How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
-Winnie the Pooh
Sion Watkins from Lesotho May 2019
As usual whenever I travel things do not go smoothly. My holiday in Namibia was incredible but a luggage scanner fault at Windhoek meant that my flight to Johannesburg was late and the resultant connection to Maseru missed. I spent a night in the airport hotel fretting about a course I’d arranged for my first day back, trying desperately to contact Anne who was to meet me without wi-fi from either end. It’s at these moments that you realise how much technology has a grip on your life and also how even in Africa with so many differences, technology is where the catch up is greatest.
I made it by 7.00am with an early morning flight and by 8;30 Anne and I were back in a routine running the fourth of our courses in Maseru district. The 40 or so teachers were responsive and keen to embrace the ideas we were peddling. The key difference to what they’ve experienced before is a sense of fun, showing not telling and a verbal engagement.
We arrived back in Morija guest house here I promptly slept. It’s a joy to stay there, Brigitte is so unassuming, you have the run of the place, you meet a myriad of different people. Best of all it’s not an ex-pat scene. This time staying with us was an Episcopalian priest and his daughter travelling Southern Africa on a Sabbatical from the US. The German kids doing their year out were also there and as usual great fun. Food was excellent, I love the fact it’s just a set meal and we all sit around a large table chatting. I had an amazing chakalaka - home made something I’ll have to try making in Wales.
The big decision we made was based on Wednesday 1st May being a holiday. We decided to extend our stay not rush off after the course and use the holiday as a road trip to Thaba Tseka. The course the next day in Morija was interesting. Again around 40 or so, but because of a lack of communication we arrived for 9 whereas the teachers had arrived for 8. Now this is priceless as Basotho time and its flexibility is the most frustrating thing I experience here. They just accept it as people in the UK accept, they’re not good at maths. However, the fact we were not on time was an outrage. Honestly the grim faces didn’t bode well. In reality along with Semongkong it was the best course we had, loads of happy, engaged, positive teachers and such a sense of joy.
The journey back to Thaba Tseka was the first time for me to drive it and the experience is incomparable. Sitting as a passenger you don’t get a sense of the scale of the mountains, the tortuous roads and the perpetual code of conduct needed to avoid animals and casual walkers. The drive from Maseru starts on plains but then you hit the Maluti trail with three astonishing passes through them. I say passes but it’s really a" long and winding road” to quote the Beatles. The first is the highest climb from around 1550m to 2250m - this is Bushman’s pass and in a small toyota involves a lot of second gear. The second the aptly names ‘God help me pass’ is a series of winding roads similar to the Alps with spectacular views and sheer drops. The last the ‘Blue Mountain pass’ just takes your breath away. The whole journey is around 180km but takes around 3 and a half hours - if you travel with Anne add another hour for a coffee break and numerous photo stops!
Plan B [noun]: an action or set of actions for doing or achieving something that can be used if the preferred method fails
Thaba Tseka or Bust - Plan B
Claudia, Sion, Vicki & Mandy (Executors of Plan B)
When we left Lesotho we each had hopes that we would return again and all of us have in some way or another. Mandy has formed part of the tapestry of the LTPP since returning from her time in Thaba Tseka in 2016. Vicki, who had achieved so much in her time there last year, still had more she wanted to do and has continued to be a member of the Dolen family, raising money in her school and giving up her time to be a part of the next phase of LTPP. Being able to return to the Kingdom in the Sky (even if it was only for two weeks) was such a gift and we had big plans of what we wanted to achieve during our time there.
