Back in Lesotho for a third time is a little like going to an old school reunion; you sort of can’t pass up the opportunity to go in case you miss out on something special, and yet you’re not sure if everything is as wonderful as you thought it was! On reflection though, I feel I’m in a position to come up with 8 things I’ve learnt from this shortened visit…..
1. Public transport is not for the faint hearted
Yes, I’ve taken public transport here before, somehow though I’ve not crammed in as many journeys and in particular long ones to Maseru. This year’s experiences were bizarre. A journey to Maseru in a 1960’s bus with I suspect no brakes as most of the downhill sections were in second gear. The bus had 56 seats and was carrying 96 people. That doesn’t include the mattresses, cooking utensils and other household items on board. I learnt a couple of things on this journey…. When the final horn is blasted at the start of the journey it signifies for half the passengers currently buying supplies to get on and at same time it warns the other half, currently on the bus that they have to buy supplies.
The problem in Lesotho with public transport is getting started. Another unbelievable experience is when the bus has travelled maybe an hour and at the top of the mountains it stops for no explainable reason. Virtually everyone gets off - except me as I wasn’t going to relinquish a seat. When I asked a fellow sufferer what people were doing - he said that they were ruminating (or so I thought). As I looked out of the window it seemed that there were differences between the men ruminating standing up and the ladies rushing behind rocks to ruminate. At that point I realised I’d misheard and the man had said urinating.!
On another journey with guests from Wales, we were baffled to see a group of herd boys stopping the bus while carrying a trussed up goat and sheep. They got on and paid their fares while the goat and sheep were tossed into the luggage space underneath. For weeks after , I’m sure that I saw sheep wandering around the mountains looking for their mate.
In general the 170km bus journey to Maseru took some 8 hours on a tarmac road, slightly longer than a six hour journey in a taxi minibus which holds 14 but takes 16. The disadvantage of these is that all movement in the legs stops after 4 hours. There is also the problem of fellow passengers. I was once sharing a seat with someone who seemed determined to get drunk, to communicate to me in French and to share his favourite tipple which was Amaretto and milk!
2. Teacher Training Courses DO work!
I only managed to deliver five courses this year from 20 which had been scheduled. All of these were smaller in numbers than when the 2019 teacher strike was on as teachers were in schools. The positives were that the attendees seemed to be the more confident maths teachers and that what they had gained last year was understood and being implemented. There’s a sense of friendship and trust. They know that I’m not trying to belittle them but also that I have to question approaches and sometimes expose weaknesses or misconceptions. This time the teachers were far more willing to raise issues, ask for a wider range of topics and best of all to take part in modelling how they would teach. Some of the real positives came from the courses run in more rural, outreach areas. We’re talking about three hour journey on gravel roads. What seems to be happening is that the input they have had, has been implemented because they were never sure if they would see a teacher trainer again. To hear the confidence they displayed and the examples they gave, where children understand and more importantly enjoying their maths was very humbling. I think there are signs that teachers understanding what my approach to training is all about - shared experience, learning as you’re doing, trying new things and putting what you learn into your own lessons. They like the stories interwoven around introductions like fractions and ratio. Another thing which goes down well is using resources. What was refreshing this time was that the resources used were nearly all made in Lesotho, quite often the day before and in some cases during the course as we were going on.
The big difference is that you don’t have photocopying and whiteboards and fancy equipment. Everything you make or use has to have longevity. There’s no use making something you’ll use once. The last course I ran in the rural area of Katse at the end of the session it was open questions and one teacher wanted to know how rotational and reflection could be taught. The plastic backed co-ordinate grid was made but using a poly-pocket split up we had a ready-made tracing paper effect to show the different transformations. I think they liked the fact that we were thinking on our feet.
3. I like being alone!
The initial part of my Lesotho placements over the last two years has been a 5/6 week period on my own. To be honest I love it. Maybe it’s a throwback to being away at school from the age of 10 but my own time and space is just so precious. Of course it wouldn’t be the same without social media and good internet access. The WhatsApp talks I have with my partner Claudia and son Gabes each day is really crucial. Likewise one of the big benefits of working with Dolen is the family support network. Every time I felt a bit low or lonely I knew I could chat to Sharon, Mandy or Vicki.
What I love about being on my own is routine, what I’m surprised about is that for a naturally slothful, lazy git I’m hardly ever bored. The first thing to understand is that even though I like doing nothing, that usually happens when I’m rushed off my feet so the idea of lazing around becomes something to aim for. In Lesotho I think I’m busy from when I get up at around 6 until I finish at the school mainly between 12 and 2. From then on my main concern was to keep occupied. What I found out was that without other people around I could set up a pretty rigid day. Maybe call in to a High School to arrange the next day’s visit. Sit in garden and read for the last hour or so of the sunshine. Shop for fresh veg and then prepare food. Prepare the next day’s lessons and phone calls home. Read my book for an hour and if there was football watch a game from 10 to midnight. All premiership games were on and Saturday and Sunday was built around a walk, reading, prep and a game or two. The walk on the weekend was usually around 4 hours up the mountains and around 10-12km.
