Maggie Shiflett is a Peace Corps Volunteer who just wrapped up in Lesotho, Africa where she taught English and Life Skills curriculum involving HIV & AIDS education to the people. Shiflett speaks to SheThePeople.TV’s Shaili Chopra about her experience as a volunteer, teaching the kids, women’s safety and on making human connections. Find in there, Volunteering 101 for those looking to explore to do more with life.
You spent a major part of the last two years volunteering in Lesotho in Africa. What was your work all about?
I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer, serving in Lesotho as an English Teacher. My assigned project was to improve English proficiency at my school, as well as support the Life Skills curriculum which largely integrated HIV & AIDS education into the classroom.
When I arrived at my school, I found that the English levels were very very low, and learners were leaving Grade 7 without being able to read English. Together with my counterpart teacher, we worked to develop a phonics program, focusing on basic reading and writing skills for grades 1-5.
The other part of my service was serving my community. All of my fellow teachers (I was one of eight) lived in the larger town close to my village, so as my service developed my community became an even bigger aspect of my life. I lived on a family compound, in my own small house called a Rondevall. My host family and I grew very close, to the point that in my mind, I know have two mothers, and two younger brothers (Opposed to my one younger brother). My community time and time again rallied behind me to show their love and support for myself and the work I was doing. Outside of teaching, I was very dedicated to helping the community prosper. During my time living in Ha Lepholisa I supported a youth group, and through relationships, I made there I was able to put together a three-day HIV Camp and Football tournament. The tournament hosted seven teams from four different surrounding villages, and educated both adolescent boys and girls on HIV & AIDS, safe sex, living healthy lifestyles and drug and alcohol abuse.
My community time and time again rallied behind me to show their love and support for myself and the work I was doing. Outside of teaching, I was very dedicated to helping the community prosper. During my time living in Ha Lepholisa I supported a youth group, and through relationships, I made there I was able to put together a three-day HIV Camp and Football tournament.
So all in all, my work was two-pronged. First, supporting my school by developing a much-needed phonics program, implementing it and then teaching it to my fellow teachers so they can continue it. Second, serving my community in advancement or and needed area, which I did through various secondary projects including the camp.
You are yet in your early 20s, what does an experience like this teach you about people around the world?
Anything can be accomplished if you take the time and put in the work to first develop relationships. Through relationships, you can meet anyone on a common level, you can learn to trust, you can share where you are coming from, and you can open your mind to something that is completely different then what you thought you knew. That is where the magic happens, when one person takes the time to reach out to another, connect, share and then learn. Like all great things, relationships take time to build, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that putting in that time, leads to the most rewarding results. The Basotho (People or tribe of Lesotho) in my life in Ha Lepholisa loved me fiercely, and I them, even though it may have looked different then what I knew, that love was powerful. It allowed us to overcome our differences and backgrounds to work together and create beautiful things.
Through relationships, you can meet anyone on a common level, you can learn to trust, you can share where you are coming from, and you can open your mind to something that is completely different then what you thought you knew.
Tell us a bit about your work in Lesotho. You were teaching young children how to read?
Yes! So in the school my role was to rotate between grades 1-5 each day, teaching them basic phonics. Throughout my first year, I was constantly coming across the issue that these learners simply couldn’t read English, which is a huge problem because all of their national exams are in English. By Looking closer at the curriculum, and countless conversations with my co workers, we identified that the problem starts in the lower grades at a young age. Learners didn’t know the sounds for each letter, they were simply memorizing words. So, they weren’t able to critically apply sounds to the various letters then put those sounds together to actually read the words. Huge red flag! What I did each day was to teach the sounds by using curriculum called The Learning to Read Toolkit developed by Peace Corps.
Our success was huge! Every single learner was able to improve reading scores, and their own confidence was off the charts! My favourite moment was when one boy in Grade 4 tested at the end of the year-long program. He sat across from me, sounding out the word PUSH. His face lit up as his finger slowly moved from the P to U to SH, and his mouth perfectly made each sound. He looked up at me and yelled “PUSH!”, laughing and giggling. He read all 20 words that day, when at the beginning of the year he was crying because he could read one.
