THE JOY OF BEING CATHOLIC
I admire the Catholics in Lesotho for knowing how to throw a party! Lesotho has a population of 1.8 million and 70% of them are Catholic. The nuns throughout Lesotho still wear the veil- one of the few places in the world (I am told) that still do so. There are some nice perks that go along with this visible status. The general public treats the nuns with respect, appreciation, reverence, and deference. For example, if their van breaks down, which is not uncommon, there will always be a kind man to stop and help. The overall advantage is that they will always have “three hots and a cot”. In fact in some circles, they are criticized for their obesity and subsequent health complications. But extra poundage here is seen as a sign of abundance and comfort. “Sister” status equals life long security. While interviewing some of the younger nuns, I was surprised to hear their not-so-spiritual reasons for entering nundom – such as fear of AIDS, disinterest in marriage, and fear of economic conditions. Some others, of course, feel a deep calling to service and to God. But service does not seem to be a strong driving force for many of these women and priests. Once comfortably tucked into their missions, they really don’t need to put too much attention on the everyday struggles of the common man. Much attention and resources appear to go into preparing for celebrations and funerals, workshops for other sisters, international travel for developing management skills, and maintaining the infrastructure they have. Of course, there are individuals who use their influence and status to reach into the communities, to support and employ the poor, to feed and house orphans, to teach the handicapped and many other inspiring projects.
But, aside from all of these judgments, I immensely enjoyed one of the biggest Catholic parties yet. The occasion was the ordination of a new bishop for our Leribe District. He also happens to be the cousin of one of our clinic nurses, so we felt intimately involved in the lengthy step-by-step build-up to the final ceremony. This grand ceremony was held in an outdoor stadium and I would guess that there were several thousand people attending. Besides the school children, every nun and priest who could get there attended, and all 10 district bishops. There were also the Prime Minister and the King. Much pomp and circumstance (and security!) surrounded the arrival of the Big-Guns to include pretty black cars with flashing lights, and men in black suits and sunglasses. But after the King and PM were seated in full view on stage, they became part of the backdrop to the real show.
Religious services are much more active here than in most U.S. churches. Here, whenever the choir sings, the audience rises and claps and dances. Often times there is a drum to pound out the beat for everyone. This all seems like a good way to keep the audience awake, as most services can go for four hours. But this ceremony remained lively, with performances by children, “clowns” (different than we think of them), and traditional dancers. Front and center through the entire celebration was a couple in traditional clothing – he with his brief animal skins and she with her short leather skirt and err, nothing else.
The climax of the ceremony was just after the new bishop received his “big hat”. People were bursting with happiness and relief. Spontaneously hundreds and maybe thousands of nuns jumped up and danced into the center. The priests danced down the stairs from the stage. Ululating and song filled the air, tears were flowing, and in this moment, the world was filled with joy. It was so thrilling and touching to see so many thousands of people joined in such playfulness and celebration.
Lesotho is paying much more attention to early childhood development and therefore more and more “crèche” or pre-school classes are forming. Not all schools have them but many do. These classes are paid for by the parents as the costs are not included in the free primary school education. Of course the problem with this is that many of these teachers end-up not being paid as the parents don’t follow-through with their commitments. In spite of this, there are many wonderful women who are dedicated to spending their days with these children teaching them all the things that four and five year olds should be learning to prepare them for first grade. But the classrooms are sadly very poor in materials. They often have no posters on the walls, no learning/teaching materials and no books. The toys consist of cast-off food containers and milk cartons. But as all children, they are creative, resourceful and always find ways to entertain themselves.
Graduation from Creche is a big deal here and I have attended two graduation ceremonies this past week. The children wear caps and gowns, representatives from the education department show up and give speeches, the kids shake hands and receive diplomas and then (of course) there is a feast. The parents pay for all of this – renting or buying the gowns, the food, the transport. It is wonderful to encourage the children by celebrating this advancement, but I do feel concerned that so much of their limited resources are going into things like gowns and feasts when resources for the classrooms are so scarce.
Over the past few months I have been involved in getting my five new libraries off the ground, supporting the two high school youth groups, spending time with a 5th grade class for reading skills, and continuing to give my Grief Trainings. I am actually finding that I have started networking and marketing myself so I can keep giving these trainings. I have given three trainings to 75 people in Maseru (NGO and governmental agency representatives) and have trained 40 village health workers in my community area. I am scheduled to give a series to the Baylor Clinic staff as a next step. It feels so “right” to be giving these trainings as there is such a need for people to understand the grieving process and healthy ways to deal with it. Typically what happens here is that once the burial has occurred, the emotional process of the grief goes completely underground and no one has a healthy outlet for their feelings. The children are especially neglected in this process. They are not told anything about the adult’s illness, have no opportunity to say “good-by”, and are often then suddenly uprooted and sent to another home and school. The adults in their lives have no skills to speak to the children about their feelings and often the kids just go on with life, acting as if nothing has happened. And the stigma of AIDS complicates it all even more. Also there is the undercurrent of belief in witchcraft and spells that can kill people. So when someone dies, suspicion may be cast on the wife (never the husband), or the “jealous” neighbor – all these things make it more difficult on the children to receive clear and healing messages. Although the current but outdated statistic for the number of orphans in Lesotho claims 180,000, officials are speculating that there are actually 400,000 (about 40% of the children have lost one of both parents). So, it seems that I will never run out of people who can use this training if I can just get the word out.
I enjoyed the two week visit from friend Jozeffa from Sacramento. She spent her time entirely focused on experiencing Lesotho. Besides spending some days with her primary school library (where she helped raise funds and books through the African Library Project), we visited a couple of beautiful sites in Lesotho, attended a cultural festival and enjoyed the children at my site. It is so delightful to share this experience with others and Jozeffa embraced it all with gusto (and her harmonica which entertained many!)
I am entering my 18th month here and soon my PCV group will be the “seniors” as the group ahead of us is in the process of departing . Many of us are now on peace corps committees which keep our corner of the world running. Our country director left for an assignment to Uganda and hasn’t been replaced. Our very new Assistant Country Director is performing the jobs of three, we are missing a nurse and a couple of office assistants, and the largest group of education volunteers ever (30) is arriving next week. Somehow, the wheels keep turning and the “peace” in Peace Corps stays alive.