Sion Watkins first travelled to Lesotho with Dolen Cymru in 2018 and has found himself returning year after year. Here he reflects on the time spent in Lesotho, the people he met and what the experience has meant to him.
“It’s a different country”
When asked about his experience playing for Juventus in Italy, the Welsh footballer Ian Rush is famous for being quoted as saying 'It was like living in a foreign country’. I often laughed at that, but in hindsight I realise how naive I was about going out to Lesotho. There was an abundance of training, but I hadn’t truly registered it. All my experiences abroad had been on holidays or school visits for short periods. Even when we arrived in Maseru; there was a mall and it felt that the few days the other Welsh teachers and I had there were still ‘normal’ as we saw it. The moment we travelled the 170km to the highlands was a shock to the system; I felt isolated and out of my previous comfort zone.
When we arrived at our accommodation in Thaba Tseka I volunteered to go and get some supplies. The short distance to the shop was the first time in my life I’d felt different and out of place. During orientation I’d happily learnt a few phrases in Sesotho, but in my alternative universe I’d assumed that everyone would speak English and would certainly speak it if I was around them. This assumption was based on what I think was not only personal arrogance, but on my understanding that education was done through English. Six months later and a few experiences in staff rooms where the only part of the conversation I understood was “Ntate Sion”, I’d learnt a valuable lesson.
Acceptance, recognition and inclusion
The Basotho love visitors - they are used to them, as members of the peace corps from the US or Europe, and people from a number of churches or other charities come to stay every year. They love to find out about you, and they have a wonderful sense of humour and ‘banter’. There is an appreciation of what you might contribute to them and their community. They instantly, and genuinely, accept you.
However, it is more unusual for visitors to return. The first weekend of my second visit to Lesotho I took an eight-mile walk in the mountains. I was approaching the town through a small village when a young boy, who I’d taught at Loti primary, stared at me and said, “you look like Ntate Sion”. I was so taken aback that he’d recognised me that in typical Spartacus fashion I blurted out “I am Ntate Sion” - the wide smile of recognition opened up and he just said “Oh, welcome back”.
The third time I went I‘d started working in some high schools - one of which, Ntaote, was filled with children I’d taught at Loti and Thaba Tseka primary. When I arrived, I was swarmed by students, delighted to show others in the class that they knew me. Their teacher Mme Thumei told me later that they loved me, which was an odd expression, but she qualified it by saying that they felt safe with me and knew I wouldn’t hurt them or belittle them. “You’re one of us, you belong”, was her closing statement.
I’m not sure if they expect you to return, but they don’t forget you.
Stick to what you do best
I went out to Thaba Tseka on a programme to help in two primary schools. Previous Dolen placements had focused on developing phonics at the schools and my work was supposed to include this. My background is secondary maths, so in a sense I was completely unskilled for what I was sent out to do. That said, once I got there, I asked the Basotho teachers what they struggled with most, and maths and science were mentioned frequently.
With this in mind I decided that I’d focus on helping with maths, and specifically with grades 4 to 7. This way I could draw on my area of expertise and offer something which I felt was useful. Of course, I was happy to help with reading, art and IT, but I felt my value was in maths and trying to make the subject attractive to both pupils and teachers.
My advice to anyone working in this capacity is to ask people what they need, not what they want and then try and build some capacity to deliver that.
Problems create solutions
On my return to Lesotho in 2019 we had plans to teach maths, run numeracy courses in the four local primary schools, with a tentative idea to include primary schools in a second village some 30km away, as well as deliver some additional courses for student teachers.
The teachers’ strike, which lasted from the third week until the end of my visit, put paid to all those plans. Schools were shut and I had to come up with something that would justify me being there.
The solution came from the Basotho; a District Resource Officer I knew set herself the challenge of organising some course venues and making sure that teachers turned up. Alongside some workshops I ran near Maseru it meant that during this second visit some 2000 teachers and student teachers had considerable access to training, including ideas, methods for teaching, school planning and using resources.
It set me thinking about what makes for the most long-term impact working in communities like Thaba Tseka or Maseru. I think it’s asking the people what they want, finding out what’s causing problems and then training by showing alternatives, not telling teachers what to do.
The courses do work
I only managed to run five courses in 2020 from the 20 which had been scheduled and all of these were small in numbers. The positives were that the attendees seemed to be more confident maths teachers and the skills they had gained last year were being implemented. There’s a sense of friendship and trust - sometimes I question approaches and expose weaknesses or misconceptions and they know that I’m not trying to belittle them.
This time the teachers were far more willing to raise issues, ask for a wider range of topics and, best of all, to take part in modelling how they would teach. Some of the real positives came from the courses run in outreach areas – villages a three-hour journey away on gravel roads.
To see and hear the confidence these teachers displayed and the examples they gave of children understanding, and more importantly, enjoying their maths was humbling.
Teachers ‘get’ what a course is about: shared experience, learning as you’re doing, trying new things and putting what you learn into your own lessons. Resources are also very popular with teachers, the resources that they use now are nearly all made in Lesotho, quite often the day before and in some cases during the course!
Student teachers are the future
2020 was the first year that I’d done a significant amount of work with high schools. In all I worked in four with varying degrees of success. Alongside this we had run a successful high school course in Leribe attended by around 50 teachers.
The main work I did in terms of teaching was with a young student teacher. I was at Ntaote High school when she came up and said I’d given them a course at college last year and asked if I would help her with some resources. This meant I could watch her teaching and then go back through her plans to learn what she wanted to do and work out if a resource might help the learning. I learnt as much as she did and it was lovely to actually be involved in some planning, team teaching and then some review.
Without doubt this is the future, the youngsters want to be better teachers, they want to be more than what they had. The positives from this is that nearly all the resources made and used worked, she developed a different style of delivery. Watching the classes respond was also instructive, they were engaged, vocal and interested.
Returning to Lesotho
I worry about Lesotho in the current Covid 19 situation, especially with the high levels of HIV and the accompanying low immune systems. There is no infrastructure, a lack of hospital beds, winter is arriving in a month or so and there are poor media and information systems. You can see there are concerns not only for the virus and consequential deaths but also for the country. Hotels were being closed, jobs are at stake – there are no bailouts here, and school children are missing out on education for a second year.
For my part, I was expecting this to be my last year; it won’t be. There is still a lot I want to do and every time I am in Lesotho, I find new things that could be done. There’s the potential to help student teachers by creating a virtual classroom in one of the primary schools, there’s building on the input to high schools and developing ideas on transition to secondary school from primary, there’s the potential of organising more courses in the remote outreach areas as well as in Maseru District.
There is no sense of closure, when you invest time and effort into a community like Thaba Tseka you always want to return. I may not do a five-month spell again but until I’m unable to contribute anything worthwhile, I’ll be going to Lesotho.
Has it changed me?
I finished as a Secondary Deputy Headteacher thinking that going to Lesotho with Dolen Cymru would help me ease out of work and into retirement; that was my aim, rather than any huge desire to help create change. It took twelve weeks before I felt deeply involved; this was something I was interested in and could genuinely contribute to - I was hooked.
I’ve made friends within Dolen and lifelong friends in Lesotho, who I’m regularly in contact with. Not being able to travel back has been heart-breaking, but I’ve adapted and started up a resource site called the Basotho Maths Project, as well as running maths lessons on Zoom for another charity, Challenge Aid, who work in Kenya.
I will never be the same person. Being in Lesotho has made me more political, more globally aware, and more considerate, a patient teacher and a better person.