In the Tekweni hostel in Durban one of the folksies I met was Luke, a Peace Corps volunteer who is stationed in Lipringh, a village of about 400 or so. He invited me to come after he had finished with his semiannual check in so I occupied myself getting SCUBA certified in Durban. Lesotho is a mountain kingdom and I had just finished a double dive the day before and the whole way up I found myself being completely paranoid about ascending to altitude so soon after a dive. I kept getting cramps in my hands and consulting my dive table. Needless to say, nothing came of it. Luke had given insanely complete directions and I found myself on the doorstep of a fellow volunteer, Jeremy (a.k.a. Ntate Stabu), around 4 o clock. I was the first visitor that Luke has had in a year of being there. Coincidentally Jeremy was getting his first visitor, also named Nathan, the same day.
The next day the 4 of us set out on a little camping expedition for a few days. Now it’s hard to give a sense of Lesotho without saying that JRR Tolkein lived in neighboring Bloomfontein and based his idea of The Shire on Lesotho. Every hour or so we would come to a new village and subjected to conversation by bemused locals. In Lesotho no business can be conducted without the chief and inevitably we sought him out to ask his permission to pass through his area. Our main concern was camping near an initiation of young men. During these initiations a couple hundred boys 15-? live in the mountains for six months, fast and take all kinds of drugs, learn about sex from an old woman, and get circumcised. In Lesotho, people throw stones at tents because they don’t know what they are. The last thing you want to do when camping there is to get discovered by an group of half crazed initiates. Luke and Jeremy had gone camping a few months back and hadn’t notified the chief. They were sitting around their campfire when they were suddenly surrounded with armed men ready to shoot them for being cattle thieves. Motto: check in with the chief.
From what I could gather the Basutu people migrated from the North when they ran from Shaka and his Zulus. They sought refuge in the mountains and found cannibals. After having a few members of his family eaten, Moshoeshoe, the leader of the Basutu, plied the cannibals with cattle and after tasting the delicious meat they were converted and were cannibals no more. The head Cannibals who ate Moshoeshoe’s family lived up in a cave and it was there that we camped the first night.
We were awakened by a Masutu man shouting down to us from the top of the cliff. “How are you this morning?” he called. “Cold,” replied Nathan. “Why don’t you build a fire?” the Masutu responded. “Because there’s no wood,” called back Nathan. “You are crazy!” shouted the Masutu man and within 3 minutes he had scrambled down the hill and built a fire for us. “Now I must take care of my goats!” he said and he ran off and disappeared up the mountain.
The next day of hiking was easier and we caught a lift on a truck filled with beer. We bought beers off the driver, who was also drinking, and drank them as we bounced along dirt roads. There were a few other people in the back of the truck. An older man asked us for a cigarette. We didn’t have any but then he told us he was the chief so we gave him some beer and took his photograph.
Wherever we went people asked us for candy, even adults. I figured that old missionaries once gave them candy and they never forgot. They never asked for money, just candy and photos. These guys were big suckers for having their pictures taken. Everywhere we went people would ask for us to take their picture. They didn’t care if they never actually see the photo, they just wanted one to be taken of them.
White people there are treated like a cross between a martian and a movie star. Peace Corps volunteers come from middle class American backgrounds and are a little embarrassed to become celebrity millionaires. They deal with it in different ways but for all of them the status change is a bit difficult. The begging irritates them as does their wealth as percieved through alcohol consumption. Beer here costs $1.20 for 1.75 Liters. While that’s not that expensive by Lesotho standards (the same as a single can of tuna) buying two for yourself is dropping a lot of cash in a place where there is no real economy to speak of. Going to the store in itself is considered a luxury. A “store”, there is one every other village, sells maybe the top 20 most useful items that a gas station would sell: some fruit, some canned stuff, some flour, and soap. Beer and cigarretes = superstore. No chocolate, no exceptions. A few years back the Chinese paid the Lesotho government a lot of cash for free immigration rights. Now there are Chinese stores and sweatshops everywhere. The stores are cheaper and better stocked than the Basutu stores but there is a lot of resentment towards them and they are frequently robbed.
As we walked through the country many of the more isolated villagers would greet us with total astonishment. These people had literally lived their whole lives in a 3 mile radius. When those folks heard of our travels they would fall over laughing: “you came from over THAT mountain? WOW! What’s there?” Many of these guys were over 40. It was The Shire to a T.
We arrived back at Jeremy’s and had a wonderful little party that night with a couple of Basutu people. It was interesting how the volunteers felt completely uncomfortable with natives around them. They clammed up and it was only after dinner that any real talking began. We played poker and I quickly discovered that I was the only person who knew the rules. Our Masutu guest, Bam, quickly cottoned on and was the big winner for the night. In 2 hours I won 2 hands and lived on borrowed cash alone.
