Monday, April 2, 2012

Culture and the Volunteer...

Go to the people, live among them, learn from them, love them, start with what they know, build on what they have. But of the best leaders, when their task is accomplished, their work done, the people will say – “We have done it ourselves!” -

Chinese proverb


Greetings to our dear readers,

For this post we will again talk about culture. We hope you enjoyed the last post about the elections and our mini-vacation, but judging from the poll results we'll go ahead a talk about Basotho/Sesotho culture for a little while longer. This is coming at and interesting time for us as well. The quote above is a really important one and a great sentiment to take into aid work (it was on one of the slides from our PC training), however it is the quintessential “easier said than done” sort of quote – and we are at the phase in our service where we are really experiencing the extent of how much “easier said than done” can be true! So, Peace Corps loves, more than most things, to give us 'helpful' reading material – I could give other examples but I'll spare you for the time being. I recently busted out a small paperback book that came with our invitation packet called “A Few Minor Adjustments.” We both thought it very accurately described our experience to date, so we thought it appropriate to share with you – it is from a  Volunteer who served in Guinea Bissau:

“Most of us agree that although we knew Peace Corps was going to be hard, it is often hard in a different way than we expected. We all worried about adjusting to the bugs and heat (not in Lesotho!), but that's the easy part. It's more of a challenge to get used to dealing with a perplexing bureaucracy, the lack of motivation in some host country counterparts, the lack of technology and education and cultural barriers.”  

So, this is a beginning of talking about the effect of local culture as part of our experience here as volunteers. But, we both think it is a good idea to start by talking about our own culture. Of course most of us know that culture is the “lens” through which we see the world, it influences our norms, values and behaviors and helps us to explain things that happen in the world around us. America is a complex mix of culture – almost all Americans are part of the collective culture of our nation. We invite you, as our readers, to really think a minute about what that looks like. Of course, America, being especially big geographically, having a wide spectrum of urban/rural population densities, and being very mixed because of historical immigration as well as ethnic and racial sub cultures; has, not only the overarching “American” culture but then the sub-levels of culture, as well as the drastic individual differences that result from our strong cultural phenomenon of emphasizing individuality.

With all of this, it can be hard to really identify what “American” culture is, even when having something to compare it to (like being in Lesotho). Something that comes to mind as being illustrative of one part of our American culture is the bestselling book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” I truly won't be able to capture everything about why this book is “American” or even “Western” in culture, but I'll take a stab at a few things to give you an idea. First of all, it is a book – our culture for the most part, embraces reading, albeit for various reasons and at different levels for individuals but, in general, it is fair to say, we read. Also, the notion of always striving for improvement, as I like to say a “progressive” mindset, the entire genre of self-help books, not to mention a plethora of support groups and seminars are a testament to this. The sheer idea that effectiveness is something to strive for is also very Western, along with being able to adopt this trait in  7 (or 8 with the author's publication of  an 8th habit) discrete interventions.

Of course, the umbrella of culture is very expansive and everyday as volunteers we are party to discoveries of just how “American” we are. This is scathingly apparent in how we communicate, our valuation of time, when almost every day Shane and I get asked why we don't have kids, how we view love, family and marriage, our evaluation of attractive physical characteristics, health and hygiene, food, sharing (and sharing food), money, motivation, discipline, handling emotions, even valuation of life... – this list will go on forever unless I stop here, but you should get the idea. This is where the learning takes place – for better or worse. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's frustrating and often it is not as glamorous as the recruitment posters say! Also, as I said in a previous post – culture in Lesotho is like an onion, and we're sure that is true in all cultures.  Of course, there are the cultural things that are on the very surface, the most visible – the singing, dancing, wearing traditional hats, the unanimously-voted-among-PCVs-to-be-awesome tradition of wearing blankets, seshoeshoe dresses (see photos), men wearing rubber boots and carrying molamus. Even included in this, are some of the things we've talked about in previous posts such as traditional foods and common housing options. So, since we've talked about many of the surface cultural things in Lesotho, we are faced with the challenge of how to present the next layer in a comprehensive, meaningful and complete-enough-to-be-interesting-on-the-blog sort of way. So, please wish us luck, know that, as Americans we will try our best, and that we encourage participation by commenting or asking questions.

