Take away the glitter and adventure and this article sums up a lot of what we go through everyday - what I’ve personally been going through for about 3 months.
It’s still worth it. But it’s really hard.
I love living here, but I struggle working here.
Special thanks to Erin Williams for getting this shot!
"… For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us …"
The First Elegy
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Maybe we didn’t make it for Turkey Day last week, but on Friday we celebrated 4 happy, adventuresome years of marriage. This past year, more than any other, has forced us to hold each other and sing the words of this song.
Happy Anniversary, my foxy babe.
I am proud to tell you that October 22nd marked the grand opening of the Rise and Shine Community Library in Ha Khabo.
At 9 o’clock the morning of the celebration, I was caught between practicing my speech in Sesotho, calling World Vision to see when the refreshments would be delivered, and calling the sign company to find out when they would be bringing the library sign - essential for photos. The party was supposed to start at 9. I was only slightly bothered though because I had decided the day before that I would celebrate this day with pride and excitement no matter how the party went. At about 9:45, with only a handful of people lazily sauntering around the office compound, a library committee member told me we should begin because time was now against us. I sighed a little and reminded myself to let it go one more time.
But surprisingly, the conference room next to the library seemed strangely fuller when we all filed in to start the ceremony. Little by little, as we sang and speeches were given, more and more people trickled in until we were left with only standing room. The fuller the room got, the faster our feet and louder our claps were as we sang and danced. Principals shared their dreams of how the library would inspire their students, the chief talked about how he hoped the books would bring a sharpened knowledge and power to the people of his village, the priestess offered a serenade of thanks to God for the willing hands and hearts of all those who transformed the dusty room into a sparkling den of treasure, the mother of the chief challenged all those present to take responsibility and take advantage of the new tools being passed to them, and the youth shyly gave their thanks for these small opportunities that could make huge differences in their lives. I was happy – although I must admit that a tinge of nerves hit me during my speech when I expressed thanks for the still absent food and library sign. And just before we were to move to the library, the manna and quail of bread and bologna was delivered, shortly followed by the creaking of a car and trailer inching up our dusty hill to bring us our freshly painted Rise and Shine Community Library sign.
While the women of the library committee began quickly throwing sandwiches together, I took our ululating guest to the door of our brand new library. Lifting her hands in declaration over her head, the priestess offered a bold blessing over our quaint cement library and the chief cut the twisted crepe paper draped across the door. “Library ena e buloe!” I sang as the door was flung open. “Come in everyone. Come in. Kena bohle!”
Matt snapped quick shots of our eager guests but I just stepped back a few steps and pleasantly watched as the library was filled with pointing fingers, necks craned to see a book in another’s hands, curious eyes scoping the large paper insects in the corner, a smile pausing as it passed the Kandinsky poster. Books and books and books, and people reading them.
The committee shared a little about how the library will work. Fiction and Information books, reading levels. For now all the books will stay in-house. In about a month, we’ll begin lending them out to members who bring a note from their chief (the only proof of residence around here) and pay a 60-cent monthly membership fee. Because book lending is relatively unknown to people in Lesotho, members will be able to borrow books in a graduated system to ensure we don’t lose our stock. They’ll pay a $1.25 deposit to take a * book (those of which we have several duplicates). If they return these books on time and undamaged for four rentals, they’ll then graduate to ** books, and with the same deposit they’ll get to take home one our more prized books. After four weeks of success again, they’ll then be free to borrow *** textbooks and other non-fiction books.
We finished our time in the library with our sandwiches, cookies, and Coke (away from the books of course) and people slowly wandered away one by one leaving Matt and me sitting in the satisfaction of a year’s worth of effort.
Thank you to returned Peace Corps Volunteer Kristen Reed (and her friends and family) for securing close to 3,000 books through African Library Project. I also deeply thank my mom and the Sam Houston Elementary School for donating so many needed supplies and organizing their shipment across the Atlantic.
1. Read the above article from the travel section of The New York Times.
2. Just Google some pictures of Cape Town in the summer in case you have any lingering doubts.
3. Get on a plane and visit us already! We’ll just meet you there.
4. Cross off that African vacation from your bucket list and brag to your all your friends about your personal tour of Southern Africa.
