Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lesotho Log

Scott spent July in southern Africa, in the country of Lesotho.

July 15, 2008

"Everything is going very well here! Lesotho is awesome and you should visit sometime. It's been a great experience to see Masianokeng after talking about it in the class that I took (though I never thought that I would say that).
"The people here are very friendly and love talking to us and playing games. I want to get some pictures posted soon, but our internet connection isn't exactly fast (and costs $250 per month!).

"It is VERY cold here, unfortunately. We pre-pay for our electricity and water, and have meters in the townhouse that let us know how much we have left. It's pretty interesting, because we have made more efforts to conserve both electricity and water now that we have box reminding us how much electricity we've used every time we walk by the kitchen. I believe that we never would have done this if we only got a bill at the end of the month. This also means that we are reluctant to use our electric space heaters at night because they waste a ton of electricity (which, I guess, is a good thing in the end). Luckily, the Basotho make very warm blankets :). (I've also noticed that our pre-paid cell phones force us to call a free number to learn how many minutes we have left... I'll bet that they don't have a display on the phone because they know that you use more minutes this way... thought you might find that interesting!)"

July 17, 2008

"Today is the King's birthday so the entire country has shut down to celebrate. Unfortunately, the celebration rotates between the different districts (states) each year, and this year it is in Mafateng which is too far for us to travel for the day. Because of the festivities, nothing is open and we're hanging out at home all day entering survey data into the computer.

"Entering the data is frustrating, boring, and time-consuming. We handed out well over 100 12-page surveys to our community and now we have to enter all of the responses into an Excel spreadsheet so that some people back in the US can go over it and give us recommendations. We're able to enter about 10 surveys per hour, if we're lucky. Sadly, the education level of the average community member is so low that the responses are often hard to interpret. Formats that we take for granted, like filling out a table or those insufferable "rate this long list of items from 1 to 5," are not well-known here, so we have gotten some surveys that have almost useless data.

"On the upside, I will always be a much better survey-taker in the future. I'm the kind of person who would always write in technicalities or small differences from what a written survey wanted because none of the options were quite right. After having to enter in all of these, I know that I will be nice to the people reading future surveys that I fill out. Also, it makes you appreciate computer-based surveys that reject bad inputs (telling you to enter it in a specific format, not letting you select two choices, etc) even though those often annoy me.

"Next week, we're meeting with many government ministries to talk about what they're doing and to try to coordinate different projects here. It seems like BTB is trying to coordinate aid efforts in the whole country, actually. Apparently, we may even get to meet the King! It really says something about the country when we can just waltz in and meet with various Ministers.

"We also visited Queen Elizabeth II hospital yesterday. It's the main hospital for the entire country, and, unfortunately, it's in pretty bad shape. It's definitely not as bad as I had feared, but they are undersupplied, understaffed, and running out of a very old building. Our tour guide was a machinist who was very upbeat and practically a comedian, making the tour that much more interesting. If I've had an "Africa moment" that will change my life, the tour was it.

"Well, I'm going to enjoy my day off today and relax. We'll probably be getting together with the other, long-term interns to have a party tonight to celebrate the King's birthday (they leave on Sunday). I can't believe that we've already spent over half of our time here, so we need to get out and enjoy every last minute in Lesotho.

"Until then, though, I've got more surveys to enter..."

Rice University maintains a Web site for students to blog about their experience. What follows is Scott's blog, beginning with an introduction by a Rice administrator:
Reports from Lesotho

Scott is an electrical engineer who graduated in May and will be attending Caltech in the fall for graduate school. He is relatively new to sustainable engineering, but has a strong interest in water purification and electricity generation, distribution, and storage. His capstone senior design project involved designing and fabricating a modular water purification system for use in developing countries. He is excited to travel to Lesotho for his first assessment trip and is interested in learning about sustainable design firsthand. "Thapelo," meaning "prayer," is Scott's Sesotho name. It was given to him by Thabang, a driver for Perfect Taxi in Maseru. His BTB internship was arranged in partnership with the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

One week of family interviews
by Scott "Thapelo" S***** on July 10, 2008

Now that we have been in Lesotho for a week, I have learned a lot about the area surrounding Maseru. June and I are working in Ha Bosofo, a large community on a hilltop near Masianokeng, about 25 minutes from our townhome in Maseru. The first couple days in Bosofo were somewhat awkward as we were still settling into our roles in the community and learning the culture of the Basotho. I had never done anything remotely resembling a community assessment in a developing country before, so everything was new to me. As we learn the typical routines of the residents in Bosofo, we can interact more naturally with the families that we are interviewing and make the experience more rewarding for everybody.

