Judgments, Journeys and Reflections
This is likely to be the last of my blogs from Lesotho; with only three or so weeks left most of our time will be tidying up loose ends. The last few days will be in Maseru finalizing an overview of our time here and perhaps, at last getting some time to see the waterfall at Semongkong!
The last blog was written just before our Easter break. Arriving back after a wonderful rest in South Africa for Vicki and Alyson and in my case Zimbabwe, we were straight into a full on monitoring and evaluation week. The general consensus was that the work we have been doing was having an impact both in terms of the teaching and also the changing of teachers’ methods in the classroom. There was also visible evidence of the work we have done in helping schools with the hygiene programs and the physical impact of sourcing sustainable water supply and wash stations from money donated by friends.
It was great to see the team here and a really fun week cooking for them, being able to chat and exchange stories. The star for me was Anne Loughran who can immediately put a smile on your face with stories of her experiences in this wonderful country. She has so many connections and friends it is often disconcerting to see how she remembers all the names, particularly to an imbecile like me who finds the sheer volume of m’s in the names an impossible hurdle. Having the team here allowed us to realize what we had achieved. Having Mandy here gave us the chance to vent some frustrations and maybe talk our way through some individual concerns.
In my case I was seen teaching 4 lessons, something I’d promised I’d never put myself through again. In all honesty though these children want to learn so much that being there, guiding and challenging them is an absolute pleasure.
One of the more difficult experiences was a visit to the local teachers training college for a meeting regarding the impact we have had. This has been an area where as a team we have felt under utilized. There have been some mitigating factors, student strikes and clashes with other meetings meaning that lecturers could not come. The meeting however was positive, and they understood our frustration and the fact we felt they had not had best value from the program. It ended with a really good open dialogue and a commitment to maximize what we could provide for them including staff training. “Well done” Mandy for guiding us through potentially turbulent waters. The funniest incident on the day was when the meeting started with no sign of Vicki. She had decided to visit the ladies and closed the door without realizing there was no handle on the inside. After failing to get anyone of us to answer our phones, she decided to re-enact a Bond movie, clambered onto the cistern and eased herself out of the window.
The other highlight of the visit was Anne bringing two teachers round for some English and Maths training. Again I have to say it’s so refreshing to see how quickly they embrace the alternative methods available for teaching. They spent four hours with us and to be honest would have carried on longer.
With the team gone and no common focus, the second stint is very much what we feel our own schools need. In my case the focus is to my strengths. I’m spending time with teachers in grades 5, 6 and 7. Looking at topics they find difficult and finding visual ways for them to see how easy they are. We are gradually coming up with good understanding, introducing the idea of class discussion and integrating much more practical work. There is never a lesson where I’m not smiling at the end. I’ve loved the pure joy on the children’s faces when they understand a concept. Marking is now much more supportive showing what maybe to do to help if something is misunderstood. Children also seem much happier to collectively go through some examples and even though red pen fever is still a strong Basotho affliction, they seem more amenable to accepting that they can self mark. What they love, is having a comment on their work, they treasure that.
The college lecturers wanted a session on assessment and we were pleasantly surprised to see around 16 of them with us for a two-hour workshop after school finished. We basically took them through some ideas using games and questioning to highlight the key points. I think the reality hit us how much more we could have worked with these lovely people and how that this is the path to change future teaching methodology.
We trained a group of teachers in Mazenod the other day. Our so-called friend Setempe had given us some indication that there would be a few! The course ended with us facing 70 teachers from 15 schools! In fairness they lasted through 5 hours or so on a Friday. The response we got was positive, and backs our general feeling that these teachers are desperate for quality in service support. They do not need to be told, they need to be shown that there are other ways and methodologies. They also need to see the importance of mental strategies. Setempe of course is now a local hero for arranging this course! He deserves all the plaudits; he has great, organizational skills. From a personal perspective it was an exhausting 4 or so hours as they are so noisy when they get excited, as I get older I find excited chatter hard to cope with!!
Again the shock in Lesotho is the lack of available resources. Quick nipping out to photocopy some additional materials is an impossible dream, as is access to an “all singing all dancing powerpoint on the whiteboard”. I’ve learnt to prepare without sheets in front of everyone, to think hard about how I want to visually engage these children and the language I need. The resources for the course including a hundred square with stick on numbers, a counting stick and other maths tools were all made by us at home using Blue Peter approaches! In every classroom there are now signs of posters that can be used for lessons, with children looking at them and using them.
