Friday, October 25, 2013

A Farewell to Qholaqhoe

On Friday, September 20th a Farewell ceremony for the finishing Form E students was held at Qholaqhoe and paired with the official opening of the library building.  It was a day that will forever be in my memory and difficult to describe the enormous love I felt as my service in Lesotho comes to an end. 

Motselisi giving a speech on the importance of libraries

Mme Mosasse, myself, and a representative from the Ministry of Education officially opening the library.

Qholaqhoe teachers and community members checking out the inside of the new library

After the completion of the library the program returned to the main focus of farewell with a full program of speeches, choir songs, and dances.

Ntate Khakhane speaking to parents and form E students on a blustery day, the tent blew away!

Female students performing a traditional dance

Students giving me gifts from the school: Basotho blanket and hat, clay pots, and an electronic gizmo created by Selepe to view pictures on TV.

Qholaqhoe teachers dancing as a show of good luck

The farewell ended with a feast for the Form E students and their parents and a million photos!  The event reminded me of how much Qholaqhoe has meant to me over the last two years.  Though I would by no means claim that living alone in a rural village for two years is comfortable it has made me a better person and the relationships with my students and teachers, I wouldn’t trade for anything.  I have never felt the level of gratitude when my students presented me with so many gifts which they each contributed R2 to purchase!  Thank you for welcoming me into your school community and I am proud of what me and my counterparts have been able to accomplish and I hope Qholaqhoe continues to improve and expand beyond my time here. 

The best of luck to my students as they write their all-important JC and COSC exams!

I leave Qholaqhoe on November 26th, Lesotho on November 29th, and then an exciting amount of travel before arriving in Michigan before Christmas. 

A Finished Library!

 The Qholaqhoe Library Project is in its final stages; training students, teachers, and the new librarian on the rules of the library, how the books are organized, and how to check out books.  A project that started over a year ago has come to fruition and brings a resource that teachers and students are excited to put to use!  Thank you to everyone who donated to our PCPP grant project you truly helped a worthwhile project and everyone here appreciates your efforts, QQ would not have a library without you!

The exterior of the completed library at Qholaqhoe

Form A students checking out books

Organized books in the new library

Students studying science in the new library!

The library still has many challenges ahead to get students to use it and maintain the organization of the books and time for library opening.  The English department is taking ownership over the space and I am confident they will keep it going and maintained for many years. I hope that the new library gives the opportunity to students who really want to improve their lives through education the space and resources to learn and push themselves.  I am proud of my counterparts for working through challenges to complete this project including promised donations not coming through, a shortage of building supplies, and a great deal of effort and time over the last year to get this done.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Facing Challenges- the story of two Qholaqhoe students

Facing Challenges- the story of two Qholaqhoe students

As my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer has gone on, my perceptions of development have changed.  Handouts seem foolish and the lack of motivation from many people I have worked with makes it evident that self-desire means everything to improving a person or a community. 

However not everyone lacks self-desire, there are people that for one reason or another are forgotten either by their loved ones or institutionally by our societies.  These two stories highlight this in two different ways, one about the barriers to education opportunity and the other about how struggles at home can take away that opportunity. 

Aussi Winny – A chance to overcome the barriers to advanced education

Winny is the top student in the highest grade at Qholaqhoe HS and a smart and energetic young girl.  Together I helped her to apply to a sponsorship program called Africa’s Tomorrow which provides the means for rural African females to attend college in the US.  We spent hours working on application essays about her family’s hardships, her aspirations to be a scientist, and how she could impact Lesotho with a career as an engineer.  In short she was accepted as well was Mamoqebelo, a student from neighboring Rehauhetsoe HS (nominated by my brilliant girlfriend Caitlin!).  They were two of six from all of Africa and the first ever from Lesotho!  Without understatement, a big achievement and a lot has already been overcome to complete a high school education at the top of their class for both of them.

Winny and I at Qholaqhoe High School, a photo taken for her Africas Tomorrow Application

You can check out more about their sponsorship and their blurbs at the Africa’s Tomorrow Website:

With sponsorship comes the next step and biggest hurdle, the TOEFL exam.  The Test of English as a Foreign Language is required of every student who desires to apply to a US university.  The test costs over $200, isn’t offered in Lesotho, and is almost universally given as a computerized test. 