In many ways it was like we hadn’t left: Sion had the kettle brewing and was telling is usual jokes and tales from his mountain walks, the people were just as warm and welcoming popping in for a chat as they’d heard we were coming and the scenery was just as breath taking- mountains as far as the eye can see. Arriving in Thaba Tseka late on a Sunday afternoon, as the car dropped steeply and rounded yet another tight turn on the road, the mountains appeared bathed in a golden light of welcoming warmth. We promised ourselves that we would find an hour at some point to walk those slopes and immerse ourselves in their magnificence once again. Until then however, there were more than a few things to get done. The purpose of our visit was to review the progress of specific goals, objectives and benchmarks of the LTPP 2019. As a charity, even in challenging times such as these, Dolen Cymru continues to maintain an ambitious outlook and to put at the focal point, the important elements of partnership and sustainability in terms of defining the characteristics of our practice in education. Enhancing educational practice, link by link is at our core. The past decade has been one of significant accomplishment for the Lesotho Teacher Placement programme. Strategic targeting of core aspects of education and an innovative approach to partnership working in Lesotho and Wales has enabled us to develop a truly distinctive and worthwhile educational programme that is impacting positively on thousands of educational professionals, teachers, trainee teachers and learners in Lesotho. Going there to review the progress of a programme with the potential to make such a difference to so many lives was a privilege – but not one however, without its challenges.
As usual in Lesotho there are always a few unexpected events. When we planned this visit back in Wales all those months ago with Sharon, we hadn’t anticipated that all teachers in Lesotho would be on strike for 3 weeks at a time, from March to December and that it would coincide with our time there. The teachers’ strike meant that schools would be closed. Sadly, with no children in school for us to spend time with and no lessons going on that we could get involved in, a significant element of our plan could not be executed. Whilst there were lots of discussions and talk about contingency plans just before we left, we couldn’t be quite certain what we would be doing until we arrived there. Plan A was out of the window and Plan B was about to take shape. However, Plan B was dependent on the people there and whether they would be willing to get on board with what we were hoping to do.
Despite fears that we would not be able to achieve our aims, our fears were unfounded. Although, we were not able to see teaching in action or to support in the classroom, we WERE able to work with groups of Literacy Lead teachers and District Resource Teachers much more closely. School Principals and Senior Education Officers agreed to meet us. We were able to gather information and get feedback of how they felt about the work that Dolen was doing and we were able to put into place the literacy and numeracy training that was planned. It was a joy to check in with the Lead Literacy teachers and hear how they felt phonics and early literacy development was progressing in their schools and to work with them to identify next steps. Without the generosity of these teachers, Principals and District Resource Teachers, who gave up their time willingly to work with us we wouldn’t have been able to achieve anything in our time there. The feedback was positive and it has enabled us to put in place ideas and plans for further work.
The Literacy Leaders workshop, held in our second week was one of the highlights of the visit as it demonstrated the growing strength of a whole team approach to improving literacy teaching and learning in schools across Lesotho. Literacy Lead teachers not only from Thaba Tseka, but also all the way from Quthing and Mazenod, participated. During the workshop the teachers from Quthing delivered a session on Sesotho Phonics which was, in a word, inspiring (and made us all wish we could speak Sesotho!).
We also went back the Thaba Tseka Lesotho College of Education to deliver a session to the third-year teaching students. Both Mandy and Vicki were dubious about getting the afternoon slot following on from Mr Maths (who makes learning maths fun and engaging….) How were we going to follow that?! We needn’t have worried. The group were enthusiastic and passionate about their role in supporting the next generation to achieve and keen to understand where phonics fit in the bigger picture of literacy learning.
While at the college Sion and Vicki were delighted to see many of the students that they had working with in the schools the previous year. This cohort of students have had LTPP input in all of their three years of training which gave Mandy a thought… Quick as a flash she whipped out her iPad, gathered some of the gang and began to ask them questions about the impact they have seen on their training and experience. Just like that a focus group was formed; we are really excited about the prospect of following their progress into the world of work and sincerely hope that they manage to get out there and share their love of teaching and learning.
