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Searching for success in Zimbabwe despite risks
Searching for success in Zimbabwe despite risks
Searching for success despite risks
Two local volunteers see impact of efforts during missions in Africa
By Mei-Ling Hopgood
Dayton Daily News
Caption: Peace Corps volunteer Susanne Oldham says the service she provides to the people of Lesotho outweighs the dangers faced by Americans in the region. "You're not totally safe every minute. But the benefits are so much more than the cost." Photo: Chris Stewart Dayton Daily News
AFETENG, Lesotho | The burglars broke into her home just five days after she arrived in Lesotho.
Peace Corps volunteer Susanne Oldham knew well the potential dangers. During her first Peace Corps assignment in Zimbabwe, she had sung at the memorial service of a volunteer who had been beaten to death. She was later evacuated, and ended up here, where she worked as an HIV-AIDS volunteer.
"You just have to keep your guard up all the time," said Oldham, 52, a Yellow Springs native who returned home last month.
Michael Coleman, a 28-year-old Dayton native, works as an AIDS volunteer about an hour’s drive south in the town of Mohale’s Hoek. Staying safe seems easier for men, he said, but he has been mugged in Maseru, the capital city.
"We all feel pretty safe," he said. "I think a lot of that happens when we’re outside of where we live."
Since Coleman and Oldham arrived in Lesotho in June 2002, fellow volunteers have left after being threatened or attacked in their homes. During the first half of 2003, Lesotho reported more incidents of assault on volunteers than any other Peace Corps country. The Peace Corps staff in Maseru cautions volunteers about riding in taxis alone, and also limits their travel and visits to the capital city.
Like many volunteers, Oldham and Coleman expected some level of risk living in an impoverished country. They hoped the experience of being abroad and having local people meet Americans, as well as the prospect of helping people, would be worth it.
Coleman tries to raise awareness of AIDS among youth. Oldham taught the local people how to care for HIV-infected people in their homes. Yet both realize that their efforts or projects may not outlast their stay in this small country.
"It's not an easy job," Coleman said.
Oldham, who wanted to join the fight against AIDS in Africa, arrived in Zimbabwe in August 2001.
Just one month before, the Peace Corps cut its numbers there by nearly two-thirds, mostly in rural areas where black farmers were seizing land occupied by white farmers. Urban volunteers remained, even as the relationship between the United States and Zimbabwe grew more tense.
In October, volunteer Larisa Jaffe was murdered during a home robbery in Mutare. Oldham sang Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant us Peace) at Jaffe’s memorial service. A month later, the Peace Corps evacuated all volunteers from Zimbabwe after President Robert Mugabe refused to issue volunteer teacher work visas. Oldham returned to the States before flying to Lesotho in June 2002.
Oldham was first posted in a four-room home at the end of a long, partly paved road outside Mafeteng. The view was beautiful, but she had a nearly two-mile walk to town. She felt too isolated and demanded a land-line phone. Five days later, while she was out, someone pried open the Peace Corps-installed bars on her door and stole a high-quality short-wave radio and CDs, among other belongings. The Peace Corps brought her to Maseru, where she stayed seven weeks until she and the staff found housing in Mafeteng.
Coleman’s life in Mohale’s Hoek started much slower. At first, he spent some long and frustrating days doing nothing much but reading. But after several months he managed to get some projects going.
"I’m known as the crazy white guy who does AIDS work," said Coleman, who graduated from Wright State University in 1999, then worked in Washington, D.C., for AmeriCorps and a nonprofit agency that builds playgrounds.
One day last February children playfully shouted to him, "Hello! How are you?" in a nasally voice they think Americans have.
As Coleman spoke, nearly 100 students — mostly girls dressed in black V-neck sweaters with thin legs poking out from beneath their gray skirts — crowded in the St. Stephens High School science laboratory.
"He’s cute," said 13-year-old Rethabile Leqaoe.
Coleman opened with a formal greeting in the native language of Sesotho.
"Lumelang!" (Good day to you.)
"Lumela Ntate," the room booms. (Good day to you, sir.)
A couple of days later Coleman recruited other Peace Corps volunteers in the region to help run a World Vision event promoting HIV awareness.
By 8:30 a.m., the 42-kilometer race that was supposed to have begun at 7 a.m. had not begun, there was no sign of the speakers who were supposed to be on hand, and local women — the Bo-’mˇ — were trying to take the T-shirts meant for the children.
Amid the chaos, Coleman focused on an essential Peace Corps survival skill: patience.
During training, the children in Oldham's host family gave her the Sesotho name of "Lerato," which means "love." But she liked better a name some other children gave her. She became "Makatleho," mother of success.
"I wasn’t here out of love," Oldham said. "I was here to be successful." Doing that in a country where bureaucracy and formality often trumps practicality, and where resources are slim, can be a tough calling. Oldham, an energetic woman with hazel eyes and a directness that can be disarming to her African counterparts, had concentrated on helping to organize the district task force aimed at coordinating AIDS efforts in the region. She instructed local groups how to teach others proper home care for AIDS patients.
Her local "counterpart," Leboana T’sasanyane, chairman of the home-based care program, said the district’s task force "failed" after the last Peace Corps volunteer left.
Oldham "put us back together," he said.
Will the task force keep going without her?
He didn’t know.
Coleman and Oldham were living quite comfortably when a reporter visited them last February. Coleman has a large three-bedroom house — the nicest he has had as an adult — in a fenced-in family compound. Figs, pomegranates, peaches, grapes and walnuts grow in his lawn. He falls asleep to the sounds of cicadas, cars with bad mufflers and the bellowing of the family cow. Volunteers passing through the area often stop here to crash.
His parents in Tipp City send him snacks, magazines, the Dayton Daily News and Gillette razors that would cost him 120 Rand — about $175 — or 10 percent of his monthly income. Coleman and Oldham, like most volunteers in Lesotho, have international cell phones, which their families can call or they can use to contact the Peace Corps.
Peace Corps officials warned Coleman that previous volunteers had reported people knocking on their doors late at night, so he was a bit nervous. But after six months, he felt secure.
For about 11 months, Oldham lived inside a steel-gated family compound, near a field where a mismatched corrugated tin fence keeps stray cows and goats out of a soccer field.
To save money, her boss, the Mafeteng district secretary, wanted to move her to a larger house, with three bedrooms and a marble fireplace. But the windows and the security bar had been broken.
Oldham told him no.
Her one-room home was divided artfully into two sections by a curtain. She had a shower, a toilet, a refrigerator and a gas stove. She was able to pay for trips to South Africa to buy luxuries such as olive oil, lettuce and wine. She used a laptop to access the Internet at home, and had a satellite radio through which she could listen to National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corporation. She even got the New Yorker magazine, though about three weeks late.
On certain days, Oldham did Taebo with other volunteers. She wanted to stay in shape, and Taebo was an alternative to taking long walks alone, she said.
Oldham left in September to return to Ohio. Between Zimbabwe and Lesotho, she had given the Peace Corps about two years of her life, and that was enough, she said. She had accomplished what she had hoped.
"You’re not totally safe every minute," she said. "But the benefit is much more than the cost."
[From the Dayton Daily News: 10.28.2003]