Eric Thomson 1 of 2

10/24/99

Hello from the roof of Africa! As we slip into the long pleasant days of Spring/Summer, our thoughts naturally turn to those of you destined to winter over in the northern hemisphere. My wife Lynn and I have finished training at Roma and are posted at the Farmer Training Center at Qacha’s Nek. After our careers in innkeeping, furniture making and archeology, etc., we are delighted to be advisors in small business start-ups, carpentry, English as a second language and farmer education. This is a third Peace Corps stint for me and a second for Lynn (Burkina Faso 68-70, Phillipines together, 87-89). I thought I’d share a few early impressions after a month in the Drackensburg Mountains.

You were right. Lesotho is visually stunning, particularly now with the start of the rains (and thunder!). We seem to be getting good, soaking moisture once or twice a week in the last month. We’re busy planting here at the model farm. Our students, both boys and girls, ages 16-22, used a team of oxen this week to plow gardens and fields here. After years of travelling the developing world, we are enthralled in Lesotho by the numbers of tractors and oxen teams practicing contour farming across the country. There is soil erosion. There are serious dongas (gullies), but there is also much to be hopeful about. We have peaches growing in our small front yard as do thousands of other village families in the mountain kingdom. It’s the last thing we expected to see.

Despite a few concerns around the anniversary of the 1998 trouble, the country has been calm and Peace Corps is hard at work rebuilding it’s program. We have a new country director, Carol Chappel, who arrived in June. She was a PCV in Russia (!) and was also country director in Ethiopia before the pull-out. She has been busy visiting volunteers at their sites (she pays us a visit next week) and is actively involved in training. Volunteer morale seems good. I might note that our female U.S. ambassador is also a former PCV. If you’re a tea-leaf reader, it doesn’t get much better than this. Many of us will be having Thanksgiving at the embassy. Another training group will be coming in-country about that time.

We had a thatched rondeval dinner party last night for the 10 or so vols in this district. We rolled tortillas with bottles and had a fabulous Mexican Peace Corps meal, minus the salsa, but with avacados. We ate by candlelight and paraffin lamps and traipsed down the hill to the outhouse through a rainy night. But what conversation and camaraderie. It’s always remarkable to me to see how full life can be with so little.

I’ll try to write from time to time, and should you want to post these messages on the Friends of Lesotho web site, that would be fine. Re thabile and best wishes,

Eric Thomson, Lesotho PCV


12/15/99

Hello Friends!

Hello from Lesotho! Living at Qacha’s Nek at 7,000 we’re blessed this early summer with plentiful rain. Our valley and surrounding mountains are green with grass. This morning we awakened at 5:00 A.M. (no daylight savings in Lesotho/South Africa) to clear, sunny skies. The morning is a good time to work on outdoor projects at the school weed the garden and do laundry. By mid-afternoon the first huge cumulous clouds are building, the thunder is rumbling in from RSA and our daily downpour is in the offing. Many of these storms are show stoppers. We’ve had lightening strikes blow out lights in our little house, so we now tend to light the kerosene lamp, turn off the juice and revel in these wondrous storms. Our personal and school gardens are thriving and a major problem here at our Farmer Training Center is how to keep an acre of lawn from overwhelming us. We have a gasoline weedwacker, but staked out cows and horses may be our best hope. Potato and corn fields are doing really well. At home, Lynn and I are eating fresh red leaf lettuce at every meal except breakfast. We also have loads of cilantro coming from the garden and fresh peas. We can get tomatoes and avocados and purple onion from RSA, so these heavenly salads are a source of major smiles. Our own tomatoes have set fruit carrots, squash, corn and potatoes look good. It’s a wonderful climate for green thumbs!

This morning we hopped in our truck and drove two miles to the South Africa border. We crossed over with the usual courteous treatment from Lesotho and South Africa officials, parked our truck a little ways down the road and hiked off to photograph wildflowers. What a treat. Calla lilies grow wild here, plus a profusion of mystery flowers at which we can only marvel. One particular beauty looks like a cross between a Bird of Paradise and a penstemon. Iridescent green bee-eater birds were feeding in the red blossoms. We counted twenty varieties of flowers, some of which have clear links to North American species (asters, etc.), but many new to us and a pure pleasure to discover.

