Why I Left the Peace Corps in Lesotho

Many of you enjoyed following my daily life in Lesotho, so it’s been a struggle for me to know what to continue writing about after the end of my service on January 7th, 2017.

Therefore, I’ve decided to share a document I wrote in October 2016, about the pros and cons of my personal experience in my rural village. Please note that this is what I felt at the time, and may be completely different from what other Peace Volunteers go through. I thank the Peace Corps for letting me serve, and once again, this is not to “put down” the Basotho people I met, nor the Peace Corps; it’s just Sonia writing down her thoughts and sifting through the pros and cons so she could make a her final decision.

I want to stress that I do not regret my fifteen, life-changing months in Lesotho, but I cannot sugar-coat my thoughts. I am who I am, and I say what I think.

Why I want to leave the Peace Corps

My village in Lesotho is not a place for me to get healthy. It’s actually a place where I seem to age faster, become apathetic and cynical and feel “used.” Sorry to disappoint you, but if you know me, I can only say what I feel.

Gratitude is not part of the Basotho culture, and as one South African woman told me, “Africans see white people as walking ATMs.” I can tell you this is exactly how I feel, and although many white people may think this is not politically correct, I don’t care. I will only listen to you if you’ve lived in a rural village in Africa recently, for over a year like I have, otherwise, you have no idea what it’s like.

I am often so bored with my life here, to the point where I feel claustrophobic and in jail in my rondavel.

October 2016. The lowest point when I felt jailed behind the burglar bars of my rondavel. I processed my thoughts about the pros and cons of continuing with my Peace Corps service.

There is no intellectual stimulation or conversation in my rural village; people don’t read or listen to international news, and I don’t speak Sesotho (my own fault) but I do know enough about my village that it’s mostly staring at people all day long, and gossiping.

I cannot leave my village when I want to; there are only three public taxi vans in the morning, and due to a lack of scheduling, these often show up one after the other at 6:10, 6:11 and 6:12. Makes no sense, but neither does my life in Lesotho where I spend my time trying to teach children English, and after one year, they cannot even answer “Have you had lunch?”

I thrive on being active both physically, at the gym or swimming, and intellectually, talking to people, learning and attending workshops. I cannot do this in Lesotho, except when I meet expats.

My body is aching from sitting on a bed for hours with my laptop, and a mattress that hurts my back, despite the extra plank I put underneath.

I cannot stand watching how dogs are treated in my village, and people throwing stones at them.

I’ve experienced most of what I can possibly learn in my village and my school, and another year is simply a continuation of what I’ve already seen and I am becoming less integrated, more frustrated and lazy like my fellow African teachers.

I need more in my life than gossip, sitting on a chair and trying to motivate children who are too hungry and poor to realize the value of education.

In order to understand my feelings and to make a sound decision, I am writing a list of pros and cons.

Sonia’s Pros

  • A life-changing opportunity
  • Personal growth
  • Learning how to manage a project in an African country
  • Overcoming challenges
  • Overcoming my divorce
  • Gratitude for my life in California
  • Appreciation of food, coffee, books, libraries, workshops, weather, fresh vegetables, salmon, cheese, bread, wine and driving somewhere when I want to go, freedom.

Sonia’s Cons

  • No intellectual stimulation apart from radio and online
  • Teachers don’t seem to care, and spend too much time on their cell phones instead of teaching
  • The children are not learning English
  • The children spend most of Friday cleaning and not learning
  • Children are treated like “mini servants” by teachers. “Get me my food.”
  • I’m becoming lazy as I don’t see results
  • Too much gossip and my counterpart has lost interest
  • No guidance from Principal
  • No teaching shedule or bell between classes
  • Corruption and overall lack of caring about children
  • No adult intelligent conversation
  • People sit and stare for hours
  • Jealousy among villagers
  • Asking me for money constantly
  • My loneliness
  • Boredom
  • No convenient taxis
  • Stress over when taxi is coming
  • Constant shouting which sounds like anger
  • Beating animals, throwing rocks at them
  • Having to greet people I don’t know, and why is it always me first?
  • Loud, ear-piercing music
  • Dangerous taxi drivers talking on cell phone and changing gears while steering at same time
  • Dangerous roads and driving on opposite side of street
  • No friend next door to open up to
  • No restaurants or grocery stores
  • No TV
  • No coffee shops
  • Eyes staring through my plastic bags to see what I’ve bought to eat
  • Get to school and nothing happens for at least an hour and a half
  • No structure
  • No motivation
  • No one reads books
  • People stare when I carry my pee bucket
  • Lack of communication
  • Culture is lazy, and they admit it themselves
  • No showers
  • No toilet

I returned to Orange County, California on January 17th, and have ideas about what to do next. I’m going to share these in future posts; in the meantime, I’m resettling, organizing my life back in California, and enjoying my time with  wonderful friends, and of course my three sons.