These girls are from rural Africa and aren’t exactly computer literate, especially in terms of typing essays.  Should it be required to be computer literate to attend a US university?  I can see the argument that it should be because of how much we rely on technology at the tertiary level in the US.  However, I also am more sympathetic to the counter.  We want to reduce poverty and we believe that education is a key aspect to leadership and hence development.  The simple requirement of taking an exam on a computer cuts off a large sector of rural society from having a fighting chance on this exam and promotes the education gap between the world’s elite and developing communities.  Rural African schools are obviously behind in the standard of education and succeeding here is challenging, these girls don’t need a free ride or even an even playing field, a hill to overcome instead of a mountain would be just fine!

My opinions on computerized testing aside, these girls are going to give it all they have and Caitlin and I the same in giving them as many resources as possible to prepare.  We have acquired TOEFL prep books, downloaded typing software, and came up with the best possible test date given preparing for this exam on top of writing final high school COSC exams (October 5th in Durban it is!).  It’s not hopeless they can do it and maybe with just enough support they can overcome the challenges set before them and if so it will be all the more incredible!

Because this exam is not offered in Lesotho and the exam itself is costly we are trying to assist them raise funds to travel and take the exam.  You can check out their GoFundMe site here and donate or spread the word if you feel so inclined!

Abuti Neo – An inspiring but abandoned child

There is no shortage of students facing hardship at my school.  After all that is our identity, Qholaqhoe HS provides education to the poor and underserved that can’t afford to attend a boarding school.  If a student has both parents alive it is a minor miracle due to the destruction of AIDS, TB, and general poverty.  No one is unaffected, everyone struggles, however, sometimes poverty picks people that don’t deserve it to beat down the most. 

This is the story about my relationship with a Form C student named Neo, while there are others that may be in worse situations, it is him that I have gotten to know because of his eagerness for school, especially in the subjects of Maths and Science.  He went to the national science fair in Mokhotlong with me last year, he is super inquisitive and informed about life skills and HIV topics, and spent hours trying to figure out the Maths and Science Club challenge problem (How can four 9’s make 100?) before finally getting it before anyone else!

Neo’s mother left him for South Africa some time ago and never communicates or supports him.  As he is not a double orphan (lost both parents) he is not eligible for services such as having his school fees paid for by the government.  Being an abandoned child can be far worse than being an orphan.  Neo is 16 years old and lives alone, only sometimes is his grandfather around.  His grandmother for many years was able to support him with pension checks she received from working at a hotel in Maseru, however, in January for whatever reason they stopped coming.
Neo with a snow man we made last year (no snow yet this year!)

Neo is sponsored by a Peace Corps program TAP (tuition assistance program) which provides half the school fees for 10 students nominated by Peace Corps Volunteers and the funds come from returned PCVs.  Neo has been sponsored in this program for several years and took the sponsorship more seriously and gratefully than others.  I know his story in part because of this program and in previous years it meant he could stay in school without getting chased away for not paying fees.  This year though he is in Form C which means an added $75 exam fee on top of the $150 school fees.  A bad time to lose the little assistance he had, with the prospects of an educationally huge exam looming. 

Over winter break we held classes for the Form C and E students who have upcoming exams.  Class was informal and students were lackadaisical and unfocused yet it was still valuable teaching time.  I noticed that Neo wasn’t attending frequently, which I knew was unusual as he had been excited that I would be teaching his class over winter as I am not their normal teacher.  I asked him why and he acted embarrassed and sorry and promised to come for the rest of the classes.   I saw him a few days later on the way home from school and asked him a bit more if he was okay.  He said, “Sir, I don’t have any food and it is hard to come to school when I have an empty stomach.”  There is no school lunch over winter break. 

In my privileged world of grilled cheeses and hamburgers from the hotel I can’t imagine having nothing to eat, much less going to bed alone to think about it.  I feel angry at his mother for abandoning him, sad at human society for letting a child sleep alone and hungry, and guilty for being comparatively so rich and unable to comprehend!