Sadly, the lower elevations of Lesotho are parched this year. The country’s population centers are bone dry. (As I write this at 3:00 P.M., torrents (!) of rain are pelting the farm office’s corrugated root Deafening. But always welcome.) During a recent visit to Mohale’s Hoek FTC, we were shocked to see that the only water available for the whole farm and school was a small water tank on wheels that is refilled once-a-week We hear through the grapevine that Peace Corps is assisting in drilling a well at the FTC, so they won t be dependent on the town’s exhausted system. This should be a huge blessing. We keep our fingers crossed. Maseru did have rain this past week, so there’s hope the drought may subside, but it’s getting very late for planting…

Good news. Lynn and I were in Maseru for a Thanksgiving feast at CD Carol Chappel’s home. Great indulgent day of overeating and lounging on Carol’s lawn with serial desserts and PCV friends. It was our first time into the capitol since September and the rebuilding projects give the city a much healthier feel. The new Lesotho Hat (which was burned to the ground) is nearing completion and is first-rate. The area around the OK Bazaar supermarket is nearly restored and new businesses are opening. It’s quite a transformation and , coming from a small business background, always a compelling sight to see people risk capital with a capital “R” for risk. Downtown looks and feels pretty busy again.

We’ve got 90 broiler chickens set to finish for the local Christmas market here in Qacha’s. Our 150 meter school garden water tap project is completed and students are watering their plots with hoses. This beats hauling water from a remote faucet in two leaky water cans. Our carpentry shop is hurrying to finish cabinet projects before the summer break starts next week And Lynn is wrapping up her English and small business classes for the term. Life has its ups and downs here, but for us, it’s a beautiful time of year in the mountains and we’re contented PCV’s. We expect to spend New Year’s Day 2000 right at home. Best wishes to all in the new century!

Eric Thomson and Lynn Forbes


1/31/00

Dear Friends of Lesotho,

Eric and Lynn
Eric and Lynn

Hello from Lesotho. In the Drackensberg mountains, these are the most pleasurable days of the year. We hear on VOA radio about snowstorms in Washington – but we don’t care! We’re up early with the sun have a cup of coffee as morning floods our green valley and then, every other day, we run three miles on the only pavement in Qacha’s Nek district, the runway at the airport across from our Farmer Training Center (on the other days we take a brisk walk there). There’s generally only one or two planes a week, so no grave danger to life or limb. No jet take offs or landings to shatter our tranquillity either; usually the weekly plane is a little Cessna with Missionary Doctors. After a month of weepy monsoon storms, this week has been flawless. The farm cattle are knee deep in grass, students and staff are scurrying around mowing our “campus” and tending the rose bushes The temps are in the 75-80 degree range. My wonderful wife, Lynn, must have the best Peace Corps garden in Lesotho: beautiful heads of Romaine and red leaf lettuce, carrots, zukes, kilos of potatoes, green peppers (!) and today our first tomatoes. Soon corn. There’s also cilantro and parsley. We’re practically living off our kitchen garden and it’s a great morale boost day in and out. Outsized orange mangoes turned up in the toropong (town center) this week. I’m helpless. These South African imports are a religious experience. And only a quarter a piece. And no “Jet Fresh” labels either! We’ve been spooning away all week.

This past weekend a local family rented our training center for a wedding. They put up a big tent, hired a band from Maseru, the capital, that was instrumented like a high school marching band – horn section, cymbals, drums – all from decades back The bride and groom danced the sweetest steps as they led a procession of 300 people to the reception here. Lynn and I got to watch – the only white faces. Just a great joy to experience.

I’m a professional cabinetmaker and I teach cabinets and carpentry in our farm shop. This last week we had to deliver an order of wall cabinets to the government hospital at Tebellong, across the rain swollen Senku (Orange ) River. We loaded the cabinets early and drove the 25 kilometers to

Building broiler chicken accomodation.
Building broiler chicken accomodation.

the river crossing. We were taken aback to see that our river transport was a 14′ rowboat. Nevertheless, we gamely loaded our substantial cargo and squeezed in with our rower. Of course, at the last moment four other people leaped aboard (assistant rowers?). Our great helmsman made an Olympic effort we could hardly believe and ten minutes later we were spared death in the downstream rapids and deposited on the far shore. We installed the job and came back five hours later to recross the river. Fifteen or twenty trips later the same guy was still rowing! Lynn and I thought we’d end up in South Africa, or worse, but our man roused himself from exhaustion and put in another blistering performance. We gratefully gave him a fat tip. People do these jobs in exchange for food and shelter here. Your heart goes out to them. When we last saw the Senku Rower, the boat was being loaded with 800 pounds of corn meal and passengers! WE had a beautiful evening ride home in our truck and a beer waiting for us. Life is hugely unfair and as Americans, we feel it’s important for us to confront that reality.