On our middle weekend we decided we would take Sion down from the mountains (where he had been for several months) for a break to see the bright lights of Maseru. We were able to meet up with the members of Connecting Classrooms from Caerphilly, who had come over to visit their link schools and who we had left the week before in Maseru. Sharing a meal and hearing their amazing stories of what they had done during the course of the week and how welcome they had been made to feel was a joy. It was clear that they had enjoyed the time in their school and host communities and that they had definitely caught the Lesotho bug.
On the Saturday we went in the hunt of a craft fair and were a little confused when we arrived to find hundreds of Basotho women dressed in white all evidently waiting for something… could it be the craft fair? Was there a dress code we were not aware of?! After enquiring at the hotel reception however we found out that they women were there to take part in the annual Miss Lesotho competition... and the craft fair was set up out the back… Claudia our craft connoisseur enjoyed conversing with the creators and perusing the offerings while Sion managed to locate a gigantic chess set to entertain himself!
Tour guide and driver, Mandy had decided our destination for the day was to be Ha Komo caves, off we set with Mandy at the wheel and Sion’s music on the stereo. For a few hours we enjoyed the scenery and shared stories. After a while however, Mandy shared her fears that the fuel levels were getting low, thus began our search for petrol which turned into comedy sketch. Each person we asked for directions to a petrol station repeated the instructions to head to the taxi station. After several false starts (and the odd ancient pump) we found a police man who announced that we had arrived at the taxi stop and found the petrol station. Our shared looks of confusion about how to reach the shed like building that was down a steep drop from the road was met by a man who appeared with 2L coke bottles full of petrol and began to fill the tank.
After this we managed to find our way to the caves and met locals who still live in the ancient ancestral caves of Ha Komo. We were guided round by a young girl who shared stories of life in the area and her favourite subjects at school as well as showing us round the dark cave homes amidst the chickens, kittens and pigs.
Refreshed and with new tales for his blog Sion along with the rest of us returned to the mountains to continue our work.
The two weeks passed in a blur with many leads followed up, new WTPP and Connecting Classroom candidates selected and a fair few unexpected gems found along the way but it wasn’t all work and no play. We had promised ourselves that we would get out into the mountains for a walk at least once during out time in Thaba Tseka and so we did. Tour guide Sion led us with his own special brand of commentary along a path that was familiar to all (along the gorge walk minus thankfully the steep rock climb of the previous year!).
Along the way we each met familiar faces: children we had taught, Basotho teaching colleagues and even old friends and their families who happened to spot us on the road. These are the moments you can’t plan for that make your time in Lesotho so special, the people make the trip as was again proven by our many visitors and the veritable feast that was prepared for us by lecturers from the LCE on our last night. Lots of laughs and stories were shared by all!
With only a few days left before we departed, Vicki was keen to purchase the materials for the building of a new outdoor shelter. The children of Ninian Park Primary school had raised money to help Katlehong Primary to build and all-weather outdoor learning shelter to help them make use of their outdoor space for learning. The caretaker from Katlehong, along with Niall Thomas, husband of Vicky Thomas (LTPP 2017) were going to start the project the following week. Vicky and Niall would be in town for 2 weeks. Vicky was to continue the literacy training with our lead teachers and Niall was tasked with creating the outdoor shelter from scratch! Thanks to the donations from the Ninian Park school community and the hard work of Niall and Ntate Kerry (our friendly Basotho carpenter) the Katlehong school community have an awesome outdoor space to enhance their learning that they have named 'The Pavilion'.
We all felt that the visit and Plan B was a success and the key ingredients to this success were the contributions of the people who comprise the Dolen community. Year on year their support has been outstanding and year on year there is an ever-growing number of teachers in Lesotho with whom we have increasingly stronger working relationships. Collaboration with teachers in Thaba Tseka is in its 4thyear. The professional and personal relationships forged in this rural mountain town has served and continues to serve as a meaningful guide for our decision-making and actions, providing the foundation for change and shaping the future for all involved.
