Published in the Guelph Mercury, August 25, 2011, by Anne-Marie Zajdlik
I cannot adequately express how impressed I have been with the Reach Lesotho program, its leaders, its founder, its crazy documentary guys and, most of all, its beloved students.
The experience has been breathtaking and life-changing for all involved.
The program created for these students is nothing short of genius. Thanks to the efforts of Abid Virani, the program’s founder, Noma Vales, the tireless community leader, and the remarkable teaching genius of Barry Bauman and Joel Barr, Reach Lesotho was a masterpiece and a shining moment for both the community of Guelph and Hlotse, Lesotho.
Having a passion for the poor and suffering in our world, especially for those who live on another continent, can be extremely isolating. After my first trip, I descended into a place of deep depression, fantasizing on a daily basis that I would run down the main street screaming for everyone to wake up. Did we not all see what was happening to three billion people in our world? Did we not understand how desperate the world was?
It would appear that Guelph understood.
Each of the 12 Reach Lesotho kids who returned home last week were linked with a Basotho student counterpart from Hlotse High. The program’s centrepiece was the ‘one-on-one’ day. On this day, the Basotho students led their Canadian partner through a ‘tour’ of their life. Students spent the day in their partner’s homes, met their relatives, took part in the daily activities and chores of the family and visited the most frequented places in the student’s life.
Several Canadian students went to the local hospital where the Basotho students often pray for the sick. One visited a prison and all listened to the personal stories, hopes and dreams of these aspiring youth.
Drew Anderson, an accomplished runner in our group, was walking with his partner on the field of the high school while the track team was training. Anderson asked to join, and with Basotho running in uniform, and Anderson in his shorts and hiking boots, they ran a very fast-paced 400 metres. The video footage of this brought me to tears. Anderson’s raw talent, drive and determination mixed with the strength and power in those Basotho legs. To me, it was a symbol of what the combined power of the Basotho and Canadians could accomplish in our ever-darkening world.
The community restoration projects and tree planting evolved into spectacular entities that successfully engaged the entire community. Vales described one of her days on site as a restoration was taking place. She had pre-selected homes in the community where the need was great. The students dug gardens, swept yards, did laundry, cleaned, repaired and washed. In rural Lesotho, floors are repaired with cow dung. According to Vales, not a single student complained while tackling these chores and, at one point, she caught the Canadian students singing, their hands covered in cow dung. They were singing.
I watched with unexpected pride and reverent humility as each student developed a love and respect, a profound compassion and admiration for each of their partners and through this new relationship, a new and correct perspective on the people of the developing world.
My proudest moment with my newly adopted brood: on my final Sunday in Lesotho, the students were given the opportunity to take a well-deserved day off. They had been keeping up a relentless pace, working and learning 15 hours a day, yet they took the time to join me at church.
Ninety per cent of the people in Lesotho are connected to a faith and most are Christian. Churches in Lesotho, from Catholic to Presbyterian, are packed every Sunday for a three-and-a-half hour service. The first hour alone is filled with that soul-inspiring African praise and worship. Faith is the heart of the Basotho people and a tremendous source of hope and joy. I never miss a service while I am there. To sit in a congregation of 700 or more people and witness their collective joy, while knowing the hardship they face each day, fills me with hope not only for them but for the struggling world we live in.
On a day when they could have rested in the beautiful Lesotho sun, the Reach Lesotho students chose to follow me into a church. They also chose to wear traditional Basotho blankets.
They may never understand the profound effect they had on the people of this African village. Immediately placed in the second row, they were welcomed, honoured, applauded, cheered and embraced. In the pastor’s words: “We welcome you with a warm Basotho welcome. We can see by how you are dressed and by the fact you are here that we are important to you. You have found your home. We welcome you and we love you.”
On the walk home, the students overheard a conversation between a father and daughter. She asked why all the white people were in church. He answered, “they are not white people, they are Basotho.”
Be proud, Guelph. Be very proud. You have raised youth who are selfless, strong, courageous, intelligent, creative and full of compassion. They are our ambassadors of hope.
The video that highlights the Reach Lesotho journey will be aired on Dec. 1 at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Details of a Guelph viewing will follow. It is a must-see.
Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik is the founder of Bracelet of Hope