Late, but generous rains have finally blessed most of Lesotho. Considerable maize crops will fail due to late planting, however. Downtown Maseru has new stores opening weekly following a major government rebuild effort. The rebuilt Lesotho Hat building is terrific and opening soon. Still few good restaurants, but the place feels alive again. Maseru has the usual urban crime scene, but we feel very safe up country… We continue to find purpose and pleasure in Lesotho, in the Peace Corps.

Cheers to one and all.

PCV Eric Thomson Qacha’s Nek


3/17/00

Dear Friends of Lesotho,

Hello from Lesotho As you’ve been noticing on CNN etc., this is a provident moment to be living on the “roof of Africa”. Mainly, water flows down hill, so while Lesotho is having a wet rainy season the results are mostly beneficial. The maize and garden crops are looking far better than anyone could have hoped for back in December after a lengthy drought. Lesotho seems to be well south of the cyclones that have clobbered Mozambique and Mpumalanga Province (including Kruger Park) in South Africa. We are still, in the high Drackensberg, getting regular downpours but not washing out to sea. We had another thrilling lightening storm two nights ago with strikes close to the house. We’ve noted in the South African media (literate public radio SAFM) lots of attention being paid to the South African Air Force’s heroic role is rescuing 12,000 refugees from rooftops and treetops, in the early days of the floods, with helicopters. This week RSA President Thabo M’Beki showered praise on these white flight crews at a ceremony, but the most poignant moment was to hear an Africaaner pilot respond about the crews pleasure in showing a different face to their “Mozambique brothers” than the era of Apartheid bombing raids of the recent past. These are heroes: crews hung upside down from rescue lines to pluck people out of the raging Limpopo. The reconciliation process in southern Africa is slow, erratic, but apparent in many small gestures.

Lynn and I are just returned from our first vacation after eight months in country. We traveled a circuit from Bloomfontein down to the Garden Route (Knysna) through Addo Elephant Park and then back through Eastern Cape. We caught a glimpse of Nelson Mandela’s retirement home near Umtata and stayed two nights on the Wild Coast at Dweesa Nature Reserve. There are next to no tourists where we traveled in Eastern Cape, but what a wonderful sense of the “real” Africa travelers hope to discover. We passed mile after mile of rondeval villages and traditional compounds as the highway wound deep into gorges and up mountain slopes. We were warned about security problems, but found every wave from our car returned with a wave and those beautiful African smiles! Every simple gesture of respect (a wave, a greeting, eye contact) with the most impoverished African farmer was returned in kind. We stayed at a small Wild Coast resort at the end of 75 kilometers of muddy dirt road We were the only customers. Just us the African staff and a few dozen zebra and wildebeast grazing around our lodging. Earlier, we were surrounded one morning at a water hole in Addo Park by fifty elephants. Elephants so tightly grouped around our vehicle that we couldn’t help but hear the monumental rumblings of elephant bellies and see the delicate , trunked inspection of a new calf’s eyes, ears and mouth by its wild, vigilant mother a perfect Peace Corps vacation.

All best wishes
Eric & Lynn
Qacha’s Nek, Lesotho


May 3rd, 2000

Hello from Lesotho. We are enjoying lots of sunny days finally but the sun is sinking ever lower on the northern horizon. We had a dusting of snow on the surrounding mountains this week. Nights are cold … but days pleasant so far … a Lesotho Indian Summer?

I thought I’d share a few thoughts this letter about South Africa’s impact on our tiny mountain kingdom. Lesotho remains, at the village level, the traditional Africa most people imagine. Many Basotho still live in stone rondevals. They keep their cattle, sheep and angora goats in rock “kraals” at night. They grow on their terraced mountain plots corn, millet and some wheat to round out their subsistence farming lives. This picture is skewed however by the presence of South Africa, which completely surrounds Lesotho.

Eric reports that the current average age of Lesotho PCVs is 40!
Eric reports that the current average age of Lesotho PCVs is 40!