“You take every opportunity given you in this world, even if you have too many opportunities. One day, the opportunities stop, you know.” - John Irving
Having been dropped off at a garage stop by Niall and Vicki, I was transferred by an old colleague (Setempe) to his house before picking up Anne Loughran at Maseru Airport. Five hours in the company of his kids Felix and David was a lot of fun, I was dutifully entertained by the elder, Felix, until the siren calls of his friends’ soccer game won over. David who is younger has not as yet mastered English so I spent the latter part of the day watching cartoons and marvelling how the same story is repeated endlessly.
At five we picked up Anne. She was waiting with a French lady she’d met on the flight whose son had not arrived. Being Anne we were 'commanded' to stay there until he arrived!! The airport closed up, the sun was setting, I had visions of us huddling together with our bags for a night when finally he came. That’s Anne! Kind, caring but totally in control.
An ugly, lovely town ….. crawling, spreading…. this mountain town is my world. Ok this is an adapted Dylan Thomas piece but for me it summarises Thaba Tseka as Thomas’ was so descriptive of Swansea.
For all the blogs I’ve written, I don’t think I’ve described the place where I’m situated. Thaba Tseka didn’t exist in its current form even thirty years ago. It is a collection of villages like Paray or Ha Phaila which were dotted around the mountains almost like spokes on a wheel. Then with the building of the Katse Dam there needed to be a central hub, somewhere that would be a relaying post between Maseru and the project. Thaba Tseka emerged from this and I guess it became a “Dodge City” type frontier town. It grew, it spread, it became a hub for the district. Government buildings, district offices, education, police, all these started to congregate here. By now Thaba Tseka hosts a prison, an airfield of sorts, three secondary schools and a host of primaries. New money has come in with foreign investors building some structures and global businesses like Vodaphone setting up substantial offices. The buildings are an eclectic mix of concrete block structures with some brick developments. The schools show how differing times have bought a few new buildings erected in differing styles. There are a few buildings which are on a second level and the centre of the town has a four storey ( the equivalent of a sky scraper) block, housing Vodaphone, Standard Llesotho Bank and a few other insurance companies.Read more
The last fortnight has been a completely different experience. From not having been with Welsh people for six weeks i’ve been in the constant company of Claudia, Mandy and Vicki. The system at Dolen has been to have a monitoring and evaluation week in order to ensure that the work being done is of quality and is meeting targets set by the funding sources. This year was different as the Dolen team were also providing input in terms of Literacy/Phonics retraining and also collecting information about where to focus training in the future.
The main difference has been noise! When I usually return to the house its a “haven of peace”, that went out of the window. How can three people replicate what happens in a grade zero class. Another difference has been food. My usual diet has been a breakfast and an evening meal consisting of some raw butternut squash and a dry piece of bread! In the last fortnight there has been an expectation for a new meal called lunch. This being supplemented by something called snacks (crisps, nuts, rusks) at various key moments of the day. Meals have been prepared, none of this sitting at the coffee table…. a proper dining experience and in some cases cakes or apple crumble. I feel healthier and more relaxed, even though preparing it all, serving it, washing up and ensuring that the ladies have a fun conversation has taken it out of me!!!!
In all seriousness I'd forgotten how introvert a person becomes when on their own, being with these three has been great fun. The only downside of the visit was that officially school have not been open. Through some negotiation I managed to make sure that some grade 7’s were in at loti and taught some topics just to keep me sane. Claudia came along and showed them some Kumihimo a Japanese band making exercise which the children loved. They are so good at the creative stuff.
My third blog has covered the hardest of the fortnights socially. By this time living alone in a foreign country begins to start highlighting the things you miss. Luckily I have colleagues coming out this weekend and from there on most of my time is with company. It isn’t the day that is difficult - when you’re working time flies and there are numerous conversations to be had. The difficulty is in the evenings where in reality after 7 pm you are in the house. There is very little night life in Thaba Tseka and what there is would not attract a 60+ year old. In fairness the day for the majority starts at around 5 am so early evenings are a necessity!