While I was there Luke suggested that I teach some of the classes. One interesting thing about Lesotho is that while not so many people speak it, English is the official language. Consequently the students are all taught their subjects in what amounts to a second language. If this isn’t already a hindrance, their schools are not quite up to American standards. First of all their classrooms are simply concrete and brick buildings with half the windows missing. Also there are not really any books. This can all be overcome by good teaching but that leads us to the worst part of the whole thing. By law these kids all pay about $200, a huge sum, a year to go to public school. Because of this most families choose only one child to send on to the upper grades. This is great and attendance is excellent, at least among the students. The teachers are another story altogether. There are 5 teachers on staff. Of the 3 days I hung around the school, there was always one who had gone to town on some pretext and 3 in the staff room. For the most part they felt no particular motivation to help their students in any way shape or form. When they were in the classroom they would beat their students with a stick for getting answers wrong. I saw with my own eyes teachers having students bring water from the pump to their houses as well as teachers having students wash laundry free of charge. Many students paid extra at the beginning of the year to get lunches at school. The principal embezzled and spent all the money on his drinking problem and, needless to say, there are no lunches. There is little a student can do in this situation because they are NOT going to get refunded. The teachers are aware that no one will pass the standardized tests at the end of the year so they let everyone copy off each other to ensure a higher pass rate. Outrageous….
Talking to some of the students the subject of witches came up. The students had taken me on a two hour hike up the local mountain and they were trying to tell me that witches lived there. Apparently while the guys have their one big secret circumcision rite, the women have a plethora of insane secrets. These range from the notion that eating dirt and blackboard chalk helps prevent pregnancy to deep dark witch secrets. Witches do lots of nutty things ranging from making voodoo dolls that kill you to kidnapping you and replacing your body with that of a dead monkey that looks just like you. I asked why witches do these things and the only response I got was, “I don’t know, I’m not a witch.” They guy who told me this did not believe in witches but then later we got to talking about the pot trade. When we were hiking around we saw fields upon fields of marijuana being grown. And when I say fields, we’re talking like 20 acres. So this guy tells me that it’s shipped over the border and sold in South Africa. I asked him if the South African Police Service (SAPS) caught a lot of the people. He said that what the smugglers did was put traditional herbs in with the pot and the police would think it was something else. I misunderstood at first and asked what happened if the cops looked below the herbs and saw the drugs. “No no,” he exclaimed, “the herbs have a magic and the cops will never see anything!” I asked if this always works. He replied that, yes, it always works as long as you completely believe in it. If there’s any doubt at all it won’t work out.
This made me think of a story I’d read about in the news. Three guys in South Africa had robbed a store and made a hurried getaway. They had a terrible road accident and two of the guys were killed. The police arrived and arrested him. The conversation went something like this:
COP: Put out your hands so I can put handcuffs on you.
ROBBER: You can’t put handcuffs on me. I’m not here.
COP: I can see you.
ROBBER: No you can’t. I’ve rubbed myself with magical herbs so that you cannot see me.
COP: How come I can see you then?
ROBBER: You can’t. I am not really here. My friends and I are invisible.
COP: You mean your two dead friends lying by the side of the road over there.
ROBBER: Yes, you can’t see them.
COP then cuffs him…
You hear a lot about AIDS in Africa but it never really hit home until I got there. When I was teaching the high schoolers about argumentative compositions I decided to use the topic: “Should you get tested for HIV? Defend your answer.” No brainer I thought… not so. I decide to go back and forth with pro and con arguments. One student says that if you do not know if you will die you are like an animal, you cannot decide about your future. “Good” I say. “Anyone have a reason not to get tested?” A girl speaks up: “Maybe if you are tested positive you cannot live with yourself and you will commit suicide.” I validate her response but point out that if you want to commit suicide if you have HIV then shouldn’t you at least have your answer so you can get on with it? Then another student suggests “But if you know your status then you can take steps so you don’t spread it. You have a responsibility to get tested.” I write that on the board. Then the girl pipes up again saying, “But if you know you are going to die maybe you will try to spread it so you know that you will not die alone.” “But everyone in this room will die”, I say “If we will all die one day then no one will die alone.” One student adds that it’s important to always use a condom to which another student says that they always use two condoms… Geez. Do you know that in Lesotho it’s considered sexy for a girl to have a dry pussy? No really! Some girls rub themselves with stuff to make them drier. One of the biggest reasons guys don’t like condoms there is that they feel it makes the girl wetter!
All this would be funny except that in Lesotho 1/3 of the total population and 1/2 of the population between 18 and 25 are infected with HIV. This is really staggering. This means that half of the students I taught were infected. You want to make a difference in someone’s future but how seriously should they really be taking all these subjects with the kind of future they will have? This is a country that will simply be missing a whole generation.
One of the big themes of my interactions was about what it’s like in America and how Basutus could get there. One thing people wanted to know was how much housebuilding materials cost. First of all they could not believe that we in America make houses out of wood. “How do you make a house out of wood?” they would ask incredulously. I told them that we had big trees that we would slice up. The consensus was that they would believe it when they saw it which would most likely be never because even if they got a visa (which is improbable in the extreme) the USA is screening for HIV in visitors now… But I digress. I was telling them that most people don’t make their own houses but buy preexisting ones and that the most expensive part was buying the land. This was a difficult concept because in Lesotho, get this, you don’t buy land at all; you simply go up to the chief and ask him for some land and he gives it to you. No money changes hands at all.
I love this crazy country and it makes me want to go all through Africa. Unfortunately it is only possible to tour the country this way because my friends speak Susutu. Without that there would be no talks with chiefs, etc. I felt lonely in Durban but in the middle of nowhere I feel surrounded by friends. I feel like I could travel for years.