Friday, October 24, 2008

Moving on...

What a week it’s been for me. I am happy to report that the environment at work has been better than expected after the “trial” I previously wrote about. I worried that the judgment and negative attitudes from my colleagues would further isolate me from others in the office, making it impossible for me to work. Yet somehow, even the day after everything was laid out on the table, things seemed strangely normal and unaffected. I even had the chance to get to know some coworkers outside the office this week, while on field visits to our completed sites which hopefully started to break down soe of the barriers. Seeing the houses also reminded me of why I love this kind of work and why it’s important for me to come to work every day, despite what happened. If only I could remind my team of the importance of our work, maybe it could bring us together somehow. My hopes are that by the time I leave Lesotho, I will be able to honestly feel that I have formed some kind of friendship or at least some understanding with a few of my coworkers. We’ll see.

Despite the heavy issues from last week, I still want to share my travel experiences from the past month, which included a weekend in Jo’Burg with a few girlfriends and another in Cape Town with my guy.

The Jo’Burg visit was a nice R&R and included great food, some window shopping, and even a visit to the famed Saxon Hotel Spa for my very first facial!! We stayed at a very cute B&B in a cool part of town called Melville and enjoyed a little taste of civilization. Turns out, we unintentionally visited during ‘South Africa Pride Week,’ which meant catching some of the parade, seeing some outrageous costumes, and getting to know some of Africa’s proudest and boldest pretty-young-things. It was a great trip overall and just a quick 4-hour drive away. It’s close enough to go for a weekend but not too close that I’ll go all the time. Kinda like the DC-to-NY thing. Good to know for when I actually start earning these breaks!

A week later, Jeremy and I escaped to Cape Town for his 1st visit and my 4th (but who’s counting?). We had such a fabulous weekend, starting off with a trip to one of the region’s infamous winelands, Franschhoek, a quaint town with gorgeous rolling hills, amazing vineyards, and too many good restaurants to pick from.

We started the visit with a wine tasting (of course) and ended it the same way, with some great seafood, strolling, and cheese- tasting squeezed in between. My favorite wine was the brut sparkling at a vineyard called La Haute Cabriere (did I mention this was a former French settlement?), where the owner served us samples of bubbly after demonstrating the ancient art of sauvrage, in which the bottle’s top, cork intact, is quickly sliced off with a giant saber!

Next we headed into the city and managed to grab lunch at my favorite Indian snack shop (ok, the only one I know outside India!) just before catching the last cable car up Table Mountain for an amazing sunset view of the entire city. Despite Jeremy’s slight fear of heights, we did manage to get one picture of us on top of the mountain… pretty close to the edge!

Afterwards, while driving down the winding road, we accidentally came upon one of the coolest neighborhoods in Cape Town: Camps Bay, a beachside hotspot located right on the steep hills below the mountain and packed with lively bars and great restaurants. We stopped long enough for a few margaritas and some sushi before checking out Long Street, the hub of the city’s nightlife—perfect for a late night bar crawl. On our walk home later on, with a growling stomach and thoughts of 'giant slice' and Manoosh on my mind (GWU readers know what I’m talking about), I kept my eyes peeled for some late-night snack options. Disappointingly, the only option we came upon was a boerworst sausage stand. Not what I had in mind, but when in Rome....

On our last day, we headed to the airport only to realize that ‘Mango Airlines’ had sneakily pre-poned our return flight without telling me, leaving us stranded in the airport most of the day. Regardless, it was still a wonderful trip to one of my favorite places out there. Something tells me there may be a 5th…

Friday, October 17, 2008

Reality Check

Today I had planned to put up a post about my recent weekend getaways—to JoBurg and Cape Town, full of pampering, adventure, and great food. But my day at work yesterday turned out to be truly eye-opening and at the same time one of the most difficult personal experiences I’ve had to deal with out here and I just couldn’t possibly write about something superficial with such a heavy heart right now. So here goes…

In my previous post, I briefly touched on my work environment. To summarize, it’s a small office with just 12 or so staff, mostly Basotho. I am the only non-African here. I was hired for a communications and fundraising position that has me writing proposals, editing donor reports, and developing communications materials targeted to our international (mostly US and European) donor base. I got the job after responding to an ad in our local paper and came in for an interview just like any other candidate. My offer was very much on a local salary scale with no benefits package. Not the most enticing offer I’ve ever received, but the job sounded fun and I thought I could enjoy it will doing something meaningful for the community here.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the uprising that my arrival caused. Granted the staff here had a laundry-list of other grievances unrelated to me but somehow my hiring added fuel to the fire. On the outside, people were friendly to me in the office and I had been enjoying my first month. Although most staff speak in Sesotho, all of out meetings, reporting, and email communications are in English (prior to my arrival), and as I said, my job does not require Sesotho language skills, so language was not a problem.

It all erupted in a memo written sent to the higher-ups before I began the job and signed by all but one staff, just the day after I started. I did not know about the memo or their issues with me until I found myself sitting in a room with everyone (including a board member and two HR reps from our regional office) in an ‘emergency meeting’ held yesterday. In fact, at first I was told it didn’t involve me and my presence was not required. But there I was—sitting among my colleagues, completely oblivious to the extent of their anger, frustration, and judgment. The meeting ran like a trial, led by the pastor-like board chairman who spoke in a booming voice not to be reckoned with. He addressed each point in great detail and with honorable neutrality and seriousness, inserting anecdotes and proverbs, as the Basotho tend to do.

