Before and After: missing a few people and a few pounds.

We’re proud to know everyone in these pictures. Good people. Congrats CHED ‘10 Volunteers!

A wintery Sunday morning, huddled next to the heater, with coffee and a good book.

A wintery Sunday morning, huddled next to the heater, with coffee and a good book.

There was no “staying up late” the night of May 26 to hear the results of Lesotho’s national elections. The final verdict only came this week, fifteen days after Basotho went to the polls. Muddy mountain roads and remote polling stations are to Lesotho as hanging chads and voting machines are to America, and in such a tight race, voters here eagerly tuned into radio newscasts to find out how their favorite party fared as more constituencies reported daily.

When all the numbers were in, DC—the newly formed party of the long-standing Prime Minister—won more seats than any opposition parties, but not enough to form a majority parliament; think of is as a USA presidential candidate not quite hitting 270 Electoral College votes. Worse than no clear winner was the fact that Lesotho’s constitution doesn’t have very specific rules when it comes this kind of stalemate or “hung Parliament”. For a few days many wondered if Prime Minister Mosisili might engineer a way to stay in power. The main opposition parties announced they would do anything to prevent that from happening, and recognized that they had enough seats to rule if they combined their votes together. In a literal “the enemy of your enemy is your friend” move, runner-up ABC joined with underdogs LCD and BNP to form a coalition and a majority.

We’re not sure what the new ruling party might be called yet—may I suggest ANYTHINGTOBEATDC? The new Parliament met this past Wednesday to approve and swear-in a brand new Prime Minister, Ntate Tom Thabane (leader of ABC) and his deputy, Ntate Metsing (leader of LCD) and incumbent Mosisili offered his peaceful resignation. Mr. Thabane is popular among young urban voters and hopes to improve the economy and dire unemployment. There’s a long way to go, but a democratic government plays a big role in setting up the better policies to pave the way.

Like we hoped in our last entry, the leaders of Lesotho really did show their African neighbors something special in this election—the closest race in their history. Change in power came peacefully even if it was a bit ad lib at times. The whole saga has been really exciting to be around… we hope it makes Lesotho a better place. 

It’s getting cold and dry here as our third Lesotho winter is setting in, but this morning there’s a distinct energy in the air: loud beats are playing from people’s solar charged stereos, pick-up trucks carry people with bullhorns up and down the road, crowds of our neighbors flock to the local primary school to cast their vote. It’s national Election Day and there’s a lot at stake for the office of Prime Minister.

I’m not sure whether the political hodgepodge is more like Game of Thrones or The Young and the Restless, but election drama and allegiances are alive and well. And for good reason—the past year has had more than its share of fishy political maneuvers and party splits giving Basotho plenty to disagree about.

Much of the controversy surrounds the current Prime Minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, who has been in power for 15 years but rather suddenly become a hotly debated leader. A few months ago he was almost impeached by a vote of no-confidence called by his own party after being accused of dismissing several government ministers with no apparent cause (aka thinning out his opponents). A bit shaken-up but still in power, he broke ties with his accusers and declared a brand new party overnight, taking with him over half the Members of Parliament (MPs). This new party, called Democratic Congress (DC), wields a huge amount of political power and name recognition—which can translate into lots of votes from rural areas or the politically uninformed. But it has also created an ever-growing backlash against what some Basotho see as outright and illegal manipulation connected with Mr. Mosisili.

With the many parties involved, the ballot today must look like a giant bowl of alphabet soup: BNP, LCD, BCP, ABC, DC, and about 8 more. Each has their own colors, logos, songs, dances, and no joke, secret hand signals. Most of these take a backseat to the three main parties; DC and Mr. Mosisili will face their main opposition from the party that he renounced earlier, Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and All Basotho Congress (ABC), each led by other out-spoken MPs. The puzzling thing is, all these different names offer hardly any difference in policies or ideas—they all promise things like economic development and progress fighting HIV/AIDS in very generic terms. A vote comes very much down to personal feelings of loyalty or frustration with whoever might be the head of whatever party. 

But that doesn’t stop the clever campaigning. Whole entourages of fancy cars sporting decals of the party logos speed through the villages blasting dance music and packing in as many people as can possibly fit inside and then a few more. Party t-shirts and hats and posters are part of everyone’s proud new outfits. Last week, rallies for each party were held in Maseru in open fields around a stage, lights and sound system that could have hosted Lady Gaga. Mr. Mosisili played a cunning little move by writing personal checks to rent out all the charter buses that bring people into the city on rally day—the ticket to ride was a DC shirt. A friend who strongly opposes Mr. Mosisili, grabbed a free t-shirt, hopped a ride, and just went to a different rally instead.