Yes there are times that a bit of company would be fun. Making meals and washing up afterwards took a lot longer than eating them. That said sometimes it was nice to just sit back and think in splendid isolation. I’ve joked before about sitting in different seats and having a conversation with myself, overall solitude is something that we should try in the UK a little bit of self-reflection. Out of all of this experience what I’ve realised is that TV is too easy to switch on at home, reading is a lot of fun (I read a book a week), the internet just wastes your time. I enjoyed my visits from Basotho colleagues, I also enjoyed the time I had with Welsh visitors but the weeks on my own calmed me.
4. Student teachers are the future
This is the first year that I’ve done a significant amount of work with High Schools. In all I worked in four schools with varying degrees of success. Initially I think there was a tendency to be wary of me from maths teachers. Was I going to criticise them? Was the visit some sort of scheme? The basic premise of expanding the visits to High Schools had started from a meeting with some of their maths teachers last year at the Education Office. Alongside this we had run a High School course in Leribe which was attended by around 50 teachers which had been successful. Going into the High schools was more problematic as timetables were fixed and also my remit was not to spook the teachers. To this end I decided that if a teacher was unsure about me joining them I wouldn’t force the issue. Overall I saw good teaching, a little fixed in approach with a lack of variety in presentations. There was little use of resources and overall it tended to be telling not showing how to do things. The pace was slow and in a lesson I guess a Welsh class would have done the same in half the time. That said most of the classes were 60+ and I’d love to see Estyn do their judgements in the same way.
The main work I did in terms of modelling good teaching practice was with a young student teacher. I was at Ntaote High school when she came up and said I’d given them a course at college last year and would I help her with some resources? Even though other teachers had looked for some input and support this was a completely different approach. What was interesting was that it forced me to watch what was happening and then go back through her plans asking what she wanted to do and working out if a resource might help the learning. I learnt as much as she did and it was lovely to actually be involved in some planning, team teaching and then some review. Without doubt this is the future, the youngsters want to be better teachers, they want to more quality education than what they had. The positives from this are that nearly all the resources made and used worked, she developed a style of delivery which was different. Watching the classes respond was also instructive. To be honest a lot of these children had been taught by me last year so knew my approach, but they were engaged, vocal and interested.
5. Vince the visitor
This year I had visitors as always. Part of the Dolen team included two Primary Head teachers: Ceri and Anthony also Gwawr, a Foundation phase teacher. Later fellow Maths volunteer Ann visited for a brief virus interrupted spell. My stay also coincided with a brief visit by an old friend Vince James who was on a solo trip to Kwazulu Natal and decided that Lesotho would be an interesting detour. Now Vince is a dour looking bloke. Deadpan address, monosyllabic answers and about as independent a guy as I know. He and I worked in the Local Education Authority team together and recently we’ve met up a few times for a chat and a coffee. Vince has an adventurous spirit so even at 70 he was driving solo over the Sani Pass (not an easy feat). Looking at his photos of the road made me wince, I’d done a similar journey to Sehonghong but not the steepness. What made me laugh were the constant messages with an optimistic ‘be there in an hour roads have improved’ followed by ‘maybe three hours on gravel roads again’.
We’d chatted a bit about the visit and as in all cases where I’m sharing time with someone I sort of know I thought I’d have to fill up the day so that there weren’t those long gaps in conversation. Like Niall Thomas last year - I misjudged it. Vince was really easy to get on with. We walked/hiked had a lot of fun wandering in downtown Thaba Tseka. He liked the food, the people and what Dolen are doing. It was refreshing to hear from a new visitor that he could see the value of what was being done. In his visit we also had two big events to attend. Thaba Tseka primary where I was based two years ago had delayed the St David’s day celebrations so that Vince could see it. In the event we walked up and were treated to a brilliant hour long assembly with each class doing a small presentation. Vince had brought a Welsh flag and after the celebrations we were then immersed in the usual staff celebrations with student teachers wrapped up in Lesotho and Welsh flags, kids singing, staff dancing. These people know how to have a good time.
The next day we were invited to LCE the College of Education to be guests of honour in a celebration Disability Day. Mme Loke had been to Wales last summer and one of her actions on returning was to promote a Global Goal on equal opportunities. We were given prime seats and then sat through some 4 hours of dancing, singing, sketches and poetry. The highlight was the female lecturers dancing cheered on by a mass of the nicest students you could imagine. You look at these young adults and realise what a beautiful community they have. A visit to Morija at the end ended Vince’s stay. We walked to the top of the ridge, visited Thaba Bosiu and became a snack for every mosquito at the lodge!