Yesterday went very well as we met several people who are a lot of fun. One girl is on winter vacation right now and will be starting University in August. She loves walking around with us and helping to translate. We also met several small children who followed us all day, playing games with us as we walked. Sophie visited in the afternoon, and the children had a great time playing with her.

The end result of our good day yesterday was that these people ran out to meet us today as we walked up the hill to the community, providing us with a small entourage as we walked around!

Overall, the Basotho are very friendly and our interactions in the community are lots of fun. I am looking forward to returning tomorrow to interview the area that we walked through at the end of today. We passed many people who were excited to finally see the foreigners who they heard were in the village and were a little sad that we did not have time to interview them today.

Panoramic view of Ha Bosofo
by Scott "Thapelo" S***** on July 11, 2008

Sometimes a picture can be worth a thousand words:


This is a panoramic picture taken from a hill at the top of Ha Bosofo. The houses in the foreground are all part of the community, with the main highway in Lesotho in the middle of the picture (hard to see) marking the boundary. I would estimate that there are around 200-250 homes in Ha Bosofo.

Since part of Ha Bosofo is on a hilltop, we have an amazing view each time we hike up to the village and look around. This picture doesn't even come close to doing it justice. The top of the hill is a large, flat maize field from which we can see Masianokeng and Motloheloa, where the other assessments are taking place. In this picture, they are both in the distance on the left.

Behind the camera, the maize field extends for a very long way and leads towards the high mountains of Lesotho off in the distance. The community members tell us that the mountains are expecting snow this weekend, which will make it even colder in the (relative) lowlands near Maseru. I'm not really looking forward to the chilly weather, but I do hope that snowcapped mountains will improve the view even more.

Right now, the picture that is linked above is a somewhat low-resolution version of the full picture. I hope to upload the entire image when I return to the States and have an internet connection capable of uploading it.

About the assessment
by Scott "Thapelo" S***** on July 14, 2008

With a bit of a day off today, I've found time to relax for the first time since arriving in Lesotho. We have been really busy with our community assessments, and I realized that none of our blog posts actually mention what we're doing out here.

Week 1, this past week, was spent going house-to-house talking with families in our communities in order to get a feel for the area. We met many different people from all over the village and began to integrate ourselves into the community, inviting everyone to a meeting on Sunday. We also asked detailed questions to many families to get an idea of water, energy, and health concerns in Ha Bosofo.

Yesterday, we had our large community meeting where we passed out a rather long survey to be filled out by each household. The survey format allows us to ask the exact same questions to everyone in the same setting, and hopefully remove unknown or unconscious biases in the different ways we conduct our house-to-house visits. Ha Bosofo impressed me as well over 100 people turned out to take the survey, probably due to our hard work reaching out to many different people in the community during the week. The survey covered many different areas in great detail, allowing us to get a large, well-rounded data set for a baseline assessment of the town. We also served sandwiches and tea to the participants in the survey, so that we could ensure a good turnout. It's sad, but I got the impression that the small sandwiches that we were handing out may have been a good part of everyone's meal for the day.

I attended Masianokeng Church yesterday before the survey along with several of the assessment interns and staff here. Our community representative, who has been helping us as a translator, was invovled in the service as a sort of associate pastor. While I didn't understand anything that was said, the components of the service were reminiscent of an American church service. The Basotho are also very good singers, as the hymns during church were absolutely beautiful (we also heard a school choir at Masianokeng High School one day, and their voices are simply outstanding). Later, Lauren S. found out that the sermon, which sounded fiery in Sesotho, was a parable about some people who traveled very far to help a poor region. The pastor had written a special sermon because she knew that we were attending church that day!

We will be compiling the data gained during the surveys over the next few days and looking for interesting patterns that warrant a follow-up in the community. We may have missed major factors during our house-to-house visits, or the surveys may contradict what we had discovered last week. Hopefully, we will be able to reconcile the differences over the next two weeks. In the end, the surveys have allowed us to contact a much larger number of people than the house-to-house visits, and the anonymous setting may give us different results than when we were in people's homes with translators from the community present.

The second half of this week, and our third week will be spent back in the communities following up on the surveys and mapping the community using GPS and other means. We will continue to talk to families, but some of the focus will have shifted to community resources, like public water pumps or small businesses in the community.

We also hope to implement several small-scale projects next week, so that we can show that BTB is committed to helping the three villages around Masianokeng. Last Saturday, we helped Neha and Josh with building a keyhole garden at Masianokeng High School's Environmental Center. It's a great idea, and hopefully it can be expanded into the surrounding areas. We also have some insulation that we would like to install in a building somewhere, and we have several other ideas as well. We will be updating the blog with our ideas soon.