It was all new to me. Among benefits and office policy-related complaints were several points aimed directly at me. As a seemingly unified front, nearly all of my colleagues questioned my hiring, my salary and the type of contract I have (which of course should be confidential and as I said, is not above a local scale anyway). There were complaints about imagined preferences or benefits I receive, and worst of all they openly disapproved my lack of Sesotho skills for a communications role. In other words, they made outright judgments about my qualifications and assumptions about me, all of which were made before they knew me!

I was truly shocked. Disappointed. Saddened. ANGRY! Up until that point I had kept my mouth shut, knowing I had nothing to do with the discussion, the memo, and the complaints, but I couldn’t hold back anymore. With my heart racing, I asked for a chance to speak. I reminded everyone that I applied and competed for the position just like anyone else and was selected by a panel that decided if I was qualified. I reminded them that my job does not require Sesotho language skills and was not a hiring requirement. I told them that this was the first time in my life that I had started a job and had faced the judgment of all my colleagues in this way. My voice was shaky and I was already feeling emotional about it. The chairman interrupted me and said there was no need to defend myself. You are protected, he told me. He scolded the group for their outright discrimination towards me, reminding them how hard Lesotho and South Africa has fought to overcome this kind of thing. He shared a story about his university days in the UK, fighting for what he believed in and accepting others. It took a lot of effort to hold myself together.

Here I was, sacrificing so much to be here and try to learn something new, open myself up without judgment to anyone, and I am so outwardly insulted, judged, and discriminated against. But I have to remember that gratitude and acceptance are unrealistic myths for overseas volunteers and development workers. What we do is thankless and hard work. We do it because we believe in it, not because we will be thanked or recognized. And as I’ve heard from Basotho, many of them see foreigners coming here as a bad thing, us taking away their jobs. Now factor in post-apartheid sentiments and deep-rooted attitudes about race and you can’t even imagine how emotional and angry people can get about these things.

So I am forced to take a deep breath and remind myself that this is not about me. Their complaints and these issues were here long before I arrived (and even before I was born) and as demonstrated yesterday, they most likely aren’t going away any time soon. So the best I can do is move forward with as much grace and composure as I can muster up and do my job the best I can, hopefully helping to neutralize the environment in some way—and if not, then I will just have to take this experience as a life lesson to grow stronger from.

One of my best friends from home gave me this reassuring advice yesterday:

Great people throughout history have had to face down all sorts of animosity in their work/social/school environments. Don't be angry at the individuals. Be annoyed with all the aspects of history that gave rise to the situation.

Take the blows, but maintain your composure and good-spiritedness. Channel Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Obama, and all the amazing people who were/are calm under the most intense scrutiny and pressure.

So I take a deep breath and look at the big picture. People have endured worse and I will get through this.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Chapter 2

There are those changes in life that ease in slowly, one-by-one, until all of a sudden one day you wake up and realize you are living in a whole new chapter. Sometimes (and hopefully not too often) these changes are for the worse, but other times things just keep getting better as time passes and you wake up realizing that you are truly content. And those are the big changes in life that separate time, as you look back and see it as ‘life before XX’ or ‘life after XX.’

Well, that’s how I feel now, living in Lesotho: Part II. With a new house that already feels like home, a wonderful companion to live and grow with, new friendships with people who I know I’ll keep around for a long time, and now (finally!) a new job, things are really looking up and the only thing left to worry about is just enjoying myself.

Backing up a bit… a few weeks ago I started a new long-term job working with an international housing organization that does work in Lesotho. And while it’s not necessarily my ‘dream job’ and I’m getting by on a local salary, I have to say the work itself provides a good balance of structure and creativity and I can see myself enjoying it while I’m out here. I am the only foreigner in our small office, which means not understanding a lot of the office chit-chat and also learning about a whole new way of working and communicating. I sometimes find myself thinking, ‘This would never happen in DC,' or ‘She could have never gotten away with that back home,’ and I have to stop myself— because this isn’t DC and I’m not back home. People have different attitudes towards authority here, workplace expectations are much different, and people don’t always sugar-coat things the way they do in our diplomatic and P.C. workplaces back home.

I get along well with my colleagues, but at the same time, in a country with a nearly 45% unemployment rate, there can be a sense of bitterness or resentment here towards foreigners coming in and "taking jobs" from Basotho. I understand that perspective and certainly didn't move here to take away people's jobs, but bottom line: there is work that needs to be done and limited capacity. I have been lucky enough to receive a great education and great work experience that I hope can help contribute to work being done here. Many of the most highly skilled Basotho receive training overseas and feel no incetntive to return to Lesotho to work. It's a much bigger problem than I can begin to tackle. But the truth is that in some ways I may have been judged before I entered the door. It hasn't been a perfectly seamless adjustment and in some ways I have to work extra hard to win trust or get onto neutral ground, but I like it so far despite the challenges. Sure, I'll be left out of some inside jokes at the office, and some basic systems just aren’t in place that I could not have imagined working without in my previous job. But maybe I’ll learn more by having less to work with than I did in my previous corporate world of manuals, systems, and jargon.

So that's my life right now. I've got my home, my friends, a regular 9-5 (actually 8-5 out here), and a few things in between. I didn't think I'd say it, but there's something to be said for stability and a daily routine-- even in the least likely places. So here I am, starting what I will always look back at and remember as “my 2nd chapter in Lesotho” and I’m really looking forward to seeing how things turn out.