6. New technology isn’t always better
Every previous year the Lesotho Visa/immigration system was a pretty straightforward process. In Thaba Tseka you went to the Education Office got a letter stating you were working, went to the police got a stamped note saying you were in the area went to the hospital to have a full medical - including X ray on chest. Incidentally if you were female you had to take your bra off! Then you went to immigration had it all filed and a stamp in your passport. Last year I didn’t have to go to the hospital as the lady in immigration was so shocked I’d returned that she stamped it there and then. I think I was teaching her child! This year I went to the office to be faced by a locked door and then started a forlorn journey looking for permission to stay in the country. No luck in Thaba Tseka, Lesotho immigration has upgraded to the 21st century. Immigration now means an online application, payment of £160 and a bureaucratic nightmare of getting photocopies stamped and a whole biometric process.
Everything involves going to Maseru - which means bus journeys. To cut it short the online was impossible, the process was stressful. Without Dolen’s in-country manager Mr Manyanye there - my man in Maseru -it would have been impossible. To be faced with queues which aren’t queues, being moved from pillar to post, not knowing if I’d end up as a ‘Sting song’ (an illegal alien) put in Thaba Tseka prison. Out of it all a lovely young office worker helped me out enormously and virtually did the online stuff there. I think from my conversation with her that the staff were also finding the process stressful.
7. Welsh Head teachers visit
I knew both Ceri and Anthony from my time with Carmarthenshire LEA. I was adviser at Anthony’s appointment as Deputy in around 2000. They were great company and the visit with Ceri’s wife Gwawr was a major success. To start with I met them at Mantsonyane Guest house and made sure that Anthony’s transport was in place for a visit to his link Auray Primary school. I then jumped a lift with the others to Thaba Tseka - I’m not sure if Ceri and Gwawr expected a traditional Basotho rondavel with outside toilet but I got a sense of relief when they saw the chalet at Mohal oa Masite Guesthouse.
The visit to Katlehong Primary school the next day was immensely colourful, traditional Seshsoeshoe dresses, dances, traditional costumes. Anthony had the whole community out in Auray the day before. The first week was full on, seeing, talking to people and helping to teach. Anthony made the mistake of telling Auray staff that he’d never been on a horse. The last day Clint Eastwood Stevenson was six feet up in a Basotho blanket surrounded by kids on donkeys. Ceri and Gwawr made the elementary mistake of keeping quiet at meal times. I always say I’m vegetarian - result Ceri and Gwawr struggle through eating a sheep’s intestine meanwhile I breeze through spinach, pap and beans!! Picking up Anthony on the last day of the first week was interesting, he met me outside Bocheletsana School and had all his baggage - we swapped places with some people on the minibus but after around 6km the taxi which had taken the people off the bus was rushing up flashing lights. The people had left a bag on the minibus. Actually the bag was on my lap as I’d assumed it was Anthony’s! Talk about guilt!! The weekend involved walking and some chats with children as we were in the mountains. It was lovely to see my own feelings about these people reflected in the visitors eyes.
The second week was preparation for a shared learning conference on Sustainable Development Goal 4 – Quality Education; prepping the local teachers making sure our inputs blended and then ensuring that the event itself hit the issues that we wanted. Two journeys up to Bocheletsana, Anthony and I did there and back by bus and minibus which was interesting, Ceri and Gwawr shared a 4 and 1 with the Basotho teachers. I have to say they merged well, Anthony and I went to get some printing done and he ended up training a young entrepreneur on how to print page 2 only, how to print in black and white rather than colour. The guy was beaming having a free lesson. Anthony was full of admiration - he had an old computer, an inkjet printer in a corrugated iron shack but at least he was out there trying to make something of himself. The last day was time for gifts for the visitors. Anthony and Ceri now have traditional shirts to wear to the next Head teacher meetings at Carmarthen, Gwawr was parading around in a beautiful Seshoeshoe dress. I’ll finish off by saying that they were fun to have around, mixed well and I’m sure left the country with an immense sense of belonging.
8. Reflections and closure
To start with I worry about Lesotho in the current COVID-19 situation. High level of HIV with the accompanying low immune system is the first concern. No infrastructure of hospital beds. Winter arriving in a month or so and lastly poor media and information systems. The Basotho response is to pray, you can see there are concerns not only for the virus and consequential deaths but also for the country. Lancers Inn and other lodges were being closed. Jobs at stake, no bailouts here. Schoolchildren missing out on education for a second year. For my part I was expecting this to be my last year, it won’t be. There is still a lot I want to do and every time I get here I find new things that could be supported. There’s the potential to help student teachers by creating a model classroom in one of the primary schools. There’s building on the input to High schools and developing ideas on transition. There’s the potential of courses in the remote outreach areas. There’s a string of courses to be run in Maseru District with local lead teachers and now friends. What I’ve realised is that there is no closure. When you invest time and effort into a community like Thaba Tseka there’s no getting out. I may not do a five month spell again but until I’m unable to do anything worthwhile I’ll be going to Lesotho.
Sion Watkins, 26th March 2020