There are students I have that are so unmotivated they dodge my class for the forest and the only assignment they have submitted is a direct copy from someone else’s notebook and there are students I have that show up at my house at 8 pm to ask me about a maths problem they don’t understand.  It is the later type of students that has made being a Peace Corps teacher worthwhile and the group that both Winny and Neo belong too.  The chance to help students that really want to learn even though they have all the cards stacked against them is what keeps me motivated. 

Neo is a bright student and this upcoming JC exam means so much both to him and his chances of continuing in education.  I will do what I can to support him until then and hope for the best for what is to follow! 

Today is the first day of the last semester of school!

1 month to COS conference, 2 months of teaching, and 4 months until I leave! 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Pride through Science – A Positive Story from the 2013 Butha Buthe District Science Fair

Pride through Science – A Positive Story from the 2013 Butha Buthe District Science Fair

Amidst the challenges and grind of working in a rural secondary school, some things that just manage to happen better than you could expect!

One experience that I blogged about previously was the national science fair, and this is a follow up, one year later with students who continue to blow me away. 

Qholaqhoe and Butha Buthe High School students (the town magnet school) at the district science fair. 

Qholaqhoe High Schools 2013 Science Projects
-          Time Conversion Wheel by Tsepo Majoro (Maths Project – 1st prize) – Tsepo constructed a project to convert time from Lesotho to anywhere in the world.  The project has two circles connected in the middle by a pin.  The inner wheel has 24 lines labeled with the time from 0 hours to 24 hours.  The outer wheel has the city and country that corresponds to the different times.  The inner wheel can be turned to the time in Lesotho and all other times will be shown.  The project idea came from a Science Wizardry for Kids book that my parents had sent sometime last year.

-          Improved Lens With Light by Selepe Matli (Working Models – 1st prize) – Selepe took his project from last year that he took to the national science fair and continued to improve it.  Last year it was an electronics project but the judges told him it should be in the working models category.  The project is a magnifying lens that has been wired with lights and gears to adjust the height of the lens and the lighting from below a stage and an above light.  The project is put together with an elaborate scheme of metal wire to create gears and move the pieces.  This year Selepe added pieces to make on/off switches for the lights and dimmer switches from pieces he took from an old television and speaker box. 

Improved Lens project from last year’s national fair (missing improvements but still gives the idea)

-          FM Radio by Selepe Matli (Electronics 1st prize and top overall fair score) – By taking pieces from many other electronics Selepe wired together a device that allows him to broadcast a radio station.  The project uses a device called a modulator which is what we know as an fm transmitter (possibly used to play your ipod in the car) and commonly used here by taxis to play music from a flash drive.  The modulator is rewired and connected to an amplifier.  The amplifier is also connected to a cd player (to play the stations music), a rewired microphone (so that the dj can talk on the station), and a rewired phone (to allow listeners to call the station).  This isn’t really a HAM radio as it may sound but more taking many old electronics and reconstructing them to make a radio station.  The modulator broadcasts the music, phone call, or voice over for a short distance.  To extend the range, Selepe created a second modulator connected to a small FM radio and powered by a phone battery to rebroadcast the sound after the initial signal would die about 50 m away from the station.

Selepe with his FM Radio project at the district fair

Two form A (8th grade) students also created projects for the fair one a traffic light and the other a maize grinder.  The maize grinder didn’t make it to the fair because it was too big, maybe next year!

Near the end of the science fair a student from a magnet school in town came up to me and said.
“Sir!, how are you?  Did you see the projects, we are improving, can you see Basotho making electronics projects?”
I said.  “Yea man, Basotho are smart! It’s only that we usually don’t have a lot of materials, but that is my student and he is brilliant.  I couldn’t make that project.”
“Yes sir, we are improving!”

This might not seem like that incredible of a conversation but when you consider the circumstances it becomes something bigger.  First, students from Qholaqhoe are from a poor rural school with few of the resources that many of the competing schools have.  Our pass rate is lower than almost all of the other schools at the fair.  Second, Selepe is from a poor family and all of the electronics he has to make his project are junk that people gave him because it wasn’t working.  However, regardless of these challenges, Selepe proved to students even from the wealthy schools that Basotho are smart and that is incredible!