The RSA is a first-world country for many of its four million white inhabitants and now for an emerging middle class of blacks, coloreds and Indians. There are gorgeous highways, shopping malls, multiplex theaters and, of course, beautifully maintained national parks. We have seen the movie American Beauty and have stayed in very comfortable B&B’s on vacation. Unfortunately, some of the worst squalor this side of Calcutta exists for millions of blacks who reside in townships outside of the big cities. Down below us in the province of Kwa-zulu Natal’s rural areas, life for the whites seems a throw back to the America of the fifties and sixties. Very lovely small towns serve farming communities. The homes and neighborhoods are beautifully landscaped, kids play on mountain bikes, traffic is light. The supermarkets are stocked with frozen pizza and orange juice, even granola. The blacks who do not live on white owned farms for the most part reside in regimented row housing of simple concrete block construction. They travel on buses and taxis or walk, though some own their own vehicles. Most people we see have running water from common outdoor taps, some have electricity. Almost all are dressed better than you might expect (those donated clothes from America turn up here!) On the surface there’s a seeming acceptance of this equation,. but it breeds the sort of instability now wrecking havoc in Zimbabwe. Many South African whites live extremely affluent lives and don’t seem particularly interested in redistributing the wealth pie. The black majority have no experience governing forty million people and face a huge challenge with little support from the white community. There is considerable random violence against whites, with robbery as the usual motive. There’s lots of black on black violence, too. With no democratic past, there’s a lot of nation building to do.

We watch this drama from our mountain perch (and listen to the excellent South African public radio) and feel blessed by the relative simplicity and safety of our Qacha’s Nek lives. Our little camp town at 6,200 ft receives regular shipments of quality fruits and vegetables from South Africa (apples, oranges, mangoes, pineapples, bananas, even avocados show up in our markets) Our school has satellite TV with three South African stations as their only programming. If equipment breaks, it’s easily repaired in – South Africa The influence is hard to ignore, for better or worse.

In closing, I’d like to share good news Our Farmer Training Center has received a $10,000 grant from the Irish Embassy to help our 20 graduating students start smallbusinesses of their own. We are busily teaching small business along with our other courses in poultry production, sewing, gardening/landscaping, cooking/catering and cabinetmaking/carpentry. Now our excited students will have the tools to begin their own ventures when they graduate in September. They will succeed!

All best wishes to all,

Eric & Lynn (PCV’s, Lesotho)


June 18th, 2000

Hello from Lesotho. It’s a cold and drippy Saturday here at our Farmer’s Training Center high in the Drakensberg mountains. We can’t quibble, though, it’s been three weeks of sunshine and pleasant days. Nothing at all in the rain gauge while we’ve been away doing Peace Corps planning for the next group of trainees corning July 9th. Sandwiched between the planning and our mid-tour medical exams, Lynn and I had one of those vacations that make even the most arduous Peace Corps moments worthwhile…

Thats rhino dung on the trail!
That's rhino dung on the trail!

We visited the exquisite parks of northern Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa, drifting up the Indian Ocean coastline toward Mozambique. This is terrain where the sub tropics and the tropics blend. The plant communities explode here and there’s a wonderful wealth of birds and animals, all in their natural settings. The parks are managed better than our U.S. national parks (we know, we always buy a Golden Eagle parks passport at home) with absolutely no litter, billboards, or gateway towns like West Yellowstone or Cherokee to clutter the experience. Our access to big game was continuing and close-up. I shot film with a 135mm lens and have impala to elephants and white rhino filling every frame and this without ever leaving the prescribed gravel roads. Thrilling. The parks we visited in the St. Lucia wetlands complex and Hluhlewe/Umfolozi were uncrowded; we often traveled an hour on game drives without seeing another visitor. There are busy times of the year in the parks, but visitation is down the last two years and with the strong dollar, we felt our travels on; this trip were some of the best values we’ve had in thirty years of exploring remote parts of the planet (Tibet, Burma, Peru, west Africa, etc.) We felt safe traveling despite media images readers might have gleaned from the press. And we enjoyed every day. A special moment? How about hiking up the beautiful wilderness coastline at Cape Vidal. Sand dunes vault up from the ocean to meet tropical rainforest. Tired of trying to decipher antelope tracks in the sand? Then run down the dunes and plunge into the water, the waves perfect for body surfing. And… there’s nobody else in sight.

