Sunday, November 14, 2010

An Education

Mrs. Letela (centre) and some of her staff
Mrs. Letela was my boss for two years. You couldn’t get much past her. When she disagreed with you she would give you that direct, expressionless stare that made you want to look somewhere else. But she had a ready laugh, too, and was quick to adapt if she saw a way to improve things. Her focus was unfailingly the well-being of the students who attended the high school where she was principal.

Molly Letela’s school, where I went to teach in the late 1980s, was just outside Teyateyaneng, Lesotho in southern Africa. My husband and I were two of four Canadians who worked as teachers at Assumption High School then. Mrs. Letela employed several expatriates, not because Lesotho didn’t have qualified teachers but because many local teachers got jobs in the South African bantustans in those days. Mrs. Letela, an expatriate herself, came from Swaziland but had made her home in Lesotho.

Fields near Assumption High School, TY / Credit: Dave Smith
Assumption High School’s compound was a rectangle of low brick buildings set in a wide valley. Beyond the surrounding fields, where yellow cornstalks struggled out of dry red earth, were the dreamy blues and purples of the distant mountains. Behind the school lay a dusty road along which boys herding cattle, men wrapped in wool blankets, and women balancing lumpy packages, wooden crates or even single bars of soap on their heads passed by.

Mrs. Letela was energetic and ageless. You could count on her to support you. Once I asked her if she could come to my history class to do a lesson on local history that was based on oral tradition; somehow I didn’t feel right teaching kids about stuff that they probably knew from their grandparents. Mrs. Letela didn’t hesitate to do that for me. I remember when after a few months of working there I mentioned that I’d been mildly nervous about standing in front of a class of fifty Form A students, most of whom knew little English. She laughed and replied that the students would have been even more nervous about their first day in high school, and with me.

Mrs. Letela knew what was important for her students: to study hard, get a regular meal every day, learn agricultural and other skills, and if possible to move up through high school. It wasn’t an easy context in which to build a school, but Mrs. Letela did everything she could, including finding local and donor funding for equipment and programs. When I checked recently there were indications that at least a few years ago she was still doing so, although I can’t be sure.

Back then, people in Lesotho were just beginning to talk about AIDS. Today, almost a quarter of people in Lesotho between ages 15 and 49 have HIV/AIDS. I can’t imagine what it’s like there now, what the disease has done to families, communities, and schools. I wonder about the kids I taught, how they’re faring.

I hope that they have the opportunity to watch their own kids go through school. I hope that at least some of them are sending their own children to Assumption High School. I hope that Mrs. Letela, or someone with her drive and commitment, is still at the helm. If not, I hope she's enjoying retirement and her own grandchildren.

Form C, 1987 / Credit: Denise Deby

No comments:

Post a Comment