February 13th 2003
Hi everyone,I have been lately hanging out here in Lesotho. I have been reading a lot, doing some work, and having fun with other volunteers. At times it would seem like having fun is the actually the main thing volunteers do here. We so often get to see other volunteers that we keep much more of our American identity and culture than I had previously thought we would.
It is this point that has depressed me a little bit. I had come to Lesotho nine months ago with ideas and hopes of trying to blend in to a completely different culture. I now realize that it is probably not going to happen. Instead I am just going to get some exposure to what it is like to be Basotho or more importantly African but while I am here I probably won’t really know. This is due to a few reasons. One I am white, two I am do not speak fluent Sesotho, and lastly they for the most part do not want me to integrate into their ways.
I am white and when walking around downtown Hlotse if you can call it that it is very apparent. I immediately stand out. Every time I go outside my house the very young kids if not all people of all ages constantly call out in the air “lahoya”. This is the word for white person and it has become a sort of third name for me and most of the other volunteers. It is not necessarily a term that is as negative as the word nigger but anytime someone uses a word to identify someone that is based on their race it is a kind of derogatory term. I have also seen mothers correct their children telling them not to say it so even though they told us in training it was not a bad word sometimes I wonder.
Secondly, I do not speak Sesotho. This one of my biggest disappointments at first. I thought when coming here I was going to be fluent at another language before I left. The truth of the matter is that if I even only spent as little as an hour a day studying I feel like I very well could be able to speak Sesotho very well before returning to the States. I have a great environment to practice it and it is a really easy language to learn. The thing is that I feel like there is not going to be a lot of opportunities for me to continue to speak Sesotho nor do I really have to know it now. Sure there are times on average I say about once a week where I find my self in a situation in which I really wish I knew more Sesotho but for the most part the limited Sesotho I know does just fine for what I need it do to. There is not a need for me to learn Sesotho here for the most part as English here is fastly becoming very popular. All the classes in schools are being taught in English and while these kids speak very broken English if times get tough and I need a translator I just have to find a teenager near by. There is no shortage of teenagers and they are almost always very excited to use the English they have been learning. Otherwise like I was saying for the most of the time I am working with someone professionally they can understand English at least on a 7th grade level and so I am able to express my point and them likewise even if we can not articulate as much as we would like.
A third reason I do not fully melt into society is that they do not want me too. From the first glance to the first word out of my mouth I captivate their attention. Not because I am white. They have seen more than enough white people from South Africa. These South Africans, which are called Afrikaners, are not very well liked here at all and have set up camp in the district next to Lesotho. They are in fact despised and are referred to as boors, which is a very derogative term. Most of the Afrikaners do not also like the Basotho. The hatreds go back a long way for good reasons I do not have to get into but as soon as they see my face, clothes, and here me talk (the Afrikaners do not usually speak English) I am instantly realized to not be one of them. I to them am an American and the word American here is synonymous in a way to better or blessed in certain ways. The Basotho simply like having an American around and they want me to show my Americanness instead of trying to adapt to their culture. Sometimes I can go as far to say that I am a token American. In theory this is a reason why many Peace Corps Volunteers don’t do much that the community just wants to have a celebrity American in their midst. The American that does not really do anything but somehow is treated wonderful and looked up too. Kind of reminds me of the British royal familyJ. But seriously that is kind of how it is and to be honest while at times it can be frustrating most of the time I feel like I take it just fine. I mean how often will I get this chance to be treated like this and then be able to go back to America and not let it really get to me. I should point out it is not all good. While the young kids look at me like I am a famous movie star and just about most of the girls I have talked to between the ages of 15 and 30 seems like she wants to my girlfriend and the old people are most of the time honored to have me around it is the young men between the ages of 20 and 30 that harass me. It is not all the time but it happens frequently and they definitely are letting me know that I am different and not really a part of their culture.
For the most part though my good experiences are more than my bad ones and it is nice to be here. I am adjusting to the fact that because of my color, language, and country I come from I am going to be outside of a lot of what goes on here but I can say that Africa has something enchanting about it. It is not necessarily the clothes, food, and music or even for that matter the race or language but it has to do with the Spirit of Africa. It is this spirit that has been my biggest surprise and greatest gift since coming here and while I feel I do not experience it fully I do experience it and it has changed me forever in a way that I am grateful for. love ya'll Jeff