 

Comments (38)

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  1. Dearest Sonia
    Thank you for a peek into your decision making process. I can only imagine the isolation and aloneness you have endured and tried to manage. I experienced some of this growing up in a very northern, very small town in Wisconsin from 2nd grade to 8th. As a result I never want to live in a small town again. I found it very difficult to be included as I wasn’t born there. Glad you are back in the big city with thinkers, creators, and choices. It is grand to live in a big American city! Welcome home!

  2. Denise says:

    Thank you for your honest opinion of your experience. It’s only when we are honest can changes be made. It doesn’t matter where you live or under what circumstances. The old saying “The truth will set you free” is so true. Your writing reaffirms my conviction that we are truly blessed to live in America and unfortunately at times we act very spoiled and ungrateful. Thank you for your service. Your heart is in the right place!

  3. Sonia,

    Long ago, I experienced a similar despondency after acting as a holiday parent for a (white) child from a South African children’s home for eight years. Even though I’d been prepared for it, I was hugely disappointed when this child reunited with her family – not because of the reunion per se, but because I’d also been advised by the social workers involved that the parents of these children tend to descend on them as soon as they’re done with school and in a position to start earning. Against all my warnings and protestations, my ‘daughter’ was delighted to hear from her parents and, long story short, the anticipated abuse started.

    Eventually, I cut all ties with her and that did not feel good. Then, one day, as I expressed myself about the mutual letting down, my late brother-in-law reassured me that even if I had improved her life by only 1% instead of the 100% that I might’ve wanted to achieve, a lot of good had still been done. It was a great explanation and made me feel a lot better. Years later, she reached out with similar insights and expressed her gratitude for having made her a part of our family for such a long time. We still have contact to this day, and she has continued to refer to me as her ‘mother.’

    I hope that helps you to get a different perspective on your own project.

    You’ve done well – congratulations, and good luck with the next adventure.

  4. Cindy Rathbun says:

    Dear Sonia,

    You have accomplished something most of us never will. You left the creature comforts we take for granted and stepped into a life we will not experience. Not only did you impact the children in your school with your teaching, but your life experience. You showed them a major accomplishment in raising funds to repair and redo the school roof, and to make the flooor of the school more hospitable. You did it. All the cons you listed are exactly why most of us would not venture to do or to go as you have. While a light is often shined upon major money donors, it is people like you and all Peace Corps workers who deserve the spotlight. Organizations such as the Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders and so many others are doing the hard work that allows these programs to have a direct influence on so many lives. I applaud you, Sonia, and the path you have chosen. You have made a difference.

  5. My heart goes out to you at this time as you sit on the rock between then and now. Few people put action to their passion to make a difference in someone’s life. I am in awe that you were the exception and took a step to make that difference. This was obviously a difficult path with few resources to fill you up once you had given it your all. The decision to end it was certainly a difficult one but a wise one. You did make a difference. You gave your all in the midst of centuries of value-building totally contrary to what you hold true. I am looking forward to following your future writing because one person did experience change and growth that can be shared to influence and encourage others and that person was you. We can all use a reminder of the importance of gratitude and motivation to do good. Cheering from the far north!
    Eileen Hopkins recently posted..Four Days in My LifeMy Profile

  6. I have followed you since we met at the OCWA. I am not surprised in your decision. You frustration crept into your writing. The fact that you stuck with it for as long as you did speaks volumes about your character. The fact that you elected to leave a situation where, in spite of your best efforts, conditions beyond your control were preventing you from making a difference, and killing your spirit. It also demonstrated good sense.

    There are problems in this world which may be unsolvable with good works, or trillions of dollars.

    I’m sure you will find happiness and success in the future. The failures we encounter will make us stronger, and hopefully wiser.

    I never caught the brass ring, and have changed career paths several times, but I’ve kept learning, and it’s been quite a ride.

    I wish you the best.