For all the fluff and drama that politics (anywhere) can bring, this is a big day for Lesotho. This election is the first in over a decade that has stoked the fire in Basotho to get out and let their voices be heard. Our neighbors have definite and diverse opinions that they are taking to the polls today, and it’s exciting to see that. There is still plenty of skepticism about what might happen after the votes are counted—fears of rigged results or unrest or no change in actual governing. But the tiny kingdom of Lesotho has a chance to be an example to a continent that has far too few precedents of peaceful change-of-power, compliant leaders and democratic progress. Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu visited last month and urged all parties involved to set this example. We shall see in a matter of hours.

I should add (for the sake of our mothers) that Peace Corps is being very vigilant about the security of volunteers throughout election season. We’re safe in our village and they made us promise to stay out of any riots. Also, (for the sake of our bosses) none of what I’ve written here reflects the official views of Peace Corps or the United States, who are proud nonpartisan supporters of the election process. Go democracy!

"It is a form of praying, he claimed, to walk
out to the very edge of your life. Every time
the reply comes clear as a stone
at our thin crowns. It misses
almost every time, humming as it goes."

from And On The Third Day

by Andrew Allport

A week of the beach, table mountain, wine tour, half marathon, seafood, birthday, whiskey bar, shopping, ferris wheel, fresh coffee, bliss;

Cape Town. 

"Women are on earth to serve men."

"Women are not allowed to say no to a man."

"HIV spreads so rapidly because women are loose and sell themselves for sex."

"Women should be beaten to keep them in line."

"A young girl is the least important person in a household."

These are the currents flowing beneath the homes of Lesotho. And they’re not simply cultural norms that are silently understood. These statements are boldly spoken and believed by most men in Lesotho. I feel a fire burn through me when I hear many of the teen boys in my youth groups say these words to my face with no shame. But more deeply, and more softly, I feel a dull ache for the females of this country—condemned to servitude, disease and death by not being allowed a voice, but still being openly blamed by the very perpetrators of the crime.

Because of these beliefs, and because of the fact that girls aged 15 – 35 are at the highest risk for contracting HIV in Lesotho, I joined up with two other volunteers, Adam Peel and Juliana Fulton, in March to hold a GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp.

We invited 25 girls from our communities who are recently graduated from high school to attend a weeklong camp focusing on female empowerment. Subjects included:

Self-esteem, where the girls explored the foundation of their self-worth and ways to improve their self-esteem;

Leadership skills, where the girls defined leadership in their own personal ways and learned of other women in history who have changed the world;

Communication skills, where the girls learned how to express their thoughts and feelings and deliver confident and assertive messages;

Relationship skills, where the girls explored ideas of love and romance and discussed aspects of healthy and unhealthy relationships;

HIV/AIDS prevention and mitigation information, where the girls were able to hear the life story of a strong, successful woman personally affected by HIV;

Sexual/reproductive health, where the girls learned about, well, themselves;

Transactional sex, where the girls learned about the dangers of entering in relationships that center around goods or money for sex;

Delaying sex/abstinence, where the girls explored their personal choices and found ways to support their choices regarding sex;

Condom use, where the girls learned to put condoms on carrots so they never have a reason to avoid using a condom; and

Career guidance, where the girls explored goals they have for their lives and ways to reach those goals in Lesotho.

The highlight of all the sessions had to be when we had a certified Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor come in and teach the girls Fight Like a Girl, a fantastic self-defense program that really had the girls pumped. In addition, each evening we showed movies related to our sessions from the day with discussion time after, and then topped the whole week off with a fantastic talent show so the girls had a chance to glow with pride and showcase their new-found confidence.

Gender inequality affects so many aspects of Lesotho’s welfare in vast ways. I will say however, females in Lesotho generally have equal opportunity in education and employment. In fact, an article published on International Women’s Day listed Lesotho as the best country in the world for women to learn to read. However, further down in the article, Lesotho was listed as the worst country for women’s health since the life expectancy for women is currently 48. To me, this shows how women are still seen as inferior in their homes and families when it comes to their personal health and how women, far above men, are desperately suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Even though it will be years before the gender norms change in this country, I am so proud to say that I am playing a very small part in that transition.

You might have missed International Women’s Day (March 8), but you can still hug a woman in your life today and tell her exactly why she is so amazing and necessary in this world.

