A 65-year-old veteran teacher from Milton left for Africa this week for a two-year Peace Corps placement.
This is Mary Ladabouche’s first trip outside the country, except Canada. She left Tuesday, October 9.
The 41-year Milton Elementary School teacher has been retired for just over a year but missed the classroom. In Lesotho – pronounced “Li-soo-too,” a landlocked country in South Africa – she’ll work as a resource teacher, hosting teacher workshops, writing grants and teaching students English.
At least, that’s what she thinks will happen. If Ladabouche learned anything about Peace Corps, it’s that one never really knows.
“You don’t always have the answers to the questions,” she said, Zen-like, just days before leaving. “You just have to be patient and accepting.”
Ladabouche has always been interested in how other people live but didn’t want a tourist’s eye view of another country. She looked into Peace Corps, and after a more than a year, her application was accepted.
“What better time?” Ladabouche said. “I’m healthy, I have the time and I’m curious.”
Typically, one thinks of the Peace Corps, the government agency created by President John F. Kennedy, as an opportunity for college graduates to serve while earning great benefits, including loan assistance and full medical coverage.
But in her research, Ladabouche was happy to find many folks over 50 join the Corps, making up 7 percent of volunteers, the Peace Corps website says. The average age is 28.
Ladabouche’s former colleague Cathy Stout, an 18-year MES teacher, was not surprised when Ladabouche announced her trip.
“[She] certainly has earned the right to rest on her laurels, and she’s going to donate her time in Africa,” Stout said, adding it’s nothing new for Ladabouche to be out of her comfort zone: “Teaching does that a lot, too,” Stout said.
The local Peace Corps office at the University of Vermont originally nominated Ladabouche for a placement in Eastern Europe, but after the application was vetted in Washington, D.C., Ladabouche was invited to Lesotho.
Ladabouche didn’t know much about the southern African country – let alone where it’s located – before delving into research. Since then, she’s learned that Lesotho, about the size of Maryland, has a temperate climate with four seasons, just like Vermont.
The major similarities pretty much end there. Natives live in round homes called mokhoro and speak Sesotho, which includes clicks and trills not used in English. Ladabouche has practiced: “Hello” sounds like “Dah-may-lah,” she demonstrated.
Lesotho’s population is about 1.9 million; just less than half are under the poverty line. Lesotho also has the world’s third highest prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS. Every Peace Corps volunteer there is given information to educate about the disease. There are 63 volunteers there now, according to Peace Corps data.
When Ladabouche arrives, she’ll spend a three-month training period with a host family. Though she’ll live and eat with them and otherwise go native, Ladabouche is bringing a few souvenirs from home – photos and maple candy – to teach her family about life at home.
Peace Corps gives volunteers a camp stove, space heater and stipend that allows them to live how the people do. The rest? She’s on her own.
“You can’t plan, because you don’t know,” Ladabouche said. “You just go with the flow.”
Ladabouche has no problem having no electricity or running water – she’s more concerned about learning Sesotho: Languages never came easily to her, she said.
Communication will be iffy, too. There are cell phones, but reception isn’t reliable, and sometimes she’ll have to walk a ways for better service. But Ladabouche, who has hiked parts of the Long and Appalachian trails, isn’t worried about that. If all else fails, she’ll stick to snail mail. It takes about three to four weeks for postage to reach the U.S., she said.
Stout is hoping for electronic communication: She and fellow teacher Heidi Aranjo plan for their students to keep in touch with Ladabouche. Though Skyping, an online video chat, would be ideal, they’ll settle for letters.
Though the required curriculum doesn’t leave much time, Stout is committed to teaching children about other cultures and about the history that didn’t make the books.
“We live in a small world. It’s smaller every day,” she said. “We sometimes get afraid of different cultures because we don’t understand them.
“Everybody’s people,” Stout continued. “When we know each other on a micro level, I think we do better.”
Ladabouche agrees. She’s looking forward to discovering core similarities between herself and Lesotho’s people despite their differences.
Peace Corps’ goal isn’t to bring American values to foreign nations, Ladabouche said; it’s to listen to the locals’ goals and “leave them a little better off than they are,” she said.
Ladabouche knows her 27-month experience will be challenging, but she’s up for it. She doesn’t expect to change the world, just educate other people about it. She knows when she comes home that life, as she knows it, will look different.
“Teaching, just like anything, is sometimes you learn more than you give,” she said.
Follow the Milton Independent for updates on Mary Ladabouche’s placement in Lesotho; if she’s able to send letters to Milton classrooms, we’ll print them here.