Keeping busy in Lesotho: “I have stopped making plans”

Jan Schalk has a doctorate in agricultural sciences. He is presently employed as a development worker for Bread for the World, a German aid agency. His current base of operations is Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho. We interviewed him recently.

Dr. Jan Schalk, would you please introduce yourself briefly?

I was born in Bielefeld (Germany) on 15 November 1978, and it was also there that I grew up and attended school. I am single and have no children. In 2005, I graduated from university as an engineer in the field of technical environmental protection. Since I was especially interested in the subject of renewable energy, I also went on to complete a master’s degree in renewable energy and energy efficiency at the University of Kassel.

This was followed by a position as a research assistant at the University of Bonn. The subject of my studies there—namely the solar desiccation of wood as a fuel source—proved substantive enough for me to write a dissertation, which I completed in January 2017.

That sounds like a typical university career.

Not really. Things actually turned out quite differently. The first thing I did was look around a bit, and in so doing, I stumbled upon two interesting job postings with the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ). One of these was stationed in Nepal, and the other in Vietnam. After some brief consideration, I decided to apply for the one in Nepal. A few days later, I was invited for a job interview—and was already offered the job by the end of the same day. After two months of preparation in the Academy for International Cooperation (AIZ) in Bad Honnef, I boarded a plane for Nepal, where I lived and worked for two years.

Today you no longer live in Nepal, but Lesotho. How did that happen, and how long are you planning to stay there?

After my return from Nepal, I decided to complete my doctorate before getting started on any new applications. “Bread for the World”, a Protestant development agency, offered me a three-year position in Lesotho. I accepted, since Lesotho is a very peaceful nation, which meant I would be able to move freely throughout the whole country. Beyond that, all the things you need for everyday use are easily obtainable, owing to the country’s proximity to South Africa, which naturally increases the quality of life enormously.

My three-year contract runs until the end of June 2020. There is also an opportunity to extend this contract for another three years, but I am not sure what I will do yet. This is a decision I will likely only make at the end of 2019.

What effect have your stays abroad had on you? Has your worldview changed as a result?

Basically I find it easy to approach other people. Naturally, you never know ahead of time exactly how you will be accepted in a new country, but both Nepal and Lesotho impressed me deeply by the warmth and friendliness of their local populations. These countries have a very welcoming culture, and it does not first need to be politically negotiated! It is simply there!

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia, while Lesotho is one of the poorest in Africa. Nevertheless, the people are cheerful, laugh a great deal, and are well supported and provided for by their communities. Every time I return to Germany, I meet up with people who may not appear to be lacking in anything, but still seem to have many cares. Friendliness and warmth are often lost along the way.

My day-to-day life is extremely interesting: every day I see that my western idea of what should happen in life or at work is often very different from what often ends up happening. The way people treat one another, their traditions, and the whole cultural background are, on the one hand, indispensable for ensuring that each one can be supported. For example, it is very rare for anyone’s position in the workplace to be terminated. Instead, the person is simply given another position—and that way, the family has greater security. On the other hand, there are also many traditions that are no longer timely, which are at times even an obstacle to progress, for example, the patriarchal system or the extremely strict hierarchies in society.

I wish that people were more tolerant of one another. At times I think that everyone simply does whatever it is he or she wants to do. But if we all want to live together on this planet, we will either need some very high walls—so that we can all live on our own parcel of land—or we will have to give tolerance a try. It would make me happy if we were to teach subjects such as violence-free communication or intercultural skills in our schools.

What does your future look like? Where will it take you and what will it be like?

Honestly, I still have no idea. To start with, I would love to extend my work contract, because there is still so much to develop here in the rural areas of Lesotho. On the other hand, I would also enjoy a position in Germany. I could certainly get used to the idea of putting my books, my CDs, and my records back on a shelf of my own, and listening to them in my spare time. But there is only One who truly knows where my journey will take me next. I have stopped making plans. I’m going with the flow.

How have you integrated into the New Apostolic congregation there? Have you made friends? What are the divine services like?

I was integrated immediately! This had to do with the rather limited number of regular churchgoers in the congregation: three. The congregation was without a Priest for some time after the last rector was retired. Most of the time, the divine services were then conducted by the congregation’s Deacon. However, the congregation has since found another Priest who has recently moved into the area. Priest Mothe—that is his name—and his family are originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His first language is French. For this reason it was not so easy for him to conduct the divine services in English.

It was very easy to make friends. From time to time I get together privately with Priest Mothe, and since the current interior renovations of the church have been underway, a number of members have been helping along with the work.

The divine services are especially cold in winter! The congregation still has no electrical power, and there is no heating system. It may be difficult to believe, but I have never been as cold anywhere as I have been in Africa! Otherwise I find it very nice that the Bishop and the District Evangelist conduct divine services regularly. Even the Apostle has already been in Maseru.

How is the congregation there different from others you know?

Actually, everything is different: there is no organ here, nor are there any organists. At present, one of the members does his best to give the right note, and eventually everyone else joins in. I do my best to sing along in Sesotho, but I am better at clicking my computer mouse than my tongue. I have recently discussed the acquisition of a CD player with our rector. This might help to bring us a little closer to the original melodies in our hymnal.

The church building is in a poor state. I have managed to help a little with the renovations of the interior rooms. I am supported in this by other members. The Bishop has also promised us that the outside of the building will likewise be renovated. Soon the electrical power will be connected. Then we will also be able to have divine services on Wednesday evenings. Since it always gets dark quite early here, we need light in the evening.

So what is your conclusion after all these years? Would you do it all over again?

Do it all over again? No. If I wanted to repeat it all, I would be in the wrong profession. Yes, I would like to stay a little while longer in Lesotho, but I have also been to Uganda, and West Africa also seems quite attractive to me. I could also get used to the idea of living in South America. The American continent is the only one I have not yet visited. That certainly appeals to me, and the best way to become acquainted with the country and its people is to settle down there for a while.

Thank you for your responses, Brother Schalk.

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Peter Johanning
Lesotho, Aid agencies, Social commitment