So, we decided it is best to save the next part of the cultural journey for next time. It will hopefully be mixed with the telling about our Easter vacation trip to one of Lesotho's national parks and beautiful photos of more mountains. I have decided that the post isn't quite long enough yet to live up to the status quo so I'll just chat a little bit. Shane's been continuing his good work with the Child and Gender Protection Unit, while I worked on the water grant with the Sisters and attended a few meetings. Friday evening it started raining, a lot, and it was that kind of cold rain where the humidity makes things even colder and clammy. The thing about this rainstorm is that it continued heavily all through the night on Friday, on Saturday morning it finally died down a bit but ended up in a drizzly but with sporadic showers sort of day. We were supposed to go to a community HIV/AIDS testing event that was in part an effort to reach community men by incorporating testing into a soccer tournament – unfortunately, we are certain that the weather killed this event. People just don't do things like that, in even mildly bad weather.
So, instead we hunkered down, trying to stay warm. We found that throughout the day the temperature in our house was about 4ºF warmer than “outside” (which is next to the single pane window where I put the second thermometer instead of outside, so it wouldn't get stolen). This meant that our house was in the mid-50's most of the day. We, being poor PCV's stubbornly refused to turn on the heater for respite. This meant that we read in bed a lot (we played with our adorable kitten too); I'm still enjoying Texas, while Shane has been reading a very interesting book about the international plight of women called Half the Sky – it's good but if you ever decide to pick it up, don't say we didn't warn you, it is VERY emotionally wrenching. I also took the opportunity to try to warm up the house by cooking – of course. Many of you know that I'm partial to the joys of seasonal eating (most of the time - sometimes here, that means eating entirely too much cabbage, that is not one of the “joys”). Yesterday, was a lovely day for soup. I made a beef (again, being poor PCVs this was a rare treat) and vegetable soup that had potatoes, carrots, green beans and tomatoes all from our garden in addition to the onions, garlic and dried mushrooms that weren't, I was  able to top it with some fresh parsley that we have also managed to grow. I loved this soup because it was warm, brothy, earthy and fall-y in flavor, we had it with some freshly baked cornbread and finished the meal with a lovely, intense gingerbread. Gingerbread, to me, has such an essence of comfort in the cool fall days or during snowy winter. This recipe in particular was deep, intense, complex and spicy, containing stout beer, molasses, plenty of ginger and even black pepper – wow! I also made 'ultimate chocolate cookies' and cranberry jello salad with the last of the grapes. Our house smelled amazing after these endeavors and there was, for a short time, a difference of 7 degrees between the inside of our house and outside – success! I share this in so much detail with you because, it was quite a pleasant way  to spend such a cool, rainy day and I think under many circumstances we may have failed to embrace it or appreciate it – also, I just love to talk about food! Yesterday, we played our 84th game of Scrabble since being in Lesotho – did I mention we don't have a TV? I also would like to take the opportunity again to say thanks for the love and support that you all give us, through reading this, emailing us, writing real letters and sending care packages. We truly can't express how meaningful those things really are! We are so lucky to have the opportunities we do to stay connected. We were talking to one of our CHED 11 group members who served in Zaire with his family in the 70's and they literally had to fly them to site because there were no roads and they had almost no contact with other Americans for their whole service-wow! In the meantime we've been really enjoying the tea, coffee, Airborne, hand sanitizer, chocolate, dried blueberries, mushrooms, nuts, warm socks – yeah, pretty much everything and we think of (and are grateful to) our loved ones every time we use something we've been sent – which really enhances the pleasure we get from those things, so just another thank you and know that we always think of you guys with love.

Sending our best,

Carol and Shane


  1. Hi Carol and Shane,

    I am looking forward to meeting you! I am one of the new CHED PCT's coming your way in June. Your blogs are enjoyed tremendously, and I am looking forward to cooking there Carol. Looks like you have a good handle on it. You are so right about cooking great food on a cold fall day especially when it can raise the house temp.. Thanks for your posts, they have really helped me.
    Peace Corps Invitee
    Carlaine Reynolds

  2. Hmmm, I just cooked a meal similar to yours...only using an elk roast. But it had tomatoes from a can, organic carrots and potatoes, each from a bag, and cabbage wrapped in plastic. No local or hand-picked veggies or fresh spices. I like that your garden is doing well, even if most of the seasonal food is cabbage!

  3. Wow, that was an amazing description of food. I was just looking through some of my index cards with recipes today and found one you gave me for Spicy Gingerbread from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook as a Christmas gift along with that clay-crafted bowl you made! Though it is a bit odd to hear you talking about fall food when everything here is bursting with green as we head towards the growing season!
    I am sorry to hear it is so cold for you over there! I know you are not very fond of the cold. Maybe jumping jacks would help? I bet Shane would like that idea haha!