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Jesse Miller feels he met goals of Peace Corp in Lesotho
Jesse Miller feels he met goals of Peace Corp in Lesotho
Area grad feels he met goals of Peace Corps
By ANNE HARVEY HOYT
LYONS — Homecoming can be bittersweet for a Peace Corps volunteer who experienced the Third World’s grinding poverty and the ravages of AIDS.
Jesse Miller, who lived for two years in Lesotho, one of Africa’s poorest, most remote nations, finds that making sense of the experience was not easy when he returned home in May.
The 1996 graduate of Clyde-Savannah High School can show people his photos and souvenirs — including a decorated walking stick, a blanket, and a round straw hat, symbolizing the mountain where the Basotho people’s independence was born — but it’s more complicated to explain why Lesotho is desperately poor, despite decades of foreign aid and legions of volunteers’ help.
Miller said he thinks he succeeded in meeting two of the Peace Corps’ goals — helping Americans understand more about the Third World and educating African people about the United States, dispelling the myth that everyone here lives like the characters in the TV program “Dallas.”
But he’s not so certain he made even a dent in meeting the needs of the country, which is a little smaller than Maryland and completely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa.
Peace Corps sent him to Lesotho in 2001 as an economic community development specialist, and he helped establish and administer the Selibeng Youth Center in a highland region with 19,000 inhabitants.
While Lesotho has plenty of needs, he explained that volunteers are constrained by the host country’s expectations: They can only do the jobs they are asked to do. Miller described Lesotho as a “development graveyard,” littered with failed, ill-conceived projects.
“We still need to help, but how to help is important to look at. I think other Peace Corps countries have had more success than Lesotho,” he said.
The Selibeng Youth Center is in a small trading community, called Mohale’s Hoek, which Miller said reminded him of a Wild West town.
Shepherders ride donkeys and horses up and down a dusty main street lined with a half dozen low-slung houses, saloons and stores. The red ochre cliffs and snow-dusted peaks of the Maluti mountains form a backdrop. Miller lived on a back street, in a trailer behind a small hotel catering to adventurous tourists.
With a German volunteer, Miller wrote a constitution for the center and established its rules. He fixed up an abandoned church, patching the walls and sagging ceiling with materials provided by the Japanese embassy.
In keeping with the Peace Corps policy of encouraging local leadership, Miller was not the program leader, but instead administered the center, a duty that he treated as a full-time job, putting in 9-to-5 days, five days a week. A 25-year-old local woman and former crime prevention specialist, Seipate, was hired as the leader, and a council that included four elected youth representatives made decisions.
The program served youth ages 16 to 25 who were considered “at risk” because they were not in school or employed. The idea was to give them something to do with their time, as well as teaching skills that might be useful, Miller explained. The center was established partly in response to riots and widespread looting that devastated the country’s fragile economy after the 1998 general election. Miller said the goal was to address the monumental needs of disaffected youth while forestalling similar problems with the 2002 elections.
According to the “World Fact Book,” nearly half of Lesotho’s workforce is unemployed; fully one-third of the population depends on foreign food aid, and debt to other countries eats up 65 percent of the gross domestic product. A substantial portion of Lesotho’s greatest natural resource, its water, is sold to South Africa, although Lesotho itself suffers with drought. A border dispute with South Africa has deprived Lesotho of its most fertile land, and the arable land that remains is in danger of becoming desert.
Graffiti, Miller said, testifies to Lesotho’s continuing resentment over the loss.
Thanks to recent legislation allowing textiles from Lesotho to be imported into the United States duty free, garment factories are springing up, offering some employment for women. But for most boys, Miller said, life entails tending sheep until they are old enough to cross the border and work in the South African gold mines.
He said more than a third of the country’s men work outside Lesotho, and when they return from the mines more than 70 percent of them are infected with the AIDS/HIV virus.
With only 2 million people, Lesotho has the fourth highest AIDS/HIV infection rate in the world. Many of the youth who came to the center were uneducated but had been responsible for caring for their younger siblings because their parents were dead or dying, Miller said.
The Selibeng Youth Center offered classes in rudimentary business skills and health care; sponsored workshops on erosion control and soil conservation; and promoted several income-generating projects. The center’s drama group was famous for its AIDS-awareness skits and toured the country, performing at festivals.
After returning to the United States last spring, Miller, 26, spent a couple of months traveling and was home for a few weeks with his mother, Adele Miller-Wadsworth, of Summit Street. Now, he’s a master’s degree candidate in climatology at the University of Arizona. He graduated from Cornell University in 2000 with a degree in Environmental Systems Technology.
Last week, he learned that someone had broken into the Selibeng Youth Center and stolen the money earned through fundraising projects. It would have been used to sponsor programs for the coming year. His mother has been raising funds for two women’s crafts cooperatives in Lesotho through a professional organization she belongs to, Delta Kappa Gamma Society International for women in education.
United Nations officials consider the Selibeng Youth Center such a success that it has become a model for future centers. Miller considers himself fortunate to have had the assignment.
And his mother says she’s proud of what he accomplished there.