Enough of work; the main difference in our out of school life has been travelling. Having seen little of Lesotho, the last two weekends have been on the road in lodges or guesthouses. Initially at Katse, and last weekend at Maseru. Both have come with painful reminders of the sheer tediousness of public transport. Katse was a 4 hour drive in a minibus overfilled and blasting music. That sounds OK until you realize the journey is only 60km. Admittedly this is across 4x4 roads where the phrase African massage makes sense.
Katse itself was breathtaking. The lodge was functional, the food was good and it was lovely to sit down and share a mealtime with some French people talking about Brexit. Our time was spent chilling; the Saturday was a visit to the Botanical gardens and then a 3km walk to the information center for the dam. Having paid our 40 Maluti, imagine our surprise when they asked where is your car? They did not seem to cater for parts two and three of the tour being impossible if they had backpackers. Luckily a Dutch resident of SA was there with friends and offered us transport to the bottom of the dam and then to the top. It sums up the tourist industry though, stunning views, wonderfully happy people but no infrastructure. There is so much potential; all of it untapped. The return journey was surreal; we were there by 8 to catch a taxi. The driver was there the minibus was there but like some Mexican based Clint Eastwood movie we did not move till 11:30. So there was the three of us sitting on the verge, Eli Walach (aka the driver) sleeping in his minibus. It ended up with a lot of photos of locals and the “big as tarven” as it was called. Making conversation with a sow and her two piglets, three very large chickens, a couple of donkeys and a horse!
Our training day in Mazenod coincided with a visit to Maseru, so we stayed 3 nights in a guesthouse. Again the drive was long and we were dropped in the middle of the market, no idea how to get to our destination. There was one scary moment where we felt “followed”, you suddenly realize that it is not always safe here. That said in general we have had no issues. It’s easier for me as I am male and old. White hair is an instantaneous magnet for a level of respect. The two females constantly get marriage proposals and in Vicki’s case she wears a false wedding ring, not that it seems to make any difference!
Maseru was fun. Alyson was in a sphere of bliss being able to see a Mall, have decent coffee and generally nose around shops. We did spend the Saturday visiting Thaba Bosui and the cultural village. Our Taxi driver had a penchant for country and western. I can you tell you that even though Dolly Parton is a personal favourite, there is something weird about listening to her lyrics as you’re crawling through African markets. The birthplace of the Basotho nation was well worth the visit and climb. Again the return journey was harrowing. The general bustle as sellers parade up and down the aisle selling bananas, chips, packets of corn, mobile phone gatgets…anything; followed by six hours in a bus of 70 with an hour and a half stop by a roadside for no known reason. While I was preparing some maths lessons Vicki commented I had an audience and the next hour I ended up teaching some high school students which helped the time go by.
There are so many things I’ll miss here, so many happy memories, so many beautiful views. The reality of our time and impact here is that it has been a drop in the ocean. I hope that some of the stuff I’ve done will have a legacy. I remember the young girl in Morija running up and remembering her Welsh teacher’s name. It would be good to feel that in three years, some of these wonderful little kids remember us.
What will I take back; some memories of stunning singing, from both staff and children. I’ll remember the genuine kindness and interest shown by Basotho people. The pure joy these children have in collective achievement and success. I have a video of Thaba Tseka going nuts singing, dancing and clapping just celebrating that 13 of their own were representing the school at regional level. I’ll recall beautiful singing from school choir at Loti, organized by local youths. The haunting song sung at Mazenod primary, which we just happened on as we were leaving after running the course. Each and every assembly but maybe most memorably trying to contain my laughter at the re-enactment of the “Wisdom of Solomon” starting with those classic words “Oh no my baby is dead”. All those faces in the classes of 50+, wanting to please wanting to succeed. The St David’s day work but in particular reception dressed as daffodils. Most importantly a sea of 60+ little faces in the morning, all smiling as they greet you with “good morning teeeecher, how are you?”
I’ve become more patient, fitter, healthier and ready for retirement. We still have a fortnight’s contract in Wales, guiding Basotho teachers on a reciprocal visit in the Llanelli area. After that it’ll be time to catch up with friends and family and face up to what I do with a full retirement!
Thank you Lesotho and thank you Dolen Cymru.