What I’ve Learned in Lesotho’s Mountain Kingdom

Matabellang with bucket, Lesotho, Africa (photo by Madeline Uraneck)

I learned many things in Lesotho, southern Africa’s “Mountain Kingdom,” where I was a late-in-life Peace Corps Volunteer from 2006–2009.

I listed 10 lessons in this “Public Letter” (below), which I wrote to friends on August 16, 2009.

1. If you have a dream, it’s easier than you imagine to seize it.

What is our fear of change, so great that we can’t break the routine of our daily life to pursue a dream?

I waited far too many years, lured by my salary, pension, job security, on-going projects and friends I loved. But what a great gift to discover a new land, new language, and small children without parents who truly adore me? Yes, it took a full year of indecision, medical tests, and applications to eject me from my comfort zone. But now these obstacles seem petty.

One step leads to another. Had I stayed in Wisconsin, I’d never be be applying for jobs and imagining new vistas in the Solomon Islands, Vietnam, or Suriname, as I am now.

2. Addressing the elimination of world poverty is a worthy challenge.

In one public letter I wrote that it is possible to replace trivial work with challenging work. Addressing poverty, rape, HIV/AIDS is frustrating and maddening. But every day that I work hard, I work well. Perhaps I am simply spinning my wheels, “accomplishing” nothing, but at least I am trying.

I want every person in the world who thinks their current job is boring or trivial, to spend a couple years trying THIS. The world would be a better place if we all tried our best to live more equitably and sustainably on the planet.

The book I loved most during my time here was author Tracey Kidder’s account of the life of MD/ anthropologist Paul Farmer, Mountains beyond Mountains. Some call it idealistic, and counter that one must read the more pessimistic Dead Aid – to balance Farmer’s positive, “can do” approach. But to tackle world problems, one needs the energy of idealism. Pessimism and cynicism can be fueled by the failures of international development to date, but pessimism and cynicism cannot move mountains.

3. Progress is impressive, even in poor countries.

On any day, progress seemed small, but as I look back on my 33 months in Lesotho, I count things like this:

  • Life-saving ARV medicines are now offered FREE.
  • ARV medicines are available even in small clinics, and professionals have been trained to administer them and counsel local people. Blood counts can be obtained daily, not only on “Wednesdays.” Thus people infected with the HIV virus are able to obtain a more private diagnosis.
  • All pregnant women in the country are required to have an HIV test, so that they and their to-be-born babies can be protected from HIV. They learn how to nurse their baby in a way to make it less likely that the virus would be passed through breast milk.
  • Life Skills, a broad approach to HIV/AIDS education, is now required as a subject of study for children in grades 4 through high school. The Ministry of Education has begun training teachers in how to teach it.
  • The UN implemented a program to clean trash from the streets of major cities, and helped to build land fills. Overnight the country started looking NICE.
  • Road building continued in rural areas. It is humbling to see women carrying stones on their heads up steep mountain trails and men working 12 hour days with pick axes to improve the network of bumpy dirt roads.
  • Internet availability stretched across the country. It is not yet affordable to most people, but cheap Internet cafes should follow soon.
  • Though Lesotho’s HIV rate of infection has not significantly decreased, it has not increased. From the UN, to the US, to tiny NGOs, dedicated individuals are working ferociously to combat the pandemic and to tackle the corruption, ignorance, and cultural practices that impede progress.

4. HIV/AIDS must be tackled in an emotional arena, not just in spheres of public health and education.

I argued passionately and logically with my primary school teachers, 80% who’d never taken an HIV test, about the necessity to take this first step to fight HIV in their families and communities, to know their status, to live an extra 10 or 20 years, even if they were HIV-positive.

But only when I approached the issue with song, role plays, and real-life stories of people they knew, did I make any progress. We listen with our hearts.

5. Violence against women affects too many, yet women suffer in silence.

Perhaps the most difficult conversations I had were with teachers I knew who said that if they ask their husbands to use a condom, that the man either punches them in the face or stomach, or refuses to have sex with them and goes to a girl friend instead.

The rape and murder of my teacher friend Halieo, and the rape and subsequent AIDS death of “my” orphan Dintle, were two examples that touched me deeply. As I look into the eyes of each passing woman, I wonder, “What has she suffered?”