Selepe with a hoard of interested students surrounding his FM Radio project all day

It is a great feeling when you work really hard on something and you get to see someone who deserves it succeed.  Maybe you have to be a parent or a teacher to experience this. 
  •  Students would come to my house on the weekend and after school to work on their projects.
  • We stayed after school many days and came to school on two school holidays to put together the reports and posters.
  • We held a funny day and charged all the students 1 rand not to have to wear their uniform and organized a performance of funny dramas and songs performed by students to raise money to pay for the students to go to the fair.  Many of the students who participated in the quiz and projects can’t even afford to pay the 30 rand ($4) for the taxi to the fair.
  • Me and one other teacher organized everything for the fair, food, transportation, and students, none of the other science teachers at my school are really interested.
  • With the district science teacher association I wrote a proposal to that they distributed to local businesses to get donations.  We got notebooks and math sets from the supermarket that were given to the winners, certificates from the book shop, and trophies from a hardware (they weren’t there yet but hopefully they will come) for winners of each category. 
  • Caitlin, Kyle, and myself, spent most of the two days at the science fair doing all of the grunt work of organizing judges and recording scores.  Without us I don’t know how they would ever finish these events.

After the prizes were given out and we were waiting two hours for our taxi to arrive, Tsepo came up to me and gave me the biggest hug and said “I’m so happy it’s like I could cry!” 

Last year they forgot to announce the electronics project winners and Selepe texted me that night after we got home and was upset and told me he couldn’t sleep because he had worked really hard and didn’t know if he got to move on.  This year when we got home I texted him to remind him (sorry for the Basotho text language):

Remember last year you smsed me that you couldn’t sleep.  Not this year you will sleep well!  Great effort, you have much to be proud of! You had the highest score of any category and age.

Thnks Sir! I aprct.  Its lk im mvng on the atmsphr over the ozone layer.  I fl GR8!

For them it is now back to the national science fair in August and in Selepe’s case a chance to move on to South Africa.  Since last year I have seen their confidence grow and seeing them go back to the science fair as veterans and sweep the categories and be proud of themselves and their abilities was one of the most fun things I’ve done here.  I don’t know how I am going to say goodbye to them in six months and I’m already thinking of ways I can continue to help them when I leave.  They are special kids and they can grow up to be great people. 

We got home at 9 pm after a 3 hour taxi ride with students dancing and singing and the taxi driver bouncing the brakes to the music.  School trips in Lesotho just aren’t the same!

Qholaqhoe teachers dressed up for funny day!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Library Project Fundraising!!!

Hello friends!  It is the rainy season in Lesotho and that means that many afternoons I walk out of my house to amazing rainbows! 

In more important news, our project to build a library at Qholaqhoe High School has been approved!!!  

Read on to find out a bit more about the project and how you can contribute!  I can’t return to the US until this project is funded and finished so if you want to see me again please help!  Haha!  But truthfully this is a project that my counterparts and I have dedicated ourselves to and your support means everything to us!  I truly believe this is a great grassroots development project.

Qholaqhoe High School, the school I teach at, is located in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains in the far northern region of the country.  The school is rural and the nearest shopping town is an hour and a half away via taxi.  The school serves 500 students who are completing grades 8 through 12.  School is taught in English though the native language is Sesotho.  The access to textbooks, classroom space, and learning resources is limited at our school and students struggle to pass standardized exams given at grades 10 and 12.  However, there are many brilliant students who would amaze you by their abilities and dedication to learning even when opportunities are few. 

 Winny and Relebohile, the brightest student at my school (Winny, right) and a brilliant student from my friend Lauren's school Lepakola HS (Relebohile, left) after Friday's debate competition talking together in English about school as they walk down the hill.  These are the students that give me pride to work hard for and the ones the library will most benefit.  They need people to believe in them and with a chance they will amaze you!