  7. Tom Berndt says:

    I can fully appreciate your struggle. You have a huge heart. You want to animate your energy into positive results. But transitioning from Orange County, to almost 4th world conditions ………. has left you with a touch of PTSD. Relax, and try not to regret your decisions. Trust me, you opened eyes in that strange world. And in time, you will reflect more on the positive. And the people whom you met are changed for the better, wether or not they appreciate it. It takes time. And their ability to see it. It was a very small world. And their needs are very different from ours. Survival. You tried to change a cruel world, and I’m betting you did. If you affected just one or two people, you achieved very much.

    • Sonia Marsh says:

      Tom,

      I know you also help in Africa. Do you see similar problems? Thanks for your support.
      Sonia Marsh recently posted..Why I Left the Peace Corps in LesothoMy Profile

      • Tom Berndt says:

        Actually no. I have not been there, but Kathy, who goes for 3 months every year, with doctors, dentists, nurses, etc., receive quite positive reactions. And villagers cooperate quite well. There seems to be a greater sense of pride and industry. They dig wells, and provide $400 micro loans to women, who produce excellent results, with a 93% payback ratio. And improve schools. My guess is the attitude is different.
        Villager’s biggest fight is with coffee corporations who steal from farmers. ” Free Trade ” does NOT include the farmer. He / she gets ripped off big time.
        But Kathy does what she can to improve their general health. Which is terrible.

      • Tom Berndt says:

        Although Kathy leaves in a couple weeks for Kenya, I can attempt to introduce the two of you. You might be a force of well more than two.

        • Tom Berndt says:

          Heidi has my contact info. Or Tom Berndt at Caldwell Banker in Laguna.

          And look at web site’ Village Hope Core ‘

      • Tom Berndt says:

        Last thought…………
        Staying there for extended periods may not be that productive. You tried to incorporate yourself into a community that wasn’t willing to fully accept.

        But visiting, and seeing the immediate needs, can be more productive.
        You can then return with appropriate expertise and supplies, and make significant changes in short times.
        Knowing their temperament, that would build far more support from the locals.
        They would look forward to your returns.

        It’s always difficult for outsiders to absorb a strange culture.

        • Sonia Marsh says:

          Tom, I know expats who’ve lived there for 20 years or so and started businesses. They need to be there constantly to monitor things and be in charge. Trust is a big issue and although I agree that you can be productive when you make short visits, I firmly believe that trade schools are necessary in Lesotho, as well as other parts of Africa. Too often we donate a computer, or piece of equipment, and once it breaks, no one knows how to fix it, and waits for another donation.
          Sonia Marsh recently posted..Why I Left the Peace Corps in LesothoMy Profile

          • Tom Berndt says:

            Yes, but you aren’t willing to give 20 years. They knew you were temporary. So their trust level is diminished. They see whites come and go. For various reasons.
            You left an indelible stamp on them. Be pleased with that. Every villager who met you will see the impact at a different time, and volume. On a very personal level.
            Be pleased with your efforts. You did a good thing.

  8. Suellen Zima says:

    I became an immigrant to Israel at the age of 40. We were placed in shared living quarters that allowed us to be slowly integrated and to learn Hebrew. While some new immigrants had no country they could return to, Americans did. Sometimes people, usually Americans, disappeared overnight, not wanting to admit they were returning home. In trying to understand why some Americans went back and some didn’t, I saw that those that came with the highest expectations were usually the ones who left the earliest. I arrived excited to be there, but with very few expectations. Although I eventually did leave Israel after 6 years, I continued on to other parts of the world for another 10 years. When I first went to 3rd world China, motivated by sheer curiosity, I had no thought that China and the friends I made there would remain with me the rest of my life. I am fortunate that I can consider my 16 years of wandering the world the best part of my life. What to do with the rest of my life is more of a challenge in old age. Welcome back to OC with the glorious Laguna Beach that is hard to match anywhere in the world.

  9. Julie Watson says:

    Hi Sonia, I totally understand what you are saying. You gave fifteen months of your life to teaching in Lesoto and I take my hat off to you. I hope all goes well for you back in your home now. I look forward to following your next chapter in your life.

  10. Linda Luke says:

    Sonia:
    You continue to inspire me. You were courageous when you left everything behind to try and make a difference. You are also courageous for honoring your feelings and knowing when it is time to move on and take care of yourself.

    Yes. You are gutsy, but you are heroic too. Keep following your heart to whatever big or small adventures it leads you to. But, most of all, take time to replenish yourself and reconnect with that grounded, empowered, and loving you that lives inside.

