Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Lesotho

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to assure that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent history. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Lesotho, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Lesotho.

Outside of Maseru, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Lesotho are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Lesotho, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during preservice training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Lesotho

The Peace Corps staff in Lesotho recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

Perhaps because Lesotho is rooted in the fusion of a variety of tribes and traditions, Basotho culture tends to emphasize conformity over diversity. The size, complexity, and diversity of American culture continue to surprise many Basotho.

Although apartheid is officially a policy of the past, and there have been great changes in neighboring South Africa, its history continues to influence the region. Many Basotho have experienced the now defunct apartheid system. Hence, relations between certain Basotho and any white person can be, at first, somewhat strained. For the most part, however, Basotho differentiate quite readily between white Volunteers and other whites in the region. Foreigners are generally perceived as guests and treated with respect and care. Basotho also enjoy good relations with large numbers of their white South African neighbors.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Lesotho is mostly an agrarian and traditional place, and specific gender roles are still significant in Basotho culture. Women may be expected to fulfill certain domestic duties that are not expected of men. Women may be expected to defer to men in a workplace setting. Additionally, female Volunteers often receive marriage proposals, professions of love, and other unwanted attention from men. Some female Volunteers find this type of attention very difficult to handle. Peace Corps attempts to teach Volunteers coping mechanisms for dealing with these situations. While whistles and exclamations may be fairly common on the street, this behavior can be reduced if you dress conservatively, abide by local cultural norms, and respond according to the training you will receive.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

It continues to surprise some rural Basotho that Peace Corps Volunteers are people of many different complexions and appearances. Although Basotho are generally quick to accept and support Volunteers of color, historical social divisions based on color and features may still influence a Volunteer’s experience. African-American Volunteers report that they may be expected to learn Sesotho faster, may be expected to understand or agree with all aspects of the culture, and may be seen as less knowledgeable than white Volunteers. Volunteers of color also say it may be easier to form close and lasting friendships and to gain community support. African-American Volunteers may find that their features, color, cultural attitudes, or language make it obvious to Basotho they are not southern Africans. Until they make close acquaintances and friendships, some African-American Volunteers may feel like outsiders. Over the past few years, a sizable number of Asians (mainly Chinese and Indians) have opened manufacturing establishments and retail businesses in Lesotho. There have been Asian business people in Lesotho for many years, and most get along well with Basotho. However, the business practices of some recently arrived Asians have resulted in negative feelings among some Basotho. There were incidents of looting and personal violence against Asians in May 1991. Asian-American Volunteers are sometimes confused with other Asians. Asian Volunteers, particularly women, have been harassed, especially in the larger cities of Lesotho. At their sites, however, Volunteers have found that acceptance and good relations develop quickly.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

Senior Volunteers can expect to be treated with high regard. Senior women are likely to encounter less harassment than younger female Volunteers. Seniors often take precedence for seating on public transportation. Younger Volunteers often look to senior Volunteers for guidance and support.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Being gay or lesbian is not culturally acceptable in Lesotho, so in general people do not usually express this sexual orientation openly. Volunteers have had to be very discreet about their sexual orientation because if they openly express themselves it can become a security issue. Some Volunteers serving in Lesotho choose to be out in the Peace Corps community but not in the Basotho community. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers may feel alone and lacking the support experienced by other gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals. The Peace Corps medical officer and Peace Corps/Lesotho’s peer support network are available to provide support.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

The general perception in Lesotho is that American Volunteers belong to a Christian denomination. There may be an initial expectation that a Volunteer will attend a local church; however, most Volunteers find their communities to be accepting of personal choices in religious matters.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Lesotho without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of service. The Peace Corps/Lesotho staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively. People with disabilities obviously exist in Lesotho, although services for them are limited.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers

Married couples serving together in the Peace Corps are in a unique situation. While they benefit from having a constant companion to provide support, they may have differing expectations of service. One spouse may be more enthusiastic, homesick, or adaptable than the other. In a new culture, married women may be expected to perform certain domestic chores, and find themselves in a less independent role than they are accustomed to. A married man may feel pressure to act as the dominant member in the relationship and make decisions apart from his wife’s views. Some spouses experience differing levels of language ability, acceptance by their community, or job satisfaction. Each of you will have specific job assignments that may require you to spend time without your spouse during training and throughout your service.