I’d like to finish my letter this month by reflecting on some of my fellow volunteers in Lesotho. Some readers may know that this is a third Peace Corps go-around for me and a second stint for my wife, Lynn (Burkina Faso ’68-’71, Philippines ’87-’89). One of the most magnetic reasons I’m drawn to this experience is the transformation of Americans who volunteer overseas. Nobody escapes unchanged! In Maseru, ten or so of us spent the night at the Danish guest house, a modest , but welcome affair. Yesterday’s strangers now are friends. We laughed and shared our adventures (and misadventures!). Some of our group have already fallen by the wayside and returned to the States for their own good reasons.. But those Volunteers who now have a year under their belts are so impressive to me. They’ve fought the battles that change agents fight all over the developing world. They’ve been bored. They’ve waited for taxis that never came. But in persevering, they’ve become sturdy in mind and body, in ways that do not happen in America. Many already have terrific successes in their work and new career goals We are all understanding anew or again the Peace Corps mantra – high risk, high gain Cheers to everyone.

Eric Thomson
Qacha’s Nek, Lesotho

P.S. Lynn and I bought a high end version of Encarta (world atlas) only to discover that our ancient computer only has a port for floppies Ugh! We would like to expose our new class of students coming in October to computer literacy and a world they’ve never seen If someone can contribute $1200 (feel the pain!) we can buy a complete setup with color printer in South Africa no sweat. We’ll happily pay the customs duties. Write us at PVC Box 9 Qacha’s Nek, Lesotho. Fund raising is a fact of life for volunteers in the field these days. I’d be happy to help link up any individuals with current volunteers (perhaps donors could mention a dollar figure they’re comfortable with: any amount helps!). Peace Corps/ Lesotho is OK with this back-channel funding mechanism. Most Vols seem to have a Visa card and could accept US dollar checks sent here, then deposit in their US accounts and pay for project materials with the card or cash machine malutis/rands. Donors will, of course receive a letter of thanks / photos (?) and with clear consciences will sleep better at night!


July 26th, 2000

Hello from Lesotho! The roof of Africa is sunny but biting cold this past week We’ve had strong winds to add to the discomfort. Our nighttime lows have been only about 20 to 25 F but with the winds it’s more like 10 to 15 F. This is a hard time of year for many Basotho. There’s little wood in the country so villages away from the main roads often rely on animal dung for warmth and cooking (smoky!) Mostly people bundle up in their kobos (famous Lesotho wool blankets with African designs) and huddle on the north side of buildings to catch the winter sun. We are blessed with a tank of propane and a gas heater from the Peace Corps. We’re quite comfortable heating one room in our small house, reading and listening to SAFM and the BBC. We watch for moments when the wind dies down and we can work in our daily walk or run (critical for morale). Lynn has been cooking up wonderful stir fries and pasta dishes (a basic Knorr soup mix to which she adds all available fresh vegetables; cabbage, carrots, broccoli swiss chard, cauliflower, etc. from our school winter garden) and once thickened, pours over rotini. Every hot mouthful is heaven! We can’t complain; the days are getting a little longer already.

Here’s a winter observation. We have numerous iris and now daffodils blooming throughout fall and winter here. Are these northern hemisphere bulbs that haven’t reset their clocks? We marvel and wonder. Other plants are also blooming, enough so that Lynn can still take her daily vase of fresh flowers to our farm office. Our cold frame in our yard continues to produce lots of red leaf and romaine lettuce. Our farm woodshop is producing cold frames to go home with each of our gardening/landscaping graduates in the spring (October). They’ll be used to start seedlings for their commercial gardens.

The world does look a little different from our African Peace Corps perch. Listening to the BBC this morning, I learned that the G-7 industrialized nations at their Okinawa meeting had agreed to “help reduce the digital divide” that is leaving poor nations increasingly behind. Well-l-l. Maybe we should consider a few things ahead of the Hewlet~Packards (I love and miss mine back in the US!) Stuff like electricity, phones, paved roads, drinking water, health care, and for all the world’s millions of newly literate, something, anything to read. Then, maybe, we can deal with Napster et. al. Increasingly, I’m having to recognize that my own beloved country has only the sketchiest idea of what’s going on in the lives of a majority of the world’s citizens… that said I’m writing this letter on an old stodgy computer and am urgently seeking a new one to open the eyes of our wonderful students to the world of information technology.

