This was published in the Capital Journal.
One of the most crucial lessons in development work – a point that is reiterated at Peace Corps trainings – is that a project will only be successful if it comes from the community.
Still, it’s hard not to want to push projects with your own interests.
Even when I was applying for the Peace Corps, I knew that I wanted to do something related to writing. Although I do help my students with compositions as part of the syllabus requirements, writing brings joy to my life and I hoped to share that with my students, allowing them to understand its power beyond test essays.
A PCV in Armenia, though a mutual friend, contacted me about starting Write On! in Lesotho. The creative writing contest began in Georgia and has expanded to 14 other Peace Corps countries. Although I wasn’t sure how Basotho students’ level of English would compare to that of students in the other participating countries, I saw this as a great opportunity to promote writing and all of its possibilities
Working with my Peace Corps supervisor and another volunteer, we invited volunteers across Lesotho to host writing sessions in their communities and schools. Students were given one hour to answer a question (each grade had two prompts and the students were allowed to chose one) in whatever way they wanted. We then judged them by level and district, noting the creativity of answers over grammar and spelling. The idea was to tear down walls and fear of making mistakes and allow students to put into words whatever they were feeling.
I’ve been reading Basotho student compositions for nearly two years, but this contest allowed me a deeper insight into their worlds. Some of the prompts were beyond their comprehension, such as the mention of refrigerators or TV remote controls as because things are not often found in rural areas. The questions also forced the students to think in ways they never have before: what if you were invisible or children ruled the world?
Many of their answers reflected internal struggles with death, parental authority, HIV/AIDs, poverty and violence. One question asked students what is the thing they wish they could do that is not allowed and many replied that they would steal, rob banks and sell drugs in order to give their villages food and transport and help orphans go to school. Their words often reflected the guilt they felt for even thinking such things.
Write On! proved that students need a place to reflect some of their internal turmoil and spill their emotions. It never occurred to them that writing could be a way to do so. A few participating volunteers have developed creative writing projects in their communities and we hope others will use some of the pain and anger from the essays as topics for life skills classes.
I don’t expect these students to become authors or incorporate journaling into their daily lives, but they now have had one experience where writing allowed them to be themselves, and they were even rewarded for it. That’s enough for me.