
On these trips, Scott usually brings his wife, son (8) and daughter (5). One of the sweetest moments of the trip was watching Scott’s son toss a baseball back and forth to all the children. They would stand in a semi-circle and he would give each of them a turn to catch and then throw back. Then the young boy took out his prized position – red book of baseball cards – and began handing out some of is non-favorites to the kids. Basotho children have no idea what baseball even is, but now there is an influx of baseball cards in my village thanks to a little boy who wanted African children share in the passion for his favorite sport.
Because there was so many of them and tools were limited, I spent most of my time checking up on the different stations and assisting when I could. My initial social awkwardness was gone and I could easily talk with the students. Many of them asked about my Peace Corps experience and what I do in Lesotho. I also explained a lot about the application process as someone these students are actually in a pre-Peace Corps program, similar to pre-law or pre-medicine. It was fun to share my stories with him and remember the glories of being a young student and feeling like the entire world is up for grabs.
Conversations with Scott were also extremely fascinating. He served when South Africa was still under apartheid and Lesotho was a much different country. Peace Corps was also different back then and our experiences have some stark differences. However, Leostho is also still very much the same and, 20 years a part, he dealt with the some of the challenges, and experienced some of the triumphs, that I now have. His love for Lesotho is deep and he spends the entire year raising money for these projects. This is his second home and his desire to give will never run dry.
As I kept uttering thank you, thank you to Scott, he reminded me that I would have never been able to do projects like this on my own. He is right. But, he said, they wouldn’t have been able to do the work without knowing someone on the ground.
My students, when the arrive for the new year in January, will be in awe of the freshly painted classrooms and maps. They will say, “Wow,” as they walk into the library for the first time and see the bright colors and new shelves. They’ll have something to be proud of.
And, back in America, a group of university students will tell their friends about the three weeks they spent in Africa over Christmas break. They’ll show them the picture and describe the children and their unending love.
These worlds aren’t meant to collide but they did. And, just to watch it without real effort on my part, was truly inspiring.