Port St. Johns
Port St. Johns

A couple of weeks back, Lynn and I finally got to follow up a travel tip from the Friends of Lesotho webmaster Bill Dunn, in Anchorage. We bailed out of winter and went down to Port St. John’s on the Indian Ocean, just four hours and a 6500 ft drop from Qacha’s Nek. Wow. Finally, a great backpacker’s town that tourism hasn’t ruined. There are miles of beautiful beaches. It’s uncrowded There’s a nice mingling of blacks and whites, good little restaurants and lodgings and it’s inexpensive. Great swaths of virgin rain forest fill the little valleys and canyons around the town. One day we hiked for miles down the unspoiled coast, following the trail along tide pools and through wild banana groves and, finally, climbing steeply up a path through the forest to the grasslands on the headland tops. We passed a small herd of shiny black wildebeest We sat down at the top drank from our water bottles and watched village women in the distance hand cutting thatch grass for their rondevals. Below the Indian Ocean pounded this dramatic edge of a continent and cooled us with a perfect sub Tropical breeze. Thanks Bill Dunn. We’ll go back again to the same place when the southern right whales are migrating just off-shore!

A very sad note ends this month’s letter Judy Pasmore, a fellow trainee and Peace Corps Volunteer died at her Lesotho site recently. I’ve included a Portland Oregonian article that movingly tells her story. Her husband Paul has returned to their Morija home to finish the work they started.

Note: The Oregonian has refused permission to reproduce the Judy Pasmore article on the FOL site, stating that they “limit Internet publications to licensed vendors”. So, I’ll summarize the facts: Judy, 60, died of a heart attack in Morija on June 22, 2000. She was teaching economics and business skills, and had only been in Morija two weeks since her group’s training in Quthing ended. She is survived by her husband Paul, who was with her in Morija. Obviously, the Oregonian article contained with many other colorful insights to Judy’s life. They may be willing to reproduce print copies; if you’re interested the contact I have is Sandy Macomber, Oregonian Head Librarian, 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201. Phone 503-221-5375. The article is titled “Volunteer dies in a faraway land she called home” and is dated July 1, 2000.


August 16th, 2000

Hello from Lesotho! After last month’s Antarctic chill its a pleasure to report that with the lengthening days comes warmer weather. We have a peach tree in full blossom on the Farmer Training Center grounds and daffodils and tulips are pushing for an early Spring. Warm afternoons this week at 6200 ft, are allowing Lynn and her coworker ‘M’e Tato, along with their gardening students, to prune fruit trees and cultivate and fertilize around rose bushes that they planted last fall. They’re working toward a handsome new landscaping look for the center with lots of juniper type shrubs planted too. This should be a good year for gardening at the farm. Kilos of chicken manure have been wheelbarrowed up from the hen house and worked into the student and schools gardens. This is also the time we find out about the many strawberry starts that were set out last fall. Fresh strawberries. Now there’s a pleasing thought for breakfast in the mountains of southern Africa…

We hear on the radio from South Africa about terrible fires across the American West. This is the time of year that the Basotho start fires to burn off the previous season’s grass. There’s often smoke in the air lately and many fires are burning in South Africa as well. Whole mountains are blackened around Qacha’s Nek. Occasionally a hut is burned but mostly these traditional fires don’t seem to cause damage beyond their original intent. We were told by a friend at the nearby South African border post that the fires are set to drive away the wild animals, so they won’t compete with domestic stock when the rains bring new grass. How odd? All the wildlife in our area was killed off 50 to 100 years ago. I mean all of it. What creatures of habit we are as humans. Don’t we Americans send all the children home for June, July and August from school. Why? Because eons ago they were needed to work on the farms and ranches of our growing country. We’re pretty resistant to change, too. Actually, the burned off areas in Lesotho will sprout new pasture quickly once the rains come, hopefully in October, but often later. We don’t have the clay laterite soil here that saw burned to hardpan as a PCV in Burkina Faso. The air pollution may be more of a hazard than the damage done to the soil. I’m not really sure.

I had to take a vehicle to Sehlabathebe National Park where two Peace Corps biologists are assigned a couple of weeks back. I was the bearer of a semi-urgent message from our Maseru office. Along the way there was a Frank Sinatra tape playing on the tape deck. I can’t tell you what fabulous counterpoint it was to glide through traditional African villages, men, women and children waving and flashing those dazzling smiles while Old Blue Eyes scrolled through his catalog of Vegas. standards. There’s something in the American psyche that just needs to get out on the road from time to time and unwind… As Lynn and I begin our second year in Lesotho life looks good.

