Thursday, December 17, 2009



I am finding it particularly hard to relate to anything resembling Christmas as we move into summer here. The school kids are on summer break, people are on summer vacations visiting their families, and the weather is warm/hot. There is no advertising telling me about all the things I need to be buying for people, there are no stores with Santa Claus ringing bells and no Christmas music. In other words, it is quite peaceful.

A number of things have come into fruition over the past months. I have trained nearly 200 Basotho people in Grief Counseling. These groups have included Village Health Workers, Baylor Clinic staff, youth leaders, and NGO and government staff. Every training has been unique and wonderfully rewarding. I have learned so much about the culture because a component of the training is to examine the cultural practices and norms around grief. The gender roles are quite marked with women and men having very prescribed and different ways of handling it. Participants are also noticing a difference between the older more traditional people and the younger people, and some differences are arising between the rural and city people. Also as newer Christian faiths enter into the culture, these people are less likely to follow the very traditional pre-Christian Basotho traditions. Traditions include the widows wearing only black clothing for 6 months to a year, and widows not being able to work in the fields while they are in their grieving period. The widows must sit on the floor until the body is buried, and one of the female family members must sit with her and tell the story of the death over and over again to every visitor. Widows are not able to engage in sexual activity for a year and for men it is one month. The burial feasts include the killing of a cow (which is very expensive) to help guide the body into its next life. Witch doctors and black magic are still a strong part of the culture here, so often when someone becomes ill, fingers are pointed at the wife, the neighbors, or a “jealous” family member as a cause of the illness. So the impending death is never acknowledged as this would indicate that you wanted the person to die and you could become a target of suspicion. Everyone agrees that children are almost completely left out of the process. After the burial, if the children are orphaned, the adult relatives gather and may then begin dividing up the children, deciding whose home they should go to. This is never discussed in advance and the children are never consulted. Children are not thought of as people who have many feelings about the losses in their lives. They are expected to get on with their chores, their school work and their new life. It they are found to be crying, they are typically told to get over it and may be shamed out of it. Lesotho has an (unofficial) estimated 400,000 single or double orphans (in a total country population of 1.8 million) so the burden of more children on already stressed families leaves the children especially vulnerable. The double orphans receive assistance from the government for some living expenses and school fees. But because of the very high unemployment here, many single-parent families have no one earning any money. Primary school is now free but starting in grade 8 the kids have to pay for school, so many children have to drop-out at that point due to lack of finances. With AIDS continuing to ravage the country you can see how fragile the traditional family is becoming.

I have been impressed with how open and willing the training participants have been to embrace new ideas about the psychology of grief, the importance of grieving, and how to assist children in their grief. Often the members get in touch with their own unresolved grief and finish the three week training with a much deeper appreciation for the benefits of the grieving process. Tears, laughter and jubilation have been shared in these trainings.

The five school libraries have mostly been launched. Although this has all seemed to move slower than molasses, (we are on Basotho time) it does appear that they will be a functioning part of the schools for the new school year. A big component of the success of this, is training the teachers how to use the libraries. This is something that we take for granted, but in fact, many of the teachers have never been around a library so are afraid or just unfamiliar in how to apply it with the students. Four new libraries will be established this spring as another shipment comes from friends and the African Library Project.

Two grassroots projects were funded by friends and family through the Peace Corps Partnership Project. These are both now launched with the Seeds for Orphans receiving $2500 worth of seeds to plant, and the Alter Boys Chicken Raising at $750 providing 100 chickens to raise and sell. Both of these are planned to benefit orphans and create income generation for years to come. Hooray!

My joy over the past 18 months has been the darling younger border children who live at the mission. My sorrow is that their housing has been closed so they will not be returning this next year. Prior to their departure, I arranged a day of games for the 20 of them, playing pin the tail on the donkey, three-legged relay race, egg- in- spoon relay race, blind pairs racing (picture that!), dodge ball and others. In the end, they all gathered in a circle and did their wonderful traditional dancing. It was great fun!

The next few weeks will be a whirlwind of visitors. Nephew Kris from Alaska will be the driver as we tour the dramatic Maloti and Drakensberg Mountains of Lesotho and S.Africa, spending Christmas in a beautiful mountain valley in S.Africa. New Year’s Eve will be spent with friend Rebecca and her 30 year old daughter. We will attend the midnight mass at my mission church and saturate ourselves in the gorgeous music of the Basotho people.