Our time in Lesotho is very short, and it's a bit of a shame that we don't have more time in order to fully explore the communities. Like I said before, the Basotho are very friendly people and I think that I have made some good friends in Ha Bosofo already!

Thoughts about prepaid utilities
by Scott "Thapelo" S***** on July 20, 2008

As I stood in line to buy more electricity for our townhome the other day, I began to think about the effect of prepaid utilities on our resource usage. All utilities are prepaid in Lesotho because a billing system would simply not be feasible here. So, we must pay for our electricity and water, and then enter a special code into the utility meters that we have in our house. I believe that this system encourages conservation of the utilities.


Since this electricity meter staring us in the face every time we walk between our living room and the rest of the house, prominently displaying a number that is always counting down, we notice how much electricity we are using on a daily - and even hourly - basis. We must pay attention to our electricity usage or we run the risk of having the electricity shut off by the utility company.

We have modified our habits day-to-day in order to reduce electricity usage, and I believe that we have been doing a better job of conserving energy here in Lesotho than we are able to in the United States. For example, we all used electric space heaters the first few nights that we were in Maseru, but we soon realized that they consumed a ridiculous amount of electricity for the minimal comfort that they provided and we haven't turned them on since then. The biggest remaining electricity hog is our water heater, which, honestly, I'm not willing to give up because it's the only source of warmth in this house.

I wonder if similar electricity meters, located inside the house, would reduce energy consumption in the United States. Most people only learn the amount of electricity they've used when they get a bill at the end of the month, which makes it difficult to know how much energy was wasted by leaving a light on while nobody was in the room, for example. If a person were constantly notified of their electricity usage, I believe that they would make an effort to reduce their instantaneous energy consumption.

Of course, the price of the utility also plays a big role in conservation I have mainly been discussing our electricity usage because electricity is significantly more expensive than water in Maseru. At about 0.077 USD/kWh, we spend about USD2.30 per day (30 kWh) on electricity. In comparison, we have spent less than USD3.00 on water during our entire time here. Since water is Lesotho's only notable natural resource, it is relatively cheap in comparison to other utilities. Electricity is significantly more complicated here. I believe that it's generated by hydroelectric plants in Lesotho (that's the water again!), sold to South Africa, and then sold back to Lesotho for consumption. Rumor has it that South Africa has been cutting off Lesotho's power in order to supply their own country, leaving us in the dark almost daily. Because of all this, electricity is relatively expensive in Maseru.

I hate to say it, but we do not take many extra steps to conserve water like we do with electricity, probably due to two reasons: First, the water meter is outside and we have to go out of our way to read how much water we have left before we're cut off. Second, and probably more importantly, water is cheap and we are not in any real danger of using too much. If either one of these would change, I'd bet that we would immediately begin to consciously conserve water around the house.

The rapidly increasing price of gasoline presents an analogous situation in the rest of the world. People were always often reminded of how much gas they had been using when filling up the tank once a week, but driving habits have only recently begun to change significantly as the effect of driving conservatively becomes more noticeable in the amount of money spent on fuel. Perhaps it takes both the ability to notice the effect of small changes in the use of a commodity and a high price for the commodity before conservation is common.

Interestingly, the prepaid cell phones here (and, as far as I know, everywhere) do not display the amount of money left on the phone for making calls even though the technology is certainly available. You have to go out of your way to call a special toll-free number to be told the balance on your account. Probably, the phone companies know that people will spend more money on their service if they are not constantly reminded of how much money they're spending. This can't be done with electricity or water because shutting off a cell phone's service is relatively harmless.

In the end, I believe that utility conservation could be promoted in other places by prominently locating meters within people's homes, so that they are often reminded about how much of the resource they're using. As utility prices increase, of course, the same conservation effect will be boosted substantially by a more urgent need for conservation.

Returning home
by Scott "Thapelo" S***** on August 7, 2008

Well, it's been a week and a half since I've returned to the US and my thoughts are mixed. It's nice to be back, but it's also sad because Lesotho offers many things that you just can't get here. I've written up a list of things that I'm going to miss and things that I'm glad to have again, with some being more serious than others:

Things I'm going to miss:

  1. The People - First and foremost, I'm going to miss all of the great people we met while in Maseru and our individual communities. In three short weeks, I made some great friends in the country and I hope to keep in touch with some of them.
    • Ntate Thulo - Our community representative and current board member at Masianokeng HS was very helpful and translated for us while walking around Ha Bosofo. Everyone in the community knew him, and he was incredibly kind to us.
    • 'Me Mamolemo - She served as our main translator in Ha Bosofo during her winter vacation from teaching agriculture at a local high school. She and her family were always fun to talk to.
    • Makhotso - About to enter university, she also translated for us because she was so bored during her winter vacation. She was very polite, but when it came time to lay down the law she became a very tough girl. We wouldn't have gotten any data from our surveys if she weren't around.
    • Andreas - He is about to graduate university with a degree in political science, and we had many very insightful conversations with him. I've been in brief email contact with him, and I hope to stay in touch for a long time.
    • Mr. Chimombe - The headmaster of Masianokeng HS is one of my heroes. He is doing so much incredible work for the students at the high school and the surrounding area, it's hard to describe. I could write a whole post about what he's doing.
    • Ntate Mphi - We didn't meet Ntate Mphi until we only had a few days left in Ha Bosofo, but talking with him provided me with one of my coolest life experiences ever. He used to teach Sesotho to Peace Corps volunteers in Lesotho and showed us some pictures of him with various PCVs. Included in the stack of pictures were some taken from when he was a Boy Scout as a child: rock climbing, camping, and at some sort of retreat in Botswana. I mentioned that I used to be a Boy Scout as well, and he started saying the Scout Oath. When I joined in, the connection that I felt with this man who grew up in a completely different time and place was simply amazing. Until this point, I had never really felt too strongly about Boy Scouts, but I now know it's influence over me.
    • The taxi drivers from Perfect Taxi - We practiced Sesotho with them during the half hour car rides to and from Ha Bosofo and really got to know some of them well. Thabang gave me my Sesotho name 'Thapelo,'or 'prayer.' Two now have my email address, and I hope to hear from them as well.
  2. The Atmosphere - With a few upgrades, I could easily see myself living in Ha Bosofo for years. The view from the top of the hill is incredible, and the atmosphere of community is great. While the houses are small, everything is done outside which promotes interaction with neighbors. One of the things that I liked the most about living in the dorms at Rice was the interaction between different rooms. We rarely locked our door when people were in the room, and friends would walk in unannounced all the time. I observed some of this behavior in Ha Bosofo and like it very much.
  3. Being Able to Walk Places - It's impractical to walk anywhere in suburban America, forcing me to drive everywhere. In the near future, driving private cars will likely become a luxury. Most of Lesotho is set up so that everything is within walking distance out of necessity, but it's also more efficient from an energy standpoint.
  4. Mediteranee - This was the pizza place near Lancer's Inn that got us through many days. Cooking took way too long on the electric stove we had (we spent well over an hour once trying to get a pot of potatoes to boil), so we ate pizza from Mediteranee often. It's a somewhat gourmet place and I think I tried everything on their menu that didn't have meat I wasn't comfortable eating or Thousand Island dressing on it. They put pineapple, banana, and kiwi on the Tropicana (hey! pineapple is good, why not the rest?) and it was pretty good when it was made right.
  5. Veggies - Many of the foods in Lesotho taste much better than their American counterparts, mainly because they're made to be eaten right away instead of needing to survive several weeks' storage. Somewhat surprisingly, vegetables were rich in flavor and I loved leafy veggies prepared in the traditional fashion.

Things I prefer about the US:

  1. Uninterrupted Access to Electricity - The power would go out in Maseru almost every day due to load shedding in South Africa. Someone in Lesotho's government made a bad deal with South Africa at one point, so Lesotho suffers from very frequent blackouts in exchange for a little money from South Africa. You don't notice how dependent you are on electricity until you're rushing to charge your electronics while the power is on.
  2. Central Heat - Another comfort that I'm too spoiled to do without. It was cold at night in our townhome, and trying to work on my computer was near impossible when my fingers were frozen. Sleeping wasn't so bad because the Basotho make very warm blankets, so I'd probably have to adjust my daily schedule if I were to live in Lesotho for very long.
  3. Food Other Than Reconstituted Soup - Partially because we're no good at cooking, but also because we stayed away from meat, cheese, and any other products that needed to be refrigerated (because of the blackouts), powdered soup was one of our only options. If we'd had more time or were less busy during the time that we did have, we would have been able to explore more options in the food department. Mark did make a delicious vegetable stew once, but we also didn't have 2 hours to devote to dinner each night. I'm glad to be back with a wider selection of foods.

That's certainly not a comprehensive list, but I'm getting tired of thinking of new ideas. I'll try to update the list soon.

I hope to return to Lesotho soon to talk with the people in Ha Bosofo again. I wasn't anywhere close to accomplishing the things that I wanted to, but that does leave me with a compelling reason to return.

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