    You don’t have to be gutsy, or heroic, or inspiring. Just be you. The rest will fall into place.
    Linda Luke recently posted..A Quick & Easy Way to Stop Out of Control SnackingMy Profile

    • Sonia Marsh says:

      Linda,

      Your message is just what I needed to hear right now; especially the part where you mention “take time to replenish yourself and reconnect with that grounded, empowered, and loving you that lives inside.”
      It’s easy to run full speed when you return to life in OC. Hope you’re in good health, and enjoying your passion of helping others.
      Sonia Marsh recently posted..Why I Left the Peace Corps in LesothoMy Profile

  11. Dear Sonia, when I read your post, I recalled the day you called me to vent about your life path and how you wanted to do something more meaningful. In short order, you then went out to make create the path you felt would bring you more satisfaction and in so doing opened up a whole new world for yourself and for others to share in. You did it, giving it your all and making a positive difference in the lives you touched, even though it may not have been what you had expected. Pat yourself on the back for a job well-done!I wish you much peace, satisfaction and happiness as you transition back to your next chapter. it’s bound to be “gutsy”. 🙂

  12. Jennifer says:

    Dear Sonia,
    I so understand your frustration with the majority of the African mindset – backwards!
    Foreigners who try to give them a leg up regarded as walking ATM Machines is a very accurate way to describe them, although there is a minority of black South Africans youth I came across (in the city of course) on our travels who “get” the point education in the civilized world and understand its importance and who are thriving.

    You’ve done a stellar job in your village, Sonia, and perhaps you may have planted a seed about learning and exposing the world at large to just one kid to whom your presence might make a life-changing difference in the long term. As I told you before, I take my hat off to you, I’d not have lasted 5 minutes!

    Take your time to regroup and replenish yourself. And follow your heart to your next gutsy episode.

    Hugs

  13. Sonia, dear friend, what an awesome gift you have given to some and yet may not have received a visible sign of the good done. However, we don’t always see what we accomplish for or in others.

    I believe you have every right to have made the decision you made to return home after giving a year of your life and your goodness and gift of education. You also moved between extreme cultures and that could not have been easy. I look forward to reading more about what you have planned for the future.

    For now, enjoy being home and with your sons and friends. A new chapter awaits you, and I know you will make the most of it.
    Sherrey Meyer recently posted..Have You Ever Considered Giving Up Your Writing?My Profile

  14. Barbara says:

    Dear Sonia,
    You have more guts and determination and heart than almost anyone I know. I’m sure it’s frustrating and disappointing but, you lasted much longer than most could have. You should be proud of everything you’ve done for the village and leave with no regrets. No one can change an entire culture in fifteen months, or probably fifteen years.
    I wish you peace and love, and most of all, JOY, when you return home.
    xob

  15. maria says:

    I totally understand. i went to Mexico abroad program to learn the culture since I didn’t get to grow up there. I wanted to learn its history from their perspective, and their rich indigenous tribal literature as well as modern latim american literary works. I was excited to learn about them, all the day to day stuff. but “they” were for the most part not interested in me, lol, but in the stereotypical blond from the USA! So, i too spent lonely days there and wondering what i was accomplishing in Mexico City. Well, for me it was learning better Spanish diction, writing, better understanding of another country’s values and ways of interacting, enjoying their keen wit and great sense of humor even in ordinary and impersonal exchanges of conversation. Most of all, I learned to love the people in general albeit no one particular person (no boyfriend/s or best friends to share the experience with). I think it’s normal to feel a little alienated when we are out of our comfort zone and we learn what makes us tick, what makes us different (what we can put up with), what we want. so for all its woes, it is learning even if painful at times. I’m glad you are back and I trust you will be enjoying another experience. Hope to see you soon. love, hugs, blessings to you!

    • Sonia Marsh says:

      Maria, I would have put way more effort into learning Spanish, as I already have the basics and am fluent in French, however, Sesotho did not make any sense to me. It’s a tonal language where one word can mean five different things depending on the way it’s pronounced. I couldn’t grasp the language. Are you fluent in Spanish now? I got Rosetta Stone to learn to speak Spanish.
      Sonia Marsh recently posted..Why I Left the Peace Corps in LesothoMy Profile

      • Maria says:

        Yes, I’m fluent in Spanish. I had thought I’d become a Spanish teacher but life took me elsewhere. Yet, it’s handy with my home- exchange adventures in Spain!! I still have mixed feelings about my year abroad but I’m glad I did it. Curiosity satisfied! And, I understand how another culture ticks!! My brain is tweeked forever, so it’s more open, in general, as I’m sure yours is. xxoo :

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