Daniel Wheeler GLOW campTo complete the practicum requirement in UAB's MA-TESOL program, Daniel chose the option of teaching English for two years in Lesotho, Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

How to sum up my service of over a year as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a single word? Easy: Community. How to sum up my service in a single page? Impossible. I could tell you about the excitement and anticipation we all felt as trainees, stepping off the 27-hour flight into a foreign country, knowing that we would be spending the next 27 months of our lives here. But how could I tell you about the feelings of welcome we experienced as we entered the training villages for the first time, the entire community turning out to celebrate our arrival, the Bo-'M'e (mothers) dancing and singing in joy as they welcomed their new sons and daughters. I could tell you about the long, scorching weeks of training, learning the local language and culture, Peace Corps policy, and how to teach HIV/AIDS mitigation strategies to our future communities. But how could I explain the sense of family that grew among us trainees, built by hours of shared fun, commiseration, and exploring the many mountains that give the Sky Kingdom of Lesotho its well-deserved name? Well, I guess I could try. 

Daniel Wheeler Senqu RiverNobody would say that Lesotho (pronounced leh-SUE-too) is a developed country, or a rich one, or even a popular tourist destination (indeed, before finding out where I would be serving in the Peace Corps, I hadn't even heard of Lesotho, much less knew where to find it on a map), but no one could deny Lesotho is a peaceful one. After training and being placed at my site in Thaba-Tseka district (one of the more rural and mountainous regions of Lesotho), I found myself living in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Majestic mountains stretch across the horizon in every direction, the powerful Senqu River flows right below my village, and the scatterings of villages and houses are the only man-made structures in sight amongst the valleys, grassy hilltops, and farmland. The sunsets are amazing. Only one thing is more beautiful than the location: the people.

Now when I summed up my experience with the word community, I was not thinking about my fellow volunteers, nor was I referring to the amazing Peace Corps staff members (although they have been a source of support throughout my service). This word has taken on new meanings as I have immersed myself in the local community, which although is not wealthy, is rich with culture and a deep sense of connectedness. Imagine a place where everyone is considered your mother or your father, your sister or your brother; a place where it is rudenot to greet complete strangers and have an entire conversation with them, to the point where the time comes to leave and you feel like you're saying goodbye to family; a place where an entire village will give what they can (which honestly is often more than they can spare) to make sure that an orphaned student can stay in school, even going as far as to taking him in and treating him like family. Lesotho is this place. I have never met a more beautiful  and caring people than the Besotho, and likely never will again. Such is the place that I find myself living in and such are the people I find myself serving, proudly and gratefully. But, this isn't to say I haven't encountered my fair share of challenges and problems, far from it.

Daniel Wheeler studentsSince beginning my service, swearing-in as an Education Volunteer in December of 2015, I have continually run into difficult situations that, as a teacher and as an American, I find difficult to deal with. Corporal punishment is culturally accepted and practiced in both the home and at school. Critical thinking skills are never taught, so logic isn't valued highly and many teaching strategies and methodologies that are effective in the States only serve to confuse my learners. The English proficiency level in Lesotho is generally low, and no place more so than the remote and rural areas up here in the mountains, where learners' only exposure to English is limited to a forty-minute period. I have constantly found myself challenged in new and often frustrating areas. As a result, though, I have grown in innumerable ways, as a Volunteer, a teacher, and as a person. I have learned how to cope with and overcome many of these challenges, often with unexpected solutions. People have surprised me, stepping up to leadership roles to address issues and problems within the community, including HIV/AIDS, supporting Orphaned and Vulnerable Children (OVCs), and creating a safe environment for our children to learn and develop (including the elimination of corporal punishment). While most of those issues are still works in progress, we've made great strides towards overcoming them together, as a community.

To date, we have all but eliminated corporal punishment and gender-based violence/discrimination in all its forms at my school, and have made efforts to do so in the students' homes as well. This was made possible by the combined efforts of teachers, community members, and the local leadership, through village gatherings, teacher-training workshops, and school board meetings. We all found common ground, despite our cultural differences, in the fact that we all want the same things for our kids - for them to be healthy, happy, and safe. This past year, we have held a GLOW camp (Girls Leading Our World) to raise awareness about gender equality and to empower the female youth to dream big and achieve their goals. We've also put together a Community English Program so that out-of-school youth and adult community members can further their education.

Daniel Wheeler countrysideMore recently, we had an HIV/AIDS testing event in our community, which not only turned out to be an amazing success, but also has become one of the most amazing experiences of my service. The plan was for a few health workers from the local clinic to come out to the village to talk to our students about HIV/AIDS, safe-sex practices, and how to make healthy choices. Afterwards, they would have the option to be tested and given counseling if the results were positive for HIV or to continue the  conversation they started in the classroom about living healthy if they tested negative. That was the plan. What happened next was something incredible, though it didn't  seem that way at first.

Daniel Wheeler gardenVery few students showed up the morning of the testing event, much to the disappointment of my fellow teachers and the frustration of the health workers who had made the long drive up the rocky, remote road to the village. After hours of waiting and only a few more participants arriving, we were about ready to end the event early when we spotted a very large group making their way up the road. We were not sure who they were, since there were many adults and students from other schools, in addition to several of our own students. We had originally thought that they were coming here for a funeral, all too common in Lesotho, and believed that to be the reason for the absent students. But when this group arrived, they informed us that they were ALL there to be tested. The students had brought their families with them.

As a result, not only did every student show up after all, and not only did they all volunteer to be tested, but many of their siblings, parents, and even grandparents did so as well. They chose to stay as a family throughout the health education discussions, testing, and counseling sessions as well, supporting each other and responding to this event as they do to all events in their lives, as a family and as a community. Even more amazing than this, however, was the result: not a single student in my school tested positive for HIV, almost unheard of amongst the communities in my region; something for my community to take pride in - which they certainly do. 

Daniel Wheeler schoolCurrently, we are striving to complete a piggery project at the school to generate income that will directly benefit OVCs, granting them a way to overcome the hardships they have had to endure and giving them an opportunity to better their quality of life. In addition, we have been collecting donations of clothes, household goods, and other various supplies from the local community to donate directly to the OVCs and the families struggling to take care of them. Future plans have us building a recreational center and athletics field to further promote a healthy lifestyle and to provide a place for community members to play happily and safely outside of school.

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