One of the opportunities students at Qholaqhoe lack is access to information and a place to engage with materials.  The school currently has over 1000 library books but does not have the space to properly house them.  With my counterparts we have developed a project to first, implement a plan to improve the library operation by organizing the books and training the school cleaning lady to serve as a librarian, and second, construct a library building through a Peace Corps Partnership Program application.   A library will make a huge difference to students at Qholaqhoe by giving them access to materials and a place to read and study.  The current library space will be used as a staff room for teachers to plan lessons.  The details of this project have been extensively planned and I am sure that when this project is completed its success will be greatly felt and appreciated by the Qholaqhoe community.

Myself with two of my students in front of the staff room.

In order to complete this project we have to secure funding in the amount of $5800 to assist the school with the $3500 they have raised through community support.  This is where you come in!  The project is posted on the Peace Corps website at and donations are easiest via the website. 
To find the project search: Koryto or project number: 13-632-002. You may have already received an email from Peace Corps Headquarters on this!  Donations are tax deductible and also can be sent in by check and I can provide that info. 

Or try the following link directly:

I want to involve supporters of this project in more ways than just making a financial donation.  My goal is to keep you informed on the project developments by electronic updates including pictures, descriptions, impressions of my students and teachers, and a thank you letter.  Please email me at  so I can keep you involved in this if you would like!

If you would like to know a bit more about the details of the project a shortened project proposal is continued below on this post.

Thank you!


Project Goals:
  1. To improve the learning environment at Qholaqhoe High School through the construction of a library building, engaging students in reading and research.
  2. To create space that will allow teachers adequate staff room area and students a location to study outside of the classroom.
 Problem Statement:
The current library space is inadequately serving Qholaqhoe High School because of a shortage of space, furniture, and reading material.  Students at Qholaqhoe High School have very limited exposure to outside information from the internet, television, newspapers, or books. This lack of exposure has a negative impact on student’s performance on examinations and their ability to dream and set future goals.  The current library is used for many purposes including meeting room, staff room, book storage, and library which cause it to function poorly in all regards.  Currently there is no space dedicated to student study and teachers are short space to plan lessons. 

Project Description:
The completion of the library building at Qholaqhoe High School will increase the capacity of both students and teachers.  The building will serve as a place for students to gain competency in English, explore information, and study for examinations.  Access to reference materials and increased staff room space will allow teachers to better present material to students.  The building will improve the learning atmosphere of Qholaqhoe High School. 

Parallel to the construction of the library building will be the training of staff and students on the library use.  Beginning immediately a librarian is being trained, books logically reorganized, and procedures established to ensure that the library will sustain as an effective part of the school environment upon completion.

The building will be 9 m x 6 m and located adjacent to the current administration building to ensure that it is closely monitored.  The design includes four study desks with 8 benches and a librarian’s desk in the center of the room.  The interior walls will house the books on low three row shelves with windows above.  Design considerations were based on needs seen in the current space and available materials at the school. 

Project Budget:
Blocks and Sand
Concrete blocks and sands with transport
Cement and block reinforcements
Door, frame, and burglar bar
Windows, frames, and sealant
Iron sheets, timber, and nails
Tiles and tile glue
Undercoat and cover paint
Tables and benches
Building construction
Total Cost

Explanation of Budget:

These costs were found through acquiring quotations from several local hardware stores and suppliers.  The school has fundraised to supply $3501.77, 38% of the project cost, and the $5784.79 will be raised through the Peace Corps Partnership Program.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Start of the 2nd Year

We are now two weeks into the school year in Lesotho with new classes, new students, and a new outlook.  I’m teaching the grade 12 (Form E) and the grade 10 (Form C) math classes.  Both of these are the classes that take huge external exams at the end of the year that determines for Form C’s if they will pass from secondary school to high school and for the Form E’s if they will graduate from high school with high enough marks to go to university.  The tests are crazy long and cover every topic learned in every subject for the last 2 to 3 years.  At Qholaqhoe our pass rate on external exams for math was around 15% and very few of those that passed got higher than a near pass in the 50 and 60%’s.  So hopefully we have nowhere to go but up!

Qholaqhoe High School afternoon assembly.