Best wishes to all,
Eric & Lynn, PCVs
Qacha’s Nek, Lesotho


September 14th, 2000

Lynn teaching English and small business.
Lynn teaching English and small business.

Hello from Lesotho! September is the month wheh thousands of peach trees, tens of thousands really, bloom across the Mountain Kingdom. A smattenng are planted in orchards, but for the most part they’re planted throughout rondeval villages or struggling to survive among the hillside contour maize fields. It’s such an improbable sight in Africa and for that reason, all the more magical.

As Lynn and I head into our second year al our Peace Corps site, I thought I’d use my modest, but accumulating observations to write about the HIV/AIDS pandemic this month. This painful subject is on my mind because of an editorial I saw this week in a second hand copy of the International Herald Tribune. The paper noted that currently 95% of all the AIDS prevention money is being spent in the industrialized world, while 95% of those infected live in the developing world. I think it’s hard to imagine what paltry sums are available to fight this catastrophe here in the rural areas of Lesotho. The latest statistics show that about 24% of Basotho young women 5 to 25 are infected. (You may wish to read that statistic again.) The rates for young men are less because infected older men, often returned miners have relations with younger girls and women.) The bureaucracies, including the NGO’s, hold endless meetings and wear red ribbons. The odd poster goes up but the availability of condoms and the necessary face to face discussions with vulnerable groups here is dismayingly small. Lynn lectures on AIDS, graphically in her English and small business

Our shop makes cages which produce 45 chickens on 1 square meter of floor space
Our shop makes cages which produce 45 chickens on 1 square meter of floor space

classes. I talk about it in my furniture making workshop. But we are reaching a few dozen students at best. Lynn was taken aback recently when one of her students explained “Everyone tells us to use condoms, but they’re not available”. Actually, they are available. There is a condom machine at our local hospital in full view of the gate guard, vendors and visitors only meters away. Of course our students are as shy about these issues as young people anywhere and wouldn’t he caught dead at this machine. Lynn has been trying for weeks now to locate and purchase a condom dispenser for our Farmer Training Center. She’s called aII the NOG’s, etc , but has drawn a blank. A South African condom salesman (!) has now joined the search, but without luck so far. The Peace Corps may, or may not, have money at some point for this “war”. Though it has declared it a priority for Volunteers and has recently held an AIDS conference in Lesotho I offer this backdrop to make a point: despite all the hand wringing, precious little seems to me to be happening on the ground, at the village level, where it can make a difference.

Peach tree pruning
Peach tree pruning

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the AIDS disaster is how quietly Africans die one by one, often refusing to acknowledge that they have the disease, out of shame. It’s always TB or pneumonia or other ailments that claim our neighbors’ lives. Funerals are normally on Saturday here, but have started to take place on Fridays as well. Too many burials for one day a week. Lynn and I came back from South Africa last week and were stunned to pass the Zastron, Free State cemetery. There, row upon row of fresh earthen graves lent mute testimony to this calamity. Given it’s scope and the lame attempts to change people’s behavior, it’s hard to see where it will end. Last year South Africa had a $17 million AIDS budget, but, of that, $6.2 million went un-spent (IHT 4/25/2000). The sense of urgency somehow seems lacking even as the pain and suffering becomes unbearable.

School enterprise projects with new water tap system in our school garden
School enterprise projects with new water tap system in our school garden

The Peace Corps is placing a new Volunteer this week at a Moale’s Hoek orphanage. (Lynn and I donate a case of peanut butter to these children monthly.) This level of assistance, I’m sure, will he getting further Volunteer attention in the future. The enormity of this problem can’t stop our efforts, individually and collectively, to help. For Americans, who resolutely believe that problems CAN be solved, this AIDS conundrum is thoroughly frustrating. And that’s what we have to live with, our frustrations…

The quality is getting good - were turning away work
The quality is getting good - we're turning away work

Lynn and I gave a “getting started” pep talk to the new class of Volunteers finishing their training this week at Roma. Other Vols contributed their efforts throughout the nine week program. We were impressed at the wonderful span of ages again in this group of trainees Lesotho has Vols from 22 to at least 73 years old. And all have unique talents to bring to bear for our development work.

All best wishes from Qacha’s Nek,

Eric Thomson