I just wrote a short article for the Peace Corps Lesotho newsletter about a few major stories in the HIV/AIDS world from 2011. Thought it might be interesting to pass along:

The war against HIV has many battlefields: while we sit in our huts planning Life Skills lessons to empower young people, scientists tinker with cell membranes and researchers design ambitious trials. And since we just had to submit our Peace Corps Reporting, we thought it might be nice to check in on how those guys in lab coats are spending their time. So, in case you missed anything, here’s a very short Year in Review of 2011 HIV/AIDS news:

Closing in on a Cure?

Last year marked some major strides in researching a cure for HIV, with two patients in particular grabbing the science headlines. A man known as the “Berlin Patient” was technically cured from HIV and leukemia through complete bone marrow transplants. The procedure is obviously arduous, impractical and very expensive, but it was considered a huge breakthrough. The other man, the “Trenton Patient”, underwent gene therapy and was able to control the virus for a period without the help of any antiviral drugs. The connecting and exciting factor in both these cases deals with disabling the CCR5 protein on the CD-4 cell wall—the door through which HIV enters the cell. Even a small percentage of humans are born without any CCR5 proteins on their immune cells and are thus “naturally resistant” to HIV. The challenge scientists are now facing is to decipher a practical way of disabling CCR5 on a wide-scale, and last year’s protein success-stories may offer major clues.

African Contraceptive Risk

The most common contraceptive in Eastern and Southern Africa is a 3-month hormonal shot—it is quick, easy and doesn’t require a doctor. However, a new study reveals that the hormonal contraceptive can greatly increase women’s susceptibility to HIV/AIDS. The numbers show that women taking the shot double their risk of infection, or if already infected, are almost twice as likely to transmit the virus to their male partners.Researchers are trying to pinpoint the reason for the increased risk and suspect that the hormone shot may cause biological changes in sexual organs and fluids. These findings are troubling because cheap and easily administered contraceptives are critical for African women planning for children and a family. Until the results are better understood, policymakers are trapped in the middle ground between the worrying evidence and premature overreaction.

Scientific Breakthrough of the Year

“HIV Treatment as Prevention”, as the study has been nicknamed, has measured the effect of early ARV treatment in preventing transmission. Selected by Science Magazineas the “Breakthrough of the Year”,the study looked at over 1,700 heterosexual couples with one HIV-positive partner and found that when the infected partner began ARV treatment early on, the transmission rate dropped by a staggering 96%. This evidence poses big implications for possibly seeing ARVs as a form of prevention, rather than just treatment. Major players in the global epidemic including the World Health Organization, PEPFAR and UNAIDS are starting to integrate this breakthrough into their worldwide strategies.

Failed HIV Research

A vaginal gel that prevents HIV transmission but also allows pregnancy has been long sought, especially for women to protect themselves in situations when male partners refuse to use condoms. Unfortunately, a recent study on such a gel has been stopped midway through because of discouraging results early on. Of the 5,000 participants in Southern Africa, the women using the gel showed no statistical difference with the placebo group—new HIV infections occurred in 6% of each group. Although the results are disappointing, developing a successful gel is still a major aspiration, and experiments with others are underway.

 

Neighbors and friends.

We get to read a lot in our line of work. In a place where meetings usually run about two hours behind schedule or where video games seem like a fabled pastime, a good book is definitely a must-have companion. Most books are passed from one volunteer to the next, creating a sort of informal reading circle; in fact, one of the first things we do when visiting a friend’s site is raid their personal stack, in search of the next page-turner.

It’s actually been really educational and provoking to read books that I may have never had the time to pick up otherwise; on my list are so many great books that I’ll always associate with my time here. But every now and then I stumble upon a book that totally stands above the rest, gets seared into my mind, and blows me away as I close the back cover. It’s bittersweet to finish a book like that - it feels like you’re parting with a good friend just as you’re really getting to know one another. 

Here’s the book. I don’t know if I’ve posted any other recommendations on this blog, but this one warrants a first. Coincidentally, I hear it’s abuzz in pop culture right now because it’s been made in to an Oscar-nominated movie (and much debated, at that). I had no idea it was even a film when I picked it up and still have no idea if the movie is worthwhile or not.

But …the book …is …phenomenal. 

I’m not much for official reviews or literary criticism. Suffice it to say, I got lost in this book and was moved by Foer’s fantastic ability to weave a story. This definitely ranks in my top 5 books read in Peace Corps. Pick it up and enjoy.