A year ago when I first started teaching it was so difficult and I didn't think I could do it.  This year my mindset is totally different and I actually enjoy going to school!  It’s crazy to think about how things were last year versus now and it gives credit to the necessity of being here for two years and also how much I have grown individually as a teacher.  I’ve been successful so far at getting to school at 7 am everyday (first period isn’t until 8) to spend extra time with my Form E’s working on math or just encouraging them to work on anything.  We follow an I’m here you’re here policy because I don’t like getting up early and they are required to get there at 7 or face potential beating.  So far teaching the externals has been great there interest in learning is better and generally less disruptive in class.  There are still many things that frustrate me with laziness and maintenance of my school but I want to focus on the things I love about this place because I know a year from now I’m going to miss many things about Qholaqhoe. 

Right now I’m only teaching 2 classes and have extra time to work on other things including the library, math and science club, and a few other small projects in the community and with the district math and science teachers association. 

Library project:
In addition to teaching I am focusing in the short term on working on the school library.  Every day I work with the school leaning lady to reorganize and catalog the books and train her to be the school librarian.  This is a challenge as her English isn't very good and neither is my Sesotho, but we are doing our best!  We also just last week submitted a grant application to Peace Corps to construct a library building at my school.  Just getting to the point of submitting the project application and plan was a small victory!  If approved I will have to raise $5800 from sources at home to compliment the $3300 the school has raised.   A lot more on this to come if we are approved!

Form C students posing for a picture in the library.  The space is small and there is no furniture but we are working to make the organization of the books simpler and easier to follow.

Reorganizing the books by reading level instead of fiction types hopefully will help students to find books and training a librarian will help to keep them in an orderly fashion. 

After school I have been starting to focus on training for a half marathon in Cape Town at the end of March.  How can you not enjoy running when you finish to views like this!

Holidays and a Visit from My Sister

This blog post is long overdue!  Over Christmas I was visited by my sister which was one of the best experiences of Peace Corps.  We kicked off her visit by meeting her at the airport and driving the next day to Kruger National Park.  Driving!  Wow what an experience after not driving for so long and on the left side!  But it was so freeing to have a car after our normal lives of packed four to the backseat in overfull taxis. 
Our car we were very sad to return after putting it through the paces driving through parks and into waterfalls.

The day we visited Kruger was agreed to be one of the most incredible days any of us had experienced!  We saw the Big 5 (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Rhino, and Leopard) in less than 5 hours!  Everywhere we looked there was wildlife.  Caitlin recorded the times and locations of the animals we saw and could hardly keep up with what we were seeing. 
Rhino directly outside of our window
Elephants and also a hippo in the same pool


The most incredible sitting came late in the day when we were driving away from other cars on a less traveled road.  We spotted a bull elephant right by the side of the road.  We watched it for a couple of minutes and it started to walk out in front of the car and we backed up, it then stopped right in the middle of the road and stared straight at us and I reversed fast!  We all screamed before the elephant continued on across the road, all of this on video on Caitlin’s camera.

Emily and I at Kruger Park

The rest of trip was also not without highlights including: White water tubing, Jumping off a 18 story gorge, driving on crazy roads, craft shopping in Swaziland, trying to sneak up on Zebras, and returning to Lesotho and straight to a Christmas party.
Caitlin, myself, and Emily after the Big Swing jump!

For how amazing the trip was the highlight for me was returning to village with my sister.   She got to experience all the aspects of Peace Corps life including:
  •           Traveling on public transport and waiting on the side of the road for a lift with big bags
  •           Movie nights by candle light
  •           Climbing Qholaqhoe Mountain
  •           Seeing my school and meeting my Basotho friends
  •           Washing clothes by hand
  •           Bathing in a bucket
  •           Hiking and visiting the orphan support group
  •           Making tortilla chips from scratch
  •           Greeting people in Sesotho
  •           And, taking pictures with all of my Ntate’s most prized possessions; goats, donkeys, and corn!

Emily with Ntate Tankiso and his donkeys!
At the Likoting support group.

 Homemade chips and salsa!

It was incredible having my sister visit and a time I will forever cherish.  She did everything with ease and I think I complained more about bad transport and annoyances than she did.  It couldn’t have been better and I still miss not having her here.  More visitors are welcome!!!