5. Or pack your running shoes and come with us in April for a half-marathon along the coast from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean.
Our afternoon walk took us to the river, down the hill where the valley folds before rocks become boulders that become mountains abruptly on the opposite side. Immersed in a landscape alive with yellows and greens against sky blue, it’s afternoons like these that spring weekends are made for. Poncey, our one-year-old pup, approaches the water warily with a paw-poke and suspicious sniff as if afraid of getting pulled in, but a minute later is taking the low stream by leaps and bounds trackable only by a line of carefree splashes. We try to lure her into the deeper spots by tossing in her beloved tennis ball, eager to assess her doggie-paddle skills, but she forfeits the game quickly when she can’t see the bottom, leaving us to fetch our own throws. She darts in and out, this way and that, trying to be everywhere all at once, pestering cows and sheep trying to get a cool drink. We smile because she’s as happy as we are reveling in the fresh air, the sun-soaked views, and the cool water trickling around our ankles. The river cuts around freshly plowed fields of dark riverbed soil and laps at the edges of small sand dune islands that will disappear underwater after the next rain. For now, these are our stepping-stones and a treasury of flat, smooth ammo for skipping. At times my wife and I speak up over the sounds of breeze and brook, perhaps to point out an interesting plant or a new African bird, but mostly we let our surroundings do the talking, content to let our Sunday-afternoon thoughts wander where they may. We follow the meanders going nowhere in particular, instinctively aware of how sacred these moments are—no schedule to keep, no hurry and worry. A chance to loose ourselves from the cultural stress that we often pin on Lesotho, and to just look around at the vivid cliffs above us and smooth water between our toes. The beauty of this place can permeate if only we’ll take a Basotho lesson in slowing down and let it. Our walk probably took about an hour or so but the experience, I hope, will linger on into the week, calming my push for deadlines and action plans.
But our afternoon isn’t over and the gaping wounds of Lesotho are never far away. Our route home runs along the main village road, giving a chance for Poncey to air dry and us to greet friends and neighbors. We wave casually to some teenagers that have sought the generous shade of a willow tree but then pause—not everyone is just resting. A boy is headed towards a thick hedge of bushes with a firm grip around the wrist of a young woman struggling in tow. Feeling our gaze, he turns innocently, smiles and waves back; the girl, silent. I chart a new course straight for the couple, calling out questions: “Where are you all going… Is everything okay… Do you need help, sister?” Our sudden curiosity is unexpected, and, as the nervous smirk of being caught crawls onto his face, he tries to change his wrist-clutching to hand-holding. Finally he gestures the obvious, indicating where he is going and why. But it’s the girl that is hard to read—she shifts back and forth wearing the same smirk. Then, shrugging off our concern, she strolls indifferently back towards the shade and onlooking friends away from the boy. Our remarks follow her: “Wait, sister, are you hurt? Who is this stupid boy? Please be smart… get away… tell him… next time… you really should…”—all things she’d heard her whole life from a million AIDS education campaigns, easy enough to not hear again. The situation is suddenly an awkward stand still, nobody talking, everyone somewhat shocked by the intervention. After a few last phrases of flustered Sesotho—my tone altering between scolding and pleading—I walk slowly back to the road with a shaming look lingering on the boy, knowing that catching this instance is just one in a thousand in Lesotho. Inside, I’m lost.
Maybe that girl was in danger.
Or maybe she’s just playing hard to get.
Maybe they’re just horny teenagers sneaking around.
Or maybe she sees no choice when a man makes his demands.
Maybe her friends would step in if there were any sign of struggle.
Or maybe it’s easier for everyone to pretend nothing is wrong.
Do the messages of gender equity, self-respect, assertiveness, and decision-making that we strive and sweat to impart drone like a broken record? Maybe. Before we turn the corner for home, we glance back to the group. The girl is again in tow as the boy nears the hedge of bushes thick with confusion.
