Peace Corps -WWU Alumni
Jim Gunsolus, Lesotho (77-81)
My wife and I came to Lesotho in November, 1977 as part of a training group of 24 new volunteers. Lesotho is surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. While it is politically independent, Lesotho is very dependent on South Africa for employment opportunities, the supply of manufactured goods and trade links. Because this was during the bad old days of apartheid, we had a front row seat during an historic time.
I'm Jim Gunsolus, Western Washington University's Peace Corps campus recruiter. I am aWWU graduate (Special Education, 1975) and I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, Southern Africa from 1977-1981. I taught at the National Teachers Training College and supervised student teachers during their year-long field assignments.
All Peace Corps assignments begin with a training period in the country of service. Volunteers undergo 8-12 weeks of language, cross-cultural and technical training before they start working at their site. Training is, in the words of Charles Dickens, "The best of times and the worst of times." On the positive side you learn new skills, get acquainted with the language and culture of your new home and make lifelong friends with fellow trainees. The negative aspects include an itch to get to your site and escape from group-think, living out of a backpack and eating cafeteria style food.
Training always includes a village live-in, an opportunity to make embarassing mistakes in your new language, eat local food and live with a family. Some volunteers never leave home and end up being "adopted" by their host family for their 2 years assignment.
My wife and I were assigned to the small town of Morija, 30 kilometers from then capital of Maseru. Peace Corps and the National Teachers Training College located a house for us in the village. After living there for two months we found another place on our own. Our house was a one room rondavel, 17 feet in diameter, with a soaring thatch ceiling and thick mud brick walls. Running water, a wooden floor, a kerosene lantern and a freshly dug latrine put us solidly in the middle class. The traditional construction kept the house cool in summer (highs in upper 80's) and warm in winter (temps regularily dropped below freezing at night). Volunteers who taught at high schools had three room houses on campus (with baths!), those in the rural mountain areas doing fisheries or agriculture usually had dirt floors and hauled their own water.
My typical work day began early in the morning, saddling up one of our horses or mounting the trusty Honda 125 motorcycle and traveling over the mountains to visit one of my student teachers. There, after beating my way through the welcoming pack of village dogs, I would observe a lesson or two, by popular demand give a demonstration lesson, confer with the head teacher, and served lunch while being serenaded by beautiful acapella singing.
Then it was back on my horse or bike, through the snarling gauntlet of mutts, over the mountains and home. Flooding rivers, flat tires, stampeding cows and chatty villagers appeared with regularity to add interest to the day.
As a secondary project, I obtained funding from the Government of the Netherlands to construct and supply an Educational Resource Centre- a mini library filled with reference materials and teaching aids for the area's educators
While the standard Peace Corps assignment is 2 years, we extended our tour for an additional year to aid the transition of NTTC field staff from Americans to local Basotho and to finish construction of the ERC. Our third year was really the most productive. By that time, we had mastered the language, made a lot of close friends, knew the best way to work the system in the College and Ministry of Education and felt comfortable operating in the culture.
Of course Peace Corps service is not all work and no play. On the weekends we would visit Basotho friends and other volunteers or go riding or hiking in the mountains. During school holidays we traveled throughout Southern Africa.
At the conclusion of our Peace Corps service we spent two more years traveling through Africa and the Middle East, before returning home to graduate school, high paying jobs, a mortgage and a daughter. My Peace Corps experience guided my subsequent career direction; working as a U.S. Senate staff member, running a public affairs consulting business here and in the Caribbean, and serving as an election monitor in South Africa for the United Nations and in Bosnia for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
We've now returned to Bellingham, but who knows when the lure of international work will strike again. And to think I owe it all to Peace Corps!