Every single learner was able to improve reading scores, and their own confidence was off the charts!
That made everything worth it, that one moment.
Volunteering is a wonderful way to know people, their struggles, their culture. What sensitivities should one be conscious of?
I think it’s very common for people that are experiencing a new culture to constantly ask the question why. Why is it this way? Why can’t she do this? Why must they do this, this way? And I do think that the quest to understand is valuable, because many times that is the way to grow and be exposed to different perspectives. But I have also seen the constant question of why come off as impersonal and invasive. I think it’s important to consciously separate the “why?” from any kind of judgmental tone. By removing that aspect, we can explore why something is the way it is without being dismissive or automatically sharing our way which we perceive as “better.”
I think it’s important to consciously separate the “why?” from any kind of judgmental tone. By removing that aspect, we can explore why something is the way it is without being dismissive or automatically sharing our way which we perceive as “better.”
I also think it’s important to try and learn as much as you can about the history of a country, what challenges it faces, as maybe some basic cultural aspects before even stepping foot in that part of the world. That way you at least have some frame of mind, some kind of context for yourself and how you fit into the picture of their everyday lives. For example, if you are in a place where women keep their knees covered, and you a woman, do your best to follow those guidelines. You’re in their home, their place, it’s not their job to make you comfortable, it’s yours to respect them and say thank you for having me!
You’re in their home, their place, it’s not their job to make you comfortable, it’s yours to respect them and say thank you for having me!
Are there safety concerns one must watch out for?
Always. We had many safety precautions as Peace Corps Volunteers and federal employees, but I think that safety is a universal concern, especially when you’re somewhere new. Always be mindful of night, and your gender. Being someone new in a community can make you a target, and people are going to know your around through word of mouth. So what I found the best thing to do for my own piece of mind was to just build myself a support network. I had my family, neighbours, teachers, my chief, and countless community members that I know would always come to my aid if I called. Again, build those relationships, they never fail.
What I found the best thing to do for my own piece of mind was to just build myself a support network.
How would you say the human to human connection makes volunteering for anyone around the world a universal experience?
Any time you take a second in your life to stop and ask how someone other than yourself is doing, you will get a response. You showing another person that not only you care about them, but how they are feeling, is valuable and important. Changing your scenery, getting out into the world, experiencing another culture or country, expands your worldview and grows your ability to be empathetic to another person. I truly believe that empathy is becoming a lost art, and if we can universally commit ourselves to practising empathy the world will be a different place.
I truly believe that empathy is becoming a lost art, and if we can universally commit ourselves to practising empathy the world will be a different place.
What are the four salient qualities a volunteer needs as they set course?
Resiliency! Nothing is easy and nothing is impossible. Stay committed, put in the work, try again another day.
Empathetic! Put yourself in their shoes, see the world as you do and as they do… then try to figure out how you can bring those two worlds together.
Patience! All things take time, stick with it.
Learn! I learned more than I taught, 100% without a doubt. We should all be waking up each day, ready to learn and explore a different kind of adventure.
I learned more than I taught, 100% without a doubt.
What have been three important lessons as you explored Africa and Asia?
Family is defined in an unlimited amount of ways. Individual people, cultures and communities all have various people that they call family. It’s been my great honour to be a small part of that, that true feeling of community, of what it means to be a collectivist society.
Happiness can be found everywhere. I’ve met so many truest happy and beautiful people, and it was such a joy to be around them. They were constantly and simply happy.
How you treat others is reflected back to you. A smile, a wave, a hug can go a long way. It’s the difference between a kind woman stopping to help you find your way, or simply continuing on her journey. The difference between a family inviting you into their home for tea, or waving you on down the road. The small acts of kindness I’ve witnessed and felt I will never forget, and it gives me hope for this world.
The views expressed are the author’s own it doesn’t represent feelings or opinions of the Peace Corps Organization.