The proximity of such beauty and tragedy is the paradox of modern Lesotho. It confronts us daily in ways that defy simple fixes. And though we’re here to help, it’s not ours to fix. That girl and a thousand others must one day, finally pull away themselves. I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s beautifully provoking novel, The Poisonwood Bible. I highly recommend you pick it up as soon as you can. I’ll end this with a quote that I’ve been unable to escape:
The power is in the balance: we are our injuries as much as we are our successes … the balance between loss and salvation. Loss and Salvation.
This was Rivalry Week. And I lost (gruesomely) to my
archemeny, uhh, I mean, dear wife. Our Fantasy Football league, called “The Lesotho Prisoners”, has been the weekly stage of all-out warfare for us PCVs, and each week Lauren has kicked serious caboose. Despite the quagmire of bye-weeks and injuries, I was feeling good about the rag-tag crew I started until I woke up this morning to the screen shown here. As part of her Rivalry Trophy, I’m publicly posting this in hail to the Fantasy Football Goddess and tucking my tail between my legs just hoping not to again be the victim of the biggest blowout.
Today Lesotho celebrates Independence Day. I wish we could say we were going out tonight to watch fireworks or having a barbeque with fresh lemonade and juicy watermelon, but such things haven’t ever quite caught on here. Instead, most people are glad enough for a day off of school or work and fill it with normal things like washing clothes or tidying the house; perhaps a few will head to the local bar for an extra beer or game of snooker (just billiards with some pesky new rules), but all in all special attention is hardly paid to the memorial of independence. I even greeted a highschool friend with a high five and said, “Happy Independence Day!” but his reply was, “Yeah, but I’m pretty bored.”
None of this is meant to be a critique of Basotho patriotism… just a simple cultural observation. In fact, Basotho are a very culturally proud people and know a great deal about their history—especially that related to the founding of the Basotho nation and the great King Moshoeshoe I (pronounced Mo-shway-shway). To make a long story kind of short, King Moshoeshoe was the local chief of an area about an hour’s walk from our house and steadily rose to power by holding his ground against encroaching rival chiefs. His reputation is one of bravery, shrewdness, and not only beating his enemies but picking off plenty of their cattle as booty. As a result, his influence quickly grew around the area. Though it was a competitive time to be an ambitious chief and he met a surplus of challengers, Moshoeshoe’s statesmanship and even kindness to those he defeated increased both his power and his wealth. Before long, the many tribes represented atop his mountain stronghold, Thaba Bosiu (Mountain of Night), started calling themselves Basotho people, united under their proud leader.
So, that’s before independence and that’s the legend that every kid can recount scrambling up a boulder, their own Thaba Bosiu. The rest is mainly a story of survival. Moshoeshoe’s focus quickly shifted from contending with chiefs to holding off the colonizing Dutch and white Boers that had advanced through most of South Africa. In 1868, on the verge of going down, he appealed a to a few powerful British friends for protection and before nightfall Basotholand was a protectorate of the British Empire—an enclave that is now literally a country within a country. For almost 100 years Lesotho (as it came to be called) enjoyed successive kings and a decent amount of autonomy, leading many to crave all-out independence. King Moshoeshoe II was charged by the powers that be to set up a Parliament à la Britain, form political parties and write a constitution. It took several drafts over several years, but finally, on October 4th 1966, Lesotho was independent.
Sorry for rambling too long on the history, but I think it’s a great story. Unfortunately, plenty of unrest, power struggles and corruption have plagued the young nation, which has translated into political frustration on the behalf of most of its citizens. Despite several levels of local government, people don’t feel their opinions and needs are well represented and pretty much remain apathetic. Or, as someone recently put it more frankly, “Politicians in the Lesotho government eat money for dinner.” In addition, Lesotho has always leaned heavily on successful big brother South Africa for a lifeline of goods, jobs, food, technology—well, just about everything we buy at the market. Sometimes whispered rumors creep up of Lesotho even merging as a part of South Africa (though, practically, this would do very little to benefit either party). From an outside perspective, I can see why this day is a little lack-luster, maybe why people would rather recount the days of old King Moshoeshoe and break out the traditional dance moves on cultural holidays while leaving the dirty laundry for their Independence day-off. I keep searching for some sort of national tradition, but it looks like I’ll have to be content to split a beer and snooker game with my friends and avoid bringing up politics.