6. The world is full of unspoiled children.

It is a delight to be around unspoiled children. “M’e, may I help you carry your bag?” “M’e, may I sweep your house?”

The children of Lesotho demand so little and expect too little. I hang my head when I remember the children of the USA, whining in supermarkets, throwing tantrums in friends’ houses, storming about, sulking, or sassing their parents. How can one child have summer camp, ballet lessons, a horse, after-school soccer, a closet stuffed with clothes, AND shelves overflowing with books and another child have none of the above?

It is not the children who are to blame, but we, the parents, who have spoiled them. Who have given them too much, and required of them too little. Who have not taught them about inequities of the world, or introduced the idea that they might share with others. While it is natural that we want to give — and I am certainly one who wants to give much to specific children — it is horrifying to see the unbalanced world that results. By the time we become adults, we, who have been spoiled as children, no longer question our right to abundance.

7. Death is not so awful.

Ha! Ha! You didn’t expect to hear this from me. Not me — who just wrote to you about two horrifying murders, or wrote earlier about my orphan’s death, my brother’s death, friends’ deaths, and Lesotho’s culture of funerals.

But that’s just it. With more deaths and dying than any other two years in my life, this is the lesson I’ve learned: death is not so awful.

Because the life expectancy here is 46 years, Basotho take death in stride, more stoically than I personally think healthy, but also more accepting, more graciously, more philosophically than anything I’ve ever encountered.

It’s been a tough reminder that we do die, after all. So best we integrate the joy and sorrow surrounding death into the daily flow of our lives. Best we take the lessons of each death and weave them into the cloth we wear.

8. Friends pop up in unexpected places.

I’ve corresponded with more friends than any other two years in my life. It seems ironic that going away has brought friends and family closer. Of course, I’ve shared more these two years through public letters, thus making my daily life more accessible. But it’s odd who writes and who doesn’t: I couldn’t have predicted. So I have a whole new raft of friends, from those who have responded often to my thoughts and isolation, as well as from complete strangers who get my letters forwarded from a friend who forwarded from a friend. The reflections are deep ones, and show how we yearn to make meaning of our days.

9. Growing older has many surprises.

Who’d have guessed that these two years have been my healthiest in decades? That learning to live on $200/month would be good pre-retirement training for the new economy? That one laughs a lot at funerals? That one can be intimate friends with 20-somethings? That one could begin a whole new career after the age of 60? That one could tackle her 4th foreign language? That one would be respected because she is older? That one could claim the front seat in public taxis, while others are crammed, with snot-nosed kids and sacks of corn and canisters of gas, in the back?

Madeline stirs motoho in Lesotho, Africa

10. To travel is to love your home.

This I’ve learned many times before, but I like to repeat it. Some people think that I must NOT love the USA or Wisconsin or my sisters or biking Lake Superior shores because I’m gone so long. It’s just the opposite.

There is nothing like being away to make me realize how precious are friends, sisters and brother, favorite lakes and trails, and my complex, feisty Amerika. At night, as I look up at the moon, I remember the same moon is shining on you, and my heart swells with nostalgia. The separation makes connections vivid.

So, I’ll be “home” by Thanksgiving — but Thanksgiving in which year and which “home”? I’ve a few more miles to travel. I hope the next letter will tell you about a new job. At the moment, I’m swinging precariously from a limb, stretching to pluck a ripe fruit. Will the branch break and I come crashing to the ground? Or will I bite in to something succulent, juicy, globally sweet?

Khotso, pula, nala (peace, rain, prosperity) from Africa’s Mountain Kingdom,

Madeline Uraneck / ‘M’e Lerato
Mt. Moorosi, Quthing, Lesotho, AFRICA

This article is from a series of 22 ‘public letters’ I wrote while working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the small, southern African country of Lesotho. I shared these via email with hundreds of friends and colleagues, creating a public journal of my reflections during an amazing three years in Mt. Moorosi, a village in Africa’s ‘Mountain Kingdom.’

About the Author: Madeline Uraneck is a writer, traveler, and educator. She is currently working on a book about her experiences interacting with an immigrant Tibetan-American family in Madison, Wisconsin.

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